I’m not convinced that people who have never worked in a homeless shelter can accurately imagine what can go on under that roof. (Of course I’m not so sure I can imagine the real goings-on in an e.r. or an operating room or a county jail.) Sometimes events truly become head shaking, and six degrees of separation can take on a whole new meaning.
Maybe it was fate that had me transition from employment at a state correctional facility to being the inexperienced director of an emergency homeless shelter, but whether there was any truth in that or not, one of my first seminal experiences was with a guy who would soon gain a form of prison notoriety. He’s dead now, so I’m going to use some real names in this little tale.
Michael Chasse was from Lewiston, I think. What was clear was that he acted like a punk, a gangster gang wannabe in every superficial way. This tall, lean white kid from Maine had the walk, the clothes, and the talk equaling an amateurish version of “Compton,” and had this set years before I started to see it in groups and clusters of other kids and young adults around town.
Bill Cohen was from Bangor, maybe 100 miles northeast of Lewiston. While I am assuming that Michael’s childhood was one coming from modest means, it is a fact that Bill’s dad was a Russian immigrant who, with his wife, started and owned Bangor Rye. I can only guess about the values and standards held in the family around Michael. It seems clear that Bill’s family demonstrated hard work and high expectations.
And so Michael had been staying a couple nights at the Shelter but had screwed up in some relatively minor way and jeopardized his future with us. Another Michael at the Shelter was the Program Manager, and he and I decide to meet with Michael together. We basically read him the riot act—I believe I may have said to him at one point, “If you fart at the wrong time or place you’ll be kicked out”—because of how hard he was using the gang wannabe stuff. In any event, Michael made it through one more night before he was arrested across the river in Brewer. Here come the degrees:
According to news reports, Michael broke into the home of Bill Cohen’s brother, Robert. Michael came prepared with a knife. Robert brought a gun to Michael’s knife fight. Police arrested Michael before he or Robert were wounded too seriously. Michael was 23. The following summer, before he would begin serving a 12-year sentence for the Cohen assault/burglary, he would make national headlines. While being escorted back to the courthouse in Dover Foxcroft, Michael managed to throw soap powder into the deputies’ eyes, break away, stab a couple of people, steal a truck, and commandeer a canoe which led to him being captured in the middle of Sebec Lake.
Michael Chasse ended up getting a bunch of years added to the previous sentence, later would end up with life after taking another prisoner and a prison librarian hostage, and eventually was found dead, alone in his cell, in 2011 at the age of 37.
Bill Cohen would continue his dramatic political success and move to the US Senate from the House, become a key figure in the Watergate hearings, and be appointed as Secretary of Defense by Bill Clinton. He has continued a career of distinguished public service.
I do not know what became of Robert Cohen, but his son, Dan, works at this Shelter. Dan represents the qualities of the Cohen family previously shown by his Uncle Bill and his grandfather. I can’t help but compare the wide and deep public reputation of Dan’s uncle with the more yellow journalistic past presence of Michael Chasse, and now the quiet and generally invisible good work done by Dan. Circles within circles, myriad points of connectivity…
I think it’s a more potent example of dark irony that this homeless shelter became the point of connectivity for the Cohens of Bangor, Maine. We all carry our family stories, don’t we? How would we feel if ours were so public?