The wagons were sometimes called meat wagons. Besides transporting prisoners, they hauled dead bodies, in police parlance, meat.
One hot, muggy summer day, a call came over the radio for the wagon about a complainant of a strong odor. Strong odor only meant one thing, a stinker, a decomposed dead body. The wagon men located the cause of the odor. The stench was strongest at an old gray stone two-flat. The stench emanated over a half-block in both directions.
The wagon men tried to get in the front and back doors. They could not kick in or use sledgehammers on the doors. The doors were hinged to open outwards. The wagon guys went to break windows. Whoever lived there installed glass block windows on the inside of the building. They never took out the old windows, so no one knew.
Somehow, the wagon men figured out a way to get inside. Within minutes they ran out of the building, retching, vomiting, then dry heaving. They needed a plan. They called for a sergeant.
Sergeant Smurf* showed up. He called for the other two wagons. The wagon men would go in and out in two-man relays. Two guys ran in, went up to the second floor, did what they could, and ran out, retching and vomiting. The following two did the same. Then the next two. Over and over.
One of the first wagon guys told everyone that maggots were all over and covered the floor. For the uninitiated, maggots look like fat grains of rice. They snap, crackle, and pop when you step on them. So, the dead guy became the Rice Man.
No air could get in to alleviate some of the odor. The heat and humidity made it worse. The relays kept going in and running out, retching.
The sergeant tossed me a twenty. He told me to go to the nearest liquor store to get some booze to revive the retching cops.
There was heat over minor misconduct from downtown, and Inspectors were wandering all over the area. It would not look good to get caught going into a liquor store while working. I went to the fruit stand at the corner of Roosevelt and Kedzie. We knew the owner and would stop by from time to time to chat. The owner sent his nephew to a liquor store down the street. He came back with a quart of cheap brandy and change. The stand owner had some of that pink Bismol stuff. Who knew where or how he got it? Who cared? I grabbed a few bottles.
As each relay came out and vomited or dry heaved, the sergeant gave them a swig of booze and some pink stuff. I don’t know what it did for their stomachs, but it helped them go back in, again and again. Maybe that is why they call booze “liquid courage.”
It took a while to get the Rice Man out of the building and into a wagon. They did not want to move him off the bed onto a stretcher as badly decomposed bodies tend to explode. You get splashed with gore. They lifted the mattress and carried it with him on it—relay after relay.
While the wagon men were working, retching, vomiting, and getting loaded, we started asking some questions.
The Rice Man was one of the very few White people who refused to move during the White flight out of Lawndale in the 1950s and early 1960s. He lived there alone, minding his own business. No one bothered him. He bothered no one. Some remembered a wife. Others were not sure.
The Rice Man retired some years past. He rarely was seen out of his home. However, neighbors remembered a person driving him to and from the grocery store now and then. He was not friendly or unfriendly. He just was. He was burglarized a few times. That would explain the camouflaged glass block windows and doors hung backward.
No one had much to say about the Rice Man. He lived alone in that second-floor apartment. The first floor was vacant.
After the wagon took him to the morgue, we got what little information we could and went back to business as usual. It became another tale to tell in the tavern after work. Years later, we would reminisce, “Remember the Rice Man”?
The Rice Man’s home was his castle fortress. All it needed was a moat and alligators in the moat. Maybe he thought about that but got too old, sick, crippled, or addled 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. Maggots covered him and his bedroom. They snapped, crackled, and popped when you stepped on them.
That is the 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. Sometimes, like the Rice Man, they barely exist. It is only the telltale stench that gives their death away.
*Smurf was the sergeant’s nickname due to his stature.