Let Me Be: A profile of musician Chris Ellis
by Susan Lakes
Chris Ellis travels with a song in his heart and a lot of tunes in his head.
The 50-year-old musician calls himself homeless, but right now friends give him a place to stay. He’s been “couch surfing”, or relying on other people for basic needs, for about three years.
Thanks to kind friends, Ellis, has a place to store his beloved bass guitar, an instrument that’s yet to be named. Some knowing friends even let him practice. Janel Williams is one of those, he said.
“She lets me plug in and stay intact,” he said of Williams.
Ellis has been playing and writing music for 32 years.
“Everything I play I taught myself,” he said.
He remembers the day he first touched guitar strings.
“It was June 4, 1979 and I remember that date because it was exciting,” he said, while squinting his eyes and looking up at a clump of ceiling tiles.
“You know that feeling you get when you ride a bike?” he asked. “I just love what I do.”
He loves music even when he’s not practicing or performing. Ellis plays bass, rhythm and lead guitars, drums and piano. He’s well versed in putting down tracks of different sounds, adding words to the combinations and recording songs.
The old school guy’s skill is one that impresses at least one budding musician, Harrison Lott, a college student who shares Ellis’ love of music.
“I think he (Ellis) seems really upbeat and positive,” Lott said. “I know if I was in that situation, I may not find it easy to be that way, and I might not find it easy to keep creating when all the odds are against you.”
Lott plays rhythm and lead guitar, and, unlike Ellis, composes in short bursts, but nothing really long lasting and serious—yet.
“He’s (Ellis) is so committed to getting better and so committed to his outlet for creativity,” Lott said during a face-to-face interview about a week after he met Ellis at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.
The day the two met was a typical day for both men. Ellis had just walked 8 or 9 miles—from Western Hills to Over-the-Rhine— and Lott had reported for an internship at the GCCH. He’ll return to The University of Michigan in the fall.
Smiling Through A Long Summer Walk
Ellis put in what some might consider a full day’s work before the clock struck 10 a.m. He left Western Hills at 2 a.m. in order to make the cut at Labor Works, a day labor business.
“They say you can’t work if you get there late,” he said about why it’s so important to sign the availability book by 5 a.m.
So he walked, and he walked, and he walked.
“It didn’t dampen my spirits because the whole time I was walking, the only thing I thought about was my
music,” Ellis said.
A Ten Minute Break and A Great Big Gun Handle
“I stopped to rest for a ten minute break, and I had a couple of guys who came around the corner and one of them was brandishing a pistol,” Ellis said calmly.
Unfazed, Ellis calmly spoke to the guys.
“I asked them how they were doing and saw the gun in the guy’s pocket,” he recalled. “The handle was sticking out.”
He didn’t know the men, but would like to.
“They looked at me but never bothered me. They were young,” he said, adding that he’s thankful theydisappeared rather than shoot or rob him.
So he continued on the journey with familiar and original songs playing in his head.
“I got one that is called Ocean Love,” he recalled about one particular song swirling through his head. “And I got another called Getting It Done, and one called My World. I’ve never made a professional CD, but for some strange reason, God keeps telling me that once people hear this music, my whole life will be different.”
Eden Park is where Ellis creates music.
“Writing music is a way to cope with being homeless,” he said. ‘I can step into a new atmosphere.”
He stretches out in the cool grass and creates.
“It’s so peaceful.”
Music, for Ellis, is something that calms the savage beast. He believes music is built on faith—a faith, he said, that can only come from God.
Day Labor Horror
Despite having to travel eight or nine miles on foot, Ellis said he made it to Labor Works, a day labor center, in plenty of time to get called out on a job. “I arrived at 4:50 a.m. to sign in,” he said.
He wasn’t late. He maintains he showed up so early that his name appeared fourth on the daily list of available workers. But he didn’t get called out.
“They still had people signing in at 6 a.m.” he recalled.
True to Ellis style, music was all he could think about while he watched other people being called out for day labor assignments.
“I think about music because I believe God put me here for that purpose,” he said. “It didn’t dampen my spirits.”
The younger musician Lott noticed Ellis’ tenacity and commented on his discovery during an interview held about a week after the two musicians met.
“Whether you’re homeless or not, it’s a good attitude to strive for,” he said, adding that it’s good to look at opportunities in new ways. “It’s easy to get defeated. To maintain that positive outlook is admirable and notable.”
Good attitude or not, the day labor place turned Ellis away for a work assignment at the Great American Ball Park where he had toiled away, cleaning up trash, earlier in the summer.
