Jan. 19, 2011
An estimated 15,482 homeless people eke out an often-solitary existence on town and city streets across the commonwealth. About 20 percent of them are veterans. One of them is a former army soldier named Bruce Stuart.
Three years ago, I stopped into a cafe in Cambridge and struck up a conversation with a man sitting alone on a bench. It was Bruce, and he was making drawings of the world around him — or at least the world as he saw it. That conversation led to more like it, and to the revelation of a complex human story.
This is the first part of a three-part profile about Bruce. His story is not only about homelessness. It is also about a man who has lived a life of both privilege and deprivation. It is a story about unheralded artistry. And it is about the acknowledgement of individuals who have grown accustomed to being invisible and unknown.
|Bruce asks passersby for donations in Harvard Square. (Phillip Martin/WGBH). Click to enlarge|
CAMBRIDGE — When Bruce Stuart was 22, he volunteered to go to Vietnam and was based at Long Binh. When he returned to the U.S., he neither expected nor received recognition for his service in a controversial and deeply unpopular war.
That was 42 years ago. Now, Bruce is standing near a busy intersection in Harvard Square. He is 6 ft. 3 in. tall and weighs 250 lbs, but is still mostly ignored by those who pass by.
“Spare change, sir?” he asks, over and over.
For nearly an hour, Bruce has been “stemming” – that’s slang among homeless people for begging. But he has little to show for it.
“Right now, I have about a buck here in change and $5 here in my wallet,” Bruce says.
He explains that it’s not unusual to stem this long without getting anything.
“If you can stick it out for an hour or, so or as much as two hours and you haven’t gotten anything and then all of sudden you get $5, it’s good enough to take the edge off the frustration and you’ve got enough to get a sandwich and a Coke, that’s enough.”
For Bruce, $5 earned by asking for it on the street wasn’t always enough. He went from a childhood of class and privilege in the South to middle-aged years of destitution in Boston. What happened?
“I don’t think you can write it off as being a run-of-the-mill lazy bastard,” Bruce said. “To a lot of people it would be that and that alone, or pretty close to it.”
But it’s a long story, says Bruce. And, for the most part, he tells it precisely.
It was 54 years ago when he when he was sitting in a white segregated private-school classroom in North Carolina. A decade later, he was taking in the smell of gunpowder in Vietnam. It was 20 years ago that he lost a job as an elevator operator, and he’s clear in recounting the various times he’s been in and out of jail. The charge was always larceny.
But Bruce can’t say with certainty how long he’s been homeless. “Off and on about ten years, I say that to people, but I’m not sure what it is.”
He is now 63 years old, but seems much younger. “I’ve always acted that way. I remember a friend of mine ended one of his letters to me one time. How are things progressing or regressing,” Bruce said, laughing.
|In Harvard Square, there's a small park bordered on one end by the Peet's Coffee Bruce spent many of his days inside. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)|
Bruce says that having a sense of humor helps calm tensions on these sometimes-unfriendly streets.
Most of the time, Bruce lugs around a two-wheeled cart loaded with sweaters, a heavy coat, two sleeping bags, a toothbrush and other essentials for living outdoors.
But if it wasn’t for all that stuff, Bruce standing in Harvard Square with his ashen beard and white hair could be mistaken for a college professor.
“Some of that comes from the influence and formative years of my father and his university colleagues,” Bruce said, “I got to soak up real academic influences.”
His father was Duncan Stuart, who co-founded the School of Design at what is now North Carolina State University. His mother had a successful career in show business. Bruce says he never lived up to the standards of his parents, especially his father. But he has followed his father in carrying an etching pen and pad of paper every day.
All of those days begin at Peet’s Coffee in Harvard Square.
“I’ve been here for three years, and he’s been here a lot longer than that.” Ben Mann, the assistant manager at Peet’s.
“Bruce always buys, so he’s a paying customer. And after he’s been sitting here two hours he buys another coffee so you can never say he’s just loitering,” Mann said.
In fact, the staff likes having him around. “He never causes any trouble. He comes up and slips us little jokes written on pieces of paper that are always hilarious or sometimes cartoons as well that are always very funny,” Mann said.
Bruce sits down at his favorite spot in a corner of the café furthest away from the door. From his bag he takes out paper, pens, pencils and a work in progress. For the next several hours, he draws.
|8.5 x 11, ink and marker on paper. Pierre Menard Gallery. Click to enlarge|
“I almost always go from doing a multi-color to an all black, back to a multi-color, just to change the pace,” Bruce says.
Bruce says these abstract circles, lines and geo-metrical are the culmination of his desire to do something on his own, and out of the shadow of his successful, now deceased parents.
“I try to show and tell with it sometimes just so I can prove -- though I shouldn’t have to have something to prove -- I show them drawings just as a way of proving that I’m not just blowing smoke,” Bruce said. “That I’m not just a lazy street person.”
Bruce says that’s why he works so hard on his art, which he keeps safe in a plastic wrapper. This is his work, he says, and it is not diminished by his status of living on the street. In fact, it’s the challenges of etching out a life on sidewalks and park benches that enhance his work.
Coming Thursday: Recognizing Bruce, Part 2: Street Life And Its Challenges