A lot can happen to a person in ten years--especially someone who's poor.
While covering poverty in Chicago for the last decade, I've been struck by how frenzied the lives of the poor tend to be. They're constantly "going through changes," as they put it. By that, they're usually referring to a trying emotional period, but the expression applies literally as well: they start new jobs, and get laid off, and go in and out of relationships, and move from here to there, and deal frequently with new babies, sudden death, sickness, and crime. Sometimes the turbulence throws them into a new and better place; often all the changes they go through amount to no real change at all.
I spoke at length recently with five Chicagoans, who were poor for all or most of the 80s, about what their lives were like during that decade. They live on the south side and west side and north side. Four are black and one is Puerto Rican. (There are poor whites in Chicago, too; but the hardship of poverty here continues to be borne primarily by minorities: blacks and Hispanics constitute 91 percent of the city's recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children [AFDC] and General Assistance, the chief welfare programs for the able-bodied indigent.) The paths taken by the lives of these five over the last ten years illustrate, I think, the jagged terrain of urban poverty, and how some get past the bumps to a degree, while others just suffer them.
State Street downtown is cold and lonely this November evening. A prickly snow assaults its sidewalks. But it is warm, noisy, and cheerful inside the office building at 237 S. State, in the lower-level anteroom of the Professional Career Center. It's graduation day for the 80 "security cadets" who completed a 300-hour course qualifying them for security-guard work. The graduates, dressed in gray short-sleeved shirts, navy blue pants, and shiny black shoes, sit shoulder to shoulder in molded plastic chairs on the left side of the room; family and friends sit on the right. Blue balloons bob against the ceiling; a giant sheet cake is being sliced in the hallway just outside the room.
The cadets are by and large in their 20s and 30s, and about three-quarters of them are men. At least 80 percent are black, and most if not all of the rest appear to be Hispanic. They are a raucous crowd: they pound palms and bellow as classmates step forward and receive their diplomas.
The short, stout black woman in the front row is still beaming as the ceremony ends. She holds her diploma in one hand and a red rose in the other. She saw an ad for this course on the el one day last summer. Like most of tonight's graduates, Ruby Wilson (a pseudonym) enrolled because, for someone with no college education, this seemed the straightest route to a steady job that paid more than minimum wage, albeit not much more. Enrolling was a major commitment for Wilson, a welfare recipient: tuition was $3,800. Wilson got that through a loan from the school. Classes met from 6 to 10 PM every weeknight for four months. Wilson, 33, a single parent with four grammar-school-aged children and no supportive relatives, had to leave the kids home alone while at school. "You hate to leave them, but you have to if you're going to better yourself so you can help them," she had told me earlier. Wilson had studied hard, had learned how to handle a gun and a nightstick (an instructor thumping her knuckles with his stick when she misused hers). She had graduated with honors, and so feels giddy right now. "I'm very proud of myself," she said, glancing at her diploma, "because I went after what I wanted and I got it. I feel I'm setting an example for my kids. They can't come to me and say they just can't do it in school. I'll tell 'em, 'Ain't no such word as can't.' This is the first step for me. Next is getting a job."
The 80s thus were ending brightly for Wilson; but the decade had not been filled with clear skies. "It's some years that I wouldn't even want to think about," she told me later. "I would rather forget the 80s and start with the 90s."
As brightly as the decade ended for her, that's how darkly it began.
In February 1980, Wilson was living on the north side with her two-year-old daughter and ten-month-old son. She was three months pregnant. She left her son at home one day with his uncle and took her daughter to Humboldt Park to visit the girl's aunt. The girl came down with the flu, and so they stayed in Humboldt Park three days. Wilson couldn't call home to check on her son because she didn't have a phone. When she returned home, she found him sitting on the floor, silent, pale, inert. He didn't react when he saw her. He's all alone, Wilson realized. She rushed him to a hospital. Severely dehydrated, he was hospitalized a month, connected to intravenous tubes much of the time. He had been alone almost the entire three days: the uncle told Wilson he had meant to be gone only briefly, but had gotten arrested.
In subsequent years, Wilson's son would periodically terrorize his sisters, threatening them with knives, cutting them with pieces of glass. He knocked out two of his youngest sister's teeth. He set small fires in the family's apartments. In '88 he was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. Even before he was abandoned those three days, Wilson had wondered whether something was wrong with him: he rarely smiled or cried. But she still blames his emotional problems largely on the February '80 incident.
The trip to the hospital that February was the first of innumerable ones for Wilson in the 80s. Her son's asthma attacks resulted in many hospital stays. In July 1980 Wilson gave birth to her third child--through a cesarean section, like all of her deliveries. This child soon was wheezing, too, and also had to be hospitalized now and then. In July '81 Wilson had her fourth and final child. (She underwent a tubal ligation afterwards.) The baby was back in the hospital two weeks later, dehydrated after a bout with diarrhea. "Every time I looked up, someone was sick," Wilson said. "You feel like you never really get a break. You're constantly on the go, and then you start getting sick yourself."
Wilson's tonsils were operated on in '82, when a knot developed in her throat and made swallowing difficult. The following year, her stomach began throbbing. A hospital checkup did not reveal the source of the pain. It only worsened during the decade, until a large gallstone was removed in '89.
Many of Wilson's friends had health problems, too, but it was often their own fault, she said: they smoked or drank, or used drugs. Wilson steers clear of those things. She has seen friends get hooked on drink or drugs and "destroy their lives and neglect their kids." She caught her adoptive sister shooting up several years ago, and has worried ever since about her sister catching AIDS. "When I had my kids, I said I can't afford no habits," she said. "My kids are the only real blood relatives I have, so I feel a special obligation to them."
Wilson was placed in a foster home when she was two, then adopted by another man and woman at age six. She doesn't know what happened to her natural parents. With her adoptive parents and sister, she grew up around 71st and Aberdeen, then a lower-middle-class, racially mixed area. Both of her adoptive parents worked, and Wilson said she never lacked for anything. She was much closer to her father, "who gave me everything I asked for." Wilson was shorter than her peers even as a child, and kids in school picked on her, but her father came to her rescue many times. She was 13 when he was shot and killed, an innocent bystander in a currency-exchange holdup on Racine. When he died, "I thought everything had ended for me, because me and my mother didn't get along," Wilson said. "It was like living in hell after that." As soon as she graduated from high school (Simeon, in 1975), she moved out.
She volunteered at Mount Sinai Hospital, and after a few weeks they hired her as a typist. She worked there until '77, when she had her first baby. She got pregnant out of ignorance about birth control, she said. The baby's father split soon after. With no child care, Wilson couldn't return to work. She started receiving AFDC.
She subsisted on aid for most of the 80s. When you've been out of work for some time, people don't want to hire you, she said; and sickly kids make it hard to keep a job. In '83 she got hired as a cashier in a Loop Woolworth's. They laid her off a year later because of her frequent absences. She showed up for work every day, she said; but often the day-care center would call and ask her to come get her son because he was wheezing again.
Being on welfare was humiliating, she said. "I hated the fact that I was getting something I wasn't earning. I hated how the caseworkers wanted to get into your business. They wanted you to tell them everything you do. They don't give you enough to be asking all that information. Some of them act like the money is coming out of their pocket--every cent. They make you feel like you're less than a person. They talk to you in that kind of way--like you're not a human, you don't have any feelings."
AFDC's sub-poverty-level grant ($413 a month for a family of five when the 80s began; $452 by decade's end), combined with Chicago's surplus of dilapidated housing, kept Wilson and her kids on the move during the decade, from one cramped, shabby flat to the next. The places typically had two rooms, falling plaster, leaky pipes, and "groves of roaches," Wilson said--not ideal conditions for frail children. The tight quarters promoted incessant quarreling among the children, and between Wilson and the kids. Her son's fire setting and menacing of his sisters added to the tension. Wilson frequently got into it with her landlord, too, over some repair he wasn't making. Then either she would decide on her own it was time to find another place, or the landlord's harassment would prompt her to do so. Since they didn't own a car, Wilson and her kids resorted to the CTA for several of their moves, hauling their possessions on numerous trips on the bus or el.
