Missing the Austin ditch in which he’d slept most nights for the last two years, Mike Wille curled up on the front lawn of the large house his mother had just left him via her suicide note. Her death meant that Mike – known to fans of his street music and his homelessness blog, The Ground Score, as Mad Mike the Hippy Bum – would soon be a millionaire. Mad Mike worried that, given his love of drink and drugs, he could not survive such a lifestyle shift.
At birth, Mike’s left leg was shorter than his right by an inch, with no defined calf muscle and an under-formed foot sans big toe. When I visited his mother’s former home near New Orleans recently, he showed me a box of family papers he’d unearthed regarding the lengthening of his leg by the famous doctor Gavriil Ilizarov, who invented the procedure.
Still, the bum leg helped Mike nurture a negative outlook that, once he became teenager, fractured his relationship with his already volatile parents. “My mother was a fairly erratic person. Sometimes extremely benevolent and generous, other times scathingly cruel,” Mike told me. “When I was in the seventh grade, she tried to kill herself in front of me because I got a D in history and I said I didn’t care. Later we found her passed out in the garage with the car running and my dad freaked out, showing more emotion than I’d ever seen out of him.
“Things came to a head when I was 17 and had a fist fight with my dad, causing him to have me arrested. This was my first time in jail,” says Wille, who immediately moved out of his house. Mike has more recently written exquisitely about subsequent trips to jail (most for public intoxication) at The Ground Score:
Immediately upon entering, one of the prisoners, a skinny guy about my age, walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, extended his hand, and in a welcoming voice said, “Hi. My name is “John.” Now I knew I was in luck. Not only had I stumbled upon a harmonious pod, but also one which contained at least one smart inmate. If you ever go to jail, I recommend doing just what he did, and greet any unfamiliar inmate coming into your living space in exactly this way (almost any). You can learn a lot from a guy by presenting him with the option of civility.
I gave this gentlemen amongst the despondent a firm handshake and said, “Hey man. I’m Mike.” Over the next two nights I ate, slept, watched TV, read a book about Marlon Brando, and talked to John. A decent conversation is hard to find in jail, and I could tell he hadn’t had one in a while. As for me, it had probably been even longer. In this town, the only class of people less worthy of respect than prisoners, are the homeless.
Thanks to his blog, Mike received fan mail from Scotland, New Zealand, Latvia and the Ukraine. To a homeless bum, this meant everything.
Mike’s deceased mother’s house, a nicely appointed junior McMansion 45 minutes east of New Orleans, represents the first roof over Mike’s head in four years. Mad Mike spent the last 15 years blowing back and forth from Texas to his home state of Louisiana, surfing both couches and park benches.
I met him in New Orleans where he played music in the French Quarter – songs like I Love the Devil and Money For Drugs, which he’d specially designed to make shocked tourists pause. “But after I got them to stop I’d get them to listen to a more substantial song,” Mike clarifies, “usually getting them to tip more money or buy an album in the process.”
Wille, now 36, first played music on the street in Austin at the age of 19, and he ended up spending his last two years in a ditch there because it does not snow and the attitude is fairly liberal. That, and there are drugs on the ground, everywhere. “The main reason Austin is such an ideal place for ground scoring is that it’s a college town with a heavy drinking culture. Drunk young people love to buy drugs, but they aren’t always the best at holding on to them,” Mike explains. “So not a day went by that I didn’t find a few nugs and a pack of cigarettes.”
Highly intelligent, Mike could probably hold a job despite his handicap. He was not, however, what they call in New Orleans a “fauxbeaux”— one of those grungy traveler kids who begs for change even though they have a safety net.
Mad Mike chose homelessness, feeling cast out from normal society. Since it was technically his choice, Mike held onto a strict rule against ever bothering anyone, even for a cigarette. “As a homeless person I always tried to be self-sufficient and not reliant on others,” he says. “Partly because I’d found in the past that others are not always all that reliable. Also, I don’t like it when strangers come up and ask me for things, and can only assume other people feel the same way.”
As a result, Mad Mike became a highly skilled scavenger. During an early trip to Houston, he found $700 atop a toilet paper dispenser in the bus stop bathroom.Another time he found what he estimated to be $500 worth of crack cocaine, which he intended to sell but instead smoked with his musical partner Ray Bongin a single evening. Soon after, he sniffed out a bottle of Dom Pérignon 2005 from behind a restaurant’s dumpster.
His mother gave him his first laptop. They’d reconciled somewhat in the years since Mike’s 48-year-old oilman father died of cancer in 2001, leaving his mom a rich widow. She and Mike occasionally bonded by getting drunk together, but most of these hang sessions devolved into brutal, raging arguments. She gifted him the computer, unaware that any drug Mike found, whether or not he recognized the plant or powder, Mike would ingest and write about on his blog.
Mike daily sat outside on the back steps of an Austin coffeeshop with Wi-Fi, blasting out touching and hilarious stories; as such, he possibly was the world’s first homeless blogger. His direct, pathos-driven diary entries smirked along with what most would consider an extremely rough life. Mad Mike’s economy of words and life of hardship even reminded some of Bukowski.
With his writing, he was able to provoke in readers an empathy for homelessness that most Americans do not regularly feel. And to accomplish that, he gave deeply of himself. “I mean, what did I have to lose by telling everybody everything about my life?” Mike asked me as he sat on the throne behind his brand new DW drum-kit, and lit a cigarette in what was once his mother’s living room. CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THIS PIECE AT The Guardian…
Or watch this video of Mad Mike playing “I Just Want Yr Booty” under the bridge: