02/09/2009 03:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of No Fixed Address: A Christmas To Remember

Crack is one of the, I think, one of the worst drugs of all. 'Cause it makes you do anything to get that high. I can take ten dollars and go to the store, get me a pack of cigarettes, six pack, and a half pint. I'm cool for the rest of the day. They take ten dollars, gotta go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. So now where is all this money coming from? But you not working? Where is all this money coming from?

This is the seventh in a series of excerpts from my book Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.


In his 1967 oral history Division Street: America, Studs Terkel described Chicago's Old Town neighborhood as an "artsy-craftsy area... with coffee houses, artists' studios, antique shops, restaurants, etc." Although it retains a hint of this charm, Old Town is now home to a sizable collection of chains and franchises: McDonald's, Einstein Bagel, Boston Market, Cold Stone Creamery, and the city's largest Starbucks branch.

Jonah is sitting on top of a newspaper box outside the Old Town Starbucks selling StreetWise. He is wearing a black baseball cap and a faux leather bomber jacket. His front teeth are yellow and crooked; the rest have fallen out. He is fifty years old, and he has been selling StreetWise off and on for seven years.

My whole life was centered on gettin' and usin' drugs. I might go three or four days--which we call a "binge"--smokin' crack, sellin' papers. For three or four consecutive days without sleep. I started off drinkin' at the age of twelve. And I went through the drinkin', the heroin, and everything else. But there was no drug like crack. That's the drug that brought me to my knees. I used to compare it with reachin' your climax. That was the feelin' it gave me. It even took away my desire from girls. You know, because it fulfilled that pleasure.

I haven't had anything in eleven months. And I believe that if I go back to it, I'll lose everything that I've gained in these last eleven months. The thought comes back, but God has took that desire away from me. That compulsion away from me. I don't have that no more. My job situation is not what I want it to be. But my worst day without usin' is better than my best day usin'. So it's not peaches and cream, but it's alright.

I have reunited back with my family. I'm not livin' with my ex-wife, but I'm spendin' time with my kids. I have four kids. My oldest son is, unfortunately, doin' twenty-five years in the penitentiary.

"For what?" I ask.

Murder. And sometimes I blame myself, because the things that he learned, I taught him. I didn't know no better then. I showed him how to mix dope. I used to buy marijuana and have him sellin' marijuana for me. That was my lifestyle. That was all I knew then.

Did you learn those things from your father?

No, I learned it from uncles. My father never was around. But my uncles, they was my role models. Matter of fact, one of my uncles was one of them big drug dealers, and I remember him givin' me my first joint at thirteen. And it was like Walter Payton had given me his autograph.

The drug thing, it takes away all your responsibility. When I was usin', I was makin' enough money to get me an apartment, and I was usin' it all on crack. I was maybe smokin' up two hundred dollars a day. And I was satisfied with livin' in shelters because I wouldn't have to pay rent. The thing is, with homeless people, we used to say: "We livin' off the fat of the land." We might make a thousand dollars a week, but we livin' in the shelter.

An elderly couple exit Starbucks, pushing their granddaughter in a stroller. The young girl is holding a dollar bill. As they approach, she reaches out and hands it to Jonah. "Thank you very much," Jonah says and offers them a paper. They politely decline. "Enjoy your weekend now," he says. The girl smiles.

You know, I have been blessed. When I first started here, this was maybe four dollars an hour. But my relationship that I have built up with people, it might be ten dollars an hour. And that's just the rapport that I have with people.

I'm in a recovery home. This is one of the better recovery homes. It's clean. We're required to make three inside meetings--AA or NA [Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous] meetings. And we're required to make three outside. That's the criteria for bein' there. They drop you randomly. You have to get a urine test randomly. You got to be employed or bringin' in some kind of income. It's fourteen guys in the house. It's two to a room. And the rooms are big and spacious. We're required to do certain chores around there. Just the upkeep of the house. We run the house.

I say, until I get a lease--and that's in the future--until I get a lease with my name on it, I will be homeless. But I'm in a lot better state than I was. If there's a degree of homeless, I'm in a pretty good position right now. I'm gonna let the winter go past and maybe around March I'll be gettin' me an apartment.

My other kids are... they're my heart. I see them three to five times a week. I know that I didn't go right with my first son, and I'm a little more harder on my kids now because I don't want them to, you know, I'll be damned if I lose them to the streets. So I spend a lot of time with 'em. I don't allow them to mess up in school because that's one of the things that I did, and I'm payin' for it now. So I spent a lot of time with my kids.

My ex-wife, I thank God for her. Even when I wasn't there, she carried them. I hate to say it, but maybe eight years ago, I came up with a large sum of money, and I gave my--she was my wife then--I gave her a couple thousand dollars to buy Christmas toys for the kids. And I told her to keep the other money, because I didn't wanna mess it all up. So when I messed up what I had, I came back and told her to give my money back. And she wouldn't give my money back. We had a big thing, big argument, and I wind up sneakin' back in the house, stealin' the toys from under the Christmas tree. And they remember that.

The thing was, I had started smokin' cocaine. And when you smokin' cocaine, when I'm smokin', I can never get enough. I just had a desire for some more. And I had to get it by any means necessary. I didn't think about dealin' with my kids--that they'll be hurt.

I can remember three days later when I did see my kids' face, I can remember the hurt. You know, I had came down from the drugs. I can remember the hurt on their face. And that's one of the things that I always remember.