Skid Row & The Long Lost Daughter

I had the pleasure of meeting a man named Michael during my time on Skid Row…and helped him meet his daughter for the first time.

Never thought I’d ever say that.

Michael working in the volunteer office, a photo of him with his daughter moments after they met for the first time. Taken from the back seat of my car in the airport parking lot. 

Michael was born in Ireland and came to California by way of Canada. Therefore, as you might guess (or not), his sense of humor is pretty on-point. He's always cracking some sort of joke as he’s doing something super helpful for you. He loves astronomy like me. He loves cats like me. Which are essentially the two things you need to love to be friends with me, so we have a blast.

Michael came to live in the mission while I was working there and quickly moved through the men’s program, coming down and helping us in the volunteer department whenever he could. He also worked in the learning center as part of his program, and would come share his “experiences” with us everyday and have a laugh.

One day, Michael brought a newspaper clipping into my office. It was about a chef in Vancouver and her restaurant. Her image was included in the article - she smiled from behind the kitchen counter.

Michael explained that some distant relative sent him this clipping a few years ago without a note, just the clipping. It took him just a few months to realize that the chef featured in the article was his biological daughter, whom he had never met.

He knew for a few months now that he needed to reach out to his daughter, and part of his program was to reconcile with someone from the past. It was time, but he wasn’t sure how.

He knew what he wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say it.

He came in my office one afternoon and decided that “today was the day.” My coworker Erin and I went over possible scenarios – what his daughter might say, what she might not say, if she would even respond at all. He didn’t want to knock her life around, but we explained that something like this would inevitably have an effect on her that will change her life.

We found her on Facebook, and we whipped out a message as I typed. He approved, and I let him click “send.”

I didn’t know it at the moment, but I was linking myself to such a massive event in the history of these two people’s lives.

As I was writing, I was thinking about what I was doing, but the full impact did not hit me until later.

Silence.

Two months went by, and I had quit working at the mission. I had kept in touch through Erin; she said that Michael wasn’t doing well since he hadn’t heard a response.

And then, a message.

[I was recently able to sit down with Michael and talk with him about this experience and how his life has changed over the past year since he first made contact with his daughter. I have included parts of our time together below, chatting in the volunteer office where we met.]

Bethany: Explain this decision to reach out to your daughter…

Michael: Well there were a couple of young ladies that worked in this place that helped me do it [you and Erin]. This was one of those things that I knew I always had to do: make these kinds of connections. I’m getting older and starting to feel it a little bit. I talk to people from time to time about this and everyone said, “you should contact your daughter--what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Well I don’t know what the worst thing that could have happened was but I just still couldn’t get up the nerve to do it. So you and Erin helped me. You wrote the letter that I couldn’t write myself. I just pressed the send button. I didn’t hear anything for two months and I was very, very disappointed.

And what actually happened, [my daughter] told me afterwards, that we sent the letter to a part of her Facebook that she never goes to and she found on accident.

So she didn’t know where I was, but she knew I had a connection in the past with a different mission, so she started calling over there, they referred her to here, and then I got the email.

And I just was absolutely blown out of the water. And so we emailed for a couple of days and after that she says, “I’m coming to see you. I’ll be there on Tuesday morning.”

Before she came, he explained where he lived on Skid Row and she had no problem with it, as there was a similar area in Vancouver. After exchanging several emails over a few days, she bought a plane ticket from Vancouver to LAX. Erin asked if I could pick up Michael and take him to the airport to pick up his daughter.

I, of course, said yes and went to pick him up at 9AM on Tuesday. It was late-October and it was only starting to get chillier. I drove him on surface streets to LAX, partially to avoid traffic and partially to give him some time to soak up his thoughts at stoplights.

He didn’t want to talk about what he was about to do – he was so incredibly nervous, that he forgot his wallet and we had to circle back to the mission to get it before we picked her up.

Michael: Bethany was kind enough to get me a ride to the airport because I never would have made it myself. *Laughs* I wouldn’t have known what to do. And ya, that was one of the highlights of my life and in many ways I can give credit to the people here: to my chaplain, different people who encouraged me, but especially you and Erin who encouraged me to do it because otherwise I’d still be procrastinating.

It all came down very, very fast when it did come down. And it took me a long time to get over the initial shock.

We pulled into LAX and I parked in the terminal outside Air Canada.

We waited just outside customs, hoping that she would be able to see us and recognize us. Neither of us had her phone number, so it would be difficult to get a hold of one another.

As we walked around, she suddenly turned a corner and knew instantly. I was watching as her eyes met her biological father’s for the first time, and their eyes looked exactly the same. There was so much emotion in that look: hers was of relief, shock, and a third emotion that can only be physically expressed. There are no words, but it was warm. He was filled with excitement, and he, in true Michael fashion, went in for a hug. They both sat in the backseat of my car as I drove them back to downtown. 

Michael on the rooftop garden at the mission where he currently lives and works. 

Bethany: So when you first checked your email and you saw her name what was the first thought that went through your mind?