The family had another member for a time. In April '82, Wilson married a man she had been seeing for several years--the father of her second and third children. He was sweet to her at first. But he began drinking more and more, and one night took a swing at her. She always thought he'd change and gave him more chances; the violence only grew. She started fighting back, but he was bigger and stronger; she was the one who got the black eyes and swollen lips. She was losing her hair and feeling exhausted; she divorced him in November '84. "I just couldn't take it no more," she said. "I didn't want my kids having any mental problems behind all the fighting."
She saw another man from '85 through '87, but broke up with him when he wanted to get married. "If I was to ever get married again, my kids would have to be grown, or almost grown, because I don't want a man over my kids. Those kids are mine, and I want to do for them and chastise them myself."
The increase in single motherhood is easy to explain, she said. "It's because men today are just wimps. They can't take the pressure that women can take. When things get rough, they just turn to the bottle. They prefer to fight a woman than fight a man. They prefer to take out all their frustrations on a woman. When something needs to be done, if the woman don't do it, it doesn't get done. And women feel, hey, if I got to do all the work, I prefer to be alone and raise the kids myself."
Wilson and her kids stayed primarily in Uptown, Edgewater, and Rogers Park during the decade. Wilson prefers racially mixed neighborhoods to the black ghettos of the south and west sides; they're safer, she said.
In '87 she joined an integrated Methodist church near her apartment, the United Church of Rogers Park. She hates to think where she would be today without the support of this church. The building she was living in that year was sold, and its tenants had to move in three months or be evicted. Wilson couldn't find a place, the deadline passed, and the sheriff's deputies came and carried the family's belongings out to the alley. But her pastor arranged for some parishioners to move her things to safe storage. Wilson and her kids stayed at a Salvation Army shelter for three weeks; meantime, she found an apartment on Morse. Some church members have given her clothes for her children. And when she had to have the gallbladder surgery last April, church members provided homes for her kids for the eight days she was hospitalized.
Rent for Wilson's two-room apartment on Morse was $335. Wilson had wanted to avoid public housing come hell or high water. But the kids were getting bigger, and she felt she needed a larger apartment and a smaller rent bill. Her only option was to get a place through the Chicago Housing Authority. CHA tenants pay only 30 percent of their income for rent, but most of the available units are in the high-rise projects. Wilson was offered a three-bedroom flat in a Cabrini-Green high rise at 1119 N. Cleveland. She and her children moved there in March '88.
The building at 1119 N. Cleveland sits behind Cabrini-Green's notorious blacktop. The blacktop was designed as a playground, but for years now the only thing getting much play on it has been the gunfire of rival gangs. Wilson followed the advice of veteran tenants: she got her kids away from Cabrini as often as possible, and kept them inside when they were there. So while they heard the "pop pop pop" of the gangbangers' guns almost daily, Wilson witnessed just one shooting and had only one close call, a bullet whizzing past her head one afternoon when she was departing for a store. There were other problems, though. Her bathroom sink regularly backed up and would flood the apartment while she was gone. The kids downstairs set fires in the incinerator to try to kill the building's rats; the smoke that drifted up into Wilson's second-floor apartment would start her son wheezing, and off Wilson had to go with him to the hospital. In September '88, when another two-room apartment became available in the building on Morse, Wilson moved the family back there.
Wilson had always wanted to be active in her community, and in the late 80s, she became so. She participated in church functions, rang doorbells on behalf of Mayor Washington in his '87 reelection campaign (and for Mayor Sawyer in '89), and helped out in her children's classrooms. She was elected copresident of her kids' PTA. (She ran for a local school council last year, but lost.) Her volunteering at school "lets my kids know somebody do care." Being involved in the community "makes me feel wanted and needed--reminds me that I have something to offer."
But it was that security-guard course that really turned things around for Wilson in the 80s, albeit at the last minute.
A security firm hired her two weeks after her graduation. Her assignment: midnight-shift patrol at the Henry Horner Homes, a sprawling west-side CHA project notorious for its violent crime. It's a job many Chicagoans would turn down if it paid $20 an hour; Wilson gets $5.53. But Wilson wasn't complaining; she was just thrilled to be working again, she told me in early January. The cold weather seems to keep the crime down, she said, and so she hadn't been in any particularly perilous situations, though checking out the vacant apartments--to make sure they are vacant--sometimes was creepy. What she liked most about the job was the many opportunities for overtime: in her first month, she had worked numerous double shifts--16 hours straight, 4 PM to 8 AM.
It felt great to be earning that money, she said. But what she looked forward to most was "telling [Public] Aid to kiss my ass.
"I ain't gonna have to answer to nobody anymore," she said. "I ain't got to worry about somebody calling me in, sending me letters. I'll be 100 percent better off just by the fact that I'm earning my pay, and can't nobody tell me what to do with it.
"You get a raise on a job every year," she said. "With Aid, you get a raise every five or six years."
But she hadn't yet told Public Aid about her job, and didn't intend to until March, when her probation period at work ended. She knew she was supposed to report her job immediately to her caseworker; but she also knew she would lose her monthly check soon after she did. She had incurred numerous expenses in beginning work: the gun she bought cost $189, the uniform $147, three badges $37, a flashlight $31, a baton $20. Another $74 a month was now going to pay off the loan she had taken for tuition; another $50 a month went for a CTA pass; and she gave $60 a month to a teenage daughter of a friend to stay with her kids at night. She could have squeaked by without her aid check, but she wanted to feel that her work was getting her somewhere.
(Public Aid can reimburse recipients for some initial employment expenses such as those Wilson incurred. But Wilson said her caseworker told her when she took out the tuition loan that it would make her ineligible for reimbursement for any subsequent job-start expenses.)
"I don't like to do things like this," Wilson said of her decision to continue receiving aid while she worked. "But right now, in the situation I'm in, every cent counts."
She is saving for a bigger apartment. She would also like to get a car--nothing fancy or new, just some wheels for commuting to work and for driving to the hospital when necessary. (Her two asthmatic children still have occasional attacks; each had to be hospitalized once in '89.)
She dreams of having enough one day to buy an apartment building, with flats for each of her kids and their families "so they wouldn't have to worry about nobody telling them they have to go."
Her daughters, now 12, 9, and 8, will all be of childbearing age in the 90s; that is one of her main concerns for the new decade. She has already begun lecturing them: have a job and a savings account, she tells them, before you have any kids. Don't count on any man to help you. And don't look to Mama to bail you out, either: "I'm not raising no grandchildren," she has told them. Should they get pregnant early in spite of her admonishments, though, she knows she'll help them--if they stay in school and don't get pregnant again.
All three girls are doing well in school right now, she said. Her son, ten now, attends another school, with special programs for the emotionally disturbed. His recent grades have been good, too, as well as his behavior both at school and at home.
In the 90s, "I mainly hope good things happen for my children," Wilson said, "because when I know my children are well taken care of, I'm happy. When I see things standing in the way of my kids, that makes me hurt."
The only thing she minds about her job is how much it takes her away from her children. "Even though I fuss at my kids, I do miss them. They have been my whole strength and support."
But sometimes, she said, she regrets having had kids at all "because the world is so bad. I brought them into a world that's messed up, confused, unhappy, violent. And when my kids get older, the world is gonna be even worser. I'm so overprotective of them. I be scared something's gonna happen. You see so many kids getting killed. And I don't think I could handle that.
"But I try to think positive" about the coming years, she said. "Maybe if I think positive, things will happen positively. I keep telling myself, 'Got to keep pushing. Keep pushing, and something got to open. Something got to break.'"
Jackie Ruffin was angry with himself when I met him the first time, in late October. "I got my welfare check yesterday. Dead broke this morning. Cocaine abuse--what can I say?"
Ruffin, 36, had been staying in the trailer of a small, out-of-service semi that sits in a lot on Madison near Sacramento. "I was supposed to rent a room for $100 yesterday," he said. "I never got there--stopped at the wrong house first." His General Assistance check was for $154. He spent it all on cocaine, for himself and some street acquaintances. He also had received $90 worth of food stamps, which he peddled on the street for $70, which he also blew on coke. "I ain't eat nothing all day yesterday. I'm starving now."
