Street-fightin’ man

Mickey Mahaffey sits facing me across a table in Malaprop’s — sipping the coffee I bought him, discussing a way of life I never knew existed. It’s easy to listen to him — he’s smart and articulate, expressing himself in clear, vivid images. There’s more to it than that, though: Tall and tanned, muscular, face glowing with an energy I wish I had, Mahaffey is something of an enigma — living proof that things are not always what they seem.

Watching him cradle the coffee gently in his large, capable hands, hearing him discuss social philosophy as if he were born to it, it’s easy to imagine Mahaffey making his mark in society in any of a dozen ways — businessman, professor, minister, maybe even a spokesperson for a health-food company, a lean and healthy prophet testifying (to an aging America) that life truly can begin at middle age.

By most standards, though, his position is much simpler: Mahaffey is homeless.

“We don’t call ourselves homeless,” he notes, referring to a subculture that he says not only exists, but is growing “We prefer the term ‘home free.’ The difference is that most homeless people don’t have a choice: We do. We’ve just chosen to live what I believe is a very natural way of life — which is walking and living simply.”

The lifestyle requires little in the way of possessions or comforts; it’s centered on living outside, breathing fresh air, and walking. If that sounds like an extended camping trip, try doing it without money — and with no designated place to camp.

And then there’s the walking — and we’re not talking strolls around the block, here.

“I took my first long walk about three years ago,” he recalls. “I went with a friend known as Camper Dave. We traveled from the southern end of the Outer Banks to Virginia Beach, and then up to Richmond — about 300 miles or so. From there, we hitched a ride to the western end of Virginia and walked the Blue Ridge Parkway back to Asheville. There were times when I was scared. I’d never gone out with no money before, and along the coast, you never know if you’re going to find water, much less food. That’s pretty intimidating. Without Camper Dave as a guide, I probably would have quit and gone home. I’m glad I made it.”

Living outside, eating whatever food he might find (and going hungry when he doesn’t) has been both an eye- and a soul-opening experience for Mahaffey. Among the things he’s rediscovered is the generosity of the American people — and the realization that he can’t always be in control.

“I’ve tried to learn to live by faith, and it really gets to be magical at times,” he confides with a smile. “I’ve found that, the more I’m willing to let go of my fears and insecurities, the more everything I need comes — that, as long as my intent is good and compassionate, I don’t have to worry about the things I need.”

As an example, he cites his experiences hitchhiking. “I don’t do it much, and I always go with a prayer and a belief that I’ll be all right. Not only have I not had any problems, but people have sometimes gone hundreds of miles out of their way to get me where I was going. I sometimes get out of a car with tears in my eyes, because it reminds me that there is still good in the world.”

Uphill battles

That same spirit of compassion, though, often puts him in what many would consider the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of us tend to avoid potential conflict whenever possible, but Mahaffey seems drawn to it — particularly when he sees it as a David-and-Goliath situation.

“Of all the towns I’ve traveled through, Asheville has always been one of the most peaceful and tolerant. But in the past few weeks, there has been a lot of pressure to move homeless people out away from some of the private businesses,” he observes, explaining that he has encountered a more aggressive police presence since returning to the city a few weeks ago. He had just arrived in the downtown area when he saw several police cars blocking a lane of traffic on Patton Avenue, near the BB&T building.

On closer inspection, Mahaffey found that the police response seemed way out of proportion to the alleged offense.

“It was 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, and it was all [about] a teenager that had a dog without a leash. So I walked up to these guys [police officers] and said, ‘Now, why have you sent four squad cars, with lights on, and you all are fully armed, to take care of this one little problem kid?’ They told me they were sent by the chief, that if I had a problem with it, I could go see the chief.”

A few days later — after seeing a photo in the Citizen-Times of an Asheville policeman videotaping a protest group at a recent City Council meeting — Mahaffey decided to accept that invitation.

“It reminded me of some of the Third World countries I’d been to,” he says. “I spent an hour talking to [Chief Will] Annarino. We had an amiable conversation, even though we strongly disagreed on most subjects.”

Since that first meeting, Mahaffey has been back to Annarino’s office several times — and even had his own run-in with the APD. A few hours after organizing a group of homeless folks to go out on a cleanup effort, which netted 21 bags of trash from city streets, Mahaffey says he was sitting on a public bench in front of the Merrill Lynch building on Patton Avenue. That’s when a police officer asked him to move along.

“I was hot and thirsty and had just stopped to drink a Coke I’d gotten from Beanstreets. I hadn’t been there five minutes when this guy walks over and asks me how long I’m going to be there. I told him I didn’t know; I wanted to drink my Coke. He told me I needed to find somewhere else to sit.”

When Mahaffey refused to leave, the situation escalated, he says, eventually involving several other officers — and a trek into the building by one of the cops to determine whether the bench was public or private. Once it was decided that Mahaffey was sitting on public property, the officers left. Rather than feeling a sense of victory, though, he says he now feels that he has to watch his step.

“Evidently, there had been an avalanche of complaints about some of the people that hang around down there. But you know, there are a lot of hikers in this area, a lot of people traveling the Appalachian Trail — many of them doctors, lawyers. I could easily have been one of them. In some ways, now, I feel like a marked man.”

He pauses, then makes a wry face. “It’s the same old thing that’s always happened, down through history. Pick on the people who either don’t have the means, or can’t defend themselves.”

Challenges — and answers

Despite having few physical ties to the area, Mahaffey has stepped up to offer both advice on and solutions to some of Asheville’s high-profile disputes. Over the past few weeks, he’s found himself dealing with issues ranging from pro-cannabis groups to the much-publicized debate between the city and west Asheville’s Trinity Baptist Church.

