by George Potter
I was a stray dog once, for a little over than a month. A cast out, left to fend for myself without a home to crawl to when the dark fell or the rains came.
They call it being homeless; and it's almost a magic word in our society. I say magic because it conjures an illusion -- a media warped, guilt drenched, sometimes sentimentalized illusion that holds no more reality than the stories of the Brother's Grimm.The streets are not the sole domain of babbling old men and women, pushing shopping carts filled with assorted useless items. Oh, you'll find those men and women -- and indeed they do often have shopping carts. But the items they transport are by no means useless. Most often it's aluminum cans, a silver treasure picked laboriously piece by piece from the streets and alleys of Chicago. Sometimes they find copper or cast aluminum -- a real strike. It goes for substantially more than the low grade cans.
These men and women are not lazy. They cover miles and miles in their treasure hunting.
"Why don't you hit the day labor places?" I asked one grizzled veteran of the can game. I talked to him often. He was always quick to share a smoke or a can of Old Style if he had one -- knowing that I'd return the favor when I was on the ups and he was on the downs. I spent many a fine hour shooting the breeze and catching a buzz in an alley with a can hunter. Most often they were just stunned to meet a youngish white man who wasn't afraid them, didn't think they were nuts, and expressed genuine curiosity about their lives.
He waved my question away. "Not worth my time" he explained. "No papers. All gone. Damn house burnt to the ground in '82 and the insurance butt-fucked me. 'Sides, half the time they got no work, other half they give it to the young folk, or the regulars, or the people with clean clothes!" He laughed at his own wit. "Nah. Better to do what I do. I got my routine. Sometimes the pickin's are good, sometimes they aint. But what the hell. I'm keepin' my city clean."
And this was true. He and his peers did indeed keep the city clean. You're hard pressed to find a beer or pop can on Chicago streets -- and not because of the diligence of the city's employees. It's because of the can hunters -- who have found a niche in the market no one else wants.
The streets are not filled with hateful, violent dope addicts who will kill you for a dollar. Oh, the dope addicts are there -- they're everywhere in the poorer sections of the city. Sometimes they are one and the same as the can hunters, more often they stay a bit straighter and work the day labor places. When it's nice out they sleep in the park or under an overpass or in whatever little hole they can stake out. When it's nasty, they may have to share their stash to earn a bunk, or even waste precious dope and food money on an overpriced shit hole like the Hotel Elinor. They -- like everyone -- do what they can.
I count some of the kindest people I have ever met among the dope addicts. In my erratic tenure at the day labor companies of Chicago, I worked with many of them. Most of them are quite attentive employees. They want to do a good job and get the elusive "return ticket" that will guarantee them another day's worth of dope.
Heroin is the drug of choice in Chicago. It's called "blowz". A ten dollar crack rock is smoked in an hour, and the buzz fades fast, and usually sends the addict back onto the street for another. Ten dollars worth of blowz will do a careful snorter the entire evening, with a bit left over to take the sick off the next morning. At the minimum wage, daily doled jobs provided by the companies, this allows careful junkies the ability to have a small room, groceries and keep their habits in line. "You don't want to splurge." I was informed. "All you're gonna do is get your tolerance up and kill your buzz in the long run. Plus -- you keep it in line? When a dry spell in work or blowz hits, hell, you aint that dog sick waitin' for it to blow over."
In my time as a stray dog, I was often given food by these junkies. Cigarettes. A couple of bucks for a beer. A joint. Enough quarters to do a load of clothes at the free dry laundromat.
Why? Rational self interest, of course. Living on this level of the market is a study in cycles -- very fast cycles -- up and downs, good times and bad. When they were down and I was up, they knew I'd return the favor. And, once again, I cast no judgement upon them. I talked to them. I was interested in their lives and they were interested in mine.
Conversation is an art, and a skill. A good conversationalist has a place in the market.
You're probably wondering what the hell I was doing on the street in the first place. Why didn't I just call up the family and have them send me a bus ticket and get the hell out of there? That's a long and arduous, ugly story, so I'll break it into the basics:
I met a woman. I moved to Chicago to be with the woman. We had a child. Suddenly it seemed that my purpose had been served and I was no longer the necessity I had once been. While I worked a steady job, I was tolerated. When I got laid off and hit the temp circuit -- with it's random nature and built in uncertainties -- I became a liability.