Ruffin talked to me in a dining room at Marillac House, a west-side social service agency, where he had come for a meal. He is a diminutive, dark-skinned black with a scraggly beard. The scar on the bridge of his nose is a memento from a mugging in '86, in an alley on Keeler near Roosevelt; the small "x" on the middle of his forehead is a relic of the early 80s, though Ruffin isn't precisely sure what caused that scar--he was too stoned that night. ("Somebody must've hit me from behind, and I must've hit the sidewalk.")
He had been staying in the truck about a month when we met. It's owned by the man who runs the used-appliances store on the same lot. Ruffin did some cleaning up for him in front of the store last summer. The man let Ruffin run an extension cord from the shop into the truck. Ruffin had a work lamp for light and a hot plate, on which he sometimes boiled hot dogs. Next to the appliance shop is a used-furniture store, and Ruffin had retrieved some of the furniture its owner had discarded, putting it to use in the trailer. "I got a couple of mattresses in it and a raggedy couch. It's comfortable. But the truck leaks every time it rains. Mattresses get wet. Gonna get cold, too." When it got really cold, Ruffin said, he might try to find a shelter that would take him. But he had been banned from several in the neighborhood, because he came in drunk and got in fights.
He kept his few personal belongings in the trailer. But he never knew what would be left when he returned; the week before, someone had stolen his leather coat and his socks. Another recent day when he returned to the truck, "I found somebody sitting up in there. I went off on him. Almost went to jail for that."
Ruffin grew up on the west side. His father worked steadily at blue-collar jobs, but his checks didn't go far with nine kids in the family. His father drank regularly; he often had his five brothers over, "and they would drink, drink, drink," Ruffin said. When he was 10 or 11, Ruffin started downing the leftover booze he'd find sitting around the morning after his uncles had been by. By high school, Richard's White Port was a regular companion. "I been an alcoholic all my life--real alcoholic--I was a young boy 17 years old, people calling me a winehead. Me and my friends used to have races, pint o' wine apiece, see who can down it first." He laughed. "I won a few times." He ditched school frequently, preferring to drink and shoot dice in hallways.
His mother died of a heart attack while he was in high school. He was depressed for months, and his behavior only worsened. "I was already leaning down the wrong path. That pushed me down it further." He dropped out of school his junior year. At 19 he was hooked on heroin and thieving to support his habit. He did two years in prison in the mid-70s for theft.
When 1980 dawned, he was living in a rooming house on Independence near Roosevelt, unemployed and living off General Assistance. He was drinking heavily, fooling with heroin, and taking "Ts and blues"--Talwin, a synthetic opiate, and Benzedrine, an amphetamine. (Ts and blues were popular on the west side then, and easy to get from storefront clinics; they've faded from the scene since, due to increased regulation.) Ruffin's state of mind as the decade began? "Zero. I mean, I was using Ts and blues--I didn't have a mind. Didn't have a mind at all." He laughed. "Had a mind to get some more. Had to get some money first. Had to go to Sears Roebuck [at Homan and Arthington], sneak in, sneak out with something." Ruffin would slip into the stockroom of the catalog order department around lunchtime and walk out with a car battery. When he got caught, which was often, he'd spend a few days in jail. One time the security guards declined to call police and just "beat me up. Man, they kicked my ass, wo!" When Ruffin was successful, he'd sell the battery to a gas station, then go buy some pills.
On the evening of December 23, 1981, Ruffin was hanging around a poolroom at Roosevelt and Avers. "Dude was shooting pool, and a bunch of guys grabbed him and robbed him. I didn't have nothing to do with it really. But I must've run with 'em. Got a few of the dollars." He returned to the scene later that night. Someone identified him as one of the assailants; he was arrested and charged with strong-arm robbery. He pleaded guilty and went to the penitentiary in Vienna.
When he was paroled in November '82, he vowed to make a better life for himself. Early in '83 he found work as a wood finisher in a shop on Peoria Street.
For the next three years, life was agreeable for Ruffin. He lived with a brother, who was also working full-time, in an apartment at 13th and Kildare. He laid off drugs for the most part. He continued drinking heavily, "but it wasn't no problem then. I had a bunch of hangovers at work, but nothing I couldn't handle." At the shop during the day, he sealed pieces of wood, then sprayed them with lacquer; his boss complimented him frequently on his work. Then he would go home "and have a bottle of wine and a six-pack of beer, cool out, turn on the VCR or cable, turn on the stereo--we had it all." He started the job at minimum wage and worked his way up to more than $6 an hour. "It wasn't much, but it gave me peace of mind. I knew if I blew this week's check, I wouldn't have to wait a whole month for another one.
"I was feeling good--clean every day, smelling good, nice clothes--Sergio Valente, Jordache. New shoes--I didn't wear nothing but Florsheims. I had Florsheims in the closet I didn't even wore yet--blue pair, black, beige, $60 shoes, that's all I bought. Eating well, food in the freezer. Going to work every morning, feeling, you know--like I was one of the working people."
Ruffin had had a daughter in '77 by a woman he lived with for a year and a half. Now the woman heard Ruffin was working again, and she dropped by one evening with their daughter. "I had just got my income tax [refund] check--$700. She wanted some of that. I gave her a couple hundred for the kid, hooked back up with her." They moved in with Ruffin and his brother, but "it didn't work out. She was steady bringing things up I did in the past. Month and a half later, I put her out--'Go on back to your mother's house.' I was drunk off wine. I woke up the next morning--'Where she at? Oh, is she gone? What the fuck I done done?' I called her mama house, she didn't even wanna talk to me. I ain't even seen her since."
A week later he met an old friend who offered to share some of his dime bag ($10 worth) of cocaine. "Yeah, give me a little bump [shot]," Ruffin said.
"I hadn't ever messed with cocaine before," he said. "It took me out of the box. In less than a year, I lost everything."
He started selling things out of the apartment to support his habit--items he and his brother had purchased together. "He'd come home and find the component set gone, the VCR gone," Ruffin said. Soon his brother was gone, too. Ruffin lost the apartment and took up residence in a flophouse at Grand and Ashland. He borrowed money from his boss. Then "stuff started coming up missing" at work. Ruffin was pilfering and selling some of the shop's tools--an electric saw, masks he used when spraying the lacquer. He knew his boss realized who the culprit was. In November '86 he got laid off. He went home to the hotel, got drunk, got high, and got rolled, losing all but the $30 he had stashed in a sock.
While he drew unemployment, during the first half of '87, he had enough money to stay in rooming houses. He has drifted since, from a few weeks now and then with friends, to the shelters, to the streets. An abandoned car will serve as home in the summer, until its windows get smashed; then he prowls the empty lots for another. Some nights, when there is nowhere else to go, he drops by Cook County Hospital and manufactures some complaint--his back hurts, his head hurts, his arm hurts. While he waits the several hours to be seen, at least he stays warm.
I met with Ruffin again at Marillac in early December. He was still living in the trailer. The morning was frigid, but Ruffin had on only a vest jacket over a thin sweater. His eyes were bloodshot. For heat at night, he had been relying on a space heater that had been discarded by the owner of the used-appliances shop. It had kept Ruffin warm a few nights, but then had conked out the night before. "Almost froze to death," he said. "When I woke up, I thought my feet was frostbitten--I couldn't hardly get my shoes back on."
Ruffin faults no one else for his predicament. "I done this to myself. I don't blame society for nothing." If his mother hadn't died when he was an adolescent "things might have turned out differently," he said, "but it was my curiosity that got me in trouble--wanting to see what's in the streets, wanting to be in the streets."
