The six transients arrived at the rustic wood and aluminum cement mixing plant more than a year ago, wearing old shirts and baggy cotton pants. Although at first they were almost unnoticed, the two women and four men who settled in at the abandoned Rockville building became, over a period of time, a common if unsettling sight to area merchants.
But sometime this week, shortly after one of them froze to death, the remaining members of the group packed up and vacated their makeshift home, sandwiched between the Baltimore and Ohio railroad tracks and Rte. 355, directly across from the College Plaza shopping center. The five people left as quickly and mysteriously as they had arrived.
Behind them, they left only remants of the life they led at the cement plant: charred walls, faded plaid shirts, rolls of toilet paper, and wine bottles surrounded by heaps of rusted auto parts and metal refuse.
"You don't see as many transients in Montgomery as you used to, say 30 years ago, because the county's prospered and grown so much," said Phil Caswell, Montgomery County police information officer. "But it's true, there are still tiny pockets usually along the railroad, where they congregate. Even in Montgomery."
Twice during the past year the county fire department responded to fires that erupted at the three-story plant, which apparently grew out of smaller fires that the transients lit for warmth.
Fire officials twice ordered the group to vacate the plant, which was built in the 1940s and abondoned a decade ago, but the group always returned, according to Nick Koutsoukos, manager of a nearby motorcycle shop.
"They all had these red, beefy faces because of the alcohol," he said. "They'd come in here sometimes to bum cigarettes and get some coffee. It was embarrassing to have them around but they never really bothered us."
Koutsoukos said the goup collected handouts from nearby fruit and pastry shops, and bought liquor from a delicatessen on the other side of Rte. 3559
"They had a little chihuahua called Mao-tai with them all the time," he said. "They'd try to sell us stuff like old football helmets for wine money. Once I literally picked one of them up out of the middle of highway, he was so high."
Floyd Cunningham, manager of United Auto Parts, which, like many businesses along the railroad corridor is closing to make way for Metro construction said the transients reclaimed old batteries from a nearby junkyard and sold them to recycling firms.
"They used to come by to pick up old metal parts," said Joyce Finneyfrock, a secretary at Cornett Excavating Co., located directly across the railroad track from the cement plant.
"They had a grocery cart and would push it for two miles to sell the stuff at the nearest scrap metal yard."
Finneyfrock said the transients generally were "friendly" and used a water faucet outside her trailer to wash their socks. "They had all kins of intrigues going on," she said. "There was always some sort of jealousy and arguments between the men over women and wine. They use to hide liquor from each other in the bushes on both sides of the track.
"At nigh," she went on, "you could look down over the track and see them huddling over tiny fires."
"They were more of a nuisance than anything else," said Bill Busche, manager of Citrus Ice Cream Co., located adjacent to the plant. "But what can you do? Its America You're just as free to make money as you are to be a bum."
Busche said the transients told him several weeks ago that they planned to hop a freight train and take it to Florida for the winter. "That's where they've gone, I guess," he said. "That one guy wouldn't have died if they had decided to leave sooner."