The tragic passing of “Monkey Mike”

Weston Park claims another homeless life

■ Steve Norman / Contributed

“Monkey Mike” died Sunday. Truth is not many will know who he is. He was just one more premature death in a park that breeds death. My opinion has been formed by 18 years of personal observation.
Nothing really lives in Weston Park. People continue to exist by living non-productive lives, but they are simply wasting away one day after another. Those who hang out there seem to have an element of pride by being a part of a counterculture in the center of town that challenges our city every day.
Why does this continue to happen? In my opinion, it’s caused, for the most part, by a city that misunderstands the word “homelessness.” Having worked in the park for these many years I have come to understand all too well that this culture exists not because they are truly homeless. It exists because they choose it and we allow it. The reasons we allow it is a discussion for another day.
I watched Monkey Mike from a distance in the fall of 1999. My family and I had moved here from northern Minnesota after we had been asked to help out a small church across the street from Weston Park as worship leaders. I would look across the street and see a young man very adept at throwing a Frisbee. He seemed to be the leader of sorts over there and not only that, but very good at tossing a disc.
Even though it was only a few hundred feet, I found myself intimidated by the thought of crossing the street and joining in. Perhaps it was the sense that this group of people was also involved in things that even I knew didn’t look quite right. Thompson Street seemed like a vast divide in which neither group would cross because of fear.
It would take almost two years, but after finishing my degree in biblical studies and becoming the new pastor, I decided to journey across the street. I used to be a fairly decent Frisbee thrower, so that’s where I started.
To my surprise, Monkey Mike greeted me kindly and with respect. That’s when my relationship with the Weston Park gang began. They all had many codenames, but no last names. “Woodyard Dave,” “Mr. Bill,” “Gramma Sue,” “Miss Keller,” Donny, Amber and Lynn, Mary, Erica, “Lertch,” Sean, Daryl, Donny, Art…so many more. Most of them are dead now or dying. The only ones still alive and living productive lives are the ones that have left the park.
Now there is a new group….more codenames like “Snake,” “Bruiser,” “LB,” “Ace,” – people every day simply dying and somehow thinking it is living.
It has been an interesting relationship with Mike over the past many years. I learned that he knew the Bible very well. He would quiz me on my Greek studies, challenge me with theological thinking. He seemed to fall in that category on knowing a lot about Biblical thought but couldn’t seem to practice it. He would attend church occasionally as well as our “Celebrate Recovery” meetings.
In time it became very evident that while he seemed to enjoy our company, he had little to no desire for change. For many years he was the “kingpin” of the park. Gradually in time there would be others to take his place but he never surrendered his park citizenship.
His death brings back so many memories. He always seemed to be fighting in those early years. The countless times I would break up some fight he would be involved in…..usually over a bottle of beer or some other needless thing. One time, he showed me the blood on the sidewalk in front of the church, where he claimed to be defending himself with a screwdriver.
Many years have passed since those days This past year it was obvious Mike’s mind was gone. Not much fight left…..just a shell of a man. Perhaps a little over 130 pounds, it seemed certain he was on his last lap. Even after all these years, I couldn’t seem to help him. He always knew what I was going to say before I even said it. It’s what I tell every park resident: If they don’t get out they will die there. He just said, “I know Pastor Steve.” So today he did just that. He died near some bushes next to Union Bank, alone, with nothing and nobody.
Strange as it may sound, I will miss him. Or perhaps I will miss the hope that I could have made a difference in his life. Truth is I only feel like a failure yet again. One more funeral, one more life cut short because of drugs and foolish pride. Someone not recognizing the difference between living and dying one more time.
You see, there was a side of Mike that was compassionate. It didn’t show itself very often but just a few days ago he was calling out to me as I was trying to get to my office. He had something in his hand he wanted to give to me. Over a year ago we were broken into by someone from the park. More than $5,000 of tools had been stolen….some of which I could never replace because they had been given to me by my father. That really bothered him.
He approached me with a hammer in which he had handcrafted the handle. He was very proud of it and asked if I would take it in memory of my father, who passed away a little over a year ago. I was moved. He was frail. I wish I would have talked longer but to my shame I was just too busy. One more appointment to keep; a heavy agenda. Would one more conversation have made a difference? I guess I will never know.
Monkey Mike died today and a part of me died with him. The tears I have already shed over the past few hours…..are they for him….or perhaps my own selfishness and feeling sorry for myself recognizing the futility of trying to reach young men like him.
I am tired…..exhausted by all of this. How many more will have to die? How long do we have to continue to live with a park that breeds death that we are all ashamed of? Are we a city to be defined by stories like this or will we change? Monkey Mike died alone and without hope. I am hoping we as a city don’t suffer the same fate.

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