He thinks about trying to turn things around "every month, before my check comes," he said. "I say, 'I'm gonna find me a room, get me a job,' and blah, blah." Then the check comes "and I go straight to a coke house." He knows his chemical dependencies are the heart of his problem. He enrolls in rehab programs from time to time, but mainly so he'll have a place to sleep for three or four weeks. "They say those programs don't work for everyone. I'm one of the everyone I guess. I get drunk the same day I get out. There's just a lot of frustration within me." The only way to break his habits, he said, "is to just do it. Like they say, 'Just say no.' It's hard to do on the street, though. Everyone I associate with is either a junkie or a winehead." The day his check comes, several of those he runs with gather at the currency exchange waiting for him to come and cash. "Nobody care nothing about anyone out here--there's no unity out here, no unity at all. I'm saying, 'I'm trying to find me a room, get off the street,' they're saying, 'Get a joint, get a joint, get some cocaine, get some cocaine.'"
Ruffin shares needles sometimes with other addicts. He takes antibiotics when he can get them to "stay on the safe side" and protect himself from AIDS. Does he really believe that helps? "Not really. Some." I told him it doesn't. "Well--I usually use a new needle," he said.
The supplanting of heroin by cocaine in the 80s has changed the tenor of things on the west side, Ruffin said. "Everyone's racing now. With heroin, one shot, you might be cool all day--sit back and be cool. With cocaine, it's, 'Gotta have some more, gotta have some more--right away.'" Not many women did drugs when heroin predominated, Ruffin said; but now with cocaine "women can't get enough. They'll do anything for one nickel bag. You can walk out here right now, say 'Hi'--two nickel bags in your hand--she's going with you. Hey, man, it's epidemic--they gotta get that shit off the market."
The highlight of the decade for Ruffin was holding that job for four years, and reuniting with his woman and daughter, even though that was short-lived. Now he hasn't seen his daughter since '86. She's 13 now. "I used to call every holiday, send her stuff." But she wouldn't come to the phone when he called, so he hasn't tried for a year. "I just, you know, kinda gave up on it. Why should I waste $5 on somebody who don't give a fuck about me?" His raspy voice swelled; he jabbed the table in front of him with a finger. "She don't want me to be her father, so--I keep to myself. If I don't see her no more, it's not gonna bother me--she's really nothing to me now. I have to take care of myself. Which I'm not doing a good job at."
As for other relatives, he said, "I got a lot of people out here, but--they're doing their own thing, I've always done my own thing. Ain't seen my father in three years. Ain't seen nobody in a long time. Don't wanna see nobody. Because--they can't seem to understand what I'm going through. I'm going through hell out here. I been through a lot of pain--a whole lot, and more than that." Later, he spoke more charitably of his family. "They'll do what they can for me. But if I can't do nothing myself, why bother them?"
Ruffin patronizes the pantries, collects cans, and shoplifts to get by. "I'll steal a bunch of Parker House polish sausage--$5 price tags on 'em, you can usually get $3 apiece for 'em. I don't really rob nobody or nothing. I don't hurt nobody, I don't let nobody hurt me. I don't wanna go back to the penitentiary. But, you know, the way I look at it, it's better than my living conditions now.
"I don't make no [New Year's] resolutions. I don't keep my word to myself. If I say, 'Hope it'll be a better year,' January 1st I might be shooting off drugs somewhere. It ain't gonna be a better year."
Ten years ago, "I was better off, because at least I had a place to stay," he said. "But I wasn't working then and I was shooting Ts and blues, and now I'm not working and I'm shooting cocaine, so--it's no worse and no better really. I'm just ten years older. And ten years stupider."
The 90s "don't look too rosy at the moment," he said. "I don't like the life I'm living. Don't see nothing worth really living about. People don't care shit about me. I'm not going nowhere. If it's the same situation I'm in now, I'd rather be dead."
The 80s started with a wallop for Sandra Green. In the late summer of 1980, Green (a pseudonym) was a 16-year-old ward of the state, living with her one-year-old son in a south-side foster home. She did not see eye to eye with her foster mother. One afternoon, Green informed her she was splitting and headed out the door with her baby. Her foster mother chased her down the street and clouted her in the head with a baseball bat. Green, woozy, dropped her baby to the sidewalk, then managed to knock the bat aside and yank her foster mother's hair. The woman and the girl began punching and slapping and clawing. At one point, Green recalled recently, her foster mother clamped her teeth on Green's thumb, and, through her clenched teeth, encouraged Green to "Come home!" Then she let loose the thumb, scooped up the baby, and ran back to the house. Green called the police from a neighbor's. She got her son back, and she and the child were placed in an emergency foster home.
Things didn't calm down from there. The 80s were "real stressful," said Green, now 25. She is a heavyset woman with a round face, a bright smile, and chipped and discolored teeth. She spoke to me on a November afternoon at an outpatient psychiatric center at Mount Sinai Hospital, which she visits regularly for counseling. "It was like, 'What's next? What can happen next to me?' Things started happening, and they didn't stop."
For Green, the 80s were just a continuation of the tumult that had marked her childhood.
She grew up on the west side, daughter of parents who were both hooked on heroin and booze. Her father forced her mother to leave the family when Green was a baby, Green said. He showered Green with curses throughout her childhood, accusing her of resembling her mother. He sold drugs and stolen goods to supplement his welfare check most of the time Green was growing up. He never got high in front of her; he would go in the bathroom and close the door. "But I knew something wasn't right by the way he was always nodding off. He would go up on the corner and stand there, and he would be bent over so far--almost falling on his head. My friends would see him and they would tease me about it." Junkies would drift in and out of the house, sometimes collapsing in front of her, "scaring me half to death."
At least her father didn't beat Green when he was high; at other times "he would slap me and I would hit the ground," she said.
She was 13 when she ran away from home. For nine months she lived in the streets, sleeping in hallways or going home with men she met, drinking booze and cough syrup, snorting heroin, and dropping Ts and blues. The police caught up with her and took her to the Audy Home; by age 14 she was a ward of the state, starting the rounds of the foster homes and group homes. She had just turned 15 when she got pregnant by a 40-year-old married man who denied having anything to do with it.
So when the 80s rolled around, Green had a four-month-old in her charge. She was barely 16; she had no idea how to care for him. "I never even baby-sat a baby that young--and I'm trying to take care of one? I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to feed him properly, or bathe him. When he would cry, I would holler at him. I wouldn't pick him up, I would let him cry. And he would just lay there and cry, cry, cry. Sometimes I would prop a bottle in his mouth." The baby often slept in her bed, but when it awoke wailing in the middle of the night, Green would not stir. Her foster mother "would snatch them covers off me and give me a shove, and I'd get up and fix him a bottle. I ain't like it. I felt like I should sleep all through the night. But I had to do it because it was my responsibility."
Green longed to spare her child the kind of upbringing she had had. I don't want him to become a ward of the state like I am, she often thought.
But she would lose custody of the child to the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) three times in the 80s. She would bear three more children, who would also be taken from her for a time. "I love my kids," Green said. "But I just didn't really understand what I was doing."
After the baseball-bat fight in 1980, she was placed in another south-side foster home. She was a freshman at Calumet High School, but cut classes frequently. It was the last year she would spend in school. One evening that fall, she left her son with a stepsister and went out streetwalking with a friend on the west side. "I just wanted to take a challenge, see if I could go out there and make me some money," she said. They got arrested, and Green spent almost two days in a lockup at Harrison and Kedzie. Meantime the stepsister, not knowing where Green was, turned the baby over to DCFS.
Green got her son back a month later. A few weeks after that, she learned she was expecting again. The first pregnancy had been an accident, she said, but this one wasn't: she wanted to have a child by the man she was seeing. Call him James. He was ten years older than she was and lived in Rockwell Gardens, a west-side housing project. Green liked how he would sometimes buy diapers and milk for her first baby when his welfare check came. But he wasn't always good-natured. "If I would be at his house asleep, he would wake me up and tell me to fix him something to eat, and if I didn't feel like it, he would jump on me and beat me up."
