Four years ago, when she was a freshman at Boston University, Sarah Kapica would avert her eyes as she walked past the man who sat, wrapped in a blanket, in the doorway of an abandoned apartment building in Kenmore Square.
She had grown up in a nice family in a nice house in a nice suburb, and the scruffy homeless man made her uncomfortable.
But something changed her sophomore year. Something gnawed at her as she crossed the intersection at Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue, pushing her inexorably toward the sunken man huddled in the doorway.
“Hello,” she said. “How are you today?”
Melvin Ramos looked up and a smile spread slowly across his unshaven face, like a sunrise.
“I’m doing fine,” Melvin replied.
From that day on, Sarah never passed Melvin without saying hello, to ask what he was reading, to ask how he was feeling.
“He made my day better,” she said. “Melvin would accept money if you offered some, but that’s not what he really wanted. He wanted a human connection.”
Those who study and work at BU, the New England School of Photography, and any number of colleges and businesses in the area provided that human connection, and they minded Melvin for the more than 30 years he was a fixture in Kenmore Square.
Melvin moved around a bit, but most often you could find him on the steps of the abandoned West Gate building, sandwiched between the City Convenience store and the Giacomo & Rondi beauty salon.
I used to see him before and after Red Sox games, and talked to him once in a while. Melvin told me he was born in Puerto Rico, and when I told him my wife once lived there, his eyes lit up.
“Manati,” he said, almost to himself.
Melvin was born in 1962, in Manati, on the north coast of the island. In its heyday, Manati was a cultural mecca known as the Athens of Puerto Rico. He was just a little kid when his family moved to Boston, the Athens of America. It should have been good karma, but it didn’t work out that way.
Growing up in Dorchester, Melvin liked to watch the red firetrucks race by and hoped some day he’d be riding one of them. But Melvin started drinking and couldn’t stop. By his estimation, he’d been on the streets since his late teens, a Kenmore Square regular since the early 1980s.
After the 2007 death of Mr. Butch, aka Harold Madison Jr., Melvin became the dean of homeless people in and around the Fenway. Other than a mutual dislike of shelters, Mr. Butch and Melvin couldn’t have been more different.
Mr. Butch was flamboyant, a dreadlocked showman who held a tall boy in one palm and onlookers in the other. He sat outside The Rat punk club, playing scratchy guitar through a small, beat-up amp for spare change. When The Rat closed in 1997, Mr. Butch packed up and spent most of his remaining 10 years in Allston before he was struck and killed by a car as he rode a scooter in Union Square.
Melvin was more bookish than brazen. He liked to go to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and read fiction. He was fond of Steinbeck. On his stoop at the West Gate, Melvin often read the Bible. He was very spiritual.
If Mr. Butch was the king of Kenmore Square, Melvin was the pope.
Jim Greene, director of the city’s Emergency Shelter Commission, met Melvin in the 1980s, when Greene began driving the Pine Street Inn’s outreach van.
“Melvin was one of those guys who didn’t want to come into the shelters,” said Greene.
Melvin claimed he slept better outside. He preferred the white noise of the street to the mad, mad din of the shelter.
“Too much noise in the shelters,” Melvin said. “People steal your stuff.”
When he went to a shelter, it was usually to access medical care. Dr. Jim O’Connell and his staff at Boston Health Care for the Homeless knew Melvin.
“He said he had four brothers and three sisters, but little contact with his family,” O’Connell told me. “He never gave us a next of kin. We’d ask, but he wouldn’t say.”
When the students came back this fall, they noticed Melvin was missing. No one had seen him for ages. Last week, a story started going around that Melvin had died. The news was greeted with a communal grief among those who knew and cared about him.
Last Sunday, the Rev. David Barnes, who runs the Catholic Center at BU, offered a memorial Mass for Melvin. By coincidence, that day’s Gospel was about Bartimaeus, the blind beggar whom Jesus healed.
“When Jesus was passing by, Bartimaeus began shouting and the crowd tried to shut him up,” Father Barnes said. “They wanted Bartimaeus to be invisible and not embarrass them.”
Father Barnes saw a parallel, if not a parable, in Melvin, a man who was invisible to most who passed his way.
But Melvin wasn’t invisible to Alec Dakin, a BU sophomore who said hello to Melvin every day on his way to class. Melvin wasn’t invisible to the dozens of people who saw Dakin’s Facebook post Monday and showed up on Tuesday night for a candlelight vigil that Dakin arranged in front of the stoop where Melvin sat like an oracle for more than 30 years.
A woman recalled Melvin running after her as she tried to cross Beacon Street. She had dropped her wallet and Melvin had retrieved it for her.
Melvin was very protective of Connor Lenahan, a BU sophomore who uses a wheelchair and regularly stopped to talk with him.
Everybody who went to the memorial service and the vigil cared about Melvin, but none knew what happened to him, or where his body was.
I called the Boston Police Department, the State Police, the Suffolk district attorney’s office, the state medical examiner’s office, and the city’s Public Health Commission, and nobody had any record of Melvin’s death.
It took a few days to figure out how Melvin, often invisible in life, had disappeared in death: He used a different name whenever he came in contact with the authorities. The police, the firefighters, the people who care for the homeless knew him as Melvin Metias. The students and everybody else in Kenmore Square knew him as Melvin Ramos.
On July 7, Melvin was with another homeless guy named Billy Bostock, who was found dead, floating in the Muddy River. The police treated Melvin as a witness, not a suspect, but he was using drugs and that violated his probation, so they locked him up in the Suffolk County jail.
Melvin got out of jail Oct. 16, and homeless guys in Kenmore Square told me he was shooting heroin. That would be especially dangerous for someone who had been clean in jail for three months.
There’s a police report from last Saturday that says an unidentified man was found dead in the bathroom of the Dunkin Donuts in Kenmore Square, right across the street from Melvin’s perch at the West Gate. The man had been in there for an hour before firefighters from Engine 33 forced the door open. There was a syringe on the floor, and $26.53 in the guy’s pocket.
The dead guy didn’t have an ID, but if it was Melvin, that’s the most money he’d had in a long time.
For the last week, Jim Greene and the other people who care for the homeless in Boston have been scouring morgues, hospitals, shelters and the streets, looking for Melvin, dead or alive. Greene is trained to be skeptical of street talk. Earlier this year, the good people at the Church of the Covenant in Back Bay held a memorial service for a well-known homeless woman who had disappeared and was presumed dead. Two weeks later, she walked into the Women’s Lunch Place at the church, very much alive, with an appetite.
“Everybody says Melvin died, but nobody seems to know the circumstances and we haven’t been able to find his body,” Greene told me. “I’m hoping against hope that Melvin’s still alive.”
So am I, but, like Jim Greene, I think Melvin is the John Doe in the Albany Street morgue.
Jim O’Connell, the great doctor who has spent his life caring for the city’s homeless, went up to the ME’s office Friday night after hearing about the John Doe. When he looked at the body, he thought it was Melvin, but couldn’t be sure. The dead guy was chubbier than Melvin, and clean-shaven, which Melvin never was.
The medical examiner’s office is going to run some fingerprints on Monday.
If Melvin was a lost soul, Jim O’Connell may have found him.
And if it turns out, against all the odds, that the unidentified body isn’t Melvin, we won’t be calling him Bartimaeus anymore. We’ll have to call him Lazarus.