Dressed in two pairs-of dirty brown slacks and a sports jacket held together by safety pins, Benjamin Davis stood in the entryway of a bowling alley at White Oak Shopping Center-his favorite evening hangout.
As teen-agers and entire families anxiously filed past him Davis smashed his fist into a plaster wall and shouted, "revenge. You think I'm a bum. I'll act like a bum. Nobody's gonna walk over the woodsman."
To merchants at Sears, Drug Fair and a dozen other specialty shops at the north Silver Spring shopping center "Bennie" Davis is a legendary figure whose colorful appearance and outbursts have generated countless stories and rumors about his past.
He is an anachronism living in a primitive shack located within a few hundred yards of modern high-rise apartments, bustling shopping centers and Rte. 29.
White Oak merchants, in their more complimentary moods, call Davis the Woodsman of White Oak, the short and stocky man who suddenly appears from nowhere to search through garbage bins, strike up one-sided conversations with uncomfortable customers, and prove his toughness by stamping cigarettes out in his calloused palms.
When asked last week about his life Davis, 53, told about the years he spent on a chain gang in South Carolina, in prison in Baltimore, and the freight cars he hopped up and down the East Coast.
He also told of tragedy, of the sight he lost in one eye when he was struck by a bullet and the friend he lost after a fire destroyed his shack three years ago.
Davis was born in Hyattsville and spent his childhood in various Montgomery County foster homes. Today he lives in his dilapidated shack in a clearing near Paint Branch Park.
His 49 year-old brother Jimmy, who does odd jobs in the neighborhood for money, lives in an old trailer nearby, both tolerated by the property owner because they have nowhere else to go.
The property owner's youngest son, 12, is Davis' "main man." Every day after school he visits Davis' shack to hear stories about chain gangs and the previous night's escapades.
Davis' six- by fifteen-foot shack is crammed with a matress supported by bricks, pots, rusted cans, old clothes and empty liquor bottles. He carries water from a nearby brook and cooks on a makeshift spit outside his hut.
For light, he has a flashlight. For entertainment he has a portable radio. For heat, he uses a rough metal stove that protrudes from the back of the shack.
He said he is content to live there because "I've been a bum all my life." His "hideaway," he said, allows him to stay out of the kind of mischief that led him to prison in the past.
Part-black and part-Sioux Indian, Davis said he and his brother were abandoned by their parents at an early age. As youngsters they worked on farms, cleaning chicken coops and baling hay, and never received a formal education. Davis cannot read and must have merchants count his money for him when making a purchase.
"i been called a yellow, a half-breed, all those nasty names," Davis said.
"i've been to Louisiana, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, all over. Just a tramp traveling in freight cars and eating out of garbage cans and sleeping in the bushes.
"it makes me nervous-like sometimes, thinking about all the things I've done. I wake up at night from nightmares about people laughing at me," he said.
When Davis was 20 he traveled to Greenville, S.C., to find a girlfriend he had met in Rockville. He said he got drunk when he arrived, though, and ended up in a white section of town.
"i decided to go into a house looking for food," he said. "i scared the maid out of the place and ended up sleeping in the father's bed."
Greenville police records show that Davis spent two years on a chain gang for an attempted burglary.
According to prison records Davis also spent a total of 13 years in the Maryland House of Corrections for a series of breaking and entering, trespassing and attempted burglary convictions.
"the best thing I ever stole was a bike," he said smiling. "i loved 'em. Got fancy rides when I was tired of walking and bumming. Up and down the road I'd go just as happy as a bird."
Davis said he has been a handyman, a trash man, a jackhammer operator, and an usher at the old Lincoln Theater at 14th and U Streets NW in Washington.
Women, Davis said, "never liked me because they never knew what I was." His last girlfriend was "a tramp" he met in Poolesville. "we lived together in a shack for 18 months," he said.
Hillendale volunteer fire officials said a fire destroyed Davis' shack three years ago. His girlfriend died weeks later of smoke inhalation, Davis said.
At home Davis was a personable and lucid man who talked freely about his past. He joked and bantered with his 12-year-old neighbor and shared remembrances such as the night last year when the boy ran over Davis on his bicycle while Davis was sleeping off a drinking binge on the sidewalk.
But at the shopping center, Davis said, the 'devil gets in me and I have to get at those people who've given me nothin' cept a hard way to go."
Although Davis, according to merchants, has never physically harmed anyone at the center, his fits of temper have resulted in is permanent banishment from two stores. Occasionally his youthful neighbor will go into those stores and purchase articles for him.
"you don't exactly do your best business when somebody stumbles in and curses and threatens to cut people's heads off," said Bill Kohler, manager of Irving's Sports shop.
During a stroll last week from the woods to the shopping center Davis made a "round of checks" at the garbage bins behind the grocery stores. "he rummaged through one, saying 'pork chops, steak, lima beans, cheese-anything goes with me cuz I'm a gravy train man."
But suddenly he smashed his fist into the side of the bin and slapped himself on the face. "i'm black and everybody thinks I'm a white cracker. Everybody laughs at me cuz I sleep in the woods."
He then spotted two friends waiting for a bus-construction workers Vernon Gibb and James Dunklie-and became amiable again.
"this man can do better than all of us put together," Gibb said. "he hustles better than anybody I know. He don't get cold and he don't get hungry."
Davis grinned. "i'm tough, ain't I."
"came through here one night and couldn't see nothing but his feet sticking out of the garbage," Gibb said. "He does better than all of us."
Davis accepted a dollar from Gibb for wine and headed slowly for the bowling alley, his cedar walking stick tucked under his arm.
The sun was setting as he leaned against a wall stroking his bristly beard. Fathers entered and discreetly shielded wives and daughters from his presence.
"i don't like the way people look at me," he said. "i should have a decent place to live. I just want to be human." CAPTION: Picture, Bennie Davis, left, and his brother Jimmy are legends in the White Oak Shopping Center area. By Neil Henry-The Washington Post