Their son was born in December '81. Green had just turned 18, and gotten her medical card from Public Aid. This facilitated getting drugs: she just showed the card in a clinic on the west side, slipped the doctor "7, 8 dollars--maybe 12--and they'd give you some Valiums and some codeine cough medicine." Taking Valiums and cough syrup was a pastime Green and James shared. One March afternoon in '82, James took most of the Valiums and a lot of the cough syrup Green had procured that morning. He topped it off with a handful of sleeping pills, then mostly dozed the rest of the day. Green returned to her south-side foster home that night, and called him the next morning. His roommate answered. "What'd y'all have?" he asked her. "We didn't have nothing--what'd he tell you?" Green said. "He's dead," the roommate said.
Green thought, now my son will never know his father; and, she thought, if I hadn't got them drugs, he wouldn't have died. She vowed to stay clean.
She got a place of her own on North Clarendon the following month. DCFS paid her rent and gave her $45 a week for food and clothes, as part of a program to help its wards make the transition to independent living. She also got food stamps and a check for her two kids from Public Aid. Soon she resumed using cough syrup and screwed up her budget: the $20 she spent weekly on cough syrup compelled her to skimp on groceries and bum diapers from neighbors.
She got pregnant again in early '83. The guy who was responsible had no use for her once she was expecting. A rehab project in the building forced her to move in April of that year; she took a place on Campbell near Shakespeare. She stayed mostly clean of drugs while she was pregnant; but after she had the baby that October, a girlfriend introduced her to "happy sticks"--marijuana joints laced with PCP, an animal tranquilizer. Smoking happy sticks, "sometimes you can get so high you don't know where you is, who you is, or what you is," Green said.
"I was neglecting my kids," she said. "I wasn't taking them to the doctor, I wasn't keeping them clean--I wasn't doing like a mother was supposed to do. I was just young and lazy." Her drug habit didn't help; she would go off to another apartment in her building and get high, leaving her kids home alone. One morning in March '84, a nurse stopped by her apartment and found only Green's three kids, the oldest then four, at home. She called DCFS. Green was charged with neglect, and the kids were put in foster homes in April '84.
That November Green turned 21, and DCFS stopped paying her rent. Green saw no choice but to move back home with her father.
She went to work as a bagger at a Jewel on Chicago Avenue in late '84. She worked half-time and made minimum wage. Nonetheless, "I felt important when I had that little job," she said. "My friends thought I was important, too, because they was on Public Aid." But a half year after she started at Jewel, she got pregnant again and quit. It was the only job she would hold in the 80s. She started receiving General Assistance.
She wanted to show the state she could be a responsible parent and thus get her other children back; so she got pregnant again. The father of this baby "rejected me too."
The baby, her first daughter, was born in August '85. Six months later, DCFS had custody of her, too, after Green flipped out one day.
Green was caring for her sickly grandmother as well as her new child; that, plus the anxiety of living in her father's house, overwhelmed her, she said. She was also smoking those happy sticks regularly, which probably had a lot to do with her breakdown as well: hallucinations and paranoia are common side effects of habitual PCP use.
The morning of her breakdown, Green felt certain her father was trying to poison her. "I thought he was gonna take his needle and squeeze his poison in my food," she said. She took her baby and fled the house. Later, at a restaurant, she began sobbing uncontrollably. Someone called an ambulance, and she was taken to Mount Sinai. She lashed out at anyone who came near her; she was put in restraints and sedated. She spent ten days in Madden Mental Health Center. Two weeks after she was released, DCFS returned her daughter to her.
Green saw her other children periodically while they were in foster care, her caseworker bringing them by her father's house. The caseworker told Green she could have her kids back if she could get an apartment of her own. She applied for one with the CHA, and in April '86 they offered her a three-bedroom unit in a high-rise in the near-south-side ABLA project.
ABLA has been a steady leader in violent-crime rates among CHA projects. Green shuddered when she checked out the sixth-floor unit she had been offered, in a 15-story Y-shaped fortress. If I want my kids back, I got no other choice, she thought, and took the place.
Two weeks after she moved in, someone wedged open her front door with a crowbar one afternoon while she was gone. She had almost no furniture and few other possessions, but they took what they could: the gold ring her grandmother had given her when she was little, the battered 12-inch black-and-white TV with the hanger for an antenna, her empty wallet, her baby's teddy bear, a box of diapers. About all the fridge held were some candy bars; they ate the candy and left the wrappers. "I was mad, and wasn't nothing I could do about it," Green said. More than mad, she was scared. The teenage boys in her building glared at her, and she wondered if they weren't upset with her for not having had more for them to take. She stayed with a friend for a month, then returned to ABLA, knowing she had to in order to get her kids back.
She regained custody of her three sons that September. They'd been gone more than two years, and it took a while for everyone to get accustomed to each other again. Sometimes when they were upset they would sob, to Green's deep anguish, that they wanted to go home to their foster parents. "You is home," Green would tell them. The foster mother of her oldest two sons had been able to afford "to take them a lot of places, buy them nice clothes. I couldn't offer them as much. That hurted me a bit."
The only person Green had felt close to while growing up was her grandmother. Now she was 79 and living in a nearby senior citizens' building. Green, lonely and isolated in the project, started taking the kids there regularly for dinner. She ran errands for her grandmother, and her grandmother sat for her kids sometimes so Green could get out. Then, in April '87, her grandmother had a fatal heart attack. "You know how you feel when someone snatch your wallet out your pocket on the el? That's how I felt."
Her drinking increased; she reverted to the happy sticks. In June '87 she broke down again. She was out shopping with her kids on Pulaski and started hearing voices. They told her people were plotting to harm her. She went into a record store and asked the owner to call the police. She wound up at Madden again.
After two days at Madden, she was transferred to the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute (ISPI), where a psychiatrist told her she was allergic to drugs. She was released after two days.
But DCFS had her kids in foster care again. She missed them dearly. She also felt humiliated, then as always, to have the state caring for them. When neighbors at the project asked her where her kids were, she wanted to find a hole and hide.
She visited the psychiatric clinic at Mount Sinai every day for counseling. The counselors told her DCFS caseworker she was doing well, and in December '87 her children came home again.
The last two years of the 80s were relatively calm for Green. She is still living in ABLA. She hasn't been burglarized again, but the place hasn't grown on her. The elevator "works sometimes, and then it don't work. And the people get on the elevator and they urine on there, and they have bowel movements--human beings--and that make you don't wanna get on that elevator with your groceries." But the stairwells are a problem, too, since the gangbangers prefer them pitch-black and so shatter the light bulbs. Green's daughter has tumbled down the stairs and bloodied her lip, and her son has fallen down them and hurt his back. After her son's fall, a janitor replaced a light bulb on the stairs. "And they [gangbangers] broke the light bulb out again. And they put another one in and they broke it out again." She worries the gangbangers will bother her kids when they're going to or coming from school. Neighbors have told her that older boys in the project have forced younger ones into the vacant apartments and molested them. When her kids aren't in school, she keeps them inside. They watch a lot of TV.
She had a tubal ligation after her last child was born. "I can't be having no more babies--babies are expensive."
DCFS closed her case in June '88. Mount Sinai was continuing to give Green favorable evaluations. Green also had a new caseworker at DCFS, one who complained about the spooky elevator and stairwells in Green's building; Green believes the caseworker's trepidation about visiting had a lot to do with her case being closed, too.
The kids are ten, seven, six, and four now. They're all healthy. The oldest two don't care much for school, she said.
She regrets having had kids so young. "I wish I could have stayed at home, but it was so hard for me and my father to get along. Should have stayed at home and stayed in school. 'Cause when I see some girls that I went to school with, they pull up with their nice cars, and I'm waiting for the bus with all these kids. And I'll be embarrassed. I'll be ashamed. I'm not embarrassed of my kids, 'cause I love my kids, but I'm kinda ashamed because I didn't finish and make something out of myself."
Loneliness bothers her much of the time. "I haven't really had anybody I could talk to since my grandmother died." She has been seeing a man, but he is married; so that relationship no doubt is doomed, she said. There isn't anyone else she would call a friend. "I have a phone, it don't even ring."
