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    A version of this story appeared in the June 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Cover photo by Gail Kamenish.

     

    They compared the second baby to the first. Only 10 months between the boys, but they were so different. The first baby held his head up. He learned the strength of his spine and sat up. He looked up at the massive creatures that cooed and fed and held and hugged. 

    The second baby slumped. Doctors diagnosed him with cerebral palsy. He called for the bottle, but he choked. Seizures jolted his body. He sank into fever, 105 degrees. His mother, Beverly, thinks this might have caused the brain damage. She says the doctors called it “mild mental retardation.” Maybe it was all those trips to the hospital for pneumonia, all that heat in his head.

    If anything in that baby foreshadowed the man Micah Chandler would become — if there was any hint at the quick downtown walk, the tumbling down stairs, the mouth quivering with hurry-up-I-want-to-talk — it manifested as hunger. A tiny hand outstretched, a tiny cry released for milk.

    The hospitals put him in an enclosed crib and pumped in oxygen. The hospitals cost money. Beverly did not yet work as an instructional assistant for Jefferson County Public Schools, and Micah’s father, Lawrence, only made so much money welding, working pipes, heat and air, pumps and motors. But the Chandlers believed in prayer. And so the Lord laid it upon Lawrence to build an oxygenated bed for his constantly ill son. He stretched plastic from the dry cleaners over the crib and placed a vaporizer inside. Micah melted into sleep. 

    And then he choked again. How many times did Lawrence rush into the dark with his second-born son overflowing in his arms? How many times did he ram his finger into his baby’s mouth to keep him breathing? 

    “Lord have mercy,” Lawrence says.

     

    I’ve nearly dropped my voice recorder twice, and I’m sure my hastily scrawled notes are totally illegible, but a few blocks down Muhammad Ali Boulevard, I’ve nearly closed Micah’s lead on me. His 46 years don't show when you walk with him, which is to say: when you chase him. Today, like every day, Micah’s got places to go and people to see, places to go and people to see. So many places to go and people to see that he’d never fit them all into one day if he didn’t 1) take strides that could clear the moats of Medieval fortresses, throwing his hips forward in wide arcs, and 2) know all the best routes and cleverest shortcuts to where he needs to go, which today, like every day, is everywhere. I’m just a hair behind when, out of nowhere and with the confident ease of someone entering their own kitchen, he cuts into the Starks Building, clutching his light black viola case by the backpack strap, swinging it around. (He keeps his violin in a hard case with buckles.) When he looks over his shoulder and curls his fingers at me, I get the message. Keep up.

    “You gonna write down what we do?” he asks, voice echoing up the high marble walls.

    I am, though I have no idea what that might be. Only Micah knows the tortuous path of roads, sidewalks, alleys and apparently shortcuts through skyscrapers on our itinerary today. What I know is that we’ll probably be meeting tons of people and contributing to Micah’s decades-old photo collection, a precursor to and great artifact of the selfie era, featuring Micah — sometimes smiling, sometimes looking askance, already distracted by whatever is next — with musicians. And actors. And stars of World Wrestling Entertainment. And politicians holding every office between the city council chambers and the United States Capitol. Which might explain why former Mayor Jerry Abramson dubbed April 5, 2009 — Micah’s 40th birthday — “Micah Chandler Day.”

    Outside, Micah can’t decide where to go first. He looks up at the sharp glass ceiling over Fourth Street Live, eyes the massive Hard Rock guitar. 

    “I go to these places to eat,” he says. He points to the Sports and Social Club. “Wanna look at the bowling alley?”

    He strolls in, passes the hostess without a word, and waves down the bartender. “Hey,” he says, nodding in my direction, “tell him about me.” The bartender’s eyes dart around the backside of the bar. “He takes care of me all the time,” Micah says. The guy gives me the SparkNotes version: Micah is a regular, he met him here a couple years ago. Then he waves goodbye and goes off to serve people.  

    “Thank you,” Micah says over his shoulder. He’s already off. He curls his fingers at me again. Keep up.

    In Sully’s, Micah shoots for a group of young men hanging around one end of the bar. “His name is Todd. He takes care of me,” he says, nodding at the bulky dude across the counter. Todd says he met Micah at Bearno’s by the Bridge. He grins and calls him what everyone calls him: “VIP,” a term of mysterious origin and obvious accuracy, given Micah’s omnipresence at every event in town worth attending. “Long-time regular before I even got down here,” Todd says. “OK, we gotta have a meeting real quick.”

    “Thank you,” Micah says. Todd pulls a baseball cap backward over his head and lumbers off to a table with his three or four friends. One carries a pitcher of beer. “Fucking awesome,” says a bro with cut-off sleeves.

    Micah heads for the Hard Rock, his favorite restaurant. People walk around him on the sidewalk. He prows through them, tall and fast and wobbly, like a ship with too many sails. Then he clops up to a young hostess, who greets him with the kind of exuberance you’d show your tooth brush in the morning. “Hey, Mike,” she says. He asks her if someone whose name I don’t catch is at work. 

    “No, she already left,” the hostess says.

    “Nancy here?” he asks. He’s searching.

    “No, she already left for the day.”

    He huffs out a quick breath, his truncated version of a sigh. He’s searching for a way, for the right shortcut, the perfect route. “Well, who’s here? Who’s the manager here?”

