Flint, MI–Robert Cummings sits on a stain-spotted couch inside the small two-bedroom apartment he shares with his older brother. A single unadorned light bulb hangs from the crumbling ceiling, struggling to light the entirety of the room.
Robert, who goes by Bob, looks at the apartment and sneers. He does not like showing it to new people.
“All these apartments are all jacked up. One time the walls were filthy dirty and I scrubbed them forever but they still look like crap. I like to keep the apartment as clean as possible. I don’t want people coming in here and thinking to themselves that I live like a pig,” Bob said.
Bob, who tries his hardest to not “live like a pig,” has spent 10 years in his apartment. Built off the bones of an old liquor store, the apartment, to Bob’s dismay, has never truly been clean.
To Bob, the way a person’s house looks says a lot about them. Even inside his bedroom, where boxes, loose shoes, dozens of coats, and hula hoops lie strewn about, there is a sense of order. They may be piles, but they’re neat piles.
Hours later, his guests gone, Bob is walking down Cronk Avenue holding a red rubber-maid plastic container filled with garbage.
Bob’s philosophy and his circumstances extend beyond the confines of his apartment and into his neighborhood. With no job or other responsibilities to keep him occupied, the “56-year-young” man dedicates sometimes up to four hours of his day to keeping his east side neighborhood free of litter.
As he makes his way down the street he uses a mechanical grabber to pick up litter, putting each piece in the container–a cracking, sun-baked Doritos bag lying in an empty lot, a handful of crushed cans of Bud Light sitting around an abandoned RV, the odd napkin blowing in the wind. He picks it all up. Most he throws away, but some he keeps, like shoes that can still be worn, or the shirt he sometimes wears and on which he wrote the words, “Je suis invaincu”: I am unbeaten.
In Bob’s eyes, he is surrounded by filth and grime. It greets him every morning when he awakes looking up at his ceiling, cracked and caked in paint like an ancient fresco. It follows him out the door and into the world when he steps onto the litter-ridden streets of his neighborhood, and it attacks him every time a person he finds disagreeable enters his life.
Even if they don’t know his name, many on the east side know Bob. They’ve seen him walking the streets, hula hooping in the empty lot next to his apartment, and dancing at any public event where there’s music–dancing so frantically it’s almost as if he’s trying to shake off the filth that engulfs his world.
Learning life’s truths
Bob was born in Flint in 1965 to Charles and Dolores Cummings. He lived the first four years of his life in Grand Blanc but said his life started when he moved to Flint. For Bob and his older brother, David, many of his childhood memories revolved around his father’s alcoholism and his domestic disputes with his wife, which typically ended in everything from ashtrays to punches being thrown.
“My father was a General Motors worker. He was an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. We lived in trailer park after trailer park after trailer park because he drank all of his GM money away,” Bob said as he recalled his early years.
It was living at this first trailer park, which used to sit on the corner of Averill Avenue and Davison Road, that Bob was first exposed to many of the world’s grim and filthy realities starting with bullying.
“I hated that trailer park. It was the worst to me. After the first year when I was only five or six years old, I already wanted to get out of there. In the end, we spent 10 years living there. We had too many problems with all the snotty kids. They were harassing us every day because my dad was an alcoholic. They threw rocks at us, called my dad an embarrassment,” Bob said.
By the time his dad quit drinking in 1980, Bob had grown used to dragging him out of Thrift City Bar and helping him cross the street back into the trailer park. Along the way, Bob said children would accost him, hurling insults at both son and father.
Despite his rough upbringing, Bob often looks to the past for comfort. Having grown up in poverty, struggling to make friends, and dealing with his father’s alcoholism from a young age, he has little to look back on.
When Bob thinks back to his time in school, however, what he remembers most fondly isn’t his friends or the classes he took. In fact, he said he never much cared for either. Rather, what brings a smile to his face is remembering how things used to be.
To him, having grown up in Flint during its prime is one of his biggest points of pride and one of the only good things about his childhood. The city, to him, is like an old friend, a character in the story of his life like any other.
Even now, nearly 40 years after leaving high school, some of Bob’s biggest smiles come from recalling what his days in Potter Elementary School, Lowell Junior High School, and Central High School were like.
“Have you seen videos about Central on YouTube and stuff? Of people going inside?” Bob asked. “It is so totally destroyed in there, it literally makes me cry. That used to be my school during the 1980s. … The day Central High School closed, I cried. I went to the school board and asked them to please keep it open,” Bob said.
Every day as he walks past the abandoned decrepit buildings of his childhood, all of them burnt down hollow frames of their former selves, Bob is reminded of the reason he goes out every day to pick up litter.
A troubled teen
Back inside his apartment a day later, this time with open windows letting in the sun and the sound of a far-away lawnmower, Bob sat with his legs crossed, reminiscing on his childhood as he talked about what he called the darkest time in his life.
As Bob came into his teens, he started going down a road of self-described hooliganism and violence.
An open book, ready and willing to discuss his parents’ deaths, his past relationships and even a decades-long secret manhunt, Bob hesitated to respond when asked about his early adulthood.
