There is a reason why they call him "Band-Aid" Mike. As the furniture repair expert for one of The Salvation Army's production facilities, Mike Cohen knows how to resurrect even the most junky pieces, gussying them up to bring top dollar in the area thrift stores and auctions.
With 25 years of experience scavenging around and selling antiques and collectibles on both coasts, Cohen brings veteran hands and eyes to the process. Recently, his trained brainexercised by what they call the picker’s circuit that includes searches of flea markets, storage auctions, estate sales and antique showshoned in on a rare Herman Miller chair that came into the donation center in pieces. It’s metal base ended up in the scrap metal bin, while the wood frame and padding were placed in other areas of the warehouse.
After scouting out all of the dismantled pieces, Cohen and a co-worker put the modernist chair back together. It fetched $2,400 at auction.
“Almost daily I’ll see something that is collectable or rare or an antique,” Cohen said. “When I was out picking you really had to look for it. Here, it just comes to us.”
Cohen’s days at The Salvation Army’s Orange County, Calif. production facility are spent doing much more than repairing fabric tears and healing scars on wood. Each nail and screw he uses goes a step further in healing his own soul.
A widower for 23 years, Cohen said he became lost trying to maintain their New Jersey antique business and raising their two sons alone. He relocated to Oregon to be near family and tried to make a second go of an antique store there. Deciding it was too much without the support and talents of his wife, Cohen joined the picker circuit, made famous by the reality shows Storage Wars and American Pickers. The days were long, sometimes 18 hours’ worth of driving, snooping and buying.
Once his sons were grown, though, busyness ultimately gave way to boredom, and Cohen hit the skids.
“I found myself without all that responsibility and with a lot of time on my hands,” he said. “There was some depression from not dealing with the grief properly. I found myself using drugs.”
Eventually homeless, the former businessman found himself at the mercy of Christ-hearted strangers.
“Basically I was on the streets,” Cohen said. “I had driven myself down to the lowest of lows, and I had to turn somewhere. I met some really good people that had extended their hands to me. I wanted to end that cycle. I was determined to get off drugs.”
A renewed life
With the help from his Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa friends and his newfound relationship with Jesus Christ, Cohen re-established a relationship with his sister, who was newly widowed. They moved in together, propping each other up as they processed their grief and reclaiming their lives.
“The two of us were struggling on our own,” he said.
Making strides with his recovery, Cohen decided to look for a job and clicked on the first listing he saw on Craigslist. The Salvation Army was looking for laborers.
“I was looking to get a job without all of the responsibility, punch a clock kind of thing, do the 9 to 5 thing, because it was so much responsibility doing (picking),” he said.
After scanning Cohen’s resume, his future employer discovered his previous experience with antiques and collectables, a perfect match for their need for a furniture repairer.
“This came to be a great fit here for them, as well as for me because I applied for anything, whatever labor they had, sorting clothes or whatever it was going to be.
“I wasn’t looking necessarily to work in drug or alcohol rehab when I applied for a job. It just happened to be the first listing on Craigslist the very first day I started looking for a job. If it were the dump, I would have applied there.”
Looking back on the journey, Cohen smiles, saying he ended up at The Salvation Army even after not being able to get a space during his search for a recovery program.
“They were full and didn’t have a bed,” he said.
Passing it on
As part of the army’s rehabilitation program, Cohen works with 140 men who rotate through the donation center as they learn new skills to help them rejoin the workforce.
“I kind of did opposite of most of these guys,” he said of his co-workers. “Most these guys in the program, their stories, they’ll have done a lot of (drugs or alcohol) young and they seem to get clean or sober later in life.
“I pretty much had the opposite. I was a business person. My wife and I were members of a historical society and the Young Business Leaders of America, and we had our little shop and neither one of used drugs or alcohol.”
Still active in a 12-step program, Cohen said he uses the opportunity at The Salvation Army to bring healing to the men who transition through the warehouse.
“Once you get yourself stable you want to share your strength, hope and recovery with others,” he said. “I have an opportunity here like most of our membership doesn’t have because I’m here everyday with 140 men who are in a program. I have direct contact with them, not that I’m a counselor or psychologist or anything, but I have been through it myself.
“As we are working I am able to share my strength and hope with them and help guide them. It’s a gift that I never sought when I applied here.”
The symbolism that Band-Aid Mike is helping to repair more than furniture is not lost on Cohen.
“The analogy and the parallel of repairing lives and repairing these donations is really ironic,” he said.
“A lot of them have never had the gratification of fixing things and repairing things and whatnot. It transfers, when they get their hands on the stuff and actually turn things around, they get the analogy as well. They get a lot of pride out that work, and makes them feel pretty good.”