Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Bucketman

I grew up in a modest Midwestern town. Every generation has a story of the town indigent, the hobo, the bum, the street person. When I was growing up it was Harold's turn to occupy the streets. Harold was a thin man with greasy black hair and a wild beard. At some point in time he completely lost his sanity. He would walk around town in the same black overcoat and black stocking hat no matter what the weather, mumbling to himself, gesturing to people only he could see, and swearing at nothing but his own craziness. In the town of Piqua, Ohio, Harold was known as the "bucketman". No matter where Harold was seen, he was always carrying two five gallon buckets that were tied together with a ratty piece of rope, slung over his shoulder to distribute the load. I always assumed he used the buckets to carry his precious cargo of items he found in the street... tin cans, scraps of discarded food, single shoes thrown into traffic for no particular reason. Now that I think of it, nobody really knew why Harold carried those buckets. It was widely known, or rumored(as it usually happens in small Midwestern towns), that Harold lived under the railroad bridge that crossed the river into Shawnee, Piqua's seediest neighborhood. While I was growing up, my family would frequently go on canoe trips down the Miami River, and usually concluded our trip well north of Shawnee and the home of the bucketman. One trip, though, we decided we wanted to go an extra mile or so, and decided to pull out just south of the railroad bridge. Our trips always concluded with my brothers and I playing in the river while my parents shuttled to our inlet point in order to retrieve the one car we owned capable of shouldering the canoes. This was a glorious time....three boys, no parents, no rules and a riverful of frogs and crawdads to catch. It didn't take long to realize where we were after Mom and Dad left to retrieve the car.....only a stone's throw away from the home of Piqua's most notorious resident. The temptation was too great.....the frogs and crawdads could wait until another day.

As we climbed the rocky riverbank using a trail that had been beat down over the years by the black men who liked to catch catfish by lantern light, I could smell the sweet fermenting odor coming from the mill at the top of the riverbank. The railroad that used to drop shipments at the mill was long abandoned, but the mill was still in operation. There was a tall concrete wall dropping from the side of the mill that acted as its foundation and a flood wall. The concrete railroad trestle didn't quite meet the mill's foundation, leaving a recess between the two. This was it. The urban legend only a few feet in front of me, the den of the bucketman. It was a hot summer day, and I was tired from the canoe trip down the river, but the curiosity of a young kid summons strength from regions that adults have no memory. Inner strength, courage.

I inched closer, and the warm grainy smell from the mill was replaced with a sour, heavy smell that I could recall only from my infant days when it was not uncommon to awaken in warm, wet blankets. The entrance to the lair was only a few feet wide, but it seemed to extend into the darkness forever. I entered the realm of the feral bucketman, slowly and cautiously. His den was a knot of old newspapers, bottles, cans, and all manner of other refuse. It was indistinguishable from the inside of a dumpster behind a liquor store, full and sour and ready to be hauled away. Near the farthest end of the dark cave was a hollowed out pile of cardboard, paper, and old wet clothing. It formed what appeared to be a nest, and I knew that the legend was true. I was standing in both the most and least talked about place in town.

It is true. Things live in the dark, wet places that we are afraid to look at.

Scary things.

***The bucketman was my first paper mache character prop. Now that I have brought him out of hiding, I think I may do some work this year to re-imagine him. There is much about the prop that I think I can do better now.


  1. my ex husband is from piqua. small world.

    that pic is super creepy! i like it!

  2. No kidding? I graduated in 1985 from Piqua...any chance I might know him?

  3. Had a similar run in with him as I waited for my papers on the dock at the Piqua Daily Call. He came walking through the parking lot muttering something to himself, proceeded to kick a glass bottle breaking then running off a tirade of barely understandable obscenities.