Homeless for a Day

Cliff Williams
Department of Philosophy
Trinity College
Deerfield, Illinois 60015
 
“I’m tired of living,” Gary remarked in between bites of a hot dog I had bought him. We were sitting at a table outside of a cheap restaurant in the 400 block of West Diversey Street in Chicago. It was 10:00 on a Friday night in July, 1988, and numerous passersby populated the sidewalk. Occasionally, Gary threw taunts at them.

“Six years ago,” he continued, “my wife was murdered. Her throat was slashed, probably because of drug stuff I was in.”

He showed me a picture of himself taken two years before. It scarcely resembled his current haggard and unkempt appearance. He wolfed down the hot dog, and as I was leaving, asked for a dollar. “I need a drink,” he explained. “My hands are trembling, and I’ll get the DT’s if I don’t have something pretty soon.”

“I have to eat tomorrow,” I replied. “If I have anything left tomorrow night, I’ll buy you some more food.”

I and a former student—Tom—had come to Chicago to live on the street for a day and a night. Our aim was to make contact with street people, to find out what their lives were like, and to live as they did—walking the sidewalks, sitting on bus stop benches and sleeping in parks.

We arrived at 8:30 on Friday night. Although it was 90 degrees, we carried jackets in our hands, for that is what homeless people do. (Where else could they keep them?)  We had dressed in everyday clothes—Tom with blue jeans, I with corduroys, and both with gym shoes. Each of us had ten dollars, plus identification (“just in case,” we said).

Our first contact took place at a bus stop bench at Clark and Broadway. The intersection was alive with night activity—individuals strolling, cars passing, couples handholding—all of which seemed respectable enough. At one of the three bus stop benches there, several sloppily dressed and dirty men were sitting, one of whom was shirtless and another of whom was holding a small brown paper bag in the shape of a wine bottle. We wandered toward the bench.

“Do you have a quarter you could spare?” one of the men on the bench asked us. “Do you mind if we join you?” I responded. They didn’t, and we sat down.

Roger, the shirtless one, explained that the reason he didn’t have a job was that he didn’t have carfare. The alcohol on his breath told a different story. Ernie raised the brown paper bag to his lips every now and then, swaying drunkenly with slurred speech. Larry, who was sitting next to Tom, apologized for the drinking, speaking gently and timidly as he did so.

Across the street, a group of college students began setting up for what looked like an evangelistic meeting. I decided to investigate. “Let’s go see what’s going on,” I said to Roger. Roger assented, and crossed the street with me. A quartet sang a couple of gospel songs, a clean-cut guy talked about how Christ changed his life, and several from the group stood on the sidewalk waiting for passing people to stop.

A woman from the group came up to Roger and asked him if he knew Christ as his personal Savior. Roger listened as she pointed out various Bible verses to him. He evidently did not have too much enthusiasm for this, for in a few minutes he said, “Let’s get out of here.” “It was getting oppressive,” he said as we crossed the street again.

Just as I got back to the benches, Gary walked past. I had met him on two previous afternoon visits, so I said, “Hi, Gary.” He turned, and with immediate recognition bounded toward me and gave me an enthusiastic bear hug. “It’s nice to see you,” he exclaimed.

Gary, it turned out, was hungry, so I volunteered to buy him a hot dog. While he was eating, I asked him about a safe place to sleep.

“You can go to Lincoln Park at the end of Diversey,” he replied, “but a lot of bums hang out there and sometimes the police hassle you. Go up to the totem pole. Wait until after one o’clock, though. That’s when the police leave.”

We talked some more, and parted with a “Perhaps we’ll see each other tomorrow.” Tom and I walked back to our original bus stop bench, spent some time there, then walked around looking for a McDonald’s, found one, and used up some of our food money on milkshakes. Before we left, Gary came to the window near our table and peered in hesitantly. We waved him in, and I used up more of my food money on a milkshake for him.

Tom and I walked back down Diversey toward Lincoln Park, found another bus stop bench with several street people occupying it, and decided to join them. It was about midnight, and we had an hour to kill before we made our way to the totem pole.

