Death of an Invisible Man | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Death of an Invisible Man

Twelve years ago, when things got tight, Sterling Coleman had his gas turned off. He got along just fine without heat or help from anyone--until January's cold spell.

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Thirteen people have died of hypothermia in Chicago this winter, most of them outside. Sterling Coleman was unusual: he froze to death in his own home.

Coleman, who was 57, lived alone in a run-down, two-story frame house with green-and-white-striped awnings on East 92nd Street. On February 2, authorities found him in the basement, naked from the waist down, wearing only a long-sleeved shirt. The weekend had been brutal, with temperatures sinking as low as nine below zero and windchills in the negative 20s. His body felt "extremely cold to the touch," according to the medical examiner, and an autopsy revealed hemorrhages in his stomach lining, an indicator of death by hypothermia.

Although heat is not generally thought of as a luxury in Chicago in 2004--Illinois law prevents the gas and electric companies from cutting off delinquent customers during the coldest months, and the city requires landlords to maintain minimum temperatures--Coleman had been living without it for nearly 12 years.

When he was a young man, the southeast side was a thriving working-class community. The largest producer of structural steel in the world and the area's primary employer, U.S. Steel South Works, stretched along the lakefront between 79th and 92nd streets. Like many generations of men before him, Coleman followed in his father's footsteps and found work in the steel industry. He bought the house on East 92nd, a little west of Cottage Grove, in 1974 for $17,000. For a while he shared it with his mother and a brother. But after his brother died, about 15 years ago, and his mother moved into the nursing home where she spent her last days, Coleman was the only one seen coming or going.

Coleman never married or had any children, and the remaining family he did have he kept at some distance. "My brother was a private person who didn't tell us anything," says his sister Rosetta Craig. "He always told us he was OK. He said we didn't have to visit." (She declined to comment further.)

"I never had one conversation with him," says Leroy Robinson, who lived across from Coleman for about 20 years. Although he'd pass Coleman on the street every now and then, "there was never no 'hi' or 'how are you' or 'good morning.'"

Allen Hart, a 67-year-old retired factory worker who lived two doors to the east of Coleman, appears to have been his only friend. And Hart didn't know him well. "If he had a girlfriend or whatever, he never did talk about that, and I didn't ask him. Because he's not gonna tell you, no way." Even when Coleman's brother died, he didn't mention it. "I'm right here," says Hart, "and I didn't know."

Hart met Coleman in the early 70s, when his son was working on Coleman's van. Coleman informed Hart that he didn't "get into talking to people" because "they want to get into your business," but Hart turned out to be the exception.

Coleman was of average height and weight, according to Hart, with skin so dark that any facial hair would have gone undetected unless it turned gray. As far as Hart knows, he didn't drink or smoke and was serious, a hard worker. "He didn't say things to be funny," Hart recalls. "He didn't carry on no foolishness or nothing."

They bonded over sports. Back when Billy Williams played for the Cubs, they'd ride the el together to Wrigley Field, and before the Bulls won their first championship, when they could still afford scalpers' tickets, they'd go to the Chicago Stadium and marvel at Michael Jordan. Eventually they had to settle for watching him on TV at Coleman's sister's house. "After Michael left, that was hard," says Hart. "Michael, that's all he'd talk about."

In recent years, their outings had consisted solely of trips to the offtrack betting parlor. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they'd take Hart's white Oldsmobile down to the OTB at 111th Street. When they got there, however, they parted ways. "You can't concentrate if you talking to people," Hart explains.

He thinks Coleman won some money on early excursions, but by the end he wasn't sure he was even betting. "Tell you the truth, I don't think he was," he says.

Asking would have been pointless: in the last few years, Coleman had become hard of hearing. When Hart tried to contribute to their conversations, Coleman just talked right over him. To get his attention, Hart would have to touch him on the shoulder, look directly at him, and shout. "And I don't even think he heard me then," Hart says, "because he wouldn't respond. He seemed like he still didn't understand what I was saying."

Coleman knew it was a problem. "He went over to Cook County and got a checkup," says Hart, "and they referred him to some clinic or something, and they wanted so much money--$800--for a hearing aid, and he didn't have that kind of money."

It had been years since Coleman had worked a steady job. The steel industry began collapsing in the mid-70s. International competition, industry restructuring, economic decline, and an increasing demand for alternatives to steel, such as aluminum and plastic, led to massive layoffs. The effect on the southeast side was devastating. Unemployment jumped from 4 to 11 percent between 1970 and 1980; by 1982 the South Chicago Development Commission was estimating it had reached 35 percent.

