A man I’ve known most of my life may be among the estimated 4,000 homeless people currently in Fresno. His name is Mike. He’s been homeless in Fresno in the past.
Mike at his best would be thoroughly fed up with the homeless man that he had been at various times in recent years. Nor would Mike (at his best) feel the slightest twinge of guilt for such a harsh judgment.
Fresno need feel no guilt for the homeless Mike – nor for others on the streets. Fresno’s not to blame.
Mike and I are from Lindsay. He lived as a youngster on the west side of town, near my grandparents. I lived on a small ranch (chickens/eggs) north of Lindsay, then moved into town.
Mike went to Jefferson Elementary School. I went to Washington Elementary. We became good friends in the summer of 1961 when we were 11 years old. We both had Fresno Bee paper routes.
It was a good job for a kid. The Bee was an afternoon paper six days a week, with a morning edition on Sunday. A paperboy delivered his route every day – rolled the papers at the paper shack, bagged them, loaded up his bicycle, then headed to his territory. He personally collected the monthly payment from customers. He went door-to-door soliciting new customers. He found and trained a substitute so he could have an occasional day off. He paid the sub, too. (In my days as a sub, I got 10 cents for helping roll and bag the papers and accompanying the paperboy on his route. The pay was $1 a day when I handled everything.)
In other words, a paperboy was a businessman with a businessman’s assets: Punctuality, service, ambition, courtesy, planning, honesty, diligence, hard work, pride in a job well done, satisfaction with earned wealth, optimism that the world held more rewards for the aggressive and persevering.
All of these capitalistic virtues were found big-time in Mike. He was one Lindsay’s best paperboys.
And he did it all with verve. That’s what made Mike so likeable. He was tall and skinny and athletic and strong as an ox. He liked to laugh and be the center of attention. That was fine with me. I was happy to follow.
On a late Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1966, when we were juniors at Lindsay High, I was driving my father’s pickup on Foothill Avenue on the east edge of Lindsay. There was nothing out there but orange groves. Up ahead I spotted Mike walking on the side of the road. He was living at the time in a house southeast of town. He was still a mile or two from home. I gave him a ride. He’d been working on a ranch near Tonyville, about halfway to Exeter to the north. Mike didn’t have a ride after work so he hoofed it home. He had no other choice.
Mike didn’t do a bit of complaining about this state of affairs.
We graduated from high school in 1968. I went to College of the Sequoias. Mike went to work. He landed a good job in one of Lindsay’s packing houses. He married and became a father. He and his wife bought a house not far from where I lived with my parents, on the northeast side of town. I dropped by Mike’s home one evening for a visit. It was the summer of 1969. Mike and I and several other friends sat around the kitchen table, talking. The house was modest but clean and neat. Mike’s wife was busy with their baby daughter. After awhile, Mike said he had to hit the sack – had to get up early the next morning for work. The rest of us left.
All of the modest but well-tended houses in the neighborhood were full of families where people worked for a living. Mike fit right in.
I remember clear as a bell my thoughts as I walked the five blocks to my parents’ house. I thought: How would I ever grow up to be like Mike? He seemed to have such commitment and discipline — and clearly was enjoying the material and emotional rewards they produce. I knew I wasn’t in Mike’s league as a young adult.
Then it all fell apart for Mike. Booze and drugs and crime were at the heart of the fall. But these didn’t fall from the sky and coincidentally land on Mike. Humans are about character, too.
There was the first divorce, a second marriage, a second divorce. Mike and I and another old Lindsay friend (Art) roomed together one summer in Fresno in Art’s house.
The third marriage wasn’t far away. Soon, there was a third divorce.
Mike had become a cabinet-maker. He was a good one. When my wife and I bought a California bungalow in the Tower District, Mike made us an oak pantry as a late wedding present. My wife loved it. Mike would always be able to make a decent living as a cabinet-maker. But it apparently wasn’t enough for him.
My wife and I got busy with our careers and starting our own family. Mike disappeared. Then I got a call at work about 10 years ago. It was Mike. He had just been paroled from prison. He and a woman were living in one of those small, single-story, U-shaped apartment complexes on McKinley Avenue, east of First Street, the kind with a small lawn as a courtyard. This place was where ex-cons lived for awhile as they re-entered normal society.
Mike said he wanted to meet with me. I drove to his apartment after work. He said he and his girlfriend were ready to get their own place. He had a job. But he needed someone to co-sign on the lease. Would I do it? I talked to my wife. Mike and I signed the lease papers at an office on Van Ness in the Tower District. Mike thanked me. He was the old Mike — a good man.
Mike and his girlfriend had moved into a rental house south of Roeding Park when things next went south again. They broke up. The police got involved. It wasn’t pretty.
There the evening that Mike called me as my wife and I were getting ready to go out to dinner on our anniversary. He wanted to meet me. We met at Fig Garden Village, not far from my home. Mike wanted money to buy gas. I said I’d go with him to the gas station but wouldn’t give him cash. He left without the money or the gas.
Maybe a year later, Mike called me. He was living in the motel on the north side of Belmont, right before you take the underpass beneath the Union Pacific railroad tracks. That was an especially rough-looking motel. Art and I went to Mike’s room. Art and I each paid a week’s rent for Mike. I gave him my bicycle so he could get to work (making cabinets). Art and I laid out a plan for Mike to get his finances in order.
A short time later, Mike called me to say he had a chance to get into a live-in program that would clean him up. He’d stay in an apartment on McKinley, not far from where he and his girlfriend had lived a few years earlier. All he needed, Mike said, was someone to pay for the program’s first week. I checked out the program. It seemed legitimate. I went to the apartment complex and paid the money. I had a bad feeling about events to come. I was right.
