Shelter | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Shelter

A Rainy Night on the Near West Side

by

comment

It's late September and I'm lying on the couch in the community living room. In the past few weeks I've successfully juggled my schedule so I can use my long night shifts at the Franciscan shelter to prepare science lessons for my sixth-graders at Our Lady of the Westside. As a result, I now have a few precious hours to watch videos in the volunteer quarters. Here on the couch, I am momentarily insulated from the near west side, from the tumbled concrete sidewalk along Harrison Street, and from the shelter's disarray of donated beds and mattresses.

Christine, another full-time volunteer who has been here only a few weeks, is standing in front of the stove, stirring a tall aluminum cauldron of thick, splattering red sauce. The hair on her forehead is damp, and it's clear that she's been working for a while. She, more than any of us, makes her night to cook for the volunteers a production. Even if she's making just spaghetti, she spends most of the afternoon in the kitchen.

I don't know how much time passes. Christine occasionally comes out to the living room to stand and watch a few seconds of the movie. This is like many afternoons. The body clock of those who work at homeless shelters is reset each day. Occasionally I doze off and awaken to discover that the movie I'm watching has taken a leap forward. But I've seen all the movies here before and don't notice the gaps.

Frank, who has been volunteering here for six years, rushes back and forth through the living room several times without a word and then disappears. He's usually busy in the afternoon, and it's not unusual for him to make such appearances. It's raining, and his thin blue cotton jacket is speckled with drops. Of the other volunteers, Bert and Nancy are probably upstairs sleeping, and Mark is out somewhere. David, who has been working only three nights each week, is asleep. Father Jim has the night off and probably will not appear until sometime tomorrow.

I'm half asleep when Frank rushes back into the room, panting. "Phil, can you help me? I got a situation."

This means there's a problem with the men that must be dealt with now. I jump up from the couch, grab my raincoat, and follow him across the dormitory and into the hallway.

The garage door is open, and most of the men who had been standing on the street are now jammed inside. Frank moved the donated community cars onto the street to make room for them. There's the smell of wet wool clothing, the funky odor of unwashed T-shirts. Sour booze breath. The lingering exhaust from the moved vehicles. Faces are wet, strands of hair still drip. Baseball-cap bills are crumpled, and nylon windbreakers are dark across the chest and shoulders from the water. Individual puddles lie at each man's feet. Beneath the garage door, which is open halfway, stand a ragged fringe of men with parts of their bodies extended out into the rain.

On the sidewalk several men, drenched, clothing ripped and twisted, stand panting and wheezing. There has been a fight.

It's impossible to determine who was involved and who was just a bystander. Sometimes the accounts of other guests will reveal the antagonist. Perhaps there is none.

Car tires hiss on the pavement. Arcs of spray are thrown up behind them. Taillights blur and fade in the mist. The men on the sidewalk move slowly back into the garage.

Frank hasn't shaved for several days, and his black whiskers contrast sharply with his pale wet skin. His jacket is now soaked and hangs tight around his shoulders. We both stand in the rain. The men in the garage have resumed the murmuring conversations of every evening. Only a few of them watch us. "Do you think we should open up?" Frank asks me.

"It's really early."

"Yeah, I know. But the soup's almost done, and I don't think they'd mind doing without sandwiches tonight. It makes no sense to keep them waiting."

"OK," I say. "Let's do it."

We find Bert upstairs, and he agrees. I turn on all the lights in the north and south dormitories. The sodium-vapor bulbs start with a dull, dirty silver glow that turns muddy orange and then cloudy yellow. When the lights are fully up, the tall chambers are washed in soft amber. Frank has awakened the "crew staff," the guests who help the volunteers full-time, and asked them to get the big kitchen ready to serve soup. Bert has made sure there's enough toothpaste, soap, and petroleum jelly at the towel stand.

After a few minutes we meet back in the community living room. Mark is still not back, but he knows he's scheduled to work tonight and will certainly show up before too long. We decide to say an abbreviated evening prayer. Christine and Nancy, who have agreed to start letting women in on the other side of the building as soon as they show up, sit with us as we recite one psalm from the pages of the evening prayer for that day. We decide to eat our dinner later, after all the guests are inside.