In late 1985, Northwestern University's Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research put together a report for a mayoral task force on steel and the southeast side. According to the report more than 20,000 steel-based jobs in the community had disappeared, and former steelworkers were experiencing "severe adjustment problems." The report pointed to a "lack of available alternatives" as "the single biggest reason for persistent joblessness" and warned: "Unless manufacturing can be revitalized...the once viable economy of the southeast area will experience permanent underemployment."

Hart doesn't know how long Coleman survived the layoffs. "He'd tell me guys would try to bump him, 'cause he was the last to come. But because he was such a good worker and he went to work every day, people would always get around to keeping him."

In April 1992, after laying off workers in phases, U.S. Steel South Works shut down completely. It's not clear whether Coleman worked there or at one of the other area steel mills, but the very next month he called the gas company and terminated his account. For the previous 18 years, says Peoples Gas spokesperson Elizabeth Castro, "Mr. Coleman had an excellent payment history with us."

Coleman took a series of jobs after that. He worked in a record store and in a restaurant. Eventually he resorted to picking up aluminum cans. He'd go out collecting two or three times a day, says Hart, "rain, shine, sleet, or snow."

He put his finds in a shopping cart and pushed them two and a half miles to a recycling center at 83rd and Vincennes, where he exchanged them for about 40 cents a pound. Because his van was now permanently parked in his backyard, Hart offered to drive him there. "I said, 'Let me know when you want to take them--I can raise my trunk up,'" Hart says. "Sterling says, 'Naw, I be picking up cans on my way to and from.'" Though Coleman made a couple trips to the center each week, no one there knew his name.

Coleman dressed "like a bum" while he was out collecting--in old, worn-through clothing. "I dress like this because if I don't, people think I got something, and they'd be trying to stick me up," he told Hart. Hart thought he had a point. For the "race parlor," though, Coleman always dressed "decent."

Not long before he died, Coleman had lost a good deal of weight and had started talking to himself. "He come out the back, he be in the yard doing something--you'd think somebody talking to him," says Hart. "But he be talking to hisself--and talking real loud 'cause he couldn't hear."

Hart knew Coleman was on food stamps, so sometimes he'd spot him ten or twenty dollars at the OTB. And he'd save up his own empty cans for his friend to recycle. One day during the last week of January, Hart tossed a few small bags of cans over the fence into Coleman's backyard. They sat there for days, collecting snow until they turned into little white mounds. Hart grew concerned, and when he realized there weren't any footprints leading to or from Coleman's house, he drove to Rosetta Craig's place. If he'd have simply knocked, Coleman wouldn't have been able to hear him.

The police and fire departments responded to Craig's call for a well-being check a little before 1 PM on February 2.

In all the years he'd known Coleman, Hart says, his porch "is as far as I went." Had he gotten further, he would've been shocked at what he saw. Coleman had covered "every inch" of wall space in the house with blankets and carpeting. Officer Curtis Hinkle, one of the first on the scene, says the makeshift insulation blocked even light switches and the front door, which had to be pried open. The house was dark and cold and eerily empty, with a striking absence of personal effects. Hinkle saw no furniture, no family photos, no space heaters, not even a kitchen sink.

Hypothermia sets in when the body's core temperature drops below 95 degrees. The body shivers to generate heat and decreases the flow of blood to the extremities. The hands and feet go numb. Manual dexterity is lost. As the body temperature continues to drop, balance and muscle coordination decline. The shivering becomes violent. Victims grow tired. They get disoriented. They lose the ability to think straight and may make poor, sometimes fatal, decisions, peeling off their clothes or lying down in the snow for a nap.

Eventually the body abandons its quest to keep warm. The shivering stops. The heart rate and breathing eventually slow to undetectable levels. Pupils dilate.

Survivors have reported that the feeling of being cold stops with the shivering, and that you drift off into a detached, dreamlike state, where all is right with the world and you just want to sleep.

In the final stages of hypothermia, arrhythmia may occur. Victims lose consciousness and the heart gives out.

According to the medical examiner, the blood vessels in Coleman's heart were narrowed, contributing to his death and perhaps making him more vulnerable to hypothermia than he'd been in the previous winters he'd gone without heat.

No one--not even the medical examiner--knows how long he'd been dead before he was zipped into a body bag. And no one, it turns out, really knew how he lived.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.

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