Neil, a 57 year old man with a bulging stomach and a gruff voice, sat to my right, skin to skin. Larry, the gentle and timid Indian, sat to my left, again, skin to skin. Tom was next, and a couple of other scruffy men intermittently occupied the space to Tom’s left. Nightlife traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, was still strong.

Shortly after our arrival, an immaculately dressed woman, about 30 and clearly not one who lived on the street, sat down on Neil’s right. She was greeted by Neil with, “What have you got there?” From a grocery bag she produced cans of beer. “I take care of my friends,” she responded, as she gave one to Neil, one to a man standing nearby, and took one for herself.

“Hey, what are you two here for,” she challenged Tom and me. “Are you doing some kind of research or something?”

“No,” Tom replied. “We’re here to find out what life is like on the street, and to get to know some of you.”

“Do you want some beer?” she asked.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” each of us replied.

Ernie, the drinker, wandered along, still drinking. He swayed even more now, and at times nearly lost his balance.

Someone mentioned God, and Neil responded belligerently with, “____ the bum. He’s made the world a mess. Anybody who’s supposed to be as good as he is wouldn’t have let things get like this.”

I winced, but said nothing.

A bench occupier got up to investigate the other side of the street and inadvertently got too close to a passing car. The car screeched to a halt, the driver jumped out and angrily castigated the wayward stroller. Someone responded, and the driver yelled back. More shouts were exchanged. Finally, the woman with the beer jumped from the bench, screaming, “I’m a cop, and I’ve got a gun in my purse, so get moving. Scram.” The motorist gave her an inflamed look, got into his car and left. The scene returned to normal.

Around 1:15 we decided to go looking for the totem pole. With pleasant goodbyes, we departed.

The totem pole was about a mile or so north of Diversey. At first we walked on the sidewalk. Then we crossed Lake Shore Drive to Lincoln Park. On one of the benches beside the park’s pathway, a man was stretched, snoring peacefully. Next to him, another man sat, leaning forward with his head resting on a grocery cart, asleep. The grocery cart contained clothes, bottles, boxes and other assorted items, apparently the sum total of his possessions.

Encountering a group of teenage boys under a street light in a parking lot, we asked where the totem pole was. “It’s right up there,” one of them pointed. Two of the boys were holding hands.

The totem pole, we discovered, was no place to sleep. It was brightly lit in an open area. And a police truck, with a couple of policemen standing nearby, was parked near it. We walked past the police truck, wondering apprehensively whether we would be stopped. We weren’t.

It was darker closer to the lake, which was several hundred yards from the totem pole. We headed in that direction, stopping finally at the concrete steps which adjoin the lake for long stretches in Lincoln Park. No one was in sight. Choosing a step that looked relatively smooth, not more than twenty feet from the lapping water, we lay down, head to head. Because it was a warm night, we used our jackets as pillows.

We thought we had picked an isolated spot. But soon we heard footsteps. I became tense, thinking, “What if somebody sees us?” The footsteps passed.

Shortly, there were more footsteps. I looked up and saw someone sitting on the top step about a hundred feet from us. Several people came along and sat down fifty feet from us in the opposite direction, talking heatedly. I decided that the place was too public for anyone to mug us—and too public to get much sleep.

Several hours later, we awoke to a gradually brightening, though overcast, sky. We lay there for an hour, sat up and watched the lake for another hour, and finally got up to find something to eat.

It was not yet eight o’clock when we arrived at a grocery store near the previous evening’s episodes. We bought a few things, went across the street, and waited for a Burger King to open.

After eating breakfast there, we passed a couple of hours wandering aimlessly along the streets, sitting, and watching people pass by. When sleepiness hit us about eleven, we walked to Lincoln Park and slept soundly for an hour or two, despite the noise of nearby traffic and the irritation of bumpy ground.

We decided to investigate the area around Broadway and Wilson, where, we were told, there are numerous street people. So we headed north on Broadway. Though the sky earlier had not shown signs of rain, it now threatened to deluge us. That is what it did, slowly at first, and then with great energy.

We ran to a gas station and stood next to one of the protected pumps. Feeling the silent stares of the gas station people, we ran to a partially covered narrow space between two brick buildings and sat on the concrete next to the sidewalk. We sat, partly to rest and partly to escape the overpowering odor of garbage exuding from the top of the dumpster behind us. When a torrent of water from the other side of the dumpster soaked my pants, we jumped to our feet and stood for awhile. Tiring of this, we ran to a doorway and sat watching the rain. When it let up some, we ran to a restaurant.

