Michael Crews has decorated his home with paintings, mirrors and drawings. He hung a punching bag in one corner — a remnant of his days as a trainer, he said — and has a couch and TV in the other.
His home, by the way, was condemned a year ago.
“I can’t do much because I’m not working,” Crews said. “All I can do right now is survive.”
Crews, 53, didn’t let the fire last year that led Atlantic City to condemn his Arctic Avenue home get him down. He applied for emergency rental assistance and was turned down, he said, showing a document with an official signature while standing outside, where there was more light.
“They said I don’t live here,” he said. “But I’ve been here forever.”
Crews’ story is certainly compelling, if you take his word for it.
Standing in the stable part of the first floor, Crews said that he helped train professional boxers for years, including William Joppy, John Brown and Isaiah Seldon, among others. He also said he worked for the city for nine years, in the recreation program, before being let go while on sick leave.
The house? “A friend who didn’t live here any longer said that if I cleaned up the place and fixed it up, I could live here without paying rent,” Crews said. “He gave me six months to do that, and I did.”
Then came the fire in November, which damaged part of the wall on the third floor.
“So all that came to an end,” Crews said. “Meanwhile, even though I worked for the city and after paying nine years of taxes, the only assistance I received was food stamps — no rental assistance, no anything.”
But, he said, “I’m not living on the street. And I’m not going back to the mission. I had to move back in.”
So he’s been on his own all year, finding things here and there he can store in the house — and you really don’t realize how much storage space there is in the average house until you see pretty much every square foot of it used for storage.
There’s a surfboard, framed artwork including a Beauty and the Beast poster, 80-year-old antique furniture, chairs of all kinds and in all positions, even stacks of tiny refrigerators from Resorts Casino Hotel.
“Take a look back here at these things I’ve been selling,” he said. “This is what keeps me alive.”
For a while, he had been staying at a hotel down the block — “intermittently,” he said. “I go to different hotels when I can afford it. If not, I wind up where I wind up. But I try to do it with dignity.”
He has certainly been living an eclectic life. He showed a book of poetry entitled “Enlightened Session,” pointed to a city resolution from April thanking the Atlantic City Peacekeepers, whom he said he’s trained, and said he needs just two more semesters of college credits for an associate’s degree.
He also claimed four current certifications, including yoga, tai chi, nutritional consultant and kickboxing. Climbing up the stairs to the second floor, he pointed to a cloth belt on top of a pile of boxes: “Black belt, fourth degree.”
Upstairs, he showed the little stoves he uses to heat water. The $200 heater “that blew a fuse the other day.”
“And this is my boxing gym right here,” he said, gesturing over to the punching bag hanging from the ceiling, boxing gloves by its side.
Admittedly, conditions aren’t the best up there for sleeping.
“If I sleep on the couch, the water drips on me from up top,” he said. “And there are pigeons up on the third floor. I can hear them flocking at night.”
But he carries on. He showed some of his paintings, holding up to his chest his own, splatter-style version of the Atlantic City slogan on a T-shirt: “My version of ‘Do AC.’”
And he has plans, including buying an open lot next door for use as a marketplace for his wares.
“Just because I’m homeless, I’m not helpless,” he said, pointing to what he said was a deed for the lot, complete with his name. “I just need some help, that’s all.”
Some of the people in our area are devoted -- some say too devoted -- with their sport, their hobby, their craft. Why do they go out at all hours perfecting a piece of art, training for their next event, or searching for something for their unique collection? What drives them?
In our occasional series "Different Drummers", we take a look at the truly devoted among us. Maybe they're more like us than we realize.
Do you know of anyone in our region whose devotion to their craft, hobby or pastime is truly awe-inspiring? Let us know at 609-272-7275 or at SLemongello@pressofac.com
Follow Steven Lemongello on Twitter @SteveLemongello