A Homeless Van Gogh
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.
The Man Behind The Story
Charlie LeDuff sits on a wicker chair on the porch of his small Pleasant Ridge home. His gray cable knit sweater zips at the very top, pointing up towards his black goatee. His nose cuts away from his face, and angles down towards his mustache. His black hair is disheveled, and the wind blows through it as he sips on a brown liquid out of a mason jar. When he smiles, his face stretches over his angular cheekbones and sharp pointing chin — he is a Guy Fawkes look alike, and could very well be plotting a revolution.
On the street, leaves blow up against the fender of his 1972 refurbished Checkered Taxicab that his brother spray-painted matte black. He has been driving it to work for the last twenty years, and it frequents the roads from LeDuff’s home to his current workplace, Fox 2 News Detroit, where he works as a reporter. Somewhere tucked inside his green painted brick house, a Pulitzer Prize has been collecting dust. There is a child’s swing hanging from a tall oak for his daughter, and a black, shining Harley Davidson parked on his front walk. Even though he has moved to the suburbs, he hasn’t become stale. “I don’t get these people,” he says with a shrug.
LeDuff lived most of his life on Joy Road in Detroit. He grew up with a sister, three half brothers, an older stepbrother and an older stepsister, and has gone through a string of three dads. One day, on the notoriously busy street, his brother was hit by a car. “He’s got a curved spine now,” LeDuff says matter-of-factly, “18 degree curve.”
His older stepbrother died of an overdose, and his sister in an accident. “She went off with some strange dude,” he recalls. “He wouldn’t let her out of the car so she jumped out right into a tree. She was a prostitute, a good-time girl, a wild child, ya know, the kind of stuff you paint pictures out of.”
He shrugs off the memory and pulls out a pack of Winston Light 100’s, cups his hand creating a shelter for his lighter, sets the stick aflame, and breathes the tobacco into his lungs. He balances the cigarette between his index and middle finger, and blows a cloud of smoke into the autumn wind.
Despite LeDuff’s aloof, bad-boy attitude, he was a good kid in high school. He had no interest in drugs because of his sister, was the captain of the football and wrestling teams, and a good student. However, in his neighborhood he seemed to be one of the only ones thriving.
“I remember these two fathers on my street killed themselves. One blew his brains out, the other hung himself.” He takes another puff on his cigarette and leans his elbow on his worn jeans. “You try working in a factory. Can’t get the oil out of your skin, you always hear the same Leonard Skynyrd song playing in the same bar you always go to.” He shakes his head dismissively. “It takes a lot for a person to marry their life to a machine.”
After graduation, LeDuff went to the University of Michigan and majored in political science and economics. “I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to be, and I really didn’t give a shit.”
When he was 22, and a Michigan graduate, he decided to travel around the world. New Guinea, Berma, China, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Spain, England. He worked as a baker in Denmark, a bartender in Australia, and in a cannery in Alaska. “I was writing poetry.” He laughs at what seems to him a ridiculous idea. “I know, I know,” he says, “But the chicks dug it, ya know what I’m saying?”
LeDuff’s first published work was an obituary of a Russian man he knew who had come to America, and overdosed on pills. “He died sitting in front of the TV with his remote control still in his hand,” he laughs. “That’s just so perfect.” LeDuff published the obituary to raise money to send the man’s body home. He got $500 for the story. “He didn’t fly home first class, like he had imagined. He flew home as cargo. At least he got home, though!”
LeDuff met his wife, Amy, at a party in Detroit. She stood up, tripped over the floor, hit the stove, and landed flat on her back. “I was sitting there laughing, thinking, ‘Who is this asshole?’” He tosses his head back and laughs, then throws a fleeting glance towards the house. “Turns out I was the asshole,” he adds with a wink.
Amy moved to Alaska, and LeDuff chased after her. The two built and lived in a tree house, situated on the edge of a beach. Inside the shack, they had an oil drum to burn wood for warmth. Killer whales swam by in the mornings, and they became fond of a raven living in a nearby tree, naming it Freddy. “Freddy woke us up every morning. Who needs an alarm clock when you’ve got a bird?” Amy worked on a radio show, and LeDuff wrote for Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. “That was the height of it all,” he muses. “If I died tomorrow, you wouldn’t have to cry for me.”
