All things considered, Michael Reed was lucky.
A 50-year-old homeless man with addiction and mental issues, it wouldn't have taken much of a break to call him lucky back in 2008. And what happened to him nearly three years ago this month could hardly be called good news: standing on a street corner in downtown Inglewood, he found himself watching a hail of 40 bullets fired by a cadre of Inglewood cops who were shooting at another homeless man they suspected of carrying a weapon (that man, Eddie Franco, who turned out to be unarmed, was killed. It was the fourth controversial and fatal police shooting in Inglewood in five months.) Michael was shaken, hauled into police headquarters for an interrogation, but he suffered no harm. The same wasn't true for Topaz, his beloved, gentle-giant pit bull who sat tied to his shopping cart during the whole fracas.
Four or five of the bullets strafed her body and did such extensive damage to a hind leg, it had to be amputated days later by an Inglewood veterinarian. The silver lining was that as a result of all the publicity surrounding the incident, a few good things happened for Michael and his dog. Somebody donated a trailer; a friend footed the bill for the rent at a mobile home park in Torrance. After filing a claim against the city of Inglewood and being put off many months, Michael finally got $15,000 for the property damage represented by his now disabled pet. But the two had a place to live and some money to live on for a while. All was well, relatively. The last time I saw them a couple of summers ago, Topaz was cavorting in a wading pool that sat outside the trailer. Compared to their previous life on the streets, this was domestic bliss.
Some things are worse than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, worse than getting caught in a crossfire of bullets. Last week, I learned that Michael is terminally ill. Topaz, who's always been inseparable from her owner, has been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on her neck. Michael is getting treatment from a V.A. hospital, but Topaz has no such options. The same friends who helped her and Michael out initially are scrambling to raise $900 to cover the surgery she'll need to remove the tumor. That's a bargain for a life-saving procedure, but if you don't have the money it might as well be a million. Michael is too weak to really deal with his dog's crisis this time; eventually Topaz will need another home. The prospects of that happening for an eight-year-old pit bull with three legs and a history of cancer are not great, but Michael's friend and advocate Ingrid Huriel-Diourbel has hope. She rescues pits for a living and is used to going against big odds: hope is part of her job requirement.
But this situation has exhausted her, I can tell. In this increasingly precarious and sour-edged economy, she worries about whether people will care about a sick black man and his ailing dog enough to give money and to make another miracle happen. At this point, the rent is due and there is no one to pay it. The claim money that allowed Michael and Topaz to live unstressed for a few years is nearly gone, eaten up mostly by rent. The pair are in many ways more vulnerable now than they were when they were homeless and uncertain about where their next bit of luck was coming from, or if it was coming at all. Michael has changed, of course. Once relentlessly upbeat about the future, now he is tired. At one time he only imagined things would get better, but now he seems to know too much.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.