We Are Them
By Bob Harris
BENEATH downtown Chicago lies a city with no addresses, no jobs. Some residents barely have a name. Between the bright lights of the city above and their murky reflection on the river below lies Lower Wacker Drive–a dark underworld surrounded by side streets, parking spaces, and loading docks. That’s where many homeless go on cold nights to escape the bitter wind and sleep for a few hours on the warm ventilation grates. Some stay just for a night or two, some for an entire winter, a few even longer.
On a Chicago winter night, with the windchill far below zero, the cover of the city above and heat of the warm grates below can be literally the difference between life and death. On any given night here, there might be a few dozen homeless people–or 100 or more. I know it’s there.
I’ve slept down there myself.
Here’s a story I don’t often tell:
In the spring of 1984, I graduated from college with a flashy engineering degree, a plum job with a Fortune 500 company, enormous financial potential, and a mountain of student loans.
In summer I added to the debt load with credit card spending to cover relocation, rent on a cool condo, three-piece suits to wear in the office, and the assorted household crap you buy when you first have a house to hold.
By fall, I realized that, emotionally, I couldn’t function at all in a corporate environment. So I quit.
Getting another, similar job was out of the question. So I went home and lived with my parents for a while. This was worse. My father had worked a mind-numbing blue-collar job for more than 25 years. I’d had a chance at something better and blown it in less than 25 weeks. I was profoundly depressed. My weight ballooned.
The best job I could find was in … telemarketing. This had to be the bottom. I was wrong.
Surprisingly, I was excellent at sales. Since I could create the illusion of perkiness with customers while mentally debating the merits of public self-immolation vs. a simple, discreet 10-story fall, it wasn’t long before the company wanted me to enter management. I suddenly had a chance to go from 20 bucks a day to 20 grand a year.
So I arrived in Chicago, suitcases and hopes in hand. A high school friend agreed to let me sleep on his couch until I was on my feet. But while he was away on a visit, his roommate threw me out.With no fixed address and no place to keep myself presentable, it wasn’t long before the job went away as well. I couldn’t go home a failure again. And there was nowhere else left to go.
My long Chicago winter was about to begin.
I never considered myself “homeless” at the time. I just didn’t have anywhere to live. I thought of “homeless” people (when I gave them a thought) as, uh, bums. I didn’t realize how many homeless people are former mental patients in need of medication, Vietnam or Gulf War vets with severe emotional damage, or just ordinary folks way down on their luck.
Sometimes, when I could find a gig, I could afford a room at the YMCA, which was tolerable, if sticky. Or sometimes I ‘d sleep at the airport, moving around between terminals so security wouldn’t get wise.
Sometimes I sang in the subway for meal money. Sometimes I just stared into space. More than once I stood freezing in the wind on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and thought about throwing myself into the icy river below. But it’s less than a two-minute walk from where I stood on that bridge to the warm heating grates beneath Wacker Drive and, as for many in my situation, survival for another night.
You try getting a job without a fixed address. Try leasing an apartment without a job. Try just getting an interview while carrying a dirty suitcase with all your belongings in it. And even if you do get a job, try opening a bank account without being able to prove residence. Try not just giving up.
And y’know what? I had it easy. I wasn’t old or sick or injured. I had a college degree. I had blond hair and blue eyes. I wasn’t black or Hispanic or female, so I never had to deal with prejudice. I didn’t have a kid to take care of. I didn’t drink or have a drug addiction.
And my tendency to overeat was certainly no longer a problem.
Yet it took me almost six months to climb out of that hole and become a functional, if struggling, member of society again.
Recently the city of Chicago essentially closed off Lower Wacker Drive, installing steel fences and allowing shopkeepers aboveground to lock the gates all night. The only reason for the gates is to keep the warmth of the ventilation grates away from people who have nothing.
Where will the homeless go? How many will survive the next cold night? Presumably, they’ll just disappear.
I pray none of them disappears as I almost did.
From the February 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.