We put on our coats, walk across the dormitory, and step into the garage. About 50 more men have shown up. Steam rises from the wet bald heads of those who don't have hats. To avoid the press, some men stand on the sidewalk. A dull echoing roar fills the garage as the men shift and speak around each other.

"OK," Frank shouts. "I need everyone to go back outside and form a line so I can take down your names."

Bert and I both look at Frank. Normally the line represents their order of arrival, and therefore the order in which they enter, but they have now been standing shoulder to back to chest in the garage for almost two hours. To put them in a line seems meaningless, but Frank argues that more fights will surely ensue if we don't. Bert and I concede that a line will allow us to control the flow of men into the kitchen. And if there are fights, at least they will be outside.

Frank stands up on a trash can and yells for everyone to quiet down. He has been here nearly six years and is given the same respect as Father Jim. There's silence. "This isn't going to work," he yells. "Please go outside and form a line. I'm going to close the garage door, and everybody has to get out."

The men quietly move back out onto the sidewalk.

Bert pulls the chain that lowers the door. When it touches the ground, we see that the space where the men stood is littered with wet brown paper bags, pop cans, wadded greasy barbecue wrappers, and pieces of ketchup-soaked french fries smeared into the concrete--just like the sidewalk every other night we have opened.

We step outside and begin taking names. The streetlights have already come on, in tune with the darkness. The rain catches the light and carries it to the ground in glaring cones.

After a few minutes we agree that I will go inside and get settled at the desk, and Bert and Frank will start letting the men in. I stop in the community room to turn on the alarm system and to grab the logbook and the old square Tupperware cake box we use to hold the mail. I'm in the kitchen telling the crew that we're getting ready to open when the doorbell to the east entrance rings. It's loud enough that it can be heard almost everywhere inside the building.

I walk to the door and find a woman standing outside in blue polyester slacks, a gray turtleneck sweater, and no coat. On her feet she wears only white tube socks. Her left eye is swollen shut, a shiny purple line where her eyelids meet. The left side of her face is outlined in a deeper shade of purple, and a crusted patch of rusty brown spreads from just beneath her nose over her upper lip and down around her chin.

"I'm gonna fuckin' freeze out here if you don't let me in," she says, her face trembling, her arms closed tight around her body.

"You'll have to wait a few minutes," I say calmly, trying to sound soothing. "I'm not sure if we have room right now."

The women's beds are allocated differently from the men's. Most of the women are regulars, and their beds are held for them until eight. Women who are not as regular are assigned beds 20 through 35, which are reserved until eight for the women who slept in them the previous night. Only if these women do not show up by eight are the beds given out to new guests, a system designed to give the women the small luxury of sleeping in the same bed.

The women's dorm has been full the past few weeks and it's not yet eight, so I honestly can't tell the woman I'll be able to let her in. If all the women who came last night come again tonight, she may be turned away.

"What? You gonna let me fuckin' freeze?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. Our regular guests haven't shown up yet, and it's our policy to give them priority for the available beds because they've been here before. If they don't show up by eight o'clock, then I'm sure we'll get you in."

"So I'm supposed to fuckin' freeze until eight o'clock."

"I'm sorry, ma'am. All I can do for you now is tell you that you stand an excellent chance of getting in if you'll just be patient." I close the door and start back toward the desk. Before I get there Frank yells at me from across the dorm.

"Phil, can you please call an ambulance? We've got a man who's been stabbed out here."

I run to the desk, pick up the phone, and punch the button with the little red cross on it that automatically dials 911. After four rings a female voice comes on the line. "Chicago emergency."

"Hi. I'm calling from the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph at two . . . seven . . . one . . . seven West Harrison." My voice is calm and deliberate. Father Jim has told us over and over again to speak clearly the first time when calling emergency so we don't have to repeat ourselves.

"OK."

