It was a nice story, and I hope it has a happy ending. But the tale of Homeless Man with the Golden Voice has already lost its fairy-tale patina.
Ted Williams is headed to rehab, after a whirlwind swing through Hollywood. And those legions of fans seduced by his story are probably feeling rather foolish right now.
Williams is the homeless man shoved into celebrity when a video of him panhandling landed online last week. He was a former radio announcer fallen on hard times, according to his crudely lettered sign. The video clip was shot by a Columbus, Ohio, news reporter who had stopped to give Williams a few bucks; he was moved by Williams’ hard-luck story and amazed by his silky voice.
It seemed hard to believe that this wild-haired, disheveled beggar could be the medium for such mellifluous sound. That incongruity struck a chord; the video went viral on YouTube, with 10 million views in the first 48 hours.
Suddenly Williams had more job offers than he could count and television networks battling to harness his star power.
His was a narrative we could embrace: A talented, hard-working man, victimized by alcohol and drugs.
“We loved his voice; we loved his story,” said a Cleveland Cavaliers official, offering Williams a home and a job as announcer.
His life was derailed by drugs and alcohol. That became the media mantra. As if Williams was merely a passenger, unwittingly ambushed by unavoidable hazards.
The voice was real, but the story wasn’t — at least not the way we cast it. We overlooked a sordid past that might have rendered a different picture: a street-wise thief with a long rap sheet, a dead-beat dad with nine children, a man who dumped a loving wife for a string of women he met on the streets.
It took an alcohol-fueled family brawl in a luxury Hollywood hotel to bring that image back into focus and turn a man hailed as inspiration into — as Dr. Phil proclaimed on his Thursday show — just another “lying crackhead.”
Williams didn’t ask for any of this, and I’m not trying to condemn him. All he was after was a little cash, enough maybe for a meal, a bottle, a rock of crack. Watching him on “Dr. Phil,” as lie after lie was unmasked, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, but it was pity tinged with disgust.
Does that make me hard-hearted? Andy Bales gave me a pass on that. Bales heads the Union Rescue Mission, a skid row shelter and recovery center, and sees men like Williams every day.
“You want to be compassionate and kind and hopeful about everyone who’s on the corner,” Bales said. “But there are reasons why they’re on that corner, and it’s a long involved process getting off, after so many years of devastation.”
The downward spiral of Williams’ life isn’t some sort of random bad luck that can be undone with a lucky break. Addictions can’t be ordered into silence, and resolve is not recovery.
It seemed to me from the beginning that it was beyond naive to believe that Williams had stayed sober for two years on the streets, amid temptations and challenges, untreated for his disease.
Maybe we needed to believe in the prospect of sudden redemption, the miracle of unlikely recovery. “I’m sure a lot of the world recognizes a loved one, a brother, a dad in him,” said Bales, whose own brother suffered through years of ups and downs, chasing elusive sobriety.
“It’s comforting to think this could happen,” Bales said. “It was like: ‘Here’s this unknown talent, all these years he suffered and now he’s been discovered and it’s going to be fine.’”
It didn’t happen that way, of course. If you believe the account of family members, who joined him in Los Angeles to celebrate his rising star, Williams has been drinking every night and “everything out of his mouth is a lie.”
Bales told me he saw that coming. “When the first thing this man’s mother says is ‘Don’t disappoint me,’ you ought to know there’re a lot of things that got him to this point and that won’t vanish overnight.... When I saw Ted, I saw my brother. I know how many times he has tried to shape up and fallen and how many times my mother was disappointed.”
But even that frosty mother-son reunion didn’t penetrate our collective resolve. “can’t feel the love from the mom,” one viewer complained online, after watching the reunion of mother and son. “what’s up with the crappy attitude.”
What’s up was that mother had been disappointed too many times by her wayward son. His promises were “like a broken record,” she said.
His problem wasn’t that he needed a job or the kindness of a stranger, she said. He could have hustled, washing car windows or collecting cans. But he’d rather stand with a sign on the street and beg. “How could you get so low to do a thing like that,” she said.
It was an uncomfortable moment in what was supposed to be an uplifting tale. The television host jumped in, ushering us to “happier moments.” Williams gratefully complied. His mother sat there shaking her head.
Bales knows better than most about the long, hard road that Williams faces. “We’ve got four guys here at the mission with that same golden voice,” he said. “Talent is not the challenge. The challenge is life transformation.”
Over the years, he has seen countless talents flame out. The basketball player, the musical genius, the one-time comedian. “We’ve got a guy in our kitchen that has a nicer radio voice than that guy. But he has some anger issues, some inner demons, and until he’s dealt with them, he’s not going to move on.”
The mission offers a three-year hike toward sobriety. Rescue Mission clients have to take hundreds of hours of classes on anger management, dealing with grief, overcoming addictions. They get counseling and job training. They graduate from the shelter to a sober living center, and then, maybe, to an apartment.
Some make it just short of graduation. “It’s the day before they graduate, and they celebrate by going out and using, and fall right back to where they began. It’s a big hill to climb.”
Dr. Phil hustled Williams off toward that goal this week, offering him a stay at a pricey rehab program on an island off South Texas: no cameras or publicity, just an update when recovery is done.
I’m pulling for him, but it’s hard to ignore what I saw — Williams squirming, terror in his eyes, when Dr. Phil told him: Pack up, buddy; we’re off.