[Hpn] Anonymous on the Streets, Unknown in Death

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 19 Dec 2000 18:09:42 -0700

Anonymous on the Streets, Unknown in Death
Homeless Potrero Hill denizen ends up a John Doe

Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2000

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle


This much is known about the middle-aged man lying on a gurney in the
refrigerated locker of the San Francisco medical examiner's office:

He was a big guy who wouldn't hurt a fly, he slept under an overpass, and he
liked to stand in traffic waving his hands wildly, trying to cast a spell at
oncoming cars. Sometimes he'd bend over the manhole at his favorite
intersection between spell castings, mumbling and stuffing coins through the

Folks called him "The Voodoo Man." His dance with the cars is what got him
killed two weeks ago on Potrero Hill.

There's more, but the most important thing is missing: his name.

So for now the lumbering man with the wide grin is officially this year's
John Doe No. 135. And unless investigators find out more in the next month,
he will stay that way forever, his ashes given a pauper's scattering in the
waters just off the Golden Gate.

"Everyone says he was just this big, harmless street person, and he
certainly seemed to have been liked by a lot of people," said Alan Pringle,
an investigator with the medical examiner's office. "But we just can't
figure out who he was."

It turns out that everybody at the corner of 16th and Utah streets, where
the Voodoo Man hung out and attempted his last hex, knew him by a cornucopia
of names and tales, none of them exactly right.

The hipsters from Listen.com who shared music and food with him every day
also knew him as Frankie, Ben, Franklin, Frank or Dude. The area soup
kitchen volunteers who loved his cheery smile called him Frankie or Packer,
for the brimming piles of junk he packed into the two shopping carts he
parked wherever he slept. The homeless pals who bedded down alongside him in
the weeds dubbed him Mojo Man.

"Your real name is not the kind of thing you ask out here," said Stone, a
homeless man who occasionally shared a tarp with the Voodoo Man under
Highway 101. "He talked a lot once you got him going, but you don't say who
you are if you don't have to.

"This kind of life is harsh, man. It's good to get lost and stay lost."

The medical examiner's office doesn't even know how old he was. He told some
people he was 40, others he was 49. The fact that he was balding, black, 5
foot 11 and 235 pounds doesn't help much.

"I just have a feeling about this one, from experience," Pringle said sadly.

"I don't think I'm going to find anything."

He's run the Voodoo Man's fingerprints through every data base in the
Western United States and turned up no record -- criminal or otherwise.

If he is scattered at sea, the Voodoo Man will most likely have company from
the morgue. 

One hundred and thirty-four other people like him have come through the
medical examiner's doors this year alone, and in 132 of those cases the
police were able to pin down an identity. But there are two other bodies
still there, like the Voodoo Man: John Doe No. 50, found floating off
Alcatraz Island on May 7, and Jane Doe No. 25, who fell from the 10th floor
of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Sept. 21.

It wasn't like the Voodoo Man didn't leave behind clues as to who he was. He
just left too many, all fuzzed up through the haze of mental illness.

The portly figure showed up to stay at 16th and Utah about three years ago,
and quickly gained a reputation for being able to fix any radio or cassette
player given to him. He had a Jamaican-sounding accent and said he was from
Louisiana, Costa Rica or New York. His jobs, the lore goes, ranged from
carny and electrical repairman to selling beer at Yankee Stadium.

The young workers at Listen.com, a sprawling brick complex at the corner,
took him under their wing and gave him their leftover tape players and food.

"He never panhandled us or said a whole lot at once, but always gave you a
'Hi' and a peace sign," said Tim Pratt, a writer for the company. "We
brought him sandwiches, sushi, soda, cigarettes, pretty much fed him all
day, and he'd tell us these little stories."

Executive assistant Barbara McPike met him during a manager's meeting when
he urinated in front of her window, and she went out to yell at him.

"He was so out of it, but so nice," McPike said. "I was ready to be mad, but
he said, 'Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry,' and you know what? He never did it again.
Now I miss him so much. He was always so sweet."

"And the music," she said with a sigh. "He had lots of tape players, and he
was always listening to them. He loved reggae, old soul music."

It was obvious to everyone he was mentally ill. His trousers were so filthy
you couldn't tell the color, he wore pants on his head as hats, and around
his neck dangled stereo cable with bizarre talismans.

And then there was the routine with the cars.

On Dec. 3 at 6:30 p.m., he was doing his usual bit of casting spells and
stuffing money down the manhole when a white van barreled into him,
witnesses told police. It knocked him 17 feet into the air, and he landed in
a coma from which he never woke.

The van fled -- police want the unidentified driver for felony hit and run -
- and the Voodoo Man went to San Francisco General Hospital. He hung on for
four days, and as word spread, a stream of visitors poured in.

"He once told me his favorite song was 'I'm Your Puppet,' and a guy from
Listen.com finally got me a copy after Frankie got hit," said Charlie, who
works at the local soup kitchen and didn't want his name printed. "So a
bunch of us went to the hospital, stood around his bed and played it for him
while he lay there unconscious.

"I don't know if he heard it, but I'd like to think it helped comfort him."

The dot-com workers who cherished the Voodoo Man would like to have a
ceremony at which to mourn, but they know there will be none. So they
occasionally stop by the spot where he parked his carts and say a quick

A few days ago, McPike visited the spot and happened to look up high into
one of the trees. There, packed as tightly into the branches as he used to
pack the junk into his shopping carts, was a cache of the Voodoo Man's
special treasures, overlooked when city workers cleared away the shopping
carts: water bottles, clothes, and of course, a radio.

"I can't bring myself to touch them," McPike said quietly. "We'll just leave
them there."

E-mail Kevin Fagan at kfagan@sfchronicle.com

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle   Page A23


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