The sidewalks along Main Street are overflowing again, with restaurant staffers wiping off tabletops and restocking silverware, student types strolling along looking for coffee or something stronger–and some colorful characters showing up for a little commerce, a little friendship, and a little fresh air.

There’s Arthur Fillbrun, with his one crutch and his constant requests for “fifty cents or a dollar so I can get something to eat.” Earl Uomoto, who works down the block at the Fleetwood, has already spent an hour savoring the sun and the street scene as he sits outside Starbucks on Main Street, one of the primo gathering places. A guy with a dog is hanging around too, but Lisa Bell, the painter who sometimes sings old tunes, hasn’t been seen for a quite a while.

Soon it will be time for Spooner to turn up and lean his long frame against the black lamppost at the corner of Main and Liberty. With his fuzzy gray beard, his crocheted coat of many colors, and his colorful yarn hats for sale, Spooner is perhaps the most colorful of the colorful, quaint, and cheesy characters who frequent Main Street.

“Artists maintain a level of mystery,” he says, but within five minutes he acknowledges that he’s sixty-four, “a hideous old age. I’m not real happy about it.” He watches passers-by with mild blue eyes under expressive eyebrows, hoping someone will stop to purchase a hat, a bag, or even the coat off his back–the crocheted masterpiece he wears when the temperatures are cooler. “I’m not a museum,” he says. “I’m a store.”

When the weather is decent, a collection of assorted individuals can be found on Main Street, Fourth Avenue, or Liberty. Some make their way to the Farmers Market or the plaza near the People’s Food Co-op; some head up closer to the Diag. A few are passing through–modern-day hobos with dogs, signs, guitars, or ukuleles. A few are homeless, living at the shelter or “out” in vacant lots. Many more live in rundown apartments or senior housing.

“They may look scary, but they’re the sweetest characters,” says Lily Demiri, a waitress at the Fleetwood Diner, where many of them gather at the outdoor dining tables. Adds Earl Uomoto, who works at the Fleet as a dishwasher: “There are some actual streetwalkers. There’s Holly … she’s in jail half the time and Sofia … “

Demiri interjects: “You don’t give names, Earl. Plus Sofia’s not a streetwalker!”

Downtown is a lively place, but police say that prostitutes are more likely to be found in seedy hotels, truck stops, or online. It does occasionally draw other criminals–thieves, pickpockets, and con artists whose stories of desperate need for a bus ticket home or diapers for a baby are as fictional as anything John Steinbeck ever wrote.

Some do work the streets for money, but mostly as street musicians with their open cases or panhandlers with their open palms. Some sell Groundcover News (a nonprofit homeless newspaper), used books, or CDs of their music; others earn cash by taking on odd chores downtown or at the Farmers Market. Panhandlers can earn $100 to $300 a day, depending on the location, and some use it for rent and other necessities, according to a Street Outreach Task Force report from April. Some even see panhandling as a job, with set hours and locations–a highway off-ramp or a particular street corner.

Still, it’s an uncertain life, and people can disappear without explanation. Last summer, Lisa Bell, aka LisaBelle, would show up on Main Street with her palette or her guitar, painting portraits or singing old songs. “This city has a lot of opportunity and possibilities,” she said then. She hasn’t been seen this year, and other street types think she may have died. But her website shows her painting as recently as June, so it seems she’s just taking a break from the scene.

And newcomers show up every year, seeing opportunities in the abundance of people who wander downtown on summer evenings after a movie, play, or dinner. One such recent arrival is Zachary Storey, who calls himself ViolinMonster and wears a werewolf mask as he plays classical music and fiddle tunes.

Storey says he’s been playing violin since he was six. He recently left a not-so-wonderful job at a local T-shirt factory to try to make a go of it as a street performer. “Kids really love it,” he said of the ViolinMonster persona, which he debuted in Brooklyn, N.Y., this spring wearing a mask he bought at Fantasy Attic.

Once, when he was playing outside Nickels Arcade, a police officer stopped him, saying it was illegal to wear a mask in public. That turned out not to be true, but the Arcade is one of a few places in town where solicitation is banned (see box, p. 33). In July, Storey was planning to buy a new mask to wear during the Art Fair and beyond.

