July 24 2013 12:00 AM

One man's story in words and music

Martha Aladjem Bloomfield is the author of “My Eyes Feel They Need to Cry: Stories from the Formerly Homeless,” published by MSU Press, from which this excerpt is taken. Bloomfield, of Lansing, is a writer, oral historian, artist and photographer who retired from the Michigan Historical Museum in 2010 to devote her time to write. She teaches a creative writing workshop at Advent House Ministries to complement General Education Diploma classes. This book evolved out of a collaborative project, “Your Story and Mine,” between the Michigan Historical Museum and Advent House Ministries. She co-authored another book “The Sweetness of Freedom, Stories of Immigrants,” with Steve Ostrander (MSU Press, 2010), which won a Michigan Notable Book Award from the Library of Michigan and an IPPY Silver Medal Award for independent authors and publishers.

Bloomfield will appear at Schuler Books & Music in Okemos at 7 p.m. Sept. 19  

Everyone has a story and no one can take that story away! Regardless of our life experiences—whether we are blessed, injured, or imprisoned, our homes and possessions destroyed or stolen—we all carry memories deep within us. We can discover our stories through talking with family members and old friends, or through our personal artifacts, historical documents, and family photographs. Sometimes society, individuals, and even our own families try to repress our stories out of fear that we will implicate them in some way. Sometimes we censor our own stories and they remain latent—perhaps the memories are too painful, frightening, or intense, or we fear rejection or reprisal. 

In discovering and understanding our personal histories and heritage, we become stronger, more confident individuals, more comfortable with ourselves, and can develop a deeper sense of self-value and purpose. By not living in denial, we create the opportunity to self-actualize and become more authentic. By learning about other people’s stories, we become more inclusive, accepting, and less biased. Furthermore, by remembering and sharing our stories, by grieving and laughing, we can lighten our emotional and sometimes our physical burdens, and heal our innermost, vulnerable wounds … .

The people featured in “My Eyes Feel They Need to Cry, Stories from the Formerly Homeless,” have a vision for change. They understand that they are still poor, with many layers of problems, and live from crisis to crisis—but they do have shelter, work for pay, or volunteer. They have found new ways to cope with their fragile lives so that they are more productive, self-sufficient, contributing members of society. They still find it difficult to maintain a stable existence. Even if they improve their situations, they know how easily they could revert to their old ways at any moment. It takes tremendous fortitude to change, maintain a new lifestyle, and not slip back into old worlds and patterns. Perhaps we will never understand exactly what inspired each of them to change their lives—but we do know that they each made a profound choice for their own reasons and took giant steps to move their lives forward … .


David, a white male now in his early fifties, grew up in Grand Rapids and attended special education classes. Some people criticized him and made fun of him and his artistic talents. At eighteen, he married, had three children, and then divorced. He then traveled for many years with his brother around the country—much of the time, they were homeless. During his travels, he and his brother wrote songs and played them on his guitar on the streets.

“I first started playing the guitar ’cause I was hungry. I play better when I’m hungry. When you feel hollow, you aren’t full of stuff that gets in your way … . Too many people told me I don’t have talent.

“My dad was a buffer for Keeler Brass, a car parts place. My mother sold baby clothes at Baby Bliss. I have six brothers and two sisters. I went to Special Ed and they went to Caledonia High School. But the house was filled with love. Ma would have a big pot on the stove for everybody to eat. I had a pretty good life. She cooked chicken and dumplings … . I didn’t like it very much. Chili was my favorite, I guess … . 

Later, after David divorced, he traveled with his brother.

“My brother took me and we went to Arizona and Idaho. So I did a lot of traveling. And that’s where I picked up the guitar and started playing. I liked the traveling ’cause I needed to clear my head after my divorce … .

“I’m close with this one brother, but it’s because I traveled with him for a while. I was in Idaho for like nine years. Idaho was peaceful there. It’s like they have the same climate here except the cold is a little different cold here. It’s like not a damp cold … . I miss Idaho quite a bit. Before I left … , I was fishing for rainbow trout up in the mountains with my brother. I took them home and … fried them.”

David returned to Michigan and was homeless.

“Eventually, I decided to move back to Michigan, but had no resources to try to begin my life anew on my own. When I got off the bus from Idaho I didn’t know where I was going to go. I went and slept in a field there for a while, but it was March and it was real cold, and so I stayed out there for maybe three or four days … . I had to get up in the morning because it would be quite brisk and walk so I could get the warmth back in my legs and my feet, but then somebody told me, ‘You need to go to the mission ’cause you’re going to freeze.’ So I took that advice and went to the mission. And I was there for six months … .

“... my brother asked me what I was supposed to do with my life. I said I’m supposed to go back to Michigan and to finish the Bible course I started in 2000. When I get done I can get a diploma and be clergy ’cause I haven’t had anything in my life that means anything to me, but this would mean something to me. I got to pursue it and go all the way through it.

“While at the mission, I got hooked up with Advent House through the transition house when I called the Alcoholics Anonymous before winter came so I would have a place to stay. I told them I had a drinking problem, and they put me up over by the Advent House, and they sent me to Daniel Jones to look for work.

“My stomach was bothering me so I quit drinking before I even went there. I had a rip lining in my stomach … but I would still drink. I don’t want to kid myself. I still wanted some beers now and then, but my mind is sharper without it.

“I’ve lived in Lansing about a year and a half. I’ve been looking for work since June of last year … . Just general labor like at a store, or McDonald’s or Burger King … .

“These are difficult times right now because I can’t find a job, but I just pray about it and try to snap out of it with music and all this talking to God. Trying, ’cause I can’t do nothing about it. Eventually a door will open. I just got to have the faith that it will. I’ve learned to have faith and am still learning to have faith with my Bible classes.

