The Norman Transcript

September 25, 2012

Anatomy of an outrage about man’s death

By Warren Center
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — If you search the news archives, you’ll find a story about a man who was killed by a train at about 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, where the train crosses Boyd Street in Norman.

I was coming from the University of Oklahoma that morning about 11 a.m. traveling north on Jenkins Avenue when I noticed that, just east of me, a train had stalled on the tracks and that the Norman Police Department were blocking the intersections to divert traffic. My heart sank because I knew that someone had just been killed. I wondered if it was anyone I knew.

I was heading toward Food and Shelter, a charity organization located just west of the train station, where I sometimes volunteer and where I once was employed for about a year and a half. It wasn’t until 12:30 p.m. the following day at the First Baptist Church that my friend B told me he had heard it was Mike who had been killed by the train. I couldn’t believe it. I resolved to look into it and see for sure.

That Monday morning, I talked to April, the director of Food and Shelter, and Amy, an employee, and they both confirmed that it was Mike and that April had given the police a list of Mike’s relatives for notification.

I first met Mike in fall 2010 when he suddenly showed up at Food and Shelter, where I was then employed, and he would sit every day after lunch near the telephone staring into space for extensive periods of time. I didn’t know what his situation was, but it was plain he had a mental illness.

Later, I learned his grandmother had died and there was no one to take care of him, as the rest of his family had abandoned him. He had been dumped on the steps of Food and Shelter like a dog mourning the passing of his master. So Mike became a fixture at Food and Shelter, as he would rarely venture more than a few blocks away.

In winter 2010, there came a terrible snowstorm that closed businesses and slowed traffic for several days. Other employees at Food and Shelter were having difficulties getting to work, and since I lived closer than most of them, I decided to walk to Food and Shelter and open up the dining room and kitchen even before my scheduled shift, as I knew the homeless would have nowhere else to go and this would be the time of their direst need.

I arrived at Food and Shelter at about 7:30 a.m., and along the way, I met G stumbling across the railroad tracks at Eufaula Street and I helped him into the building. He was shivering, on the verge of hypothermia, with red swollen hands and feet and a splint in his leg that exasperated the situation by becoming a superconductor of the cold.

I searched through the clothes closet and gave him some dry clothes to wear. I entertained the idea of calling the paramedics, but decided to wait and see how he thawed out. I had to open the business for other clients, so I shoveled snow from the doors and pried them open to allow access. I phoned my supervisor, Kacey, to let her know I was on the job, and she arranged for the Food and Shelter residents to help me with other tasks that would need to be done throughout the course of the day. A couple of hours into the morning, D reminded me, “Where’s Mike?”

Horrified, I realized he had been out all night in the snowstorm and had not come in like he usually did. I told my volunteers to mind the store while I went out to look for him, hoping I would not find him as a discarded lump in the snow. I had an idea where he might be, since he seldom traveled very far, and it was with relief I found him in an alcove of a building he was using as a windbreak while he was smoking a cigarette.

I asked him, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m freezing!” he replied.

“I’ll bet ... Let’s go to Food and Shelter,” I suggested, and he immediately followed me back.

Mike was in the same shape as G when I brought him in to Food and Shelter, shivering with red swollen hands and feet, but Mike was a little more robust. I gave him a change of clothes and a blanket that he wore the rest of the day.

Many of the homeless in Norman are like Mike in that they often will “camp out” around Food and Shelter, as they have nowhere else to go. Some stay at “Tent City” along the Canadian River, just west of Interstate 35. Unfortunately, Food and Shelter is not equipped to handle 24-hour care, although an attempt was made for a couple of months early this year when “Tent City” burned down.

The businesses in the vicinity of Food and Shelter are very tolerant and understanding of the homeless situation and support the homeless as best they can. The police do not disturb the homeless in the vicinity of Food and Shelter and only come by when necessary to offer medical assistance, keep the peace or serve bench warrants.

Something must have happened in the period of time before Mike’s death, as I heard the city of Norman was threatening to levy fines on the businesses surrounding Food and Shelter if they didn’t get rid of signs of the homeless situation. As a result of this, the homeless were removed and their possessions discarded. Mike was one of those removed. He would normally hang out at Food and Shelter’s kitchen dock, but as a result of his removal, he took his meager possessions to “camp out” below the James Garner statue, located where the train tracks cross Main Street in Norman.

I don’t know where Mike was going the moment he was killed. He might have been going back to “base camp” or he might have been going to Food and Shelter for lunch, served at 11 a.m. Word has it that he was walking along the tracks heading north when a northbound train came up behind him and side-swiped him. The locomotive missed him, but he was pulled under the second car. I feel he was so preoccupied with battling the inner voices he would verbally argue with that he disregarded the reality of the situation he was in.

The memorial service for Mike was at 3 p.m. Sept. 5 at 324 W. Main St. in Norman in an alternate chapel owned or rented by the First Baptist Church, with Joey, a community minister, officiating the services.

If one looked around the room, one would notice the audience was sitting according to their respective clicks or peer groups. Mike’s relatives manned the front row, while almost all of Food and Shelter’s employees formed a cluster at the center of the west section. To everyone’s surprise, two police officers showed up at the end of Mike’s service.

Rumor has it that these were the officers who were instrumental in Mike’s removal from Food and Shelter. All potential remedies to Mike’s situation were there, and all had failed. The relatives who had abandoned him, Food and Shelter who had failed to find a permanent place for him after two years and the police who had removed him from Food and Shelter. Probably because of the nature of his injuries, I heard Mike was cremated like a dog that was put to sleep.

Yet, in contrast to all this, someone took the pillow Mike slept on below the James Garner statue and placed it on the long wooden bench on the north side of Food and Shelter.

I don’t know the solution to the problem, but there was a time when “Christian” charity meant something. Now Christianity has become a dirty word because of bad misrepresentation Christianity has had for the past several decades, spearheaded by greedy, manipulative ministers and evangelists.

Christianity is not so hard to understand. At the heart of it all is the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you want to be treated. This is a lesson that people who manage institutions have failed to learn ... and teach. As Joey, the community minister, said at the end of Mike’s memorial service, “Let Mike’s memory inspire us all to become better and more loving people.”

This is just a small part of the story behind the story of the man killed by the train at about 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 1, where the tracks cross Boyd Street in Norman.

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