Michael Besides almost having a heart attack…you know, I was excited. I was excited at that point--after two months it didn’t particularly much matter how it went. If she didn’t want to have anything to do with me that was fine too…I had pretty well come to terms with that and if she wanted to see me, then we’d work something out and she’d come see me. I couldn’t keep her from coming. I did try to discourage her because I didn’t want her to see what kind of a situation I was in living in here and seeing Skid Row. I was not comfortable with that but she insisted. And she wasn’t as horrified as I thought she might be.

Bethany: When all that came to fruition and she said, “Ok I’m coming, I’m buying a plane ticket” what went through your mind?

Michael: I was excited. This is pathetic: all I could think about was how to dress… or do I have a hair out of place? Completely self obsessed *laughs* and when we were standing in the airport, well you were there at the time, if you hadn’t been there I don’t know what I would have done to tell you the God-honest truth. I would have probably tried to hide and spied the place out and got arrested or something like that, but we recognized each other right away.

I had a lot of amazement that it was actually going to happen because in my heart of hearts I didn’t expect it to. I knew that even if I did get past the procrastination and I was able to make contact, I still didn’t think she would respond positively.

To be honest one of my characteristics is: I hope for the best but try to prepare for the worst. And I was in that shape-- like I’m going to shake and dissolve on the floor like a bowl of Jello…and the moment we met that disappeared.

But I certainly have not had that level of anxiety in a long, long time *laughs* And it was good because even though I was very anxious, the anxiety was of a…if anxiety can be called positive. It was not a bad thing...not a bad feeling. It’s not like I’m being walked to the gas chamber, not that kind, but anxiety nonetheless.

Once we met, we hit it off very well, very quickly.

Bethany: So once she was actually a person in front of you, how did your perspective of her change? “Oh she kind of looks like me” or…what kind of presence did she give off?

Michael: I think she was just as excited as I was, but she seems to be a very low-key person--she doesn’t show it too much. But just at a glance she reminded me of her mother and then a little bit of me in like the mouth and things like that…you know I’m not a great analyst of photographs or anything but you saw the photograph that you took – there is a lot of resemblance. But I didn’t notice a lot of that until later. Until I started to look at the picture.

Michael peeks out the window from the 5th floor where he lives with others that have completed the men's program and are transitioning out of the mission. Below, San Pedro, one of the main roads on Skid Row. 

I took them to the mission, and introduced her to my old office. We discovered that cats were a love of hers as she shared pictures of her little feline friend with us.

Michael: And when she was here, she was here for four days. We didn’t do anything spectacular we just took the bus and went to Santa Monica or Venice Beach and basically just talked. I guess the most exciting thing we did while she was here was go to Halloween at Hollywood and Highland just so she could see what that was like and eat pizza.

Bethany: I didn’t know you went to that! Right, she was here over Halloween…

Michael: Yeah she was… Well I’ve never been to Hollywood and Highland on Halloween, and it was really kind of crazy. Not insane, but crazy. Naturally, a huge police presence, and we just moseyed on around in the crowds and enjoyed the ambiance...all the weird places up there –everything was open. There was an inordinate amount of men running around in their underwear, I don’t know what that was all about, if it was a Halloween costume or what. I know the police weren’t impressed *laugh.*

So we still keep in touch. Initially I was writing six-page letters, but I found that too stressful. And who wants to know if I sneezed right after lunch today, so I’ve cut it down to once every few weeks or so to say hey what are you doing? Hoping that they’ll have a chance to come down again…maybe not this year but in the spring perhaps [His daughter's boyfriend came to join her the day after she met her father in LA]. 

Bethany: Is it weird to think that it’s been pretty much…

Michael: …a year, yeah. Exactly a year. That makes this kind of significant the fact that I’m even talking about it.

Bethany: How did you feel in that space between your letter and her response?

Once I wrote the letter, even though I didn’t hear right away, I still kind of had hope, but I was losing it and so when she actually came, you can imagine, I was already slipping into … as a matter of fact I had a very serious depressive episode during that time. But again I got help through here [the mission] and when she came I was able to handle it, and when she left I was able to deal with it pretty well without too many problems either. I feel like I’m ordinary, normal, maybe part of the human race. As you know I do isolate, everyone says it, and I know it myself and I hate doing that.

So when she left, I came back here to the mission – it was like starting over. With a different perspective. Much less anger. Much less depression. Not so much fear, I kind of sound like I’m talking to a psychiatrist. I didn’t have the feeling that I was at a dead end, on a road to nowhere quickly.

And having her here, and seeing her, and communicating with her, hit me at a time when I was looking for a reason to stay living. I was never suicidal but my life was so miserable internally that I was lucky to be able to get through it. Like I said, the chaplain here was a huge help. He gave me a lot of encouragement.

Between meal times in the cafeteria, Michael checks on volunteers whom he's been working with that week as part of his new job in the Volunteer Department. 

