Chances are, if you have gone into the Starbucks at the corner of Beacon and Charles streets any time over the last 10 years, you know Michael “Mikey” Henry.
I will guarantee that Mikey knows you. He can’t read or write, but he can read people and is one of the nicest guys I know. And he never forgets a friendly face.
Mikey Henry is the Pope of Beacon Hill. Mikey knows everybody, and everybody knows Mikey. He is homeless, but people who live in some of the most beautiful homes in the city consider Mikey Henry their friend.
“They call me Michael, it’s a respect thing,” he explained. “But, really, the guys I know on the street call me Mikey. I call me Mikey. I’m Mikey.”
Mikey was born in Greenville, S.C., 62 years ago. He came to Boston as a teenager with his mother and his uncle to escape his father.
“My father liked to drink, and when he drank he liked to hit people,” Mikey Henry was telling me. “Mostly he liked to beat my mother. So we just decided to leave and come to Boston.”
Mikey’s father, Walter Henry, was nothing if not persistent.
“Daddy wasn’t that smart, but he found us,” Mikey said. “My mother wanted nothing to do with him. So I moved in with my father, to keep him away from my mother. My mother met a nice man and they lived together on Columbus Ave in the South End. He was good to my mother, that man, and that made me happy.”
Mikey and his father lived in a flophouse in the South End.
After his father died, his uncle, a cab driver, moved in with him but later met a woman, and they moved back down south. Mikey couldn’t make the rent, so the landlord threw him out. That was about 40 years ago. Mikey has been on the street ever since.
Mikey started panhandling on Winter Street in Downtown Crossing.
“I wasn’t doing so good, so I decided to move into the park [Boston Common], stand on the Freedom Trail. I got to know people who lived on Beacon Hill, on Joy Street, places like that. They’d be on their way to or from work and they’d stop and talk to me, and some of them gave me money and some of them didn’t. But I liked them all and they all liked me. At some point, I started going to Starbucks for my coffee. And everybody there liked me, so I stayed. There was a manager named Brian, and he was really nice to me. Then he got married and moved to Washington. I miss Brian.”
On the Common, Mikey took to wearing a tie, because all the guys he was panhandling from wore ties.
Dr. Jim O’Connell, the saint who founded the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, remembers meeting Mikey on a cold winter’s night in 1986. Mikey was standing at the kiosk for the stairs to the Boston Common garage.
Mikey told Dr. Jim that he lived outside, on the Common, sleeping on the benches.
“He was so skinny and frail. He slept during the day, because he felt more safe,” O’Connell said. “Then he’d walk around all night. He was nocturnal. Michael introduced me to all the street people I needed to know. He was like an ambassador to the homeless community.”
O’Connell and his colleagues tried to get Mikey to move into an apartment.
“He never wanted housing,” O’Connell said. “He said he didn’t deserve it.”
Robert Taylor, an architect from the South End, first met Mikey in 1996 after he dropped his daughter off at a Back Bay preschool and was walking through Boston Common on his way to his downtown office.
“He asked me for money,” Taylor recalled. “But I didn’t want to give him money that might be used for bad habits.”
For 10 years, Mikey Henry asked Robert Taylor for money, and for 10 years Robert Taylor politely declined. But their interactions remained cordial, and Taylor actually liked Mikey.
Then, after 10 years, Mikey Henry stopped Robert Taylor in the Common and asked if he would handle his Social Security checks for him. Taylor agreed immediately.
“We have been in cahoots ever since,” Taylor said.
Last summer, Mikey felt some bumps along his clavicle. It didn’t feel right. He went to see his buddy Dr. Jim O’Connell, who felt the golf-ball size bumps and knew right away: lymph nodes.
It turns out Mikey had advanced prostate cancer that had spread throughout his body. Getting Mikey to leave the streets for an apartment had been impossible. But when Dr. Jim explained to Mikey that if he didn’t go into the hospital right away he would die, Mikey replied, “I trust you, Dr. Jim. Let’s go.”
O’Connell was moved to tears when he escorted Mikey Henry into the cancer unit at Massachusetts General Hospital on Aug. 10, Mikey’s 62nd birthday. “The whole team treated Michael with such care and compassion, from the moment he walked in,” O’Connell said.
Mikey was in the hospital for two weeks, then spent four months in the Barbara McInnis House, a medical respite center at Boston Medical Center run by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, before moving to the Stacy Kirkpatrick House in Jamaica Plain.
And so for months, he wasn’t at any of his usual haunts. He wasn’t outside Starbucks at the corner of Charles and Beacon. He wasn’t on the Common. He wasn’t sleeping on the steps of St. John’s the Evangelist on Bowdoin Street.
Mikey’s friends on Beacon Hill began to fear the worst.
After not seeing Mikey for so long, Ben Starr, one of the officers at the Beacon Hill Civic Association, asked Mark Fuechec, a terrific young reporter for the small weekly newspaper called the Boston Guardian, to try to find Mikey.
Fuechec, who only moved to Boston last August, was amazed by how many people on Beacon Hill knew Mikey and were worried about him. Eventually, after a Beacon Hill woman who was worried about Mikey suggested he may be in a care facility in Jamaica Plain, he tracked him to the Kirkpatrick House.
They had a great chat, and after Fuechec’s story appeared in January, some of Mikey’s old friends began visiting him.
A Boston cop named Leo Manning, who was friendly with Mikey, came in to see him.
“Leo’s a big dude,” said Mikey, who is not a big dude. “Leo’s on the SWAT team. They call it Special Operations. It was nice of him to come see me. The minister, Reverend Colin [Leitch], from that church on Bowdoin Street came to see me. So does Robert Taylor, all the time. I’m lucky. I have good friends.”
Those good friends have finally convinced Mikey to leave the streets. Jim O’Connell said it’s down to a small place on Beacon Hill, a bigger apartment in Charlestown, or a real nice apartment just down the street from where Mikey is staying right now in JP. Mikey told me he’s leaning toward the place in JP.
But he’s going back to Beacon Hill. He’s figured out the route. He’ll take the bus to Ruggles Station, hop on the Orange Line, get off at Downtown Crossing, walk up Winter Street, cross Tremont, walk diagonally through the Common, and finally return to his spot at the corner of Charles and Beacon.
Asked when he will return to his old stomping ground, Mikey said, “Soon. Real soon.”
It’s funny how we measure things. By most leading economic indicators, Mikey Henry is one of the poorest guys in Boston. But by the measures of the heart, Mikey Henry, the Pope of Beacon Hill, is the richest guy in town.
He can’t wait to get back to the corner, where he can watch the crowds go by, feel the sunshine on his face and say hello to all his friends.
There’s someone in particular that Mikey Henry wants to see.
“There’s this little girl,” he said. “I don’t even know her name. She’s about 6 years old. Her baby sitter always brings her into Starbucks, and that beautiful little girl always says hello to me. Always. She looks me right in the eye and says hello, real friendly-like. She’s probably worried about me because she hasn’t seen me. I want her to know that Mikey is all right. And I’ll be back, so she can say hello to me and I can say hello to her. Just like it always was.”Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.