Closed. Closed. Closed. The signs hang in the storefronts of one business after another in Picher, Okla., a former lead and zinc mining center that is so toxic and unstable the federal government is buying homes and gradually evacuating the town.
But the lights are bright inside the Ole Miners Pharmacy where Gary Linderman, 53, counts out pills and fills another prescription.
“As long as I can possibly stay, I’ll be here,” Linderman says.
If kindness and generosity alone could heal, the pharmacist would have put himself out of business years ago. Most of Picher’s residents are low-income and elderly, and he delivers their medicine for free—and sometimes free medicine, by dipping into his own pocket when needed.
Driving his well-worn 1996 Jeep—with 215,000 miles on the odometer—down deserted streets ringed by mounds of mining debris, Linderman stops at a small white-frame house where Ella Alsbury has lived for 52 years. He visited Alsbury a few weeks earlier to celebrate her 90th birthday.
“How are you doing, girl?” Linderman asks, giving Alsbury a hug, along with her prescription. Alsbury beams. “He’s a good guy,” she says. “When I can’t get up there to get my medicine, he brings it down to me.”
Linderman makes another stop at the apartment of Helen Akin, 73, who has multiple sclerosis and can no longer drive. Linderman dispenses another hug with the medicine and visits while Akin’s dachshund sits on his lap.
“I’m a talker to begin with, and when my clientele gets to talking I may be gone a while,” says Linderman with a laugh.
During the last two years, more than half of Picher’s 1,640 residents have accepted buyout offers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and left the town, where lead contamination and cave-ins of underground mine shafts have made habitation unsafe. It could be several years before the town is completely deserted.
In the meantime, Linderman’s drug store is as busy as ever. He and his staff fill more than 100 prescriptions a day, many from customers who’ve already moved to neighboring towns but continue to use Linderman as their pharmacist.
Typical of the relocated customers is Lou Cawyer, 78, who moved to nearby Miami, Okla., but continues to buy her heart and blood-pressure medications from Linderman.
“I can’t find enough nice words for that boy,” Cawyer says. “I can call him at home and he’ll open the store. He’s a sweetheart. I’ll never leave Gary.”
Such support doesn’t surprise Vickey Phillips, who assisted Linderman in the pharmacy for 26 years and routinely sees him work after hours or open the store on his day off so a sick person can fill a prescription. On occasion, Linderman has accepted old dishes and costume jewelry in lieu of money for medicine.
Loyalty is how Phillips explains the pharmacy’s brisk business in the dying town. “He’s loyal to them and now they’re loyal to him,” she says.
An only child, Linderman was born in nearby Coffeyville, Kan., and began his pharmacy career in Miami, Okla., but remained on the family farm outside of Picher to help his parents. Accepting a job as a druggist in Picher in 1980, he built and opened Ole Miners Pharmacy in 1997. He never married, and considers the people of Picher his family.
“Gary cares about people,” says Sandy Luttrell, a nurse at N.E.O. Medical Center in Miami, who has called in patient prescriptions to Linderman for 20 years. “He’s very giving and always in a good mood.”
Linderman plans to keep filling prescriptions for his friends and neighbors “as long as the store has electricity and water.”
In the ever-dwindling town where the cafe, the nursing home, the bank and the churches have been abandoned, and other homes and businesses are sure to follow, his sign in the window of Ole Miners Pharmacy says it all:
“Yes, We’re Open.”