Another Community Icon Passes

Michael Petersen’s infectious smile | photo by Jenny Stein | post by Larry Clinton

Michael Petersen, who lived and worked in the floating homes community for nearly half a century, succumbed to leukemia last week. After chemotherapy treatments, he had a brief remission, and was seen working on the docks, walking with the aid of hiking poles.

As Issaquah resident Mickey Allison recalled recently, “We had an opportunity to tell him how much we missed him, how much we cared for him, how glad we were to see him and to wish him well. Shared stories about the past plumbing problems caused by putting the wrong things down the toilet, apologies by Mike to a few for getting on someone for doing it, seeing Mike’s smile—even though we recognized his weakness—were special moments. Both Mike and those of us who were able to share his Lazarus Moment were lucky. Mike found out how much he was missed and how much he was cared about. We, in turn, were able to share our love and respect for him. With modern medicine, many of us have been granted time that wouldn’t have been available to our ancestors. Makes me grateful and more mindful to spend each day wisely and fully.”

The Dinghy Dame told Mike’s story in the Winter, 2013 Floating Times:

Mike Petersen has lived most of his adult life in our community. He was born in San Francisco and says the only time he lived elsewhere was when he attended Boston College earning degrees in physics and English. Upon his return he taught math and physics at St. Joe’s High School in Alameda, and then at Marin Catholic. Mike discovered our community in 1971 through a friend who lived in the pod of floating docks parallel to the parking lot of what is now Gate 6 1/2. It was just dirt then (or a sea of mud in the winter.) He found himself a life-boat shell and lived there with just a toilet and nothing else. He drank the water out of the toilet tank, used paper plates and owned a barbecue. He could shower at the school. Eventually he put a loft in and built what he described as a hyper ellipsoid peak over a shallow dome of Lucite. One of his favorite inventions, hanging from that peak, was his double gimbal turntable with ivory troughs and wedges, ebony arms and teak. Because it was suspended, even though the boat moved freely, the turntable did not. He named his home “The Walrus.”

Life was good then. The homes were clustered together much like the Gates Co-op. Mike said you could look out into each other’s homes without intruding. Someone else described it as looking like Parisian streets with all the flowers and different side docks with pods of homes. They had community activities like mud basketball and until recently the hoop was still attached to a piling. They also had mud races each year around Easter time. Each participant would run from the lot out to a piling and back. They used to roll a ball down the dock, like bowling without pins, to see who could roll it the farthest without having it go overboard. There were dogs, hot tubs, nudity abounded, and good times were had by all; BUT their sewage was flowing in the veins of the bay.

In 1975 when the BCDC mandated that all floating homes must install pumps for grey water and human waste, it was Mike to the rescue. Along with three other fellows, they formed a company they named Pump-A-Turd and began installing holding tanks with pumping systems in them. They did all the code work on at least 26 of the 35 homes which were moved from their little oasis off the parking lot, and by attrition were relocated to their respective slots on the straight new pier that Kappas Marina had built and named 6 1/2 (Commodore was 7 and East and West Piers were Gate 6). At this time Mike quit teaching and did plumbing full time. He also worked for a while for a sewer plant in Tiburon. He has never been able to advertise his company because the yellow pages refuse to print the turd part. Imagine that! Mike, who is the sole owner of the licensed business, actually doesn’t need advertisement. He stays more than busy just by word of mouth and what we’ve put in our mouths.

Mike called the two days of building the dock the best example of community effort he has ever seen. The berth spaces were organized by a seniority system and it worked well for ten to twelve years, he said. Although everyone in the community helped with this move, Mike single handedly pulled several boats into their berths by slogging through the mud with the water up to his chest and ropes over his shoulders. It was described to me as a scene right out of Bogie’s African Queen. That man is strong, (but, as my mom used to say, “Odor isn’t everything!”)

Mike told me he fell in love with and married a landscaper so finally moved to Forest Knolls in 1981. He currently sleeps in Fairfax, but he spends almost every day of his life in our community getting to know us down home and personal. He says he has worked on about 90% of all the houseboats in Sausalito and has done both the plumbing and heating on at least 110 boats. He says it is fun to run into one he hasn’t done. He also finds it sort of fun to be able to problem-solve and tell folks what to do. He can picture their houseboat and remembers what he has done. He describes plumbing as being relatively simple and says that there are not too many who can solve the problems in their minds, as they don’t have his background in math and physics. Mike, who says he has been accused of arrogance and snobbery, says he is happy to see each and every one of us and at the end of the day can go home knowing “I made something work.” Teaching ate up his whole life. He said, “Hell, I’ve been here forever; not too many who want to do holding-tanks.”

When I first saw Mike walking down the dock twenty-five years ago, packing about three hundred pounds and wearing his traditional gray and black clothes, he was pretty formidable looking and actually made me wary. His brawn and brains were palpable. Then I heard him sing! That man sings like an angel and he is transformed. He has a wonderful tenor voice. Around 1975 he studied music at Sonoma State for three years and spent three semesters studying modern dance and abstract math. He is always learning something new. He also has coached wrestling, football and tennis. From 90-92 he taught math and physics part time in San Francisco as well as at a Montessori School in Corte Madera. He has sung in almost every choral group in the Bay Area and has belonged to as many as five groups at one time. Currentlly he is with three: the College of Marin Chamber Chorus, the Oratorio Chorus, and a local a capella jazz quartet called Vocaleyes.

Mike doesn’t have much free time as he rehearses three nights a week. He doesn’t own a TV but is addicted to Web Comics. He’s an enigma to some but is a great and jovial guy. And he is right. There aren’t too many folks out there who want to work on holding tanks. He said he is grateful to have experienced our community and he “just likes taking care of other people’s s—t.” Are we lucky ducks or what?

Another Mike, Mike Carroll of Gate 6 ½, sang with Petersen in the Marin Oratorio for many years. He recalls, “Just a few weeks ago Michael’s condition had improved so much that he told the conductor of the Marin Oratorio that he was looking forward to singing Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 with us in the spring.” To hear a performance of that piece at the Versailles Chapelle Royale in 2014, click on the link in the previous sentence. Close your eyes and bring up your favorite memories of one of our community’s most unique individuals.

The video below was shot July 2014—Mike was there for a plumbing repair and joined grandma singing Amazing Grace to her new grandbaby.