For more than two years, Mike came to Joe’s Addiction—without coming inside. He would come up to the front and look curiously in the windows. He’d stand on the front sidewalk and smoke a cigarette, and he’d talk. Not to other customers. To himself. He mumbled quietly, too low for anyone standing near to understand what he was saying.
Paulette made it her mission to welcome Mike. She waved at him, and he would look away. She invited him to come in, and he would just shake his head. Others told him, “There’s free coffee inside.” He mumbled. Sometimes on Sundays, during our church service, Mike would put his nose on the window and cup his hands around his eyes. He’d watch church for a few minutes, but if Paulette went out to welcome him in, he would shake his head.
One day, after two years of this, Mike came to Paulette and asked if someone here could help him with a problem he was having with his Social Security check. She brought him to me. From that moment, Mike never stopped talking. I mean non-stop. One day as I was trying to leave and Mike was saying the same thing he had said twenty times to me already, I widened my eyes and glared at Paulette. She tipped her head back and cackled.
Mike was frustrated, because he felt he should be receiving more Social Security than he was. He told me he had been to the SS office, and that he had become so angry at the woman there that he had just walked out. Nothing had been resolved. I told him I’d take a look at it and that I’d go with him to the SS office, if he wanted. He was grateful.
On the appointed day, Mike showed up at Joe’s Addiction with a large duffle bag. He plopped it down on the table in front of me. When I asked what was in it, he said, “All my papers.” He opened it and sure enough. Every piece of paper that Mike thought was important from the last thirty years of his life was in this bag. Pay stubs, W-2 forms, letters from Social Security, tax documents, X-rays, medical documents. They were not organized in any way, just piled in this duffle bag. But they were organized in Mike’s mind. He knew every detail, every number, every date, on every single piece of paper.
Mike was difficult to understand. He repeated himself often, and a lot of what he said didn’t make sense. I understood something about his former employer, Ravensbrook Cemetery, where he had been the groundskeeper. He was angry about that company. I gathered that his sister was his Payee. Her name was on the papers. He told me of having been shot in the back with a shot gun. He pointed out BB type metal spots on X-rays of his back and head. I caught bits and pieces of the story, but couldn’t put it all together. The bottom line was clear though. He had received a letter from Social Security warning him that they were going to stop sending his checks.
We got in the car and headed to the office. The woman at the window wanted to know who I was, and Mike told her, “She’s my pastor.” I smiled. He had never once even come to a church service at my church, nor had he even stepped foot into Joe’s Addiction until the day he wanted my help, but I was happy to be his pastor, if only for the day.
The woman explained that his Payee had not filed a report regarding how his money was being spent. He did not understand why his sister had anything to do with it. The woman was very harsh and seemed angry. She said, “We've contacted your sister multiple times, with no response. If you don’t get your sister to fill out this form, you will lose your Social Security income.” She said something about fraud. He was becoming agitated. I asked him, “Where is your sister?” He said an address that was just a few miles away. I told the Social Security woman that we would track down his sister and get that form filled out.
Mike and I drove straight to his sister’s house. I had no idea what we would encounter or if this was even his sister’s house. He knocked on the door, and a young man answered. The guy said, “Hi, Uncle Mike.” I explained why we were there, and the young man led us through the house to a back bedroom, where Mike’s sister was laid up in bed. She had a cast over right leg, up to her hip. She was recovering from a car accident and ensuing surgery. This was why she had not seen the letters from Social Security. I asked about her life, and she told me of the loss of her grown daughter to suicide a couple of years before, about caring for her grandchildren and her daughter’s husband, about the next loss of her own husband, and then about this car accident. I marveled at the amount of suffering she had endured in so short a time.
She told me that she really did not manage Mike’s finances, that he was fully capable of handling them himself. “He pays his bills, buys his own food, takes care of himself.” She had turned his payment debit card over to him years before. When I asked why Social Security had made her his Payee then, she said that the woman at the counter had noticed his mumbling and just assumed he needed a Payee.
I asked her about Mike’s belief that he should be receiving more money from Social Security, and she said, “Oh yes. He should. But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Mike was the groundskeeper at Ravensbrook Cemetery for more than twenty years. He worked hard. Rain and shine. Mowed grass, dug graves, pulled weeds. When he retired and began receiving Social Security, he discovered that the company had not reported all of his income. His mental condition was such that he had never noticed. He had all the pay stubs from all the years (In that duffle bag). But the numbers didn’t match up. He had been receiving his paychecks, but the last seven years of his wages had not been reported to Social Security. He had no money for an attorney, and the company had been sold twice since the time Mike had left. There was no one to talk to about this discrepancy. His sister had tried.
We filled out the form together, her telling me the guesstimates of his expenses and me writing them down. I held the paper, while she signed it. She assured me that her own needs were met, and that she was being cared for. I prayed for her and thanked her so much for helping me get her brother’s paperwork done. She thanked me for watching out for her brother. Then Mike and I drove back to the Social Security office and took a number. I prayed we would be assigned to a different window with a different woman. We were. Whew.
I explained the whole situation to the woman at the new window and that we now had the document that they had required. She asked me directly, “Is his sister capable of continuing to be his Payee?” I decided to risk being totally honest with her. I said, “Ma’am, his sister is not really functioning as his Payee at all. Mike is completely capable of managing his own money.” She turned to Mike and began to ask him questions. I prayed that he would make sense. He answered each of her questions about how much rent he paid, how he paid, how much were his utilities, where does he pay them, etc. He didn’t miss a beat. When she finished, he began mumbling under his breath.
She looked at me and smiled. “He seems fully capable of being his own payee to me. We are going to fix this right now.” She began clicking buttons and reading her computer screen. Then she said, “Mike, it is clear to me that you should be receiving another Social Security benefit, beyond what you currently receive. It is going to add another $268 per month to your check. Is that okay with you?”
Mike said, “Yes, Ma’am, but . . .” and he started rattling off about Ravensbrook Cemetery and FDIC and Chase Bank and reimbursements and shotgun pellets in his brain. I put my hand on Mike’s shoulder and said, “Let’s let the lady handle this part of things, and then we’ll take care of that on another visit. Okay?” We left the office with an extra $268 coming to him per month. This would be such a help to him.
Mike came to Joe’s Addiction a few more times after that day. Each time, he wanted to talk with me about Ravensbrook Cemetery and about the money that is owed to him, something about insurance, J.P Morgan Chase, pellets in his brain. Each time, I tried to explain things to him and help him understand, he became agitated and left frustrated with me. Then Mike quit coming to Joe’s. I was sad.
I saw him from time to time in the neighborhood. I’d wave, and he’d wave back. Once, I hollered, “Hi Mike!” out the window of my car. He waved. He didn’t smile. I never once saw Mike smile.
Mike died this last month. A woman in the neighborhood told me just this week. She had heard from her neighbor. I called his sister. He had been working in his yard one afternoon, and he reached into the hatchback of his car to retrieve something. But he didn’t stand back up out of his car. His neighbor, who was sitting on her front porch, noticed that he wasn’t moving and went over to check on him. He had died, right there leaning into his car. His sister cried. She said she could use some help cleaning up some things at his house. I promised some of our Joe’s Community folks would come and help her.
I asked if she had a funeral service. She said, “Yes,” and that she buried Mike in Ravensbrook Cemetery.