It was 11 a.m. and the temperature was below freezing when Richard Hardy found the old derelict bundled in a green canvas tarp in a telephone booth near 33rd and M streets NW.
Hardy approached him, tugged the tarp down from his gray-bearded face to see if he was all right, then staggered back in shock: The old man, his eyes open and his dirt-caked hands stiffly folded over his chest, was dead.
"I ran to a store to get the police. By the time I got there I couldn't stop crying," recalled Hardy, a 35-year-old unemployed handyman. "The poor guy finally froze to death after all these years."
Hardy knew the old man well. So did practically everyone else in Georgetown. His name was Freddie and for 25 years the streets and cobblestone alleys of Washington's wealthiest neighborhood were his home.
Freddie was about 60 years old. He had long gray hair and two teeth in his mouth and, since Georgetown residents gave him their cast-off clothes, he seemed to wear a different raggedy outfit every other month.
When he needed a hot meal he would often troop to a public school on Prospect Street NW, where janitor Royce Forrest frequently let him have his pick of leftovers from lunch.
In recent years he hobbled along the streets with the aid of a pair of crutches. Some people said he used the crutches as psychological leverage while panhandling; others, like Hardy, insisted the old man really needed them because his legs were giving out.
Freddie, in any case, always seemed about as out of place in Georgetown as a pauper in a palace. Amid the Saturday night sidewalk bustle of middle-aged women in mink coats and rich kids sporting the latest craze in punk hairdos and haberdashery, the old man stood out like a fugitive from a Western movie: half saloon drunk, half frontiersman.
His taste in people was not discriminatory. Freddie flirted with college coeds and elderly women alike, and if his dander was up, he seemed just as willing to pick a fight with a beefy Georgetown University football player as with another bum.
The news of his death Tuesday spread fast. In Georgetown, Freddie was so well liked that his wrinkled face shows up in a number of sketches and photographs in neighborhood shops.
"It was all over the street just like that and a lot of people still can't get over it," said Rick Williams, a clerk at Eagle Wine & Liquor on M Street. "The guy was like an institution here. The place won't be the same."
Not long ago, when Rocky Rocco, a retired short order cook, asked him why he didn't simply hole up in a mission or shelter downtown when it was cold, Freddie told him he didn't want to be bothered by "the headhunters," the younger street toughs, who gathered there.
"He told me once," Rocco recalled, "he'd rather die by himself in the cold than in some shelter. This was his home. He didn't want to go nowhere else."
The night Freddie died, the temperature outside sank to 20 degrees. Deputy D.C. Medical Examiner Stuart Dawson, who perfomed the autopsy on Freddie's body, said the probable cause of death was hypothermia, or exposure, but added that a final determination will not be made until this week.
Since December, two other derelicts have frozen to death in the streets of Washington, according to the medical examiner's office. If Freddie is added to that number, he will be the 66th street person to die of exposure in the city since 1972.
"When it happens here it hits close to home," said Lenore Pilares, who operates the Key Bridge News Stand on M Street with her husband Edgard. "Freddie isn't a statistic. We loved the man. He was a fixture."
Added John Sullivan, owner of Nite-Hawk Safe and Lock Co., which was located on M Street NW until 1979 when Sullivan moved the firm to Virginia, "He was practically family, to me. I'm going to do my best to see to it that he gets a proper funeral. I don't want him going to any potter's field. I've already gotten $50 in donations."
Many in Georgetown knew the old man by his first name, but few people were sure of Freddie's last name. At the newstand, Lenore Pilares said it was Saunders.
Gino Sametina, manager of Pier 1 Imports on M Street, who several times brought Freddie home with him to get cleaned up, was certain his name was Gauger. Freddie's friend, Rocky Rocco, on the other hand, always used to call him Freddie Gruber.
And Sullivan knew him as Geiger.
When police detectives found a business card of Sullivan's in Freddie's pocket, they phoned him and asked him to identify the body at the D.C. morgue. He did so and told the police Freddie's last name. At that point the name of "John Doe" was crossed out on the police report and replaced by that of Freddie Geiger.
Meantime, police took fingerprints of the body, hoping to match them with military and prison records.
Depending on his listener, Freddie said he was from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Francisco, Dublin and Southwest Washington. To the people of Georgetown, he claimed he had worked in the merchant marine, and as chimney sweep and locksmith.
"In fact," said John Sullivan, "he did work for me for a little while in the early 60s, cleaning the shop and grinding keys." But then, Sulllivan said, he started drinking again and ended up back in the streets.
For most of his stay in Washington Freddie drank Swiss Colony Ruby Port wine. Two years ago, when the price of the wine increased 50 cents, he started buying pints of Seagram's 7 whiskey, Williams said.
"Sometimes he would call me on the phone, crying, talking about a wife he once had. He said he had gotten divorced and had a daughter living in Chevy Chase," said Bea Sullivan, John's wife. "He also said he had spent time in the Army during World War II."
Freddie slept in the back seats of brand new automobiles when there was a Chevrolet dealership on M Street in the 1960s, according to Pilares, and was particularly happy when he found a seat made of cloth instead of plastic. When the the Cellar Door, a night club, closed down several years ago, he found a way to sneak back inside the building to spend the night.
When there was nowhere else to go, Freddie climbed under a layer of cardboard boxes to fend off the cold in alley trash bins and phone booths.
While other drunks and derelicts came and went, Freddie always remained in Georgetown, a loner. In his younger days, he often helped direct traffic on M Street near the Key Bridge. Sullivan said he was often out for rush hour with a traffic pylon atop his head. Then, sometime in the 1970s, a car hit him and he was in a hospital for several weeks. He suffered internal injuries and several broken ribs and from that point on, Sullivan said, Freddie directed traffic no more.
John Brennan, a 29-year-old Fairfax County teacher, said Freddie was the first person he ever met in the city. "I was 17 at the time and I was walking across Key Bridge into town one day when he started following me, talking about how he was an Irish rabbi looking for a congregation," Brennan recalled. "Over the years I got to know him pretty well and drank quite a bit with him. He was a wonderful old man."
Brennan said Freddie seemed particularly bad off this winter, despite the cold weather's tardy arrival. He was incontinent and few cafe owners allowed him into their shops.
According to Medical Examiner Dawson, Freddie was five feet, five inches tall, weighed 130 pounds, had gray hair and eyes and suffered from an infestation of lice. Dawson said he found a number of bruises on his brain, a sign that Freddie had suffered several severe falls and an indication that he was a drinker. The content of alcohol in Freddie's blood at the time of death, however, was zero.
Freddie had more than a dozen tattoos on him, most of them blurred by age except for one: The name "Vicky," with a line crossed through it.