They knew him as the River Man.

For decades he lived in a lean-to on the marshy flats just south of Alexandria, between the George Washington Parkway and the Potomac.

His routine never varied: the aimless walk into Old Town and a day-old doughnut at Shuman's Bakery.

He had a banker, but little money.

He knew the cops, the bikers, the joggers.

Yesterday, there was a silence on the streets, for the River Man, Eugene Franklin Meyers, 82 and full of mystery, was dead.

"Just don't call him a vagrant," said Lonny Marchant, Shuman's owner, after hearing that Meyers was killed by a car while crossing the parkway late Thursday night.

"I must have watched him eat a thousand doughnuts. Always jelly. On his 80th birthday, we put a candle in the middle. He watched it melt, then ate it with a smile."

Up and down Washington Street, Meyers' main footpath, Alexandrians mourned his loss yesterday and wondered aloud why he had lived the life of a hobo, a contemplative loner with a home like a bird's nest, fashioned from sticks and scraps.

"He chose the life he had, he was as happy as the average man," said J. Richard Faulkner Jr., a U.S. probation officer and Old Town resident who knew Meyers. "He was an articulate man, he must have been educated. I think he was from Danville."

The River Man had a history, but yesterday, as U.S. Park Police tried to find family to claim him, that past lived only in resurrected rumors spoken by his neighbors, the people he nodded to or stopped and talked with each day.

He was a slim man with a soft, gravelly voice. Friends said he paid close attention to his appearance, keeping his clothes bundled neatly into black garbage bags and stopping off frequently at the Downtown Baptist Church to shave, bathe and cut the rim of gray hair on his balding head; he was neither natty nor a bum.

In 1983, when former city manager Douglas Harman first noticed Meyers' shack, roofed with tires and draped in plastic, he resolved to have it leveled. Defiant friends rallied on Meyers' behalf, and even Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.) came to the River Man's defense and helped keep the bulldozers at bay.

Meyers told people that he grew up on a tobacco farm and never stopped chewing the stuff. He said he rode the rails through the 1930s, working odd jobs and sleeping under bridges. When he first rolled into Alexandria several decades ago he did day work, helping put up buildings on the waterfront that no longer are there. Nobody can remember his mentioning a family.

Twice, heavy rains washed Meyers' home into the muddy Potomac. Each time, according to the friends who would lend him an occasional dollar -- which he never failed to return -- he took adversity with gentle indifference. When he was offered the chance to live indoors, he would simply shake his head.

Two weeks ago, a fire swept through the splintered shack he always called his "camp." It was destroyed, but Meyers hardly seemed to notice.

"He was sitting at Shuman's when they came and told him about the fire," an Old Town friend said yesterday. "He just nodded and said, 'Okay.' He was going to the movies. That was his plan, to see a movie -- the house could wait."

When the movie let out, Meyers returned to his marshy home and started to repair it, the friend said.

Yesterday, all that was left of a life lived on a river bank were a couple of placards that had become his new house -- one said "Play Ball with Fairfax County's Best" -- along with a few bags stuffed with neatly folded clothes and charred reminders of the recent fire.

"I'll miss that man," said Robert L. Ridgely, an assistant vice president at 1st American Bank, where Meyers cashed his Social Security checks. "We all will. He knew what he was doing. He had dignity."