I made it through work without further incident, thank God. I take the elevator to the lower level rather than the first floor after work. I figure I can exit the building through the manager parking lot and avoid Mr. It on my way out. It’ll cost me an extra half block of walking time, but it’ll be more than worth it. As I trek back up Jackson Street to Wisconsin Avenue though, I really don’t feel like going back to my car. I got to the parking garage in time for the early bird parking special, so I’ll pay the same rate whether I leave now or in an hour. As long as I’m not there overnight, I’ll still pay the same.
I turn toward Lake Michigan when I hit the intersection. I haven’t had a good walk over winter and I can’t turn down the first nice day of the year. I’m not used to walking downtown and I don’t really have a plan, I just really want to find a park bench and look out at the lake.
[Placeholder: I want to add description of the narrator’s walk and events, but I haven’t quite conceived of them yet.]
Nearly three miles later I end up at Veteran’s Park. I find the least vandalized park bench and take a seat. The lake doesn’t give much of a show, but I take in the tranquility of the scene. It’s starting to get dark and a little cooler. I kind of wish I had a better jacket. One’s lying in the backseat of my car; maybe I should have stopped there first to grab it before taking my walk. For now I’ll endure the cold. It’s too soon to walk back. There’s a little bit of an ache in my legs from the winter disuse. The feeling offsets the calm of the lake, but I don’t mind it much. Then there’s a disturbance on the bike trail behind me.
“Hey, hey,” a man’s voice yells. I look behind me and see a young Milwaukee Police Department cop running toward a homeless man walking the trail. I can’t really make out the cop’s features except to tell that he’s young, but the homeless man is an older black man in an olive green stained jacket and jeans frayed at the cuffs. His clothes seem ratty and tattered, but he wears boots that look like they’ve recently been spit shined; I can see that even from my vantage point. “Every day I see you out here, man,” the cop says. He’s stopped running and the homeless man has turned to face him. “You need to get to a shelter or something. I’m getting tired of seeing you out here, and I’m sure I ain’t the only one.”
“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 third voice says loudly from down the trail. I look down there and see another cop lumbering down the trail. This cop is older and looks out of breath. As he gets closer, he looks like he’s been walking the beat for half his life. Maybe he’s had one or two too many donuts before taking his shift this evening.
“Seriously,” the first cop says, “if I see you down here again, me and you are going round and round. I ain’t going to be so nice”
“Yes sir,” the homeless man says.
“So what you gonna do now?” the cop asked.
“I’m going to find some shelter, on the double,” the homeless man says.
“That’s right,” the cop says. “And don’t let me catch you on my beat again.”
The homeless man walks away, moving faster than he was previously. The older cop catches up to the young 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, looking defeated.
“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 and then walks up the bike lane.
Having heard the exchange, I feel there’s a story the older cop isn’t telling his partner. I know I probably shouldn’t get involved, but my curiosity gets the best of me. “Officer?” I call.
I can’t quite see it, but I can feel the cop roll his eyes as he walks toward me. He rounds the bench and looks at me. “How can I help you?”
“What’s the deal?” I ask. “Your partner was just warding off another homeless person, isn’t that a good thing?”
“Do you mind if I have a seat?” the cop asks gesturing to the bench.
Immediately I regret calling him over. “Sure,” I say.
“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 MPD hat and wipes his brow. He’s sweating like a stuck pig even though the temp is falling to the low forties from what I can tell. 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.”
“You seem to know more about that homeless man than he did though,” I say. “What didn’t you tell him?”
The older cop laughs. His laugh is devoid of humor, the kind of laugh that tells you he’s been through it, or that he knows the homeless person has. “Yep, can’t teach a rookie everything they need to learn for themselves,” he says. “I’ve dealt with Mike Winters quite a bit. 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 the guy you just saw duckin’ out of here. I was on shift and working this beat back then, 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, and found out that he did indeed have a home. Not just a home, he had an apartment on the goddamn Milwaukee River. Anyway, I went up there and couldn’t catch him. I told the landlord the deal and he was a peach and let me in. The place was immaculate; almost looked like it wasn’t lived in at all. It was a studio, but a huge studio. His bed was perfect, military hospital corners. You could bounce quarters off the sheets. He had an entertainment center with a big screen TV, bookshelves, and a dresser all made of real wood. Maple, I think.
“Anyway, the catcher was the stack of checks sitting on his dresser.”
“Checks?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “All from the Department of Defense. All uncashed. I still had nothing to go on though. No clue where to find him. So I put out an All-Points Bulletin for him. It didn’t take long though, I finally saw him walking through the park one day. I got him and brought him in. Took me a while to get the full story, and I couldn’t get it all from him, but it turns out his wife died a few years back. They had plans of traveling around the world off of his retirement checks.”
“The checks you found were retirement checks?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “He did a couple of tours in Vietnam, served in the Marine Corp for nearly 40 years. Got out as a Gunnery Sergeant. Those checks were his retirement checks from the Corp. After his wife died he wanted none of it though. He got rid of a lot of shit and moved into a studio apartment. Then he just started wandering the streets. It got to the point that he would practically be homeless and only cash his checks to pay his rent. The only times he would clean up was when he know his daughter was coming to town. That time he just forgot to check in with her.”
“Does she know any of this?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “He didn’t want her to know about it, so no one told her. I don’t know what he told her. He’s a good guy and deserves to be treated like one; so I do my part to make sure it happens that way. 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 sat stunned for a few minutes. I wasn’t sure how to process the story I just heard. “Damn, that’s...” but the words were lost to me. I couldn’t find what to say.
“Yeah, it is,” he replies, knowing what I meant. We sit there in silence mulling over the story. Finally, he says, “Well, have a good night. Try not to stay out here too late. We’ll be further on up the park, so there’s not 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. I feel numb.