David finally believes in his music.

“Maybe it’s my outlet. Maybe it’s the way that I need to get to do something ’cause I did pray about it and I asked God what to do … . Too many said, ‘You don’t got talent. You ain’t got no voice.’

“But other people told me I did. I got to believe in myself and not other people … . Well, I came here to start over with a spiritual beginning and not to be afraid to use my talent, because people get a lot of joy out of my singing. And if they don’t, I guess I don’t need to play for them. I think I got ‘a calling,’ but maybe I need to pursue this field and play my music and let the spirit move me into to do what I need to do. Yah, it makes me feel good too … .

“Yah, I think I just got to relax more. I could probably write if I just put my mind to it and do it. I just have to rely on some people who want to help me. There’s a big difference between people who want to help and people that are critical. 

“Yah, I think I had a fear of budding, you know, of budding, and coming to bring my gift out, but I know I got to pursue and do it because I think I was held back long enough. I shouldn’t let anything stand in my way. This is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t believe in dreams but I believe in miracles ... .

David talked about his experience painting:

“I like art, I like music … .

“I found out about this program, “Your Story and Mine,” because people at Advent House saw my drawings and asked me if I wanted to be in the art program. I was coming there for the job club day.

“At Advent House, they said, ‘You ought to paint, ’cause you draw so good. You ought to try painting … .’  

“Some of my pictures, I just draw out of my head, my inner self. I just started drawing stuff. I like to draw people a lot. Before, I took art class years ago, maybe like fifteen years ago, but I couldn’t draw people. Now I can draw just about anything I put my mind to. But it’s another gift that I have that I picked up. It relaxes me to draw different stuff. I mostly draw people, animals, angels, an Indian with arrows in his quiver, my roommates sleeping on the couch. Sometimes, I might of drawn my dreams … . 

“I write songs a little bit, and I was playing the guitar on the street corner for a while just to make some money in Lansing. I didn’t do too bad, I guess. I went out and got a license. Otherwise you’re panhandling. So, I paid five dollars for a license to play. 

“I got one song about liberty that me and my brother wrote:

Liberty, she used to stand like a beacon in the bay

For all the passing ships that pass by the way.

Some found a way to freedom for a while,

But even a spring of water can lose its natural prime

If it’s misused it will become dried. . . .

“That’s a couple of lines of it.”

There was disappointing whispers from the crowd,

When they thought liberty had fallen.

Some said, “What does it cost to keep her torch lit?”

Others said, “it cost more to let it go out.” . . .

“I don’t remember any more of it … . My brother came up with one line, I came up with another line for it. He plays the guitar. I play the guitar, too … . I just taught myself how to play the guitar out of books and just followed along in the books—shows you, this is a G— and spent time playing, learning different picking styles of the guitar’ cause Willie does a roll and ... you roll your fingers and play it, so we practice a bunch of different stuff. Listening to Willie, and so I play kind of like his style and plus I play some blues too.

“I worry about not having a job. I know that I can play music, but I don’t think I could make any money at all … .

“Yeah, I got all my songs. I keep them in a notebook. But, like I said, I probably got to write them out all over again, so I get the spelling right of the songs. Because I just jot them down. I’m illiterate, so I don’t know if I got stuff spelled right, so that’s another thing I need to do before I get to that. I always thought I’m too old to be a performer, you know, like forty-nine.

“I recently had a gig. Somebody said there was an open mike … . ‘You need to go to this open mike.’ It only cost twenty dollars to get in … .

“When I come to Lansing I played a little more because I was hungry and somebody said, ‘You know you could go out and make some money playing your guitar.’ So I went out there to make a little so I could eat. It helps pay for food. I have my own guitar. Well I had it when I came here, when I left Idaho. My brother picked one up for like fifty dollars at a second-hand store.

“I didn’t do any music or art as a kid. I don’t know why I’m tapping into them. I guess I’m expressing what’s in my mind and in my life and drawing … .

“Well I wrote another song … . It’s called ‘Jesus Drives a Buick.’

Jesus drives a Buick with portholes in the side,

Just like his wounded side afloat

But that’s cause the Buick has portholes.

I don’t know if they call them portholes or what,

They’re in the side of the car, and

Jesus drives a PT Cruiser, you know,

The kind the one made by Chrysler Town and Country, you know?

“I wrote one song about my wife, my ex-wife, when I was hungry. It’s called ‘Mother of 

Children That Are Full Grown.’”

I want to bury the hatred God only knows.

We should be as proud as peacocks today

Because our baby had a baby,

Her name is sweet Desire.

“I’m now able to get my meals at the place where I live. Yah, they put food in the house. They go to the Red Cross once in a while and get food. But, like I said, I’m pretty new at it because I really didn’t open up until I came here. You know with my music and stuff... It’s something that I want to pursue is the music, and probably the artwork too. I think it’s the way of visions more than anything else—things that I see and things I’m thinking about in my inner self is through the pictures and stuff. Maybe in the spiritual sense maybe. Sometimes, I sing out of the Bible and play the guitar, the psalms, stuff like that for inspiration.

“Well, I make up my own music or play what I’ve heard—a little of both, I think. I make up my own songs if I’m doing it by memory, if I’m singing and praising God with songs, yah know, it’s just repeating some of the psalms, and probably some of my own words are in there too. But I would have to be and know what my mood was for that day. I couldn’t remember what I sang. Yah know, in the spirit of that time and place when I was singing that song.

David’s music and art continue to flourish together. They go hand in hand. His mentor, at Advent House Ministries, helped find him a job at L&L bagging groceries. When the L&L grocery stores closed in the Lansing area, David got a job at the Radisson Hotel. He converted his closet into an art studio and no longer had to sell his blood plasma to buy art supplies.