An Interview with Hobo Don
By Anne Stanton
What is a hobos life like here in Northern Michigan at Christmastime?
You dont have to look far to find the answer.
I first heard about Hobo Don Espy through Keith Schwartz, who works
at Sight and Sound at the Traverse Area District Library.
Keith told me a couple of months ago that Don had been robbed. A
homeless guy robbed. I thought it interesting, so I asked Keith to ask
Don to give me a call for an interview. And at last he did.
We met at the library last week, where Don and several other homeless
people routinely find a warm, quiet place to listen to music and read.
Don and I met in a conference room, where he sipped from a bottle
containing some wicked looking yellow liquid (vodka I guessed), as he
told me about his life.
NE: Keith told me you were robbed a couple of months ago.
DON: Ive been robbed, kicked to the curb. People have a vehicle, a
home, HBO, a Social Security check and they want to steal from a guy
who has nothing. They have no consideration. I was robbed again the
other day at Central United Methodist Church --someone took my
hairbrush which was by my bed. Someone once took a library book and
didnt give it back. It took me four years to get a library card. I
was so upset, but Keith said, Its okay man. Well still let you
take out books. Finally, I got the book back.
NE: Tell me a little about yourself, how you became homeless.
DON: Im not homeless. Im houseless. I dont like that term at all
man. Ive got a long time out on the streets. Ive fallen in love
with Traverse City. I love this community. There are a lot of good
folks here. I feel at home. Finally, Ive found a home after all my
drifting, all my wandering.
NE: What is that you love?
DON: Its the people. They look you in the eye. Its nice to say hello
Hello! Ive met some great people. People who care. I feel part of
this community and I look out for it. If I see a child or senior
citizen getting hurt, I do something. I love this town so much, my
friend and I, we do street justice. There was a guy showing himself
right out in front of the nursery (at an area church) and I got so
angry. I threw his bike out in the alleyway. I told him, This is
Traverse City! You cant do that here. He said, I was just adjusting
my pants. They arrested him for indecent exposure.
The boys in blue know me. They know me as Hobo Don. They understand
that Im an alcoholic. Last year, I was in a snow bank, sleeping in
the back stairway of the State Theatre. They woke me up. Don, what
are you doing! I had no blanket, just my jacket. They saved my life
man. Then they arrested me for disorderly conduct. The D.A. amended it
to trespass, attempted assault. The judge kicked my butt, hit me hard
for it--$850! I pay $25 a month. Traverse City is about money. They
want money instead of putting you into jail. I have people trying to
change the system.
NE: I know that youre sleeping at area churches, in a program called
Safe Harbor (a group of churches and volunteers that rotate providing
shelter for the homeless in the colder months). Where else do you
sleep when its warm outside?
DON: I like Union Street Bridge. When the salmon are spawning, youre
jumping all night, too. But its a good sound compared to snoring or
coughing all night.
NE: So youve been homeless for quite a long time. See any trends?
DON: Were getting more people from Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Flint, even
as far as Detroit. There are services up here, compared to down there.
Not as much competition and easier access. Think of it. Youre
competing with 300 others compared to 3,000.
NE: What did you do before you were homeless?
DON: I was a forest fighter. I was a G.S.-4 and worked for 17 years.
NE: You said when we met that you own two pairs of clothes. Do you need more?
DON: I never have what I need. I guess Ive got everything I need. But
I miss companionship. I do. Im scared to talk to my children. I
havent talked to my children for 17 years. Theyre in upstate New
York. I was married one time. Ill tell you a joke. Some guy told me I
was a mother *!#% and I said, Yup, and Ive got six children to prove
it. He had no comeback on that one, man.
NE: How do you feel about your life?
DON: I feel like Ive chosen it. Im grateful for it. I dont blame it
on the government or bad luck. But Im tired of being a sounding board
to people. I want to read a book. Im sorry, leave me alone, I dont
want to hear your problems. Let me sleep. Some of them call me Doctor
Don. I used to do a lot of LSD. That makes me more perceptible to
peoples feelings. But I need my space too. When someone starts
ragging about their lives, I say, Im sorry, but Im not your
psychologist. I would say that, but Im not that rude.
