Some weeks, Steve Preston would go without eating, just “living on Pepsi and cigarettes,” putting every dime he earned toward another comic book.
Preston, who handled maintenance at the Francis Drake Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, even slept on the floor of his room at the Drake, moving the bed out to make more room for his collection.
Then, on Christmas Day, it all went up in smoke. A massive blaze destroyed the historic hotel, leaving 200 people homeless, including the 66-year-old Preston.
“To see 18 years of your life, just pfft,” Preston said. “I was angry at the world.”
On Tuesday, Preston’s anger turned to joy. Weeks ago, demolition workers cleaning up the Drake’s rubble unearthed part of Preston’s collection of comic books and coins. After cleaning up the cache, they got hold of Preston and invited him to a reunion with his treasures at Veit & Co. Inc., the Rogers-based firm that cleaned up the site and made the find.
For long minutes, he stood without moving, gazing at the Archie and Batman comics, encased in plastic, and the shiny coins. He leaned his hands on the plastic tubs containing the collection, his body bent with emotion. Finally, he straightened and gave a heavy sigh.
“I had a great job and a great collection and very little else,” Preston said. “I never told anybody. I never talked about it. But it was a big part of my life.”
Unearthing the collection was amazing, Veit employees said, considering the circumstances.
“It’s under 15 feet of rubble, they’re pouring water on it,” said Steve Hosier, Veit’s vice president of demolition. “Things are shifting around, the heavy equipment is driving over it.
“Typically, there’s nothing left.”
Workers had been told of Preston’s collection and were keeping an eye open for it. So when an excavator uncovered a few plastic-covered comic books, they stopped the machines. Travis Brown, an excavation laborer, picked through the debris by hand and recovered dozens of comic books and coins.
When the fire broke out around 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, Preston had little time to act. He could try to save his collection or he could save Bucky, his cat.
“I had a choice to make, and the cat won,” he said.
Now he has the cat and the comics — at least, some of them. Workers didn’t recover them all, and Preston isn’t sure how much was lost.
“This isn’t everything,” he said. “But it’s OK. It’s enough.”