There's a lot of homeless women out here that are pregnant, they gonna have babies. So if they have babies, that means that's another addition to people that are gonna be illiterate. Okay? And if there's nobody speakin' up for 'em, then nothin's ever gonna be done about it.
This is the fourth 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 the early part of the twentieth century, Chicago's Uptown neighborhood was a popular weekend destination, and it remains home to some of the city's most celebrated entertainment venues. But today, the streets of Uptown are markedly polarized--a strange blend of homeless shelters, posh restaurants, thrift stores, luxury condominiums, currency exchanges, and ornamental building facades that have been neglected for decades.
It is a rainy summer day. Demetrius and Talicia are sitting under a bus shelter just down the street from a Salvation Army outreach center in the heart of Uptown. Talicia is visibly pregnant. "About five months," she says. Her voice is high-pitched, and there is a child-like quality to her cadences.
TALICIA: I was born in 1968. And I was in foster homes. I was abandoned by my mama. She used to hit me with a big old wooden stick. I never told nobody. The foster parents took me in. And then, I started usin' drugs at the age of fourteen. Smokin' weed. Drinkin' beers all the time. Hangin' with the wrong crowd, livin' in the fast lane. And then I started smokin' cocaine. At the age of eighteen years old. I thank God that I'm livin' today, to see another day.
Standing well over six feet tall, Demetrius looks like a giant next to Talicia. He is wearing a Detroit Pistons sweatband on his cleanly shaven head; he has thick, muscular arms; and he doesn't look like the kind of person you'd want to piss off. But despite his imposing stature, Demetrius has a soft, almost soothing voice.
DEMETRIUS: We been married two years. Me, I did a lot of time in penitentiary. I did six penitentiary bits. Strong-arm robbery, retail theft, commercial burglary. I decided to change my life, but I didn't have the finances to take care of myself, so I been stayin' in the shelter. She's pregnant now. The main purpose we have now is to try to get me a job. And it's hard to do that with a background. We both don't have a state ID. So that costs money. We need twenty dollars apiece for me to even work. She needs an ID, I need an ID. I can't even work.
When Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich took office in 2002, he signed legislation raising the price of state-issued ID cards from $4 to $20. While the State of Illinois waives this fee for Seniors, they do not offer any type of aid to the homeless or the disadvantaged. In addition to twenty dollars, a State ID applicant must provide a certified birth certificate (an additional $15), a Social Security card, and (of course) proof of address. Irony abounds.
"How did you decide to have a child?" I ask.
DEMETRIUS: It was one of those things where God planned it. We didn't expect it. It just happened. And when it happens, you have to go with it.
TALICIA: I got a daughter, twenty. A set of twins, seventeen. And a fourteen-year-old. (She nods her head.)
DEMETRIUS: We're gonna try to, first of all, get enough money for us to get us a room. Get off the street. We're gonna get married, which doesn't cost much at City Hall, so the baby will come into the world legitimately. We been together for a while. You might as well say we're married. 'Cause of the baby. I can't just walk away and say she's not my wife. She's got my baby. My mother told me that marriage doesn't start on paper. It starts in the heart.
"Obviously times are tough. Are you concerned about bringing a child into the world right now?"
DEMETRIUS: No. No, because it's not the world that we're worried about. We're bringin' somebody that we feel is gonna serve God. That's all we're thinkin' about. We ain't worried about anybody else.
DEMETRIUS: I think that's the whole thing about havin' a child. It's not whether you're in the gutter or if you's in a mansion, it's about what you do with that child. You know? That's what we're lookin' at. We want a child so that we can have somethin' to love. Somebody that we can raise up and say is ours. You know? And maybe he'll love somebody else. And that's the whole purpose. Love makes love.
But, like I tell her, you can't tell God when it's time to do somethin'. If He say we have to have a child right now, that's His word. We can't argue with God, you know? (He laughs.)
We haven't taken a shower in three days. We barely eaten. We gettin' wet, and we have to stay wet, in wet clothes. We livin', basically, pretty bad. But we have to have faith. And that's what's keepin' us goin'. Faith. And we stick together. I have to keep her close.
TALICIA: Oh by the way, I graduated from grammar school, then I went to high school. My readin' is comin' out better. But, you know, I'm tryin' to read. He don't tell me the words. He'll tell me to sound it out. Right, baby?
DEMETRIUS: She get frustrated too quick.
TALICIA: Yeah, I get frustrated.
DEMETRIUS: Most people that can't read get frustrated. She goes through that.
TALICIA: But my readin' comin' out better, right? You know, I sound the words out. (She points to a Washington Mutual sign across the street, and starts to sound out the first few letters.) Like that's "Wal-Mart," right? (Talicia smiles, satisfied with herself.)
DEMETRIUS: She's vulnerable to a lot of things out here. A lot of things.
TALICIA: I'm scared of bein' vulnerable. I'm scared of men tryin' to touch me.
DEMETRIUS: She's scared of me leavin' her, too. She's very insecure. When I got with her, she was confused about the security of a relationship. She'd never had a man that would stick with her. Most of the men would just have sex with her and use her and then leave her. And you get a lot of that out here. A lot of the women are used. Used and abused. Misused. (He nods toward Talicia.) This is a product of the street.
She still, before she got pregnant, was prostitutin'. Because if I'm not around, if I'm locked up, she had to be out here by herself. And she had to do that. Even though she was pregnant. So we're talkin' about survival. I went to jail for a month. Last month. And I left her out here. I didn't have a choice. And what is she supposed to do? You know, I forgive her for it, but it's hard for me to deal with it on an emotional level. And I have to react to that sometimes. And I have to stop myself. So it's a lot of pain, part of bein' a woman out here.