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Back From the Edge

A first-time novelist revisits the Rogers Park setting of his misspent youth.

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By Cara Jepsen

Steve Elliot first left home in 1985, when he was just 13 years old. His mother had died after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis, and he didn't get along with his father, who once gave Elliot a buzz cut after handcuffing him to a pipe in the basement of their West Rogers Park home. "I was pretty much waiting to go," he recalls, "but my mother was dying. I had to stick it out."

Elliot--the author of Jones Inn, a new novel set in Rogers Park--readily admits he was a problem child. He had his first run-in with the law at the age of 11, when he was caught breaking into parking meters. After running away from home, he spent nearly a year on the street, avoiding both the law and his father, who would periodically track him down to drag him home. He says he continued to attend classes at Boone School "about 50 percent of the time" while he moved around the neighborhood, living on the rooftops of various buildings, including a mini mart a block west of the school at California and Pratt.

Another favorite squat was a broom closet in an apartment building. When it got cold, Elliot says, he broke into boiler rooms. He describes his actions as "pure hobo stuff." Sympathetic teachers would occasionally bring him lunch. "Nobody knew what to do with me," he says. "I did drugs and didn't want to listen."

He was placed in foster care and then in a succession of group homes after the police found him sleeping in a hallway in 1986. "I wouldn't stay because those places suck," he says. "On the streets, I had total freedom. Nobody told me when I had to be in."

He says he was "the only white kid within miles" when he was placed in a south-side facility managed by the Children's Home & Aid Society. He started going to a synagogue. "I'm not Jewish, but we went every Friday because they gave you cigarettes and free food." A rabbi helped him find a spot in a group home run by the Jewish Children's Bureau. Elliot, who's now 27, plans to chronicle his experiences there in a second novel. He laughs when describing the upcoming book as another "story about losers losing." He credits the JCB home with saving his life.

"It turned out to be a pretty good deal," he says. "I'm a coward and not a good fighter, which is not a great mix. I had no chance of survival in that other place. Only good kids went to the JCB--not kids like me, with a long record.

"Even though the group homes are rough places, they ultimately paid for my college. Because I was a ward of the state, I was able to qualify for scholarships, and there was just no competition for them at all. I got a free ride right on through to graduate school." He earned a master's degree in film from Northwestern in 1996.

When Elliot was 18, he took a job as a busboy at the Heartland Cafe and joined a close-knit crew of artists, actors, and musicians working there. "They were the most creative and beautiful group of people I had ever met," he says. For the next several years, he would wait tables during his summers off from the University of Illinois in Champaign. Later he worked an entire year there after moving back to Chicago to be with a "passionate" girlfriend who had tattoos on every knuckle.

He also started to use heroin, as did most of his friends. At first, the drug didn't appear to be harmful. In fact, everyone seemed to be excelling. Some of his friends were gaining notoriety in theater companies, performing in such shows as Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Others were in bands like Sunday Punch and D.O.P.E. Elliot was moving on to film school. He ended up supporting himself as a dancer in gay nightspots, including Berlin, Vortex, and the Bijou Theater.

Elliot wrote a short story about his group and passed it around to impress the others. "It didn't seem finished, so I'd add another chapter and then another chapter." These stories would become the basis for Jones Inn. The short, fast-paced novel focuses on the exploits of five young friends who score drugs, hang out at "Jones Inn," and dance at Smart Bar. Eventually things fall apart. One friend OD's and another shoots a cop. A third slowly wastes away and dies from AIDS. The narrator gets a job at the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's, and eventually makes his way to college.

The characters are based on Elliot and his friends, but he admits he took some liberties with the plot. "It's strongly based on truth, but in real life nobody got shot and my sister never got raped." One of his real-life friends did end up committing suicide in 1994. "That was the beginning of the end," he says, "when everybody lost it and the heroin use became really heavy."

He says most of the group wound up in rehab programs or moved back to the small midwestern towns where they were born. Michael James, co-owner of the Heartland Cafe, recalls that the majority of Elliot's group "had severe problems. They were all interesting and creative people, but for better or worse we moved them along." Elliot says the Heartland has changed: "It's a pretty boring place now, but it's probably a healthier place to be working." The restaurant's store is selling copies of his book.

"There was so much talent waiting tables and producing plays and doing all these drugs, and it all just went down the toilet," Elliot says. "The bands broke up. One guy who was an amazingly gifted guitarist is now working as an overnight cashier at a casino and living in a trailer park. For him, just to make it through another day on any kind of level is a success, whereas before you figured he would really be something."

Elliot, who now lives in San Francisco, stopped using heroin in 1995, after an overdose caused a grand mal seizure. "My muscle tissue broke down and I lost 30 pounds and had the junkie limp going. I told everyone I fell down the stairs." He says he took six months to recover. Still, he refuses to characterize his former self as a junkie. "I just don't think I qualify. I don't have an addictive enough personality, and I did it only 15 or 20 times over a period of years."

He acknowledges he was lucky to be able to make a clean break from the scene. "A lot of people have done really nice things for me for no real good reason, like the person who got me out of the tough group homes and into the JCB. It still happens. I've been consistently lucky now for 12 years." He recently was awarded a fellowship to study fiction writing at Columbia University. He's set to start classes this fall.

Elliot is preparing for a homecoming next week. He'll read from Jones Inn on April 1 at the Borders in downtown Evanston, and he even plans to see his father, who has already read the book. "He asked, 'Aren't you going to get over this handcuffing thing?' I would, but all I have are these stories and experiences. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but at the same time this is just my way of dealing with it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Elliot photo by Eric Slomanson.

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