Minneapolis loses West Bank icon Chester

For years the affable busker lived under the 10th Avenue Bridge and cruised the West Bank on his bike.

For years the affable busker lived under the 10th Avenue Bridge and cruised the West Bank on his bike.

One of Minneapolis’ great characters has left us. The beloved West Bank vagrant known simply as Chester was reportedly found dead on Saturday. A neighborhood fixture for decades, Chester was instantly recognizable by his scraggly beard and signature weathered top hat.

For at least 15 years, Chester lived in an encampment under the 10th Avenue Bridge and busked around the University of Minnesota and the Stone Arch Bridge. Chester is survived by his longtime companion, a street musician named Marcia.

Shortly before 9 p.m. Saturday, Minneapolis police responded to a report of a possibly deceased man around where Chester lived. Paramedics had already pronounced him dead and a police spokesman said nothing appeared suspicious. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner has not released the man’s name, though a resident at nearby Riverview Tower who was on her way home identified him as Chester.

“Most old timers in our building had a great fondness for this enigmatic outsider who rode a bicycle throughout the West Bank and Dinkytown, most often soliciting change from passersby,” she wrote in a Facebook post also published by the Mill City Times.

The Last CigaretteSaturday 10/3/15 10PM I felt privileged to have had a slice of time with the man in the top hat and...

Chester was an artist who played the accordion and sketched cartoons and self-portraits on napkins and small pieces of paper. Longtime friend Brian Monroe, who works at Hard Times Café, says Chester had been dealing with medical issues this summer and had seemed “out of sorts.”

“When I found out about it I was at work yesterday and my initial reaction, even though I know he hasn’t been well all summer, was like ‘No, that’s impossible. Chester’s forever,’” Monroe says.

According to the Star Tribune, Chester was in his 60s and grew up in Sherburne County before spending time in San Francisco’s hippie epicenter Haight-Ashbury district. Monroe describes him as an articulate, generous man who once drew cartoons for a publication that preceded Ed Felien’s South Side Pride.

“If something broke on my bike, Chester would be like ‘Oh yeah, I think I’ve got one of those. Hold on,’” Monroe says. “He would ride away, come back 10 minutes later with the piece you needed for your bike and help you fix it. I cannot explain how amazing he was to me and a lot of other people.”

During the winter, Chester would often come into Hard Times to warm up with an earl grey tea and read the New York Times. Despite his outdoor abode, Chester never complained about the weather, Monroe says. One December, Monroe told Chester about an outreach service that might be able to help him find an apartment.

“He was like, ‘All I need is $5 to fill up this can of propane and I’m fine,’” Monroe recalls, laughing.

Acadia Café co-owner Juliana Bryarly says Chester’s passing has left a “void” in the neighborhood. A longtime customer, Chester would sometimes not show his face for weeks, before coming in daily for hours on end. As a tribute to their most infamous regular, the bar’s point-of-sale system is rigged so that all transactions are rung up by “Chester.”

The real Chester often came in and made napkin drawings for staff — one of which hangs in Bryarly’s home kitchen — over a pitcher of cheap beer.

“It wasn’t the cheapest beer, it was the cheapest with the higher alcohol content,” Bryarly recalls. “He said he got his money’s worth that way.”

Monroe says everyone in the neighborhood knew Chester, including the cops, and the West Bank won’t be the same without him.

“He was what made the West Bank the West Bank,” Monroe says. “Having him pass away is one more thing that the West Bank’s lost of the — I don’t know what you’d call it, counterculture, hippie, punk, whatever thing that used to be this neighborhood.”