When the economy went south, so did Booji Brunson.
The 44-year-old father of seven left Pittsburgh after losing his job and being evicted from his roach-infested apartment, and eventually returned to Washington.
“Instead of putting the money in escrow, I didn’t pay the rent. I should have been smarter about it,” he said.
For the past year, Booji has been living in a tent in Washington. He also can be heard regaling visitors and passersby in downtown Washington with his guitar. The self-taught musician accepts donations in his guitar case, and the community, he said, has been rather generous. Many evenings he can be found camped out on the bench outside the Union Grill.
Despite his circumstances, Booji is an upbeat guy who enjoys spreading good cheer. That’s why he hopes that one day he can make a living playing the guitar.
“You can give away a smile. They’re free,” said Booji, who wears a rubber bracelet inscribed with the words “Happy Happy Happy.”
“Washington needs a little breath of fresh air,” Booji said. “There needs to be more smiles, not just in Washington, but the world. I like to make people smile. People see how happy I am. Things do get bad, but you don’t let it bring you down.”
Life has rarely been easy for Booji.
He comes from a broken home, growing up in and out of foster homes and relatives’ homes. Although he doesn’t seem to be in a position at this point, Booji is doing the best he can to provide his seven children with as much stability as possible. His four oldest children, ranging in age from 13 to 19, live with his ex-wife in the home the family once shared, and his three youngest children, ranging in ages from 8 months to 3 years old, make their home with his fiancee at the home of a friend of her family.
“I do the opposite of what my dad did, and that’s not disrespect,” Booji said. “I want to make sure my kids have stability. We’re trying to stay together as a family.
“Even though I’m not with them, they are with good people,” said Booji, who would not elaborate on why he is unable to stay with his fiancee and children, although he sees them as much as possible. “Right now, they need both parents in their lives.”
He also lamented the lack of housing – and help – for single dads and homeless families in Washington County.
“There’s nothing,” he said. “Hopefully that will change one day. A lot of people do rip off the system, but sometimes you have to give somebody a chance. There should be something out there for families.”
Booji is able to keep in touch regularly with all of his children via his cellphone, either texting, talking or messaging on Facebook. “My phone is a life saver,” he said.
Booji said it’s been difficult for him to find affordable housing, and he’s been filling out job applications. He hasn’t had a full-time job for nearly 18 months, and even though he has worked part time off and on in recent months, he says he can make more money playing his music. He’s also trying to satisfy an outstanding $800 electric bill.
“I’m trying to get out there as much as possible. I’m trying to pay my child support,” said Booji, who once spent four days in jail for failing to show up at a child-support hearing. He took complete responsibility, saying he didn’t keep in contact with his caseworker. “It’s hard to support yourself on minimum wage, let alone a family.”
He also refuses to leave the area to find a job.
“I want to be close to my kids. I want all my kids to know each other,” he said.
So, until he finds full-time employment, he will continue to make music, with the hope of getting a “nice little following.”
“I have a lot of people who like my music,” said Booji, who is trying to learn “Under the Double Eagle,” a military march, for a patron of the Union Grill who has frequently chatted with Booji.
“He’s a World War II veteran. He served our country,” Booji said. “I want to learn it real bad for him. It brought back memories for him.
“I’ve been playing for 30 years. It’s my religion. It helps get me away, and it’s a great communication tool, especially if it helps somebody.”
That’s why, despite living outdoors, Booji remains forever the optimist.
“It does take its toll mentally, physically and spiritually. There are times I break down,” Booji said. “I’m taking it step by step. I’ll get back on my feet again.”