Things got nasty. Things moved to an ugly head. I spent three days in Cook County Jail over a screaming match because I burnt a fucking steak.
That was it. I left.
Two problems presented themselves. I had no family in Chicago, few friends since the lay off, and nowhere to go. It was either head to the homestead, or stand on the streets.
And there was the baby. There was my Lily.
I remember leaving, and screaming at my ex:
"You can't fucking take my daughter away from me! I will live like a goddam stray dog on the street before I let you exile me from her life! Like a stray dog on the street, you bitch!"
What it comes down to is a certain stiff necked hillbilly pride. Match that pride with the love I hold for my daughter and you have a potentially lethal combination.
And that's how it happened.
One of the finest human beings I have ever known is a junkie. Dope addict would be a better word. He likes everything. Heroin, coke, weed, booze, cigarettes, coffee...if it alters the body or mind, he'll give it a go.
His name is Will, and he saved my life. He's a true gentleman and a virtuous human being.
Will is a huge black guy -- 6'4 and 250 lbs...pure muscle. He was a star athlete in high school, and a very diverse one at that. Basketball, football, baseball -- he played them all. But track and field was where he shined. He was an Olympic hopeful.
But then one day, in his senior year, he threw it all away. He had long been involved with a Chicago gang called The Vicelords, who used him as "muscle" and never expected him to sling on the corner as his peers did. All they wanted was his appearance, his reputation, and his "allegiance."
Then he got into an argument over a girl. Shots were fired. A young man went into the ground, and Will went to prison at age 17.
His mother sold her house to afford a good attorney. His age kept him out of the chair, and the attorney kept him out of life imprisonment. He did 11 years and emerged from the State's hospitality far worse than he went in -- almost 30, addicted, scarred, and with no chance of regaining what he once could have been.
But he was never bitter. He never blamed anyone other than himself for his life. He did not rail at the system. He did not blame "the white man." When I first gathered the courage to ask him what he spent time in the pen for, he responded, with no trace of irony: "Being a stupid motherfucker."
Will wanted one thing: to enjoy the rest of his life, to neither harm anyone or be harmed. He found a stable, hardworking woman and married her. He found a job in a warehouse and did his damndest to do it to the best of his ability. That's where we first met.
When you work as a temp, you learn very quickly about elitism and the simple minded prejudices that arise when a group believes themselves to be a part of this imaginary elite.
As temps, we were treated as decidedly second class by most of the regular workers. Much of this was simply laziness: regular workers saw a chance to make someone else do their normal routine and seized that chance. Some of it can be attributed to the formerly powerless finding a drop of power and grabbing at it; almost as a novelty. But most of it was pure, unadulterated prejudice and pre-conception: day laborers were the dregs of society. Crack heads, junkies, probably illiterate, most likely thieves who needed to be watched closely and shown no trust.
Never mind that the temps worked their asses off. Never mind that we just stuck to the job, tried to get the day to pass and get the hell home. Never mind that many of the temps were retired servicemen or seniors on pensions or SSI and were just out to get a few extra bucks in their pockets. Prejudice and preconception are powerful traps, and few escape them.
But Will was different. Maybe because he had worked his share of temp jobs after being released from prison. Maybe because he knew what it was like to be looked down on for a situation rather than any real failing. But I think -- to hell with that, I know -- that it went deeper than that. Will was unprejudiced. Will liked people. All kinds of people. He liked to talk about things. He liked to be challenged rather than agreed with. He appreciated hard work and he appreciated people with knowledge that he lacked and wanted them to impart that knowledge to him.
I lucked out by being assigned to help him. We loaded trucks all day long, heavy boxes of trade goods from all over the world. It was always heavy and the routine was always the same. You set up a rhythm and you knock the trucks out, one by one, moving down a line of dock doors like a machine.
The only thing you can do is talk.
I talk. I love to talk. Send me to hell and I'll try to strike up a conversation with the Devil. Stick me in a room with people who's language I don't speak and I'll try and communicate with hand signals.
