The man looked up from petting the dog. Joy dropped from his face. He was afraid of us.
It was a Sunday morning, the day after Halloween. I’d gone with my partner and his son for bagels on Denver’s Welton Street. Just outside, there was a cute dog on a leash tied to a window grate. The man was stroking its tan and white fur. He noticed us approaching and must have thought it was our dog and that we were upset he was petting it. And so he jumped, startled, spun up and scared.
My partner, Andrew, tried to put him at ease with his gaze, his voice, his conversation. “I said something like, ‘Great day, huh?’ And he said, ‘No, it’s actually not that great of a day. You got no idea, man. I’m homeless.'” Andrew offered him breakfast. The man — who’d introduced himself as Mike Lee — said he’d just like coffee. Because the line was long at the bagel shop, they walked across the street to a cafe.
Andrew was gone about a half-hour. While in line for coffee, he and Mike Lee talked about growing up in Denver as black and brown boys and later as black and brown men, and about all the changes in the city, especially around Five Points. Mike Lee’s initial fear faded. His edge softened. He wanted Andrew to see his muscles, so he lifted up his sleeve to show him. He wanted Andrew to know about his dragon — the one he said followed him wherever he went. So he pulled out a small plastic figurine to show Andrew. The two laughed.
Mike Lee wanted Andrew to know just how he likes his coffee — split into two cups, diluted with cool tap water and mixed just right.
As Andrew tells it, Mike Lee teetered between a childlike chattiness and a painful sense of self-consciousness that maybe the folks in the cafe thought he sounded kind of crazy or noticed he did things sort of differently or looked kind of disheveled. It was with a fearful self-awareness, Andrew told me, that Mike Lee glanced over his shoulder as he poured dozens of teaspoons of sugar and Splenda into his coffee cups. And as he stirred each for several minutes. And as he spilled some coffee on the counter and rushed for a towel to clean it up, as if everyone had noticed. Maybe they did.
The two men chatted some more, and then hugged as they said goodbye. “See you around,” they told each other. Andrew left Mike Lee at the cafe eating the two bananas he ordered and sipping the cups of coffee with cream that matched his cafe con leche eyes.
Six days later, a man was arrested on charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace at a Colfax Avenue hotel where he sometimes stayed. He was taken to the Denver jail, where he was held on a $100 bond he couldn’t possibly pay. It’s unclear if the sheriff’s deputies knew he had paranoid schizophrenia. And it’s unclear exactly how it happened that four days into his incarceration a sheriff’s deputy restrained him in one of the jail’s sally ports and other deputies joined in until he went unconscious and then brain dead before his family ended his life support nine days later.
On Friday night, while I was writing the story about the death of that inmate — Michael Lee Marshall — Andrew recognized his face in a photo on my laptop. That same face. That fear. Those eyes.
It’s bad enough that yet another detainee in Denver’s dysfunctional jail has died at the hands of the city’s wayward Sheriff’s Department. But it’s worse, somehow, that it was Mike Lee — the guy petting the dog, with the dragon, who, as it turned out, had every reason to be scared.