The Loneliest City in the World

LA_Bus.pngI recently made some new friends. This may sound like no big deal, but they are the first friends I made on my own since moving to Los Angeles two years ago. In general, I am a pretty awkward person. I hate small talk, and I don’t know how to do it. In some cases I pretend I am interviewing someone when I have no idea what to say to them.

Send me to an event as a reporter, and I can rock the room and come away with a great story for your fancy magazine or newspaper. Send me as myself and tell me to network and I will most likely be standing in the back against the wall pretending to look at my phone or looking for the smokers. Even though I really don’t smoke anymore, I understand smoking small talk and prefer it to awkward networking chatter.

I have always wanted to live in L.A. since I was a little kid and I learned that’s where the movies are made and where all of the beautiful and glamorous women in the pages of my mother’s glossy magazine’s lived. I scrawled “Hollywood” in crayon in big block letters on the wall of my childhood bedroom in my blue-collar hometown of Toledo, Ohio, home of Jeep. I longed for the knowledge that Stevie Nicks, at least when she wasn’t on tour, would only live a few miles from me, and I vowed that one day I would get there, learn to surf and live a generally fabulous life.

I didn’t actually move to L.A. until I was 35 and I was in a relationship with someone who, by complete coincidence, lived in my dream city. I had recently left the frozen tundra of Maine after nine years and a divorce and moved temporarily back to Ohio to regroup. There seemed like no better time to finally head west.

My new beloved already had several groups of friends in the city. I was traveling almost every month for work or a meditation retreat or a friend’s wedding so there seemed no reason or time to make my own L.A. friends, which is always a huge mistake. When a relationship ends as ours eventually did, friends of a couple generally fall into two camps – the friends that each person brought into the relationship and the friends the couple made together. We only made friends with one other couple together, and they have since left L.A.

When I got divorced a few years ago, some of my ex-husband’s friends and family members immediately un-friended me on Facebook, which is fine. I really don’t need to be friends with my ex-husband’s mom.  But, I did find it surprising because my ex and I had parted on friendly terms, and I naively didn’t realize people might blame me for the failed marriage. Some people felt outraged on his behalf and never spoke to me again, but for the most part, we left the relationship with the same friends we entered it with.

This time, I was in a new city with no local friends of my own. I am a writer who works from home, so I really didn’t have many local work friends either. I started attending writing workshops, hoping to meet some people I would click with. In Maine I belonged to a writing group that was formed with people I met in my MFA program, so I missed that connection and feedback from people who “got” me.

Making friends has never been easy for me. If you’re dialed into Myers Briggs, I am an INFP, an intuitive introvert who bases most decisions on gut feeling and perceptions. I connect with very few people, and if there’s not a real connection, there can be no real friendship. Once I do connect with someone, which happens very rarely, I will talk a mile a minute. Spending so much time in my head, it’s exhilarating to exchange with someone with whom I can be myself around and who appreciates my affinity for general weirdness, sarcasm, over sharing, personal questions and doesn’t ask me if I will regret my tattoos when I am 70 (which is technically a personal question, but in my opinion an obvious one. The only things I will regret when I am 70 are risks I didn’t take and experiences I didn’t have).

My first few attempts at meeting new friends were a bust. In one workshop, a woman couldn’t decide if I was the next Mary Karr, or if my memoir was just begging for attention and sympathy. I was mortified. I had, for the most part, never had trouble connecting with other writers, and I had never felt so misunderstood by another nonfiction writer.

No one tells you how hard it is to make friends in your 30s, and maybe this is a new generation X problem as many of us are waiting to get married or have children or deciding to not do either, which opens up a whole lot more time for other activities and opportunities for human connection.

When my mother (also an introvert) was in her 30s, she asked me to go see a movie with her.  I was 13 and only concerned with spending every free second with my friends. I asked her, “Why don’t you just call one of your friends and ask them to go?”

“All of my friends are married,” she said. “They’re spending time with their husbands, they don’t want to go to the movies with me.”

I remember feeling sad that my mom, who was divorced and not yet remarried to her current husband, didn’t have any friends of her own. Sure, she has couple friends that she and her husband meet for dinner, but they stick to safe topics and current events. I can say with 100 percent certainty that they aren’t talking about their gay children, my brother’s drug problems, my divorce, the fact they have five kids between them and we have all failed to procreate (maybe subconsciously not wanting to pass this dysfunction on to the next generation) or anything else deeply personal. She does have a few friends now, and like me, it took her a long time to make them.