"We have a man here who has been stabbed and needs an ambulance as soon as possible."

"What floor is he on?"

"It's only a one-story building."

"OK, thank you."

I put down the phone and look toward the door. Bert and Lucius* hold the limp form of a man between them and are bringing him through the door. The man's head is hanging down against his chest. Through the front of his coat, I can see a bright red liquid patch spreading across his shirt.

I run across the dormitory and pull from a stack in the corner one of the cots we line up in the aisles when all the beds are taken, then place it a few feet from where Bert and Lucius stand holding the man. Up close, I see that the man is Bobby. I was talking to him a few weeks earlier, and he told me he used to be an illustrator for one of the comic books I read in junior high school. Bert and Lucius lay him on the cot, and Bert grabs a pillow off a nearby bed. He takes the pillowcase off and presses it onto Bobby's chest. Lucius takes a blanket from a nearby bed and covers him.

Bobby's long legs extend over the end of the cot. He's wearing black wing tips. His arms hang straight out from the sides of the cot, the palms open to the ceiling. He's conscious and his eyes are half open, occasionally staring wide for what seems like a second and then half closing again. I stand beside the cot watching and listening. It doesn't seem unusual that a man who has been stabbed is lying a few feet from me.

"Hiunnnnnnnh, haaaaaaauuuuuuh, hiunnnnnnnhh, haauuuuuuuuh," Bobby breathes. A nonharmonic gurgling escapes from his chest.

"Here, Lucius," Bert says, bringing one of Lucius's hands to Bobby's chest beneath the blanket. "Hold this down tight like this." Then he looks at me. "Why don't you get back to the desk? We still got a lot of other guys out there."

I turn to go back to the desk and hear the metal door thunk shut as Bert steps outside.

I sit down and write the day and date in the blanks at the top of the sign-in sheets. Harold, one of the crew staff, is already at the towel stand with the logs he needs to keep track of who gets towels and razors for the night. Within seconds, Andy is standing at the desk. He's usually one of the first regulars to come in each night, and he goes straight to bed, having apparently eaten his dinner elsewhere. He's wearing a soaked red nylon windbreaker with a trucking-company logo over the chest. He's no taller than five six and walks with a hobble because of recurring pain in his right leg. Father Jim has said it's phlebitis, but Andy never says much about it. His face is narrow, and his tiny eyes are surrounded with wrinkles. He has one upper incisor tooth left in his mouth, which, perhaps because it is alone, seems larger than normal when he smiles.

I write his initials in the space next to number 144 on the sign-in sheet.

The men in the kitchen are busy eating soup, and no one's waiting to get past Roy, another member of the crew staff, into the dormitory. I can see them standing up at the chest-high tables, sipping from steaming Styrofoam cups. Their heavy, dripping coats hang over the ends of the tables. Cigarette smoke has already begun to haze up into the high space of the kitchen, obscuring the details of the rafters. Roy sits in a chair by the kitchen door reading a paperback book. It's his job to regulate the flow of men into the dormitory.

No one is now waiting at the desk, so I stand up and walk to where Bobby is lying on the cot. Lucius is still kneeling next to him. His breathing has quieted, and his eyes no longer flutter. I wonder if this is bad or good.

I stick my head out the door to see how things are going outside. Frank, Bert, and Mark, who must have just come back, stand in front of the door, engulfed by the wet shapes and hoarse voices of the men around them. The line formed long enough for Bert and Frank to take names, then disintegrated. The men are now massed in front of the door.

"We fucking going to get into this place or what?" Raymond snaps, his face only inches from Frank's.

"I'll get you all in as soon as possible," says Frank, his face impassive. "Our hands are a little full right now."

From the door I can see that the list on the clipboard is soaked and the names have drained away in a network of pale blue streams. This is typical. But because we know the men, we can identify them from even small smudges of their names.

The electronic wailing of an approaching ambulance pierces the hiss of the rain. Then the red flickering light splashes against the building and the faces of the men standing outside.

"Is everything all right?" I ask Frank.

