Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Three Notable Arborites

It was my first year in Ann Arbor back in the late 70s and I was riding my bike to class at the University of Michigan when I encountered a man standing on a streetcorner, dressed in a cream-colored suit and carrying a guitar. He said something to me in a raspy voice.

"Excuse me?" I asked. He repeated something which to me was unintelligible. I nodded, and pedaled the heck away, fast. I noticed he always seemed to be on that same streetcorner in downtown A2. Always well dressed, always carrying that guitar, which sometimes he would play, though I thought not very well.

I eventually learned that man was "Shakey Jake" (the man pictured), who became an Ann Arbor icon--a streetperson whose colorful dress and flamboyant manner entertained locals for decades until he passed away last week at the age of 82. His life was subject of much speculation locally, which he did little to clear up in interviews he gave over the years. At various times he told reporters that he began smoking at the age of one and had traveled around the world eight times though never in a plane.

Jake was quintessentially Ann Arbor for those who revel in its counterculture reputation.

Another notable former Arborite passed away last week. Unlike Jake, this man will not be mourned. Coral Eugene Watts was a confessed serial killer whose tally of victims may never be known but may have included scores of women in more than one state. I still remember the palpable fear felt by the women in the office where I worked in the late 70s after a young woman was brutally killed in Ann Arbor. One newlywed wife refused to leave her locked apartment when her husband was away.

Eventually, police fingered Watts as a suspect but they did not have the evidence for an arrest and he migrated down to Texas where he was tied to a string of killings there. Texas authorities had enough evidence to convict him of one brutal attack, but granted him immunity in up to a dozen other killings in exchange for his confession.

Through our wonderful loophole-laden justice system, Watts was to be released a couple years ago. Michigan prosecutors successfully had him extradited to Michigan where he was convicted of murder here. Watts died in an area hospital of prostate cancer, no doubt more peacefully than many of the women he encountered over the course of his criminal career.

Culling through the local news, I ran across the name of one more familiar Ann Arborite (former Arborite now that he teaches at the University of Minnesota). This area always has had a reputation of being a hotbed of literary talent and one of the more successful of these writers is Charlie Baxter.

"Feast of Love" is a movie opening this week which is based on Baxter's novel of the same name. Though Baxter used Ann Arbor as the setting for his book, producers chose Oregon as the locale for the story instead. What, is there that much more love in Oregon than in Ann Arbor?

I met Baxter myself when he formed a series of writer's support groups in our area through a grant from Reader's Digest maybe a dozen years ago. When Baxter returned some months later, I was embarrassingly the only one left to show up amongst my original group of aspiring scribes. However, the Ann Arbor author was circumspect about it and dutifully listened to the opening of a screenplay I had been drafting. He pronounced it at least as good as the work of a former student who became a TV writer in Hollywood.

Maybe he was just being charitable, but then again maybe not. Maybe my wife and I should quit our jobs, pack up, and head for tinseltown. I'll borrow from Baxter himself for my soon-to-be-award-winning movie script. I'll title it, "Feast of Blogs." Great title! Now I just need the plot and stuff.


Blogger Lucy Stern said...

Coral Eugene Watts , yes a name I know well. He created quite a stir down here in Texas....I would have put him under the jail, prostate cancer and all..... He showed no remorse for his killings. I hope he gets his due at his final judgement.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Kacey said...

Boy, Ann Arbor sure has it's share of characters. These three and "Big Dave", too! I really trust that you'll get published one day, because you have a way with words.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Babette said...

This is one of your more insufferable posts, Dave, but I hung in there like a tough SPARTAN.

Lansing has Stevie Wonder. Perhaps you've heard of him? There is much more love in Oregon than in A-Squared and I think I know why. (Hello, Hoss!)

5:22 PM  
Blogger Matty said...

Ann Arbor sounds like a lovely place to live. I suppose every place has its share of characters good & bad.
One day you will be famous as well, Dave.

3:57 AM  
Anonymous Deb said...

That was interesting Dave. :o) I've always thought street performers remained because they constantly played from the heart.

6:08 PM  
Anonymous vicki said...

I knew about Shakey- both Abby and Dan called to tell me he had died, which is some indication that his corner blues and spiffy wardrobe transcended the generation gap. Daniel was planning on going to a memorial service for him.

I won't get started on Watts, except to say that I remember that terror well, as a young woman recently moved to Ann Arbor. During all my years of practice as a therapist, I met maybe 2 or 3 who were the personification of evil, but those left me with a strong and visceral opinion that there are a few so far beyond redemption they need to be disappeared.

I LOVED A Feast of Love and I'm sorry to read here of Baxter's passing. My first home in town was right there on the park off Huron and 7th so that story took place on my doorstep. I'm sad the movie moves it to Oregon. More sad that Michigan has lost another eloquent voice.

Okay- down to business. I've been looking for employment and it doesn't need to be gainful. We can collaborate on plot and I have lots of stuff. Can I be one of your writers?

(Every once in a while, Babette is insufferable, like a true Spartan.)

6:40 AM  
Blogger Carine said...

very nice tribute. I've never been to your home state or city, but I've always felt that once Hollywood gets a hold of a book, it's never done the way it should have been.

8:17 AM  
Blogger LZ Blogger said...

Big Dave ~ Great story! As a boy (when I lived in Orange County, CA) we had a guy that lived in Laguna Beach that would stand on street corners along PCH in Laguna and just wave to folks. Although he didn't sing (or dance) he just WAVED to passing cars that would honk! He looked like he was homeless but many said he was rich, but just eccentric. They named him the "GREETER!" He lived for many years and still was out there waving while the "honkers" rode by! After his death, they actually put up a statue up of him that was “larger than life”. Most people see the statue, but have NO IDEA what it represents! ~ jb///

10:55 AM  
Blogger Big Dave T said...

VICKIE--Just so that we don't start any rumors, Charlie Baxter did not die. I just read about his movie opening recently, which is why I included him with the other Arborites. I know the juxtaposition probably made it a bit confusing--sorry.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Lee said...

I'm sure you can think up a suitable plot and stuff in no time at all for your movie script, Dave. If you need a "Down Under" character, forget Nicole Kidman...I'm here at your beck and call! ;)

Characters like "Shakey Jake" are needed in this world we live in...they give it soul. :)

4:24 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...


It's a good thing I read your comment, because I was going to tell you that at least Charlie Baxter was up in heaven now, and he could put a good word in for you with the Big Guy as far as your screenplay goes. Whew!!

...Growing up in East Meadow, NY (nothing notable there that I can think of), we had "Crazy Mary". She lived next to the local town park. She was about 75 years old, and supposedly went crazy after her husband purportedly died in their car in the garage and no one found him for three days (emphasis on the word "purportedly"). When the tennis courts were filled, my friends and I used to play tennis over the bike racks, which were next to her house. She would scream out her window that we were "waking up her twins" and to stop making so much noise! She also traveled up and down East Meadow Avenue with her shopping cart full of goodies. Strange, because she did own a house. I think she got hit by a car and that's how she met her demise. Although that could be speculation, as well.

4:52 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

What an interesting entry.
That Jake sounded like a real character. I love those kind of people.
And Watts...as you said, sounds like he got a much easier demise than the horror he created.
On the screen play....sounds great. Make sure you get extra tickets for the premier, for all your blog buddies.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Babette said...

Got matches?

6:46 PM  
Blogger Blindsighted One said...

Thanks for making me think about things. It distracts me from my own adventures.

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Kristy said...

Well, I've never been to Ann Arbor, but, being from Oregon, I've seen a love feast or two. We'll have to have Hoss weigh in I think.

11:29 PM  
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