By the time we’re out of our 20s, the pre-set venues for meeting new people pretty much vanish. Most friendships are made through work or school. My two closest friends from childhood are from the fourth grade and we have been friends for 28 years. I have a few other close friends I met 12 years ago in a writing workshop, but none of these people live in Los Angeles and are free to go to readings, the beach or hike the hidden staircases of L.A. with me except for when they visit. One new friend told me that Los Angeles can sometimes feel like the loneliest city in the world, and it’s true. Between the car culture and general perception of entitled oblivion permeating the landscape, it can be hard to make a real connection.

Unless you’re a med student, getting an MFA or a PhD candidate, the reasons to be in school in your 30s are significantly lower. And, if you’re an INFP who works from home, meeting friends at work is out of the question too. Reasons to have a roommate, which can often result in a built-in buddy, also diminish in your 30s, either because you are finally earning enough money on your own (rare in L.A.), or you simply can’t stand to live with a revolving door of strangers who throw garbage on the floor instead of in the trashcan and you’re willing to spend half your income on housing to have a little something to call your own. And, if we’re being honest, I only became good friends with one of the 13 roommates I had in my 20s, and another was my cousin so we were already close when we moved in together. Most of them I wanted to kill in their sleep. One was such a slob that our other roommate and I used to empty the dustpan on her bedroom floor because that’s where she threw her garbage anyways. Yeah, I’m going to hell for that one.

So where did I meet these magical new people? I had to go all the way to a tiny island off the coast of Washington. I was trolling Instagram one night while watching SVU on the DVR when I saw a post for a writing workshop called Write Doe Bay. Someone I knew of who was friends with my family in Ohio was going to be one of the teachers. As I often do, I signed up impulsively without thinking it through. Then I read the fine print. Even though I spent much of my early childhood traveling around the United States in the back of a van, I am a city girl. It seemed like a logistical nightmare to get to Doe Bay. I would have to take a flight to Seattle and then transfer to a tiny plane or take a bus and a ferry or rent a car and then take a ferry. I get lost going around the block even with my GPS so figuring this out on my own seemed daunting, but I spoke to the program director on the phone, she talked me out of my panic and assured me it was worth it.

I emailed the list of people who were going and asked if anyone wanted to meet at the airport and travel together. One person responded and we met up in Seattle and took the shuttle to our tiny plane. I was immediately calmer having a travel buddy, and we quickly discerned we had no idea what awaited us on Doe Bay. She had signed up in a similar fashion, as did most other people I spoke with. It was as if an invisible net was cast to gather us all together. We were booked in the same cabin, which we coined the orphanage because it had two rows of beds, two “adult” rooms, no heat and no shower or tub.

Doe Bay was magical in a way that was painful for me, like getting a tattoo. It feels good at first, then that wears off pretty quickly and it hurts and you want it to end, but you know if you stick it out it you will have something beautiful to cherish for the rest of your life. I felt awkward and uncomfortable most of the time. I hadn’t done any personal writing in almost two years, so I felt like an imposter among accomplished and prolific artists. I sought out the smokers and I forced myself to have conversations with strangers I was sure were judging me. As it turned out a large number of the group, including my travel companion, were also from L.A.

When the weekend was over I was convinced I would never see any of these people again. I was so exhausted on the ride home from LAX that I cried and berated myself for my inability to connect with people; then I went home and crashed hard. Fast-forward six months and a handful of the L.A. people from Doe Bay, including me, have started a writing group. We all have several personal things in common, and these women have become my inspiration to write and to continue to pursue my dreams in L.A.

Two years after driving alone for three days with my dog and two cats, living in L.A. doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. I have not learned to surf. It’s hard for me to admit that I am scared of the ocean now (a fear I am determined to conquer). I was sucked under by a wave on Labor Day, and though I didn’t think I would drown, I was sure that I wouldn’t have the strength to climb out as the Pacific kept beating me down and pulling me farther from shore while pretty much ripping my bathing suit from my body. I am not a glamorous movie star or even a glamorous regular person. Most days I wear my pajamas all day and sit in front of my computer writing and editing articles about other people who lead much more interesting lives than me, but I am learning to take the subway and experience some of the magic of this city by hiking alone with my dog.

Even though I had to go to Washington find them, it’s comforting to know that there are so many inspiring writers close by, and of course I love knowing that Stevie Nicks is often watching the same sunset as me.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know one thing; there is no coming back from California.

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The Long Road Home

Billy Woolverton finds his way back to his long lost family

 Billy

This story was originally published almost 10 years ago in “The Blue Room.” This January marked the 10  year anniversary of Billy Woolverton being reunited with his family. I recently heard from Billy, who is still doing well in Texas, and I thought it was an appropriate time to remember his amazing story.

