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Originally published April 30, 2010 at 9:19 PM | Page modified May 1, 2010 at 10:49 AM

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Market family loses a beloved fixture: a cranky, reliable enigma

Harvey McGarrah, who for 20-plus years pushed merchandise carts for vendors at Seattle's Pike Place Market in exchange for tips, died in April. The cantankerous but reliable worker left behind memories and mysteries, including a stash of plastic and paper bags filled with the bills he'd collected throughout the years — about $130,000 total.

Seattle Times staff reporters

For more than two decades, Harvey McGarrah was the guy Pike Place Market vendors could count on.

Each morning, the disheveled grouch would move their merchandise-laden carts into the upper-level sales area from distant catacombs below. In return, each tipped the unofficial Market employee a few bucks a day.

Everyone knew Harvey, and no one knew Harvey. He was as reliable as the rising sun, and yet he was a mystery. "We all knew there was a deep past there that we didn't know much about," said T-shirt vendor Loren Trayes.

Two weeks ago, Harvey McGarrah died at Harborview Medical Center, leaving behind a Market community that had accepted him as part of the family — and a void that may never be filled. He was 69.

Among his scattered belongings, authorities found a stash of plastic and paper bags stuffed with the $1s and $5s and $10s he'd saved for 20 years.

They began to count. And count. Ultimately, according to several sources, they found that McGarrah had squirreled away $130,000.

Storage locker

McGarrah had a South Seattle apartment, but he chose to live much of the time at the Market in a subterranean vendor's storage locker — a space about 6 feet wide, 12 feet deep and 8 feet high. Notoriously camera-shy, he left behind little photographic or written evidence of his existence.

The tight-knit Market staff was his family. People made sure he had what he needed. Produce vendors gave him food. Every year, he'd join Linda Patos and her extensive family — six of whom are Market vendors — for the holidays, Filipino-style.

"We took care of him," said jewelry vendor Luis Amesquita. "And he took care of us."

He was scowling and scruffy, most often seen in leather boots, jeans and T-shirt. Sometimes, there would be a brown pullover, "with little flecks of meals past and present," as artist/vendor Kathi Allen would blog in memoriam.

What hair he had left was uncombed; what teeth remained were often munching on candy bars. But what most recall about him is his demeanor, alternately described as cranky, cantankerous or perpetually irritated. "Ornery is the word I'd use," said Trayes.

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McGarrah was singularly focused on his job. He carried unlabeled keys to about two dozen lockers full of vendor inventory in the Market's catacombs. Though sometimes seemingly unable to spit out a complete sentence, he kept unfailing track of it all.

He was not a big man, but each day, he'd take the 150-pound carts laden with merchandise and line them up convoy-style for the daily trek, one by one, toward the crafts area, arriving in time for morning roll call, when vendors learned their assigned locations for the day. At day's end, he'd move the carts back into storage.

From locker area to sales floor, through a several-blocks-long Market: That's a few hours of labor, both morning and night. McGarrah was steadfast, if not entirely pleasant. "I don't have all day," he'd mutter as he made his way through unwieldy Market crowds.

"That's why everybody loved him," said Gary Goedecke, president of the Pike Place Merchants Association, who may have known McGarrah longer than anyone at the Market. "It's not because of his personality. It's because he was Mr. Reliable."

It was hard to see beyond his gruff exterior or the random conversation he brought to the table. "He'd walk up to you and start talking about something that happened in 1952," Goedecke said.

So focused was he on whatever he wanted to say that listeners had to settle for the rare personal details he'd throw them. "He wasn't trying to be evasive," said Market vendor Haley Land. "He was simply preoccupied... It was just how his clock ran."

Bits of info piled up to create an incomplete and unconfirmed portrait: He talked to Market friends about having been a steelworker, a roustabout, a lumberjack. He loved muscle cars; he'd grown up on an Oregon farm. He claimed to own property in Kirkland, in Granite Falls, in Montana.

"He used to say he had properties," said beanbag-animal vendor Chia Thao. "People would tell him, 'Why don't you sell and retire?' He'd say, 'I don't want to stay home.' He wanted to be here helping out, talking with everybody."

Wrong crowd

Late one night last year, McGarrah left some carts out a bit too long and couldn't see where he was going. He got into it with the wrong crowd and was beaten with a pipe and nearly killed.

He refused to lose focus. Bruised and blackened, he somehow managed to drag himself out of the hospital.

The next day, as always, he showed up for work. He had a job to do.

He moved into a nearby apartment at the Market-run Stewart House, said Carol Binder, director of the Market's Preservation & Development Authority, but he was never quite the same.

Two months ago, he began acting erratically, stranding carts in the street. According to guardianship documents, he was taken to Harborview suffering from "an altered mental status."

It's likely that living on chocolate bars and hot chocolates had finally caught up with him, Goedecke said.

Hospital staff couldn't believe the constant stream of visitors he received.

"He seemed to know that he wouldn't be able to come back" to the Market, vendor Kathi Allen wrote on her blog. "The nurses said he was as gentle as a baby. Never put up a fuss... . I guess he had finished all of his conversations."

Surrounded by Market pals, McGarrah died peacefully on April 18.

So far, no one has been able to do the job he did. "Since his death, a lot of people have tried and quit," Goedecke said. "They can't do what Harvey did."

The county medical examiner discovered that McGarrah has a 92-year-old father in Sacramento, a niece, and a yet-to-be-located brother, surprising the Market family to whom he had never mentioned relatives.

Said vendor Laura Killoran: "I'm just waiting to find out he's the crown prince of some European country."

A memorial will be held later this month, most likely in what vendors call "The Bridge," the section of the craft-sales area that juts out toward Puget Sound.

"All he ever wanted was to work as hard as he could," Goedecke said. "He was a genuine good guy."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Researchers Gene Balk, David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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