The Rice Man Cometh

The Rice Man Cometh
Image: PV Bella

Back in the late 1970's and early 80's there was a ramshackle fruit stand on the vacant lot at Roosevelt and Kedzie. I forget the name of the man who owned it. He sold fruit, peanuts, and some vegetables. In the fall, the skinned carcasses of raccoon or possum would be hanging from the rafters.

Sometimes he would cook one of the animals in the back on a propane stove.

We would stop by for oranges or peanuts and shoot the breeze with the owner. He always liked to have cops around. It kept the thugs away from him. The criminals knew not to mess with this guy for two reasons. One, he kept a sawed off shotgun within reach. Two, we, the cops, would get them. One way or the other, they would be got. Dead or in jail.

One hot muggy summer day the dreaded call came in. See the complainant about a strong odor. That only meant one thing. A stinker, a decomposed dead body. The strong odor was not confined to a building. It took over a half block in both directions. This was going to be a bad one.

The wagon men located the cause of the odor. The stench was strongest at an old gray stone two flat. They tried to get in the front door. It was not going to happen. The back door was the same. They could not kick in the doors. They were hinged to open outwards. They went to break windows. Again, impossible. Whoever lived there installed glass block windows on the inside of the apartment. He never took out the old windows so no one knew.

Whoever was in that building was sealed up.

Somehow the wagon men figured a way in. Within minutes they ran out of the building, retching, vomiting, and then dry heaving. This was not going to be an easy removal. They called for a sergeant and a plan was hatched.

The other two wagons were called for. The wagon men would go in and out in two man relays. One of the original wagon guys told everyone the maggots were all over the place, covering the floor. For the uninitiated, maggots look like large grains of rice. They crunch when you walk on them.

The dead guy became known as the Rice Man.

The two man relays started. Two guys ran in, up to the second floor, did what they could do, and ran out retching and vomiting. The next two did the same. Then the next two.

Since all the widows were sealed up, no air could get in to alleviate some of the odor. There was no coffee to burn on the stove either. Another old trick to alleviate odor.

The sergeant tossed me a twenty and told me to go to the nearest liquor store to get some booze to revive the retching cops. I went to the fruit stand. The owner sent his nephew to the chain liquor store on Roosevelt. He came back with a quart of brandy and change. The stand owner had some of that pink bismol stuff too. Who knew where or how he got it? Who cared? I grabbed a couple of bottles.

As each relay came out, and vomited the sergeant gave them a swig of booze and some pink stuff. I do not know what it did for their stomachs, but it helped them go back in again and again. It took over an hour to get the Rice Man out of the building and into a wagon.

They did not want to move him off the bed to a stretcher. Badly decomposed bodies have a tendency to explode. That would definitely make matters worse. They just lifted the mattress and carried it out with him on it.

While the wagon men were working, retching, vomiting, and later getting loaded, we started asking some questions.

The Rice Man was one of the very few white people who refused to move out when the neighborhood started changing to black. He lived there, minding his own business. No one bothered him. He bothered no one. Some remembered a wife, others were not sure. He retired some years past. He was rarely seen. Some remembered a person driving him home from the grocery store once in a while.

He was not friendly or unfriendly. He just was.

He had been burglarized a few times. That would explain the camouflaged block windows and doors hung backwards.

No one had much to say about the Rice Man. He lived alone in the second floor apartment. The first floor was vacant.

After he was taken to the morgue and we got what little information we could, we went back to business. The wagon men, except the ones handling the call, were sent home for the rest of the day. The body was taken to the morgue. That was that.

Just another tale to tell in the tavern after work. Years later guys would reminisce, "Remember the Rice Man"?

I never found out anything else about the Rice Man.

He popped into my memory when there were recent news reports over the 1995 heat wave. The numbers of people who died, especially the elderly. I filled in on the wagon one of those days. We waited in line on Harrison street for over an hour to get into the morgue. There were leased refrigerated trailers to hold the dead. The morgue could not handle all the bodies.

The Rice Man's home was his fortress. All it needed was a moat and alligators in the moat. Who knows? Maybe he thought about that, but got too old, sick, crippled, or crazy to do it.

No one knows if the Rice Man was a racist, afraid, or just stubborn. No one knows why he had no one to take care of him in his old age. No one knows why he died alone, in bed, sealed up in a fortress of his making.

He lay there, in rot, decomposition, and putrefaction. He and his apartment were covered in maggots. They crunched when you walked on them.

He died alone.

That is a sad thing in the City of Big Shoulders. People die alone. No one hears their cries of pain or calls for help. No one knows if they are sick or otherwise incapacitated. No one checks when they are not seen for a while.

Sometimes, like the Rice Man, they barely exist.

It is only the telltale stench that gives their death away.

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