When Billy Woolverton picks up the phone in Azle, Texas, on a mid-January morning he’s doing something he hasn’t done in a handful of years.

“Can you hang on just a second?” he asks in the unmistakable drawl of a polite southern gentleman. “I’ve gotta turn the T.V. down. I’m watching the Dukes of Hazard.”

“Sure,” I tell him, picturing the well-worn lines of his weather beaten face, the soft curls of his auburn hair and the contagious smile that crinkles his eyes in the corners, as he lowers the volume on his sister’s television set.

He sounds at ease as he settles himself into the couch while he recounts the events that led him back to the sister he hadn’t seen in more than 30 years and the mother he was ripped away from as a toddler and had long thought dead.

Until September 2005, Billy called a self-made campsite adjacent to the railroad tracks along Portland, Maine’s, Ocean Avenue his home. He certainly didn’t enjoy the luxury of television, but had built his sturdy Styrofoam tent with the help of home insulation, which helped to keep him warm in almost any weather. He built a fire nightly and fashioned a clothes line to dry his laundry. An alarm system created from tin cans alerted him to intruders and animals.

Billy gathered water from a nearby warehouse on the weekends when nobody was around, ate meals at the Preble Street Resource Center and spent his days walking, reading and writing, his lean body and homemade walking stick a well recognized presence on the streets of Portland. Generally a good-natured person, Billy often hummed tunes as he walked, singing songs by Canned Heat and Willie Nelson while he trekked some 15 miles per day.

Billy, 52, was surviving. He came to Portland during the 1990s on a tip from a fellow traveler after hitchhiking across the country. He hated staying at the shelter and rarely did so for fear of catching a cold or the flu. Billy was not homeless by choice, but homeless by circumstance (he lost both his apartment and his job) and carried an ache in his heart from a tumultuous childhood.

While minding his own business one day, Billy was approached outside of the Wayside Soup Kitchen about participating in a play written and performed by the local homeless population. The play was headed up by Dolores Vail and sponsored by the Maine Council of Churches. Billy says he’d always wanted to help break the stereotype that homeless people somehow deserved the unfortunate predicament they were in. He saw the play as a vehicle to achieve his goal. A gifted writer in his youth, he decided to give it a shot and eagerly agreed to participate, thinking, “at least I’ll get a free meal.” That casual decision put Billy on a path that helped lead him back home, both spiritually and physically, and he said goodbye to the people whose unwavering friendship sustained him through Maine’s long, cold winters.

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

   It gives me great pleasure to tell you good folks that as of tomorrow I will be on my way back to the great state of Texas. I have had to promise, no more riding freight trains, no more hitchhiking and absolutely no more dumpster diving. I guess I will have to settle for a Chevy pick-up and a hunting dog riding on the toolbox. I appreciate everything you folks have done for me. You folks shall always be in my heart.

He listened to his friends tell their stories about how they came to live on the street, then he went home to his campsite and wrote down what they had told him, quickly producing the play’s first script. Billy hadn’t written since the 1980s when he had a few poems published; now his words flowed freely.

“I started scribbling notes,” he recalls, “and I came up with a poem about the soup kitchen.”

That story formed the basis for the play, “Hear Our Stories; Know Our Names,” which received immediate attention for the raw issues it exposed. Billy was recognized for co-writing and starring in much of the production.

Though he knew the play was a gem, he says he wasn’t sure it would last more than a few performances. Two years later it was still going strong. For Billy the play was more than a vehicle to jumpstart his writing, it led him to a family he wasn’t sure existed. Kidnapped from his teenage mother at the tender age of 2, Billy had all but given up hope of seeing his mother and sister again.

However, two thousand miles away, a woman from Texas named Shanna Adams had been looking for Billy for years, entering his name into Google on an almost daily basis, praying she would get a hit. One day a picture popped up alongside information about “Hear Our Stories, Know Our Names.” Shanna was certain that one of the men in the picture was her half-brother. Stolen from her mother more than a dozen years before she was born, Shanna had never met the older brother her mother referred to as “Billy Boy.” Acting on gut feeling, she called the Maine Council of Churches and explained that she believed Billy Woolverton was her half brother.

As a child Billy began to suspect that something was amiss in his family.

“I remember thinking, I don’t look like anyone, I don’t have the same hair and I’m a different height,” he says.

Billy couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right; one day while rummaging through a drawer, at age 11, his suspicions were confirmed. He discovered two different birth certificates for himself and several faded black and white photos, it was then he realized he was adopted. Because of the circumstances surrounding his adoption, Billy’s parents remained tight-lipped about how he came to be their son.

“When I found the birth certificates and pictures it basically caused an avalanche,” he says. “That mountain that everyone leaned on caved in. I was so close to the truth.”

