At times, Tim Durkan feels as if he’s staring at himself in a parallel universe.
But the man he sees through his camera lens is his longtime friend, Mike Gray.
Both 47, Gray and Durkan first met as young men on the streets of Capitol Hill some 25 years ago. Durkan was living in a condo near Broadway. Gray was sleeping outside. They both drank in excess.
“(When I drink,) I turn into a happy party machine, man. At least that’s the way I recall it,” said Durkan. “No moderation. There’s no divert switch. It broke.”
Durkan, a self-professed alcoholic, quit drinking nearly 20 years ago. Gray still drinks daily, usually malt liquor in a brown bag. If he goes too long without a sip, he gets the shakes, he says; alcohol has become a part of what makes him function.
Over the years, the friends have watched each other age and the neighborhood change. Gray spent most of those years homeless, working odd jobs up and down Broadway and earning the nickname Broadway Mike.
“He’s pretty well-known up here. Everybody knows him,” said Durkan.
“I’ve been around a long time, longer than a lot of people, you know. That’s about all,” said Gray. “I’ve always found it to be more comfortable to be up here than anywhere else. I feel that I’ve earned my right to be around. Didn’t ask for a dime, so that’s fair enough.”
But living on the street, on Broadway or elsewhere, isn’t exactly comfortable. Gray says he tried his best to “avoid the riff raff” and mind his own business, but some unavoidable things sometimes got under his skin.
“I used to sleep in the rain and I used to get up mad, because it was raining, and the bedroll was wet all the time,” he said. “So I came to the conclusion that the only way to beat the sadness is to go out, get a 24-ouncer, sit in the rain, get totally drenched. So after that, the rain never bothered me again.”
There is also the apparent burden of his past. Gray, a California native, says he first came to Seattle to see his dad decades ago. But that’s where his story stops; as soon as he mentions his father, Gray falls into a heavy silence, and sadness washes over his face.
Whatever his troubles, Gray never takes out his frustration on anyone, says Durkan.
“He’s got a reputation up here, and I guess I admire that,” said Durkan, adding Gray is “always good.”
“(I’ve seen you) alone, in this corner, when you thought no one was looking, just screaming, being upset,” Durkan said to Gray. “That’s fascinating to me because when I’m upset, I like to get on the phone and make sure someone knows how important it is, what I’m saying.”
“My being on the street was never anything I planned. There’s no blame. It just is,” said Gray. “Anger can destroy you, of course, which it did, and it does, and it affects your health. On the other hand, it keeps you alive. So I don’t know.”
Gray is reserved and modest, but he will concede that he is “really not that bad of a guy.”
“I try and treat people good. Sometimes I’ve got to cut certain people loose, you know … they don’t connect with the right energy when you’re trying to bring on the positive,” said Gray.
A self-described loner, Gray likes to wear sunglasses, rain or shine, “for privacy.”
“One of the things about this city is you cannot go anywhere, not even an alleyway, and not be seen or heard by somebody,” he said.
When Durkan quit drinking, he sought out new hobbies, eventually delving into photography. He tried to photograph Gray for years, but Gray would protest, “No pictures. No pictures. I don’t want any pictures,” Durkan said, imitating his friend.
Then in 2009, Gray finally let Durkan snap a shot.
“I think it was on Valentine’s Day. It was rainy and cold,” said Durkan to Gray. “You were in one of your moods, you know. I just kind of stood back and took the picture. You were upset it was rainy and cold.”
Over the next four years, Durkan captured Gray in a series of moments—the highs, the lows, the evolution of a man.
“He’s an interesting guy,” said Durkan. “Interesting people just make for better photos, but only if they let you into their bubble. And it’s a rare thing. Mike let me into his bubble.”
Durkan describes Gray as a “brutally honest” subject who doesn’t hide his emotions.
Gray, in turn, calls Durkan’s work a true portrait of himself.
“He’s about the only person who’s been able to photograph me and make me look like a human being,” said Gray. “He’s found his niche.”
But for Durkan, the photos portray more than his dear friend; they show what his own life could have been.
“I don’t judge him or his friends, or my friends, or anybody, really,” he said. “I don’t have that cushion or that safety net to think I’m more secure in my life than he is. Because all it takes is one night of drinking, and it starts all over again for me.
“I don’t have that luxury of judgment; it’s kind of my destiny, too. It’s just life.”
Once in a while, Durkan tries to convince Gray to quit drinking. But Durkan also knows that Gray, despite his inner-demons, lives by a moral code of his own.
Two years ago, Gray was approved for public housing after nearly 30 years on the street. He now lives in a small studio apartment in a building managed by the Downtown Emergency Services Center.
“It’s not a very glamorous place, but it’s a roof, it’s his, and it’s safe,” Durkan said.
But Gray seldom lets a few days pass without returning to the place where everyone knows him as Broadway Mike.
“It’s good to get out and sleep outside for a few days. It gives you new appreciation for what you have,” he said. “I don’t think it matters where you live; I don’t think it matters whether or not you have a roof over your head. You know, that tape of MLK saying, ‘Judge a person by the content of their character.’ I just leave it at that.”
The slideshow, edited by Tim Durkan, is set to the music of Andre Feriante. The song, titled “Bohemian Boulevard,” was used with the artist’s permission.