She has kept in touch with her mother, now 55. But she is more a concern than a comfort for Green. She had a mild stroke last September. A diabetic, she shouldn't be drinking, but won't quit. Green thinks she continues to shoot heroin, too, and worries about her getting AIDS. Because of her diabetes, her mother always has a supply of fresh needles. This makes her popular in her north-side hotel: she sells the needles for $2 apiece, Green said. The people who come to her room to buy them "want to take off [get high] right there. And she let 'em. I feel if they taking off in her room, they sharing it with her." Green's lectures to her mother on the dangers of needle sharing go in one ear and out the other, Green said.
Green's father, 60, stays in a west-side boardinghouse. "He so skinny, he don't even look like hisself anymore. He can't hardly walk, he can't give hisself a bath, he can't do anything." Except shoot heroin, Green said. He tells her he has Parkinson's disease, but Green thinks it might be AIDS. "I don't see him much--I don't even want him to come around my kids or my house. My father don't care about nothing, nobody. If he die, it's his fault."
Green was too scared of needles to ever mainline drugs. ("That's why I won't go to the dentist, even though I got teeth that need to be out.") Few people she knows share her fear, she said. "Over where I live at, they walk down the street holding needles in their hands, looking for somewhere they can take off."
Green gets no thrill from cocaine. She has stayed mostly away from the happy sticks recently. Instead, she has been snorting heroin. When her kids are home and she wants a hit, she'll slip into the bathroom and lock the door. She can't afford it to be a daily habit; she just buys a dime bag now and then. Or some whiskey. She takes care of her kids just as well when she's high, she said, but her habit still bothers her conscience. "I'm really getting high out of my kids' money. If they need shoes, or coats, I get it, but--the whole check is really theirs, so it make me feel bad when I done spent up some of their money on drugs, or drinking. I hope I won't be doing it when I get older. I hope I don't turn out to be like my father. When I think about that, I say, "Well, I could stop.' But--I been getting high since I was 13." She is afraid to enter a drug-treatment program--afraid of what, she isn't sure. "I doubt if I could be changed, anyway. The only way to get a person off drugs is to lock you up somewhere. There's so much enticement around where I live at, it's hard to say no."
Green hopes to own her own home someday, and before the kids are grown and gone. She would at least like to leave the project for a private apartment. But until she gets a decent job, she is stuck in ABLA, she realizes. With a ninth-grade education, landing a good job won't be easy. She needs to go back to school for more training, she said.
She tried that in the fall of '88, enrolling in a Loop business school for six months. But two months before she would have completed her courses, "it got kind of stressed out where I had to stop. I would get up at six in the morning and get the kids up, and they would be grouchy and they didn't wanna get up. And we would leave the house at seven and I would drop them off at the day care, and then I would make it to school at eight o'clock. I'd leave school at 2, 2:30, get home 3, 3:15. And I would pick up the kids, go home, cook dinner, and get them ready for bed. Then I'd have homework to do. And I couldn't handle it."
Things might be easier for her if she weren't single, Green said, or if the fathers of her children helped her financially; but on the west side, she said, it's pretty much assumed that fathers can't be counted on for much. Fathers these days "be acting like they scared. They scared of giving up that money. The ones who are working just work to pay the drug man."
Though she has had her ups and downs these last ten years, she believes she is headed in the right direction now. "Me and my family are together, and we're healthy. I have my own place, even though it's not the best. I'm taking care of four little ones, and that's a big responsibility. And I'm doing that well now. From 1980 to 1989, I think I done a good job.
"And good things are gonna happen for me in the 90s," she said. "Me and my family, we are going to stay together. That's the only good thing I can say. There's nothing more bad that could happen to me now. I been through too much."
"It was a great decade for big business," Reginald Emery told me. "But the poor man, and even the working man, caught hell. A lot of people got crushed. A lot of people got stripped of their dignity and pride."
Emery counts himself among those who suffered. He had worked steadily most of his life, but was unemployed more often than not during the 80s.
"You look at what happened in the 80s," Emery said. "Unions got busted. Management asked for reductions in salary. Big business got over, while the little man had a snowball's chance in hell of surviving. More people homeless, more people in soup lines. We supposed to be the richest nation in the world? That's a crock.
"I don't just blame Ronald Reagan," he said. "I blame the stupid people who put him there. But a lot of the blame lies with him. When you're in a position to help, you should think about the other fellow once in a while. But he didn't. And it's not gonna get any better with George Bush in office. We need some people in the positions of power who are sympathetic to the masses."
Emery, 46 and black, lives with his wife and their four-year-old daughter in an apartment on South King Drive. He was jobless when I met him in early December, though he had filled out "more applications than I care to think about" in recent weeks. The day before we met, he had interviewed with a janitorial service based in Skokie, and he had high hopes he would be hearing from them again soon. This job would only be for four or five hours a day, cleaning up in north-side office buildings, but it paid $7 an hour. "It'd be something to do until I can find something permanent."
From '71 through '79 Emery worked in shipping and receiving at a west-side factory, loading trailers with a forklift. By 1979 he was making $9.50 an hour. Then the factory tightened its belt, and he and others were laid off.
"Everything started going downhill" after that, he said. None of his jobs in the 80s paid nearly as well or offered comparable benefits. Between jobs, he lived off unemployment compensation or welfare or his wife's income as a nurse, when she was working. (He married in March '86.) He stayed in a rooming house, then in a YMCA, then with a friend, then with his wife. He drank beer, listened to his music on his reel-to-reel tape recorder, and "wondered what have I done to anybody to deserve all this bad luck."
Emery and his ten brothers and sisters were raised in Altgeld Gardens, a far-south-side public housing project. He remembers Altgeld fondly. The projects were different then (in the 40s and 50s): crime was rare, most families had two parents, fathers had jobs. Emery's father toiled as a millwright for the Pullman-Standard company for 38 years. "I never met a man as good as him," Emery said. "He took care of his family. He tried to pay his bills on time. He would get up in the morning and leave the house while it was still dark, and when he got home from work it was dark." With so many children, the family did not live in luxury; but thanks to his father's diligence, "I never knew a hungry day."
Emery's father had a stroke in July '78 and died, at the age of 65. Emery was stunned. Before his death, "I could always go talk to him," Emery said, "and he would sit down and listen to what I had to say, then explain how he would handle the situation. I missed his experience." For a while after he died, "things got kind of funky for me." He took some time off work and "just rode my bike all over the city and stayed drunk." His mother finally had a talk with him. "If your father knew you were doing this, it would really hurt him," she told him. So Emery returned to work.
But he still hadn't come to terms fully with the loss when the 80s commenced. Then his mother got sick. Her asthma, hypertension, and diabetes all had seemed to worsen after her husband died; she developed kidney trouble in '80 and died of kidney failure in March '81, at age 68. Emery was glad to see her out of her misery; but her passing not only caused him more grief, it seemed to revive his mourning of his father. Being out of work only gave him more time to brood.
Later that year, a friend told him a Zayre on the north side needed stock clerks. Emery applied and got hired. He commuted via CTA across the city, from his apartment at 115th and Princeton to the store at 7200 N. Clark, a trip that took about an hour and a half. His starting pay was $3.85. Earning less than half of what he made in his previous job "was a bitter pill to swallow--but I needed the money." They liked his work at Zayre, he said, and soon gave him a 50-cent raise and put him in charge of housewares. He had been there about 14 months, he said, when the store brought in a veteran Goldblatt's worker and put him above Emery in housewares. The man was white, and Emery felt the assignment had been largely racial. "I told my boss, 'I feel like you're belittling my intelligence,'" he recalled. "And so I left that."
This would not be the only job Emery would quit in a huff during the 80s. In '85 he found work at a Ponderosa on the northwest side. He was responsible for keeping the restaurant's interior and grounds clean, and for handling its stock. He started at $4 an hour. The manager was so pleased with his work, Emery said, that he gave him the keys to the place after he'd been there just a month. When he saved the franchise money by repairing some plumbing, the manager promised to push for a 50- or 75-cent raise for him, Emery said. He got a dime instead. He had been there 13 months when a new manager came on the scene who wanted to know what Emery was doing with keys to the place. Emery had words with him, and quit.
