by: Jon Persson
The photograph of Howard, with full beard and winter hat, gazes from the pages of newspapers, fliers, and the walls of New London’s Gallery at Firehouse Square on Bank Street. The caption numbers him among the homeless of our region, his story captured in the brief instant of a reflective portrait.
But “homeless” is a title earned by continuing loss and eventual recovery, and static portraits do not tell the story of a dynamic life, one in constant motion, that resides beneath his portrait at the gallery, whose show, “Right Next Door: Images of the Homeless and Those Who Help Them” featured oil paintings by Elizabeth McGinn and photography by Alex Matthiesen. This exhibition ran through March 27 and hit home in the region.
“I moved to Groton in 1975 from San Diego specifically to work at Electric Boat,” says Howard Auten. A friend’s father had just transferred to the submarine capital here, and he’d heard that there was a room and a job waiting for him. He made the long move and went right to work. Howard was 23 years old.
For the next 22 years Howard was a shipfitter, laying out the pieces which make up the decks, missile tubes, sail, and other structural sections of a submarine. “The work—I enjoyed it,” he says, often doing extra tasks such as organizing tools and wedges during lulls in his assigned responsibilities.
“San Diego is more laid back” than southeastern Connecticut, Howard observes, despite the common link of a strong Navy presence. Besides submarines, San Diego is home to surface ships and a Marine Corps base. But for Howard, life before Groton was decidedly non-military; he played guitar and bass in a string of rock and roll bands.
“We were locally known,” he says, and while they neither made it big nor got rich out west, Howard “paid college expenses, car insurance, and for my prom” with his earnings. He especially liked to “watch people enjoy themselves” when the band played. “We had a hell of a lot of fun; I sure miss that!” he adds.
During the 1980’s Howard took to riding a Harley-Davidson Sportster, going tent camping on long road trips across Virginia, Michigan, Oklahoma, and more. Then, his interests turned to sailing, and for a number of years he spent weekends and vacations crewing on the Mystic Whaler, Argia, Quinnipiack, HMS Rose, and the 177-foot Gazela of Philadelphia. It was “hand, reef, steer,” the sailor’s creed, that Howard pursued, setting and trimming sail, working aloft, taking his turn at the wheel. The trips and voyages are a time remembered fondly.
After 22 years, Howard left Electric Boat, working for the ensuing years at local Cumberland Farms stores. Then, a confluence of events—not of his making and thus beyond his control—left Howard without a place to call his home. These events included a zoning ruling which rendered his longtime apartment illegal, and a cutback in hours available at his place of employment. After a time of “sleeping rough” in a garage and later an old RV, he had to go into Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for medical treatment. From there, in August of 2011, he went to the St. James shelter in New London.
His new home there had a “nice comfortable bed” and a warm, dry place to sleep. He’s quick to praise the shelter and all that the staff has done to help him during “this low point in my life.” Despite his own situation, he has always remained “perfectly willing to go without” to help a friend in need. He also is well known for walking from New London to Groton as a matter of course to get his mail, go to Big Y, or visit old friends. At St. James, to avoid confusion with other residents, he began going by his first name, Howard; only his friends and acquaintances from the shelter know him as this, while those from his many years before the shelter still know him as “Mike.”
After ten months at St. James, aided by staff and the early tapping of his Electric Boat pension, Howard was able to move into a room in New London. Later, he moved to Groton, and—since October of 2012—he has resided in his own apartment back in New London…which he says is “definitely the nicest place I have lived in Connecticut since I came out here in 1975. I love this place!”
On a chilly March afternoon, Howard sits at his own table, and over a fresh brewed cup of hot coffee reminisces about the long voyage to his new home. Now secure, and largely content, he is bemused at the recent, widespread publication of his bearded, rustic image in the Firehouse Square gallery—a place of art, in a city of art.
“I agreed to do the portrait to help draw attention to the homeless situation,” he says. But in so doing he draws attention to the possibility of ending homelessness for others now and in the future.
The trail has many turns. Art is like that.