"Yeah, we're fine," he says. "We're going to let a few more in now. Is that OK?"

"Yeah, sure," I reply. I step back into the dormitory and see that about 20 men have left the kitchen and are standing at the desk.

"I'm next," says Charles softly. He's wearing a White Sox cap and a woman's ski jacket. He leans over so that his forearms rest on the desk and his face is level with mine. "Gimme one of those mats you put on the floor. I don't want to sleep on no sheets these other guys been jackin' off in."

I glance up at the other men in line at the desk. Their eyes are tired and distant. If they've heard Charles's remark, they show no response.

"Mat one, Charles," I say. He has given us no problems since he arrived a few weeks ago, and unlike Father Jim, I see no problem giving out beds that men specifically request. I point to where the mat will be when Harold sets it up. "It'll be over there along the wall."

Charles shuffles away from the desk toward the washroom.

The ambulance drivers have come inside and are working on Bobby. I tell the men in line to wait for a moment and walk over. "Is there anything I can do to help?" I ask.

"Just get us some room to get him out of here," says one of the drivers. The other driver is examining the pillowcase, which is soaked red. Lucius's fingers, which hold the crude dressing in place, are much darker. Some of the blood that squeezed onto his fingers has started to clot and dry. Beneath the cot a bright puddle has formed from drops that fall at slow intervals from the lowest point of the bulge made by Bobby's weight. Tiny splatters fly up and land back in the pool. The puddle slowly spreads radially outward, creeping along the cracks in the concrete floor.

For a moment I'm transfixed and don't hear the clamor of the men going to their beds or the shouts of the men and staff. Then I stick my head outside to tell Frank, Bert, and Mark that they're ready to bring Bobby out. There's a humming along my spine that I've felt on other nights working here, the same feeling I have looking out the window of a jet as it leaves the ground--both fear and exhilaration, wonderment and sorrow.

The drivers pushing the gurney that holds Bobby come up behind me. I hold the metal door open wide, and one of the drivers pulls the end of the gurney out. Bobby's wing tips stick straight up into the rain. The other men waiting to get inside stand by in silence. The only sounds are the rain, the cars passing by, and the muffled chatter of the men inside the kitchen.

The rubber wheels at the back of the gurney thunk down onto the sidewalk. Bobby stares drowsily up into the night. There's a bundle on his chest where the ambulance drivers have added dressings to the wound. The men waiting outside part to let the gurney pass, watching as it drops two inches from the concrete to the narrow strip of earth that borders the curb, its rubber wheels sinking nearly up to their steel rims in mud. The drivers load the gurney, climb inside, and close the doors behind them. The van throws up spray from its wheels as it pulls away from the curb and heads east toward Cook County Hospital, its siren wailing.

Back at the desk the line of men stretches all the way to the kitchen door. Some look a little disgruntled that they had to wait; others simply dig through their shoulder bags.

Tommy steps around the side of the desk, leans over, and whispers, "Can I talk to you, Phil?"

"Sure," I say.

"I got a problem." He avoids my eyes and seems to look at the floor. "I need to talk to you about something."

Some of those still waiting are glaring at Tommy for making them wait longer. Some do not even seem to notice.

"I got bugs, Phil," Tommy whispers. "They eatin' me alive. I got 'em in my shorts, and they startin' to eat on things I don't want 'em eatin' on."

Father Jim said we would see an increase in lice cases as the weather started to get cooler. Fewer men are willing to take cool showers in the evening when they arrive or in the morning before they leave. They are also more reluctant to wash out their clothes at night because they don't usually dry by morning.

"You're in bed 34, but don't lie down yet," I say. "I'll set you up for a lice shower."

"Thanks, Phil." Tommy smiles and claps me on the shoulder.

I continue to assign beds and check off the regulars who come in. James stands in front of the desk holding a bundle of blood-soaked towels away from his body. "I wiped up over there," he says. "What you want me to do with these?"

I have to think for a minute. If he takes them out the back door to throw in the Dumpsters, the alarm will go off. And I hesitate to tell him to just throw them into the trash can in the men's washroom. It seems like sacrilege. The fundamental routine of working here is that there is no routine. Events, moments, voices. Feelings, words, lights. Outside of time. Timeless. Oblique, circular. The frame of reference keeps moving.

Bobby's blood is dripping from the towels in James's hands and onto the floor in front of the desk. A trail of drops has followed him from the cot where Bobby lay. It probably would have been easier if James had mopped it up. I decide that the plastic garbage can we use for lice-infested sheets and clothes is probably the best place to dispose of the towels. I point to the can, which sits just outside the doorway to the south dorm. "Just toss 'em in there."

"OK," James says.

I'm still assigning beds when the doorbell at the east entrance rings. It rings four more times before I get there. When I open the door rain blows into the hallway. Outside, captured in the light, is the dripping face of a young woman. She's about 19 and wears shiny black tights and a leather jacket. Her face twitches sideways, and her entire body jerks forward. Her spine undulates as if someone were striking the small of her back with a four-by-four.

"This is my sister," says the young man who's holding her from behind. "She having convulsions." His arms are tight around her waist, and he holds his head back away from her, apparently to keep from being struck by the violent movements of her head. I recognize his face because he's stayed here before. His name is Rodney.

"You gotta help her," he says. "Oh, yeah, help this wacko bitch. Prob'ly fucked up on some goddamn crack or some shit."

The woman whose eye is swollen shut is standing off to the left of the young man and his sister. "Fuckin' see this shit everywhere I go. These two gonna get all kinds of nice shit, and I'm gonna fuckin' freeze to death out here."

I'm not sure why she's still out here, but I say, "I'm still not sure if we can get you in tonight." I honestly don't know how many of the women have been let in or by whom, and I haven't seen or heard from Christine or Nancy for a while. "And this woman needs help pretty bad," I add.

"And what?" the woman says. She's still wearing only the tube socks, which are soaked and stretched away from the ends of her toes. "I look like I just got back from the fuckin' mall?"

I hold the door open with one arm and allow the brother and sister to step inside. They sit down on the chairs right inside the door, and I call another ambulance. "Wait here," I tell them.

I return to the desk and call the women's dorm on the intercom. I tell Nancy that she's needed in the hallway by the east door. I sign in more men. The line has again backed up to the kitchen.

Frederick stands beside the desk wearing only white briefs. "I just thought you might like to know that they's some guy back in that washroom that got bugs all over his body. I mean they crawlin' all over him and he got big red bites on him. And they fixin' to jump all over everybody else 'cause they cain't even stand to be on him no more."

"Oh, thanks for reminding me," I say. I'd forgotten about Tommy. "I'm going to give him a lice shower."

"Give him a fuckin' flame thrower," Frederick says, and stomps off toward his bed.

I sign in more men. The line has shortened a little, and I glance toward the kitchen to see how many more are still there eating. I can see only a few standing there with cups of soup. There are still a few more beds on the assignment sheet, and I haven't even started giving out the cots yet. There must be a delay outside again. Whenever the volunteers encounter any difficulty outside, we simply stop letting men in for a few minutes.

I assign beds to the remaining few men standing at the desk and wait. The flashing lights of an ambulance flicker through the rafters over my head. I move toward the east door.

Nancy, Rodney and his sister, two ambulance attendants, and two women guests who must have just arrived are in the hallway. I don't see the woman with the swollen-shut eye, and I later learn that she was assigned a bed.

"She's my sister," Rodney says. "I gotta go with her." He's still holding his arms tight around her. Her violent convulsions have stopped, but she's shivering.

"We need to get you up, ma'am," says one of the ambulance drivers. "Can you stand?"

Her voice vibrates. "Yeah-unh-unh-unh, I can."

The drivers help her up. One of them turns to her brother and asks, "Has she been using any drugs today?"

"Nothing dangerous," Rodney says.

I return to the desk and find no line of men waiting for me. I walk toward the west entrance of the building.