Last September Emery worked for a cleaning service, vacuuming, mopping, waxing, and buffing floors in banks at night for $5 an hour. One night his boss stopped by the bank where Emery was working. "He said the job could be done quicker. I said, 'You think it can be done in three hours? Tonight is a good chance for you to see.' I put my jacket and my cap on, and I said, 'I'll see you later, man.'"
Holding his tongue is not in Emery's repertoire. "My mother-in-law tells me this little red piece of flannel gets me in a lot of trouble. My wife says that with me, whatever comes up is subject to come out. I know it's hurting me, but--if you're right, you're right, and if you're wrong, you're wrong--there's no in-between. If a supervisor says something to me that isn't right--my wife tells me, 'Bite your lip.' Uh-uh--it's, 'Hey, buddy, who you think you talking to?' I guess I got that from my father. He didn't tolerate any foolishness, and people didn't give him a whole lot of trouble. But he was never as abrupt with it as I am."
Emery's pride has also caused him to turn down certain jobs that were open to him. If he were still in his 20s or 30s, he said, he would be willing to take just any position. But as a skilled worker (trained as an overhead crane operator as well as a forklift operator), a Vietnam veteran, a high school graduate with two years of junior college studies, and a grandfather of ten (he has six grown children by two previous marriages), he refuses to work for minimum wage anymore, or for bosses who demonstrate right away their antipathy for employees. These are the kinds of jobs his Public Aid caseworker has referred him to, he said--jobs "where they don't pay a damn thing, they don't have unions, and they've got a shitty attitude towards employees. They got a lot of young people in charge, and they don't know how to talk to people. When you've worked for larger outfits and had a lot of rights, that's hard to take. I've worked jobs where they've paid me $9, $10, $12 an hour--and here I'm gonna be making peanuts, and you're gonna talk to me like I'm a 15- or 16-year-old kid? Maybe other people would say, 'The hell with my pride and my manhood--I need the job.' Not me. My pride and my manhood nobody can buy."
Emery was bitter about his job situation during the 80s, but he didn't mope for days on end, he said. "I don't get depressed about it--I get pissed off. I've never been one to walk around with a defeatist attitude. I used to think back on what Mama and Daddy used to say--'You know the good Lord don't put any more on you than you can actually stand, because if you couldn't take it anymore, he'd take you away from here.' And so I always thought--hey, something better's got to happen to me."
Something better did happen in his personal life during the decade: his marriage, in March '86, and the birth of his daughter, in September '85. His wife, Janis, keeps his chin up when his work situation is getting to him. "She'll tell me, 'Look--don't worry. You're a smart man. There's something out there for you--you just got to keep plugging.' It really helps to know you got a woman who regardless of the situation is in your corner."
Many of the men Emery knows who were jobless in the 80s left their families. Some just couldn't cope with the idea of being supported by their wives, and split, he said. But he believes that in many cases it's the woman's fault when the man leaves. "The old lady sometimes has the tendency to come in the house and say, 'Hey, I'm making the money'--and you don't need that. With some women it's 'No finance, no romance.'"
At least his joblessness gave him more time with his daughter, Emery said. "With my other kids, I was working the majority of the time and didn't get to see them that much. Before I knew it, they were grown up. I love watching this little one--her conversation with her dolls, her looking at her books. She's very observant: when things are getting to me, sometimes she'll climb up on me and kiss me and say, 'Don't worry, Daddy, I still love you.' That just knocks my socks off."
Some people turn to drugs for solace when they're out of work, but he hasn't made that mistake, he said. "I can't afford to do drugs. And then I had friends that have been on them, and I've seen what it did to them. I don't need it." He drinks frequently, and sometimes will "get smashed and wake up feeling shitty," but believes drinking is not a problem for him.
Besides his wife, he has brothers and sisters he turns to when he's discouraged. He relies particularly on his youngest brother, Marlen. "There's times when I see him on the street talking with some of his friends," Emery said. "He just takes a look at me and says, 'What's wrong?' 'Nothing.' 'Don't tell me that--come on'--and we walk off, and him and I kick it around, might have a drink together--go over the problem. After we talk to one another you feel like a burden has been lifted.
"I'm a poor black man, but I'm blessed," he said, "because of my wife and my daughter, and my brothers and sisters."
Emery considered Harold Washington's rise to mayor one of his highlights of the 80s, and his death among his greatest letdowns. On the eve of Washington's first election, in April '83, he and Janis watched on TV and "hugged and screamed and laughed and cried," he recalled. To see another black south-side man rise to such a powerful and esteemed post seemed almost a personal triumph for Emery; an incredible feat, he kept thinking, "considering what this country has put blacks, and especially black men, through." The victory would be more than symbolic, Emery felt sure: it would mean more jobs and better housing in Chicago. "We knew something was gonna happen for the black people of this city, and the poor whites and Hispanics and Asians. We knew he was concerned about the masses."
When the mayor succumbed to a heart attack in November '87, Emery and Janis watched the news reports on TV and cried again. "The City Council was beginning to move his way," Emery said. "He had the rapport with the people in Washington, because of the time he had spent there. We were due for big changes--all he needed was the time. But he never really got the chance."
I spoke with Emery again in early January. He had talked with the boss of that janitorial service several more times, but a job had not yet opened for him. He had also applied for a job as a machine operator for a company on West 47th Street. They had tested his knowledge of micrometers and scales, and he had scored well; he would be one of the first they would call, they assured him, if they started hiring again. Emery admitted to being "a little frustrated and impatient" with his job search, but said he was optimistic overall. "It's a new decade. I think this is my year--things are gonna look up for me."
He phoned me later that day, his voice full of excitement. The janitorial service had called him; they wanted him to start in two days. He would be working from 6 to 11 PM, five days a week, for $7 an hour, cleaning a DCFS office on West Montrose. It would take two el trains to get there, but he didn't care. "I feel just super," he said. "In a little while, I'll be back up on my feet again."
Carmen Perez sighed. "They say that when it rains, it pours--and that's the way it is when you're poor. You just have one thing go wrong, and you can forget it."
The skies opened on Perez (a pseudonym) on July 18, 1982. That steamy Sunday, she was savoring the beat of a salsa band playing on the island in the center of Humboldt Park when she felt a tap on her shoulder. "You gotta come--your mother's had a heart attack!" The messenger--a neighbor boy--told Perez her mother had collapsed at the nearby church where she had been playing bingo. An ambulance had taken her to Saint Elizabeth's Hospital.
Perez legged it frantically the six blocks to the hospital. Her mother had been stricken twice before by heart attacks; Perez just had the feeling that by the time she got to the hospital, her mother would be gone. And she was right. She viewed her mother's remains; then she left the hospital, borrowed some money, bought some drugs, and got high. "Strange thing to do, but that's what I did," she told me softly one recent afternoon. "Then I went back to the hospital and started making the funeral arrangements."
The 80s had been pleasant for Perez until that summer afternoon. She was working full-time for the Stewart-Warner Corporation, a factory on Diversey, inspecting oil pressure gauges and other parts coming off an assembly line. Single and childless, she helped support her invalid mother, with whom she shared a Humboldt Park apartment. Perez's modest income merely paid the bills; but when you come up poor, just having your head above water feels good, she said. She had kicked a heroin habit in '77.
But her mother's death "shattered" her world, she told me. Perez, 41, is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican with deep brown eyes, a broad nose, and several missing teeth. Her short black hair is graying on the sides. "My mother was my friend," she said. "She gave me a lot of good advice. She didn't have much education, but she had a lot of wisdom. But mostly what she gave me was unconditional love--I didn't have to be anything, I didn't have to do anything. When she died, I didn't think I could ever find love like that anymore."
Perez was 2 years old and her sister 14 when their mother brought them to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1950. Her father was supposed to join the family in Chicago later, but he never showed. Some of Perez's earliest memories are of her and her mother and sister huddling in hallways at night; they were homeless their first few weeks in Chicago. "My mother didn't sleep so good," Perez said, "because we'd be laying in her lap, and she was making sure nobody bothered us." Even when emphysema, high blood pressure, and heart trouble incapacitated Perez's mother in her later years, Perez still viewed her as her protector; and she felt exposed and vulnerable when she died.
