MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: What street people eat

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My 5th floor office perch at Main and Huron anchors the north side of downtown Ann Arbor. Good weather brings throngs of shoppers, diners and drinkers, as well as the inevitable street people asking for money. Some of them have claimed certain spots just as surely as the buildings behind them, and are themselves familiar downtown landmarks. I spoke to three of them last night to get a sense of how they eat, but more than that as I heard a lot of their life stories.

Arthur is known for walking up to people with his crutch, which some say he will switch from one side to the other. His raspy "Excuse me, can you spare 50 cents or a dollar?" is known to many who may encounter him several times an evening. I have always found Arthur friendly. When he hits me up in my running clothes, after I am cooling down from a post-work run, I remind him to catch me when I am dressed up where I make up for all the times I have to decline him.

Last night I gave him $5 for a few minutes of his time. Arthur was quick to point out that he is not homeless, is a veteran, and has a VA apartment. He asks for money to supplement his fixed income, and to eat. His most memorable meal was a "filet mignon dinner, at the Chop House" (in downtown Ann Arbor), which someone generously bought for him. His favored meal of choice is a hamburger, which he said "is stupid to buy downtown," rattling off the prices and naming the restaurants: "$9.50 (here), $14 (there), it's ridiculous. Even the Fleetwood Diner wants $6.50." He will eat a relatively cheap Blimpy Burger now and then.

Like all the men I spoke with, Arthur likes healthy food. His favorite vegetable is spinach, "with a little oil." Arthur told me he does not buy drugs or alcohol with the money people give him. He served in Vietnam, where he "got drunk one night and went on a midnight helicopter run, and didn't strap myself in." He was shelled and his body went falling backwards, severely injuring his stomach, side and hip, accounting for his limp and his "flashbacks." He swore off alcohol that night 42 years ago, and hasn't had a drop since.

John prefers to sit at the south end of Main Street with his Swedish Elk Hound and faithful companion, Roscoe. If you give John money, he gives you a treat to feed the gentle dog. Roscoe came wandering to him three years back when he had a hot dog cart in Port Huron, an experience which thrust him into politics when he protested bureaucratic misconduct and police abuse that kept trying to shut him down. (He adds, "I love the cops in Ann Arbor and in my new home town of Saline.") John even ran for mayor of Port Huron in 2011 and is proud of the many news articles about him, which he keeps posted in his own apartment, also provided with the assistance of the Veterans Administration.

Roscoe has made John happy. "I take less depression medicine because of Roscoe." Like Arthur, John denies any alcohol or drug use. "Roscoe is my only habit," he says, stating that he once refused an offer of $1,200 for the dog. John is grateful for the government that provides him with a place to stay and health insurance, and wants to "give back," with plans to turn Roscoe into a therapy dog, cheering up patients at the VA hospital three times a week. He even puts some of Roscoe's fur near his bird houses, for birds to use in building their nests.

John had a memorable meal on his birthday last year at nearby Real Seafood Company, where he numbers many employees among his friends. He got a 2-for-1 deal, with a filet mignon and lobster dinner, which Roscoe helped him finish. The servers gave him a break on the bill, but John still insisted on giving them a generous tip.

Al was the only actually homeless person I met, sitting quietly on the edge of a concrete sidewalk tree planter. When I introduced myself, he guessed my last name. It turned out we'd worked at the same publication 15 years ago, where I was a freelance writer and he helped distribute the free magazines.

Al was despondent. He used to live in a tent near the railroad tracks, but it had been stolen. He occasionally stays at the local shelter and can eat there, but he freely admitted that he was not eating well because of his alcohol dependency. He also has some issues with food allergies. He appreciated the healthy choices at the shelter, including the salad and fruit. His favorite food is "pizza, with a lot of vegetables," and his most memorable meal was "filet mignon." He paused, wistfully adding, "It's been a long time."

Al's health is not great and he looks every bit his age. Although he's not a veteran, he is eligible for health insurance benefits provided by the county. He recently showed up at University of Michigan hospital with a blood alcohol level of .48.

I gave Al a little more than I gave the others, asking him to make sure he used it for something to eat.

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil rights litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Tue, Jun 16, 2015