The elevator makes its way to the lower level rather than the first floor. There’s an exit to the manager’s parking lot that allows me to avoid Mr. It on the way out. Going back to my car isn’t on my mind. Getting away from this building is.
I turn toward Lake Michigan when I hit the intersection. I’m not used to walking downtown and I don’t really have a plan; a park bench and a view of the lake would be good therapy right now though.
Nearly three miles later I end up at Veteran’s Park. The least vandalized park bench becomes my consolation prize. The lake doesn’t give much of a show, but it doesn’t need to. I take in the tranquility of the scene. It’s starting to get cooler. A winter coat is sitting in the backseat of my car; I didn’t think I’d need it. There’s a little bit of an ache in my legs from the winter disuse. The feeling offsets the calm of the lake. My mind swirls with thoughts of the future. My elbows rest on my knees and my neck bends so my head can meet my hands.
“You alright?” a voice asks next to me. I didn’t notice anyone walk up. My face is wet. I wipe away the tears and notice the spit-shined military boots on the ground next to me. Frayed cuffs meet the boots, leading to tattered jeans and a drab stained olive green jacket that hangs past the knees of the jeans. The black man wearing the clothes is balding with a crown of salt and pepper hair. There is a warm smile on his face that makes me force a smile back at him.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I say. I’m still drying off my face.
“You don’t look it. Whatsa matter?”
“I just got fired from my job. Guess I’ll be like you soon enough.”
His head tilts back and he roars laughter; I almost jump out of my seat. “How you figure?” he asks.
“You’re homeless, right?”
“I guess it won’t be long till I’m out on the streets too.”
“You ain’t going to be out here unless you choose to be.”
“So you choose to be homeless?”
“I didn’t at first, but as time wore on I made the choice to stay out here. You learn things when you out here.”
“How to survive. Who you are. When I was workin’ in my nine to five days I can’t say I tried that hard to live, it just happened; out here you gotta scrape to get by, though. It ain’t glamorous, but you ain’t bound to shit neither.”
“Bound to what?”
“Stuff. Things. All that you can’t live without, all that you can’t leave behind. You learn real quick that you can. You have to.”
“I don’t know if I could live like that,” I tell him.
“Everyone can, if they try.”
“Hey, hey,” a man’s voice yells. Behind us a young Milwaukee Police Department cop comes jogging down the bike trail toward the bench. “Every day I see you out here, man,” the cop says to the homeless man. He’s stopped running and the homeless man next to me stands up from the bench. “You need to get to a shelter or something. I’m getting tired of seeing you out here, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.” The cop tilts his head toward me.
“Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
“Don’t just yessir me, man,” the cop says. “You need to get out of here and stay out of here, you hear me?”
“Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
“Now I’m serious,” the cop says. “I don’t want to see you on my beat no more.”
“What are you doing?” a voice calls from down the trail. Another cop comes lumbering toward us. This cop is older and looks out of breath. He looks like he’s been walking the beat half his life.
“Seriously,” the younger cop says, “if I see you down here again, me and you are going round and round. I’m not going to be so nice”
“Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
“So what you going to do now?” the cop asked.
“I’m going to find a shelter, double time,” the homeless man says.
“That’s right,” the cop says. “And don’t let me catch you on my beat again.”
The homeless man winks at me and hurries away. The older cop walks up to the younger cop.
“What’s wrong with you?” the older cop asks through a graying walrus mustache. “That the kind of shit they teaching you in the academy these days.”
“We can’t just let these dudes...” the younger cop begins.
“What you know about that guy?” the older cop interrupts. When the younger cop doesn’t respond he says, “Jack shit, that’s what. He’s got as much of a right to this park as anyone else walking around here.”
“But he’s always...” the younger cop says.
“Just walking around minding his own business,” the older cop interrupts for a second time. “Now if you see him again, you aren’t going to fuck with him, you got that?”
The younger cop nods and stares down at his boots.
“Now you go on,” the older cop says. “Look for real shit, I need to catch my breath.”
The younger cop looks at him ruefully then walks up the bike lane.
“Do you mind if I have a seat?” the cop asks gesturing to the bench.
“Sure,” I say. “Your partner’s a real asshole.”
“Thanks,” he says as he takes a seat. There’s a coffee stain on his MPD jacket, and he’s still breathing heavy. He takes off his hat and wipes his brow. He’s sweating like a stuck pig even though the temp is falling below forty. His gray and black flecked hair is starting to fall below his ears; it’s probably time to get a cut by police standards. “It’s tough work, dealing with a rookie, but my last partner retired a week ago and this new guy is all we got. Doesn’t have a sense of the beat yet.”
I stare at the ground for a moment. “You seem to know more about that homeless man than he did,” I say. “What didn’t you tell him?”
The older cop laughs, but the laugh doesn’t meet his eyes. “You don’t walk a beat as long as I have without getting to know the regulars,” he says. There are air quotes around “the regulars.” “I’ve dealt with Mike Winters quite a bit. That’s the guy you was talking to. A couple of years ago we get a call at the precinct that his daughter Alyssa was looking for him. We got a description of him, and it matched Mike. I was on shift and working this beat back then too, so I was tasked with trying to find him, only he hadn’t been this way for quite a while.
“We ran him through the database, but we couldn’t find anything. No priors, no warrants, nothing. So I put out an All-Points Bulletin for him. It didn’t take long though, I finally saw him walking through the park the next day. I got him and brought him in. Took me a while to get the full story, but it turns out his wife died a few years back. Completely unexpected, and it bankrupted him. He lost everything trying to pay her medical expenses and funeral costs. In the end her final resting place meant more to him than his earthly one. Or so he told me. He was happy to give up everything for her, and in the end he did.”
“So he’s homeless because of her?” I ask.
“I don’t know if I’d put it quite like that, he’s homeless because of the system. Furthermore, he’s a goddamn veteran: fought in the Vietnam War. I asked him if he got any retirement checks from the military, but a glitch in the system kept him from getting anything. I did a couple tours in the Navy and offered to help him out since I’m close with the VA, but he told me not to worry about it. Said money just complicates life.”
“Did you tell his daughter any of this?” I ask.
“Nope,” he says. “He didn’t want her to know about it, so no one told her. He was lucid, no mental problems far as we could tell; so we gave him her information and cut him loose. I don’t know if he’s talked to her and as far as I’m concerned it’s none of my business. Listen, he’s just a good guy and deserves to be treated like one without people interfering; so I do my part to make sure that happens. I figure there are things my new partner doesn’t need to know just yet though. He’s still green and needs to learn a badge isn’t a right to fuck with people. I don’t want to see him treat anyone that way, not just Mike. And I don’t want him giving Mike special treatment ‘cause I said so. He’s got to learn to treat everyone the same.”
I sit stunned. I’m not sure how to process the story I just heard. “Damn, that’s...” but the words are lost to me. I can’t find what to say. Mike encompasses my mind.
“Yeah, it is,” he replies, knowing what I mean. We sit there in silence mulling over the story. He says, “Well, have a good rest of the day. Try not to stay out here too late. We’ll be further on up the park, so there’s no telling if we’ll be in the area to help if you need it.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The cop gets up from the bench and walks up the bike lane. After a few steps he turns back. “By the way, what were you two talking about before the rookie came up.”
“The shackles of consumerism,” I say.
He furrows his brow as he looks at me. His gaze turns to the ground and then he nods. “Have a good night,” he says, and then he walks away.