So we got to know each other. This was when the troubles were really starting up at home, and I told him about it. He commiserated. His wife was a hard headed, argumentative type as well. We'd sneak out behind the warehouse and smoke a joint on lunch break, and bitch about women; about the heat; about the fifteen trucks we had left to load. It was a bright spot in my life at the time. Will is an honest, direct, almost painfully blunt person. He talked about his time in prison. He talked about the drugs he enjoyed with no shame or excuse making. It delighted him that I simply shrugged and told him he had every right to live his life the way he wanted. I briefly explained anarchism to him. He just nodded and said "Makes sense."
When the temp job ended, I was genuinely sad to go. I figured I would never see my friend again.
Little did we know that his job was about to end as well. September 11 damn near shut O'Hare down; and the warehouse he worked for depended on the airport for a large chunk of it's business. When the business dried up, so did Will's job. When I met him again, he'd be living on unemployment.
But he was still willing to take in a stray dog.
I had been on the street for about a week, but things weren't actually that bad. I was still getting fairly regular work at the one day labor place within comfortable walking distance - a fairly open ended assignment working in the main distribution center for Marshall Field's. Every morning I'd make it to the cattle call to get my ticket - had to be there at 5 am or lose out. The shift, however, didn't start until 8 am - so I had some time to kill.
I'd make the trip up Kilbourne to my former apartment, bang on the door and wait to be let in so that I could spend a little time with my daughter. The amount of time I was able to spend with her pivoted on one variable - the mood of her mother. If she was in a good mood (or wanted to take a long bath, go shopping, etc.) I might be able to play with Lily until the bare last few minutes before I had to be at work. If she was in a bad mood, I might not be able to spend more than fifteen or twenty minutes with my kid before insults, accusations and other unnecessary bullshit started to fly and I had to bail. Some mornings she'd be in a black rage and refuse to even let me in - most often though, the combined actions of the dog (who missed me) and the baby we're enough to force her to let me in.
(I'll never forget the morning my ex stood in the doorway, refusing me entrance, moronically claiming that Lily "didn't want to see me", and my gorgeous year and a half old child literally battered her way around her mother, popped out onto the front porch and said "Hiiiii!!" with the most beautiful smile you have ever seen...)
But no matter what, I always loved this time of the day - it was worth all the uncertainty and aggravation of staying on the street just to play with that kid. Crawling around on the floor, throwing stuffed animals at the dog, letting her "type" on the computer, watching her dance along with the Teletubbies on TV....
I never wanted kids. Ever. I knew that it was one responsibility that - once undertaken - was a lifetime commitment. You can't divorce your kids. You can't break up with them. You owe them.
But when I knew my daughter existed - from the very moment that I knew she was in the world, growing and forming and developing in the maniacal explosion of life that is the beginning of us all - I loved her. I did not expect this love. It took me by utter surprise, hamstrung me, and left me helpless. There was never a question of abortion. EVER. Such a thing seemed...evil. Black and evil and wrong and disgusting and maddeningly incomprehensible. It was from that moment that the debate over abortion, in my mind, ceased to become a debate - at least so far as my own moral universe was concerned. I do not understand how a feeling human being can see ultrasound pictures of a two month old fetus - the helpless, dependant child they have created - watch it wiggle and play with its toes and smile...and then have it excised, evicted, destroyed in cold blood. The very thought seems inhuman to me.
I do not accept that the State has the right to tell people they cannot abort children. I do not accept that the State the right to interfere or legislate morality in any way shape or form.
But I can by god define what I will and will not accept as moral. I can judge people to the point of whether or not I consider them worthy of my goodwill. I judge them by their acts.
And abortion is the act of murder. My daughter taught me that.
Working at the Marshall Field's distribution center was a blast. Hard work, without a doubt, but good people to work with. The difference between a "sweat shop" and "a hard job" is ridiculously slim and intangible: appreciation. Hard work appreciated is a vastly different than unappreciated.
Once again, I was working with trucks...unloading rather than loading, this time, and much larger - 48' tractor trailers.
When one has a boring job to do, one finds ways to amuse oneself. Believe it or not, there's a deep satisfaction in being part of a two man team and completely unloading three 48 footers before the end of a shift. To get that flow going and settling into the routine also causes the day to pass. This is not to be derided.
