Saturday, December 3, 2005

From the City to the Suburbs and Back

My family and friends often ask, “What do you do all day?” or “What did you do today?” Given that it is a very open-ended question I usually give them a summary of what I did or if it’s a weekend I’ll usually give them the edited version. They don’t seem to understand how I can be busy without a job. If I have a job then the question becomes, “What having you been doing when you get off of work?” or “Anything interesting or new in your world?” To which I’ll probably give them a similar answer to the first set of questions.


The truth is, I am busy, if not physically then certainly mentally. I always have something on my mind, just my nature, although I don’t always let someone know. Nevertheless, here was how I spent the first Monday after Thanksgiving with no job.

I woke up and ate and wrote spontaneously in a notebook until three pages were filled. It is an exercise I have been doing every morning to clear my mind and practice writing more creatively. The idea came from the bestseller The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Reading and writing, as Stephen King said in his memoir On Writing are the two most important things a writer can do. I believe him. But exploring your surroundings and meeting new and interesting people can be equally important. I’ve been trying to do all three, which in a nutshell explains why I’m busy without a job.

I had planned to see an author I admire and who I had recently read one of his books titled There Are No Children Here. His name is Alex Kotlowitz, a long-time Chicagoan, who was to give a speech that night at the public library in Des Plaines, a northwestern suburb of the city. I had already scheduled to use Hertz to drive to Des Plaines. I wanted to see if I could find a better deal with Enterprise. Because my cell phone had recently broken, I couldn’t call. So I walked down State Street to the Enterprise dealership. A stout man with dark, thinning hair told me the price. I said sure. It was twenty dollars cheaper. I walked back to Hertz, a few blocks away on Clark Street, and canceled my reservation.

The Red Line was next. I took it to the Fullerton stop and with my black gym back I had slung over my shoulder, walked to the Lakeshore Athletic Club. I lifted weights and used the Stairmaster for almost two hours.

On the way back home I ran into a familiar homeless man outside of Walgreens on Division Street. Virtually every day he is on that corner. We’ve been trying to arrange a time to have lunch together. Sometimes it rains or it gets too cold and he takes shelter at a friend’s house. I run into many homeless or people asking for spare change, usually black men, and I turn them down. The reason I like this man was because he reminded me a little bit of Eddie Murphy, complimenting girls on their appearances and always jovial with strangers, but never in a way that seemed force. He was genuine as far as I could tell. The other thing I noticed, besides the fact he would be at the corner each day, sometimes hours and hours with the relentless Chicago wind, was that he was in a wheelchair. And he had no feet. I didn’t know anything about the man, except that he was a friendly guy with no feet and no home. I’ll talk about him at a later time. On that day he told me he hadn’t eaten all morning and asked me for some money. It was the first time he had asked me for money.

“How much do you need?” I asked.

“Whatever you can spare,” he said.

I gave him a five.

“Thanks my man. Now we can eat. Now we’re going to eat lunch with this.”

He said it as if he was feeding a family. Maybe he was referring to himself and his stomach as two separate people. We shook hands and made arrangements to meet in the near future.

I went home and showered and grabbed my notebook that fit into my big black winter coat pocket. I emptied my wallet of any big bills and I left all my credit cards and other cards on my desk.... I was headed to the hood. I had a few dollars and my lucky two-dollar bill. I was headed to Crane Tech Prep, a high school in one of Chicago’s notorious dangerous westside neighborhoods. A neighborhood that a 28-year-old black man, who lived on 79th Street, once told me while riding the El, “You have one strike against you, man, just for being white. That’s one strike against you. It’s dangerous for me. It’s dangerous for anyone. But you have one strike against you right off the bat.” I had decided a week earlier to go to Crane Tech because they have a great basketball team each year. Will Bynum, a Crane alum, played for Georgia Tech and now is in his first year with the Boston Celtics. This year, Crane has one of the nation’s best point guards, Sherron Collins, who committed to Kansas. I thought I could write a feature on Collins or the team as most reporters wouldn’t venture to that neighborhood. I did. Its coach, Anthony Longstreet, a rounded man with droopy eyes like a bulldog, had told me a week prior that he didn’t have a complete schedule yet and that I would have to come back in a week at this time, aka 1:30 p.m.

