28 Years Later
You don't know him. Chances are you won't meet him. You will probably never run into anyone like him. But you should. He could teach you a lot.
Mike was one of my best friends in High School. He was funny, had a bit of temper and was going to take on the world. We all were back then. We thought we knew everything. He married his High School sweetheart; they had a child and drove off into the sunset to make their way in the world. That was the last I ever saw of them. That was 1975. As I write this, it was over a quarter of a century ago.
During that quarter of a century, I went to college, held down about six jobs, got married, got divorced, took some wicked vacations and learned some valuable lessons from the school of hard knocks.
About three years ago I bumped into Mike's ex-wife on the internet. She had divorced Mike and remarried. She was living in Los Angeles with her 5 daughters. To my surprise she still knew where Mike was and gave me his address. On my next trip out to Southern California, I made a point to stop by and see him. I thought it would be a chance to re-live our youth one more time, but instead it showed me just how much our paths had differed.
After getting lost several times in LA traffic I finally pulled into an apartment complex parking lot and there he stood waiting for me. He looked the same. The years hadn't changed him that much. He was a little more wrinkled, his hair was a bit thinner, but it was the same old Mike. His smile told me that. After 5 minutes of catching up, we were right back where we had left off 25 years before. We still had that connection.
At first it appeared that Mike had fallen on hard times. But times are relative to those that live them. It was evident that Mike was happy. He wanted for nothing but also didn't have much. He had a minimum wage job, no savings, no car, no iPod, no Plasma television or broadband internet. But he didn't want them.
Mike hadn't listened to the announcers that preached the American Dream when we were growing up. Over time, his focus had shifted. His passion had become righting the wrongs of society. He was determined to be the lone man railing against the machine. He was the one that would stand in front of the column of advancing tanks and scream at them to go home. His uniform was denim, his resolution knew no fear, he expected no rewards.
When he wasn't answering phones in a call center, he spent his time with other like minded adults planning protests. Protests against police brutality, protest against the Iraq War, protests against big oil and big chemical. He gleefully related the time he was just missed by rubber bullets or how he had felt the sting of pepper spray on more than one occassion.
While listening to him passionately talk of the time he was beaten by the Los Angeles riot police or handcuffed in front of the county courthouse, it made me wonder about my life. The life that I thought was so successful and happy. What was I proud of? Was it my credit rating, my new car, my new plasma television? The more Mike and I talked, the less wealthy I felt.
Mike confided that he had been diagnosed with epilepsy several years earlier. He couldn't drive a car anymore, much less afford one. He wasn't really diligent about finding ways to pay for his medication either. He had blackouts and memory loss, but he managed to get back on track, eventually. But the more he talked, the more I realized that he didn't have a care in the world. It was all good. Life was a challenge. He was a fighter. He loved his daughters and the children that his ex-wife had with her new husband and looked forward to the days he could visit with them. Despite the fact that he had nothing, he had a passion for life.
We walked around Griffith Park that evening and then went out to dinner. We laughed and joked liked Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. We were a team again, if just for that one night.
I said my goodbyes after dinner and drove back to Arizona the next day, but my time with Mike haunted me. I drove back to a rat race, where I wrestled with the pack and saved for that vacation in Mexico and the new car stereo. Meanwhile, in LA, Mike and his cohorts planned a protest against the death sentence of convicted teenage boy. Hard times are relative. The more I thought about it, the more I was envious of Mike's time.