“Oh, no,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Emily Mendrala said with a small gasp, stopping short in front of the shrine that’s grown around the base of the oak tree where Bis held curbside court for years. She hadn’t heard. “This is so sad. He spoke to everybody. He made you smile.”
Bis, 61, will be cremated and his ashes sent to a younger brother in Kalamazoo, Mich. A lawyer, appointed by the courts last year as guardian of the mentally ill Bis, is making the arrangements. One of the neighborhood churches, St. Joseph’s, is planning to organize a memorial in coming weeks. A crowd is expected.
“He knew everybody here, everybody,” said Gary Bockweg, who passed Bis four times a day on his walks between his home and his job at the Federal Judiciary Center a few blocks away. “If you stood here talking to him for 10 minutes, he’d greet 50 people by their first name. And then he’d ask about their spouses. ‘Hey Joe, how’s Judy? You’ve got a baby coming in two weeks, right?’ The guy had an incredible memory.”
Even before any formal memorials, an ongoing one is unfolding on Bis’s old corner, where friends are dropping off flowers or packs of the Camels he loved and remembering him as a friendly and fascinating enigma, clearly intelligent, seemingly schizophrenic and relentlessly cheerful.
His catchphrases live on in the memories of Hill dwellers: “Four days until the weekend,” he’d rasp in his distinctive voice to passersby. “It’s 10 a.m., tea time in London, cocktails in Singapore.” One of the most common, and inexplicable, is tacked up in printed form to the tree: “No skinny dipping!”
His audience — his family, really — was the never-ending parade of humanity pouring in and out of the train station, the Congress, the Heritage Foundation offices down the block. Also the waiters at Armand’s Pizzeria, where he used to store his many piles of clutter each night, and the workers at the Exxon where he not only used the bathrooms but kept them clean.
“We looked out for him; he was a peaceful guy,” said Joseph Rohayem, co-owner of the gas station. Bis would use his computer sometimes and, on the coldest nights only, he would sleep in the garage.
Otherwise, he made his bed outdoors. “I grew up in Michigan; we do winter camping,” he told WAMU (88.5 FM) radio several years ago. “I’m good to 30 below zero. Seriously. I don’t think Paris Hilton is going to come by and pick me up in a limousine.”