I was well treated by the regular employees of Field's - even the general manager occasionally stopped to tell me that I was doing a good job. I also became friends with his assistant, a young lady in her mid-twenties named Angie. To look at her, she was a prototypical suburban Chicago land yuppie gal. Blonde, perky, college educated, pro-active personality, constantly optimistic. You could almost imagine her in cheerleading outfit and pompoms, yelling "Go team go!" But, beyond that surface, she was another unprejudiced human soul. She was fiercely protective of "her" temps - and refused to allow any discrimination. A few of the regulars took offense that the temps were invited to a "Good job" lunch buffet - Angie immediately called an informal meeting and stated flat out that if the temps weren't welcome then there would be no buffet.
"These guys come here everyday and outwork most of you for half the money. They are entitled to the same thanks you are. I don't want to hear another word about it."
Because of Angie, I got a plum assignment. Every six months, Field's has an Employee sale, the proceeds of which go to various charities. All of the overstocks, misstocks, manufacturers samples and seconds are sorted and laid out flea market style in one of the show rooms. All clothing items are 1 dollar. All appliances and kitchen utensils are 3 dollars. All electronics are five dollars. The competition to be on the sorting detail is fierce - because the sorters are given first choice at the goods, and the deals to be had are mind bending.
It was apparent from the moment I started working that the regular workers were insulted to have a temp in their midst. After a while, I gave up trying to charm these morons and just did my job.
Then I found the jacket.
It was gorgeous. I am not a materialistic person. The idea of paying a hundred dollars for a pair of shoes is ridiculous to me. The idea of paying 500 dollars for a leather jacket is just as ridiculous. Not that I don't admire the objects in question, or think less of those willing to pay these prices for them. It's simply that I'd rather spend the money on other things..things that other people may well consider "ridiculous" themselves.
But when I saw the jacket, I was smitten.
It was a brand new, untouched, still in the plastic Kenneth Cole leather. Black as sin. Silk lining. It was the most beautiful item of apparel I have ever laid my eyes on.
"How much would this be, Ang?" I asked.
She grinned. "A dollar. Want me to put it up for you?"
"Please." I was more than a little stunned. The retail tag on the sleeve read $575. I've bought cars for less.
Word spread quickly. The jacket was the find of the sale, the diamond in the vast pile of items we were sorting through. If my reception had been frosty before, it was downright arctic afterwards. I didn't care. I almost reveled in their outrage. "Too slow, motherfuckers!" I wanted to brag.
At the end of the day, I heard one of the regulars approach Angie and ask "You're not going to let that temp have that jacket, are you?" in tones of righteous indignation.
Angie blasted her. "Yes I am. He found it. He paid for it. It's his now. End of story."
I thank her for her fairness. But it ended up costing me the temp assignment.
You see, although Angie requested the temp workers, it was up to the agency to determine who went each morning. And, apparently, one of the folks I "insulted" with my "impertinence" was friends with the lady who handed out the tickets.
To make a long story short: I got the jacket, but I never received another ticket to Marshall Field's for temp work. And - since Field's was the only place regularly hiring - I soon found myself out of work completely.
And, dammit, I didn't even get to keep the jacket long.
So there I was, jobless, homeless and soon to be broke. At least I was warm, and hell - I looked sharp!
A few days after I found the jacket, I stumbled back onto Will. I was walking to my favorite Taco joint, a little family owned place on Armitage and Kenneth, when someone said "Hey whiteboy - what you doin' in this neighborhood?"
I turned around and there sat Will, smoking an unfiltered Pall Mall on the stoop of a two flat, grinning at me. It turned out that he lived there. All this time, and he lived no more than 6 blocks from me.
We caught up. I learned about his loss of a job, and that the tranny in his car had gone out. His wife was still working part time at a hospital, and he was receiving unemployment - so things were pretty good for him.
He learned about my situation and got serious.
"Where the hell are you sleeping?"
I explained. On nights when it wasnt too cold or raining, I slept in the park. The worst that had ever happened was a cop telling me "You can't sleep here, son." I didnt argue...I just walked to another park and went back to sleep. When it was nasty out, I generally snuck onto the ex's back porch and slept in the lawn chair there.
"We can't have that shit." Will said. "You can stay with us."
But there was a problem. And the problem was named Candace.
Candace was Will's wife. And she disliked me immediately. I don't know if it was because I was southern, or because I took attention away from her when I was around. Doesn't matter. She didn't want me there and that was that. Will got pissed, and told me to ignore her. I refused. He asked me why and I tried to explain.
