In unhappiest U.S. city, one man spreads joy

marc acitoBusiness Week ranked Portland, Ore. the unhappiest city in the U.S. due to the number of suicides, sales of antidepressants, high unemployment (still in the double digits) and 222 cloudy days. Likewise, MainStreet.com ranked Oregon dead last in its Happiness Index (although I'm suspicious because Nebraska is number one and who wants to live in Nebraska?).

But here in the Northworst, there's one ray of sunshine I can depend on: the smile on Mick's face.

You can't miss it. Unlike the sun, Mick ("Just call me Mick," he says.) shows up every day, standing on the sidewalk along the suburban thoroughfare Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, holding up a sign that advertises lunch specials at Round Table Pizza. Unlike most bored looking sign-holders a third his age, this 75-year-old Navy veteran can't contain his happiness. He waves, he whoops, he points at passing drivers as he makes eye contact with them.
mick"He's got one of those sincere smiles," says Round Table manager Bob Rienzo. "It's not fake."

Mick's actually got plenty to frown about, if he wanted to. He was born into an Oklahoma farming family during the Dust Bowl where times were so hard, he says, "there wasn't even a chicken to steal." The family migrated to Washington state, putting Mick to work at age 11. "My daddy said, 'If you want somethin', you've got to go out and earn it yourself.'"

So he did, slaughtering hogs and broadcasting fertilizer, then herding cattle as a cowboy ("We was young and stupid, but we had fun"). After serving in the Korean War, Mick worked in sanitation and eventually drove a tractor for 20 years before getting let go in 2005.

But just because he got laid off didn't mean he laid around. Every day, the septugenarian took a four-mile walk along Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, stopping in at various stores, making friends. One of his stops was outside Round Table Pizza where the employees take their breaks. Mick would hang out, talk sports, particularly about his beloved 49ers. So when Round Table decided to start a sign holder promotion, the first person Rienzo thought of was the friendly guy with the sunny smile.

And Mick was glad to get the job. Even after 60 years of hard work, he still found there was too much month at the end of the money. "When I went to work for Bob," he says, "it was probably the happiest day of my life."

Since then, he's "never missed an hour, never missed a day." No matter the weather, Mick's out there from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., spreading happiness to commuters like me. Drivers honk, joggers high-five. He's even got groupies -- fans who bring him coffee and treats. As Round Table employee Dave Sachtler says, "He's everyone's adoptive grandpa."

Indeed, after Mick took a fall in the snow last year, Sachtler gave him the stroller that belonged to his own grandfather, who had recently died. A World War II vet, Sachtler's grandfather wanted his belongings to aid other vets. Now Mick uses the stroller to walk to work.

"It takes a special person to do his job," the 30-year-old Sachtler says. "I took one shift, went through my iPod twice and told Bob I'd never do it again."

Mick doesn't see it that way. "I'm breathin' fresh air. I get exercise," he says, demonstrating by waving his sign advertising a $6.99 lunch buffet. "I'm havin' fun."

Occasionally, someone will come in to complain that an elderly disabled man is standing outside in the rain holding a sign and Rienzo will have to explain that he can't get Mick to not come to work. "I asked him not to once," Rienzo explains, "and he nearly took my head off. Mick said, 'If I don't do my job, how are you going to get business?'"

So Mick will continue to work his post as long as he can, which could be a good while. After all, he sends part of his earnings to help out his mother, who is 98.

"I'm as good as anyone else," he says with that sunny day smile. "Maybe a day or two older."

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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