    The hostess glances past Micah, then back at him. “Well, they’re in the back doing retail.”

    “What about, uh, uh, let’s see…. Is, um, there’s no manager here?”

    “Marsha’s in the back. She’s doing retail. She’s busy right now.”

    “OK.” Sometimes you go to cut through a building and the door’s locked.

    Back down the street, Micah chats with a couple of guys outside Gordon Biersch Brewery before sending the revolving doors spinning, tumbling inside.

    “Hey, guys!” he proclaims. “This is the guy from Louisville Magazine!”

    Two beautiful young women with silken hair drape themselves onto Micah’s shoulders. They smile at him and let him take pictures with them. One giggles, and Micah tells her that her bangs don’t look good, that she should brush them back out of her face, which she does. “You’re too funny,” she says.

    Then Micah wants the woman at the front desk to listen to him play. 

    “Micah, I have to get ready to go into a phone conference,” she says.

    “Please? Just one song?” He’s searching again.

    “I really have to go.”

    Sometimes you make a wrong turn. But there’s always another route, another alley, another shortcut to the goal. Another goal. He looks over her shoulder, hunting for it. Then he spots her. She wears a maroon cardigan over a black dress, a burgundy bow in her long dark hair. 

    “What about her?” Micah says. “Can she do it?”

    The women exchange a knowing look.

    “She could listen to you for a second.”

    “OK,” he says. He sits down by a table outside, places his case on the ground, unzips it, slips a laminated piece of paper out from beneath his viola and hands it to the woman.

    “Can you hold this?”

    “Sure,” she says. It’s a picture of Micah with a caption that reads: “please support your local musician ambassador of Louisville.” He plants his big feet on the ground, tucks the viola under his chin and scratches out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She nods along.

    “I’m gonna show you something,” Micah says, looking up and down the sidewalk. “Just give you an example. You know how they walk the walk?”

    “Walk the walk?” she asks. Her voice bounces up and down like she’s talking to a toddler.

    “Just — this is, this is, this is to demonstrate what I do.”

    She shrugs. “OK.”

    “Can you go right to the light?” he asks.

    She steps up to the crosswalk, holding Micah’s sign like an ad.

    “Now turn around.”

    She turns on her heel and cocks her head at him. He motions for her to come back and scratches out more stars. She paces up to him, stops, sways with his music. But he drops the viola from his chin mid-phrase.

    “Now we’re gonna do it again,” he says, pointing back up the sidewalk with his bow.

    “But I wanna hear your pretty music, Micah,” she says.

    He just says, “I am.” She marches back up the street. He plays again. She takes a few steps, looks up at him, takes a few steps, looks up at him. She slows when she passes him, wondering how far he’ll make her walk. He runs an aimless scale through “how I wonder what you are,” rushes into “up above the world so high” and drops the viola mid-phrase again. “That’s good,” he says. He didn’t need her to walk. He needed her to walk past him, like everyone else.

    Now he wants to practice for a gig. He tells the woman to pretend she’s in a crowd, drinking a beer, talking to her friends. She raises an invisible glass. More “Twinkle, Twinkle.” When a young woman walks up to the door, he drops the viola to his lap like it’s suddenly heavy. 

    “Do me a favor,” he tells her. “Say hi to him.”

    She hesitates, but shakes my hand. “Emily.” 

    “How do you know Micah?” I ask.

    “I don’t. It’s my first day here,” she says. 

    Micah bows his head a little. “I’m sorry about that. I apologize,” he says.

    “You made a friend,” the woman in the bow says. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re very friendly.”

    “Do you have, do you have,” he says, stuttering. He takes a breath, but leaves the thought. “So that’s what I do,” he says. “People tip me out here.” A few stray singles sit in his case. How much does he make busking? “I don’t wanna say it,” he says, looking at the woman. “You know why, don’t you?

    “You don’t wanna say in there, because people might find you, though. It’s a target, though. People target each other.” He says he worries about gangs in the West End. “When people see that I make a lot of money, they might knock on my door, might kidnap me, might want money. I’m serious. That could happen.”

    We sit quiet for a while. Then the woman says, “You walk around a lot, Micah. I drive by somewhere else in the city, I’m like, ‘There’s Micah!’ He’ll be at the Old Spaghetti Factory one minute and down the road another.” She glances at the ground. “Is it all right if I go back inside and finish what I was doing?” she asks, rising from her chair. “Thank you, Micah. You all have fun.”

    Before she gets away, Micah takes a couple pictures with her on his little LG touchscreen phone, resting his head against hers. He asks her name, and she gives it to him. He asks her if he can leave his viola here, and she says yes. “It’s OK,” he says. “I have friends here.”

    And at the visitor’s center. And at Bistro 301, where Micah’s had free cheesecake for who knows how many years. And at Zoup, a sandwich shop. He takes me to each place, and people talk to us while they wipe bars and answer phones and grab boxes for Patricia. They call him VIP and a few agree to take yet another picture, but they can’t do lunch this week, they have to go to their daughter’s wedding, they have meetings. A few women refuse photos, but Micah badgers them into it. “I like you,” he tells them. “This is for my story. It’s important.” 

    Then all of them walk past him. Nobody can talk long. Everybody has to work now. It’s just bad timing, Micah. He pulls at the Old Spaghetti Factory’s gold doors, but the restaurant’s closed. He peeks in the window, sees someone cleaning up. “They’re in there,” he says. “They know me here. They’ll send someone out.” He pulls out his phone, reads the number on a sign in the window, calls. They tell him they have a meeting. 