The truth, however, was something his adoptive parents (an aunt and uncle on his biological father’s side) weren’t going to give up easily. Questions about what happened to his real parents were met with harsh beatings and finally reform school. By age 15 Billy ran away from home for good, beginning a 34-year transient lifestyle.

He eventually learned that his biological father kidnapped him and his sister Julia Sue from their teenaged mother in Houston. The children were then each deposited with a different family member to be raised in Dallas.

And as quickly as he scooped them up from their lives in Houston, their father was gone, memories of their mother faded and like children tend to do, Billy and Julia Sue adjusted to their new surroundings and to their new relationship—as cousins. The facts of their early lives clouded over like a fog settling into their brains or brief flash of memory that almost feels imagined. Because they were in fact kidnapped, details surrounding the incident were kept secret.

“Mom was an intelligent woman,” Billy says of his mother’s attempts to locate him and Julia Sue, “but she was just a child herself, there was no legal recourse back then.”

This past summer Billy was using the computer at the Maine Council of Churches to type up some of his poetry, as he did a few times a week, when Administrative Assistant Sandi Buzzell began to ask him a series of strange questions. She asked about his eyes, his hair and his astrological sign and then she asked Billy to come into her office and sit down. There weren’t any chairs, so he leaned his tall frame on an old bookcase.

“A woman called from South Texas,” Billy remembers hearing, “and she says she’s your half sister.”

Impossible, Billy thought to himself, I don’t have a half sister.

“I got defensive,” he admits. “Then Sandi looked at me and said, ‘is your mom’s name Margie Sue?’ I just started bawling, and she said, ‘your family’s found you.”‘

 The soon to be future, finally meeting my mother and family after all of these years will be a big change for me. I grew accustomed to bouts of loneliness and solitude, which I hope I put to good use writing and performing on the stage. I will miss the people and the southern Maine outdoors. But, fortunately, I will not miss the stature, homelessness and unemployable, and the ghosts of past addictions.

“I couldn’t get any sleep that night,” Billy says of hearing the news, “I was so amazed, it was unbelievable.”

He had long assumed his mother was dead and would often look up to the sky and talk to her when he was lonely or scared. Because the old photographs he had found as an 11-year-old boy showed him as a baby in the arms of a much older woman, Billy never realized his mother was just 15 years older than him. He later learned that the woman in the photos was his mother’s great aunt.

“The first thing I said is, ‘mom is that you?”‘ he says, recalling their first phone conversation. After a short silence an emotional voice came through on the other end of the line.

“Yes, baby. It’s me.”

A dam of emotion was released and Billy cried a cathartic river, more he says, than he had cried in 30 or 40 years.

 What I can say, is suddenly having a family and knowing you are returning home…I wish other folks could enjoy the true spiritual pleasure and know that someone has always cared, for so many years, and never given up finding their dear loved ones. That is the main problem of the streets. That is the bigger problem of the homeless…no spirituality and no community ties and no family. Everyone in this world feels the human need to belong. Money, drugs, alcohol (or) running with the pack does not replace the inner feeling of not belonging.

In the weeks that followed that phone call, Billy talked with Shanna and Margie Sue constantly and finally decided to make his way home. At his going away party thrown by the cast of “Hear Our Stories, Know Our Names” at the Village Café he equated the next chapter of his life to jumping out of an airplane. Gifts were given, a pair of Boston Red Sox anklets, tears were shed and one last supper was shared.

Billy arrived in Silsbee, Texas, in late summer and spent three months with his mother in her condemned trailer, destroyed during Hurricane Rita. During Christmas he moved to Azle to live with Julia Sue Hare, the sister he grew up thinking was a cousin.

And while Billy once said writing and poetry were simply getting him out of the woods, now he plans to use it as a vehicle to help his mother. A book of his poetry will be published this month with the help of the Woodford’s Congregational Church. He has also reconnected with his daughter Tina, who he had left behind when she was a child in California. For now Billy’s busy healing old wounds, but he admits he’s not sure what’s next. However, he’s not ruling out a return to Portland someday, if only for a visit.

“I’m not sure about the future,” he says. “I wanted to come down here and get to know my family. I’m kind of mystified by it (this experience). It’s something new everyday, especially after living outside for so long. Now I’m sitting inside, watching T.V. and petting this cat.”

 I hope you folks will enjoy the poems, the writings and the scribbles, I must be moving on. Thanks to Carrie Buntrock Moore for giving me the flyer for the homeless drama. Without you darling, all this good, which I feel blessed, would not be possible. The rest of the cast…remember I will be hitting the typewriter and the computer and whipping my family into shape to film and record me. So, I doubt I will have time to be bored. I have faith in all of you. Yes, my parting to you all will be like putting on roller skates to go on the ice rink. But remember, you must crawl out of the tent before you can walk.

