I can’t say I was shocked when I heard a local news anchor identify the man killed on the railroad tracks in Bangor this week as 43-year-old Louis Bernard.
During the last 20 years or so of living on the streets of Bangor, most of it in a state of deep intoxication, Bernard’s chances of living a long life were pretty grim.
He’s been intubated after consuming so much alcohol that he stopped breathing. He’s been literally chipped out of frozen snowbanks and on countless occasions been picked up off the pavement after passing out in the middle of the road.
But still it somehow stung when I heard that he was the unfortunate one to have been hit by the train down by the river Tuesday.
Most of you, of course, didn’t know Louis. If you lived in Bangor, though, you most surely had seen him. Perhaps lugging a trash bag full of cans and bottles along Hammond Street in the morning. Empties traded in at a convenience store for money toward full ones.
The officers at Bangor Police Department, the nurses and docs at Eastern Maine Medical Center and the folks at the Hope House have pretty much been rescuing Louis from himself for the past two decades.
Louis’ name has been listed in the Bangor Daily News about 70 times since 1990. I spent several years writing the police beat column for this paper, and, well, let’s just say Louis provided me with lots of material.
Usually Louis was just causing a disruption somewhere. He had a lot of disorderly conduct and criminal trespass charges. Nothing that ever landed him in jail very long.
He routinely placed city patrol officers in a bind, especially in the cold winter months. Louis frequently found himself banned from the Hope House, the only shelter in town that will accept people who are intoxicated. He’d act up, requiring the staff, for other clients’ safety, to kick him out.
One bitter cold night Officer John Heitmann and Lt. Jeff Millard found Louis passed out in a snowbank near the Thomas Hill standpipe, wearing only a light unzipped jacket. The pair tried to roust him. Unsuccessful, they got in their cruiser and drove away.
“We didn’t even get down the hill before we realized we simply couldn’t leave him there. We had to go back. He’d have frozen to death,” Millard recalled this week.
Millard and Heitmann finally were able to wake him up, and lots of times, Louis woke up swinging.
“If you had to work hard to wake him up, you often had a legitimate charge of assaulting an officer and you could take him to jail,” Millard said.
On another cold March night, Louis tried to check himself into the Penobscot County Jail.
He simply walked into the lobby and asked to be let in.
They explained that they couldn’t let him in because he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Louis refused to leave the lobby. Bangor police Officer Al Hayden showed up and ordered him to leave. Louis refused. He was arrested for criminal trespass and given a room for the night.
But sometimes Louis was too intoxicated to go to jail and that’s when they’d drop him off at the emergency room, where he’d sleep it off on a gurney.
He became well-known to the ER staff at EMMC, and Millard said a nurse’s group from the hospital already had stepped forward to donate some money toward arrangements for his burial.
I think pretty much every community has its own version of Louis Bernard. I know mine did when I was a kid.
And just like Louis, they managed to get by thanks to the kindness of the community around them.
Everyone who knew him knew Louis’ days were numbered. It’s not a shock that he died passed out on the railroad tracks. For those who dealt with him daily, though, I suspect they feel a little something missing from their regular routine.
For all that he was or all that he wasn’t, Louis was a part of this community.
“Unfortunately what we know is that someone will come along and take his place,” said Millard.