Tuesday, May 5, 2015

R.I.P. Familiar Stranger

I once read a comment that home is where you see familiar strangers: people that you don’t know, but that you recognize. The neighbor who always walks her German shepherd at 7:00am. The mailman who waves at you as you head off to work. The cashier at Dunk’s. The guy down the street who mows his lawn wearing Bermuda shorts and green crocs at precisely 6:30pm every Thursday all summer. You don’t really know them, but you recognize them.

When I was growing up, back in the 1970s, before political correctness, when mental illness was something to be laughed at or feared, there was a familiar stranger whom everyone in town “knew,” called Crazy Mike. Rumors abounded about Crazy Mike. Some said he was homeless, some said he was a Vietnam veteran whose mind had snapped during the war, some said he was a dangerous lunatic, some said he was a harmless loudmouth, some said he was just a lazy drunk. I often saw him walking around town, occasionally coming into a store, sometimes muttering to himself, often yelling at anyone who confronted him, but always leaving peacefully when asked to by store managers. When I was in high school, I worked in one of those stores – a store that happened to provide free coffee to customers. Mike came inside frequently when I was working, often wandering around with his coffee in hand, muttering to himself. He made me a little nervous, but any time I caught his eye, he’d give me a little nod of acknowledgement, and continue on his way. The only time I ever saw him yell at anyone was when he was out on the sidewalk and some teenagers started hassling him. I never saw him yell at a customer inside the store, and the managers – even a couple of them whom I didn’t consider very nice – only rarely asked him to move along, and always made sure he had a fresh cup of coffee before he left.

I never saw Mike sleeping on the streets at night, so I figured he had either a home or a shelter to go to. Although he was unkempt, he was rarely truly dirty, and occasionally appeared with a fresh haircut or a trimmed beard, so apparently he had some resources for – and interest in - hygiene. I was curious about his story, but I never bothered to find out what it was. I was afraid to ask. And I was not alone. Most people guessed about his background, or assumed they knew what it was, but very few people ever bothered to find out the true story, or to be sure that Mike was getting the help he needed.

Yesterday, Crazy Mike was found dead on a city street. And suddenly, but slowly, we are finding out at least some of the true story of his life.

Michael Nicoloro was, indeed, an Army veteran. He had parents and a brother who lived locally. Mike did suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder rooted in his service during the Vietnam war. He took medication for it – sometimes. Sometimes it was stolen from him, sometimes he simply refused to take it. Who knows what exactly was going through his head over the last 40 years? Was he aware that something was wrong? Did he want help? Was he contented with who he was? Was he afraid of his demons or were they just a part of his normal reality? Most of us don’t know, because we never asked. We looked at Mike, and only saw the crazy. We didn’t see the man behind the crazy. We didn’t see the man before the crazy. We never tried to make the familiar stranger not a stranger.

I pray that Mike is now at peace, his traumatic memories gone. I pray that his family is comforted after their double loss – not only the loss of Mike’s life, but of his chance to be mentally healthy in this lifetime. I pray that Mike’s story will make me, and all of those who “knew” him, think twice when we look at someone who seems crazy. Every crazy person has parents, and a past, and a story. Every crazy person is a person, despite the crazy. Every crazy person deserves to have their story told.

I only wish that Mike’s story had been told sooner. Maybe then, he’d have become familiar instead of just a stranger.

Rest in peace, Mike. Rest in the peace you never found here on earth. Rest in peace.

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