A police car has arrived, and two officers in leather jackets stand silently in the rain. I wonder if their leather jackets are waterproof. The blue strobe lights of their squad car flash through the rain. The engine is still running, and a cloud of exhaust rises behind the car. About 30 men waiting to get in huddle close to the door. Mark is holding the metal door open with his back, and Frank is holding the clipboard. The rain has now pounded the list of names to pulp. Some of the men stare into the puddles at their feet.

Eugene is slumped against the building face first, his bare head pressed into the brick. A hard pink plastic jaw brace is bolted to the side of his face. His arms claw at the wall for support, trying to keep him from rolling onto the sidewalk. An orange-yellow pool of lumpy vomit near his feet is being dissected into small rivers by the rain and carried away. "Naaaaaaaawuh, ah ain' ben dringin," he mumbles over and over.

Frank calls three names from the list, and three men shuffle past us, shaking ribbons of water from their clothing as they walk toward the kitchen. I'm standing in the rain without a coat. Blue strobe raindrop sparks overhead. Night and sound. Moving snapshot series. Anatomical study. Lips, eyes, muscles. Soaked clothing clinging to shoulders, arms, backs.

"Hey, Frank, you wanna buy some rock?" Cornelius yells. "I got some, man."

"Kill it," says one of the police officers. "Let the man work."

Bert looks at me and smiles. His eyes are tired. His face is dripping. His glasses are beaded over. "They're trying to get arrested," he says.

The county jail is dry. You're sure to get a towel, and you don't have to leave by 6:30 in the morning. You don't have to take the bus up north to Milwaukee Avenue to get to the day-labor place by 4:30 AM so you can get placed in a job for a day making $4.50 an hour. If you do it right, they'll keep you for a few weeks or even months. They'll feed you. You can get a shower every day. You don't have to share a room with 150 other men. You can become a regular. They'll know your name too. And this is the time to do it. Winter is almost here, and only a few of the other places have opened up. The Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph is open year-round. But these days if you're not in line by 7:30, you probably won't even get in. If you do, you don't get a bed, but a canvas cot stuck in the middle of the aisle. Or one of those plastic mats they throw down on the floor.

I'm back assigning beds. Robert leans over and taps the desk with his forefinger. I know it's him without looking up because he always wears the same pair of red super-tight bikini briefs around the dormitory. His legs are skinny, his hip bones well-defined and uncluttered with flesh. "Just thought you'd like to know that the toilet has overflowed in there," he whispers, pointing to the men's washroom. "It hasn't become foul yet, but it may very soon."

"Thanks, Robert," I say. I walk toward the washroom. A dark puddle is curling out of the doorway and into the dormitory. I tiptoe through the puddle into the washroom and try to find the source. Men are standing at the sinks, brushing their teeth, shaving, stripped to their shorts but still wearing their boots or sneakers. Roar of sinks, clothes splashing in suds, water splattering into the puddle below. Echoing voices. Muscles moving past me. Beards. Eyes. Faces I know.

"Just don't flush anything," I yell.

The men in the stalls relay the message from one to the next. The men standing at the sinks also yell the message to each other.

In the corner by the shower stall Tommy is standing naked, holding his balled-up clothes in his hands. His feet are underwater.

"Just a minute, Tommy," I say.

I grab a cup full of lindane shampoo from the cabinet in the community room. I give it to him, and tell him the procedure for the shower. Then I get him some donated clothes from the clothing room.

The lights in the north and south dormitories are turned off. A few men still stand in the kitchen drinking cups of soup. I've been gone from the desk for almost five minutes. Frank, Bert, or Mark must have signed in some men.

I sit at the desk and fill out the wake-up list for tomorrow morning. The kitchen is closed. All the cots except one have been given out. All the mats are full.

"Can I get a 3:30," says Will, squinting at the clock behind me. He's standing in front of the desk in his underwear with a towel over his shoulder.

"What you want me to do with that cot?" James asks Bert, who's standing in the hallway by the metal door. He points to the cot that's still sitting where Bobby was lying on it.

* The names of the guests have been changed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

Add a comment