So I went back. On the way there I talked to a 26-year-old white man with an unkept beard. He said he had been laid off as a teacher on the south side. He mentioned that he had been substitute teaching and I told him I was interested in doing that since I had no job and would be flying home over Christmas and busy on New Year’s. I needed the holidays off but I needed some money as well. My savings was dwindling away. He said that in order to teach in Chicago Public Schools you needed a teaching license. That is bogus, I thought. They are laying teachers off and there is a shortage of subs and they require licenses. They don’t do that in Connecticut, which pays its teachers the most of any state. I felt worse after talking to him. There go my hopes for a job where I could have time to write and still have the holidays off. He offered to show me to the main office on Clark Street because he was going there. I said I was meeting someone.

On the train there I noticed a big loud black girl with a black and white leather jacket with “Scareface” written on it with a picture of Al Pacino holding a big gun. It said, “The American Dream” on one sleeve and had a big dollar sign on the other. This wasn’t the Gold Coast. I got off the Western stop and walked over a highway bridge. I looked to my right and saw the great Chicago skyline. It wasn’t very far away, but there was a huge difference. As I was about to cross the street on Jackson, a tall black man, about 30, said he needed forty cents. I told him sorry, that I was unemployed. He didn’t say anything but he had a look on his face that said, “What am I going to do now?” I did feel nervous. My palms were a bit sweaty, especially when I saw a group of young black men walking by with dew rags underneath their hats and baggy jeans and big coats. They didn’t appear any different than kids from my hometown. It’s just I knew they were tougher here. It was different. I kept my head down and stared at the sidewalk as I strolled to Crane. No one bothered me. When I arrived at the school, I saw two police officers walk out and into their car parked in front. That’s weird, I thought, why are cops here. Crane is a large stone building with giant pillars and equally large reddish-orange doors and large black gates in the front and back. The cops had left the door slightly ajar. I wedged it open with my fingers and walked in. I told the hallway monitor I wanted to see Coach Anthony Longstreet. I signed in and they gave me a pass and I walked into the gymnasium. A group of girls were huddled on the bleachers gossiping and watching the boys play basketball. It must have been gym class. Coach Longstreet’s office door was ajar, just like the front door, and I walked in.

“Now is not a good time,” he said shaking his head with a look of anxiety. “Now is not a good time.” He kept shaking his head. I stood there and wondered for a second who these other white men were in the room. “Can’t you see Coach Self is here,” Longstreet said as he walked away shaking his head. Kansas head coach Bill Self, resplendent in a dress shirt and dress pants, was sitting on a desk next to Sherron Collins, who was also sitting and wore street clothes. Self had a notepad in his hand or pieces of paper and seemed about to explain something to Collins. There was another man in the small room, probably Self’s assistant, standing on the other side across from me. There was an awkward silence as the three men looked at me. I looked at them. Self broke the silence and said, “Hi.” I said hello back and walked out the door. Was Collins signing his letter of intent to go to Kansas? Or was it to make sure he was academically eligible? Maybe neither. I found out later that Coach Self was just checking on Collins to make sure he was academically eligible and on pace academically to play college basketball. I knew I could write a good story if they would just let me – that seemed to be my theme so far in Chicago. Maybe I should work an easier route and write about someone no one knows. I pondered that after listening to Alex Kotlowitz.

Before I saw Kotlowitz speak I ate a gelato at Café Gioia. Enzo had stepped out. I’d catch him later. I came home and read the local newspapers and bought some groceries and went to pick up my rental car at Enterprise. They gave me a Toyota Camry and I headed west on the Kennedy Expressway. Most of the rush-hour traffic I had worried about drove the opposite way, into the city. I found the public library in Des Plaines and waited in a big room with a few dozen chairs for Kotlowitz.

Formally dressed in black pants and a dress shirt, he looked skinnier and had shorter hair than I had imagined. Not that I cared. He was a writer and he spoke like an intelligent one. He spoke openly, but had a speech that he had written out word-for-word, which I saw when he signed his books after it and a Q & A.