The cast of street walkers and performers changes constantly, yet there are plenty of regulars. Among the veterans who show up season after season are Paul Miles, in his elegant tie and hat, playing blues songs on his guitar, and the small older woman who walks all over downtown using a walker. She keeps to herself, but many of the regulars know each other, if not by name, then by face, reputation, or mannerisms. They share gossip, cigarettes, and signs that the city’s friendly streets are becoming less welcoming. Last year, when “travelers” in town for Punk Week intimidated customers and businesspeople with their aggressive panhandling, the city passed a stepped-up law limiting it.

Many Main Street merchants recognize and greet Arthur, the guy with one crutch, or share a cigarette with Spooner. Others complain that street walkers scare customers away and make downtown uncomfortable for suburbanites who come to Ann Arbor for dinner or entertainment. But however they’re viewed, each is here for a reason, and each has a story to share.

Spooner sees himself as an artist. He offers his multicolored hats and bags online and in person–wearing them or displaying them on a long pole that looks like a well-worn walking stick. “Sales are nothing like what anyone would call strong,” he says.

His hats sell for $35, a price that hasn’t changed since 1975, he says. He hung out in the Del Rio bar selling them for almost twenty years and also sold them in a coffee shop. These days, he can usually be found on Main Street, near the Black Pearl and Starbucks.

Yarn hats may seem like a tough sell in summer, but Spooner says you’d be surprised: “I sold a hat on the hottest day of the year … She was very happy with it,” he recalls. He works into the winter, too, for “as long as I can stand it.” He usually comes out in the evenings, his hours varying based on the weather and his mood, and whether he’s ready to chat with friends who show up on the corner. “I leave when I get tired of being here,” he says.

He learned the basics of crocheting from his grandmother when he was six years old. Now he works mostly with acrylic yarn because it’s more durable. He will make hats or scarves to order, though he’s loath to do them in maize and blue, which he sees as trite.

The yarn artist says he grew up in Kalamazoo and then spent a few years in San Francisco and New York, but he’s been in the Ann Arbor area for forty-plus years. Originally he thought he’d become a “subsistence farmer,” he says, and he still has a big garden at his home in Manchester, where he grows garlic, beans, and other vegetables.

“I had a day job in 1964 working in an asbestos factory,” he says. At the time, he was making art from melted plastic spoons, so friends started calling him Spooner. (He declines to reveal his real name, but says it includes David.) He started the crocheting business a few years later, and has made blankets, bags, scarves, dolls, and other items ever since.

He does the crocheting at home or out in his garden. He’s been married and divorced twice and has had assorted girlfriends, too. He has thirteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

It took Spooner about a week to crochet the colorful jacket he wears, and it’s become part of his look. Yet he says he’d sell it–or make another for a customer–for $500. He also says that despite his striking appearance, many people ignore him. He mostly accepts that, but he became angry when a wire mannequin strung with blue lights was pushed down Main Street and drew a crowd of admirers. He thinks people are jaded and don’t appreciate high-quality work; many try to talk him into taking $10 for a hat, a price that would require him to work for “slave wages.”

He’s not willing to do that. “I’m the Picasso of the crocheted world,” he says.

Not many people know Arthur Fillbrun’s name, but anyone who’s spent much time downtown will recognize him: he’s the guy with one crutch and a simple request: “Excuse me. Could you spare fifty cents or a buck so I could get something to eat?” He sometimes speaks with a British accent, which comes and goes and doesn’t reflect his background. He says he’s a New Yorker, who lived near 72nd Street in Manhattan, and a Vietnam veteran.

“I walk around all day. I hang out,” says Fillbrun, fifty-nine. He says he moved to Ann Arbor almost fifteen years ago for a laser surgery at the VA Hospital on his stomach. (The Veterans Administration declined to confirm any details of his account, but one merchant says he believes Fillbrun’s stories of serving in Vietnam because they’re so realistic.)

Known to many simply as “Crutch Man,” Fillbrun uses a single metal crutch, he says, because he has had two hip replacements, “and the second one didn’t take so hot. I’m on a crutch for the rest of my life.” It’s his left hip that hurts; he says the VA doctors provide ample pain medication, but he tries to use it sparingly.

He gets a partial government disability check that pays the rent on his place on Huron Street, an easy walk to Main. Sometimes he earns a little money as a dishwasher or by helping with set-up at the Farmers Market. “I make a couple of bucks here and there,” he says, but most of his income comes from handouts.

