At a Public Storage facility on Devon near Pulaski, two sweaty movers are staring at a full storage locker. A household of belongings is stacked in here like layers of sedimentary rock or 1-2-3 Jell-O. On the bottom layer are furniture and heavy items; book-filled cardboard boxes are stacked atop each other like building blocks. Above them are items of medium weight--the base of a futon, a fortress of empty file cabinets. On the top layer, assorted lighter objects: a bicycle, a globe, posters, rolled-up rugs. Two couches stand vertically, like pillars marking the entrance to the locker.
One mover turns to the other.
"Steve James do this?" he asks. "This looks like a Steve James job."
The other nods.
"Best packer in the business," he says.
In the right lane of I-294 at 8 AM on a hot, hazy Saturday, a dirty white 28-foot truck is turning off at the Lake Forest oasis. The truck is unmarked except for one distinguishing characteristic--a small, football-shaped sticker in the lower right hand corner of the bumper that reads "Property of God." Piloting the vehicle is Steve James, age 44, a 16-year veteran of the moving business employed by William J. Cunningham Movers. James, in a navy blue Cunningham Movers T-shirt, slate-colored trousers, and black Reeboks, is on his fifth job of the week. On his right forearm is an azure tattoo of a cross. In the passenger seat is Jody Lee Johnson, who's been a mover for 12 years but only recently took a job with Cunningham. Johnson's forearm bears a Grateful Dead tattoo.
"His packing is art," Johnson says of James. "Every day he comes to work, and every day he makes art."
Following James's truck is a new, gleaming white Chevy van carrying two movers in sunglasses: Felix Robles, who used to work maintenance for the Chicago Housing Authority, and Hank Swanagan, who most recently worked hawking wares on the streets around 47th and Martin Luther King Drive. Two yellow tree-shaped air fresheners hang from the rearview mirror. At the oasis, swigging from a bottle of water, Swanagan remarks, "He's a good boss man, Steve James. He knows what he's doing. You don't always know how he'll fit it all together, but somehow he does it, I know that."
The four have just come from Cunningham Movers' main office in Norwood Park. Bill Cunningham, a firefighter who runs the moving company in his off time--he took it over from his father, a retired firefighter--has dispatched this crew to a job in Mundelein; they'll be moving a family from a prefab house in a subdivision to a new home on a golf course in Buffalo Grove.
James sprints from the truck and jogs over to the minimart to get an egg-and-cheese sandwich and a chocolate milk. The man, simply put, is ripped. He could be a swimmer or a gymnast, a boxer or a bodybuilder. His biceps suggest late-era Rocky Balboa. His head is shaved to a fierce shine. His pale gray-green eyes betray a brutal, don't-fuck-with-me intensity. His face looks as though it has seen a bar fight or two, but he says his rough days are behind him.
"There are no boundaries in life. There are no limitations to what you can do," James says. "I've never been to a health club in my life. I've never needed one." He strikes a bodybuilder's pose in the parking lot. "And I got a bicep that looks like that."
He turns to the other movers in the parking lot.
"All right, guys," he says and gets back up on the truck. "Let's move."
There are few lifers in the moving business. James is Cunningham Movers' most senior employee. Most at this company and others wander in and out--college students on summer breaks, seasonal workers who take a job during heavy moving months, guys looking for work after the unemployment checks stop coming. Some take the job as a last resort and leave as soon as a better opportunity comes along. A small percentage of them turn out to be small-time thieves looking for a quick score. "We're the outcasts," James says. "We're the drifters. We're the guys who couldn't make it in life. That's how we're seen."
There is a clipped, dogged quality to James's speech. His sentences are short, unadorned. Nothing fancy. To the point. The guys at Cunningham Movers call him the Roadrunner because of his ability to do long-distance moves, driving up to 35 hours straight, only stopping here and there for a brief nap.
Steve James was born in the Bronx in 1957. "My father brought me home from the hospital and that was it," he says. "Never saw him again." When he was still a small child, James, his mother, and his two sisters moved to the south side of Chicago. Later they moved to an apartment near Addison and Cicero. As a kid James was by his own description a loner--aloof, disconnected. "I grew up detached from people and things, and that was my choice."
He was a tough kid. He didn't go to school much, and when he showed up he didn't do the work. He hung out on street corners, caused trouble, abused "substances," as he puts it. A lot of the guys he tended to meet and hang out with were gangbangers--members of the Popes, the Gaylords, the Latin Kings, the Disciples, the Playboys. He shot hoops with them in the parks and the playgrounds. The only subject he liked to study was history, and basketball was the only thing that kept him in school. As a teenager in the early 1970s, long before Hoop Dreams, James fantasized that he'd make it to the NBA. This was before the age of comparatively rigorous academic standards for high school athletes, so James was able to play for the Foreman High School basketball team with a 1.7 grade point average. He was a star shooting guard, averaging 21 points per game one season.
"I was damn good," he recalls wistfully. "I could shoot anything from anywhere." He sighs and shakes his head. "And I blew it. I had so many dreams, so many aspirations. And I never achieved them."
