General 4-30-2007

Okay, so a thespian, an artist, and a memoirist walk into a homeless shelter…

Will Conley, recently of Minnesota, recounts some tales of being on the street in New Haven, and how people with nothing but art live with it.


Welcome to fabulous New Haven, Connecticut, the richest State in the Union!

You couldn’t tell by looking at us.

We live in overcrowded shelters, filthy rooming houses, mental institutions, condemned and abandoned buildings, and on the streets themselves. We eat in soup kitchens, grab bag lunches out of the back of a van in a church parking lot situated on the town green, and frequent the food shelf behind the public library. We plague you at every turn, relentlessly asking you for money, a little change so we can get out of the cold, so we can get a meal, or you can even buy the meal yourself and give it to us, so you’ll know we won’t spend it on crack. Every single day you will see the same faces.

Some of us create.

That Great Adventurer

Margaret Holloway, known by New Haven locals as the Shakespeare Lady, creates street performances in which the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer blend with the speeches of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Give the Shakespeare Lady a couple of dollars. It is worth the money, on sheer credit of mastery.

Holloway’s acting skills are based in the formal training she received from Bennington College in Vermont (1974) and the Yale School of Drama right here in New Haven (1980). With long, strident syllables stretching from this word to this word, Holloway will practically sing:

“What feeble nightbird overcome by misfortunes beats at my door? Can this be that great adventurer, the famous lord of the seas and delight of women, the heir of rich Corinth, this crying drunkard on the dark doorstep? Yet you’ve not had enough. You have come to drink the last bitter drops. I’ll pour them for you.”

As New Haven’s best known street artist, Holloway has been the subject of numerous news articles, most of them practically fetishizing her schizophrenia. Some filmmakers have featured her street performances in their work. The 15-minute documentary God Didn’t Give Me a Week’s Notice, filmed in 1999 by fellow Bennington alum Richard Dailey, spotlights her when she was much more functional than she is today. East Haven-based Styrocultural Antidote, a politically minded funk/rock/fusion band, paid tribute to the actor in the form of the 2006 music video The Shakespeare Lady. Note the apparent difference in Holloway’s physical health between the older video and the newer one. Last summer her rooming house was condemned and all the residents ejected. Rumor had it rats had infested the place, a rare occurrence for relatively clean New Haven. Holloway has since kept a lower profile. I pray she is okay tonight.

The Famous Lord of the Seas

I fell behind on rent earlier this year. The landlord pounded fist to palm and explained that I was to leave in six days or I could say hello to the wheelchair or even the grave, you could bet on it. I figured ghetto law trumped official law, so I filled a gigantic suitcase with clothing, paperwork, and assorted knickknacks, inserted my laptop computer into my backpack, and found my way into one of New Haven’s men’s shelters.

There in the shelter I met an artist who wishes to remain anonymous here. This artist creates abstract drawings on cardstock and heavy-duty sketch paper and sells them from a table in a coffee shop on a busy student thoroughfare. I never knew the man was homeless until I met him in the shelter one evening. Passing amongst the tables in the large lobby of the shelter, I noticed him ransacking a Ziploc bag full of colored pens in dire search of a lone cigarette. Next to the pens was a large drawing pad that doubled as a portfolio case.

“Mind if I look at your art?” I asked as the man ducked under the table, fretting and scanning the floor for the errant bogey.

“Oh, please, yes, be my guest.” He stood up and handed me one of his drawings. All around us and in the adjacent room were dozens upon dozens of other homeless men whiling the evening away. Playing speed chess or dominos. Watching the basketball game on television. Sleeping soundly on couches in early preparation for tomorrow morning’s predawn vigil in the day labor line. Us, looking at art.

“This is good,” I observed.

“Thanks. Careful of the surface,” he cautioned, as if letting me hold his baby. “Use the edges.” The artist’s colorfully drawn image of a nondescript string instrument appeared to be melding with a ream of hot toffee that had got into the hands of a glassblower, forming a fanciful version of a seashell one might find on the beach of New Haven Harbor a few miles from here.

“Violin?” I ventured.

“Guitar,” he replied. “It’s about transition and change. Where is that damn cigarette?” He was looking under the table again.

I offered him one of my non-menthols, a gesture he appreciated and accepted, even though menthols are the way of the ‘hood around here. He mostly nodded and smiled at my comments about his works as he handed them to me one at a time for my perusal. When he had shown me enough, he tucked it all back into his drawing pad. At that moment, the missing cigarette materialized on the floor next to my chair.

He spotted it first. Good thing I had offered him one of mine earlier. I would otherwise have looked like a thief.

Some homeless live in a state of denial, whiling away their lives, trapped in a feedback loop that encourages permanent dependency on a system that may or may survive the current administration. Others look to a brighter future, striving for escape, many of them in vain.

This artist I met, on the other hand, is both content and so obviously alive. He does not require fame. All he requires is some pens, a sketch pad, and a coffeeshop table.

I found the artist a few days later at his coffeeshop, sharing a window table with another man I recognized from the homeless shelter. Spread out on the table were a few finished drawings, a phalanx of pens, and a drawing pad open to a work in progress. The two men greeted me warmly. I explained to the artist that I would like to interview him for a story about the arts among street people.

The other man from the shelter piped up. “I knew you were a student,” he smiled.

Slightly affronted, I explained to him that no, I was not a student. The man kindly pretended to be satisfied by this, but I could tell he thought I was a fraud. A fake homeless person. I should not have been surprised at the man’s guess. By this time, I had escaped from the shelter via a good friend I call Bellissa, and my clothes were freshly laundered, my beard neatly trimmed. The man went outside for a smoke, leaving me to discuss my arts story with the artist.

“So can I interview you?” I asked.

“I’ll have to think about it.” We exchanged contact information, but I could already tell the enterprise was dead in the water. The artist did not trust me. I tried to break the tension before we parted ways:

“I knew your friend thought I was a student,” I chuckled. The artist just smiled kindly. There was no convincing him. Good thing he did not know about my laptop; I surely would have lost all face. We bid our good wishes.

The Heir of Rich Corinth

The Shakespeare Lady, she has a rare form of schizophrenia that terrorizes her with visions and voices and keeps her from being able to relate to people. Her masterful street performances are a breach in the impenetrable wall between her and the rest of the world. A dollar here, a dollar there fills out her publicly assisted lifestyle with small things a person needs or wants: a bar of soap, a bottle of Coke. Rumor has it she smokes crack. Judge it if you want. She is a true thespian.

The visual artist who wishes to remain anonymous, he has the pride and skepticism of a longtime street person. He is just a man trying to make it in the best way he knows how: by selling his meaningfully symbolic, compositionally interesting drawings. Ten bucks here, twenty clams there for drawings sold mainly to wide-eyed Yale students. That is his living, outside the shelter and soup kitchens and visits to City Hall for free bus passes. He is a dedicated craftsman.

Artists, homeless or otherwise, are to be envied. Not everyone has the spiritual luxury of needing to create. For artists of all stripes, homeless or otherwise, New Haven, the Twin Cities, or elsewhere, making is just as necessary as eating.