While speaking, Bob’s usually assertive and confident demeanor washed away. The subject of the conversation, his younger self, was someone Bob had worked hard to forget and leave in the past.
“I was a curse long before I was a blessing,” Bob said. “Oh man, I was a street punk. I was so out of control, I had a very violent temper. I was in a lot of fights, I caused a lot of trouble. My parents kept saying ‘Bob, you’re a disappointment, you’re a mistake’,” he said. ”That got me the most.”
Bob’s years-long streak of violence followed him into adulthood. By the time he was 27 in 1992 however, two separate events took place that would fundamentally change his outlook on life.
That year, Bob said he was the victim of an attempted robbery. According to him, the scuffle ultimately ended in Bob successfully resisting his attackers. He claims he broke one man’s back, and the other’s neck.
With no evidence of his attacker’s intentions but plenty of evidence displaying Bob’s familiarity with violence, a judge put him on probation and sentenced him to take anger management classes.
With the threat of prison time hanging over his head, he started attending anger management.
Around the same time, a close friend who Bob declined to name was killed in a drug trade gone bad.
“The last few times we were together, he would barely talk to me. Two days after the last time I saw him a friend of mine told me he was dead … his body was literally like swiss cheese. He went to go get revenge on a bad drug deal and it seemed like they were waiting for him because the minute he opened the door, they shot the living crap out of him,” Bob said.
It was then that Bob, who had spent the last few years picking fights and fraternizing with criminals, decided a change of lifestyle had to be made.
“His brutal death really shook the crap out of me. I was terrified of going anywhere because I thought these guys were gonna be out to get me. They knew me, they’d seen me with my friends. I needed to change my life, I was sick of the way I was being.” Bob said.
Straightening up, he turned his attention away from his feet and out the open window, talking about his relationship with God and how it saved him from a fate like his friend’s.
An artist at heart
Bob sits at a computer inside the Latinx Technology and Community Center like he does most weekday afternoons.
Over the years, Bob has become a consistent presence in the center, always occupying the same computer during the same time of the day.
Those who work at the center have come to know him well. Asa Zuccaro, the center’s director has spent time in the past helping Bob navigate technological hurdles like how to upload pictures to Instagram on the computer.
“Bob is an interesting character. He’s most definitely always around, doing his research, reading the news, watching videos,” Zuccaro said with a chuckle.
Sporting his usual attire made up of basketball shorts and a t-shirt, among the many he’s collected while picking up garbage throughout the years, Bob browses the internet.
At almost 60, Bob is somewhat of an internet connoisseur. His Instagram, an either carefully curated or random assortment of posts, is made up mainly of inspirational quotes, screenshots of local news headlines and pictures of his art.
Perhaps inadvertently or perhaps on purpose, Bob has managed to create a collage of his brain on his main Instagram account (Bob has three accounts, one of which used to be solely dedicated to videos of him hula hooping). All of Bob’s desires, his need for friendship, admiration, interaction and ultimately love are splattered throughout the content of his posts and his comments.
This is best seen in his bio, which reads, “I am a 56 yr young single man, Godly, Michigan native, good man, positive, upbeat, active and agile, Been in Michigan all my life too.”
From there, we are welcomed to delve into Bob’s brain.
His 22 most recent posts, all uploaded on the same day, are uncaptioned photographs of Bob’s drawings. Some colored in, some not, the 22 posts are all of the same few characters Bob refers to as his enemies.
In many of the drawings, his enemies sport bulging muscles scowls on their faces–and, perhaps most prominently–large nipples and pecs that more often than not are so pronounced they begin to look more like breasts.
Further down the line, we learn more about Bob’s enemies. One of his most featured enemies, “Too Tough,” Bob explains in a caption, is based on a childhood bully.
“This is my very first ENEMY from the 70’s from a neighborhood I was once in as a kid … We fought ALOT and he is STILL rotten to the core sorry CREEP to me. He is called “Too Tough” in my drawings. In reality he is really NOT! I beat him more than he beat me in the 70’s. I prefer to no longer see him because he has not changed at all,” the caption reads.
Though his experience in school was tepid, with Bob saying “I like to think my time in school was more good than bad,” there was at least one aspect of his educational career that would go on to define a part of him for the rest of his life.
In late high school, Bob began taking French. He immediately fell in love with the language.
To hear him talk about French, one would assume Bob has nothing more than a casual interest in the language. Initially, all he has to say on the matter is that once he had the chance to go to Paris with his French class but he had to miss it since his parents could not afford to pay for the trip.
“One time, I was taking French and our class went on a two-week trip to Paris. I wanted to go but my parents could not afford to send me over there. I was crying. I had never been outside of America before. I wanted a new experience,” Bob said.
Bob, who has yet to visit Paris, said he did take a three-day trip to Canada. During this time Bob said he was overwhelmed by everything from the change to the metric system to the thick French accents of the people he met.
Even in Canada, Windsor to be exact, Bob was still thinking of home.
“We went and stayed in a fleabag motel over there in Windsor. The city had parts that reminded me of Miller Road. They had better-looking stores at the time but Windsor reminded me so much of Miller Road,” Bob said.