One morning, as I drove to The Bee, I realized that the man camping by the Union Pacific Railroad tracks along H Street, a bit north of Divisadero, was hanging his blankets on a nearby fence. He was airing them out. I thought: That must be Mike.
Mike usually was very neat with his personal care.
Turned out it was Mike. One foggy December afternoon, I walked from The Bee to this site beneath the Freeway 180 gap overpass. There was a man in a sleeping bag.
“Is that you, Mike? It’s me. Kip.” (That’s my nickname among Lindsay friends.)
“Here, take this.” I put a $20 bill in the sleeping bag. “You got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“I’ll see ya, Mike.”
I’d walked about 20 yards along the tracks when Mike yelled: “God bless ya, Kipper.”
“God bless ya, Mike.”
We bumped into each other a few other times in downtown. Then, for about a year, Mike disappeared. I tried to track him down. I’d walk to the homeless camp not far from his old camping site beneath the 180 gap overpass. I met a woman named Sarah who knew Mike. She said she thought she’d seen him by the Poverello House.
One night I got a call at home from Mike. He said he’d been in jail for the past year. He’d been picked up for some misdeed and was given a jail sentence of several months. He said he told the authorities to keep him behind bars until he got himself straight.
All I knew for sure was that he sounded great. Then again, I’d heard him sound great lots times over the decades.
In other words, he’d sound terrible at one point, then sound great at another. That contrast is no way to go through life.
Mike said he was involved with a rehab program run by the Fresno Police Department’s chaplain. The program was having a fund-raising car show at Manchester Center. Mike asked me to call the chaplain, get the info, then write something for The Bee.
Mike said he had recently met Police Chief Jerry Dyer. Mike was very pleased to have met the Chief.
I called the chaplain and left a phone message. We never made a connection. Mike called me later to say the chaplain had been busy, and meant no offense by failing to return the call. I didn’t care about the misplaced message. What caught my attention was Mike making a courtesy phone call (and doing so most effectively) for a colleague so that the wheels of social progress could continue to roll smoothly. That kind of good manners, done a million times in situations big and small, is what makes civilization work. Mike was again becoming an asset to the community.
Mike over the years spoke occasionally about his life on the streets. He said he sometimes took drugs so he could drink more. He said he’d steal wine from supermarkets. He said he’d curl around a fire on winter nights, fall asleep, and wake to find himself on fire.
For a considerable part of his adult life, Mike has been a curse to Fresno. There’s no other way to put it. He harmed the public order with his terrible (and voluntary) behavior.
The streets and camps of Fresno are full of people exactly like this Mike, the bad Mike. As a group these homeless people, capable of productive lives but choosing a different path, have caused immense harm to Fresno’s public order. They aren’t victims. They are bums. And, I strongly suspect, they are pawns for political opportunists.
I know this is an accurate description of the bad Mike because I know that’s exactly how the good Mike would’ve described anyone who, in the summer of 1969 in northeast Lindsay, had dared to set up a homeless camp in the shadow of the house that he and his wife and their baby daughter called home. The Mike was this era was brutally honest. And he would’ve been right.
What an amazing turn of events between the summer of 1969 and the summer of 2013. I now find myself making a living by writing about a Fresno City Hall that is desperate to convince thousands of homeless people with the bad Mike’s temperament to take advantage of the stunning array of free services designed to return them to the world of stability and health and community respect. And for this, City Hall and its allies (there are a ton of them) are demonized as uncaring and oppressive.
The Mike of my youth, the Mike I admired and in many ways tried to emulate, would’ve told those demagogues to buzz off.
I don’t know where Mike is these days. Bill McEwen, my Bee colleague, says he’s seen Mike doing odd jobs at a local weight-lifting gym. If true, that’s encouraging.
But I fear the Mike of my youth is gone, just as I fear the demagogues will succeed in overwhelming a City Hall that wants the best for all Fresnans but has had enough of a lawless niche acting like it’s above our American experiment.
The last time I saw Mike was on November 21, 2012 — the day before Thanksgiving. It was about 5:30 p.m. I was walking from City Hall to the newsroom.
I headed west on Stanislaus, then climbed the stairs to take the bridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks. I got to the top of the stairs and had gone about 20 yards when I noticed a man heading my direction.
It was rather dark on the sidewalk — only a hint of sunlight was left on the western horizon. But I felt fairly comfortable as the man approached because of all the Thanksgiving weekend traffic heading over the bridge to Highway 99.
The man and I were side-by-side. It was Mike. He didn’t say anything, although I suspect we recognized each other at the same time.
“It’s me — Kip.”
He looked terrible. He was either very ill or high on something.
We talked for only a few minutes. He said he was getting a nice check each month from Social Security now that he had turned 62. He said he’d been sleeping in the bushes at Fink-White Playground on the West Side. That ended when some gang-bangers beat him. He said he was on a waiting list to get an apartment.
I thought to myself: Waiting list? Fresno’s full of low-rent apartments with immediate move-in specials.
I wondered if that steady Social Security check would be the death of Mike.
It wasn’t a good chat. I had a deadline. I had to get home. I had family from all parts of California making Thanksgiving plans. I had to move on.
There was no self-pity in the clean Mike. The drunk Mike is full of self-pity.
“I just want to be an old man,” Mike said as we parted.
It was the kind of quote that newspaper reporters love. It plays so well with editors and headline-writers and certain readers. But it misses the point.
The Mike from our days in Lindsay would’ve said: “I’m going to be an old man.”