She laughed a bit and said “No, it’s just my crazy uncle and in a way he is dead to us.” the way she shrugged off a man’s life hit deep in my gut.
Dogtown is a strange St Louis neighborhood, the narrow streets are lined with cars and sidewalks disappearing and reappearing in random ways. Some say it’s called Dogtown because the Eskimos who stayed after the World’s fair of 1904 used to maintain and eat a lot of dogs. Others say it was because the land parcels given out after the same World’s fair spread out the ethnic groups and no one trusted anyone else, so dogs were used as protection. The official story has to do with the Miners of the 1800’s, when this town was the Wild West, and Dogtown is a nickname for the tiny shacks the miners lived in. So very much like the history of Dogtown … myths and houses vary from style to style.
It was fall of 2016 as me and my son walked to Franz park which perches on the top of a huge hill in the heart of Dogtown, at a certain spot you can see all the way to the Arch. My vison however was on the dumpster in front of a two story ranch-style house with a unique porch. My son played in the yard as I sneaked a peek, pulling out a couple of interesting books, it warranted a deeper look.
Quickly finding the backpack, a fur-lined Swiss-made hiking pack from the 1920’s in near perfect condition, jewelry, books and glassware. Grabbing what caught my eye and throwing it in the wagon, me and my son moved on towards Franz Park.
I laid out my odd items on the leaf filled ground while my son played. These discoveries of books, “the black stake thing”, newspapers, books and the vintage 1960’s era necklaces were examined as evidence. As I pondered them, an older woman whose son was playing with mine wandered over for show and tell. Her brow wrinkled as asked “
the house with the Dumpster in front?”
I nodded and she told me that a week before the dumpster appeared she heard sobbing coming from the open window. I knew then, this was not a “death purge” but a “downsizing”, yet what was one to make of the Feminist Fix-it Handbook, Child Care books and jewelry. With an obvious sexist prejudice I assumed then that the Sobbing soul was a woman, yet the data was confusing and I was left with only that old dumpster psychic itch.
The next day, without my son and having car, I was able to really dig into the history. I found no photos or personal letters, this discovery was all just “stuff”. A box full of statues, glassware, ceramics and a large set of pulp novels were the first of the interesting items. The more I dug the odder the story got. A hamper full of work jeans, all men sizes and some old worn out shirts. 5 or 6 bags of DVDs, in which I took only a few. Halfway through opening up trash bags, I started seeing the old cameras but was not interested until I came across the Instamatic and the Canon, then I knew a whole camera collection was in here somewhere, but I only kept one for a friend. It was an amazing haul of unique items, yet, it wasn’t quite a story. I saw no name, but I got these certain senses.
There was a strong feminine spirit in there. A world traveler, a wild woman and a man that loved her dearly.
There was a lot of gardening material, but the house had little to no landscaping. A new house?
A lot broken fans, radios, electronics, half taken apart as if to be repaired but never done.
No sign of children at all, except the DVDs, which I sensed was more for nephews and nieces, more old Westerns and the type.
The Pulp Novels were bought in a small town in central Missouri somewhere during the 1960’s, An avid reader, but with highly violent tastes and many western pulps.
After work the next day, I decided to do one more trip and try to find a name. I also had an idea of doing an interview, to approach the owners and see if we could tell the story together. I parked my car and saw a man moving stuff from the side of the house to the dumpster. Approaching gently and asked if I could speak with him about the dumpster, telling him I was a local historian looking for historical items. He ignored me at first and walked to the basement window and yelled down at a woman below.
She poked her head out and I repeated the question politely. She said it was mostly junk but if I wanted to look through the house and see. Her eyes narrowed as she finished the thought with dollar signs. “Everything is for sale”. I knew the DVDs could be sold and some of the antique furniture was placed at the curb to be taken quickly without regard for value. This wasn’t a money making deal, it was a purge. I asked in a nice way about owner of the things and if they had “passed on”. She laughed a bit and said “No, it’s just my crazy uncle and in a way he is dead to us.” … the way she shrugged off a man’s life hit me deep in my gut.
A car pulled up and her mother got out of the car with an oxygen tank and a worried look.
“So you wanna look in the house?” she asked. I could see them all clearly now. The niece who was a tough small town country girl. Her husband who was pissed to be there on a Sunday night with “the Game on”. The sobbing man’s sister with medical bills who needed to move her troublesome brother into a manageable space and afford it. The Sobbing man, alone in the world missing the one woman he spent his whole life obsessed with. I wanted no part of it, and I walked away. He remains nameless, as does the feminist world traveler he loved who took the small town boy into a life of adventure that he never regretted.
6 months later
This is the way this story unfolded was written to reflect the actual way it did unfold. The nameless sobbing man and the items found in that dumpster …. tell a story. Everything changed on the day I found the envelope accidentally in one of the books I discovered that day. It was from a small company in Arizonian and contained a home-made DVD disc that showed some kind of mining operation and felt like a sales pitch. I looked up the man named Frank and didn’t find much. He lived in Dogtown and had two addresses. The man was in his 50’s and was far too young for some of the strange items. It was the obituary of his mother that told the real story. Frank was the youngest son, and the baby of the family. His mother had passed on a couple years before the discovery in the dumpster and was bereaved by an older son who lived in another state, a daughter who married and was living in rural Missouri with a daughter the age of the basement cleaner. The address was of course this woman, as she was the matriarch of a family that had mostly moved on. My theory is Frank started caring for his mother when her health started to fade and moved in full time to the house. After she passed, he must of spent many years living in the wake of her mess unable to move on, until forced too by his older sister. The tragic twist was a sadder take on the information. This powerful woman, who collected the unusual and had a obsessive nature that is in good company with the Dumpster Archeology characters in our collective story, and Frank is still living and one of the living victims, forgotten in the clearing effect of the real estate game.
* On a personal note, when my grandfather died, he had a 5 acre square in Desert Hot Springs California. I never saw it until his death. t was filled with a decade of stuff. He liked to go mining the foothills of the San Jacinto mountains and had a girlfriend with only one eye. I toured the property looking at his unusual collection of junk. Some of it was good junk, some of it was not. After he died, they filled a dumpster with the leftover parts of his life. A strange and passionate man with odd tastes and interests. I was able to keep a VHS copy of Frank Sinatra special and a sword he had from the Knight’s of Columbus. I suppose my reaction was deeply rooted in the memory of seeing that land, seeing his life and attempting to understand through the things he left behind, who exactly my Grandfather was.