Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Thoughts on a wonderful cabinet-maker

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.

Nothing worked.

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.)

“Hi, Kip.”

“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.

“Mike!”

He stopped.

“It’s me — Kip.”

“Oh. Hi.”

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.”

Responses

Dan Waterhouse says:

George, I’m afraid the extremists on both sides have caught the homeless in the middle.

I won’t rehash how I feel about the law and order crowd. Except to say they’re nothing but trouble much of the time.

As for the homeless advocates, many of them are well meaning. I know a few who’ve worked with Poverello House for years. I know others who’ve worked independently of groups like Pov and have truly made a difference in people’s lives.

Then there’s the group who have spun homeless issues into a sort of political cause. They wouldn’t admit it but the homeless are pawns in this sad political game.

They come up with unrealistic ideas, like legal encampments; ideas that no politician in his right mind could support because of the public blowback. Even when they’re told their ideas are non starters, they keep beating a dead horse. Instead of sitting down and trying to come up with workable solutions to get those who want to off the street with local government they get angry. They sue. They become part of the problem not the solution. You once queried in a blog, are they trying to destabilize local government by their actions.

Now things are coming to a head. Mike Rhodes says none of the things Bruce Rudd was reported as telling the editorial board are true. Who’s more believable-Rhodes or Rudd? I’ll leave it for the reader to decide.

And in the midst of this sit the homeless, many of whom don’t deserve to be caught in the middle.

pk says:

Great story; and sad because it has the truth in it, you cannot change these folks, they have to do it…..they balance is how to be there for them and on who’s terms, theirs or ours.
We don’t have a choice, the City has to do it legally, and they want to circumvent the law.
But the law has to be followed, and our residents have to be protected, wether they are the homeless, sheltered or homeowners.

Preston Prince says:

I am so appreciative to read this piece. Of course, all of us – including journalists – have life experiences that influence and bias our perspective. Reading this has given me insight into what influences you as you write about the very difficult problem of homelessness in Fresno.

While I have many thoughts as I reflect on your story and I think back on the stories that influence me as I work to address homelessness here in Fresno, I wish to address one major item in your piece. I am struck by the “harsh judgment” theme that runs throughout the story.

You wrote, “They aren’t victims. They are bums.” You continued, “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.”

I would like to challenge you on this. As we at Fresno Housing, place people into housing, we learn their stories. Many suffer from mental health issues and other illnesses. Some have stories of hardship, abuse, loss of jobs, and bad accidents. Many are veterans, with stories of grit and heroism that are tempered now by their personal stories of loneliness and despair. It is not accurate to call them bums. It is time to move beyond the narrow view of the past and fully understand people for who they are and where they are.

You can’t tell me, and as I read about your memories of Mike, a person of his upbringing chose to live in bushes and get beat up. That he chose to make and lose a family three times. And all he has to do is choose to be an old man, not wish or hope to become one. It is a fallacy that is imbedded in American lore. In 2009, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that the vast majority of Americans believe those that live in poverty could pull themselves out of poverty, if they only chose to do so. As a country, we believe this, and then we create policy around it. And, I firmly believe it is a myth – a very harmful one.

The reasons that Mike and the thousands of others ended up on the streets and with such difficult lives are complicated. Let’s take the time to understand the complexity, rather than resting on ideology that hasn’t solved the problem to date and won’t into the future. Then, maybe, we can find the lasting, effective solutions.

Preston says:

The Kaiser survey was 2011. Sorry. I should have fact checked BEFORE I hit send.

Monte Jewell says:

Yikes! Fresno Bee news reporting on rational housing policy has been looking at “objective” in the rearview mirror for over a year now. This emotional and unpersuasive tirade shows why. Mr. Hostetter should switch to to a new beat where he will be less likely encounter distressed childhood acquaintances while on his way to eat Thanksgiving dinner with loved ones.

Dan says:

Preston, I agree the reasons why people end up on the street can be complex. But people have choices-they can choose to take the help that’s offered or not.

What’s missed in this discussion are the impacts of the homeless lifestyle on the rest of the community. Encampments that become health and safety hazards, neighborhoods that end up being blighted by homeless misbehavior, residents being threatened or asssulted by homeless invading private property.

The endless posturing and lawsuits by “advocates” have helped create a state of near anarchy in certain parts of the city. At some point a line has to be drawn.

mildred snyder says:

It is hard for many of us to look beyond the obvious failure of friends and family members to succeed in life as we would have expected. The little that you knew about or shared with us concerning his early life is telling. He worked hard to fit in, he tried hard to be accepted and he never complained about his life. But did he ever feel valued during his childhood and adolescence? Where was his family?
Marrying and having a child while he was still a teenager may or may not have been overwhelming. If he can take on so much responsibility, a young man may think he is old enough to have a drink or do drugs socially. But a young brain can easily be permanently damaged while it is still developing. The damage can be severe.
I don’t believe you or his school buddies were responsible for rescuing him even though you wanted to help him. You didn’t know how.
Maybe a caring significant adult could have helped him early in his childhood, or even in his early adulthood.

Forty years later we can pray for him. But we can not expect him to “straighten up” his broken life and live up to the potential that you saw in him.

paul garcia says:

Find some green space, set up camping spaces, trash cans, restrooms and showers and let them set up camp there. The homelessness issue in Fresno is shameful.

Jennie Sanchez says:

It’s sad since we all know a ‘Mike’. This is why it is so important to educate our young and not let them fall through the cracks. With today’s economy, there are people, families that are one check away from being homeless, not through their fault, but from our leaders. This alone, can cause good people to go bad. More needs to be done to help the homeless that need the help to make it through the tough times.

Pam (Harbuck) Johannes says:

Kip, (yes, Kip), the only name I know you by as you were my neighbor for many years. This story enlightened me because this is the story I have seen with a couple of my family members, over and over again, no matter how much you try to help them, they first have to help their selves. The homeless are all over America, not just Fresno. It seems to be an issue that is just swept under the rug, but yet politicians seem more interested in foreign policy when there is so much to fix in America. Many of our veterans are homeless. Kip, I think you did your part in being a great friend, but Mike as a friend, didn’t do his part.RIP, Mike!

Tim McF. says:

Thanks Kip. Peace and Love

Stella Salcedo says:

Mike was a loving man when he was “MIKE”.Kip you were truly a great friend.

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