On Driving Michael Reed

Michael Reed and his dog Topaz
Michael Reed and his dog Topaz

One of the chores on my daily list this past Monday was simple enough: pick up Michael from the hospital. He was being discharged from the V.A. hospital in Long Beach after spending a weekend there, first in ER and then in a hospital bed I had brought him in last Friday for a regular appointment to treat a chronic condition. I had ferried him to this appointment before, but I was alarmed at how he looked and seemed last week--weak, shaky, wispy in body and voice.

He tottered down the long hall to the elevators, arms spread out to prop himself on walls that weren't there, mumbling that things were spinning. That was pretty much the extent of his conversation. He didn't smile his high-wattage smile, didn't smile at all. His eyes were flat and stony. In the car, on the way to the V.A. he did say a couple of things: "I hate being sick," and a few minutes later, "I wish I felt better." The first comment sounded vexed, the second well past vexed, almost despairing. I didn't know what to say to either.

I met Michael Reed three years ago doing a story. I could have hardly foreseen that today I would be involved in helping to take care of him. In 2008 he was a homeless, faceless guy in downtown Inglewood minding his own business, pushing a shopping cart to which his beloved pit bull Topaz was tied. When a group of Inglewood police started firing at another homeless man they suspected of having a gun, Michael and his dog had the bad luck to be standing next to the barrage of forty-plus bullets. Michael was apprehended, questioned and later released; Topaz, who had caught some bullets, was separated from her owner by the cops and put into a county shelter. Michael was frantic. Days elapsed before he found her, and by then she had an infection and needed a rear leg amputated. The city of Inglewood eventually ponied up $15,000 in damages to Michael, which enabled him to acquire a home--a trailer in a mobile home park in Torrance--for him and his newly disabled canine. They were officially stable.

Luck can run any kind of way, at any time. Now Michael is suffering with liver disease. He's only 52 but looks 65.These days he can hardly take care of himself, let alone his dog (in a tragic but somehow unsurprising coincidence, Topaz was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in her neck around the same time Michael started having health trouble. She had the tumor removed last week and is recovering nicely at a vet in Hermosa Beach that's more or less donating its services.) With no family to speak of, Michael has had to rely on the kindness of friends to take him to appointments and see to his well-being; those friends have essentially been Ingrid, a professional pit bull rescuer who met Michael through Topaz. And me.

I let myself believe that I would help Michael out, but only so much. Like any savvy Angeleno, I have my boundaries. I would pitch in an hour, an hour there, provide assistance according to my schedule. I was only supplementing Ingrid, I told myself. The idea of getting in any deeper than that with someone who was quite possibly dying--someone very close to me in age, to boot--was simply not an option. I liked Michael a lot and had always admired his upbeat, almost adolescent spirit, which was all the more reason I didn't want to see him in an altered state.

What I've learned is that reality is the only option. Friday's routine visit led to the ER, which required me to be available the rest of the evening to go back to Long Beach to pick up Michael in case he wasn't admitted into the hospital. Monday's pickup turned into four hours of pre-discharge business that included talking with the doctor and social worker, getting a walking cane in the prosthetics department and going to the pharmacy to get what felt like ten pounds of meds.

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But I have to say, on Monday Michael was much improved. He was still terribly skinny but he had life. In the car on the way home he bitched about a few things, smiled and even laughed, told stories about his days of being a scofflaw jailed for possessing a shopping cart, which is technically stolen property (we both loudly agreed that being locked up for such a minor offense--for a month!-- was an outrageous abuse of taxpayer dollars). I was way past my involvement limit, but on the other hand, Michael was way past any expectations I had of him getting better. I was glad to see it and liked to think I had something to do with it. I'll stick around and see what's next.

Previously: A Dog's Life: Tragedy Once Again Threatens Inglewood's Michael Reed

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.

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