A month off from work did not alleviate her distress. Back on the job, she found herself spacing out when she was supposed to be inspecting parts. I'm so alone now, she kept thinking. Talking to others about it didn't help at all--"You just have to be strong," everyone told her. One day at work she went out for lunch and never returned. She would rue this day in years to come. "My job could have been one of my power sources. Everything else would have eventually fallen into place. But I was so devastated by my mother's death, I didn't think about that."
Soon she couldn't pay rent and lost her apartment. She stayed with a girlfriend for a time, but before long she was sleeping in hallways again. She wandered the streets days. She resumed shooting heroin. She tried feebly to kill herself--slashing her wrists, but not deep enough; swallowing pills, but too few.
One day a man she knew offered her money to have sex with him. "I told him, 'I don't do that.' And he said, 'I won't tell anyone.' And I'm thinking, I'm so hungry. So then I did it. And I blanked everything out because I didn't enjoy doing it. I noticed that it was over in a matter of minutes. And I said, 'Well, this is an easy way to make money, and to eat every day.'"
And that's how she subsisted throughout the mid-80s. It wasn't easy, she learned: She was raped three times; she had a knife put to her throat twice; she was jailed for a month twice. She stayed in flophouses, and once in a while with friends, and occasionally in hallways. Like her mother, she never slept soundly in the hallways: "You're too busy watching your back." Being homeless also often meant going hungry. "You can get food from a pantry, but where are you gonna cook it?"
The streets wreck your spirit even faster than your body, Perez discovered. "You know that nobody gives a shit about you. You know you could die without anyone noticing. So you think, if nobody else cares, why should I?" Still, she resolved frequently to take control of her situation, find regular work, return to a life on the square. "But I just didn't have the strength to do it. And I didn't have anyone to help me." She was too ashamed to turn to relatives.
Drugs sapped what energy she had. She shot heroin almost as often as her cash allowed. Without it, she had cramps, diarrhea, and nausea; with it, she mostly just nodded out. Cocaine at least kept you awake, but it cost more.
When Perez was a high-schooler, her menstrual cramps were sometimes so severe she had to be hospitalized. Her treatment there never seemed to help much. So when a friend offered her a shot of something he promised would ease her suffering, she was game. She didn't know it was heroin at first, just that it really helped. An occasional shot kept her out of the hospital, which kept her from falling behind in school. It was after she graduated from Tuley in 1968 that she got really hooked.
Even with a habit, she worked steadily after high school--as a service representative for Illinois Bell, then as an inspector for Motorola, JB Electronics, and Montgomery Ward. A drug-treatment program helped her kick heroin in '77, after which she got the job with Stewart-Warner.
Perez knew she was risking contracting AIDS with her life-style of the 80s. "But I had to do what I had to do," she said of her streetwalking. "I had to survive. I tried to be careful. But sometimes you don't have time out there to be careful, man." As for her drug use, "Sometimes you don't have a point [needle], so you borrow one, even though you know you shouldn't. You're just so desperate to get that drug in you." After sex with a client, or after sharing a needle with another addict, Perez often gulped down an antibiotic. "You say, 'That'll kill the germs.' But"--she laughed--"it didn't work for me."
In April '88, Perez got a nosebleed that wouldn't quit. The doctors at County Hospital couldn't stem the bleeding at first; the blood vessel that had ruptured was far back in her nasal passages.
"By the way," a nurse offhandedly said to Perez one morning while she was hospitalized, "do you know you have AIDS?"
"I have what?" Perez said. "Lady--please don't play with me now." "I'm not playing," the nurse responded.
Perez is still angry about the nonchalant manner in which she was told. A doctor later explained that she did not yet have a full-blown case of AIDS, but that she had indeed tested HIV-positive, meaning she had the virus that seems to result inevitably in AIDS. Perez doesn't know if a needle or a client is to blame.
The blood vessel was continuing to bleed; Perez was getting morphine for the pain from the treatment when she got the news about AIDS. At first it seemed redundant: what the hell, I'm dying anyway, she told herself. When her doctor said she needed surgery to repair the vessel, she told him she'd rather just die. Then her sister came from New York to see her, and an aunt from Chicago began visiting daily. Perez had presumed her relatives couldn't be bothered with her. They persuaded her to have the surgery, and it was a success. She left the hospital that May.
Her drug use had been diminishing before she was hospitalized. ("I said to myself, "What am I doing? Mom wouldn't want to see me this way."') She stayed clean after she got out of County. "I'm sick of drugs," she told me. "They have ruined my life completely."
She was receiving General Assistance, but few apartments in Chicago rent for $154--her monthly check. She lived with a friend in Wicker Park, then for a time in a run-down Humboldt Park building, whose owner let her paint and plaster in lieu of rent.
She began attending meetings in Wicker Park of a support group of Spanish-speaking women with AIDS. Many of the women in the group were also poor; it was a relief finding people who could empathize with her situation. Through the group, Perez learned of a residence in Lakeview for persons with AIDS or HIV whose poverty has left them homeless. Perez, who wasn't going to be able to stay for free in the Humboldt Park apartment much longer, applied for a spot and was accepted. She moved into the residence--Bonaventure House--in November '89.
Run by the Roman Catholic Alexian Brothers, Bonaventure House opened in March '89 and currently is home to 20 persons with AIDS or HIV. Perez quickly fell in love with the place. "This is the first time that I have sat down and said, 'This is home, I don't need to go anywhere else, I feel good here,' since my mother died. I get hugs every morning when I go to breakfast. The residents have given me stuffed animals for my room. They make me know I belong. It's been so long since I could say to someone, 'You know what happened to me yesterday?' and they'll say, 'No, what?' and offer feedback. On the street it's always, 'Hurry up and go get this money before this trick leaves.' Nobody has time, and everybody's got their own problems."
Three of her fellow residents died in her first two months at Bonaventure. Perez was with one man the day he died, stroking his arm, talking softly to him. Perez isn't sure he even knew she was there; but she was still glad she did it. "I've always been scared of death, but I faced up to it. I didn't know I could do that. Besides, the day I die, I don't want to be alone."
She has night sweats, joint aches, dizzy spells, and periodic lung pain. "I can't say I'm healthy," she said. "I'm healthier than some of my brothers and sisters here." She still receives only General Assistance, but she is trying to get approved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a Social Security program for the disabled. That would hike her monthly income from the present General Assistance grant of $165 to $368. Bonaventure's residents pay one-third of their income for room and board. SSI would give Perez enough money to "do things I haven't been able to do for years--like go out and buy clothes. I've forgotten what it's like to go into a store and try on a pair of jeans and say, 'I want these.' Or to go to a restaurant and pay for a meal. It seems like I stopped living for a while, and now I'm ready to do it again.
"I have my dreams like everybody else," she said. "I'm just gonna do what I can while I can, because I don't know how long I'm gonna be here. I'm optimistic about life now. I don't have time not to be."
It wouldn't take a college professor to notice what changed in Humboldt Park in the 80s, she said: just walk its streets, see the people hanging on corners and scouring alleys for tin cans, and you'll know how many more are jobless now. Only one line of work in the community seemed to grow in the decade. "More and more people got into dealing drugs, because that was the fastest way to make money," she said. "Cocaine sells like hotcakes--14-year-olds are out in the street selling it. Heroin is hard to get now, and it's bad, it's nothing--it's like doing water." Heroin is more physically virulent but cocaine leads to more crime, she said. "You do a bag of heroin and you're calm, you're cool. Two people can use a dime bag of heroin and not want anything else all day. But cocaine makes you want more and more and more. You've got to have some right now, and so you go out there and do whatever it is to get some more."
For herself, the 80s were like a bad dream. "I can't believe I went through all these changes in a matter of ten years. It feels like something I would watch on TV, or read in a book. If Mom would have been here, I don't think any of it would have happened to me. But then maybe I wouldn't have grown some. It's a hard way to grow, though. Maybe a few years from now I'll look on it as a worthwhile experience. But right now, I'm not happy with the 80s at all."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Booz.