Good Luck: Street Life in the City of Chicago

I.

chicago skyline with low clouds

Leaving my office for a quick walk to get some fresh air and clear my head after lunch, I eschew my usual path, heading east on busy Chicago Avenue rather than north up relatively quiet Franklin. I don’t put my headphones on like I normally do. I cross the intersection at Wells. About half way up the next block, I see a man stumbling as he walks across the middle of the street. He raises his right foot to the curb but loses his balance and falls back into the street, flat, prone. Instinctively I call out, “can I give you a hand?!” and hear a guy’s voice a few paces behind me ask the same almost simultaneously.

I also hear my mother’s voice, in memory. I see her the way I saw her as a tiny child, opening the driver’s side door of our van while we’re stopped at a stoplight, yelling across the street to a man crossing on foot at the intersection, asking if he needs help. After a few moments, she ducks back into the vehicle and closes her door. “Why did you do that? Did you know him?” I ask. “He’s blind,” she says, her moral compass firm and direct.

The guy and I rush into the street and each grab one of the man’s hands. We help him to his feet and walk him slowly up onto the sidewalk and get him leaning, then sitting, against the wall of the building on the corner. A third man sees all this happening and approaches us, asking if he should call 911. While he does that, we ask the man if he’s OK, if he needs anything. He mumbles, and I can’t understand what he’s saying. I don’t know how to help. It’s cold, and I’m bundled in my overcoat, hat, scarf, and gloves; the man has a hoodie on underneath his jacket but no gloves. He’s wearing a Streetwise ID on a lanyard. His head slumps against his chest as he dozes off or passes out.

The man with the phone says 911 is sending a squad car to the scene, and I blanch inwardly a bit. It’s Chicago. I wish there were some other option available besides the cops. The first guy makes a move to keep going on his way, and, glancing back down at the man on the sidewalk before walking away, he sagely intones to me, “probably heroin.” I’m taken aback by this confident assumption. Maybe he knows more about drug symptoms than I do, and yes, there’s a methadone clinic up the street, but . . . to just jump right to that conclusion?

The man with the phone says he’s going to wait until the police arrive; I say that I’ll stand and wait with him too. A tall man walks past us and then turns around and looks down at the man on the sidewalk. “Adrian, is that you?” he asks, stooping down to flip over the Streetwise ID dangling at his midsection. “I know him,” he tells us, and we give a short narration of what happened. “Probably drunk,” the tall man shrugs and walks away.

lifting up chicago families block by block

The man with the phone and I make polite chit-chat as we scan Chicago Avenue for the arrival of the police cruiser. He asks if I’m a student at Moody Bible Institute; I say, no, that I work at an office down the street and was just out for a walk. He says he was doing the same. I don’t tell him that I actually recognize him from the train; I see him periodically getting off the brown line around the same time as I do in the morning. He says how not that long ago he and his wife had called 911 to report something happening in their neighborhood, but that by the time anyone drove up, it was quiet again. I’ve definitely called 911 before in response to noises that sounded like gunshots or other violent altercations, so I get it, I do, but the assumption that the police are automatically the right people to call when things go bump in the night is . . . complicated. His trust seems, yes, privileged, but also naïve, suburban. Which, I suppose, can be much the same thing. I benignly assent that, yes, sometimes the cops are overworked and can’t get to all their calls in a timely manner.

A young woman approaches us and asks, in a heavy accent, where a certain address is. He and I stammer a bit while we mentally orient ourselves on the grid, trying to figure out if it’s walkable or not, and which direction she should head in. “You should get on this bus,” the man instructs her as the 66 pulls up in front of us, into the spot where the man had tumbled just a few minutes earlier. The bus door opens and the woman shouts her question to the driver; she gets on and I can see them trying to communicate as the bus pulls off. “I think she’s gotta go all the way to, like, Ashland,” I say to the man with the phone, recalling the address that she was asking us about. “That’s way too far to walk from here, especially in the cold.”

chicago transit authority instruction bus

We hear a siren in the distance, approaching rapidly. It speeds past and turns a corner a block west of us. A second cruiser blows a stoplight and turns to follow. Then a police van trundles by going in the other direction, driving past us as well. We nervously check the time, wondering if we’ve been blown off. The man is still sitting slumped against the wall, though he’s starting to stir and incoherently mumble again. Neither of us try to engage him, nor does he seem particularly aware of our presence. Another crowd gathers at the bus stop. Another bus pulls up to load them all on.

Finally we see a cop car slow down across the street from us. We wave to them and then they turn around and park in the bus stop. An older woman who’d been intermittently pacing the sidewalk in front of us suddenly stops and asks if we’ve seen her keys. I guess we seemed legitimate now that the police were approaching us.

The cops were both African American women and I felt a small twinge of relief, hopeful that they probably weren’t going to rough this guy up or otherwise unduly hassle him. I also wondered, though, about how they’re treated on the job. Does their supervisor send them out on calls like this that are perceived to be relatively unimportant? Do they get sent out to calls that need “a woman’s touch”?

police cars on chicago avenue

The man with the phone immediately begins explaining to one of the cops what happened, and I stand by attentively to be sure he’s getting all the details right. The second cop approaches the man sitting on the ground, who by this time had pulled his hoodie up over his head. “Let me see your face, sir,” she asks him, with something like a sense of humor in her voice. Drunk or high as he was, he’s almost acting like a child.