    The rain needles down in the afternoon, and I tell Micah we should meet up tomorrow. 

    “One more place,” he says, and he takes me to Dish on Market. “One more place,” and we go to the nearby convenience store. “One more place,” and the rain falls down.

    “Micah,” I say, “I have to go. I have to go.” 

    He’s still searching. For everyone who needs to tell me about him, everyone he sees each day, which is everyone. It’s as if we’re shuffling through a deck of cards and every card is another person with another prior engagement. Droplets seep into my notebook, blur the ink. 

    “I have a meeting,” I tell him.

     

    The second child compared himself to the first. Chris played trumpet. Chris made good grades. Chris sat first chair in band. Chris became class president at Manual. 

    They didn’t expect two-year-old Micah to wake from the coma, but the Chandlers prayed, and Micah opened his eyes after three days, resurrected, praise God. He rushed forward until his legs muscled out the braces...eventually competed in the Special Olympics...ambled through the cerebral palsy school he attended at age three or four...tripped his way through Shawnee Elementary after a Head Start teacher agreed to let five-year-old Micah into his class as long as Beverly would walk over to put him on the toilet...trampled every doctor’s edict that he’d never read, never write, never walk — reading, writing, walking, sitting on the floor with his parents and aching through reading-comprehension tapes until he could ask for a meal, really ask for what he was hungry for and not just point at food and say, “Eat.” 

    “We had to start making him tell us what he wanted,” Beverly says. “He started making sentences where we could understand him when he was about in the sixth grade.” That’s when Micah passed from “special” classes to learning-disability classes at Noe Middle School. He played rubber band while Chris practiced trumpet. Then an orchestra teacher put a violin in Micah’s hands, which had already grown large enough for the viola as well. Micah plays the same inexpensive violin and viola he did then. “Anything over $500 is considered expensive; I can’t afford it,” he says. His parents hired tutors, and after two years, Micah enrolled in regular classes at duPont Manual High School and attended the Youth Performing Arts School.

    “YPAS was good for him,” says Chris, who now works as an engineer overseas, mostly in Kazakhstan. (He plays a mean trumpet with a Kazak pop group.) “The students had the mentality to accept anybody.” But not everyone was so tolerant. “His own people in the black community would talk about him,” Chris says. “That’s why you see him gravitate to white people around here.”

    The two boys caught the TARC bus together back then. Micah often walked with his toes pointed outward. “Every morning, he’d try to walk pigeon-toed to straighten his feet,” Chris says. Micah wanted to walk like his brother, but he didn’t want to sit with him in the back of the bus. He worried people would make fun of him. 

    Chris says his parents treated Micah the same as the rest of their kids. (Micah has three younger siblings.) “What brought his confidence: She would tell him, I would tell him, ‘You can do anything you want, Mike,’” Lawrence says, nodding at Beverly in their home in west Louisville. “Now, we knew he had disabilities, but we said, ‘You can do anything you put your mind to.’” That’s what Lawrence said when Micah had to make a man out of cardboard for school. Lawrence remembers that man, all eight slumping feet of him, all the painting and drawing and cutting. He remembers the pride his son took in his work, how he said, “Daddy, look what I made.” 

    An A. “Super,” Lawrence said.

    “What’s ‘super’?” Micah said.

    Lawrence told him to look it up. That’s when Micah started reading the encyclopedia. “His memory was excellent,” Chris says. “He could almost tell you what page and recite information.”

    After high school, Micah wanted to go to the University of Louisville. “I had him evaluated, and they kept saying he would never make it,” Beverly says. So Micah enrolled at Jefferson Community and Technical College, took reading-comprehension courses and earned an associate degree in microcomputer science. Then he went to U of L, where he studied viola and graduated with a bachelor’s in music. 

    Only cancer could make Micah stop moving forward. According to Beverly, it happened about eight years ago. Micah had what looked like a wart on his thumb, so she took him to a dermatologist, who called it sarcoma. Then a specialist wanted to remove Micah’s hand. Lawrence and Beverly found another doctor. Soon, Beverly noticed Micah wearing more clothes, losing weight. He went to Jewish Hospital for an X-ray and passed out. “When they ran tests again, they found out that he did have this other diagnosis,” Beverly says. Micah had a rare form of sarcoma. Doctors at Jewish Hospital removed all of the lymph nodes in his left arm. Without nodes, a fluid called lymph collects in Micah’s arm, hence his U of L sweatshirt, with its long, thick sleeves that hide his arms. He can wear short sleeves once in a while, but he has to keep an eye on the swelling.

    Micah still moves forward, though perhaps at a slower speed. Years of charity walks must wear on him. Chris remembers Micah coming home one time with about $15,000 cash for charity, though Micah doesn’t collect so much anymore. “With people knowing him, they readily gave to him,” Beverly says. “He did that for AIDS, MS, breast cancer. He’s known all over Louisville. But he has problems with socialization. He’s a socialized person, but sometimes he goes overboard.” 

    One time, Beverly says, Micah volunteered to hand out tickets at the Kentucky Center. He wanted to embrace the people he knew. “Well, that wasn’t the time to do that, especially women,” Beverly says. “So they called a security guard and told Micah he couldn’t come back.” That was years ago. Micah often visits the Kentucky Center nowadays. 

