Riding with Mike
I moved away from Chicago over 30 years ago, after I graduated from high school. Back then I wasn’t a photographer. Before I left, I tried to remember everything I could, storing details for later, hoping not to forget the people and places that shaped the first 18 years of my life.
People like Mike O’Hara.
The first time I met Mike was in 6th grade, when he popped out of the bushes and jumped me and a friend on our way home from catholic school. Our matching uniforms made us easy prey for public school kids; they never let us pass without a little humiliation. We accepted our fate and walked on. But I remembered his face.
The next time I saw Mike was at the Sandwich Court, a dumpy Italian fast food place by the Burlington tracks. I hung out there regularly on Saturdays since my older sister started working behind the counter. The green naugahyde booths were packed with teenage boys and girls, smoking cigs and ordering french fries. I showed up with a couple of buddies and some quarters. We played video games all afternoon, until it was time to go home and get ready for church.
That’s when I saw Mike, his face reflected in the Asteroids machine, telling the crowd of middle school kids behind me how he tried to ride a bike with broken pedals full speed over a ramp, and landed on his head. One eye was swollen half-shut, and scabby road rash pocked his neck and shoulders. I didn’t turn around, afraid he might recognize me.
Later that summer I was at Memorial park on the 4th of July with a big group of kids that I barely knew. The sky was getting dark, and we were bored. There weren’t any local fireworks to watch. Except we had bottle rockets. Somebody shot one over the tennis courts. It misfired, and exploded directly into the match, sending players running. Someone called the cops. We booked.
I rode my bike as hard as I could, not stopping for breath til I reached the shadows of a side street. I wasn’t alone. Another kid from the park had the same idea. I looked closer and it was Mike. We teamed up and rode around for the rest of the night, talking about music, and trying to figure out where everyone went.
The next morning I was surprised to hear my mom say there was someone at the door. It was Mike. He stopped by on his way to caddy at the LaGrange Country Club. He had a pack of Camels, freshly stolen from his dad, and a Chicago Tribune that he’d found on someone’s steps. Picking up our conversation from the night before, we made our way to the caddyshack, expanding the topics to include Chicago politics.
Since then, everyone’s moved away. You could say the place we grew up is gone. But some things remain, including Mike, who works downtown as a 50 year old bike messenger. I caught up with him in Chicago this fall, two cameras around my neck, and tailed him on a bicycle as he criss-crossed the Loop, delivering take-out meals across the city.
40 years later and I'm still riding with Mike.