Once we explain to the first officer what happened, and once it seems like I probably won’t be witnessing any human rights violations, the man and I start to walk our separate ways. I thank him for calling 911, he thanks me for sticking around. Genuinely, warmly. I wonder what the social contract between us will be when and if we ever notice each other on the train platform in the future.

“I love you too,” the second cop says back to the man on the ground, and I finally feel OK enough to walk away.

II.

superior street chicago with movie crane

Heading out for a walk after lunch another day, I point myself in the direction of a raw food restaurant a couple blocks away from my office where I want to get something to drink. I leave my headphones off again. I cut down to Superior via Wells, and I feel sad that the old Howard Johnson diner has been knocked down and replaced by an enormous high rise. The last time I ate there was the Fourth of July in 2012 when Brian and I were on our way to see the first Magic Mike in the theater. I had a BLT with real B that day, because freedom. Now there’s gonna be some kind of smoothie place on the ground floor of the building, which, frankly, I’m not not looking forward to. I admit I’m fancy enough to get excited about convenient access to health food.

As I approach LaSalle, I see a line of people on the sidewalk waiting outside the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. I’m pretty sure they run a midday soup kitchen or food pantry there. I often see a line stretching around the corner when I’m out running errands on my lunch hour. I continue walking east on Superior toward Clark. I see two men walking toward me from the far end of the block, and a dude comes up behind me and zips past, continuing toward them at a much faster pace. As he gets to the end of the block, one of the men asks him something that I can’t hear, and the dude blatantly ignores them and continues walking. When I finally approach them, I smile. About a beat later, just as they’ve walked past me, one of them asks, “are you smiling at my husband or are you smiling at me?” I turn around and chirp, “I was smiling at you both!” The second man continues walking, but I can hear him laughing, which makes the man who called out to me laugh too.

“I don’t know why I said that,” he says to me, trying to pull himself together. “He’s laughing,” he says, looking back at his friend.

“And now you’re laughing too,” I say.

“All we need is a cigarette,” he implores me with a smile on his face.

“Oh, I don’t smoke,” I say lightly, as if it just occurred to me.

“Can I have a hug then?” he asks.

If I were in a worse mood, or if I’d felt threatened at all by the interaction, this would have become complicated. Could this be considered harassment? I realize I do feel slightly pressured not to say no, but I also don’t in any way feel endangered by the request. I wonder if I’m setting a bad precedent, allowing this guy to think he can just ask women on the street for hugs whenever he wants, like their physical affection and attention is owed to him. But also, I feel like, as a human, who asks for a hug unless they just really, really need a hug? And I am nothing if not an enthusiastic hugger. In the split second that it takes me to scan through that analysis mentally, I say, “of course” and reach up to wrap my arms around his shoulders.

“Good luck,” I say to him, in the neutral way I try to end most of my interactions with strangers who stop to ask me for directions or other information.

As we part, he shouts back one more time, “who do you think is going to win—the Bulls or the Bulls?”

Remembering my youthful pride at living in the suburbs of Chicago during Michael Jordan’s heyday, one of the only times in my life that I took any remote interest in sports, I call back, “the Bulls, of course!”

“Duh!” he shouts in response, slightly teasing my girlish affect.

I round the corner onto Clark, heading south, and see a guy who works in my building standing in the middle of the next intersection, leaning into the open window of a fancy car idling at the stoplight. “Congratulations!” he shouts in to driver and other passenger.

III.

chicago architecture seen from the river

At the conclusion of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany writes,

Interclass contact conducted in a mode of good will is the locus of democracy as visible social drama, a drama that must be supported and sustained by political, education, medical, job, and cultural equality of opportunity if democracy is to mean to most people any more than an annual or quatra-annual visit to a voting booth; if democracy is to animate both infrastructure and superstructure. . . . It is not too much to say, then, that contact—interclass contact—is the lymphatic system of a democratic metropolis. . . . Contact fights the networking notion that the only “safe” friends we can ever have must be met through school, work, or preselected special interest groups: from gyms and health clubs to reading groups and volunteer work. Contact and its human rewards are fundamental to cosmopolitan culture, to its art and its literature, to its politics and its economics; to its quality of life.

I’ve often spoken about how I feel myself to be a committed city person, but lately I’ve felt ground down by urban life. Not because it’s dirty or because there’s no privacy or because it’s simply too much; because it’s become too clean and because people are too isolated and because certain areas are becoming too much the same. The building where my beloved Thai restaurant Panang used to be is now being converted into Flats apartments; fancy people at Whole Foods would rather avoid eye contact and literally reach around my physical body rather than acknowledging my existence and simply saying “excuse me” as they grab a box of gluten-free crackers.

The city is mutable; of course I know that and of course it has to be. But when I examine my heart for any patriotic impulse and can’t seem to find one, I find in its place a devotion to people. And I cling to an expectation that cities are the best and most reliable places where I can practice my devotion. When my ability to feel connected to the pulse of city life feels compromised for whatever reason, I feel not only concerned, but unmoored. And that’s what I find myself hungering for, as I launch myself back out into the city streets seeking to redress that lack and enjoy what remains.

center of head heart stencil

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