"First of all - this is her house. Yes, I know it's your house too, and that you're willing to put up with shit in order for me to stay. I appreciate that. But all it's going to do is cause trouble. This is her property and - in her mind - I would be a trespasser. That would make me a trespasser in my mind as well.
Second - You may be able to put up with it bro, but I sure cant!"
He argued with me. I argued back. It puts you in an odd place to argue for your own expulsion. Trust me.
We finally settled on a compromise. I would stay in the basement - a place Candace never, ever went. There was a mattress down there, and the piping for two furnaces kept it warm at night. There was electricity and running water. Luxury! I would clear out at dawn and return at dark.
The next few weeks settled into a routine. Get up, go look for work, play with the baby, wander the streets, come home to the basement, try to sleep. I got to the point where I had to walk the blocks to my former home and say "Goodnight Sweetie" to the dark windows before I could fall asleep.
No work, no money, living in a basement. My very slim savings were soon tapped. Will, despite his unemployment check, couldn't be expected to feed me, of course - especially given the fact that he'd have to sneak the food down to me. His extra money went for drugs, to be blunt - as was his decision and business. Most of the time he was as broke as me.
I finally reached the point where I couldn't put it off any more. The only thing of real value that I owned was the jacket. I at first attempted to sell it to the people I knew. They either weren't interested or were broke. No good.
"I know where we could sell it." Will told me.
"West side." he replied. He meant, of course, at the west side street drug emporium sometimes called "The Mall."
"OK. If we can sell it for fifty, I'll give you ten for a bag, and I'll have eating and cig money."
We shook hands, and headed out.
The Mall is a 10 square block chunk of Chicago devoted entirely to selling drugs. Pot, coke, crack, blowz, pills...whatever strikes your fancy is available on an almost 24 hour basis. The amount of cash money that moves through this area is unknown to me, but undoubtedly vast. Dealers stand on every corner, two and three deep, asking "You straight?" to every passer by.
We walked up Cicero to Iowa, and headed into the mall like missionaries into the great dark continent. Will was a regular here, but I was an unknown...and white. I was a bit nervous, to say the least.
"Don't worry. You're gonna look a little funny, but it'll be alright. The guys here are just doin' business, just like us. Besides - if they wanna fight you, they're gonna have to fight me too. If one of us gets his ass beat, the other gets his ass beat. You cool?"
I assured him that I was. He laughed. "You're bullshittin'. But don't worry. Business is business."
He slipped on the jacket. We had decided it would be less tempting to try and steal it from him. Where it was a little too large for me, it was a little too small for him. "Damn. It's a shame to sell this bitch., It's nice. Oh well."
We stepped up to the first little group of dealers, and Will went into his speel...one that would grow smoother as the evening progressed:
"What's up playa? Me and my partner here are trying to get rid of this jacket...it's a 500 dollar Kenneth Cole, but we'll let it go for a hundred...what you say?"
The West Side Mall is a vast and living organism, the free market barely restrained, with it's own intricate workings and internal mechanisms.
It is coming on dark, and we've had no luck yet. The jacket still rides on Will's back and my pocket is still empty. It's odd, because it's obvious that most of these very young and very style conscious dealers want the damn thing.
As ever, tossed into a new environment, I become fascinated by my surroundings. I have seen such environments portrayed in film and fiction countless times, of course - they are a staple of the American entertainment industry and a modern cliche.
Once again, reality gives lie to the illusion of the collective opinion.
We are not surrounded by surly, menacing thugs blasting rap music and forcing their wares on hapless suburban teens. We are surrounded by laughing, shit-talking young people who wrestle, chant mocking freestyle rhymes at each other from across corner and cheerfully ask "Yo dawg? You straight?" to anyone who passes by.
The streets are not littered with garbage and waste - they are amazingly clean; cleaner in fact than many of the "rich, white" neighborhoods I've passed through.
I am surprised by the number of very small children darting here and there, inside houses and back; laughing, yelling and playing the same as children everywhere. A few minutes of observation shows me what purpose they fill - a wad of bills is slickly passed from a dealer to the small girl who's probably his baby sister, and she makes fast tracks into a nearby house. The kids are the money line - in the event of a dealer being arrested, he wont be nabbed with stacks of cash for the cops to confiscate - may even be able to play off the few rocks/bags on his person as "personal use" and avoid a dealing charge. Smart.
