Note to readers: Usually I write with a lot of humor. Sometimes, when I’m maybe a little too close to the subject, I don’t or can’t or whatever. This is one of those times.
Underneath downtown Chicago, a little past the northeast corner of the Loop, not far from the fair stretch of river you’ve seen a million times on reruns of “The Bob Newhart Show,” on the same level as the Billy Goat Tavern that inspired Saturday Night Live’s old “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sketch, and just steps from high-falutin’ storefronts of the famed Magnificent Mile, there lies a different city.
It’s a city where there are no addresses. There are no jobs. There are few possessions. Some residents barely have a name, or at least none that anyone else knows.
Between the bright lights of the city above and their reflection on the river below lies Lower Wacker Drive. Lower Wacker, and the surrounding maze of underground side streets, parking spaces, and loading docks, is where many homeless go on cold nights to escape the bitter wind and sleep for a few hours on the warm grates. Some stay for a night or two and move on with their lives. Some, who feel they have nowhere else to go, stay for an entire winter. A few stay even longer.
On a cold Chicago winter night, when the temperature drops into the teens and an Alberta Clipper brings windchills far below zero, the cover of the city above and the heat of a warm grate below can be literally the difference between life and death. During the Depression, thousands found shelter in this dark underworld. In our time, on any given night, there might be a few dozen, or there might be a hundred or more. No one really knows. The census doesn’t reach down this far.
I know. I’ve been down there myself.
What does a homeless person look like, exactly?
You probably have a mental image already.
OK, here’s a harder question:
What did they look like before they became homeless?
What will they look like after?
Those are the questions to ask.
In the spring of 1984 I graduated college with a flashy engineering degree, a plum job with a Fortune 500 company, enormous financial potential, and a mountain of student loans.
In the summer of 1984 I added to that 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 the fall of 1984 I realized I couldn’t function emotionally in a corporate environment. The reasons were and are my own, but I was almost suicidal. The space of this sentence has been occupied in rough drafts by several attempted lengthy explanations, but finally I realized that if you’ve ever worked in a giant corporation, there’s a decent chance you don’t even need one.
So I quit.
Getting another, similar job was out of the question. Three reasons: a) my sanity, b) my resume now made me a high-risk hire, and c) this was the height of the Reagan defense build-up, so pretty much every other offer I had was in some way related to blowing people to bits.
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 twenty-five years to put food on the table. I’d had a chance at something better and thrown it away after less than twenty-five weeks.
Suddenly I was an unmistakable failure, with no tangible future and enough debt to cover several years’ worth of any potential income. They tried not to criticize my decision, but I could hardly look my parents in the eye.
I was profoundly depressed. My weight ballooned to over 215 pounds on my 5’9″ frame.
The best job I could find was in telemarketing.
This, I thought, had to be the bottom.
I was wrong.
Surprisingly, I was pretty good at sales. Excellent, actually. Since I could create the illusion of perkiness while mentally debating the merits of public self-immolation versus a simple, private shotgun blast, it wasn’t long before the company even wanted me to enter management.
Training would begin with a temporary stint in the Chicago office. If I impressed, the twenty bucks a day I was making in Cleveland suddenly had a chance to become twenty grand a year.
So Dad dropped me off at the Greyhound bus station, and the next day I arrived, suitcases and hopes in hand, Bob: Pig In The City.
My hopes didn’t hold out long. A high school friend had agreed to let me sleep on his couch until I was on my feet. Shortly, he went back to Cleveland for a visit. While he was gone, his roommate, who resented the extra housemate, threw me out. With no fixed address even to mail my paychecks to, 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.
This was just after Thanksgiving 1985. My long Chicago winter was about to begin.
I’ll spare you most of the details. The truth is I never considered myself “homeless” at the time. As far as I was concerned, I was just sort of “between.” And sometimes, when I could find another gig, I could afford a room at the Belmont YMCA, which was tolerable if remarkably sticky. My existence was two days here, three days there. Too many days were nowhere.
Sometimes when I was in decent shape I could sleep at the airport, moving around between terminals and washing in the restrooms so security wouldn’t get wise. For a few weeks a girl in Oak Park gave me a place to sleep, and she even tried to set me up with a job, but that didn’t last. One warm night I slept out in Lincoln Park. Too bad there was only one warm night that year.
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, the one you glimpsed for years in the opening of “Siskel & Ebert,” and thought about throwing myself into the icy river below.
One night in particular I remember, I’m still surprised I didn’t. I can still show you the spot where I stood. It was brutally cold. I just wanted to disappear.
And I can assure you it’s less than a two minute walk from where I stood to the warm grates of beneath Wacker Drive, and for many in my situation, survival for another night.
“Get a job,” people would say.
OK. You try it sometime. You try getting a job when you can’t give an employer a fixed address. Then you try leasing an apartment without a job. Catch-22. Try just getting an interview while carrying a dirty suitcase with all your belongings in it. Even if you do get a job, try opening a bank account and cashing that check without being able to prove residence. And so on and so on.
Try spending days at a time with almost no one even making eye contact with you, having to reassure yourself sometimes you still even exist. You try watching a world of plenty go by, wondering how you got to this place and how you’ll ever get out. You try not just giving up and slipping even further into depression and despondency.
You try it.
And y’know what? I had it easy.
I wasn’t old. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t injured. I had a college degree, for heaven’s sake. I had blond hair and blue eyes. I wasn’t black or hispanic or a woman, so I never had to deal with prejudice. I didn’t have a kid to take care of. I didn’t drink. I didn’t have a drug addiction. And my tendency to overeat was certainly no longer a problem.
Even with every conceivable advantage, it took me almost six months to climb out of that hole, just to land a steady five-dollar-an hour gig, rent one-third of a basement apartment, and become a marginally-functional member of society again.
And I had it easy.
I still keep pictures of the YMCA and certain Chicago streets on my wall, just so I’ll never forget or take anything in life for granted, ever again.
I cannot imagine what even one more year of that life would have led to. Except possibly to many more years of the same.
There’s a reason I write this story this week.
You’ve probably never heard of Lower Wacker. The city of Chicago doesn’t want you to. You might not feel so comfortable spending your dollars in the upscale shops just ten yards above.
But don’t you worry.
Chicago has come up with a final solution to the problem.
As of Friday, the city of Chicago has essentially closed off the area. New steel fences have been installed, and new city rules now allow shopkeepers aboveground to lock the gates all night, specifically to prevent homeless people from staying warm by sleeping on the ventilation grates within.
The business owners are happy. The merchants of the Magnificent Mile can sleep soundly in their beds.
Where are the homeless supposed to sleep?
That’s their problem.
One man passes another.
One has a career and a car and a girlfriend and a house full of stuff. The other has only what he can carry and the dirty clothes on his back.
The first man’s biggest problems are: his career and his car and his girlfriend and stuff.
The second man’s biggest problem is: he has none of the first man’s problems.
Sometimes the first man thinks he might want to help. Usually he doesn’t.
Sometimes the second man thinks he might ask for help. Usually he doesn’t.
You know which one you are today.
Do you know for sure which one you’ll be tomorrow?
The homeless, Chicago hopes, simply won’t be there anymore.
Where they’ll go is another question. In the coldest part of the Chicago winter, no outreach is being made. No directions to volunteer help and city shelters are posted on the steel fences. There’s no way to know where the homeless will go, no accounting of how many survive. The gates are now closed. That is all we will know.
The homeless, presumably, will just disappear.
I pray none of them disappears as I almost did.
Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.
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