See, homelessness isn't too much different from, like, family or any, you know, friendships--any other personal relationships. You're going to have to deal with a wide variety of characters.
This is the first in a series of excerpts from my book, Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. To read more about the project, see last week's post.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ART
Art leads me to a small parking lot behind a sports bar in Lincoln Park. "Coach owns this bar," he says with a rough Midwestern twang. "And I shovel the walk for him when I need a few bucks. Whenever I need somethin', they're there for me." He grabs two plastic milk crates from behind a dumpster and sets them on the ground. "Here, sit down."
It is late January. Art is wearing a gray wool coat and a black newsboy cap. He has a scruffy dark brown beard, and greasy hair. He is no tenderfoot, and he'll be the first to tell you so. "I've earned the reputation where a lot of people don't fuck with me no more, 'cause I fought so much out here. I got respect from cops now. And I know everybody in the fuckin' neighborhood, I been out here so long."
He pulls a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear and lights up. Throughout our conversation he sips from a small plastic bottle of Canadian Club whiskey.
Alright. My dad had to raise me and my sister. On his own. And when it wasn't school days--I mean like the summer months when you're out of school--we lived in the factory that he worked in. All my dad did was work, all of his life just to take care of me and my sister.
And then he married a couple of stepmoms. And I was a hardheaded little son of a bitch. I wouldn't listen to 'em. 'Cause like, "You're not my mom, you can't tell me what the fuck to do." So I wound up runnin' away from home a lot when I was a little kid. One time, I went across the street--I was maybe eight, nine years old--and I went across the street, and there was a cemetery, and I put myself by this tree and covered up with leaves so they couldn't find me. And I was sittin' there watchin' all the cops around the house lookin' for me.
Then they kept puttin' me in group homes. And I was an escape artist. I was in four of them, escaped from all of them. And then I started hitchhikin'. I hitchhiked around the United States twice. I mean, people pick me up when I'm hitchhikin' and, "Where you goin'?"
I said, "As far as you are." (He laughs.) You know, "I ain't got no destination."
Out here you got your freedom. I mean, basically it's called freedom. I been confined all my life. Institutions and group homes, prisons and all that shit. And I don't like answerin' to nobody, you know what I'm sayin'? And if you're payin' rent, you gotta answer to a landlord, you gotta answer to an electric company, you gotta answer to the phone company. No, no. Out here I don't gotta answer to nobody but that liquor store. (He laughs.)
According to a recent report issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in 2007 there were approximately 123,833 chronically homeless people in America, down almost 32,000 from 2006. But the National Coalition for the Homeless is quick to remind us that estimates like this can be extremely misleading. Many chronically homeless people are hidden from plain sight--staying in cars, tents, boxes, and other makeshift shelters--and are overlooked by researchers. Art is a case in point.
He and his friend Martin have set up camp in a long, narrow storage space below a three-flat in west Lincoln Park. A single bulb lights the enclosed room. Ragged blankets, sleeping bags, and a couple of futon mattresses are spread out across the cold cement floor, and the air stinks of cigarette smoke and urine.
In the middle of the room there is a large plastic bottle of whiskey, two bags of chips, a brick of cheddar cheese, and a big tub of salsa. "We're makin' hot sauce," Art explains. "I took some salsa, I threw in some Tabasco, some whiskey, some tequila, some peppers, and now it's marinatin'."
Clothes soiled with mud and vomit are piled up in the corner, behind Art's bed. Next to his mattress, rests a small battery-operated radio. The classic songs of Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, and Dire Straits hum in the background. Sometimes at night, just before he goes to sleep, Art will tune into the country music station.
The only thing I would change is the pain I go through about not havin' my family around. I know they care about me. They don't like me around because of this: (He holds up his bottle of whiskey). Other than that, I'm pretty fine. I don't mind bein' out here. I love bein' out here. I've met a lot of good friends out here. Like you.
I used to have an old lady out here, little old lady, and she died of cancer. (He kisses his hand and holds it to the sky.) I've had a piece of ass here and there, but romance, that's a different question. Last time I had romance was before my old lady passed away. And that's about five, six years ago. And that wasn't really-- you know what, it was love, but I couldn't call it romance because it's not like we had an apartment to be in to hug each other and watch TV and all that shit, you know what I'm sayin'?
I'm a good believer in God and Jesus Christ. I have mercy. It says in the Bible, "He who loves his life shall lose it. He who hates his life shall keep it." Can you understand what it is? He who loves his life shall lose it because when you die, you'll have a better one. He who hates his life will keep it because God gave you life to enjoy, and if you hate it, you're goin' to go to Hell and still hate it. He who loves his life will lose it because he's gonna get a better one, because God gave you life and you enjoyed it, and He's gonna give you a better one.
I don't wanna die. I mean, I'm miserable as hell when it's fuckin' four foot of snow out here and cold as fuck and nobody helpin' me out or shit. But I'm still enjoyin' life because God gave me life. And every mornin' I wake up and pray to God, "Thank you for one more day... even though I gotta go out here and suffer!" (He laughs.) But, no, I always have a friend to have a drink with. As long as I have a friend to have a drink with and got my radio in my pocket, I'm happy.
I can tell you so many stories about so many of my brothers. 'Cause I thought about writin' a book. When I was gonna write a book, I was gonna write it like the Bible. You know, it's got "Matthew," "Mark," "Luke," and "John." I was gonna write one about "Bones," "Me," you know, different names, different characters. Like the Bible, but the life stories of 'em. It'd be the same thing as the Bible. That's how you should write this book. This is Art's chapter.
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