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.”

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