Monday, March 26, 2007

A Forgotten Man Remembered

Robert “R.J.” Anheier, 63, collapsed and died on the sidewalk a few blocks from his home in downtown Portland back in January. Assuming he was homeless, State officials made a half-hearted attempt to identify his next of kin. They contacted someone in California who had the same last name. Although the Californian denied being related to RJ, the Medical Examiner’s office felt they had fulfilled their legal obligation.

RJ was declared “unclaimed” and scheduled for cremation. State law says that unclaimed bodies must first be offered to Oregon Health Sciences University for research before they can be disposed of. OHSU paid $37.50 for RJ’s body.

Little did the Medical Examiner know, because he didn’t go to the address that was in RJ’s wallet, Anheier had an apartment about four blocks from where he died. At the apartment they would have found the name of RJ’s best friend, in Aloha (a Portland suburb) and his sister in Florida. Anheier had lived at the Biltmore in Northwest Portland for eight years. He was a well-known figure in the neighborhood and worked as a waiter at the nearby Sisters of the Road Café.

Diane Anheier, of Florida, didn’t know her brother very well. They had seen each other only once, since he left home as a teenager. Two years ago, RJ, tracked down his sister and visited her. She found out about his death last week and had his dissected body retrieved from the Medical School. They are having a memorial Friday in Old Town for RJ.

Sad story. Not really a crime, though, because nobody broke any laws. Maybe some laws need to change. I read this story yesterday and I hadn’t really intended to write about it here. When I looked a little deeper, I knew that this story belongs in Slabtown. Robert “RJ” Anheier was a victim of murder.

No. No one killed RJ, but he was a victim of murder none the less. RJ Anheier’s father was murdered in Buffalo, New York in 1951, when RJ was seven. RJ’s life illustrates clearly how violent death echoes in the life of its survivors. None of us are ever the same after a loved one is murdered.

RJ’s life was affected in an extreme way. RJ was still grieving for his father when his mother remarried. According to the Oregonian, his stepfather beat him regularly and RJ ran away the first time when he was 10. At the age of 18 he left home for good and started the life of a hobo.

Traveling by freight train RJ traveled the country living the best he could. In 1981 Anheier befriended a young homeless man in Saint Louis. Anheier was an experienced “professional” hobo at the age of 42. Matthew Barrett was a teenager new to life on the street. RJ taught the young man to survive as a hobo and the two became fast friends.

“We didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, but we had a lot to leave behind,” Barrett told the Oregonian. The two hobos traveled the country for nearly a decade, finally landing in Portland in 1994. Barrett was the first to get off the street. Because of ill health he was able to get an apartment in Old Town. Anheier remained on the street until he was able to get an apartment at the Biltmore in 1999. The Biltmore is an old hotel that has been remodeled for low income housing.

Anheier paid his rent by waiting tables at Sisters of the Road, a non-profit restaurant in Old Town designed to be the one safe place in Portland for anyone. He also eked out his living by collecting cans and bottles and sold Street Roots, an alternative newspaper. He earned extra money holding places in line for people who wanted to buy concert tickets at the popular nightclubs in Old Town.

“RJ spent his life trying to find his place in the world,” Matthew Barrett told the Oregonian, “He had found that place. He had people who loved him. Yet people assumed he didn’t.” I just hope I don’t look like I’m homeless when I die.


Blogger True Crime Blog UK said...

What a moving story. It's so sad that RJ's stepfather beat him after his own father had been murdered.
You're dead right about the effects of murder echoing down the generations. Who knows what RJ's life would've been like had he had a more stable upbringing.

2:11 AM  

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