Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mr. Mike, we miss you

Mike was the kind of guy who you would buy for your neighborhood if there was a way to order such a person.

All the homeowners would chip in some money, go to the "ideal neighbor" store and say, "do you have a retired guy who always has a friendly hello, actually wants the neighborhood children to knock on his door, knows everybody's business but not in an annoying way, and will give you the shirt off his back at a moment's notice? A guy who will march down to the village code enforcement office and demand action if he feels, for one instant, that his neighborhood is being threatened or mistreated by lazy homeowners or developers? But also a guy who will do it quietly to avoid commotion. Do you have a guy like that?"

The clerk would disappear into the stockroom and come out with Mike.

Three years ago I was mowing my lawn one Saturday when a car pulled up and a middle aged couple appeared. Noting the "For Sale" sign on my property, the man said, "you must be the guy moving down the block." It wasn't a question - he already knew the answer.

"Yes," I replied. "We love this neighborhood but wanted a little more space so we bought that lot on the corner. " Already I had revealed more information than I normally would when approached by a total stranger. But there was something about this guy - an approachability factor and one shared by his wife.

Within seconds I learned his name was Mike, his wife was Mary, he was a Chicago cop getting ready to retire, he was a lifelong Notre Dame and White Sox fan. And, unlike many of my existing neighbors, he didn't care that my allegiance was to the Cubs.

In the next minute, I told him everything about me. My wife's name was Sue. I had two daughters, 6 and 1. I was a comedian. I traveled extensively. I grew up in the Northwest suburbs before becoming a "South Sider."

I'd lived alongside a neighbor for seven years and never told him that much. Granted, Polish was his first language but we still had occasion to talk. But we'd only exchanged simple pleasantries.

"Well, we're going to be your new neighbors," Mike said as Mary beamed. "We bought the lot across the street."

I knew the lot well. It was part of a townhouse development that would face our new single-family home. Mike was chomping at the bit to get the house started. As a member of Chicago's finest, he was required to live in the city. Now, with retirement beckoning and, I'm sure, a well-earned pension, he was moving to the 'burbs for his little slice of heaven and to be closer to his only son.

As the months went by, our new house began to rise from the dirt. We sold our existing house, moved in with my in-laws 15 miles away and made frequent trips to the site to inspect the progress. Maybe it was coincidence but it always seemed like, whenever we were viewing our new property, Mike and Mary drove by. The developer still hadn't broken ground on their townhome but they cruised the neighborhood nonetheless, anxious for the day when their construction began.

Eventually that day came and we saw more and more of the couple. By now we were living in our new house. When I saw Mike inspecting his lot, I yelled across the street, "Come on Mike, we need some neighbors. It's lonely over here."

He'd reply with a friendly wave and eventually we'd meet in the middle of the street, talking sports and the current state of his townhome. Most of the lots had been sold but none had been completed. Yet Mike still seemed to know the names and backgrounds of everyone who had made a purchase. He'd told his police buddies about the new development and some had purchased lots.

"We'll definitely have the safest neighborhood in the state," I told my wife. "There's going to be an entire precinct living across the street.

Finally the day arrived. Mike and Mary moved in, completing their dream. My kids called them "Mr. Mike" and "Miss Mary." Within months, Mike seemed to become the unofficial mayor of the street. During the warm months I'd jog past his house at 6:30 a.m., and see him on his porch reading the morning paper. In the evening, he'd sit on the front stoop, or in his garage smoking a cigarette as Mary wouldn't let him smoke in the house. Whenever I'd return from an out of state show, he's see me pull in the driveway and remove my luggage from the trunk.

"Welcome home, Greg," came his booming voice from the across the street. "Where were you this time?"

Once this conversation occurred at 2 a.m. When your plane is five hours late and you get home in the middle of the night, you don't expect anybody to be making friendly conversation, much less being awake at all. But that was Mike for you.

After my reply Mike would bring me up to speed on neighborhood news, if there was any. I came to relish these conversations. He knew I coached girls softball and asked me how the team was doing as he loved the fact that I held practices in the vacant lot down the street. On college football Saturdays the Notre Dame flag flew proudly from his porch and we'd discuss the game's outcome even though I never gave a rip about Notre Dame football. But I could have talked to Mike about global warming, so approachable was he.

He watched my youngest learn to rollerskate as she practiced on his sidewalk and, occasionally, his driveway. He bought Girl Scout cookies from my older daughter. The townhouse development was eventually completed. We rarely saw any of the new occupants and, to this day, don't know their names. But Mike and Mary were not your typical retired townhome owners. On Halloween my girls trick or treated in the single family homes down the street where their friends lived. They visited one townhome. You know who lived there.

So last week, when I looked at Mike in his casket, I wanted to say, "get out of there."

He was all decked out in a black suit with a maroon pocket square. His police badge and a White Sox cap proclaiming "World Series Champions!" accompanied his body. The funeral home was, naturally, packed to the gills. Everybody came to say goodbye to Mike.

He had awoken three days earlier and offered to drive Mary to work. First, he needed gas so he drove to the local convenience store. On the way back he spied a neighbor and, naturally, rolled down the window to talk. The heart attack was massive and death almost instantaneous.

"Mr. Mike" is gone. And a big slice of our suburban neighborhood went with him. May God bless him.

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