Philip Welsh rose every morning to a pot of coffee, a half-pack of cigarettes and a seat behind his Smith Corona typewriter. No Internet and no cellphone. Just a 65-year-old man trying to make sense of the world through his poems and trying to connect to it through his letters.
“I like your handwriting a lot,” he tapped out to one of his eight siblings last year. “If it isn’t renowned already, let me now renown it.”
By 1 p.m., Philip would leave the small yellow house in Silver Spring where he lived alone. He walked a half-block, waited for the No. 5 bus, took it to his job as a taxi dispatcher, returned home, cooked a late dinner, watched Charlie Rose and went to sleep. He never locked his front door and often left it wide open. Part was defiance. This is how I live. Part was warmth. Anyone is welcome.
One February night, someone came inside — someone Philip may have known — and beat him to death. The case remains Montgomery’s only unsolved killing this year.
Philip seemed to have no secrets and no enemies. And he left behind no electronic footprints — the text messages, e-mails, cellphone logs and social-media traffic that police routinely use these days as they seek out unknown quarrels and final movements.
“Those records usually help,” said Capt. Marcus Jones, commander of Montgomery County’s major-crimes division. “We don’t have any of that.”
For Philip’s family and friends, the case brings a terrible possibility: Could everything that made the lifelong bachelor so unique, so stubborn, so confounding, so wonderful — a life rooted in rejection of instant communication — be allowing his killer to get away with it?
“It was not that it was the easy thing to do, as much as he insisted on it. It was part of his stance,” says Philip’s sister Monica, an artist in New Mexico. “I have pondered so many things about Philip, and the thing that recurs is the sense that he had so many aspects. There was never one reason or explanation for anything.”
Philip Flahavin Welsh Jr. was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., three blocks north of the District. His father, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as general counsel for the Association of American Railroads, read James Joyce and Marcel Proust and allowed a television in the house only on a rental basis so the family could watch political conventions and election returns.
In some ways Philip, the second oldest, fit right in — at one point insisting that a dictionary be kept at the dinner table to aid in nightly conversations. But he was an indifferent high school student, dropped out of college after one year and found himself back home, looking for a job.
“One night in the spring of ’71, I walked to the corner of Kirke and Connecticut, hitchhiking to see friends, and got picked up by a Barwood taxi,” he later wrote in a letter to a friend, explaining the job he would get. “He dropped me off at East-West Highway, but in that short distance he got me interested in driving a cab, for a little while. What he said was that, driving a cab, you met more girls and made more money than you knew what to do with. Why anyone would say such things I never found out, but I got my application in quick, and they gave me a cab.”
Driving led to dispatching. Outside of work, he read, wrote and pitched on the softball field — a cigarette in his mouth and no shoes on his feet. As his siblings moved away and raised families, Philip stayed local — single, with no kids, and growing closer to his parents. His mother died at 63, of cancer, a disease that took his father two years later at 70. Devastated, Philip quit work to travel and write.
The travel pieces mailed to siblings sparkled. “On the train from Tralee to Limerick Junction,” he wrote of a trip through Ireland, “I sat next to an old farmer from outside of Rathgar who couldn’t have been more genial or incomprehensible.”
Back home, he struggled with a novel — about a crime — avoiding showing it to anyone. Always his toughest critic, one day he rounded up every page, placed them in a large trash bag on the curb and waited on the porch to see the garbagemen haul it away.
“I’m done,” he told his brother Josh.
Philip returned to Barwood as a dispatcher in 1998, a time when technology was revolutionizing how people lived and worked. He was trained on a computer, but it did not have access to the Internet, and he had little interest in exploring it at home.
“Philip, you ought to get a computer. Google’s fantastic,” his brother Joe told him, not so much as a suggestion but as a cue for a joke.
“That’s what I got you for,” Philip said.
His three concessions to technology: an answering machine for his home phone, a CD player and a fat-backed TV with slots for videotapes and DVDs.