Despite his happiness, LeDuff wasn’t one to be complacent. He began looking for more jobs, and sent in fifteen resumes to different publications around the country. “I didn’t get shit, zero, nothin. Except…” he tries to stifle his laughter, “except from this one little paper they call The New York Times. They were the only people who called me back.” They told LeDuff he was “different” and that they were looking for different. LeDuff tried to act coy, telling the paper that he had a “long line of people” waiting on his response to their job offers, so the Times better get a move on. They then offered him $40,000 plus rent. He laughs sarcastically. “I thought, ‘Well, I believe I will do it, yeah.’”
LeDuff worked at a small desk near the elevator of the Times building in New York City. At first, he felt like a fish out of water. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh man, I’m a fraud, how did I get this job? Every body is Ivy League, every body speaks different languages…’” But he soon gave up feeling intimidated by such a big job, and decided that he would just write it like he felt it.
One of LeDuff’s first articles for the Times was about a group of transvestite prostitutes living at the end of the pier by West Fourteenth Street. After more investigation, he wrote an article he titled “Shanty Town of the He-She’s”. They went down to shoot pictures for the article and ended up with these “stunning, cat-walk, fashion week style pictures of these trannies who shit in a bucket.”
The article provoked a strong reaction. A neighboring newspaper wrote an article in response to LeDuff’s about the slipping ethics at The New York Times. LeDuff was sitting at his little desk by the elevator when the head boss walked up to him, threw the rival paper’s story down in front of him and said, “Congrats, it took me 20 years to make this column.” LeDuff smiles at the memory with a glimmer of boyhood pride in his eyes. He is not one to do the expected: a fact he is acutely aware and proud of.
LeDuff had continued success at the Times, winning a Pulitzer in 2001 for his work on the series, “How Race is Lived in America”. But after what seemed to the public to be his prime, LeDuff felt as if he was fighting an up-hill battle. He was caught in a small scandal of plagiarism, and his relationship with Jayson Blair, notorious for his plagiarism, added to the suspicion of his work ethics. “I took a graph from another book,” LeDuff says, haphazardly. “I was in a rush. I apologized. And then all my shit came back around.” Investigators went through all of his work, picking apart every sentence to look for other traces of plagiarism: none of which was found. “No one goes to extremes like me, you know,” he leans forward, shaking a bony fist in the air.
Years later, in 2007, LeDuff wrote a satiric article about a Vermont candidate who wanted to secede from the Union. The man was dressed up as Ethan Allen, notorious farmer turned statesman, and on a horse. In the middle of the interview the horse took off and dragged the man through a nearby dump. “I came home, checked my email, and got a message from my boss about how the guy was a loser, and everyone I wrote about were losers. Then told me we needed to talk.” Amy was due to deliver their first child, and LeDuff was fed up with work. “‘You caught me at the damn wrong time,’ I said. ‘I resign!’”
So LeDuff went from international writer to a stay at home dad, changing diapers. He did a spread in Vogue with his daughter, Claudette, while living in New York City. He decided that the city wasn’t the place he wanted his daughter to grow up. “She’s gonna be wearing a halter top and blue mascara. We gotta go home.” LeDuff’s family moved to a tiny metro Detroit suburb, and he found himself surrounded by stories: “Kwame, the economy, the car companies, boom boom boom, and I was in the middle of the biggest stories in America.” He wrote for two years at the Detroit News and then desired a change of pace.
LeDuff went to work as a reporter for Fox 2 News Detroit, in 2010. His switch from writing to TV was inspired by his resentment towards the plagiarism scandal at the Times. “Let me show you how I work.” LeDuff says with intensity. “People might say, ‘Oh, that’s weird shit man, this guy is crazy.’ But I got a methodology, and I want you to see it.”
His passion for his hometown roots coupled with his desire to report for the people results in hard-hitting, off-beat stories. “He is a very driven individual,” long time friend and photographer Steve Lengmick says. “When it comes to something he believes in, he will pursue it one hundred percent, relentlessly, regardless of the out come, he will go after it.” LeDuff shrugs at the comment, adding, “I’m either the nation, or I’m nobody.”