People here are very generous, he says. “One thing about Ann Arbor: You could never go hungry. Somebody’s always willing to feed you.” Among them is a man named John, who gives Fillbrun a bag of groceries from Kroger every Saturday morning. Inside are cereal, milk, sandwich meat, and fruit. “He’s been doing it for a year,” says Fillbrun.

His favorite place is sitting on the planter on Main outside what used to be Barclay’s and is now the Himalayan Bazaar. He says the owner of Barclay’s sometimes bought him lunch or gave him some clothes. The owner confirms that, saying he feels that Fillbrun’s veteran status earns him a little extra assistance.

Yet others call him a fake and a cheat and worse, claiming he’s scamming people. It is true that he occasionally switches his crutch to the other side and sometimes even walks without it. As with any chronic problem, he says, there are days when it’s better and some when it’s far worse.

Fillbrun’s only complaint about Main Street is the sidewalk in front of Starbucks, which last year had huge potholes and cracks. (Most have been repaired in recent months.) He twisted his ankle there once and also caught his shoe heel in a crack. Overall, though, he likes life in Ann Arbor and hopes to stay here. “It’s quiet. It’s laid back. It’s serene. There’s no fighting,” he says. “It is a small town … I know every store owner there is.”

Rissa Haynes is a relative newcomer to the streets of Ann Arbor. Though she moved back to Michigan about three years ago, her mobile phone still has a Dallas area code from her twenty years in Texas. Now she’s a regular in the Kerrytown area, where she stands outside the People’s Food Co-op on Fourth Ave., selling the Groundcover News and saying hello to children and adults.

She’s a polite and upbeat person wearing a wide, glowing smile and a Wolverine baseball cap. Though not yet as well known as Groundcover‘s first vendor, Tony, who was featured in an Observer article last September, she’s winning her own following with her lovely demeanor and what Groundcover publisher Susan Beckett calls her “million-dollar smile.

“Rissa has really made herself into a saleswoman,” Beckett says. “She is an ideal representative of Groundcover, whether she is selling it to a customer, encouraging another person in need of a job to give selling Groundcover a try, or explaining the paper’s purpose and mission to the media.”

So far Haynes has signed up six individuals and businesses as Groundcover subscribers; they pay a year ahead, and she delivers copies to them. She has convinced Zingerman’s Creamery, down by the airport, to stock the paper along with a donation jar. She has also sold a few ads and written articles for the newspaper, including one that she spotted from her “stoop” on Fourth Ave. It’s about bicycle riders around town, including some who park and chat with her.

“I love people. I love talking to people,” Haynes says. Her optimism comes from her faith in God and her belief in the Bible verses that promise all things will work for the good. But “I’m not sitting around and saying, ‘The Lord’s going to take care of me,'” she says. Instead she’s working on her life goals, which include plans to complete a master’s degree and teach others how to use computers.

She’s had her share of challenges, too, one of them a medical condition that hit while she lived in Texas and took many months and many doctors to figure out. She lost the use of her legs, and one doctor wanted to amputate her foot. She declined.

When she started selling Groundcover, she was still wheelchair bound. Treatments and healthy foods have helped her considerably, she says, and she’s progressed from the wheelchair to a walker to walking with a cane to walking alone, though she still moves slowly and carefully.

“I am an incurable optimist,” says Haynes, beaming. And, she notes, that optimism has been justified by the people she’s met on the streets of Ann Arbor: “They’ve embraced me.”

Rules of the Street

The city’s law on solicitation was expanded in April but has been on the books for many years. The new provisions forbid panhandling or selling goods or services in any public alley or entrance to one, or outside the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library at Fifth and William.

Already covered were panhandling or seeking to sell items on any public transportation vehicle, in or near public parking structures, within twelve feet of a bank or ATM, or to a person who is in a vehicle on the street. So technically those high school kids screaming about their car wash as you drive by are breaking city law.

Solicitation–whether by small business owners, street musicians, or panhandlers–also is forbidden when individuals are seated in outdoor cafes and in three downtown arcades: Nickels Arcade on State, the Galleria on South University, and the Pratt Building on Main. And “aggressive” solicitation is outlawed everywhere: a panhandler or vendor may not follow someone down the street, knowingly make false or misleading representations, obstruct a pedestrian’s walkway, or otherwise act in a threatening manner.