Guitar Mark shares his life’s song with us.
We sat down with Guitar Mark, a member of the La Crosse community, a friend to many, and a man who spent many years on the streets. He shared stories with us that capture his life of heartbreak and happiness. “My name is Guitar Mark. I was born in California in a suburb of LA and moved to Arkansas when I was 5. My parents had a rough divorce. I started smoking pot at a very early age… Then at 16, I had a 51 year old woman shoot me up with meth for the first time. I was hooked from the start. We were country livin’ in Arkansas. Every holiday, my whole family would get together and have hootenannys and play music. That’s where I got my talent.
I had trouble in school and was labeled as a problem child. I have ADHD and they didn't know what that was at the time. I remember in third grade my teacher taped me to my desk with masking tape and all the kids laughed at me. I had a rough time because I was too smart to fit in with the pot heads and too much of a pot head to fit in with the smart kids. I never fit in anywhere. I quit school in ninth grade. I got my GED years later, but struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction, however, I still maintained integrity.”
Mark navigated homelessness for five years, he met many people, and learned many lessons. He gave us a brief glimpse into what his life was like on the streets. “When I became homeless it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to go through. I was suicidal at first. I was scared and I didn’t know what to do. I didn't know where to sleep and I didn't know what to do with my stuff. I had to watch it like it was gold because it was all I had. Having to do that every day of your life is hard and it puts you in a different state of mind. While on the streets, I discovered hippy Christmas, which is when college kids move out. They throw everything away, stuff that’s worth a lot of money. It’s crazy how much stuff they throw away instead of donating it. Donate it to someone that can use it, think of somebody that can use it, find someone that will use it.”
“The hardest part for me, was the day that I crossed the invisible line. I gave up the fight to not be homeless because it was either do or die. All I could think of was how to get through the day. When I crossed that line and accepted my homelessness I gave up hope to not be homeless. When you're homeless, you face challenges everyday that seem impossible to overcome. You have these hurdles that you don’t know how the hell you’re gonna make it through this day, but somehow you do and the feeling, the reward, the sensation, it could be greater than anything you’ve done prior to being homeless. That feeling of accomplishment sticks with you. It grabs you and pulls you down into that homelessness a little more. It makes you want to be homeless because you’re doing things. Even though it sucks, for some reason you're feeling good in a certain way.”
When discussing some of the most difficult realities of homelessness, Mark discussed the need for an antidote to survive the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. “You have to have something when you're homeless. There's no way you can deal with being homeless, and it’s so hard to deal with without a chemical substance--alcohol or something. Otherwise you're going to sit there and think about everything and how your life sucks. You're going to commit suicide. That's what a lot of people on the streets do and it’s unfortunate.”
As soon as Mark revealed this glimpse into reality, he took time to remind us that we all have our own unique story to share with the world. “Look at these fingerprints. They’re not all that intricate, not so different from yours or hers, but they are different. There’s no one else on this planet that can match them. I believe you have a creator that created you to be who you are. Just the way you are, so suicide is not an option because he has made you to be the way you’re supposed to be.”
The more time Mark spent on the streets, the more creative he became when trying to find a safe place to land. “Some places I stayed were a little different. When I was living in the skate park I noticed that there was a storage unit that was always open. So one night when it was raining, I checked it out. I shut the door and discovered that it could be locked from the inside, so I stayed the night. I got locked out for about a month and I got scared to go back, but it was cold one night and I knocked on the apartment door near the storage unit. Some buff college kid answered. I told him that after a bad divorce I became homeless, and I had no place to go and I had been staying in the storage unit. So he said that I could stay there. Then I decked the storage unit out. The guy from the apartment would hang granola bars on the door for me from time to time. I had a blanket and about two and a half feet from the door, enough space to separate the cold from the door and where I was sleeping. Everything that I had in there, I found in dumpsters. I had a twin air mattress and there were three shelves. I had a 40 inch flat screen TV with the 16 channels that you get for free and the whole top shelf was full of food. It had a heater and a DVD player. I found a way to spoil myself with secondhand stuff. Being homeless, you have to stay positive.”
After many stories, that often turned into conversations, we asked Mark to share a happy memory. He smiled and shared this story, “I liked to play my music to earn money. My best tip ever was… this little girl with braces, cute as a button, came up and she goes ‘Here Mister’ with a handful of change. I looked at her and said ‘Thank you sweetheart, but I'm not going to take your money.’ She looked at me, crossed her arms and said, ‘but you're really good!’ so I took it and it was maybe $0.41, but that was the best tip I have ever gotten. I'll never forget that.”
One year ago Mark was finally able to secure housing. He took the time to share his current situation with us. “I got into my apartment right before my birthday, in October, last year. It was the day before the first snow and I was blown away. The first time I left my apartment, I was about to get on the bus and I looked down and realized I didn’t have my backpack. I started to panic wondering where I left it. All my stuff was in it and then I realized where it was. All of my stuff was at home. It had been a while since I had a home. It was such a good feeling. I don't sleep well at night because I have PTSD from when I was in prison. When I sleep, I dream and when I dream I'm in prison. It doesn't stop. I've been out for seven years. I have not been in any trouble since then, which is almost unheard of for someone to do double digits (12 years) to not go back. I managed to not go back on top of being homeless. I go fishing. I love to fish. I also love playing music. I get my guitar and I go and play guitar down at the park. There's some homeless people down there and I play music for them. I do a lot of open mics and I have some favorite spots.”
Mark’s message for others is a lesson for us all to hear, take pause, reflect, and act. “The most important thing is to acknowledge them [the homeless]. In the eyes of the public, you become the trash that you dig in. It sickens me the way that people look at homeless people. They would be lucky to get to experience what I've experienced. It has opened my eyes to view people in a whole different light. I see hurt in everybody. I see good in everybody. I see bad in everybody. It's tough. It sucks being homeless. You get used to it and then it's hard getting back on this end of things [being housed]. Being homeless is a rough life and you have to be rough to live it. You become rough and so it's hard to break out of that shell, but it can be done. Everyone needs to remember to examine themselves before they look down their nose at anybody. If you can't get past that, you're not going to be able to help anyone. Remember, it’s hard to help people with addiction because it's not really them. There’s a lot of people like this, people who have been homeless over and over. A lot of them have good hearts and they mean well, but when they’re in their addiction they can’t think about anything else.”
Afterword: People Seeing People would like to take time to recognize that we all go through heartache. Some days, the world seems more daunting than others, but if it gets to be too much there are resources available. Mental health is not easy for some of us to discuss, yet it remains necessary. No one deserves to feel alone. If you know someone that needs help, reach out. If you, yourself, need help, make the call because your fingerprint is unique and valued. You have a place on this Earth and together, we will heal. Please reach out to one of these numbers for help and know we all need help sometimes.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
NAMI HelpLine 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
La Crosse County Mobile Crisis (608) 784-HELP (4357)
Artist’s Note: Mark showed us his compassionate heart and a soul full of life and music. This world is better with his music and his fingerprint. We all have our gifts and our own song to sing. Take time to recognize your gifts as well as those of others.
Mark's Musical Talent: To hear a song from Mark, click here.