WICKER PARK — A man frequently seen in Wicker Park this summer as one of a group of young transients known as "gutter punks" was found dead in New York from an apparent drug overdose.
Jimmy Lee Blank Jr., 26, was found in a bathroom stall in a Manhattan shoe store a few days before Thanksgiving, police said.
This summer, Blank, also known as Dirt Poor Rodent, would often be seen around Wicker Park with his dog, Dassa Pit.
Blank has lived a transient life for several years, though he told his family in Tacoma, Wash., after he graduated from high school that he only planned to travel the country for a couple of months.
He was the sixth person in his circle of friends to die in the last year, said Felicity Barnshaw, 23, a fellow transient who described herself as Blank's best friend.
"[Death] been happening since I started traveling, but a lot of people I know — too many — this past year have died. It's a rough lifestyle; you have to be on your toes all the time. Some was drugs, other ones [bad] luck. One friend fell off a train," Barnshaw said.
Barnshaw and Blank were among the dozens of transient homeless youths and twenty-somethings who spent part of their summer in Wicker Park.
Also called rail riders and travelers, the gutter punks travel the country by hopping freight trains and hitchhiking. Usually traveling in Chicago in the warmer months, the group's summer stop this year was marked by incidents of violence. Some community members complained of the group's aggressive panhandling and claimed the animals the travelers kept as companions were not healthy.
Barnshaw said she learned of Blank's death after a woman from Collide, a ministry that helps the pets of homeless travelers in New York City, posted messages on Blank's Facebook page hoping to find a home for Blank's dog.
New York Police Lt. John Grimtel said Sunday that Blank died in the bathroom stall of a Design Shoe Warehouse store at 40 E. 14th St. at 7:35 p.m. on Nov. 25. Grimtel said the cause of death "appears to be a drug overdose."
Results from a toxicology test will not be available for six to eight weeks, a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner said.
Grimtel said the dog was found with Blank in the store bathroom stall. Medics couldn't reach Blank for more than an hour after he was discovered because the dog was protecting him. The animal had been Blank's companion for about six years.
Reached by phone at her family's home in Pennsylvania Monday, Barnshaw said news of Blank's death has spread quickly because he knew so many people.
"He went to the West Coast, East Coast. ... A lot of people, hundreds of people, knew him," said Barnshaw, who described Blank as "goofy."
"He always tried to act like a tough guy [but] was a complete sweetheart," she said of Blank, who used Dirt Poor Rodent on his Facebook page.
Barnshaw, who's been traveling since she was 17, met Blank three years ago when they were in the same "squat" in Brooklyn, she said.
Although they went separate ways after leaving Chicago around the same time in September, they reunited in New York last month, Barnshaw said.
"I was waiting for him. He had my sleeping bag [with him] since Chicago," said Barnshaw, who had left Blank for couple of days to hang out in Queens just before he died.
Blank has spent the last six years traveling, according to Steven Hunt, 28, a Tacoma, Wash., resident who grew up with Blank and was a close childhood and family friend.
After Blank graduated from high school, "He said he was only going to be gone for a couple of months, and that he wanted to come back, join the Navy and do underwater welding school," Hunt said. "It turned into a long period of time."
In October, Blank was charged in West Virginia with misdemeanor trespassing after he was found hiding on a New York-bound freight train, according to a report.
Hunt described Blank as "a rebellious spirit."
While it's unclear what made Blank want to leave his permanent home for so long, Hunt said leaving Tacoma was "not an uncommon" desire.
"All of us figured it was something he wanted to get out of his system, see the country. I would say that's a trait for Tacoma natives," Hunt said.