    “He just wants to be accepted,” Beverly says.

    “He wants to be accepted,” Chris says. 

    “Lord have mercy,” Lawrence says.

     

    Micah only goes to his home on 43rd Street in the Shawnee neighborhood to sleep. Ten, 11 or later when he slips through the little red front door into the white, two-story house. His parents, both in their early 70s, have retired. They don’t see or hear so well. Beverly has heart problems. Still, Lawrence usually waits up for Micah, talks through the day, the good, the bad. He gets it all out there in the open where Beverly’s shelves of little glass angels can stand council. Sure, Micah fibs sometimes. Says he’s home so late because the bus broke down, says he didn’t call because his cell phone died. But that’s not the point, really. The point is that he’s home. The point is that Lawrence can go to bed because his son is safe tonight. 

    Beverly’s thought about buying Micah a laptop, but he says he’s too hyper, and she worries he’d break it. So he sits at the Acer desktop in the kitchen, surfs Facebook for a couple hours, aglow in the light of his 4,457 friends. And his pictures: Micah teaching Mayor Fischer to hold a violin, Micah nuzzling up to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Micah with several Miss Kentucky winners on his arms, Micah shoulder to shoulder with a few professional football players, Micah with celebrities, news anchors, waitresses and probably you, too. 

    He sometimes stays awake until after 2 a.m. Then he climbs the narrow, curving stairs — he invented a name for each one as a child — and settles into his twin bed under the low-slanted ceiling in his room. There’s no mirror in the frame on his dresser, just cardboard, on which Micah has drawn a cross with the word “LOVE” and the phrase, “He never leave me not forsake me.” He’s put a couple of pictures with friends on the walls, and the medals he won in the Special Olympics hang from a shelf by the door. Except for a brief stint when he roomed with Chris in the basement, Micah has lived in this room his entire life. He has thought about moving out. But he doesn’t cook, doesn’t do laundry. “He fantasizes,” Beverly says. One time he let the bathtub overflow. Micah tells me that he won’t rush to move out. “It’s a waiting period,” he says.

    He leaves home around 7 a.m. every morning. Beverly tells him he has to slow down, that he’s 46 years old and needs more rest. He doesn’t listen. He works a couple hours at the VA each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then he usually goes to Wild Eggs downtown, where he can hug Terri at the counter and take pictures with her. Where he can eat chocolate-chip-and-bacon pancakes and play violin or viola for passersby. He spends 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday making art at Studio Works, a gallery for disabled people. Studio Works is a division of Zoom Group, an organization that helps disabled people find work. That’s how Micah got his job cleaning up at the VA. 

    After work, he goes wherever TARC can take him — the Highlands, downtown, South End, East End, the moon. He uses his old U of L ID to get free rides sometimes. “It’s like, how am I gonna network if I stay in the same place?” he says. Without networking, how would he know about Terri and those pancakes? How would he know Wild Eggs even exists? He says networking starts from A and B and C and goes on. It’s a pyramid. You want to build on that.

    Micah doesn’t mention the rest of the alphabet, but if there’s a Z, for him it must be west past Ninth Street. “The crime rate is too high,” he says. “The only thing I do in the West End is live there. I go in the house and go to bed.”

     

    She isn’t here. Micah said we’d meet a violinist at the Comfy Cow on Frankfort Avenue, but no one comes over to talk to us in our nook. Micah taps his feet, leans back in his chair. He looks out the window every few seconds, until finally something holds too much allure to ignore. He lopes over to the counter, tells a young woman that he plays here all the time and he’s gonna leave his stuff here. Then he heads for the door, motioning for me to follow. 

    He waits for a lull in traffic and crosses Frankfort Avenue. Earlier, at a crosswalk, he said, “We look both ways before crossing the street. You can put that in the story.” 

    The sun peeks out from clouds and flares a mild shine on Micah’s bald head. He makes a call, says, “I’m here,” and hangs up. We head into Cliftons Pizza. “Cliftons,” he says. “I normally play here. I don’t play here no more.” I’m confused.

    He opens the heavy black door. Behind the bar, a man in a ball cap, Cliftons T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts presses a phone to his ear. He looks up at Micah, then back down. 

    “I been playing here for a long time,” Micah says to me. “Until they went out of budget. They can’t afford to pay me no more.” He rests his hands on the bar and looks down at the guy, who says something into the phone.

    “This is the guy from Louisville Magazine,” Micah says.

    The server, who’s named Ross, pulls the phone away from his mouth. “I do have somebody on hold here,” he says.

    “Can you at least kinda say something to him, kinda tell him about me?” Micah says.

    “Gimme just a moment here, OK?” he says, bending down over the counter. “I’m sorry about that,” he says to the phone. “How can I help you?”

    Micah leans forward between the bar and the wall, like he’s fighting the urge to rush back there. After a few minutes, Ross hangs up and says, “It’s kind of a tough time, Micah.”

    “I want to be a surprise,” Micah says.

    Ross shakes his head, ponytail swinging. “The man to talk to would really be Mark, the owner.”

    Micah cranes his neck forward, like he’s reaching for something. “Well, you know me too. Mark’s not here. You could represent Mark. Please represent Mark.”

    Ross frowns at him. “I can’t represent Mark,” he says. “No.”

