I must state right away that I was amazed to find out that she had only just died. Thirty years ago, she looked as if she could easily have been well into her 60s, so I have to believe she was well into her 90s when she died. But I get the feeling that no one really knows for sure. According to this article in the Detroit Free Press, it doesn’t sound like anybody had the full story on Stella.
I spent several years working at the Attic Theatre when it was still in Greektown, so I became quite familiar with Stella. It was not uncommon to see her screaming at parking meters, parked cars, and anyone who happened to make eye contact with her. Suburbanites who weren’t familiar with Stella would often find the experience rather unnerving, but those of us who knew her saw little reason to be fearful.
Stella was clearly of Greek origin and she appeared to speak fluent Greek and rather broken English. One Greektown merchant claimed to me that Stella had lost her husband in World War II and that she had never recovered from the loss, but I can’t independently verify any of that. There are a million stories about Stella, and I daresay they’re pretty much all true. I’ll relate just a few that I know of in this space.
There was one memorable night when Stella mingled with the crowd on the street during intermission of a show at the Attic. I’m sorry to say I don’t recall which show this was. When intermission was over and the crowd filed back into the theater, Stella walked in with them. A few minutes into Act II, Stella began talking loudly to the actors on stage from the audience and was tactfully escorted from the theater.
My best memory of Stella happened one afternoon around lunchtime. I was walking along Beaubien, about to turn onto Monroe (the main street of Greektown) when I heard Stella screaming bloody murder from somewhere on Monroe. I peered around the corner and saw that she had staked out a plot of sidewalk in front of one of the restaurants and was waggling her billy club at anyone who tried to approach her and screaming until they backed off. And I got an idea.
Stella and I had always had a smile-and-wave sort of relationship, so she knew I worked at the Attic Theatre. I stepped around the corner onto Monroe and ducked from car to car, staying out of Stella’s sight. By so doing, I was able to sneak right up to her. I made my final move when she was looking the other way, so that when she turned around, I was right next to her. Before she could react in any way, I smiled broadly, patted her on the arm, and said as warmly as I could, “Hi Stella! How are you?”
There was a moment – just a moment – when I wasn’t sure how she would react. But the moment passed, she relaxed her shoulders, and she muttered, “Oh, okay.” The spell had been broken. She was done screaming for the time being. I stood and talked with her for a minute, though I frankly couldn’t understand a word she was saying. Still, she seemed to have a lot to say so I let her say it, and I walked away feeling as if I’d done my good deed for the day.
A few months later, I was walking along Monroe, about to head into the video/pinball arcade, when Stella called out to me with a guttural “Hey!” It turned out she’d been following me and she had something for me. She reached out her closed hand toward my hand and dropped something into it. It was a quarter. She smiled and motioned me to go into the arcade. I was flabbergasted! The only appropriate thing to do was accept her gift and go into the arcade as I’d been directed.
A lot of people over the years wondered aloud why Stella was allowed to live the way she did. I don’t have a complete answer to that question, but I can attest that many people looked after her in many little ways. I’m told that there was generally a room for her to crash in at the nearby police headquarters, and various Greektown merchants made sure she had food and drink. In most any big city, there are lots of homeless people if you care to look for them, and in a lot of ways, Stella was more well cared for than most of them. If she was a little crazy – okay, maybe she was a lot crazy – well, I don’t have a solution for that, but mental illness is also not uncommon among the homeless. Ultimately, Stella’s story is not a commentary on the plight of the homeless. Rather, it is the story of one unique woman who lived a life unlike any other I have come across, and it’s the story of a memorable character who lives on in the memories of far more people than she might ever have imagined. Rest in peace Stella!