Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why Homeless "Voice" Ted Williams Got a House, a Job,and Millions of Fans

By now you've heard of 53-year-old Ted Williams, the Columbus, Ohio homeless man seeking voice-over jobs by standing with a cardboard sign on a highway exit ramp near several media studios.

If not, watch the original YouTube video, which contains an interview captured on a whim by Columbus Dispatch videographer Doral Chenoweth, III. The piece, which instantly went viral, has now led to Williams' receiving a plum announcer job for the Cleveland Caveliers, with the added bonus of a house.

It wasn't the mellow voice emanating from a most disheveled, wild-haired, unconventional-looking face that brought the positive response.  It was instead the guy's attitude, his gentleness, his humility. Those were the unexpected features that captured listeners' hearts, rather than merely Williams' clearly competent "demo" intoning, "When you're listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you're listening to Magic 98.9."

Since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have made Williams famous, agents are clamoring to represent him and scores of job offers have arrived.  Talk shows have competed to have him on; in one touching interview on CBS' The Early Show, a cleaned-up Williams breaks down when describing his prayers that his now 92-year-old mother could see him rebound from years of drugs and hardship.

I have a hunch that Williams' story is much more complicated than what we've heard: a guy with a criminal drug and alcohol history finds God, stays sober two years, and uses his latent talent to find permanent success. He's got nine children--two boys and seven girls; grandchildren, too.  He had no form of identification and had to scramble to get one so he could fly to New York to do the Today Show.  Apparently, in the recent past he's turned down offers of housing in shelters (he used a couple as addresses to establish his residence, though), preferring a homeless encampment "behind an abandoned Hudson Street gas station," according to Ken Andrews, volunteer for Columbus' Mt. Carmel Outreach, who The Dispatch describes as "a 15-year veteran of local homeless-assistance work."

I'm among the throngs enamored by Williams, and I root for him. But when I mentioned to a friend Williams' refusals to accept help when it was offered--something that does bother me, since he might have begun his career and had a home at least a couple years earlier, rather than, frankly, bothering people begging--my friend had an interesting response.

He said, "who knows what kind of 'help' was offered; maybe it came with strings attached, and Williams wanted to do it his own way." Another friend said, "maybe he wasn't ready to get help; you have to reach a certain point to accept it."

I have a problem when someone's 'way' means living on the street when help is there. Or the idea that all the folk "not ready" for a home should just squat with their piles of stuff on public or private land. And while I certainly want government to cut expenses, providing mental health treatment or social services to panhandlers is a worthy use of funds; it helps cities attract tourism, businesses attract customers, drivers avoid distraction, and certainly the homeless themselves.  My friend even noted Williams might have gone to live with or near his mom (or at least one of his nine kids).

When I posted my surprise at the number of homeless with tarp-covered mounds of stuff in Waikiki parks, many lying on the sidewalks of touristy Kalakaua Avenue, I got some nasty comments about how heartless I am.  I don't want to abandon these people--I want charities or, failing that, even government to help them.

I think the ire comes from my underlying assumption that living on the streets is unacceptable.  Should the desires of a few (often) mentally ill or substance-addicted "free spirits" trump the needs of the vast majority to walk on streets unmolested, without insecurity about safety?  How comfortable are you about your teen daughter, say, walking down a street at night--one lined with fine stores at that--with less-than-clean people approaching her for money, or lying in her path?  Should she be the one to give way for the homeless, or should keepers of public safety step in to insist the out-of-the-boxers find more suitable sleeping space?

Tolerance for panhandling as a lifestyle is relatively new, even among people who don't want to conform, themselves. Remember the old Roger Miller song, "King of the Road?"  It was about a petty thief, drifter, loner who feels he's "king" not fitting into normal society.  He's not above bumming a ride on trains to accept "every handout in every town" and brags he knows "every lock that ain't locked when no one's around." A low-life for sure. But even he doesn't sleep on the street--and is willing to "push broom" for two hours to afford his "four-bit room."  A night's lodging may not be 50 cents anymore, but day laborers who want it still get work.  Every city has its sites where work-seekers congregate in the morning, waiting for someone to drive by and offer a day's wage to get a job done. It's not easy; working hard for low wages is tough and doesn't yield much. But I admire those who labor to get money rather than begging to get it.

Lately, though, not only is off-ramp soliciting accepted, but today it's glorified as a path to career success.

But not for everyone--only for a guy who is irresistibly polite, good-humored and sweet--and has talent. A guy who flaps his arms in excitement when contemplating his newfound opportunities. A guy who calls his interviewer "ma'am" and says his mama taught him to live by the Golden Rule. A guy who's articulate and on the Today Show urges viewers not to judge the homeless "by their cover" and to "give from the heart."  It's Williams' child-like thrill with the situation that makes us all feel glad he was plucked from the off-ramp and thrust into the headlines.

It was strange that Today chose to dress Williams in the same camouflage-patterned jacket he wore for his first, now-viral interview.  Was this a reminder that he's really still a homeless guy--rather than a new media sensation?  He was asked by Meredith Vieira why he thinks he can make it this time, given his past failures.  His answer: he's gotten a new spirituality; that now he thanks God for each day.  I would add that a major factor was that he'd decided to take action to market his skills, though perhaps not in the usual way.

Williams' humility is not only reassuring, but inspirational.  People who might have given up are rejuvenated; those continuing in established paths give thanks. His charming, giddy delight with his Phoenix-like rebirth has endeared him to us all and with his talent is the key to his success. There are enough people invested in his story now that he likely will come through, and every time we hear him, his voice will represent the sweet song of hope, the perfect melody for the new year.


  1. I think the big test will be three years from now, or even one year from now.

    Really great post.

    I actually did appreciate one part of the story that's missed a bit - he would often use the voice to raise money when he was begging. I've long felt more willing to give to people who entertain or otherwise do something nice or useful on the various subways, etc. - they recognize that they aren't entitled, but they're asking that people give them something for giving them something, usually entertainment. That's really the core of capitalism and how people can work their way up in the world. In this case, that practice ended up netting him a really nice story and gig.

  2. I really appreciate his willingness to accept responsibility for his circumstances. I don't hear him blaming everyone else. Very refreshing.

  3. Strangely enough, however, Waikiki/Honolulu may be one of the only cities that definitely does not have "day laborers" hanging out, looking for work; I sure can't find any anywhere! Maybe because we are such a liberal state, and can't stand to see anyone go without, or seem to be "mean", so we just let squatters and homeless live anywhere. We also provide them w/food, medical, and dental care!

  4. Good luck to him. If he lives the rest of his life decently, his luck will have been worthwhile. And it will make an inspirational story.

    But it bothers me that people who aren't and haven't been violent drug addicts place second in job competitions. Certainly I can't tell anyone: "don't take drugs and live on the street for years. if you do no one will take you seriously."