    Micah looks around, eyes glinting. “You know me for a long time. You’ve worked here for a long time.”

    “I have been, and you’ve been coming in here, playing.”

    “Tell him,” Micah says, pointing at me. 

    I ask about the first time he remembers Micah playing here. “I couldn’t even tell you that,” Ross says. “It was so long ago.”

    “He’s a manager,” Micah says. “He’s a general manager.”

    “Actually, I’m not a manager. I’m just a server,” Ross says. He tries to slip out from behind the bar and past Micah. “Excuse me, please,” he says.

    Micah stands still, concern contorting his face. “You could be a manager!” he says.

    “Nope. No. I’m not a manager. ’Scuse me, please.”

    Micah steps aside and Ross jogs up a small flight of stairs that lead to the back of the building. 

    “I’m sorry about that, man,” Micah says. No one answers. He starts for the stairs, which lead to what looks like an employees-only area. I ask Micah when we’re meeting the violinist. 

    “Right now,” he says, still looking at the stairs. 

    “Shouldn’t we go, then?” I ask.

    He curls his fingers at me — Keep up — and heads up the stairs. He walks down a narrow hall and stops a short woman in an apron. “I’m working,” she says. “I don’t have time.” 

    Defeated, he comes back down the hall, watching his feet. “Come on, let’s go,” he says. He looks at the bar to find Ross again. “Hey, Ross, I apologize,” he says.

    “That’s OK,” Ross says.

    The door shuts behind us and we blink away the neon. Micah says he started playing at Cliftons when it opened. “Let’s say back in ’96.”

    We don’t really look as we cross the road. No one’s coming. 

    “When did you stop?” I ask. “You said they couldn’t afford you.”

    Micah frowns, steps over the yellow line. “You don’t wanna say that, though.”

    “I do if it’s true.”

    “Well, off and on,” he says. “’Cause they did… I’m not saying they… I did volunteer to play there. Until they stopped letting me do it no more because…” He nods to himself. “I just say I started off and on.” 

    We return to our Comfy Cow seats. The violinist still isn’t here.

    Micah looks at his knees. “You ever done that before?” he says. 

    “Ever caught someone while they were busy? Sure.”

    “No,” Micah says, leaning toward me. He stares into the space beside my head. “I’m talking about when you do a story. You ever take them to different places like I do, and they have the tendency to be busy?”

    Sort of, I tell him. He sits up, huffs. “Tell me about that,” he says. “Sometimes… I just don’t wanna get people mad, though.

    “I feel bad for Cliftons Pizza,” he says. “I just wanted to be nice to them. Don’t put that in the story. Know why?” He leans forward, as if sharing a secret. “Not now, unless, if we in the area again, we might have to call them, set up an appointment. Because we just can’t catch people when they’re busy. It’s not a good story. So we’re gonna scratch it out right now.”

    I ask him where he’s rehearsing with the Louisville Civic Orchestra tonight. 

    “It’s gonna be the Baptist Seminary,” he says. “But we’re meeting somebody here.” He looks out the window toward Cliftons again. I try to get him talking, ask what kind of music he likes.

    “Actually, let me talk about Clifton,” he says, sitting up in his chair. “I started playing Clifton, let’s say back in ’98. And I usually normally play, usually — when I started playing there, I normally get, like, cash money. It was just a volunteer, though. I wasn’t hired; I was volunteering.”

    He looks out the window again. “You know what we need to do? We don’t need to be going to these businesses. I’ll just mention the business’ name, and what I used to do. That’ll save us time. In fact, I’m gonna call them back and apologize to them, because I feel like I was in their way.”

    Comfy Cow pumps Pink’s “Try” down onto us. Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned.

    “Hey, Ross? This is Micah,” he says into his phone.

    But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.

    “I have to apologize that I was in y’all’s way while you were busy. I apologize. No, I was trying to be nice to you guys about the interview with Louisville Magazine, and I apologize. OK, thank you, though.”

    Gotta get up and try, try, try.

    Micah hangs up and smiles at me. “See there? I had to apologize. They were busy, know what I’m saying? It’d be kinda rude to come in and say, ‘Hey, we gonna do this.’ You ever done that like that, going to different businesses when you doing a story?”

    He rocks back and forth. I tell him no, not really. We sit until Pink plays out. You gotta get up and try, try, try.

     

    Ding, ding, ding. Micah always forgets his seatbelt in my car, and the alarm reminds him. “Shoot,” he says, pulling the strap over himself. We went to the wrong Comfy Cow. “They’re over on Eastern Parkway.”  

    Micah guides me. We rumble down brick alleyways, cut through parking lots. “I wanna show you a trick,” Micah says. “Make a left turn. Make a right.” I wouldn’t be surprised if he could draw a map of the entire Louisville street grid. I drive past a beat-up couch by an old wooden fence and turn by Highland Cleaners. I ask how Micah knows the alleyways so well, but he just says he takes TARC. I park the car, and he rummages in his bag. He takes out one of his new business cards and a flier for his upcoming gallery opening: VIP, Variations in Perspective. “You don’t have to stay, but you could look around. You can put that in the story,” he says.

    The new business card bears no “VIP,” only a picture of Micah playing and the phrase “Book Today for your lunch or Happy Hour Event!” Beverly’s glad. She doesn’t like the whole VIP thing. All these people say that to Micah, and she thinks it goes to his head. She’s working on that with him. “However it got started,” she says. Micah doesn’t even know. He guesses Facebook.