Family business is the oldest tradition of all. It lives on the streets of Chicago.
"Sissy get your ass out here!" calls out one dealer, his bald head gleaming in the yellow phosphor glow of the wakening street lights. He is dressed only in a Tommy windbreaker, and shivers in the dropping temperature. We step up to him just as he hands off a bundle of money to the little girl who appears from a house and says grumpily "Don't yell! Momma's tryin' to watch TV! I aint your slave, and it's almost time for the Simpsons!" But she flashes a smile at me before she retreats.
"Yo. Ya'll straight?" Tommy jacket asks as we stop.
"Hey playa, me and my partner here are trying to get rid of this jacket. It's a 500 dollar Kenneth Cole, but we'll let it go for 75, cause we're hurtin'." Will repeats. The price has dropped because we're getting tired. "You look like you could use it, man." he adds.
Tommy jacket stares at the leather with something approaching lust. "Goddam that's nice, man." He thinks. "I'll give you five rocks for it."
"Naw man. We need eatin' money. Gotta be cash."
Tommyjacket looks pained. He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a crumpled 10. "Five rocks and a sawbuck?"
"Can't do it, playa. Sorry. Might catch you on the way back." We depart, leaving Tommyjacket to curse himself for being broke.
The quest continues.
About twenty minutes later we approach a lookout stationed by an alley. He's watching for cops, and directing lost souls to their drug of choice like a talking information kiosk. When he sees Will, his eyes light.
"Cheetah! Long time, man!"
Will grins. It turns out that it's an old buddy from prison. They chat momentarily, about the old, bad times. "Cheetah" was Will's nickname since high school - a testament to the speed he could attain in the dash.
While they chat, I attempt to make myself as invisible as possible. I have been shown no overt hostility or dislike - but the possible scent of "narc" hangs around any white guy who wanders the hood not actively buying dope.
Across the street, I observe a young suburban couple pull up in Daddy's SUV and try to buy a bag of blowz. The dealer, annoyed, tells them to get the hell out of the car to speak to him. Will has explained this to me. If you come to buy, you come walking, or you get ignored. It's simply too easy to snag the merchandise from the dealers hand and haul ass out of the Mall.
The couple complies, and I size them up. They fit a type - 'rich white trash' I've heard them called. Skinny, well dressed and haggard. It's actually hard to tell the male from the female - doubly hard because they both sport short spiky hairstyles. Their faces are haggard and puffy, and their eyes shine with fear and distaste at being in such a shitty neighborhood.
Oh...but the junk calls them. It calls them in a sweet voice impossible to resist, the siren song of sun dreaming opium poppies, distilled and made darkly angelic.
This couple has never had to find the discipline that the street level junkie learns. Money is no object to them, so they indulge in ever increasing binges. Binges that will, sooner or later, leave them dead and white on some spotless suburban hospital slab, as their weeping inattentive parents identify them and wonder "How could it happen to people like us?"
They cop, and climb into Daddy's immaculate Lincoln Navigator. As they do, they spot me. One of them points, and they laugh. They see the pale face, the knit cap, the worn clothes and the filthy jacket that was once suede but now more resembles a crumpled grocery bag; the tired eyes and the scraggly beard that weeks of inattention has grown.
They laugh, and feel superior. "At least we aren't street trash like that!" I can almost hear them say. A brief anger passes through me, but it dies quickly. I am broke, homeless and desperate - but I do not live for hedonistic appetites. I am not the slave of my selfish nervous system. My spinal cord does not rule me.
I myself may be dead on a slab in a year. But I will be there because someone or something put me there; someone or something put me there and I fought and scratched and bit and stabbed and shot to the best of my ability to stay off that fucking slab, to breathe and see and observe and struggle. I did not put myself there. I did not give myself over to something else and let it kill me.
I am free. I will be free or I will be dead.
I smile to myself, and turn, glancing down the alley. The lookout and Will are still busily chatting, and the man has momentarily ignored his job. The wrong moment.
