ST. PAUL, Minn. - Some people never stray far from the street they grew up on, but few take it as far as St. Paul's Mike "Bones" Hartzell.
Hartzel, a man as identified with Rice Street as any of the bars, cafes or small businesses that line its sidewalks, died Sunday at 71, just a few miles from the street he called home. And make no mistake, Bones literally lived on the street, with no home or apartment to shelter him from Minnesota's sometimes brutal elements.
"It's home away from home," Hartzell told KARE 11's Brad Woodard during a profile back in 1998. “When it rains there’s nothing to do but sit … you got the windchill, a lot of bad weather you gotta put up with."
"You simply have to keep yourself busy," he added.
And busy ... Hartzell was. For the most part homeless since returning from a stint in the Army in the late 1960s, Bones refused to take handouts, sweeping and shoveling sidewalks, and doing odd jobs for the meals Rice Street merchants would give him. His mother, who asked Mike to leave the family home due to his struggles with drugs and alcohol, tried to help him numerous times, as did his sister Claudine. Bones would have none of it.
“I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know that I can put it into words,” Claudine told Woodard as they drove by Hartzell as he swept a Rice Street sidewalk, shirtless and dirty. “It’s confusing for me to believe that that’s my brother.”
“What’s it like for you to know that just a few blocks away your son is sitting out in the snow?” Woodard asked Mike's mother.
“It’s horrible. Horrible. Especially when it gets cold,” she replied, resignation in her voice. "He seems happy. But I don’t really know if he’s happy or not. I always have the feeling it’s just a big bluff. But then maybe I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about either, I don’t know.”
Bones was easily spotted, navigating the streets with an ungainly wagon train of sorts in tow. He would load his belongings into a constantly changing fleet of wagons, wheelbarrows or shopping carts, lash them together and pull the entire lot down the sidewalk, often with his dogs tied to the back.
"Him and his wheelbarrow and wagon … it’s a train, I call it," laughed one local from her perch on a barstool. ."Takes him half an hour to move it half a block."
Hartzell survived decades on Rice Street, sleeping under a pile of blankets, coping with the elements, living a hard life that took its toll. And yet locals had a genuine affection for him. On his 70th Birthday the Minnesota Legislature honored Bones with a proclamation, calling him "A steward of the community" and "an upstanding citizen of St. Paul and an icon of Rice Street."
Bones was reportedly suffering from both cancer and pneumonia when he passed at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center on Sunday.