    The clouds thicken above us. Micah tries the back door to Comfy Cow, but it’s locked. He goes around front. A woman with shoulder-length brown hair sits at a table outside with an older woman, a young man and a skinny young girl with hair past her shoulders. 

    “Hey!” Micah says. “We’re gonna go inside. Come on.”

    The woman gets up and hugs Micah, says her name is Kathy Combs. Her teenage daughter, Sydonia, sits at the table and blushes. She gets up, let’s Micah give her an awkward side-hug. She smiles, revealing a shining set of braces, and keeps her gaze on the ground.

    Micah sets his viola on the table and pats it. “Get it out!” he says.

    She looks at Micah, sees his bright eyes, and knows she can’t escape. She opens the case, balances the viola in her hands. She takes the bow, tucks the instrument under her chin. No one mentions that this isn’t a violin. Micah even refers to it as a violin, though he’s playing in the viola section tonight.

    “Just to let you know, she hasn’t practiced violin in a while,” Combs says.

    Micah looks from Sydonia to Combs and back. He leans forward, trying to contain his excitement. “We don’t wanna be rushing,” he says, “but play something! This is for my story.”

    Sydonia scratches out a note. It warbles in her hands and dies. Micah stands behind her, takes her hands in his paws. He pulls her up straight, sets the viola securely under her chin, tightens his grip on her bow hand, holds it firm. 

    “Go,” he says.

    Sydonia executes a minor scale in thirds, dipping one step down, two steps up. Micah almost lunges back at Combs and me. “Can you videotape this for me, and put that in the story, please?”

    Sydonia stops playing and makes eye contact with her mother. “She don’t want that,” the mother says.

    “Can you take a picture with me?” He steps behind Sydonia again, puts her back in playing position. Her mother snaps a picture. Micah looks up at the clouds and decides we should go inside. Sydonia puts the viola back in the case with apparent relief, and Micah zips it up.

    They follow him into Comfy Cow and plop down at a table. Micah sits beside Combs, pats her shoulder. “You look pretty with your hairdo,” he says.

    “Thank you,” she says. “He hates it when I wear hats.”

    “Will you take our picture?”

    “Mine and yours?” Combs asks. 

    Micah hugs up to Combs while Sydonia takes a picture. He doesn’t loosen his grip. Combs and Sydonia talk about how they met Micah, how Sydonia needed a violin instructor a couple years ago. Later, over the phone, Combs tells me, “The reason we decided to stay wasn’t violin, but because of — this is coming from a good place: It’s important for me that my children be involved with people who are different.” 

    Micah’s hands wander around Combs’ arms. “Here,” she says, “let me hold your hands, Micah.” She smiles at him and anchors his hands in hers.

    Sydonia wanted to go to YPAS, like Micah. They used to have a lesson every week, meeting at Tyler Park, coffee shops, downtown. They don’t get together so much anymore. Sydonia’s more into visual art now. “Maybe, one day, Sydonia might be a pretty good violinist. Thank God that I have wisdom to have patience with Sydonia,” Micah says.

    Sydonia and her mother say they still meet Micah for lunch every now and then. “Now we’ve just kind of become like family,” Combs says. “We love him.”

    “I love you, though,” Micah says. He asks Combs for another picture, and she takes one with him. “Hey, Sydonia,” he says, “I’ve got a surprise for you. You wanna sit in on rehearsal? We going to the seminary right now.”

    “Um,” she says, looking to her mother for help.

    “Well, we’re taking her brother shopping for his birthday right now,” Combs says.

    Micah wilts, drops his arms. “No, no,” he says. “Kathy, please. You know why? Because you don’t have to stay. You could stay for five minutes.” He’s searching, always searching. There’s got to be a way from this point A to that point B.

    Sydonia says, “I think maybe another time, because I do —”

    “No, honey,” Micah says. “Sydonia.”

    “Today’s her brother’s birthday,” Combs says.

    “Well, it could be a birthday present,” Micah says.

    They tell him they’ll come to another one.

     “OK,” Micah says. He slumps back, defeated again.

    The rain falls outside. I tell Micah we should get to rehearsal.

    “You wanna see a picture of me and Rand Paul?” he asks, thumbing his phone.

    “Sure,” Combs says. “Great photo, Micah.”

    “That’s so random,” Sydonia says. 

    “Let’s go,” Micah says. He gathers up his viola, stands by the table. He hugs Combs again. 

    “Call me later,” she says. “You guys are going to be late.”

    “Can we do nine o’clock?” he asks.

    “How about 10 on Saturday?”

    Combs and Sydonia walk up to the counter to order. Micah follows, waves at the cashier. “Do me a favor,” he says. “Do you have a piece of paper?”

    The cashier holds up a small scrap.

    “No, no, I need a big piece of paper.” Micah reels around, watching the rain. I offer him notebook paper.

    “No, no,” he says. “I don’t want their hair to get wet.”

    Combs laughs. “We don’t care about rain, Micah.”

    He looks at the rain again, then slowly turns back to Combs, like he’s not sure if he can trust her judgment about the rain. We have seven minutes to get to rehearsal.

    “You gotta go,” she says.

    “You wanna walk us out the door?” he says.