To many people, some of Charlie’s best attributes can be his worst, too. “He tells it like it is, doesn’t have a filter,” neighbor and co-worker Doug Tracey says. He recounts the first time he met LeDuff — he was wearing a raccoon hat and cowboy boots painted red white and blue. “He’s definitely a throw back from the 60’s or 70’s,” Tracey laughs.
Charlie LeDuff can be found on the pages of magazines and newspapers, and on the screens of televisions, broadcasting a story about a cat burglar with cat ears on his head and whiskers drawn on his face, or running around the streets of Detroit in his underwear pretending to be a bird to find out where all the pigeons have gone. He is willing to do the ridiculous if it means change for the city.
“I would describe myself the same as anyone else would, I suppose.” LeDuff says. “Sometimes I feel strong, sometimes weak, sometimes nervous, sometimes a liar, a phony. Sometimes I feel like a leader, sometimes gifted, sometimes lazy, sometimes safe, and other times I am scared. I feel youthful, I feel old: my bones crack and it scares me. I look at the video and wonder if I am losing my hair. I wonder what happened to that guy who was on top of the world. I wonder what growing old means, and how you are supposed to do it,” he leans back in the chair, sipping from the mason jar. “Sometimes I get scared of death, and sometimes I couldn’t give a shit if I lived another day.”
Homeless In Ann Arbor: Gwyddion Storm
I’ve passed the man who sits on the sidewalk of East Liberty Street many times over the past year. Each time I walk by we make eye contact, and he asks me if I am interested in buying any of his jewelry, which sits displayed on a makeshift cardboard shelf in front of his folded legs. I always reply in passing, saying, “I’ll be back.” He nods as if to acknowledge that I won’t truly be back and that was just my polite way of blowing him off. He doesn’t seem mad, he just nods and waits for another passerby.
One day, I ask him if I can sit down next to him. “Sure,” he says curtly, “But I’m going to keep trying to sell stuff while you’re here.
It’s the dead of winter and I look down at the pile of slush and snow that has gathered on the sidewalk next to him, contemplating my next move. I pull my coat down over my butt and sit awkwardly on the ground, curling my legs up under me. The man is sitting on a piece of cardboard, and I am, momentarily at least, envious of him. I ask his name.
He’s Gwyddion Storm, and he says so like a herald announcing the entrance of a king. The name is Welsh and Cherokee in origin, a combination that seems exotic until he admits that he is from Columbus, Ohio.
He is only 45 years old, but each year shows on his face. His cheeks are red but not in a rosy, santa-esque way. They look wind burnt from the cold, and the metal on his glasses has rubbed the bridge of his nose raw. He has dark curly hair that sticks out from underneath his hood. He is missing one of his front teeth. His hands are huddled together on his lap, and periodically he lifts them to his lips and blows. His knuckles are cracked and bleeding.
The wind chill is negative ten.
Life for Storm wasn’t easy from the start. His father was a drunk, his mother abusive, and he was raised by a foster mom old enough to be his grandmother. This, Storm found, caused a huge generational gap between the two.
“We didn’t see eye to eye on everything,” Storm said, “but at least I know she loved me enough to take care of me. So it was all good.”
He went to Columbus State Community College and flunked out, because he spent too much of his time focusing on his social life, which was something he had never had before. I wonder if I’d be sitting here next to him if he had made it to graduation.
After his failed stint in community college, Storm became a roady for a lesbian pagan folk band called Chaotic Good. I laugh at this but he glares at me over the rims of his glasses, a look that tells me that he isn’t a joking. Chaotic Good toured around Ohio, went to Maine and once went to Florida.
At this point, Storm’s story becomes discombobulated. He begins spouting out life events and dates as fast the sky is spitting out snowflakes, and my toes have gone numb. After two years with the band Storm traveled — he spent 20 years hitchhiking and says he’s been from one ocean to the other five times.
“I don’t recommend it, unless you have something to fall back on,” Storm said, making a sweeping full body gesture at his tattered clothes with his bleeding hands, which he quickly stuffs back into his pockets.
In his travels he worked odd jobs to try and support himself. He worked at a gas station, a nuclear power plant, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, McDonalds and Burger King, and even drove an ice cream truck. He’s lived in California, Oregon, Colorado, and, his least favorite place, Omaha, Nebraska. “It sucks.” When I asked him why he stayed there for six years he said he was on his way to Wyoming but he never made it that far.
