I used to see guys who were on the street and homeless, and I just never, you know, fathomed that it could be me one day. I just never pictured it. And I just didn't prepare myself. And it happened.
--Alonzo, panhandling outside CVS in Lincoln Park
This is the ninth in a series of excerpts from my oral history, Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.
THE CURSE OF THE IRISH
It is a cold, gray February afternoon. Art's friend Martin is sitting on the sidewalk outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken. He is wearing black workman's boots, two pairs of pants, two sweatshirts, and a frayed camel hair coat. His nose and cheeks are marked with purple gin blossoms. I offer to take him to lunch. "I ain't goin' nowhere," he says. "But you can sit down here, if you want." He speaks with a faint Irish brogue, and his breath stinks of cigarettes and booze.
I had a sister here that came in 1958. And I always grew up watchin' TV, and it was always American reruns that I watched, you know what I mean? Bonanza, Mission Impossible, all those ones that was in that era. So I wanted to see the country. And I came here, and I liked it. And I says, "Okay, I'm goin' to stay here."
I was in New York for two years. And then buddies of mine that worked on the pipeline in Alaska, they had an in on the deep tunnel here. And they said they'd call me. So they called me January nineteenth, and they says, "Be here January twentieth." So I came into O'Hare airport at noon, January twentieth, 1980. And I was working in the deep tunnel at two-thirty.
The Deep Tunnel is an ongoing civil engineering project designed to reduce flooding, water pollution, and sewer backup throughout Cook County. The project, which has been in operation since 1975, involves the construction of a 109-mile network of underground tunnels.
Worked there for seven years. Then I worked in electrics for five years. Then I started going through a divorce. Then I worked in metal shops. And then I worked in a lot of construction. Rehab and doin' stuff like that. Working with contractors and stuff like that. General contractors. And now I end up on the street.
"How did that happen?" I ask.
I drink too much, for starters. And after the divorce, when I lost the kids--I got four daughters--when I lost them, then it started going downhill after that. I started drinkin'. I started hittin' the bottle too much. And I still hit the bottle too much. That's all I do anymore, is just hit the bottle.
"Is that how you lost your job?"
Oh absolutely, yeah. Absolutely, yeah. Oh yeah. Because you go in with a hangover, and snappin' at my boss and everything else. So then they get tired of that stuff. And I don't blame them. I don't blame them. You know, nothing happened to me that I didn't cause. And I don't blame anybody else for it.
"Is alcoholism an Irish curse?"
Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt. But there's a reason for that. The biggest reason for that is trodden people try to find a way to bury their sorrows. Like if you check out the globe, you'll see that trodden people always drink. You got the Polish, they're heavy drinkers. You got the Russians, they're heavy drinkers. You got the Irish, they're heavy drinkers. The reason being for that is they've been dominated for centuries, and their only way to feel a little bit better is to drink. That's the way I see it. That's my excuse for it. That's my excuse.
At least I'm honest about it, you know what I mean? Unfortunately, it's nothing to be proud of. It's nothing to be proud of. But I been doin' it for forty-two years. I been smokin' and drinkin' for forty-two years. And I don't know if it'll ever change or not.
As I was compiling stories for this book, I spoke with a number of panhandlers who divulged that they do in fact have a place to sleep at night--be it a rehab facility, a halfway house, or a single room occupancy hotel. Some even receive government aid. Why these people continue to panhandle, I could never quite work out. Perhaps it is the only lifestyle they are truly accustomed to.
I ask Martin how he feels about panhandlers who have a place to stay at night.
I don't agree with that. Now, if I had my own place, there ain't no way I'd be out here doing what I'm doing right now. Ain't no way. Those people are just smartasses. They're like, you know, scavengers. And then they see me makin' a couple of dollars here, and they'll come up and stand right beside me. They use me as a punching bag. Because they figure, "Okay, the people're coming out and give him money, so they're gonna give me money, too."
I run them off once in a while. I just ran one off right now, just before you got here. I told him, I says, "You gotta go, man. You gotta go, man. I been here before you." I says, "And I been here, I be here, I'm here every day." I says, "You ain't cutting in on this, now." I says, "Come on." I says to him, "There's, you know, there's a million corners," I says, "in Chicago." I says, "Find a different corner." So he finally split.
A young boy walks by, holding hands with his father. "Hey how ya doin', big guy?" Martin says.
"Hi," the boy replies, and nods at Martin.
There's an awful lot of good people out here. An awful lot of good people out here. And I don't care whether they give you a dime or a dollar, it's the ones that completely ignore you, that's the ones that I don't like. But most people are generous and they'll give you a dollar if they have it. Or they come along and say, "I got no change on me right now." And those people I understand, because most of them swipe plastic anymore. They don't carry cash. And I understand that. And I accept it. But it's the ones that completely ignore me, that's the ones that I could do without.
"What do you hope for?" I ask.
Peace and tranquility. And help the poor. And make sure everybody has enough to eat. Man, I'd love to go now and watch TV. Watch the news and stuff like that. Lie down in bed and watch the news. Oh man, yeah. But that costs money.
"Tell me about your hardest night on the streets."
(He Laughs.) Every night's a hard night out on the streets, man. Especially in the wintertime. Summertime's alright, you can lie down any place in summertime. But the wintertime, when you wake up and there's icicles on your beard, and all that other stuff, man, that really gets to you. And go hungry. When you go hungry on the street, too, that's another one. You wake up and you're hungry, you go to sleep and you're hungry, and you wake up and you're hungry. No. Yeah, it's not easy on the street. No, I'll tell you that much. It ain't easy on the street. Especially in the wintertime.
Postscript: Several months after we spoke, a wealthy Irish immigrant took Martin to the hospital, where he was treated for an abdominal hernia. Shortly thereafter, Martin enrolled in an alcohol rehabilitation program at Chicago's Haymarket House. "You wouldn't even recognize him," Art told me. "And he says that he's real happy now that he's not drinkin'. You wouldn't even recognize the old son of a bitch."