Sincerely love and eternal good wishes, long prayers
Your Tejas actor, performer, writer, playwright, poet

Billy Lee Woolverton

–Brandi Neal

Wrestling to the Top

Rob Elowitch’s Double Life

Originally published in “The Blue Room.”

RobLike a gladiator, Robbie Ellis slowly climbs up the three turnbuckles of the wrestling ring and turns to face his opponent Matt Rage, who attempts to get up from Robbie’s latest blow. Robbie hovers six feet above the ground; his chiseled body perched like a statue as he prepares for his famous finishing move, the big splash. In one fell swoop he leaps off the top turnbuckle, gaining height, soaring like a superhero in flight, before he evens his frame out positioning his stomach parallel with the mat. With a loud smack he lands on Rage and successfully pins him. He jumps up, swaggers his hips and swings his jacket above his head; it’s another victory for crowd favorite Robbie Ellis.

“I do a lot of flying,” Robbie says. “It’s really my gimmick.”

As a fiery September sunset descends behind the VFW in Old Town, professional wrestler Robbie Ellis just made his comeback. Injured four months ago during a match in Sanford, the Sports Illustrated legend proved he is still has what it takes. At least 30 fans paid their hard earned money and suspended their disbelief to witness Robbie, and the other featured wrestlers of the evening, pummel each other inside the ring.

In high school gyms, VFWs and American Legions across the country, hundreds of men dress up in grandiose costumes and adopt an alter ego. Hardcore fans get caught up in the storylines of their favorite wrestlers and follow them from location to location. Before each match begins, the stage is set. The lights are dimmed and the smell of sweat, baby oil and smoke mingle in the air. Backstage prior to the match Robbie waits for his cue.

“They either love him or they hate him,” says Commissioner of New Wrestling Horizon Matt Michaels. “He’s been here so long.”

Besides being the villain everyone loves to hate, there’s something else about Robbie that sets him apart from the other wrestlers. Robbie is 63, though arguably in better shape than opponents half his age. To maintain his physique he works out at a local gym between two-to-three hours every day.

Robbie’s match against Rage is the second of the evening. The music swells and the curtain parts. Robbie advances from the makeshift dressing room wearing sleek black and gold wrestling shorts, black shoes, gold kneepads, a black and gold jacket and sunglasses. His well-muscled body looks freshly oiled and tan. He struts toward the ring as if on a catwalk, armed with a sense of arrogant self-confidence.

Things can get raucous in the front row and spit tends to fly, but for loyal members of the audience this is the best part and they show their adoration or disdain for each wrestler.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Robbie Ellis the world’s Sexiest Sexagenarian Super Stud Sports Illustrated legend,” the announcer cries.

This crowd loves Robbie and they voice their approval with loud hoots and hollers. Robbie swivels his hips and kisses both of his biceps in a slow deliberate gesture.

“Here’s the love muscle right here,” Robbie says while rotating his hips to the screams of girls in the front row.

Robbie’s opponent Rage appears wearing bright red boots, black and gray pants and a mask.

Inside the ring Robbie flips Rage, throws him into the ropes and delivers his elbow straight into his opponent. Rage retaliates  by grabbing Robbie and administering a body slam. Robbie backs Rage into the ropes and climbs halfway to the top; he thrusts his groin in Rage’s face as the crowd yells “too sexy!” Next comes the big splash.

For 10 minutes of glory as his alter ego wrestler Robbie Ellis, Rob Elowitch, art dealer and owner of the famed Barridoff Galleries, made the two-hour drive to Old Town from his home along Portland’s Western Promenade.

Rob has lived the double life of a professional wrestler and art dealer for the last 20 years. Though he runs Barridoff with his wife Annette, you’ll never find her at a match, cheering on Robbie Ellis.

Like most little boys, Rob dreamed of being a professional wrestler from an early age. He wrestled in college, but it was while in Boston that his fate was sealed. Rob was walking by the Boston Arena when he says he noticed a sign that read: “Learn to be a professional wrestler.”

“I went home and put on jeans and a tight t-shirt,” Rob recalls. “I remember going inside the arena and there was a ( wrestling) ring. I went upstairs, knocked on the door and it was just like a gangster movie.”

At first Rob kept his wrestling a secret from his wife. He disappeared every weekend to Boston for the wrestling clinic, each time telling Annette he was going to visit a urologist for a recurring bladder problem. Rob says the sneaking around made him sick, but something Annette had warned him of made him keep his mouth shut.

