This I Believe
I met Mike one sunny Sunday afternoon. I was playing chess with a friend in a city park. From across the big green grassy field came a figure strolling, but deliberately so, as if drawn by some kind of magnetic force. Mike was clad in an old school red running suit and had a bounce to his step. Upon his jubilant arrival he plopped down one of his two plastic shopping bags on the table. “You guys want a salad?” We politely but adamantly refused the long wilted salads. The concentration of our game was broken and Mike was eager to entertain.
Mike is fifty-five and he’s been living on the streets a long time. His possessions consisted of the plastic bag full of old salads, a bag mostly full of recyclable bottles, and a half gone tall boy of Old English. He was tall and wiry, with an athlete’s body, like a ball player or a roller skater but with a bunch of teeth missing. Mike was quick to launch into long rants about the options before us on the chessboard. He was analyzing several moves ahead, sometimes correctly and sometime incoherently, but always with a sense of determination. He told me my situation on the board was dire and ultimately it was.
Woven in his commentary about chess was his personal history and a glimpse into his life before he began living out on the streets. He talked about playing chess with his brother when they were growing up and some kind of multiple layered chessboard his father had given them. After a while of rambling thoughts and intermittent laughter, Mike got up and walked away, slowly blending back into the surroundings of the urban park on a sunny afternoon.
His brief visit was not without impact. Maybe it’s because I was playing chess at the time and so my mind was locked into problem solving mode, or maybe it was just because of the oblique glimpses into Mike’s life that made me think about him living alone on the street. I wanted to ask what happened to his family, why he still doesn’t play chess with his brother?
I believe that regular everyday people have the ability to make major changes to social conditions through small alterations in everyday thinking. Sometimes as a collective culture it feels like we wait for a movement to start: a program, an organization, a new non-profit, a bit of legislation, before we spring into action and move forward. Maybe I couldn’t have helped Mike. Maybe I couldn’t have found him a place to live, or a job, or reconnected him with his family, but I could have offered him a chess match. I believe in the logic and strategy of the game: care for your pawns as if they were Kings and Queen, because it might be the little pieces that ultimately win you the game.
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