He can never keep a job, he says, because of his mental disabilities. He has chronic depression and an otherwise “unspecified mental illness”, whatever that means. He has problems with authority, and sees a therapist monthly in order to try and get a disability check. He hopes to use the check for an apartment, especially in this weather. The only other things that help in the winter is drinking whiskey at night and smoking weed.
“Homeless and sober are two things you don’t want to be at the same time.” He assures me that he’s a mellow drunk, and that he really doesn’t like rowdy drunks.
As he talks, a man walking his dog passes. The dog investigates Storm, burying his nose in Storm’s pocket. He gives the pooch a pat on the head and says, “Nothing to eat here, sorry.” The dog walker pulls his pet away from Storm and continues down the sidewalk without saying a word to us.
Storm came to Ann Arbor three years ago, a time when he felt Ann Arborites were more accepting of the homeless population that was sprouting up on the city’s streets. There were a lot of old hippies, Storm said, but now people are becoming more conservative. A lot of people walk by him on the street and completely ignore him. I came to Ann Arbor around the same time as Storm, and it seems like we caught the tale end of this change. People didn’t seem too terribly accepting of the homeless in the first place.
A friend of his taught Storm the basics of jewelry making — what kind of stones to get, what kind of wire to buy and how to wrap it around the stones to create pendants to sell. Storm panhandled for a short period of time to make enough money to buy the supplies he needed. He had two signs when he was begging: one that said “Random green and shiny objects” and another that said, “Begging sucks. Compassion does not”.
He’s been selling his work on East Liberty under the watchful painted eyes of Woody Allen, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Hesse, Kafka, and Anais Nin ever since.
“I get more self-esteem this way,” Storm says, flipping over some of the pendants in front of him. “I’m not above begging, I’m just not inclined to it. I’d rather be responsible for myself.”
He had a girlfriend for a couple of months, but she broke up with him because her husband found out about their relationship and made her leave him. He also had a friend with an apartment that he sometimes stayed at when he couldn’t make bus fair, but that relationship, too, came to an end.
“We had philosophical differences. He was extremely offended by the fact that I don’t believe his claim to be the most enlightened man in the universe,” Storm said. “Some of my friends are crazier than I am,” he added with a laugh.
I told him I didn’t think he was crazy. He told me not to tell the government that, or he wouldn’t get that check. I laugh at that, at first, until I think harder. Is waiting for a government check just giving up on finding work? I can’t imagine anyone would want to live like this. I want to ask why he doesn’t try harder to keep a job, but I can tell that my questions are already bothering him, so I move back to conversation about the weather.
This is by far the worst winter he’s had in Ann Arbor thus far. The last two nights, he’s been put up in a motel by Ann Arbor’s Project Outreach Team, but tonight he has to go back to his tent in the woods by the highway. He takes the number 6 bus back and forth for 75 cents a ride.
He needs a snow shovel to unbury his tent. Even after he does that with his gloveless hands, his sleeping bag and blankets have all gotten soaked by the snow and are frozen solid. He can’t carry his sleeping equipment with him because he needs a new backpack. He says so, disdainfully kicking the ripped bag next to him on the ground. It has words scrawled across it in sharpie that read, “Truth is a few flakes of black pepper and a huge pile of fly shit. Sort the pile.”
The shelter is full and reserved for people who are still looking for work, which Storm has long given up on. He doesn’t care though. “Every time I eat at the shelter, I get the runs. It’s horrible food. It really is.”
A man stops in front of us and asks how we are. Gwyddion Storm doesn’t miss a beat to jump into his sales pitch: “Anything you’d like today? These pieces down here are ten each, these up here are just five.” The man reaches into his pocket, pulls out his wallet and hands Storm a five-dollar bill. “I don’t want anything,” he says. “Just have a great day, alright?”
I ask him if that happens a lot, and he says more often than sales do.
“There are a lot of good people here in Ann Arbor,” Storm says, shoving the bill into his pocket. I wonder if he’ll use it to buy whiskey or a shovel. “But there are a lot of people who don’t really give a shit.”