This is Mike Ryan.
Let me introduce you: Mike Ryan startled me outside of Albertsons from a dark corner when he asked me for a cigarette. I had stopped to roll myself one and hadn't noticed Mike sitting in the alcove on the sidewalk outside the Albertsons supermarket. He was wearing a camouflage canvas jacket, combat trousers and sandals on his feet. I nodded affirmatively, finished rolling and handed him the cigarette.
"Thank you, brother," Mike said reminding me of my poet-friend Gerald Arthur Moore (Art) who called everyone he met or passed on the street either brother or sister which used to bug the hell out of me until I began to realize he wasn't a Jesus freak or a hippie.
He was worse than that: he was sincere.
So I lingered in the moment, having set my meager groceries down. I asked Mike how he was doing.
"Up and down," was Mile's reply. "Could be better, could be worse." I took a closer look at Mike and saw under the street grime, a clear gaze. I took in his craggy Irish features and asked,
"Has anyone ever told you you look like Chet Baker?" Mike looked quizzical.
"Well, I did play the trumpet, long time ago," he said.
"You do remind me of him," I said.
"Everybody reminds everybody of somebody else," Mike replied.
So it was this Bodhisattva-like wisdom that pulled me in Mike's direction. He's 64 and served in Vietnam, having seen action as a Corporal with a tank division. Mike acquired a slight stutter when he talked about his time in Vietnam. Near the border with Laos, driving through and over villages, flattening them, hoping there were no families or children left inside the flattened shacks.
"Action!" Mike snorted. "They call it action now like it was some John Wayne movie we were all watching."
I saw Mike stand up even though he was still sitting. His clear eyes flashed anger and focus on what we called living hell. Mike said the two words, living hell, with no exclamation as though he was just naming a town or a state.
I asked Mike where he was staying and he told me under the bridge near the onramp to 5, heading from the north all the way to the border. I asked Mike about his Veteran benefits and he gave me a convoluted, fading answer about extradition of forms as he lost his focus and slipped back into his comforting slump. He was vigorously scratching his scabbed legs.
"Man. You got to get yourself to a clinic and have that seen too! And ask to see the social worker too; they should be helping you with those forms."
"I know, I know. I will, brother, I will," he said those words so they sounded just like he meant them; meaning he wouldn't. Just another plan for tomorrow that never comes. Later, meaning never. I tried one more time.
"You're entitled, you know. You served your country, you're entitled to what's yours. It's why I pay my taxes." In my mind, I paused on that word 'entitled' . . . 'entitlement.' What the mean and petty conservatives of this nation had succeeded in reframing as a handout, against the very grain of the meaning of the term. 'Entitled' means you earned it; no question of deserving it. It is an insult to soldiers, to veterans, to the disabled and the elderly and to those who are just plain down on their luck, to think otherwise. There but for a roll of the dice, go you and me, brother. God damn those latter day Puritans with their work-to-death ethic and their loaded dice. Mike deserved better than this but he was too distracted by his own confusion to ask for, demand, the help to which he was entitled. Mike had served his country but his country had failed to serve him; for more than half his life. 64 and sleeping under the bridge. God damn it!
Mike looked at me annoyed.
"You ever been to war?"
"Me?" I shook my head. "No, my dad did, WWII. He was a private in the army infantry; Rainbow Division."
"Well you don't know then, do you? And I ain't nobody's dad, I'll tell you that for nothing!"
With that dismissal, I picked up my bag of groceries, traded another rolled up cigarette for these two photos, and wandered on my way into the safe, warm San Diego night. There was a roof made of stars above my head. It was the same roof that rests above Mike's head.
About the Creator
San Diego native Igor Goldkind is an author, educator and producer of advanced media technology innovations. In 2015, his project published by Chameleon in ebook & HC editions, IS SHE AVAILABLE? here>; http://PayPal.Me/issheavailable