Despite these being his only brushes with French, Bob was hooked.
Over the course of his life, Bob began accumulating books as well as dictionaries and thesauruses in French, slowly teaching himself to speak, read, and write in the language with some level of fluency.
Such is his love for the language that every day upon finishing his routine afternoon cleanup, Bob will head to the Latinx Technology and Community Center. There, he will spend hours taking advantage of the free computer and internet access to look up more French words.
For Bob, new words in French are always in high demand. Aside from being a self-proclaimed polyglot, Bob is also an artist. Plastered all over his bedroom walls inside the small east side apartment Bob shares with his brother are hundreds of drawings. Under his bed and scattered on the floor are about 5-7 boxes filled with thousands of drawings that didn’t make it onto Bob’s wall.
Loosely reminiscent of comic books, his drawings contain panels, speech bubbles, drawn-out action sequences and sometimes, multipage story-arcs that usually revolve around Bob facing off against someone inside a boxing ring.
Most, if not all of the drawings Bob has, feature his characters speaking in French with each other.
“Everything I do is in French. I put the date on my drawings on roman numerals and regular numbers. I think roman numerals are cool. In college, I used to subscribe to a newspaper called Journal Francais d’Amerique. Years later I came across the site and I use that a lot now too,” Bob said.
Bob’s commitment to his art is further highlighted when he lays out his daily schedule. Though he has been unemployed for years now, living mostly off his brother’s disability checks and the odd valuable find in the street, like a wallet, Bob stays busy.
Every day after breakfast, Bob dedicates about 2-4 hours to just drawing. To keep up with his paper demands, Bob has gone as far as rummaging through the garbage behind businesses looking for discarded documents with blank backs. Much of his artwork contains emails, invoices and miscellaneous data.
“I found all these folders that someone was trashing behind Angelo’s Coney Island. About a year or so ago they were throwing away a whole bunch of these. You know, I’m constantly drawing stuff up every day of the week. Some of these boxes are filled with papers that I just drew on the back of. The papers had order forms, employee reviews, bills, and complaints about coworkers.
Between drawing, journaling and picking up garbage in his neighborhood, Bob still manages to make time for a few more hobbies that he sincerely and unabashedly enjoys: dancing and hula hooping.
Anyone who has ever attended an event on the east side featuring music has most likely seen Bob building up a sweat on the dance floor, at times closing his eyes and smiling while dancing with energy and gusto that can only come from doing something you feel like you were meant to do.
Bob approaches hula hooping with the same passion. Tucked in a corner of his room along with more boxes full of drawings and a mountain of the “good shoes” he finds during his garbage pickups and walks to the tech center, is a loosely stacked pile of hula hoops. Some look brand new while others are bent, cracked, and oblong from intense use.
It’s never too late for something better
Following high school, he attended Mott Community College. After a few years of being in and out of several programs at MCC, he decided to look elsewhere for opportunities. From there, Bob went on to work a series of jobs throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s including dishwashing, newspaper delivery and a handful of short-lived odd jobs in the retail industry.
“My parents made me go to college. I didn’t want to. I was glad to finally be out of high school. I wanted to be free forever. No more education. 12 years of it was enough. I was enjoying my freedom so much and my parents said to me “You ain’t spending the rest of your life raising hell, you‘re gonna do something good with your life. You either go to college or you hit the road. I was terrified of being on my own at the time so I stayed,” Bob said.
As he reaches the age of 57, Bob is once again looking for a change.
“I want to live in a mansion. I walk behind Mott College sometimes and the houses out there are gorgeous. All these houses here are trash junk compared to what they’ve got over there. I see very little to no trash over there,” Bob said.
He described some of his favorite houses in detail, conjuring up images of houses completely built out of stone with dark, barnyard-style garage doors and wide, lush yards. Bob has a plan to get there.
“I sometimes feel like a lot of jobs are temporary. I want to have something that I truly really enjoy. I want to sell my art. I spend countless hours drawing every day and I can see myself being a professional artist. I could be an architect. This city needs to be rebuilt. There are so many dilapidated buildings,” Bob said.
Ideally, he would like to move to Hawaii.
When asked if he believed any of this was possible, Bob nodded with assertion.
Bob, who lives a meager life cleaning his neighborhood for free, using the shoes and clothes he finds on his excursions to dress himself and who spends most of his time alone, walking in the sun, has something most people struggle to hold on to on a daily basis.
He loves life.
With an orange hula hoop in hand, Bob makes his way down the rickety wooden stairs that lead from his apartment and into the street. Grinning widely, he walks out onto the lawn beside his building.
After a couple of trial runs, Bob begins quickly spinning the hula hoop around one of his arms. He seamlessly transitions the spinning hoop from one arm to the other. He kneels, stands back up, walks around and lunges back and forth all while keeping the hula hoop spinning.
Bob gets on one knee and prepares for the big finale. He puts his arms together above his head like he’s about to dive into a pool and starts spinning the hula hoops around his wrists. His smile breaks as the hula-hoop spins off his hands and flies away.
Before the hoop even lands, Bob, unphased, adjusts for his mistake and holds his hands up as if to say “voila.”