On a recent warm morning, Bones, push broom in hand, was at work sprucing up the sidewalk in front of the Bradshaw funeral home on St. Paul's Rice Street.

Wearing a soiled orange coat and a battered blue cap, the hunched, bearded man meticulously swept, pausing only to dig out weeds from cracks in the sidewalk with a hand trowel. In the Bradshaw parking lot, three men watched and marveled as the homeless man they've known for decades, who has lived on Rice Street sidewalks for more than 40 years, worked in silence.

"This is what he does, without anyone asking. Without him ever asking for money," Troy Bradshaw said. "There's a lot of pride in saying you're a Rice Streeter. He's a Rice Streeter."

It is a complex relationship between Bones — Mike Hartzell, 70 — and the neighborhood where he grew up. To many, he's a vestige of "Old Rice Street," a man who proves every day that this historically working-class neighborhood looks out for its own. To a few, he and his encampment are an eyesore, one they wouldn't mind seeing move along. Nobody, however, will say that publicly.

To most business owners and longtime area residents, he's always been there, camped out somewhere along the street. For the past three years or so, he's been outside DeLisle Real Estate, a heap of blankets and coats serving as a tent, nearby shovels, rakes, carts and a bicycle, the tools of his unpaid trade.

"He doesn't want anything from anybody," said Gidget Bailey, the owner of Tin Cup's bar and restaurant who nevertheless feeds him a daily lunch of fried chicken, fries, a shot of whiskey and a Grain Belt. "This is a person in our community who we all care about, we all love and we all look out for him."

'People accept him'

Over the years, he's refused offers of a roof over his head. He's refused groceries. And he's refused all efforts to change his lifestyle.

"He's been here so long, people accept him," said Gary Hegner, Bailey's father, who first met Bones in 1964. "He's the guy who keeps Rice Street clean."

Mike Hartzell was born in St. Paul on Feb. 22, 1947, one of five children, three boys and two girls, said Kevin Hartzell, Bones' youngest brother and a former Gophers hockey player and local coach who will be inducted into the Mancini's Sports Hall of Fame in May. Kevin Hartzell isn't sure where or when his brother earned the Bones nickname. Maybe it started when he ran cross-country at Washington High School. Mike Hartzell graduated from the old Washington in 1965.

According to the National Personnel Records Center, Mike Hartzell served in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968, during the time of the Vietnam War. It's not known if he served in Vietnam; records show he was stationed in Korea in 1967. Kevin Hartzell said he thinks his brother was assigned to a missile battery there.

When Bones came back to Rice Street, Kevin Hartzell said, he came with drug and alcohol problems. "And all that accelerated whatever mental illness is there," the younger brother said.

For a while, Mike Hartzell lived at home. But, at some point, his parents gave an ultimatum: Either quit the drugs and drinking or leave. He left.

"My mom tried. She was great. At one point, she had services through the [Department of Veterans Affairs] lined up for him and people were ready to take him," Kevin Hartzell said. "And he disappeared. We couldn't find him for a week."

Their parents are dead now. Mike Hartzell has stayed on the street for decades. But his brother said he doesn't worry about him because so many people look out for him.

"I don't feel sorry for him," said Kevin Hartzell, who occasionally brings his brother a coffee and Egg McMuffin. "He's chosen a different lifestyle, and he's earned respect in his own way."

So much so, that he was honored on his birthday by the Legislature. The proclamation called him a "steward of the community" and "an upstanding citizen of St. Paul and icon on Rice Street." In February, Lonetti's Lounge, another Hartzell daily stopping point, threw him a birthday party. The place was packed.

"We gave him one heck of a gift, a trailer that hooks up to the back of his bike and opens up to a tent. It cost more than $1,000," owner Ron Lonetti said, before adding that Bones has so far refused to take it. "We still got it down at the bar. It's downstairs, locked."

There is even a Facebook page devoted to "Bones on Rice Street." Featuring videos of him riding his bike and doing knuckle push-ups, it has more than 9,700 "likes."

Not popular with everyone

His story is not all praise and bouquets.

He had a dog once. But it was taken by animal protection authorities more than a decade ago, after a television news story about him. Since then, he's refused to talk to reporters, said Katie Fleming, the day shift supervisor at Lonetti's and a Bones friend. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

And several business owners along Rice Street, who did not want their names used, said they wish he'd move along, worried that he scares off some customers. To a community seeking to raise its profile, some wonder about the message Bones conveys.

Count Kevin Barrett, owner of Dar's Double Scoop ice cream and pizza shop, as a Bones supporter. He's known him since Barrett started business 12 years ago. He feeds him, too. "He loves strawberry malts," Barrett said.

But he said he understands why some business owners are less than enthused about him. Over the years, Hartzell's had his encampment outside a bakery, a fast food place, the Bradshaw mortuary and the neighborhood hardware store.

"It's not a great picture to have a homeless guy living in front of your place," Barrett said.

He added: "The Old Rice Street has always embraced Bones. The new Rice Street just doesn't get him."

Consider Herb Yoch, owner of Rice Street Do It Best Hardware since 1980, among the Old Rice Street crowd.

"Mike, we call him Mike out of respect," lived for about a year and a half under the canopy at the front of the store. Eventually, though, they asked him to move "because people gave him too much stuff. It was piling up in front of our window."

Kirsten Libby, a neighborhood attorney and a neighborhood champion, said she doesn't mind that he's out there, visible, up and down the street every day.

"He's been here longer than a lot of us," she said, adding that he cleans her sidewalk three or four times a year. In many ways, she said, he defines Rice Street's "looking-out-for-one-of-ours" attitude.

"Would Bones be allowed to park outside some business on Grand Avenue? No," she said. "But he might be the thread that ties us all together."

James Walsh • 651-925-5041