The black metal bench on 10th Street in downtown Columbus is 50 paces from Broadway.
Just 50 steps from the heart of the city and the busiest block in town.
Those who use the bench can be lumped into a few groups: the Columbus State University students who are housed in the dorm rooms above it, those waiting to meet someone at a nearby restaurant, and one of the ambassadors of Uptown Columbus Inc.
Business people will sit on it to make a quick phone call.
For the record, the bench is a 30-second walk from the back door to my office and I have used it when I need to escape the building.
It’s just a bench.
Monday morning about 5:30, Curtis Edge died at that bench.
With the temperature a few degrees above freezing and air damp from a cold front that had moved through with a trace of rain, the 67-year-old Edge took his last breath while on the bricks in front of the bench that held his bags and everything he owned in this world.
Who cares? He was just another homeless man in our community, right? Another of the forgotten in the land of plenty. The Muscogee County Coroner’s Office can’t locate next of kin and have started the process for a pauper’s burial in a pine box.
But there is more to this story.
Early Monday morning, a Columbus State University police officer noticed the man was unresponsive. By the time the officer got to him, Edge was in cardiac arrest. By the time the EMTs got there, Edge was gone, a homeless man no more.
All that was left was for Deputy Coroner Freeman Worley to pronounce him dead at 6:50 a.m.
“Edge died of hypothermia and cardiac arrest,” Worley said. “Hypothermia leads to arrhythmia, and arrhythmia leads to death.”
That is a truth that sounds cold, but not as cold as it was in the week leading up to Edge’s death. On Jan. 1, the low was 24 degrees; 19 on Jan. 2; 28 on Jan. 3; 26 on Jan. 4; 22 on Jan. 5; 23 on Jan. 6; and 25 on Jan. 7.
The hour Edge died, it was a balmy 35.
Edge died where he lived, on the sidewalks of downtown Columbus. He was part of a small but visible group of homeless people who have chosen to live off the grid in the middle of town. If you live, shop, dine, pray or play downtown, you have seen Curtis Edge and the others.
They shuffle past us, moving from one bench to the next, until, like Edge, they reach that last bench.
He was a short, bearded black man who wore more clothes than he appeared to need.
“He didn’t talk a lot,” said his friend Jerry Mercer, who is also homeless.
And he never asked anybody for anything, Mercer said.
“If you offered him food he wouldn’t take it,” Mercer said. “But if you sat it on the garbage can, he would come pick it up.”
The two men knew each other the 10 years Mercer has been back on the streets.
“The longest conversation I ever had with him was maybe 10 minutes and it was years ago,” Mercer said. “It was about the weather, whatever.”
Since 2009, Columbus homeless advocates have done a Housing and Urban Development mandated point-in-time count of the area homeless. They seek out those in the shelters and those, like Edge, who go unsheltered. In the nine years the count has been done, Curtis Edge’s name appears nowhere, said Home for Good Director Pat Frey.
“He was not on our radar,” Frey said.
He was not on their radar because he didn’t want to be on their radar. And that is not a knock on Frey and the others who have worked hard and made a dent in the local homeless population by finding those who want off the streets a place to live.
No one knows how long Edge has lived on the edge. All Mercer would say is he was here when he started the homeless lifestyle.
“He was an accomplished musician — piano,” Mercer said. “I had talked to his brother. He had a bi-polar experience and walked out of the house and stayed out here since.”
You couldn’t miss him downtown. Edge looked like “a polar bear with luggage,” Mercer said.
“He layered up on clothes,” Mercer said. “He might have 10 pairs of pants on just to keep warm. He sat on the benches and he slept on the benches. He slept sitting up.”
The Muscogee County Jail records offer a clue how long Edge had been living on the streets. From 1991 until 2006, he was arrested at least 13 times. The charges — simple assault, tramp and criminal trespass — are all crimes that are usually used to arrest the homeless. He would land in jail for 16 days here and 30 days there.
Nothing major, but he hasn’t been arrested since 2006, according to jail records. That’s perplexing and not what one would expect.
Neil Richardson, the chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail and director of the SafeHouse Ministries, works as closely with the homeless population as anyone in our community. He said the 10 or fewer homeless folks who live in the downtown area are a different breed.
“They are part of the fabric of downtown,” Richardson said.
He’s absolutely right. But I would add they are the tattered and frayed part.
“Why are they invisible?” Richardson said, repeating my question. “They are not aggressive panhandlers. We see them sitting in the chairs out front of our coffee shops. We see them when we go in and out of downtown businesses.”
When asked if they were a family, Richardson stopped short.
“I would call them a unit,” Richardson said.
Well, it’s a smaller unit this week than it was last week. And Worley has been the one charged with finding out about Curtis Edge.
“I can’t find any family at all,” Worley said. “Nobody knows anything about him. He has been living on the streets some time. I didn’t personally know him, but I have seen him around.”
Yeah, we have all seen him around. Haven’t we?
Not long after the coroner took Edge’s body to the morgue on Monday morning, Mercer showed up around the corner for breakfast.
“I got here about 30 minutes after they moved him,” Mercer said. “What can you say? I miss him. It happens. That’s one thing we are all guaranteed of, a ticket out of here.”