MEET MIKE RYAN
This is Mike Ryan.
Let me introduce you: Mike Ryan startled me outside of Albertsons from a dark shadowed corner when he asked me for a cigarette. I had stopped to roll myself an American Spirit cigarette and hadn’t noticed Mike sitting in the dark, in the alcove on the sidewalk outside the Albertsons supermarket in the East Village of San Diego. He was wearing a camouflage canvas jacket, combat trousers and sandals on his feet. I nodded affirmatively, finished rolling and handed him the cigarette.
I had returned to San Diego after half a lifetime at sea, sailing past foreign shores, exploring jagged islands and visiting shining cities. I returned to San Diego because my mother could no longer care for herself and her needs were such, (fluctuating, altering day by day), that I had to be on hand to administer to her wants while protecting her from the medical authorities and the police.
I had first learned of her condition 2 years previously attending my father’s funeral and had been on call since, day and night. Tonight was supposed to be my respite, a meal with friends, one old, and two new. I was looking forward to wine and food and laughter. But most of all the comfort of familial conversation. Instead, I was pursuing this conversation.
‘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 this moment, having set my meagre groceries down. I asked Mike how he was doing and his name.
‘Up and down’, was Mile’s reply ‘could be better, could be worse’.
‘Mike, my name’s Mike Ryan”.
We shook hands.
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’.
‘You do remind me of him’.
‘Everybody reminds everybody of somebody else,’
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, he told me. Mike Ryan 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 Ryan stand up even though he was still sitting. His clear eyes flashed anger and focus ‘You know what we called it? Us boys shooting other boys in the jungle? We called it living hell.” Mike Ryan said the two words with no exclamation; as though he was just naming a town or a state: living hell.
My father had been in Europe during the great war hating the war and the military with a passion. He told me some mornings he woke up in his foxhole and didn’t know whether to point his rifle at the German line or his own officers. He never let me be a patrol boy in grade school or a boy scout. “No son of mine is ever going to wear a Goddamn uniform”!
My father hated the brutality, the cruelty of the military training but mainly he hated their senseless bureaucracy, their SNAFU rules and how their system in spite of the lip service, never cared for the average GI. Like Mike Ryan.
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 Mexican border. I asked Mike about his Veteran benefits and he gave me some 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 to! 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. And this time I heard my father’s voice speaking through my lips:
“You’re entitled, you know. You served your country, you’re entitled to what’s yours. I pay my taxes.” In my mind, I paused on that word ‘entitled’ . . . ‘entitlement’. What the mean and petty 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.
My father continued speaking through and to me. “To say otherwise is an insult to soldiers, to Veterans, to the disabled and the elderly and to those who are just plain down on their luck, 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 Ryan 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! My father cursed like a soldier.
Mike Ryan 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 shit then, do you? And I ain’t nobody’s dad, I’ll tell you that for nothing!”
My father was silent. Then I remembered that he had been dead for awhile.
I had no idea what Mike Ryan had seen, or had heard or what had scattered his mind. I just remember my aunt telling me that when my father first came home from his war that he had had screaming nightmares for weeks in the small bedroom he shared with her. She told me about waking up to her mother cradling my father’s head as he wimpered to her lap, repeating over and over in comforting Yiddish “es s olreyt, alts vet zeyn olreyt”
“It’s alright, everything will be alright”. Over and over.
You and I can’t save the world.
However we can save each other; but only when we see ourselves in each other. We can show the Mike Ryans of this world the meaning of the word humanity merely by not ignoring them. Just the acknowledgement and reflection that he or she has an intrinsic value, regardless of circumstance.
One human at a time.
I didn’t give Mike Ryan any money or any of my food or take him home to my living room couch. I don’t know that he would have accepted if I had offered. I had only given him the couple of cigarettes. But in doing so I gave Mike Ryan something we all desperately need, more than money, more than a place to live, more than food, more than medicine. I gave Mike Ryan the one thing in life we are free to give or deny anyone we meet along our path. I gave him acknowledgment, the simple consideration of one human being for another.
“You don’t know shit”, Mike Ryan repeated
And with what I took to be Mike Ryan’s dismissal, I picked up my bag of groceries, traded another rolled up cigarette for these 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.
© Igor Goldkind 2017
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