“Annette said years before, ‘if you ever do this, we won’t make it,'” Rob says.

Despite the warning, while at a party a few weeks later, Rob could no longer stomach the guilt of lying to his wife and confessed to Annette that he had something to tell her.

As any woman would, Annette assumed the worst.

“When he told me (it was wrestling) I was so relieved, I was thrilled,” Annette admits from the kitchen table of the 1912 Colonial Revival dream home she and Rob purchased in the early 1970s.

“I went three times,” she reveals, “but it was so horrible. I thought he was getting killed.”

“No matter how much I explained it (the wrestling moves) to her,” Rob chimes in laughing.

Annette says she doesn’t get nervous any more, because she simply doesn’t go to Rob’s matches. Rob confides that Annette doesn’t want him injured for the holidays or their upcoming two-month vacation to their second home in Collodi, Italy. Since he began wresting Rob has injured his rotator cuff and his elbow and most recently the injury to his hip. He has wrestled all over the country and made his debut in Italy on November 1.

The couple met in high school and after breaking up in college, he attended Amherst, she Boston University, they finally married in 1965. Rob credits their successful marriage with a solid foundation of friendship.

On a rainy Saturday during Rosh Hashanah they banter back and forth trying to remember specific dates to their well-worn story told countless time over Annette’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. Their yellow Labrador retriever Buzz makes himself at home on the floor while the couple’s cats explore the backyard garden.

Rob and Annette started the gallery in 1972. Rob’s father owned a successful tire manufacturing business, but Rob quickly decided the family business wasn’t for him.

So he posed an idea. He asked the other partners in the company to pay him for five years, buy him a building in downtown Portland and told them they would never see him again. Rob and Annette took the funds and turned them into a successful antique and art business. That business has boomed, and though they now work out of their home, they sold more than $4 million of art an their annual auction this past August.

“We’re certainly considered one of the major art auction houses in America,” Rob says. “There was a moment that was really amazing to me, (during the auction) suddenly I got this wonderful feeling of well-being I hadn’t had in seven months.”

Rob credits wresting for jumpstarting his art business. In the beginning he feared the opposite would be true, and kept a low profile by only wrestling out of town. Inside of his home countless articles and photographs of his glory in the ring line the walls.

“Wrestling changed the world for us,” Rob says. He began to get recognized on the streets, something he says was “fun the first 150 times.”

In 1985 “Sports Illustrated” came calling and major network news programs followed, but it was a story in the local paper that revealed Rob’s secret identity to his hometown. Rob says the attention made their local art business an international success.

“The TV people treated the art part very seriously,” explains Rob. “They treated the wrestling with humor without being patronizing. It changed our whole lives. That’s when we started getting calls about people having paintings to sell.”

He cites his favorite wrestlers as A.J. Styles, Mike Quackenbush, Randy Orton and Rick Flair, who is his own age. It’s Flair who accompanies Robbie to all of his matches in the form of an action figure on his dashboard. Robbie says he doesn’t mind the long drives he has to make in order to wrestle.

“I get very nervous on the drive up,” he admits. “I wonder, ‘why am I doing this?’ until I get in the ring, it’s like performing,” the former theater major explains.

Rob uses the time alone to listen to books on tape and opera. He says the few minutes in the ring bring him instant gratification.

“It gets an awful lot out of my system that I couldn’t get out in any other way,” he says of wrestling.

As he grew older, Rob decided that Robbie Ellis needed to shed his baby face good guy image so he dyed his brown hair bleach blond and left the baby face image behind for good.

It’s not the outcome of a match that matters, Rob says.

“It doesn’t matter who wins in wrestling, it’s how the show goes and if they’ll come to see you again.”

Robbie Ellis will continue to dazzle audiences for at least the next two years. Rob says he’ll keep wrestling until it puts his health at risk. Born with a heart condition, Rob will have to leave the ring if he needs to be put on a blood thinner, which he speculates could happen by the time he reaches age 65.

Rob says he had a lot to prove in the early days as a baby face and had only a few close friends in the industry. Now as a heel, or a bad guy and countless years in the industry, Rob has made lifelong friendships, which he says are important because the dangerous moves he performs require complete trust from his opponent.

“If you can’t trust him, you can’t do it,” Rob says. “It’s very dangerous.”

As much as he loves wrestling, Rob says it’s the art that he cherishes more.

“Art is it, there’s no question,” Rob says. “It’s what I’ll have when wrestling through. If I had to pick one or the other I’d pick art, even though wrestling is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

— Brandi Neal

Finding Their Voice

Homeless Voices for Justice Advocates for Social Change

Originally published in “The Blue Room.”

