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Everyone is fighting an unseen battle: be kind

by Janice Hoffmann

Do you ever look at something or someone, notice your knee jerk reaction, and then pivot to a different angle, take another view? This is what a man named Mike gave me permission to share.

One recent Sunday morning, while hiking in Johnson’s Pasture, I had the accidental pleasure of crossing paths with him, someone I had observed from afar for years.

I had taken close notice of him during the pandemic, when watching other walkers became a social pastime. Although he resembled an aging athlete — muscle-tone intact, square shoulders, strong back — there was always something about the way his hips swayed, as if his femurs were attached to a pelvis slightly wider than one would expect on a man. He had a pleasant facial expression and a penchant for purple. My inconclusive observations were piqued when summer came and his cut-offs were, well, cut-off a tad higher than my comfort level, revealing slender, curvy legs.

On that recent Sunday I was in Johnson’s Pasture at the intersection of Burbank Way and Gale Mountain, my own personal “wimp point.” I’d just parted ways with my younger hiking buddies. They continued into the Wilderness Park to finish the loop and I turned toward home. Rehearsing what I would do if anything bad happened while I was by myself — a fall, a bear, a bobcat, someone cruising for trouble — I checked for cell service and vowed to carry pepper spray next time.

Rounding a bend, I relaxed when I saw three congenial senior-ish people paused to chat. I smiled, nodded, and passed before I realized one of them was the person who had previously piqued my curiosity.

I wanted to comment on what a lovely pendant he was wearing. I wondered if his earrings were Brighton, but I passed by without comment.

As walks with small, elderly dogs often go, Carina and I were taking a moment to pause with her in my arms, so her nose was at an altitude where she could calmly watch a well-behaved, but quite large hound saunter by. As I looked to my left, walking toward me was the gentleman I would soon know as Mike.

You rarely see a former steel worker with nail polish, especially with at least three nails of unique designs, bright red and opaque white two-tone, a few striped like peppermint with glitter glue-ons, so I complimented him.

Then this lovely man told me how much he missed his wife of 27 years who died four years ago. When he pushed her wheelchair from chemotherapy to nail appointments, he got to know her manicurist, and saw what fun it was to have nice nails. He now feels as if his spouse is smiling on him, enjoying that he is carrying on the ritual of bi-monthly visits to the nail spa.

He told me when he was as an adolescent, growing up freeway-close to Claremont, he intentionally engaged in dangerous self-destructive behavior. He said he now regrets those times when he put his and other lives at risk, including evading police sirens by running red lights at speeds over 100 mph

In those days he preferred to die, he said, rather than face the shame of wanting to dress as a woman. He was attracted to girls, not boys, so his closet — although not as small as others — was nonetheless scary. It was something he never imagined sharing.

When I asked Mike if I could tell his story, he said yes, and that he is happy not to have to hide these days.

So, the next time you meet someone you think a little odd, listen to their story and wish them health and happiness.

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