“They DNR’d (Do Not Return) me,” Ellis explained to Don Sherman, executive director at the Cincinnati Interfaith
Workers Center on Vine Street. The center, with assistance from the Department of Labor, recently won a yearlong battle to get Labor Works workers transportation pay. The company is in the process of sending checks to last year’s stadium workers for the difference between what Labor Works charged workers to make the short drive from Walnut Hills to the stadium and minimum wage since the mandatory $6.00 transportation fee brought workers below minimum wage, which is against labor laws.
The stadium work was all new to Ellis this season, so he wasn’t on the list of workers to be reimbursed for the $6.00 transportation fee that the company used to deduct from workers’ daily wages.
But Ellis faced another problem faced by day laborers. He was on the no return list, and was not sure the reason why. He still doesn’t know.
“I know I was a good worker, but by the time I went back to Labor Works to ask the reason for the DNR, there was nobody behind the desk to ask,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to say anything bad about the business.
“But I’m still wondering why I was not allowed to work.”
That question weighed so heavily on his mind, he took the advice of the Interfaith Worker Center and called Labor Works to ask what he had done wrong. So, eight hours after he first started the trip to the job that didn’t work out, Ellis called Labor Works from the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.
He got the answer, shrugged his shoulders and immediately started talking about music.
According to Ellis, the Labor Works worker politely told him that something did not work out right on the stadium job. The person who talked with told him that while he couldn’t go back to that particular job because of the DNR, Labor Works would call him when other jobs came up. Ellis believes an incident with a stadium employee is responsible for the DNR.
“It was hot,” Ellis recalled of the incident. Ellis got a cup of water at the very time a supervisor rounded a corner. “He said some words I’d rather not mention,” Ellis said, adding that he told the man what he thought about the swearing directed his way.
“You don’t have to talk to me that way,” he recalls saying. “I don’t think he heard me he was so enraged.”
Ellis said he didn’t lose his cool then, and he has this advice to offer others who are bullied on the job.
“Take a deep breath and count backwards, and when you get up to three and two, try to erase it from your mind.”
Getting mad to get even doesn’t work, according to Ellis.
“Losing your cool will add up to one big zero,” he said. “They will win and you will lose.”
Leaving the Past Behind
People on the streets say “hit this” sometimes to Ellis, but he maintains he doesn’t need drugs to get high.
“If I never smoked again, I’m still high. God is boosting me up. Without him, my development and skills would not be what they are,” Ellis said.
A record that includes a felony conviction makes getting a job difficult.He got in trouble for drug trafficking about thirty years ago.
“I was supposed to have sold a nickel bag to an undercover officer,” he said. “Here’s the twist. About four years later, I had some police officer tell me I had another drug trafficking felony, and come to find out (someone else) had been using my identity.”
Later, according to Ellis, he got another felony.
“That was a felony by entrapment,” he said. “Two undercovers walked past and dropped a bag of crack cocaine on the ground,” he said.
He takes full responsibility for that felony.
“I do admit that was my fault,” he said. “I did a year in Chillicothe.”
Hitting Number One
During the penitentiary stay, Ellis formed a band of fellow prisoners.
“I was the number one player in Chillicothe,” he said.
On Sundays or “yard days,” Ellis and others would set up in the prison field and play for thousands of people.
“I was sad to leave there,” he said. “I had got attached to those guys.”
Got The Music Ability Honestly
Ellis grew up in Cincinnati’s Lincoln Courts, a housing project that’s been torn down. He went to Taft High School.
“They said my father played trumpet, but I never saw it,” he said about early life.
But Ellis does remember listening to another relative’s music. “My granddad played sax,” he recalled. “I remember hearing him play “Mr. Magic,” by Grover Washington.”
Ellis said, while munching on a big plum he found on his way to work,“I pray and hope every day I run into musicians who could use me. I’ll give whatever I can to help them.”
The philosopher in him explained how he scored the fruit for breakfast.
“God said ‘look up’ and I saw a plum tree.”
Readers can look forward to learning what other states are doing to fight the silent epidemic of the kind of workplace bullying Ellis claims he faced. Some states have proposed legislation to help curb activities of on-the-job bullies.
Do you have a story about your workplace bully? If so, contact Susan Lakes, staff writer for Streetvibes in confidence at
firstname.lastname@example.org. You can call me at (513) 421-7803, ext. 12 to share your story. Look forward to hearing how the silent epidemic impacts your work day.