In downtown Grand Rapids Michigan, opposite a hipster coffee shop somewhere around the intersection of Monroe and Lyon you will find him. Usually alone. Sometimes in conversation with other street people. Mostly just whittling wood all day long, fashioning canes from small branches.
Mike, or “Arizona Mike On the Block” was his name. To be honest we never expected to hear his actual name. Or his actual address. In the shadowy world of the street people identity and location matter little. Your identity is whoever you want to be and your address is, well, everywhere and nowhere. But for today he was Arizona Mike from the corner of Monroe and Lyon.
We talked a while. Mike’s story was no different from that of the other streetcorner dwellers. A normal enough upbringing, service in the Armed Forces, a wife. A Navy veteran, he had served on the USS Enterprise. His emaciated chest almost puffed out with pride at the reminiscence. Then pancreatitis, problems with alcohol and a downward spiral that cost him his marriage and home. Not one big thing, just a sad sequence of little setbacks. The kind of things that happen daily to all of us.
Yet he held no bitterness. We talked about many things. He was happy to talk. We railed against our governments and their treatment of the disabled. Gloria took him a coffee and we sat outside the hipster coffee shop, sipping espresso and watching him whittle away at what was now to be my cane. He brought it over to us when finished, smooth and polished with a rubber toe. An elegant piece of black cherry wood. He handed it over with pride. And rightly so.
We finished our coffee, bade him goodbye and were on our way.
Mike is just another reminder of the many incongruities of this giant, sprawling country and the blind eye it turns to those on the ragged periphery of society. Trump may talk of making America great again but he will never achieve that while the Arizona Mikes of the country occupy the street corners and prick the nation’s conscience.