[We are sitting in the Volunteer Department manager’s office. We can hear the security staff next door talking into their walkie-talkies…volunteers and guests walking in and talking with the staff, cracking jokes.]

Bethany: If you could talk to yourself back then with today’s perspective, what would you say?

Michael: *Long pause*

Well one of the things I would say is that all that worrying and fretting and depression wasn’t worth the pain. I put myself through all that pain because I’m aware that I do that to myself, I’m not blaming anyone but myself, but the fact that she didn’t respond had a serious effect on me. I’m repeating myself to a certain degree, but after she left it’s like having a new perspective. And this is where faith comes in. Big time.

Now with her back in my life, I had at least one reason to keep on going. My faith told me if that miracle could have happened then other miracles could happen, and they have… like this job [Michael is currently employed in the Volunteer Department, as he needed only 90 days on a payroll to qualify for social security in the United States]. After she left, for the most part I didn’t spend too much time musing about the future and what’s going to happen to me. I knew that the Lord would take care of everything. Why worry? I know it sounds like a cliché, because there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

I don’t know what direction its going to come from but I know that I don’t have to worry about it or try to figure it out, just be ready for whatever the outcome. This job is great for my self-confidence…I struggle with it, my basic lack of computer skills drives me up the wall but I’m getting better.

So that’s how I’m doing today, I’m still living on the 5th floor and am better with my roommates. I’m compassionate towards them. I wish I could honestly say that I’m more compassionate for the people on the street. That’s something I pray for everyday in fact. That I show some compassion. I find it very hard to do…I don’t know why. So that’s something I have to work on.

Bethany: I knew that being able to meet your daughter would have an effect on your life, but now I feel like I know more about you and what’s been going on as your friend.

Michael and I continued our conversation over coffee in the Arts District at Blue Bottle. 

Michael: Ya and you know me I don’t usually talk about how I’m feeling. I’m not comfortable with that. And actually, I should change that a little bit. I’m not comfortable talking about myself and how I’m feeling to people that I know. I can do it to perfect strangers. One of the reasons I like the volunteer job is that I can tell those people anything without feeling the slightest bit embarrassed. I can talk about it to those people because I can switch on like an actor’s persona.

When I’m with all you guys around here I’m my usual nervous shaky self. When you put me in front of a bunch of strangers, then it’s like I take on a different personality and I’ll talk about all the garbage in my life I have no problem. One of the reasons is because I know I’ll never have to face these people again. But I’m less likely to share with my friends and associates and that’s gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years.

Bethany: I’m glad you could share with me today--you’ve given me new perspective. You never know, what you share might put a new thought in someone’s head.

Michael: I won’t share because I’m too afraid to and I don’t believe they’ll believe me. Strangers I can tell cause everything that comes out of my mouth is new to them. They don’t know how I behave around here, they just see me for 20 minutes on the day of a tour…it might be the first and last time they see me. And that Michael they see that day is considerably different from the Michael who’s sitting in this office or upstairs watching the news or shopping--that Michael is always alone. So at this age, loneliness is a huge issue. Huge huge huge huge. I have some friends here who arrived last week from Sweden and they came last Thursday night and we went to a movie on Friday. And that’s the first time I’ve been to a movie in at least 15 years.

Bethany: What did you see?

Michael: That vampire movie.

Bethany: What vampire movie?

Michael: Before there was Dracula or something, don’t waste your money. I couldn’t figure out the story.

So I hooked up with these friends and went to a movie, which is considerably different from how I used to go to movies. I would take a pint or half pint with me, which was the way I did it for many years in my disease in my alcoholism. That’s the only way I could tolerate sitting still for so long.

Again I don’t normally share this kind of stuff with other people. I know we all have similar stories though. My life how it is today, it’s on the upswing. I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve got some fears and anxiety but they don’t have me, if you can understand that. I know what they are, and they haven’t taken control over my existence like they have before. It’s a matter of faith – I know everything will turn out okay. And what ever happens its okay. It was meant to happen…that’s really where I am Bethany. I can’t guarantee tomorrow will be better but it will be different.

 

I was able to visit Michael’s daughter at her restaurant earlier this year in Vancouver while I was there for a conference.

When I saw her, I was reminded of the bond I had with them -- the piece of their history that I was somehow intricately woven into.

 It’s very hard to describe the whole experience of helping them meet, but I feel very intertwined in their life stories. I was in awe of how I could be used to connect these people, and then totally stoked when I was able to connect in her hometown! Turns out, Michael went to school just across the street from where his daughter opened her restaurant in Vancouver.

I would like to thank Michael for being willing to talk about this major life event with me. And for schooling me in astronomy, and doing so many tours and orientations with me while I worked in the volunteer office (even though he didn't have to and would sometimes miss his lunch window), and for being generally one of the most supportive and caring people I know. I'm so proud of him for persevering through the men's program and landing this job that will grant him new freedoms in life.

Watching his life encourages me to challenge myself and perspective, to always keep my faith alive, and my eyes on the bright side.