Sometimes I feel like a failure. I have no friends. But Ive got God.
It works out in different ways. Someone down the street needs a dollar
bill, and I give it to him. Its my thing to give, and I tell them,
pass it on. And then they do. I learned about debit cards. No, no, no.
I got a block on my ATM. I tried to help too many people. . I have a
friend at Baypointe Church. She wants to shape me and form me. Shes
my friend man. She loves me, man. This is the person I love from Safe
Harbor. You sleep on the floor at these churches, on mats. Next week
its the Presbyterian Church and it changes every two weeks. They
should make a rule -- two bags per person, only what you can carry.
Some people have six or seven bags. Ive suggested a two-bag rule to
the coordinator of Safe Harbor.
NE: Are you happy?
DON: Im at that point in my life, Im happy, but God please forgive
me, dont reject me. I used to fear dying, but I dont fear dying
anymore. I used to be ashamed of being homeless, but I learned one
day, I care about people. But I dont want their problems. But I love
them anyways. Im dying.
NE: Why do you say youre dying?
DON: You start dying the day youre born. Dont you know that! Ive
been stabbed seven times during the Watts riot. Burned in Vermont in
2003 in my camp. I had half a gallon of vodka, a sleeping bag. One and
one equals two. Want to see my scars?
(He lifts his shirt and shows me. Ouch.)
NE: That must have hurt.
DON: I was too numbed to feel it. The doctor told me my fun in the sun
is over. He had to take skin off my legs to patch up my torso. I
rolled with the flow. It was my screw-up.
Sometimes I wish Id never been born. Its not money. Sometimes I wish
I wouldnt wake up again. I feel that way. Im so abused man. It
hurts. Im a man. Im a tough guy. I cant use my hands. Im so old.
Im 56-1/2 going on 90. Im not over the hill yet.
I wonder about it sometimes. Id like to meet someone, but Im scared
of responsibility. I keep myself alone that way. Its scary. No, no,
no, dont come close. Im Hobo Don. Ive got almost 20 years of being
alone. It would be nice to cuddle and hug someone. As far as sex goes,
it scares me. I have six children. Im here today, gone tomorrow. Im
subject to fly away. I have six children. I raised them up for 10
years. I was working out in Colorado, and my wife became pregnant by a
17-year-old. She was 34. It blew my mind. That was it. I dropped my
house, I dropped everything. I walked away, and Ive never been back.
Ill never go back.
NE: And you really like drinking. Do you ever wish alcohol didnt exist?
DON: No! Of course not. It numbs my feelings. I like it. A
psychologist told me I was destined to be an alcoholic. Its gone
father to son, father to son, but I didnt pass it onto my children. I
left before it happened. I didnt want them to grow up to be like me.
My daughter is a bank officer and shes married. I have a grand
daughter who is 12, who Ive never met. Im scared to go back. Theyve
got their lives. If I went back, Id disrupt their lives. Theyre
doing their thing.
Im not selfish. Im not a selfish man. Ill take the pain; Ive got
two shoulders. Many times, I cry my brains out and no one ever sees
me. Im not cold hearted. I cry out of guilt, out of not being there.
Just because I live on the streets doesnt mean I dont feel.
NE: Do people look at you as they walk by?
DON: Most of the time. I say, God bless you. They say, God bless
you too. Some are zombies, buried in their own heads, but I dont
take it as a personal insult. Hey, do you have any money so I can buy
something to drink?
NE: Im sorry I dont. I gave my last dollar to my husband this
morning for a cup of coffee. But I have these two free certificates
for pies at the Grand Traverse Pie Company.
DON: Wheres the Pie Company?
NE: On Front Street.
DON: Well, okay. Are you sure you dont have any money?
NE: Im sorry, but I really dont.
DON: Okay, well, God bless you.
NE: God bless you too.