A Homeless Van Gogh

Credit: Marlene Lacasse
Credit: Marlene Lacasse

Clad in a maize Michigan hoodie with a bag of cans in tow, Mack wanders the streets of Ann Arbor — but not without purpose. He goes from his frequent nightly haunts of Denny’s or Tim Horton’s and comes to campus for his daily coffees, plural.

“I’m not going to lie,” he says, eyes crinkling with an almost child-like mischief, “I have a coffee addiction.” And of course, in Ann Arbor, Mack is not alone. He can be spotted waiting in long lines of students at the Espresso Royale on South University, just to refill his Tim Horton’s thermos. Usually the baristas wave him on without making him pay, but he prides himself on never going anywhere without the money to buy something.

After his coffees, it’s back to business. Mack takes cans found in trashcans or littered about south campus to the neighborhood Kroger. With whatever money he gets, he makes his usual purchases: a coffee, a sandwich, preferably bologna, and a pack of cigarettes. He lays the pack on the table in Espresso rather boastfully. It reads Crowns, and they’re some of the cheapest cigarettes in town. He doesn’t have much, but he still has his smokes.

Returning to Tim Horton’s, Mack tries his best to get a bit of shut eye. In the morning it will be more of the same.

This is how Mack has been living for the last five years.

Mack began as an orphan in Jackson, Michigan. By fourth grade, he had already attended six different schools across the state. He was later adopted by a classic Michigan family — his father worked for Ford Motor Company, his mother was a homemaker, and along with an adopted younger sister, Mack lived out the majority of his childhood on their small family farm. He was encouraged to join the military, and at the age of 16, that was exactly what he did.

Mack spent twelve years of his life serving in the U.S. Armed forces — eight in the army and four in the navy — during the Vietnam War. He fought in the Special Forces, went through extensive training to hone military skills, and learned to fly a military helicopter.  He fought in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He lived on a United States submarine for four years, reading sonar, and acting as the sub’s communication specialist. After so much time in the military, he spent several years learning how to reintegrate himself back into normative society.

“I was ready to make contact with people,” Mack says. “I no longer felt like a stupid patriarchal machine. I felt like I could have a normal conversation.” His weathered hands tap lightly on his light faded and dirt stained jeans. He looks like an unkempt self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh; however, he makes less eye contact with those who look at him. “It takes a while to reprogram back to what you were.”

He began to reconnect with his family — biological and adopted. He moved in with his parents and functioned as a full-time, live-in caretaker while their health declined. He also seized the opportunity to finally meet his biological family, which, as Mack deftly puts it, “wasn’t perfect.”

His biological family lived in South Eastern Kentucky and were active members of the Klu Klux Klan. Although his gut reaction was to not get involved with the family that gave him up, he came to the conclusion that he had to practice forgiveness. “They needed a change in their life,” Mack says knowingly, “and I needed one in mine. I returned to visit when I could.

After his parents died, Mack lived in the Upper Peninsula, doing odd jobs and living in isolation. Eventually, he ended up in Ann Arbor and landed himself in the middle of a problem. He was out of money, out of contacts left in town, and without a place to stay. That’s when he took to the streets.

“I told myself, you make this decision to live on the streets,” Mack says. “You don’t blame this on anyone but yourself. You think about how to get out of this.” He recites the monologue militarily, as though he tells himself every day like a captain giving orders to a cadet. “You’re 58 years old, don’t act like a child. Keep plodding along until you find a break through.”

Yet, no break through has come. Between his normal daily routine, Mack applies for jobs in restaurants, stocking store, or anything he might know something about. Fallen from a trained army and navy official to a homeless man, most managers tell him that they have no openings for him, that they’re looking for someone younger.

“Sometimes it’s a lot,” Mack admits, uncrossing and crossing his legs, slowly as though his joints are sore from being stuck walking the line between Kroger, campus, and never ending unemployment. “But I have to make myself do it. I’m not going to get any place unless I put some action behind it.”

So, for the time being, Mack keeps to himself, a skill he has come to master. He refuses to be associated with the things that most would associate with street people and is adamant that no matter how bad it gets, he will not beg for money.

“Don’t expect me to ask you for anything,” Mack says. “I won’t. I have better things to do with my time than bum off of you.” Tilting his head towards the ceiling, he shakes the last drop of coffee from his Tim Horton’s thermos, then sets it triumphantly on the table. Time for a refill.

Credit: Marlene Lacasse
Credit: Marlene Lacasse

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