    He pulls her by the hand, nearly drags her out the door, hugging her again. “Do me a favor,” he says. “Go back inside. Don’t get wet. Please. Stay dry. Please?”

    Micah bolts out into the rain. He can’t really run, but he moves quick, slinging one leg around the other. He jumps into my car, breathes heavy. Water drips down his face. Again he guides me to our destination like a blunt GPS: left, right, park here. He runs into the Baptist Seminary, nearly falls by the door, takes the elevator down to a wide-open rehearsal room. The musicians have already set up. They sit and wait for the baton. No one much looks at Micah until he heads for the podium and says, “Hey, everybody, he’s doing a story on me.” Then he drops into his seat in the viola section. The oboe sounds so the other instruments can tune. Micah fiddles with his tuning pegs, then puts the instrument down and heads for the bathroom. The conductor waves his baton, and the orchestra kicks up a march before he gets back. 

     

    Micah prefers drawing to painting. It steadies his shaking hands. He finds pictures from the Internet, re-creates them with rulers and graphite, specific as a blueprint. Then he adds things, a splash of green coloring pencil in the background, a new purple to the sky, fading pastel pencil marks and scratches across the page. 

    “This is even more intense than what was in the photo he was referencing,” says Andrew Hardin, a psych coordinator at Studio Works. He’s talking me through Micah’s art at the gallery opening. Micah’s drawn a wooden bridge. Hard lines stretch away from the viewer, and I feel like I might fall into the frame. Later, Studio Works will take 20 percent of the $100 he’ll make from selling this drawing.  

    Micah talks to the manager, Heather Drury. She tries to make sure Micah looks nice. Earlier this week, just before he went to meet Rand Paul, she told him he should wear a sweatshirt without stains. “Remember, like we talked about last week?” she said. “Dress to impress,” he said. 

    She also tries to keep him in line. “Remember, this isn’t just the Micah show,” she says. The gallery opening features two other artists.

    Micah pours himself a soda from the snack table and wanders over the concrete floor. Art surrounds him — paintings of Snickers, machinery, Rothko-style squares, all made by artists like Micah.

    A woman in a bright red shirt and Ikat-patterned leggings gapes at Micah’s artwork. “Look at this!” she says, waving at Micah’s drawing of a building. She loves all of his work. She “Wows” and “Awesomes” her way past the plane propellor, the Belle of Louisville, the beached boat. I tell her I’m profiling Micah.

    “Good!” she says.

    “What do you like about his art?”

    Micah walks over, shaking his head. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Don’t include her.”

    The woman looks at Micah, uncertain if she’s allowed to look offended.

    “She’s not on my VIP list,” Micah says.

    “Oh, Micah,” she says. “I was gonna be your biggest supporter.”

    He looks her up and down. “I like you, though, but I have to keep it limited. I love you, though.”

    She’s never met Micah before. “She loves your work,” I tell him.

    “I’m not being mean. OK, go ahead and say something. Say something to Dylon.”

    “My name is Demeisha English,” she says. Now Micah knows her, and she knows him. She looks at the beached boat, its hull rusting to nothing beneath a thin, crude sun. “I mean, look at that. That looks real. Look at the water. This is just awesome. I’m blown away.”

    Micah looks around at the crowd of people. Now 15, now 20, now 25 meander around the paintings, sip soda and tea.

    “I just…” he stutters. Huffs. He looks at his name on the sign by the door. Everyone here knows who he is. “Everybody’s VIP,” he says.

     

    A few days after Derby, we sit at Gordon Biersch’s outdoor bar. Micah orders us Cokes, and we get them for free.

    “I went to the track the other day,” he says. “I didn’t see anybody that I know. You know why? Because it’s too many out-of-towners.” 

    A waitress with a tight blond ponytail walks up. “This another celebrity friend, Micah? A VIP?” she asks. 

    He turns in his chair, drapes an arm over the back. “This is the guy from Louisville Magazine,” he says. “Tell him about me.”

    She introduces herself as Robin Snider. “You’ve been a fixture downtown for a while,” she says. “Avid U of L fan. I see him at lots of games.”

    Micah pulls out his phone. He wants a picture with her.

    “I gotta go to this table,” Snider says. “I’ve got a customer, Micah.”

    “I’m sorry,” he says. He shifts in his seat, stares at his lap. 

    “I been popular,” he says. “I have a unique personality. I’m more comfortable with certain people. I wasn’t comfortable at the track. When people see me around…”

    He looks up and down the sidewalk.

    “OK, for example: What would happen? Now I’m gonna ask you a question: What would happen — that’s gonna be the beginning and the end of the story. If I was staying at home, doing nothing; if I’m at one place; if I had not found these events happening; what would happen to me?”

    His voice rises. “What would happen to me? What would I be? I wouldn’t know who you are. I wouldn’t have got into newspaper, magazine, radio, TV. Do you understand? It’s all about me being out there. I call it my, I call it my angelic surrounding. I make friends everywhere. I make friends easy. You just talk to them.”

    I ask how many friends he has.

    “Right now, I don’t know,” he says. “I can’t classify, because I’m more an independent person. A friend is like somebody that you hook up with on a consistent basis. Like, every day. Like, we get together for lunch once a week, or whatever. Or it’s something more consistent, that I choose. More loyalty, more trusting.”

    His phone rings. “Hello, Susan,” he says. “Do you know a guy named Kevin that runs some kind of event? Like a networking event?”

