I’m going to guess that it was 1975. That seems about right. I do know for sure though that it was Easter Sunday morning. About 10am.
My parents were in town for perhaps their first stay in my new/old house in Lafayette Square. They had lived their whole lives in a small town in Kentucky, and the Big City was a little disconcerting to them. My father’s ears would perk up every time he heard a siren, like he was thinking of getting in the car to go see what the hubbub was about. Just like he would do at home.
“The fire station is right down the street, Dad,” I explained to him. “They go past here 10-20 times a day. And that’s not counting the police cars and the ambulances. Them more than that probably.”
I will say that there was plenty for them to be disconcerted about. All the broken windows in the neighborhood were a little disturbing. The junked and burnt-out cars were certainly distressing. And the hookers on the corner were somewhat troubling as well. I personally had nothing against the Ladies themselves, or necessarily their Trade. But there was a certain lawlessness and even violence that seemed to follow them around.
Suffice it to say that my parents were well out of their Comfort Zone. But they were polite people and did not point out the obvious. That this neighborhood was seriously rough around the edges, for example. That it was a road with a lot of dead-ends. That it had a true-enough smile, but with a lot of missing teeth. For sure, it was a real-life drama with characters you might not see at the church picnic. Nor would you want to.
They were likewise polite as I showed them around this old house I’d bought. But I will say that their silence was darned loud. It was a pretty quiet tour. The holes in the plaster and the peeling wallpaper were outside their experience but did not draw a comment. They had I’m sure never slept in a house with so many missing windows, but did not say so. My father would have loved to say that that furnace belonged in a museum somewhere. But they walked stoically through the whole house and did not once audibly gasp nor even gulp loud.
They did offer that it had a lot of potential. More than once. I recollect that they kept repeating that phrase--“A lot of potential”--in that mumbled, low-key way people have when what they really mean to say is that this project will take several lifetimes and more money than the Grand Coulee Dam and at the end you’d still need the National Guard to protect it. I heard them thinking that. I heard them because I was thinking it too.
“But oh yes,” they said, out loud. “It’ll be so lovely when you’re done.” I think I mentioned they were polite people.
But anyway, we were in the kitchen. We had been in the house long enough to move the kitchen back to its original location. The previous owner had moved it into the dining room because the kitchen, situated as it was on the north side of the house, and on the far end of the steam system, was TOO COLD! They were certainly right about that. You could hardly thaw out a chicken January through most of March. But we discovered that if you let the faucets drip a little, the pipes at least wouldn’t freeze. And wearing mittens to cook was not so great an inconvenience as one might think.
So, we had at least a sink in there, and probably a stove. There was a refrigerator, I recall. A table and some chairs. It looked kind of like a real kitchen.
And we were in there making an Easter brunch. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and we had the windows and the front door open so as to catch that nice cross breeze and help get the chill out of the house. All was proceeding as planned, when suddenly a strange man staggered through the kitchen entrance way and was in an instant fully and bewilderingly amongst us.
There was an awkward moment. He stared at us. We stared at him. Then all looked at me to impose some order into this situation. Was this an old college buddy of mine, seriously down on his luck, or a certified home invasion? Should we be laughing and introducing ourselves, offering coffee, or arming ourselves with steak knives and frying pans?
Well, he was NOT an acquaintance of mine and was in fact an uninvited guest. An intruder. A trespasser of the first order. On Easter Sunday, no less. With my poor parents in from Smallville.
By his appearance, he was decidedly down on his luck. And you could tell this hadn’t just happened. He was unshaven in a time when unshaven was not the career booster it is today. No, he was unshaven, unwashed and bedraggled. He was a shabby, middle-aged white guy with glasses and a slouch hat who looked more confused and bewildered than we did.
I confronted him and demanded to know WHAT HE WAS DOING IN MY KITCHEN!?! I was at my threatening, alpha-male best. I was in full family-protection mode, and he began moving back down the hallway towards the open front door. He was mumbling this and that, but he was not tarrying and presently was out the door and down the steps and moving toward Jefferson Ave.
As far as I was concerned, this was a successful conclusion to this adventure. It would remain forever a mysterious intrusion. But I could live with that, and we could get back to our coffee and scrambled eggs. But my partner at the time, ex-wife to be, yelled from the front hall: “My purse is missing!! My purse is missing!!”
This changed everything, and I began following him in earnest. He turned toward me and reached into his pocket in a way that made him considerably more threatening than he was previously. A rapscallion escaping with stolen valuables was one thing. An armed rapscallion was something altogether different. Not something I was prepared for.
“Go get Walter!” I yelled.
This a story, by the way, about Walter.
Walter Jones lived in the house across the street. He was at the time a City Police Officer. One of two we had on our block. Walter was a Man of action, a Man you could depend on. And I was sure he would know how to handle this situation. If he was home.
The perpetrator continued to keep his hand in his pocket, feinting towards me from time to time. He was, as far as I knew at this time, armed and dangerous and possessing my wife’s purse, so I proceeded to follow him at a safe distance. I watched him go around the corner and onto the front porch of a house several doors up on the north side of Whittemore Pl. My mission was now surveillance, and I waited for reinforcements.
Presently, Walter Jones burst around the corner. He was, I swear, The Black Hulk. He had his pants on but had not had time to put on a shirt. At the time he was probably 5’10”, 220. A chiseled former college football player, he came onto the scene at full tilt and did not slow down as I pointed to that porch on Whittemore. His service revolver was tucked into his waistband for good measure, and he was a Man on a Mission. He was a Man Who Would Make Matters Right, and no middle-aged thief/burglar/interloper, armed or not, would have a chance.
So Walter was on the porch in an instant, with the culprit up against the wall, his arm behind him. “Call the Police! Call the Police!” the guy screamed frantically. “Quiet down, pal!” Walter barked. “I am the Police.”
A series of questions and answers began to slowly unravel this Easter Sunday situation. And when the guy pulled his wallet to identify himself, it all unfolded.
I will not say his name, but he was the prodigal son of a very prominent and wealthy St. Louis family. And it turned out he had been granted an Easter Sunday release from Malcomb Bliss, the public mental treatment facility connected at that time with the City Hospital on Lafayette. Several blocks away. When the poor guy wandered into our house, he was in the right house alright. Kind of. But he was on the wrong street. That house on Whittemore was an infamous, low-rate rooming house for numerous St. Louis unfortunates. And our friend with the glasses and the slouch hat and the fancy surname was one of them. But he was in fact unarmed and not holding or possessing anybody’s purse.
About that time, the owner of said purse came around the corner. “Never mind,” she yelled. “I found it.”
And the Sunday situation was thus defused and de-escalated. All was well again in Lafayette Square. The West side of it anyway. It was a beautiful Easter morning again, and I was walking back down Jefferson with the shirtless Walter Jones, back towards Albion Place and brunch and family and old houses with a lot of potential and a memorable 45-year friendship.
And he transformed back, in no time at all, in the blink of an eye, into the nicest, humblest, gentlest man I’ve ever known. That was Walter Jones. And that was Easter Sunday. 1975. More or less.