“The River Man”

4:13 pm Essays

They called him “The River Man.” Blessed with a sweet soft way, he lived his whole life in a small house in a small town built on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. The first time I saw him, sitting alone at the far end of a bar, his big hands wrapped around a sweating mug of Stegmaier, I dismissed him as another hopeless drunk. For a time – a good long time – he was.

A Vietnam vet and one-time boxer, Ritchie – “The River Man” – turned to booze in his mid-30s, after a long-running construction job ended. Pink slipped, he started spending all his time at the Italian Club in Mocanaqua, a short stroll from the home he shared with his mom and his bull dog Buster. Short, squat, given to long lapses in her native Lithuanian, Mom kept house and gave orders. Buster was mostly there for comic relief. One look at his car-wreck of a face and you had to laugh. Then mom died. Buster soon followed.

Against all odds, Ritchie cleaned himself up. He stopped drinking. The Italian Club closed. A coincidence, they said. He got himself a new dog. Then two new dogs. And he got another job, this one sewing hard leather shoes at a local factory. Instead of walking to the bar, he now walked to work. He stitched leather five days a week, from 8-4, for six years. He didn’t make much – just $6 an hour. But it was enough for food, clothes and books. Books, to Ritchie, were as important as bread.

Ritchie read everything he could get his hands on, but he especially loved books on American history and American Indians. He papered his kitchen with Edward E. Curtis photos from the Old West and would sit among them for hours, his coal stove red hot, his pipe filled, his water jug near-by. Every year, as homage to Henry David Thoreau and the words he tried to live by, Ritchie made a pilgrimage to Walden Pond. His was a good life.

Then, the factory shut its doors. Ritchie and 55 other people – mostly Mocanaqua natives – lost their jobs. The Wyoming Valley shoe industry, once thriving, had shriveled. Overseas workers made shoes faster and cheaper. Lots cheaper.

Back then, most of the stuff we wore came from U.S. factories. Today, nearly 100 percent of all shoes sold in America are made someplace else. The Mocanaqua plant was one of six local shoe and dress manufacturers to close that year. Once the paychecks stopped, there was unemployment and, for some, welfare. Some retrained and found work in other industries. Others moved on. Those who stayed felt it the hardest. Most of the factory’s employees worked decades in a one-story building off Main Street. They spent their days among friends, neighbors and family, sharing fist-thick sausage sandwiches over lunch and jokes told across the line. When the factory closed, things changed. Lives changed.

I visited Ritchie a few months after he lost his job. When I knocked, I could hear the dogs inside, howling, clamoring, banging their silly heads against the door in a mammoth effort to get out. I had to smile. Then Ritchie came out. He was long and lean before. Now he was skinny.

We spent the afternoon in his familiar kitchen. Ritchie offered me a glass of the dago-red wine he kept for guests and a toke off the pipe. We laughed a lot over old times, old friends and crazy, dumb dogs.

Gradually, I realized Ritchie had reduced his whole life to that kitchen. He hung his clothes over a line above the stove. Read in an easy chair dragged in from the living room. He left the rest of the house to the dogs, who now lived, slept and peed there.

Never neat but always clean, Ritchie looked sloppy. His clothes weren’t pressed. He hadn’t shaved. I asked if he was all right and he shrugged. He wasn’t drinking. Yet. But he’d stopped looking for work. He knew the chance of a 47-year-old single-skilled factory hand finding one was slim. He made a few lame jokes, dubbing the Wyoming Valley the Death Valley. Kidding he’d now become a bum.

It was tough to witness. Ritchie, you see, was one of my heroes. Not the kind who leapt into burning buildings or accomplished tremendous feats. The kind who pulled himself out of alcoholism. The kind who treated his friends like family and his family like friends. I was a college kid when we met across the bar where I served drinks between semesters. Ritchie was a good 10 years older and aside from a love of words and a strong Lithuanian mother, we didn’t have much in common. But from that first long talk, I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.

The Indians named the river Susquehanna, which means long and crooked. Ritchie got his name, “The River Man,” because he’d lived along the riverbank from the day his parents brought him home. He respected the Susquehanna’s beauty and, when it inevitably flooded, its terrible power. There was also something a little romantic about Ritchie – a Clint Eastwood look-alike who never forgot a “ma’am” or a “thank you” – that just cried out for a colorful handle. It fit and it stuck.

The day I visited, he tried so hard to be hospitable in the face of hard times, to leave me with his usual smile. When we said goodbye, I called out “good luck” and returned to my clean, warm house, my loved ones and my good job. Months later, I called Ritchie. His phone was disconnected.

Not long after, I moved to New York. Years passed. I sent Christmas cards with chatty notes about places I’d been and books I’d read. I didn’t hear back that often, but that was Ritchie. I didn’t worry much. A while back, visiting family at Thanksgiving, I decided to take the long drive to Mocanaqua. I smiled along the way, thinking of the surprised look on Ritchie’s face and the afternoon we’d surely pass by the stove.

I made the turn onto Ritchie’s street and pulled into the driveway. Not one bark. I knew immediately something was wrong. The front door was padlocked – from the outside. Peering in through dirt-covered windows I made out overturned furniture and steep piles of trash. Even from outside, in winter, I could smell the stench. As I turned, a man approached, an angry look on his face. “That’s private property,” he said. “You’ve no business here.”

“I’m a friend of Ritchie’s,” I said. He didn’t budge. “I’m a friend of the River Man.” Finally, he nodded ok. “He passed,” the neighbor said. “On Halloween, last year. It wasn’t pretty.”

He’d gone back to drinking. The few friends he had left tried to reach out, but Ritchie was stubborn. He wouldn’t take money from anyone else’s pocket. When the garbage made it hard to move around, he moved out to the barn, sleeping on an old mattress on the dirt floor. The dogs went first.

The neighbor told me Ritchie’s family – there was a cousin or two – buried him in Indian Springs. I doubt they picked the place on purpose but it still felt right. There wasn’t much to say after that. I took one last long look at the river, making its slow way past Ritchie’s back door, the way it had since before even Indians walked the land. And I cried for the hard loss of a good man.

Dawn Shurmaitis is a freelance writer and essayist who last wrote for RiseUp on minority MBAs.

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