JimJim Devine leans forward in his chair, shakes some loose tobacco onto his coffee table and begins rolling himself a cigarette. Winter is winding down, and late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows of his Old Port apartment in the former CM Rice Paper Company building.

Jim’s mother used to work in the very building he now calls home. His studio contains the remnants of an old elevator shaft, which is where he makes his office. Yellow painted walls give way to exposed brick. Bottles and jars of amber, blue and green glass line the windowsills, reflecting soft prisms of light.

He pauses, as he rolls, to speak. He has the half rolled cigarette in one hand, but sets it down as he uses his hands to emphasize his points. Jim has more than a year of sobriety behind him and for the first time in a long time, his own apartment. He is an electrician by trade. But, his drinking, which began college, escalated to the point where he found himself out of work and eventually, homeless.

Jim is proof that homelessness can happen to anyone, and he shared that wisdom with students at Cheverus High School a few years ago when he and a group of people from Preble Street’s Consumer Advocacy Project spoke to them about violence against homeless people. Jim, a graduate of the same private Jesuit high school himself during the 1970s, said to them bluntly, “I was just like you, and it happened to me.”

Jim joined Preble Street’s Consumer Advocacy Project, now called Homeless Voices for Justice in 2002. He was getting back on his feet in Portland and wanted to help others do the same.

“I’ve been on the street,” Jim says. “It’s all been episodic, it’s all been driven by alcoholism.”

Jim describes his battle with alcoholism as a merry-go-round. Every time he felt he was out of options he turned to alcohol. In college at the University of Maine in Orono, he says he became a full-time partier and eventually dropped out, instead following in his father’s footsteps as an electrician.

He relates being homeless to feeling totally alone—bankrupt without hope.

Since its inception, Homeless Voices for Justice has registered more than 1,000 homeless and low income residents to vote, launched a campaign to prevent illegal evictions from lodging houses—persuading the city to enact a new ordinance that requires this type of housing to be licensed, and led the way for the passage of new bill, signed into law by Gov. John Baldacci, that prolongs sentences for those convicted of hate crimes against the homeless.

The original group was formed in 1995 and is led by people who’ve struggled themselves, with homelessness and poverty. Their mission is to achieve social change for other homeless people. The group believes that the only way for change to occur is by having the people who are directly affected by an unjust system address those injustices.

For advocate dee Clarke, who prefers to spell her first name with lowercase letters, being homeless was a pattern from her youth she was determined not to repeat with her own children. Homeless with her mother and siblings at a young age in Boston, dee says she didn’t have anyone to teach her the “right way” to live.

She describes the adults in her childhood as being corrupt and says that looking back, it’s hurtful that no one intervened when they saw her involved in adult situations, or when her father’s family saw her and her siblings living on the street. Getting involved with advocacy work saved her life, she says. dee began working with the People’s Organization to Win Economic Rights or POWER, and after a short hiatus began working as a consumer advocate.

“For me personally as a kid, I think I just needed some really good adults in my life,” she says from her Walker Street apartment in Portland as spring sunlight warms her living room. “There were really no healthy people interested in my wellbeing.”

Walking a tightrope

Jim, who is now back to work, says balancing his advocacy work with his job as an electrician can sometimes be challenging. In addition to these commitments he also makes time for his music. Jim plays at several open mic nights around the city, and in late February he played for the last time at A Company of Girls on Mayo Street. The weekly event, hosted by the People’s Free Space, was the last before the building changed ownership.

When it’s his turn to perform, Jim casually straps his acoustic guitar over his shoulder and makes his way to the center of the old church. Wearing a red flannel over a t-shirt, his sandy hair, flecked with gray, is pulled back into a ponytail. Jim sings with his eyes closed behind his glasses—only opening them in between songs. His wiry frame sways with the beat and his fingers gently strum the strings of his guitar. His voice swells as he sings songs by the Grateful Dead and Gillian Welsh.

After his set is over Jim heads outside for a smoke. He’s feeling the stress of keeping up with his work at Preble Street and balancing his other commitments as he prepares for a big meeting the next day.

“I’m walking a tightrope and I may fall off,” he says, “I’ve fallen before.”

Since getting sober he has found new ways to relax. Jim belongs to a Buddhist group and chants for about 20 minutes a day in front of an alter he created in his apartment. He plays conga drums and formerly belonged to a drum circle on Brackett Street. He reads books about non-violent communication and meets with a group every couple of weeks to discuss positive communication methods, which he says are helpful at Preble Street. Jim admits to being a joiner and said a friend once teased him that he belonged to every group except the Girl Scouts.

