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Displaced: Portraits of Homelessness in Macon

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Whether it is criminality, addiction, mental illness, or a perceived lack of gumption, the stigmas attached to people experiencing homelessness are severe and many. The purpose of this series is to hear the stories of people living in homelessness in Macon. The hope is that their stories may enable all of us to better understand some of the barriers they face, and to begin to see these individuals through a wide-angle lens, which captures not just their struggles, but also their relationships, dreams, and gifts.

Turn the Page
Written By Eric Mayle

But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you’re riding sixteen hours and there’s nothing there to do
And you don’t feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through

Robert Greenwell

There is something haunting and beautiful about Robert’s rendition of Bob’s Segar’s “Turn the Page.” As I listen to him play it for me on the slightly out-of-tune piano across the hall from my office, I sense it is somehow evocative of his own story. Robert Greenwell has battled addiction for most of his life and has been homeless off and on for the past 17 years, but there is much more to him than his addiction and experience of chronic homelessness. Robert has lived in five states, studied music at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, and is a Veteran of the National Guard where he drove tanks for two years. Driving tanks is “like riding a bicycle,” he told me. “It has a T-bar in it to maneuver it. And yes, it can do a 360, so long as you hold on one of the brakes, and turn one side of the T-bar…very, very fun to operate.”

Robert has lived a hard life on the street, but the street has not hardened him. He is a kind and gentle soul; this is apparent to all who know the soft-spoken 51 year old—from the owners of Ampersand Arts where Robert likes to hang out and play the piano, to his Sunday school class at Centenary Church where I first came to know him. “He listens so deeply,” his Sunday school teacher told me. She added that, “I appreciate that he’s so thoughtful about whatever we’re talking about.” I sat down to talk to Robert early one Sunday morning before Sunday school; he is anxious about finishing the interview so he would not be late for class.

I ask him what he likes about Bob Segar’s “Turn the Page.” “I’m not much for hearing words,” Robert explained. “I hear rhythm. I hear the bounce. Especially, you know, [that’s what] I like about reggae and bluegrass music. But you know bluegrass can’t really hold a candle to rock-n-roll. I really believe that rock-n-roll is my favorite because it’s dancing music.”

One of the major threads that run through Robert’s story is his love of music. He said he inherited it from his father, a guitarist who played in a country-western band.  Robert said his father was also an alcoholic and abusive toward him, his mother, and siblings. He had little contact with his father after the age of 6 when his mother packed up Robert and his sisters and left Kentucky for Illinois, where she grew up. Not long after, difficulties arose and Robert’s mother turned him over to the state. “I was basically a ward of the state in like boys’ homes from when I was 6 until I was 16,” Robert explained. “I was in this Madden Zone Center where I was put on Ritalin. I had ADHD; I was diagnosed with that.”

During his high school years, after he returned to live with his mother at age 16, Robert became increasingly focused on music. “I was always in my room playing on the guitar. I think that’s a part of me—ADHD and music. I’m very enthusiastical when it comes to guitar. I play by ear, mind you, so I learn pretty quickly; self taught when it comes to piano.”

After returning to live with his mother, Robert also began experimenting with drugs. He said he initially dabbled with hallucinogens and speed. “But when cocaine had started,” he said, “it was…yikes. It was like a nightmare come true, if you will. We were starting with that snorting. So that’s pretty much been still today I still struggle with alcohol and crack.”

After high school, Robert enrolled in the National Guard. He attended basic training at Fort Knox and was stationed in Henderson, Kentucky in a Tanker Unit. Robert states he was stationed here for two years before being honorably discharged for a medical condition.

Shortly after returning from his service in the National Guard, Robert’s drug use resumed. He is unsure about where, exactly, he lived after his military discharge at age 21 until age 30 when he moved to Dickinson North Dakota. Robert’s sister owned a restaurant in Dickinson and offered him a job washing dishes and a fresh start. That is where he met his soon-to-be wife who worked at the restaurant as a server and attended Dickinson State University. She was studying to be an elementary school teacher. The two were soon engaged and married, and Robert’s wife pushed him to enroll in college where he studied music. Not long after marrying, his wife became pregnant.

Robert told me the story about the day his wife went into labor. “I was an instrumental minor [in college], so I played various different instruments,” he explains. “[I] was playing a tuba and sustained a note. Everybody had to sustain a note. Everybody else had dropped out and just sat there and I was continuously stuck on this note. Everybody else had long since dropped out and then guess what happened? My piano teacher—the lady who was teaching me about reading music and playing the piano—came in and says, ‘uh Robert (laughs)…’ She says, ‘you better go home, your wife’s in labor! (laughs)…it was when I held that note with the tuba. Is that weird or what?’” That day Robert got the baby girl he was hoping for. The couple did not finish college at Dickinson State. A couple of years later Robert moved his young family to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where another one of his sisters was living.

In Tennessee Robert worked various jobs stuck with none of them for very long. He had fallen into old patterns of addiction, and his wife eventually left him and returned to North Dakota with their daughter. “I believe she got tired of the crack thing mainly,” Robert explained. “You know, because with me…yikes. I’m basically like an all or nothing kind of person and…yikes. I think it got too terrifying for her. Because it wasn’t too very nice. I still feel pretty guilty.”

I am moved by Robert’s honesty with me, and himself, about his history of substance abuse and the role it played in his marriage’s falling apart. Robert does not seem to be in denial about his wrongdoings or the current state of his addiction, nor does he appear to be looking for sympathy.

Eventually, Robert’s mother and sisters intervened and sent him to the recovery program Teen Challenge in Dublin, GA. He spent a little over two months there before leaving and hitchhiking to Macon in 2000 to find work in the labor pools. Robert did not have a valid ID so he could not work for professional labor pools like Labor Ready. Instead, he has gotten work for the last 17 years at the “catch-out corner.” Robert said, “the old timers call it the Buzzards’ Roost—where buzzards hang out…human buzzards. Now, mind you, this is where me and other people—across from city bus stop—sit out and look for work. It has been for many years, so I’ve heard, where people pick people up to work.” Since moving to Macon in 2000, Robert’s income has primarily come from side-work picked up at the Buzzards’ Roost.

Robert told me that he, like many homeless people in Macon, stays in abandoned buildings at night. I asked him if it is difficult being homeless. “Not really,” he said. “Not that I can tell. Because, it’s like, it’s somewhere…out of the rain. Out of the rain and out of the elements. I wouldn’t call it hard. Maybe it’s something that…there’s other people who do it so I think that it’s like a way of life that you get with such a strong addiction, you know…addiction and alcoholism.” Aware of the time, Robert suggested we end the interview so he could make it to Sunday school class on time.

Music and addiction are not the sum total of who Robert is. They do not capture his gentle nature, his service to his country, or his love of and meaningful participation in community, but they are significant threads that run through his story no less. They are the same threads that run through Segar’s “Turn the Page” and through the stories of many musicians, not least of all through the stories of Macon’s native sons and daughters. Perhaps it is this tragic double echo of Macon’s story and Robert’s story in his performance of “Turn the Page” that makes it so affecting. I just hope the creative force of music will one day win out over the destructive force of addiction in Robert’s life.


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1 Comment

  1. April 12, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    We LOVE Robert. 🙂 Such a kind and gentle friend, and we love listening to him strum the guitar and play piano at [&]!

    Also, if you ever need any landscaping done, Robert should be your guy. Fast and excellent work, and he tells us it’s his favorite type of work to do!