“What do you guys want,” the waitress asked in a not very kindly voice, as we seated ourselves at the counter. We had to save some money for supper, and all we could afford was a bowl of soup, one for each of us. The waitress plunked them down on the counter, with crackers and a check.

It was lousy soup, but hunger made it taste good. We each left a twenty cent tip, much more than the fifteen percent rule dictated, to show the waitress that we weren’t bums.

Near Broadway and Wilson, there is a daytime center for street people. It consists of a medium-sized room, two bathrooms, a table with free coffee and a room with donated clothes. We had been told not to go there because of the knifings and fights that sometimes occurred. We went in anyway.

At the entrance, an attendant checked our pockets for weapons with a handheld electronic metal detector. We passed the inspection and were allowed to enter the medium-sized room. It contained about 75 straight-backed chairs, arranged in rows, almost all of them occupied. We found two unoccupied chairs and sat down.

The occupants were nearly all men. Some were watching the television that was at one end of the room, some were talking, and some were simply staring. The air was smelly and smoky, and we could not endure more than fifteen minutes. We left without talking to anyone.

After spending two or three hours on the steps of a Baptist church at Broadway and Wilson, listening to the stories of those who had congregated there, we ate a meager supper at a nearby Burger King. Darkness set in and we walked back south on Broadway.

Halfway to our destination on Diversey we met Ellen and Tim, friends of mine who were out walking. (Broadway is the kind of street that people walk along on a warm summer night.) “We thought at first you were street people,” they exclaimed. That delighted us no end, since they both work with the homeless and can easily tell the difference between them and everyone else. We weren’t dirty enough to fool the street people, though, because we were asked several times along Broadway for spare quarters.

By the time we reached Diversey, we were tired, broke and hungry. Instead of staying another night as we had originally planned, we decided to go home. (“That’s when you were ready to see what it is really like to be homeless,” a friend remarked.) After sitting around for another hour, we set off toward my car, which was parked about a mile west on Diversey.

Neil, the God-curser, came along just then. “Hi, Neil,” I said. “Where are you going?”

“I’m going to the grocery to buy whatever I can with this sixty-seven cents, and steal the rest,” he replied, showing us a handful of change. “I haven’t eaten in two days. Do you have any money you could spare?”

I had two cents left, which I gave him. “See you later,” I said.

Three blocks further, we approached a police truck that was parked by the curb. A plainclothes police officer was joking with someone, posing with flippant imitation as he said, “He would make a nice trophy over the mantel.” The “he” was Ernie, who was sleeping soundly on the street, several feet from the curb. We stared with astonishment at last night’s drinker. “Everything is under control,” the police officer said to us, meaning for us to keep walking. We kept walking.

Two blocks later, we encountered a grizzled man of fifty or so sitting in a doorway, reading a book. Behind him was a full grocery cart, and in front of him was an upturned hat with a few odd coins in it.

We sat on the sidewalk as we listened to him. “I’m trying to get out of this gutter,” he said. “Up until two weeks ago, I was doing cocaine. Last week I slept in an alley and someone stole all my money from my pockets. As soon as I get enough money, I’m going to buy some tools so I can get back to being a mechanic.”

I had nothing to give, but Tom gave him a quarter.

We left, and got to the car without further encounters. I put on my wedding ring (Gary had advised me to take it off), and we drove off, arriving home around eleven o’clock, glad not to have to sleep on concrete beds or huddle in wet doorways, yet unsettled and depressed by what we had observed.

I could not help wondering how we would have obtained money for breakfast if we had stayed another day. I tried picturing myself panhandling, but shrunk from the thought. I also wondered about the reception we would have obtained in church if we had gone Sunday morning. We were not too dirty, but we were not entirely clean, either; nor were we very clean smelling. Would the church people avert their eyes, not get too close?

In addition, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what it was like to be bored most of the day, feeling like a reject, worrying about where I would sleep at night, with little sense of purpose, and no one caring about me. Our first day was a novel learning experience, but our second would have been a little too real.


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