Clear81° WeatherClear81° Weather

In a Tampa Bay area hospice, the mystery of a man with no identity

SUN CITY CENTER

Here, nestled against the plump white pillows of a hospice bed, tucked under four soft blankets and sipping coffee through a straw, lies a man who does not exist. He is very old, and maybe a little deaf. His hair has gone white and his teeth have gone missing. He will tell you he is 95. But later he might say 94, or 93. He says he has traveled the world as a hobo. Slept under trucks, on park benches, in barns. Played football with Burt Reynolds and baseball with Fidel Castro. But his stories shift and change, and he admits he hasn't always been truthful. But no one knows why. He carries no identification. He swears he's never smiled for a passport photo. He has no birth certificate, no Social Security card. No family. Just a couple of old friends. And before he dies, even they want to know: Who is Roger George?

"First thing I did was go to the biggest city, Pittsburgh. Then I kept on. I was a good country boy, see? I never fooled around in the city too long. I made my life travel. I never stopped traveling. I just kept going."

People die with secrets all the time. Secret affairs, secret pasts, secret urges. Roger George's secrets appear to be much more fundamental. Maybe he's entitled to those secrets, whatever they are. Or maybe he's just a sweet old man with a foggy memory and a colorful life.

Either way, for the first time in his life, Roger George can't work or care for himself. And without documentation, he can't qualify for Medicare or Social Security. The bed he lies in is charity.

He has nowhere else to go.

On this day, a Monday in February, he sits propped up in bed, studying his white plastic wristband.

"There's no ID for me so they gave me this number," he said, "279932."

He read the date of birth he gave them: July 20, 1916. That would make him 93.

Some friends arrive. He hasn't seen them in years. Joe and Dorothy Haskins are his oldest friends, and maybe his only ones. If he is lying, then he has lied to them for 30 years.

"I can't hear you. You got to get real close," Roger says. "How do I look?"

They met in 1979, when Joe Haskins moved his bicycle shop to the corner of Columbus Drive and Florida Avenue in Tampa. He found Roger living in an old termite-eaten shack in the back of that property. As Joe fixed up the shop, Roger helped.

Roger was about 63 then and spoke with a European accent. He was smart, clean shaven and didn't smoke or drink. And he told fabulous stories.

He was born in Pennsylvania in an Amish community. His parents had died when he was young. He helped dig his mother's grave. He rode the rails, traveled to every state and to Cuba. He wanted for nothing.

Joe and Dorothy didn't believe everything he said, but something about him felt honest. Joe offered him a twin bed in a corner of the bike shop. Roger slept there for 20 years.

Roger told Dorothy stories he never told anyone else. He had been to Europe. He spoke to her in German.

One day a movie crew wanted to use Roger as an extra. All he had to do was walk down the street. Roger got shook up, afraid someone would recognize him. He gave Joe the shop keys and said he was leaving town.

But late that night, he came back.

Joe and Dorothy puzzled over the man in their bike shop. Why had he run? Were his stories true? Who were they harboring? Could he be a Nazi?

Roger had no satisfying answers.

"New York was the best state. Soon as I arrived, I'd go to work. At a gas station I'd make a couple dollars to keep me going. Before I'd left a town, maybe I'd have four jobs. A quarter an hour. I could get bacon and eggs and toast with butter and coffee for 17 cents. That's what you call hobo-ing. That's how I made out."

One year on vacation, Joe and Dorothy took a detour. They went to Edinburgh, Penn., the town where Roger had once said he was born. They found no clues.

In 1999, Roger had a health scare. He went to the hospital and then into a rehabilitation facility. Visiting him one day, Dorothy sensed he had something on his mind or on his conscience. He told her he'd lied about his past at the hospital. But she didn't learn much. Yes, he'd come from Germany. That was about it.

In 1999, the Florida Department of Children and Families took Roger's case. Tom Canham, a supervisor, set about trying to verify Roger's story so that Roger could qualify for benefits.

Canham searched Pennsylvania census records. Roger said his parents were Marie or Mary Jascola and Joseph George, who went by Mickey. Canham contacted an Amish bishop in Pennsylvania, who said there was no record of Roger George, but that was not unusual because the Amish weren't required to file birth certificates. DCF workers took him to Tampa police who fingerprinted him and ran the prints through FBI and military databases.

Nothing. Roger was denied a Social Security number and a birth certificate.

In 2001, Bay Area Legal Services took his case. Attorney Michael Steinberg searched newspaper clippings for funeral notices or any mention of Roger's family. He took the case to a federal court, again seeking benefits, and lost.

"It's like something you see in the movies," Steinberg said, "where it ends up the person has a criminal record or is a super hero."

DCF workers had run out of ideas. They didn't know what to do with someone who'd lived 90 years without making a mark. "There's nothing to find," Roger told Canham. "It was buried with my mother on the farm in the family bible. That's it. That's all there is."

DCF shuffled him from place to place, wherever someone would take him for free. In July, he was admitted to a hospice care with prostate cancer.

In hospice care, his stories grew more vivid. He had washed dishes in France and worked on farms in Poland and Russia. Castro had run him out of Cuba in 1959.

In December, he became ill and went into a hospital, then to Sun City Center Hospice House. It's a short-term facility for people who are dying. Roger said he wanted to live to be 100.

"I worked 14 hours a day. Even during the Depression. I worked every day. Even coal mining. Didn't matter what it was. I'm surprised I'm 94 years old. Don't nobody believe it. I did what I did, and that's it."

As people get closer to the end, as they contemplate their legacies, confessions sometimes tumble out. But Roger seems content. He isn't going anywhere, and Hospice won't kick him out.

The nurses hear all kinds of stories. They see people with fake I.D.s, false Social Security numbers. There is something innocent about Roger's stories. He strikes people as a character, not a con man. They'll just keep listening.

A nurse brings a tray. She stirs cream and two sugars into a cup of coffee, just the way he likes it. He tries a piece of squash, a bite of ground pork. Mashed potatoes, more coffee. Pear pie.

"Well Roger," Joe says. "After that meal, you're going to be in good shape tomorrow. You can come to the shop. Sweep the sidewalks."

"I'll be there in the morning," Roger says.

• • •

Early Tuesday morning, Roger died in his sleep.

The nurses called the newspaper and DCF. There was no one else to notify.

If there was more to the story of Roger George, he never said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@sptimes.com or (813)226-3431.

In a Tampa Bay area hospice, the mystery of a man with no identity 02/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, February 26, 2010 11:28pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...