Moving up the alley, headlights off, comes the predatory and instantly recognizable shape of a police car. I feel a small explosion in my brain - something very like electricity races through my body. It seems as if every hair on my neck stands straight up. From some deep well of instinct, without thought, I call out:
The reaction is amazing. People simply disappear..as if melting into shadows. In the space of three seconds, the street is clear. Deserted - as empty as a small town on Sunday morning. When the cop car idles onto the scene, the only people to be found are Will, the lookout and myself. We had nowhere to go, after all.
The pigs idle over to us. "You boys clean?" the lookout whispers.
"As a whistle", Will replies. I just nod.
The cops, no doubt disappointed, decide to hassle us. We do the only thing it is possible to do in such a situation: we grin and bear it. Will, especially, shows a talent for making fun of the pigs without actually insulting them. During the pat down, he remarks "Damn, you get any friendlier I'm gonna have to buy you dinner, Officer." This get's me laughing, eliciting the question "And what are YOU doing here, boy?"
I say the first thing that pops into my mind: "I'm a tourist, sir. THEY told me that this was The Art Institute. Are they messin' with my head?"
Will and the lookout crack up. Even the other cop hides a grin. Chicago police are amongst the lowest forms of life on the planet, second only to Cook County Sheriffs - but I suppose even fruit flies might be possessed of a sense of humor on occasion.
Finding nothing to hassle us about any further - and no doubt missing the security of free coffee and donuts at the nearest White Hen, the cops depart like sulky children who can't find anyone to play their game of choice.
"Thanks, cuz." the lookout tells me. "You saved my ass."
Slowly but certainly, the dealers return to the street, the children re-emerge, and lights come back on. As Will and I return to our quest, I realize something:
The people who live in areas such as this don't see the police as anything but an impediment to daily life. The peace is kept, not by uniformed officers, but by the very people those officers are sworn to destroy: the gangs.
The gangs are the reason that you can safely walk these streets. The myth of violent gang-warfare is a reality of isolated incidents that the police have done nothing to prevent. I have been told by many, and believe, that any gangbanger who takes out a bystander during "action" has more or less forfeited his own reputation, his rank, and - most likely - his life. The city is as inter-related as society gets. That bystander no doubt has a relative from the same, or another, gang, who is now honor bound to hunt down and execute the clumsy bastard. And his fate will be neither mourned nor acted upon. The bullshit myth of a car full of thugs indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with machine-gun fire is just that - a bullshit myth. Turf is respected, business districts almost holy. If some fool acted stupid in another nation's hood, he is thought to deserve what he gets. If his "boys" want to take action, they certainly can - but the will have zero backup from the higher ups of their organization.
Most gang related violence is perpetrated for one reason only - to take down police informants. Remove the police...but you can follow the logic, can't you?
Gangs are private law. They are about money and taking care of their own. They have consistent rules and procedures.
In short - they work.
My instinctive shout has paid off, big time. Word travels up these streets like light - carried on the cell phones. The sense of mistrust is gone. I am now greeted as "cuz" and my hand gets shook at every stop.
15 minutes later, the jacket sells - for 100 bucks, not 75. I don't know, and can't prove it, but I believe that word came down from on high. "Buy that jacket. That white-boy is good people."
And fuck...it was a nice jacket.
Will and I are triumphant. As we march out of the Mall, we get him a bag and a five dollar sack of weed. I roll a celebration joint up and we catch a buzz as we wait for the Cicero bus. We grab up some groceries and a few quarts of beer.
Just before we get back to his house, we are stopped by a goofy kid in a car. He asks: "Where the weed at?" Just the type who's too scared to venture into an all night venue like The Mall himself - scared by cartoon TV and newspaper bogeymen.
"Right here!" I say, and sell him my pinched nickel bag for ten bucks.
You have to love the market....
It's not long after that I realize that I was undertaking an exercise in futility. There was no work - the day labor places are no longer hiring. They don't even accept new applications.
My time with my daughter has steadily grown both shorter and more painful. The ex was vicious in her criticism. She called me a gutter bum, a reject hillbilly that had finally been given his due. She seemed to take a perverse enjoyment in my weight loss, in my disreputable appearance, in the bags under my eyes and the exhaustion of my movements.
Then one morning I arrived to find her subdued. She was actually pale. She had even made me breakfast. I was - to say the least - stunned.