    He leans forward, phone cradled to his ear. “Do you think it’s a business-type deal or a social thing? Kevin don’t want me to come out there because I’m a social butterfly type of person, VIP type of person. When you say business, if I have my own business card — which I do — is that considered a business? What about coming to see me on the street? That still a business? OK, if I happened to recruit people to teach violin lessons, is that considered business? OK, more toward sales and stuff. It could be a lot of people who wears a suit and tie and everything. So what you’re saying is, as a friend, that I wouldn’t fit with that crowd of people, right?”

    Micah nods. “Appreciate you. Thank you,” he says. 

    “Like I said, I kinda knew a lot of people through networking,” he tells me. “You have to do something to know people: play violin, do art, do charity work and everything. If I hadn’t done these things, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I feel like I’m a special person.” 

    He rests his head on the bar. “I was taught by my parents and my other friends that you have to take rejection.” He sits up, goes still. “When I was doing charity work, I’m like, ‘Hey, would you like to give a donation?’ And they not gonna. Sometimes they give a couple dollars. Or somebody slam the door in my face. If that happens, if they slam the door in my face, that’s considered rude, but I’m not gonna take that. I have to learn that if one person slams the door in my face, then the next neighbor will open his door. If you got 10 houses, OK? Ten houses. My goal is to be able for people at least open all of them.” His voice goes turbulent, squeaking high and dropping low and getting louder, louder, louder.

    “Going places is reaching out to others to let them know that I’m around. I wanna reach out, I wanna do good, I want people to know who I am in this town. I wanna be more comfortable.” He looks at his glass. “Like this place,” he says. “If they offer me a Coke, I am more comfortable. You have to take what the good Lord gives you. The Lord led me to this place or Hard Rock Cafe. You go where good people are.”

    His fingers grab at one another. “This is 2012, right? Or ’14, 2015. In 1989, I didn’t do anything about Fourth Street. I didn’t do anything,” he yells. The people around us ignore him. Micah slaps his thigh. “I’m preaching now!” he screams, leaning toward me. I worry he’ll fall out of his seat. “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you! That’s why I go to ballgames, stuff like that. I want to be involved.”

    He rubs his head. “If I was not here, do you think these people would treat me differently?”

    He holds my gaze, waiting for an answer. 

    “If I didn’t come here, would they treat me differently?

    “It would be different. If Robin didn’t know who I was. Same thing, anybody else. It’s to be welcomed. You wanna be welcome. That’s my goal. To be everywhere. People that know you say, ‘I saw you at the basketball game. Come join me. Come be at my table.’ Jesus did the same thing. He was out there spreading the gospel. I was like Jesus.”

    He leans left, right, left again. He talks about high school. “Find something fun to do, back in high school, yeah! I wanna get involved with the pep rallies, yeah! I wanna get involved with the school spirit, yeah! People would not know who I was if I did not have school spirit. When I became cancer-free, I was born again. My born-again Christian has created this opportunity to be out there and spread it.”

    I try to ask a question, but Micah waves me off. 

    “I feel like people would treat me differently if I wasn’t out here. People that don’t know who I am. I wouldn’t have become a very important person in the Louisville area if I didn’t spread and let them know who I am. I am Micah, a very important, special person in Louisville. Like this lady over here,” he says. He looks at a blond woman. She stands at a table nearby, not looking at us.

    “She knew who I was,” Micah says. “But she’s not from here. You know why she found out who I was? I gave her a business card. She remembered me, even though she’s not from Louisville. That’s the goal: for people to recognize me. It’s just, just, just, every place I go comes out of who I am.”

    He looks at his full glass again.

    “That’s the story,” he says. “The story is: Who is Micah? Who is this person that comes to these restaurants to eat every day? Who is this person that comes to all the basketball events, baseball, football, musical events? Who is he? I compare myself to Jesus. I compare myself to Forrest Gump. It’s like this hotel,” he says, looking off toward the Hyatt. “I don’t know anybody in the hotel. Do you know what they would say to me? ‘Get out!’ That’s the point.” He cranes his neck over the bar, catches a glimpse of the bartender. “Can you imagine how many places I could have got kicked out if they didn’t know who I was?”

    He sinks in his chair. Snider zips outside, and Micah yells at her. “Come and finish the story?” he says.

    “I don’t know what else to tell you,” she says. 

    A few minutes later, she comes over for a picture. Micah puts his arm around her. She grabs his hand and pulls it away from her ponytail. “I thank God that I was able to find a friend that I love,” Micah says, voice breaking. “This is one of them.”

    Snider says Micah waits for the bus here.

    “I don’t mean no harm,” Micah says, “but it’s a lot of people out there that don’t know me. Jesus, for example, got a lot of rejection.”

    Snider tells Micah a lot of people care about him. She tells him he does good artwork. She walks away.

    “She found me because of Louisville. It’s Louisville. It’s a city. People found me!” he screams. No one looks. He stares over at the woman from out of town. She leans on the table, smiles at something her friend says. 

    “This woman remembers me,” he says.

     

    An earlier version of this story appeared in the June 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine.

     

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a poet, essayist and journalist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine. His narrative journalism has earned him first-place awards in feature writing and profile reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2015, Sarabande Books awarded him the Flo Gault Poetry Prize. His poems will appear in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and The Collagist this summer.

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