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Ann Arbor’s famed Violin Monster talks affordable housing

ANN ARBOR (AP) — On a mild and gray winter afternoon, students passing through the Denison Archway toward the University of Michigan Diag mostly ignored the masked performer who was serenading them.

Some stared at their smartphones as Zachary Storey warmed them up with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” on his Otto Ernst Fischer violin. One student took a moment to film him on Snapchat. Another paused a phone conversation midstream to note that he was having a “really weird day” after Storey let out his signature “awooo!”

It wasn’t until he encountered an old friend from the streets, Jesse Kostelic, that Storey broke character as Ann Arbor’s famed Violin Monster to celebrate Kostelic’s news that he had been clean and sober for eight months, The Ann Arbor News reported.

Months earlier, it was Storey who escorted Kostelic to some of the city’s social service agencies when he was homeless and fighting an addiction to heroin. Still donning his gray werewolf mask, Storey told his friend he looked “a lot better,” as Kostelic informed him he’d secured transitional housing at Ann Arbor’s Dawn Farm addiction treatment center.

In the moment, Storey’s Violin Monster persona and the man behind the mask – whom he’s started to reveal to the world – merged into one.

“You can’t see my smile right now,” Storey told Kostelic through the snarling fangs of his mask as the two embraced.

For nearly a decade, Storey has made connections with people of all ages and fortunes as Ann Arbor’s most noticeable street performer. And while he scrapes together his income with the pocket change of his admirers, interactions like the one with Kostelic serve as the currency that keeps him going.

“It’s my job as an entertainer to bring happiness to people if I can, or to disrupt people’s internal monologues for a second and bring them into their surroundings,” Storey said while digging through a plate of French fries at Arbor Brewing Company. “(The exchange with Kostelic) is strong feedback that I’m doing my job.”

After years of migrating from Ann Arbor to warmer locales like New Orleans, San Francisco and Austin, Texas during the winter months, Storey’s perspective of Ann Arbor has evolved.

Despite wanting to settle down and stay in the city year-round, it’s become increasingly difficult for him to secure housing through subleases or by crashing on couches. He laments Ann Arbor’s changing landscape, with more luxury apartment high-rises being built downtown.

This past winter was particularly challenging for Storey. Unable to find a place to stay, he was homeless, spending sleep-deprived nights living in a crowded Delonis Center, as well as transforming his 2002 Honda CR-V into a living space for about seven weeks.

“From spending so much time on the streets, I probably had a better idea than most of how many people in our community are in great need,” Storey said. “The more that I learned about it, we are in a much graver crisis than most people even know.”

Ann Arbor’s lack of affordable housing has caused Storey to remove his mask and speak out at City Council meetings to advocate for the city’s homeless and working poor. His evolution from street performer to affordable housing advocate has come out of necessity, he said, to push for keeping the place he now calls home unique.

“Ann Arbor has had the reputation for being really welcoming and for embracing the weird, or different or strange,” he said.

While Storey’s ability to entertain and earn money in Ann Arbor’s downtown has been thwarted by the spread of COVID-19, he has been able to maintain housing, streaming his violin performances online to try to earn some cash.

In the meantime, Storey has reached out to city council members to advocate for emergency funds to the Delonis Center and other organizations working with vulnerable populations to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

For those who walk Ann Arbor’s downtown streets, the Violin Monster’s presence has become embedded in the city’s culture, like many of the festivals at which he performs, continuing a tradition popularized by the late Shakey Jake Woods.

Storey has appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” and was highlighted in a short feature at the beginning of the late Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” Arbor Brewing Company has brewed a special seasonal beer in his name.

His elegant attire and carefully sculpted character story of a werewolf that will turn 500 years old this year make him a hit with young children. One woman was so moved by her young daughter’s interaction with Storey that she turned it into a children’s book, “A Monster on Main Street.”

“As this character, and especially being known around town, I found that for a lot of people, I am more approachable than a stranger,” Storey said.

Literati Bookstore co-owner Mike Gustafson recalled Storey leaving the message “Violin Monster was here, awwwwwoooooo,” on the famed typewriter in the store’s basement. Gustafson taped the message on the wall, where it was noticed by a 7-year-old who wanted to write back to the Violin Monster.

“We connected them on social media, and thus began what I believe to be the world’s first pen pal relationship between a 7-year-old and a werewolf,” said Gustafson, who turned the interaction between the pair into one of the stories in the book “Notes from a Public Typewriter.”

Storey insists those interactions are what have made Ann Arbor a desirable place to live over the past decade. A native of Connecticut, Storey began learning to play the violin when he was six, before moving to Livonia at the age of 10.

His talent allowed him to spend summers during middle school at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, later touring the Midwest, Germany and Belgium with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Storey eventually put the violin down for a few years to attend college at Western Connecticut State University, planning to go into a career in elementary education. He ultimately realized being a teacher wasn’t for him, leading him to move back to Michigan and pick up his violin once again.

Storey began performing on the streets of downtown Ann Arbor, and soon discovered his new identity when he found the perfect costume and werewolf mask at the Fantasy Attic in Ypsilanti.

When he moved to Ann Arbor in October 2010, Storey earned a modest living working in a factory, but quickly realized that the typical 9-5 job would never work for him.

A few weeks removed from being homeless, Storey was happy to share the news to a barista behind the counter inside RoosRoast in downtown Ann Arbor that he’d found a room to rent on a balmy late January afternoon.

The barista shared in his excitement, staring up at the lanky, 6-foot-5 Storey while expressing her love for his new knitted hat he surmises is either a squirrel or wolf – a gift he received around Christmas.

Storey, whose face was clean-shaven when he began performing in Ann Arbor years ago, now wears a long, thick beard. He’s glad to have put behind him sleep-deprived nights, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in the Delonis Center’s warming shelter with up to 70 other people. He no longer needs to lay out a mattress across his car and sleep in parking garages when temperatures drop into single digits at night.

Storey’s experience with homelessness has forced him to look at Ann Arbor’s lack of affordable housing more closely, speaking out at several City Council meetings in recent months. His passion and honesty are striking, on display most recently when he called out City Council for its decision to fire the city administrator. Images from his moment chastising the council became an internet meme.

“I’ve discovered some hard realities at the Delonis Center,” Storey told City Council on Dec. 2, 2019. “I didn’t even know the amount of the invisible (homeless) community that’s out there, and I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours out on the street.”

Storey’s struggle to find affordable housing is quite common, Ann Arbor Housing Commission Executive Director Jennifer Hall said. Around 1,000 people contact the commission every year in fear of losing their housing due to an illness, death of a spouse, loss of a job or the simple inability to make enough from the job they have to pay for housing in Ann Arbor.

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