To maintain his position as an advocate, he must dedicate a certain amount of time to his work, including weekly strategy meetings with the other six members of the group.

Jim says in the past he has become overwhelmed and returned to drinking, but right now he remains clear, dedicated to his work and to making a difference.

“I’ve had mixed success,” Jim says as he takes a drag off his cigarette. “Right now I’ve had over a year’s sobriety, and right now I don’t plan on getting involved in any disasters, but I can’t get complacent.”

Undoing my life

dee finds helping others therapeutic.

“It’s like I’m completely undoing my life,” she says. By helping others, she’s righting the wrongs of her past and learning that she’s not the only woman who’s been raped, beaten or held against her will. dee encourages people to think of these things before judging others. It’s not apparent what they’ve been through, just by looking at someone.

“Most homeless people blend in,” says dee, “except when they’re standing in front of Preble Street.”

Against the advice of shelter officials, dee helped a woman she befriended from the shelter get on her feet. dee rented the woman a room in her home, connected her with services she was eligible for and reunited her with her family. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret.

“That was the best thing I did,” says dee, “even better than getting a law passed.”

                                            ***

In his backpack, Jim carries around several brightly colored folders. Each one includes a wealth of information about legislation, programs and services and various news article written about issues affecting homeless people. He likes to keep on top of new information and refers to the folders often as he speaks pulling out pages related to the topics he discusses.

Jim says it’s important to help people get off the street first, to house them first, then help them tackle their other problems like alcoholism or mental illness. He is advocating for both a “housing first model” and more emergency assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services for people who are threatened with homelessness. Most people, he says, are just two paychecks away from finding themselves in such a situation.

With a housing first model, Jim says nights in jail, stints in detox, contact with police and nights in shelters have dropped significantly—and people’s income and quality of life has increased.

“I see our efforts going all the way across the state and really making a difference,” Jim says of the future of Homeless Voices for Justice. “Homelessness is not just a Portland problem, it’s not just a big city problem.”

Healing a broken spirit

At the Maine College of Art in February with Jim and the other members of Homeless voices for Justice in the audience, dee speaks to a crowd of people gathered to for the opening of a new art project, Kaddish for the Dispossessed—which addresses violence against homeless people. She uses the analogy of broken leg not being properly fixed to explain how people can become damaged by the circumstances of their lives. If a broken bone isn’t set correctly, it won’t function like it did before. It’s the same with emotional damage, she explains.

She doesn’t need a microphone. Her voice carries through the room as she details the devastating events of her childhood in the third person. She speaks of physical and sexual abuse and the basic mentality of a child trying to navigate alone in an adult world without the proper education and emotional tools. It’s not until the end of her delivery she reveals that the little girl she has been referring to is actually her.

dee spent much of her childhood in foster care, at the New England Home for Little Wanderers—the countries oldest child and family service agency, and on the streets of Boston’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Her Native American mother suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and was often unable to care for the children.

“I think the biggest thing is that my life as a child was horrendously harmful and it produced a really sad, hurt, self destructive youth,” says dee.

She was sexually abused in foster care and ran away, only to be held captive by another man. She came to Portland in 1978 with a Chinese man who barely spoke any English. The couple made their home in a Forest Avenue apartment and had two children, now grown (she has a third child still at home). After finding herself in a shelter for battered women with her kids, dee realized that she was heading down a familiar path.

“Disappointing your kids, that was the hardest thing,” muses dee. “I’d rather be taking my kids to the library or to swimming lessons than sitting in the shelter.”

It was a friend that directed dee to seek help and she was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a turning point for her. She was beginning to have flashbacks of some of the most painful parts of her childhood as she watched her children become the age she was when a traumatic event happened to her.

dee sought out new friends, which she says helped her realize there was a different, more positive way to live than how she was raised.

“They were modeling for me without knowing it, modeling a normal life,” she says of making new friends in Portland. “In the mist of that I was healing, and I’m healthy about it now. I don’t get messed up about it.”

Though Jim and Dee admit that sometimes, strong personalities disrupt the harmony of the advocates from time to time, for the most part they are a cohesive group providing a lifeline to hundreds of people who are navigating a road they’re all too familiar with.

“We spend a lot of time working together on not very easy things, but we work quite well together. The fact that we are able to function at all says a lot,” Jim says. “Being a team is what community is all about to me.”

dee says it hard to not want to participate in other smaller ways, like working one on one with homeless individuals more directly. But, the advocates are working toward the bigger picture, helping disenfranchised people become empowered and gain leadership skills while organizing and advocating for institutional change.

“We’re there to do systematic change,” dee says. “We’re afforded that opportunity because we’ve been through it.”

— Brandi Neal