Mahaffey asked members of the group that has petitioned the city to relax enforcement of anti-marijuana laws to take a different approach with their efforts. The reason was simple.

“The kids in the streets were the ones taking all the heat,” he explains, claiming that each public debate on the issue seemed to be followed by a police crackdown.

More recently, Mahaffey attended a City Council meeting during which representatives of Trinity Baptist Church threatened to sue the city over what they considered a violation of the church’s First Amendment rights. At issue is a rezoning request by Trinity, in connection with a large complex the church wants to build in a residential neighborhood — for purposes at odds with the city’s definition of a church. Unless some compromise can be reached, Trinity could be forced to relocate, in order to proceed with its expansion plans. In the meantime, neighborhood residents — who petitioned City Council for help — are caught in the middle.

Mahaffey listened to the arguments and threats and then left, upset about the confrontation between church and state. “I thought about it for a long time, then grabbed my backpack and hiked out to Trinity,” he recalls, noting that he walked several miles in the dark in order to be at the church by early morning. “I slept on their lawn, and prayed about it a long time. Somewhere in the middle of the night, it came to me that of the two people the church probably respects most, neither of them were known for their money. Jesus went out to the world with nothing. The Apostle Paul was well known for not taking money for his work. I just thought that Trinity could use the $18 million they’re going to spend on the new buildings in a lot better ways … maybe, like, helping people.”

Church representatives advised Mahaffey that neither of Trinity’s ministers was available that morning, but that didn’t stop him from writing a letter to Mayor Leni Sitnick (and sending a copy to Trinity) proposing changes in the wording of the city’s Unified Development Ordinance that he feels would ward off the threatened lawsuit.

On a more personal note, meanwhile, Mahaffey is also busy conducting his own war on city trash. “Asheville will not clean up after itself. There’s a lot of talk, everybody saying, ‘Oh, we’ll organize a campaign.’ [But] it’s not that difficult. Basically, all you have to do is just bend over and pick some up.” Since leading some of the city’s homeless residents in a cleanup effort, Mahaffey has spent several days cleaning up parts of the city by himself. The target of his most recent efforts has been the bridge where I-240 crosses Merrimon Avenue. In one day, Mahaffey says he picked up 56 bags of trash there — and didn’t get it all.

“If I say nothing else, I want to say that I’ve earned the right to sit on a public bench,” he proclaims.

Less-than-humble beginnings

The interview is almost over. The coffee has grown cold, and Mahaffey is starting to look restless. During the several hours I’ve spent with him, it’s become apparent that he’s both well-known and well-liked by a wide range of people.

At one point, a teenager stops by to talk for a while, tries (unsuccessfully) to bum a cigarette, then eventually drifts away. Later, a man in a dress shirt and slacks hesitantly approaches, to invite Mahaffey to the next meeting of the Blue Ridge Parkway Task Force, a local group that seems extremely interested in his views. Even the woman behind the counter pauses to chat with him when he refills his cup. Mahaffey deals with each in the same soft voice, turning the same level gaze on them.

He blends easily amid the swirl of people in the cafe, too — apart from his backpack, there’s nothing to single him out. The blue-jean shorts, khaki T-shirt and open, long-sleeved denim shirt are all clean. He’s clean-shaven; nothing about him bespeaks the destitute life most of us associate with the homeless.

Mahaffey is learning, though, that getting involved with the city’s problems, and trying to protect the homeless, exacts a price: For a man accustomed to the freedom of the open road, he suddenly has a schedule full of people to meet and places to be.

“I think my life as a vagrant is being seriously challenged,” he says with a laugh.

If Mahaffey seems at odds with society’s image of the homeless, it’s because he is. Once a successful western North Carolina businessman, he found himself tied so closely to his work that he had little time for anything else.

“I owned businesses most of my life,” he explains — his voice trailing off, his eyes drifting from one person to the next, assessing them in ways I’m not sure I understand. “I had a construction company in Hendersonville for years, called Lifestyle Enterprises. The last one I owned was a seafood-distributing company, called Seafood Express. I was even a Baptist minister for about five years — did weddings, funerals, a few tent revivals, but I gave that up, too.”

He pauses, then shrugs. “The truth is, though, I didn’t have time for my family, didn’t have time for myself. I didn’t know there was any way else to live. Then one day, when I was doing my bills, I started figuring how long I had to work to pay for the things I owned and realized they just didn’t mean that much to me.”

Other motivating factors also helped disengage him from the hectic life most of us take for granted — things Mahaffey doesn’t like to discuss. He’d lost his family to divorce, his health was suffering, and life itself seemed little more than working and paying bills. But it was when he broke it down — calculating how much of his work week was devoted to maintaining his possessions — that he began searching for a new beginning. One of the first steps was to sell everything — businesses, house and cars.

Mahaffey leans back and sighs. “I made enough to pay off all my bills and live for about a year, without doing much of anything. I finally got it all down to just a backpack, and you know, not owing anybody anything, and living [just] to have what I need — just the basics of life — has been one of the greatest freedoms I’ve ever known. I don’t miss any of it.”

“I don’t tell everyone they should live like me, though,” Mahaffey says without hesitation. “For me, I just realized that this was the only life I had, and I was free to live it as I choose.”

What’s next?

At the moment, Mahaffey is considering postponing a planned trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon country, where he and a fellow traveler he identified as Susie had been asked to serve as guides.

“There’s just too much to do here,” he says, encompassing the city with a sweeping gesture. Few of us would expect a man in Mahaffey’s position — who sleeps on the ground at night, and often eats food the rest of us throw away — to care so much. He does, though … and I can’t help but wonder what that says about the rest of us.

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