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Food, Clothing, Shelter

Three Tales of Urban Survival


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Halsted is just visible from my bicycle westbound on Adams. Three gray polyps--heads?--rise from the backboard of a bus-stop bench. Seen up close, they belong to three unshaven guys, lost in their work. They plunge dirty hands deep inside an open cardboard box, the size of two milk crates, that rests on slats between them.

The bewhiskered searchers take turns viewing its contents--the box is full of whole raw poultry. Each lifts a chicken to the bright light of midafternoon, like jewelers appraising gems.

The whole lot, it seems, is gamy--not a keeper in the bunch. The rejection of each naked bird coaxes from the trio not speech exactly, but a grumbly round of guttural sounds.

Following each examination, the inspector unself-consciously chucks the chicken onto Halsted Street.

"You fellas got something against chickens?"

Seated on my now motionless bike, I look on from Adams Street. They don't acknowledge my remark.

By the time I leave, several minutes later, there have to be at least eight castaways lying three to ten feet from the curb. Yet the chickens never hit traffic, or vice versa. They just lie there, slickly shining, like struck matches on asphalt.

Legs, a man's big shoes, protrude upward from the door of the five-foot-high metal container. It's midnight at the Goodwill: I stand watching from just across the street. The drop box for clothing donations seems to have swallowed someone whole--a human still life on deserted Desplaines.

But wait--the legs are moving: signs of life too steady for rigor mortis. The tilted figure is duking it out with gravity, gyrating against the metal box. Easing loose takes several minutes of methodical movement.

He finally extricates his body, and more. When he stands, I spot a number of winter coats in his arms.

His tall skinny stain of a shape shakes with nervous energy like a dog after a bath. Exhaling plumes of cool air, he reconnoiters. I duck unseen around the corner of a building. The man crosses the street and heads into an alley with his shapeless load.

Returning in a minute, he dives again into the receptacle--legs pumping, shoes wiggling.

Randolph Street between LaSalle and Wells is a magnet for illegal curbside and double parking, the continuous scene of brief stops and quick hops even during this inclemently cool Friday evening.

Tito, a security guard, is intent on the silver Malibu coupe opposite his station. Together, we peek outside through his building's glass facade. "He's up to something, sure," security says. "Seen him try car doors up and down the block before he hopped."

I can't see who he's talking about. Until I observe a vague face staring at me from deep inside the Malibu. Large unblinking eyes beneath a tan stocking cap seem to hover over the passenger seat, which has been adjusted to full recline. The gaze is serious, like the menacing eyes that shine when the lights go out in a creepy cartoon.

Suddenly, I get it: the specter--a transient lodging for warmth in unlocked, untended vehicles--isn't letting on it can be seen. "Car jumping," Tito calls it, matter-of-factly. Am I the last to hear about the latest street moves?

I imagine, but do not witness, scenes of eviction: The motorists who fail to detect intruders before landing in drivers' seats. Do the sheltering forms exit then? Talk their way out? Or do they sense the owners' approaches and slip off unseen?

The Malibu is there an hour later, its occupant going nowhere in the night.

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