Relatives and friends who came to see him often found the place wide open, with Philip seated at his dining-room table, behind his typewriter, next to an old spinach can filled with blue Bic ballpoint pens.
“What’s with the open door?” Joe would ask, a question always deflected with Philip’s enthusiastic rise from his chair and cheerful response: “Come on in!”
Music was inevitably playing. Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Little Feat, the Who. And at every turn were bookshelves, filled with more than 1,000 books — Anton Chekhov, W.B. Yeats, Carl Hiaasen.
After he left for work, neighbors who needed something — a cigarette, a book — would simply walk in and get it. Cab drivers in the middle of a slow shift would stop in for a nap.
Countering the welcoming air was the place itself — surfaces caked with dust, walls stained with cigarette smoke.
“You ought to paint this place up,” Joe would say.
“This place is fine,” Philip would respond. “It took me a long time to get it like this.”
His defiance led to a sort of selective laziness. The stronger Philip felt about having all he needed, the less willing he was to go out and learn about the latest gadget. And who needed an iPhone to write poems about long-legged women?
She did the shimmy-shee-wobble,
she come slinking in,
said, “It’s been so long,
won’t you remind me again?”
His poetry evolved into the style of blues music, and he regularly shipped off batches to his brother Josh in Los Angeles, who used them as lyrics in songs for his alt-country band, Meatyard. And he was constantly calling his brothers and sisters.
“What are you reading?” was often among the first questions.
But just below the surface, one coated with dark humor, was a sense of sadness.
Okay, so I failed at everything
I ever wanted in life
no little sweet baby children,
never no loving wife
Now every evening sun goes down
gives me an awful fright
Philip appreciated a life of simplicity and routine — one grounded in warm friendships and trying to laugh away regret. Before a shift, he would stop at a grocery store to buy his dinner and, often, something for his co-workers. A box of tea. Ice-cream sandwiches. Flowers.
They also came to him for advice.
“My boys, they’re driving me crazy,” Charnice Locke told him one day.
Philip told her about his teenage years with his brothers. He knew Locke was a single mother, intensely involved in her sons’ lives. “Boys are boys,” Philip said. “We’re knuckleheads. You’ll get past it. You’re a wonderful person, and you’re a great mother.”
The night of Feb. 19., Philip changed into his pajamas. He started making his dinner. At some point, the killer went inside.
There was no sign anything was taken, so robbery does not appear to be a motive. And the middle of a quiet block in Silver Spring is an unlikely stage for a random home invasion.
Whatever happened was probably quiet. The police were not called.
Many people, always connected by their cellphones, might draw attention with their silence. Philip didn’t — until 2 p.m. passed at Barwood on Feb. 20. His co-workers knew Philip suffered from COPD, a chronic lung disease associated with smoking, and worried he had collapsed. One of them went to check on him.
In the 10 weeks since, detectives have tried to piece together the final weeks of Philip’s life by talking to those who were close to him. And it is not just the dearth of electronic records that present a challenge. Detectives have found no enemies of Philip and very little physical evidence. They declined to say how he was killed — only that it was from blunt force trauma — out of caution that doing so could compromise the investigation.
Jones, the police captain, said he does not think the case was random. “We’re still pounding, and we’re still talking to people,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”
In mid-April, Philip’s brothers and sisters came to Maryland from across the country. They gathered at his Silver Spring house, sifting through the poems, photographs and letters he had compiled over the years.
One of the poems was titled “Obit” — Philip’s effort to laugh to the very end, to say he was at peace. Joe decided he would read it at the burial.
The afternoon of April 19, Joe tried to do just that as Philip’s siblings and friends gathered at Parklawn cemetery. The grave marker was inscribed as Philip had instructed in his will: “Philip F. Welsh Jr., Local Resident.”
Joe pulled out the poem but was too choked up to get started. He handed it to one of Philip’s close friends, who left the crowd with Philip’s last wishes:
Please refrain from remarking
I’m in some Better Place
’cause for life on this earth,
I never had no complaints.