He talked about his books, which I had read, but what struck me most was his view of Chicago and of himself as a writer. In many ways I felt the same way. “I’ve gone through life always thinking of myself as an outsider,” he said. “There’s an old Groucho Marx line that I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me. And that’s how I think I’ve often felt in my life. I can’t begin to psychoanalyze the reasons behind that. Anyway, part of it explains my attraction to journalism because wherever I go as a journalist I’m inevitably and naturally an outsider by race, by class, by religion, by geography, by politics, by circumstance. It’s a tough part for me of being a journalist. And the tough part, of course, is finding your way in the communities where you don’t belong. But being an outsider I think can be terribly important. Because I think outsiders often have a much clearer and cleaner perspective of what’s going on in the inside.... And when you think of this city you come to realize that it is a place that is molded, if not defined, by outsiders.” He mentioned how various architects, artists, and writers “thrived” in Chicago as outsiders. It made me feel like I, ironically as an outsider, belonged. Perhaps even more than his comment about being an outsider was how he compared Chicago to New York and why it is a unique place, a place that seemed to fit my value system. “It’s a place that doesn’t presume,” he said. “It takes you at face value. New York, for instance, where I’m from is a place where you’re measured by your accomplishments, by your wealth, and in some ways I find New York a more provincial place than Chicago. There is no question in my mind that if I was to live in New York now my immediate circle of friends would be other writers, other journalists. And here in Chicago my friends cover a wide birth.” He also said that the city represented all of America more than any other place. “It’s a city which within its boundaries you can find most of what we celebrate and bemoan in this country. It’s a place constantly in search of itself.”


“It’s an imperfect place. And I believe, as a result, a perfect place to try to make sense of these imperfect times.”

A New York City native, he answered my question about how he began as a writer and what he recommended for a freelancer like myself. He said after college he didn’t know what he wanted to do, and he spent a year working at a cattle ranch in Oregon. He then saw a small add for a small weekly newspaper in Lansing, Mich., and was hired. He realized he wanted to write for a living. After a year there, he worked as a freelancer for five years. He worked ten years in Chicago, writing for the Wall Street Journal. He said it was a great newspaper for reporters and that he enjoyed working there, but left twelve years ago to write books. In the end, he pointed out that stories are what he sells to editors and if they are good ones they will sell. Finding and reporting a good story is what he teaches his students at Northwestern and Notre Dame, and what he says is still the hardest part of his job. “As a writer I am often writing about very emotional material,” he said. “I try to write as dispassionately as I can. And I do that because I think it is important that readers find their own way. I think the worst thing that readers like is to have them pushed or pulled through a story. You don’t like to be shouted at. And let me tell you, there is a lot of shouting going on these days.”

Still, I went to this speech and enjoy his writing because his values seem to mirror my own and I found his story topics pertinent and compelling. “I should also tell you that I write out of a very strong moral conviction. I have a very clear sense of how things ought to be. A very clear sense that things ought to be fair, that they ought to be just.... And if they’re not, well then what better reason than that to tell stories,” he said. “I enjoy the everyday story, the stories of everyday people, people who struggle against forces both within and without. And I’ve got this undying faith of the ability of people to change.”

Still, some things have not changed. On my drive home, back into the city, I decided to take the exit near Wrigley Field and drive around, primarily through working-class Mexican neighborhoods. Everything seemed bleak and dark and less lively in contrast to the downtown city lights and constant traffic, mostly by taxis. I had entered the Enterprise drop-off lot and parked when I realized I hadn’t filled up the tank. So I drove out and looked for a gas station. When you don’t know the downtown very well and you don’t own a car, finding gas is a daunting task. Or at least it was for me. I lingered at traffic lights looking for gas stations as I drove through downtown. Then I headed south on Michigan Avenue because the pace was a lot quicker. Still no luck. I felt like an outsider in the car, not on foot. I headed to Chinatown, thinking there has to be a gas station in that area. No luck. Finally I stopped at a Walgreens near Chinatown and asked a young black man, who had a gap in his front teeth, where I could find gas. He told me, “Three blocks east and about ten blocks north.” He was friendly and appeared eager to help. Thank goodness for him. I was tired and wanted to go home.


Gas stations, like many things, are different on the south side. When I pulled up to the pump a young black man told me the pumps were temporarily down. “Can I wash your windows for a few dollars?” he asked. “Me and my brothers need some money so we can fill up and go home.” I told him it was a rental and that I didn’t really care if the windows were washed or not. Then I asked where he lived. He said 79th Street. I felt bad and gave him a dollar and told him he could just keep it. “Well, can I wash your windows anyway?” he asked. I told him again that it was a rental. “It’s always good to ride in style,” he added. I told him thanks, but it wasn’t worth it. Then I realized I had pulled up to the wrong side of the pump. The gas cap was on the other side of the car. I pulled up to another pump and heard the same young man telling a middle-aged white couple that they could use their credit cards now to pay for gas. I pulled out my card and filled it up. I heard him tell his brothers he only needed two more dollars and they could get some gas. I left with a bad feeling. Here I was, tired and in a hurry to get home. And here was a black man about my age who had to raise money washing windows to get home. He seemed as genuine as the man who gave me directions and the white people I chatted with at the Des Plaines Public Library. It didn’t seem right.