By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Nov 04, 2008 at 8:35 AM Photography: Whitney Teska

Anyone who spends time in Milwaukee -- specifically the East Side -- becomes familiar with the neighborhood’s unconventional characters, those folks who add exclamation points to the status quo.

Take Jim, for example. He’s the gray-haired gent who rides a bike from Bayshore to Downtown (and back) almost every day of his life. And anyone who went to UW-Milwaukee remembers the newspaper-collecting Ray or the wheelchair guy who knows where you went to high school.

Marco Buelow, who is just "Marco" to most, is another recognizable resident.

Perhaps you’ve seen Marco hanging his long-white-haired head out of a third story window in the Bradford Beach Club building, chatting away at Hooligan’s or strolling down Farwell Avenue with a VW-sized grin on his face.

In 1996, Marco moved into the massive space above the BBC, 2022 E. North Ave., where he works as a janitor. It’s a good set-up for the quirky free spirit who speaks a language that gnomes or crystals might understand best.

"I’m the mop man and broom boy on deck am I," he says, referring to his job at the BBC. "Every day and in every way I am the lighthouse keeper."

When photographer Whitney Teska visited Marco’s 2,000-sq. ft. living space for a photo shoot, he said, "That’s the most amazing apartment I’ve ever seen."

For the past decade, Marco has collected hoards of antiques from estate sales, all of which he says come from Milwaukee houses.

Every inch of his space -- with the exception of clear walking paths -- is filled with old cameras, tin signs, wagons (God, he loves wagons!), bells, shells, jars of buttons, jars of wine corks, macramé plant holders cradling healthy plants, old lamps, tiny pianos, owl figurines, glass bottles, vintage magazines, art supplies, hats, dish sets, statues, afghans, feathers, dolls, decks of cards, wind chimes, guitars, bird cages, brooms, bones, books, beads, crystals, skates, photographs and thousands, yes thousands, of other knick-knacks and memorabilia.

Despite the insanely high volume of predominantly vintage personal belongings, everything is particularly placed and organized, giving the space an impressive museum-like quality.

"This is a piece of all that is," says Marco. "A touchable treasury."

Additionally, Marco claims he has five trailers parked "nearby" with more paraphernalia.

Marco has a plethora of pet names for his living space. Besides "touchable treasury," he calls it a nest, a vibration, a "core of home and a tone," the core of care (or just the "COC"), The Art Ark, "Atmo" (short for "Atmosphere Studio Space"), a living library and "a piece of cake near the lake."

Conversing with Marco is, well, a trip. He is lively and talkative, jumping from subject to subject, and spontaneously erupting with a robust cackle. While talking, his arms wave wildly and he looks like a two-armed octopus.

Marco’s attention to detail is impressive. Despite the thousands of artifacts in his abode, he frequently zeros in on something small like an intricate spider’s web in the corner of a window pane or the striations in a single rock. He has dozens, maybe hundreds, of vintage coats hanging from the ceiling, but is magnetically drawn to one that he removes from the hanger and pets like a cherished hound.

Marco has a knack for words and storytelling. He tells snippets of stories, all strung together like mismatched tiki lights.

He describes a canopy that he believes covers the earth, then says that 2012 will include events that only occur once every 2 million years. Soon after, he gives a detailed account of his job as a lifeguard at Atwater Beach in Shorewood.

"I spent 8,000 hours on that beach, with thousands of kids. I wasn’t going to let any of them drown. Nope. ‘You wanna drown? Go to Bradford Beach!’"

Marco also loves to take words apart. At one point, he says the word "people" then stops mid-sentence and says "People?! Did I just say ‘people’ or ‘peephole?’ YES! ‘People’ are the ‘peepholes’ to the world!"

Another time, Marco mentions Milwaukee musician Willy Porter, and then says his last name again, this time as "Porthole" instead of "Porter."

"Willy Port-hole. WILLY PORTHOLE!" he yells out, followed by his signature cackle.

Spending time with Marco naturally makes one wonder how he became so unique. Marco claims drugs have nothing to do with his personality and lifestyle, but admits to a period of "transformation" after a happy, suburban childhood and a frustrating young adulthood.

Born Jan. 8, 1948, Marco lived as a small child near Lake Winnebago with three brothers and a sister. Later, his family moved to Shorewood where he attended Shorewood High School and lettered in track and swimming.

Marco speaks fondly of his childhood, particularly his deceased mother and her commitment to his love for sports. One of his most precious possessions is a light fixture from the Shorewood High School ticket booth where his mother volunteered during his football games and track meets.

"It didn’t matter how cold it was," he says evenly, dusting the fixture with his sleeve.

At first, it’s hard to decipher if Marco is more shtick than self, but over time, it’s evident that he's genuine. Just when you’re about to write him off as an acid causality or a complete kook, he reminds you -- through steady eye contact or a linear story -- that’s he’s really right there with you.

Marco says that he attempted to live a conventional life. After graduating from UW-Milwaukee in 1971 with a degree in physical education, he taught gym at a school in Waukegan, Ill. During that era, Marco married and fathered a son.

"After three years, I couldn’t feed the alligator anymore," he says. "There were teeth all around me."

To escape the "alligators," Marco moved back to Milwaukee, split up with his wife and opened a sub shop on Wisconsin Avenue called The Hungry Head.

"This was not a good time, but finally, I transferred out of an angry group of people to the art people. The life drawing and anatomy people. The good people," he says.

In the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, Marco started working as an art model and befriended the late Dick Bacon. He claims to have joined an informal group of artists he refers to as "The Art Squad," featuring photographer Francis Ford and musicians Robin Pluer, Paul Cebar and Jim Liban.

"These people did beautiful things inside their bodies and beautiful things for Milwaukee," he says.

Although Marco rarely sees his biological son, now 37, he nurtures lots of peoples’ "inner children."

"The inner-child sees the ‘wow’ in all of this," he says. "This place is a play area to re-energize the inner-child."

Frequently, Marco invites newfound friends into his living space, from BBC drinkers to people he meets on the street. He says only one time did he have a bad experience with a stranger, and that was with a very drunk woman who found his apartment sacrilegious.

"She was on her knees, crying for Jesus," he says.

There are a lot of words one could use to describe Marco. He is gentle, entertaining and deeply interested in people, nature and forgotten possessions. But Marco describes himself best:

"I’m a vibration of harmlessness with an open heart," he says.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.