The photos above represent two people sharing a space. The setting they share is the same but the people are different.
When two people physically occupy a shared space in shared time, does it strengthen their commonality? Does the culture and community of Portland foster commonality?
Ernest and Mike would say yes. While there are many differences between them, both Ernest and Mike share a love of life and a joy to be living in Portland. Both men have had successful careers. Both are fathers who love their children but are unable to see them much. Both have worked in manufacturing, and both have been homeless at one point in their lives. Both were forced to make difficult decisions based on circumstances beyond their control. Decisions that cut to the core of basic needs and survival. Both have suffered tragedy and found the resolve to rebuild their lives.
And both live at the YMCA.
“Always has a big smile! Wipes his feet at the door about 50 times just so he doesn’t track snow everywhere,” is how Mark Lockman, who works the front desk at the Y, describes Mike. He’s an introverted type, Lockman says, keeping mostly to himself, but always kind.
Mike grew up in Auburn in the 1950s and worked as a shoe cutter in Maine’s celebrated shoe industry. In the early 20th century, in fact, Auburn manufactured 75 percent of the world’s canvas shoes. “I really enjoyed that work,” Mike reflects, recounting the calm and solitude he felt while cutting the excess leather from shoes as they made their way from the cutting to sewing room. “I could just do my own thing, you know? Nobody ever bothered me.”
Mike, a marine during the Vietnam war and stationed in Japan afterward, returned home and settled in Auburn with his family. He knows about the golden age of the shoe and manufacturing industry in Maine. He talks about his time working in the mill and the culture there, where conversation was a medley of French and English. Now, he can recall only a handful of French words learned from a buddy while in the Marine Corps.
As he talks about his work life, it’s clear he's seen the ebb and flow of manufacturing in Maine as well as the importance of a work culture that embraces differences in language, perspective, and culture. During Mike’s time in Auburn, the shoe industry, and manufacturing in general, slowly declined. Along with that decline, mills became vacant, and a generation of shoe workers evaporated. As jobs disappeared, so did Mike’s livelihood. Over time, he found himself unemployed and struggling.
Later, Mike found himself living with his brother. It was difficult for both of them. Mike had a decision to make. Sick and unable to work, he reflects “I felt I was keeping him back, not being able to work and all. I couldn’t afford to pay him anymore…” Mike moved out of his brother’s house to the streets of Portland and eventually the Oxford Street Shelter. Mike lived in a shelter in Portland for five years before coming to the Y.
Though he admits to being quiet-natured, he smiles broadly as he talks about how much he also enjoys being among people. He’s comfortable at the Y. The Y is home. Now 68, disabled and retired, Mike says his faith has helped him recover to a place where he can continue to enjoy the things he likes to do, like walk the West End, read the Bible and spend time with friends at the library and in his home. It is within the hallways of the Y where Ernest and Mike’s lives intersect, seeing one another almost every day.
Ernest came to the Y as an asylum seeker from Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) hungry to learn the language, culture, and customs of Maine. “He’s a real go-getter,” Lockman remarks, “has his packet of papers, collared shirt always tucked in, business casual everywhere he goes, even on a day off.”
In his home country, Ernest was a corporate lawyer. His job was to advise business clients on corporate legal matters. He provided counsel on employee training, safety issues, and trade.
Ernest lived in the countryside with his wife and young son while maintaining an apartment in the city. Then the civil war happened. With corruption and a rigged election in 2010, the country was torn apar. So was Ernest's life and family. Living in Ivory Coast, Ernest openly opposed current president Alassane Ouattara’s violent corruption. He was vocal in his opposition, openly pointing out corruption and inviting discussion. He knew there would be consequences, he says, but it was the right thing to do.
“I hate violence in my life,” he says with sobering eyes. “I think the human being must discuss if there is a problem. You must have love and peace … it’s very important in life.”
As the war progressed and new leadership rose to power, Ernest’s life became increasingly dangerous. He is of a different ethnic group, faith, and political standing than those in power and quickly began receiving death threats. He recalls the day he saw his childhood friend’s face in the newspaper. “He was suspected of being of the same ethnic group as the previous president,” Ernest says.
His friend was abducted and killed, Ernest says, “like an animal. They killed him..they tied him…cutting his skin and his face…his body..they just threw his body.” Ernest feared his ethnicity would not only be a threat to himself but also to his wife and young son who are of the same ethnic group as President Ouattara. Ernest had to make a difficult decision: stay with his beloved country and risk losing his family, or leave everything he had known.
Ernest decided to leave. It was heartbreaking, he says. Ernest fled Ivory Coast and arrived in Portland, Maine, in early 2016.
Ernest stayed with an uncle for a few days upon arriving, but knew his uncle was also struggling to survive and felt it best to move out. He, too, found himself at Oxford Street.
“When I came here, I was faced with reality. I was obliged to go to the shelter. I exposed my situation, and there was in the Y compassion with my situation and GA to help my situation.”
Ernest no longer uses GA and received his work permit in October 2016. Lockman says he’ll never forget the day Ernest waltzed in with a broad smile proudly laying his rent out in cash on the countertop before him. Ernest works the night shift at Nichols Manufacturing and spends his days poring over law books at the library and in adult education classes to improve his English. Both Lockman and Mike joke that Ernest never sleeps, to which Ernest simply smiles.
Once a respected lawyer, Ernest aspires to earn another law degree and eventually practice international law. He knows this will take time and improving his English is the first critical step.
Ernest’s drive to learn English is in fact what brought Mike and him together. Ernest describes their first encounter as one that unfurled with ease. Ernest says of his first encounter with Mike, “I just knocked on his door and introduced myself. I wanted to practice my English!”
Mike and Ernest share the same floor at the YMCA — the same showers, kitchen, and common spaces. Just two doors down from one another, their lives are intricately woven, both now familiar fixtures in one another’s lives. While the paths each of them have taken to reach the Portland YMCA are vastly different, both of them have found a way to connect their narratives. Both are grateful for a place to stay and to have some stability returned to their lives.
Both know the importance of friendship, connection and even the honor of sharing a space together. Portland is a richer place because Ernest and Mike live here.