"Your mother called. She wants you to call her." was all she said - but it explained everything.
My family is something of an oddity in todays society. We are fiercely loyal and lethally protective of our own. Not having heard from me, my mother had undoubtedly surprised the ex and - once learning of my situation - had told her exactly what she thought, in no uncertain terms.
My mother is a small, gracious, very kind woman. She loves animals and children. But endanger her child and she will smile as she casually puts a bullet in your brain. What she said to my ex is still unknown to me, to this day. In many ways, I don't want to know.
I was instructed ( not "asked") to call my sister in Florida. I did so, and arrangements were made for a bus ticket. When I hung up the phone, I just looked at the ex and said. "You win."
Saying goodbye to my Lily was the hardest thing I have ever done. I picked her up, hugged her hard, and said the two words I dreaded saying.
When I cried, she reacted to comfort me. She wiped my eyes and said "No cry, dada. No cry."
Easier said than done.
Even the ex shed a tear when I left. She is not an evil woman, just angry. Just judgmental and self righteous. I loved her with all my heart once, and in many ways I love her still. Human nature is the stupidest fucking rube who ever stepped onto a carnival ground, don't you think?
It was almost as hard to say goodbye to Will. What can you say about a guy who was willing to take you in without any question of gain, and make his own personal life a living hell in order to back that decision up?
You don't say anything, except "Thank you, bro." and you move on.
I packed the few clothes and books and pictures I had brought to the basement, and I made the last walk to the bus stop. I took the city bus to the California el and the el to as close to the downtown bus station as I could get.
As I climb onto the bus and stash away my belongings, as I plop into the uncomfortable seat that will only grow less comfortable as the 30 hour ride wears on, I feel like an absolute and total failure. I am tired- the sort of tired that permeates the bones. I am angry. I am depressed. I think of my little girl's face and fight back sobs. No use. As the bus pulls out of the station and every second takes me farther and farther away from her, I cry. I weep - hunched over, fighting the emotion, hating myself and the whole world, humiliated in front of strangers who ignore me. I cry until it's all gone, and I feel nothing but the numbing exhaustion and the onset of hunger that I'll just have to ignore.
Cried out, I fall into sleep.
I awake hours later, somewhere between Gary and Indianapolis. I am confused, hungry and still upset. But the depression has lifted. For whatever reason, I can think of my little girl and smile now. "No cry, dada." Yes, my love. I'll try. For you.
I have lost everything that I had acquired in the past five years. All gone, blown away to nothing. Blown into memory and regret. Or have I?
I am still alive. I am still intelligent. I am still possessed of a mind and an able body. I still have the capacity to alter the world with honest work I still have my sense of self and the knowledge of the truth that comforts me in the worst moments.
I am a free man. Nothing can take my freedom - no illness, no bad luck, no set back, no circumstance. My freedom can not be stolen by thieves. My freedom can not be voted away or seized by The State. Because it is not a thing. It is not a possession.
My freedom is a truth, that holds out deep inside my mind and heart.
They can kill me, but they cannot enslave me.
A piece of an old song came to me, a verse that had long haunted me but now took on greater significance. I had always admired it. But now I understood it:
In the clearing stands a boxer
and a fighter by his trade
and he carries a reminder
of every glove that's laid him down
or cut him till he cried out
in his anger and his shame:
"I am leaving, I am leaving -
but the fighter still remains..."
As the bus hurtles forward through the darkness of Indiana, I stare out the window and allow myself to be lulled by the hypnotic passage of field and forest; by the soothing drone of the great diesel engine that pushes me forward from past into future. I relish my freedom.
I may be returning to the place I started, but I am not returning empty handed. I return stronger, wiser, with eyes wide open and stories to tell.
Later, I will tell my story to a talkative gentleman who will take pity on "that poor kid" and buy me some lunch at a meal stop. Once again I have been reassured of the inate decency of the average human being. We are all fellow travelers. We are all running from the past into an uncertain future. Some of us are on the ups, some of us are on the downs - and it's better to give a damn when you have the chance rather than be damned when your turn on the downhill side comes.
Sometimes, after all, we are all stray dogs.
George Potter -- like the rest of humanity -- was born an anarchist. His great good fortune was to not have it beaten out of him. He currently lives in Mississippi.