James says he was recruited by a number of colleges but that his poor grades quashed any chance he had for a scholarship. "I was just a teenager," he says. "I was just walking through life not knowing what it was about. I didn't realize I was blowing my opportunities. I thought everything just comes to you. I couldn't fill out a questionnaire form senior year in school. They graduated me and I didn't know how fill out a damn questionnaire."
He tried attending Wright College but left after three days. He spent his teens and early 20s working various odd jobs: packing magazines at a printing house, building countertops for fast-food restaurants. He had few dreams then, few ambitions.
"I grew up without discipline. I never went anywhere. I was a white tornado," James recalls. "Tornadoes are out of control; you never know where they're going, what direction they're gonna be in. They just go and they're wild and they leave a trail. That's how I was. People tried to tell me things, I wouldn't listen. I didn't care about authority. I talked back to it, ignored it mostly."
During his late 20s James found two things: God and the moving business. He became a born-again Christian at a church near his mother's house. "I had a pretty rough past. I was out of control with substances," James recalls. "The people at the church in my neighborhood always used to tell me 'Try God,' so I thought I'd try it. I got on my hands and knees. I said, 'God, I'm sick of this bullshit,' and I've never been the same since."
Bill Cunningham met James at church. One look at James told Cunningham he might have a new employee.
"I always eyeball people," Cunningham says. "I said to myself, 'Wow, this guy is strong-looking. He looks like a mover. I went up to him, introduced myself, and told him to call me if he ever got bored with what he was doing. That was a long, long time ago. It's in his blood now."
"I just jumped in the water," James says. "Billy threw me in the water."
"I'm here to tell you I think he loves this job," Hank Swanagan says. "I've never seen anyone love it as much as you do."
"I do love it," says James. "I love it because it's freedom. I'm free to go where I want when I want. I love being my own boss. I love the challenge of it. I love seeing if I can make it all fit. Can I do it without damaging the pieces? Can I keep the customer happy? I love the travel. I love being on the road. I love meeting people. I love doing physical labor. People call this no-brainer work, but they don't realize that it allows you to use your brain for other things, that it gives you time to think. A lot of guys are forced to do this, because they didn't do anything else and this is where they ended up. Something about this just got into me and I never pursued anything else. It's addictive. My body is turned on to this stuff. I'm turned on by this, I'm turned on by God, and that's pretty much it."
Over the years James has tried other things. He went to France with a group of volunteers and helped to restore chateaus. While he was there and worked with teen-agers and young adults doing Bible study; he entertained the thought of doing more formal missionary work, but decided it wasn't for him. He studied history and theology, ultimately getting an associate's degree in liberal arts from Wright College and a BA in history from Northeastern. He worked briefly as a substitute high school teacher in the Chicago Public School system, but found the environment too rough. "The kids are out of control," he says. "They'd get right in my face and I'd get right back in their face, but I didn't want to do that. That's not how it should be done. I guess maybe I don't have the gift for it, because that experience turned me off completely." He says his favorite subject in history is the Renaissance. "All that music and all that art came out of such a tumultuous period, and I equate that with my present-day situation, because my life isn't exactly a roll of cherries," James says.
Wherever he's gone, he's always come back to this job; he sometimes cut his hours down when he was pursuing his studies, but he hasn't missed many days.
James is standing in the back of the moving truck, which is parked on a cul-de-sac in the Woodland subdivision of Mundelein. The house is a paean to wealth, though not necessarily taste: big-screen TVs, gray wall-to-wall carpeting, a mattress that could probably sleep six, a kids' game room with a Foosball table. James dashes into the house to survey the contents, then directs his workers to remove everything from the truck. They throw dark blue cushioned pads and cardboard boxes, big rubber bands and rolls of clear tape onto the lawn. Soon the only things left in the truck are a metal footstool and a long metal ramp.
"I like this," James says, taking stock of the inside of the truck as if contemplating a blank canvas. "I like this emptiness. "You've gotta get it empty before you really can start picturing how you're gonna do it, what it's gonna look like." He paces back and forth a few times, then walks to the lip of the truck and leans out.
"Felix," he calls. "I want you and Jody to start working on building a base." James lugs the metal ramp out and leans one end against the back of the truck, creating a path to the front of the house. "You guys can walk right up on the truck with everything."
James straps on a weight belt. "When you're moving what you do is you try to build a foundation and you keep building on it. Then the lighter and more fragile stuff goes on top and you create tiers. A lot of people have different methods, but this is the one that I like. This is the one that feels right to me.
"Hank," he calls out to Swanagan, who is the least burly of the bunch. "You're gonna bring me chairs."
James is in charge of sculpting the inside of the truck, fitting together the jigsaw pieces that the members of his crew bring him. But he's also responsible for the toughest lifting and dismantling work. He lugs seven-foot couches on his back. He takes apart desks, hauls the pieces out, and reassembles them on the truck. Even with the heaviest items on his back he struts, his springy step an unspoken statement that all this is easy. Plus, he grins: the heavier the object, the more he grins as he carries it, sometimes even breaking into an uncharacteristically gleeful and jubilant high-pitched giggle.
Though it all happens quickly, there's a surprising amount of method to the move. Heavy items that can take a great deal of weight and cardboard boxes are brought in first to create a foundation. Televisions and framed posters are wrapped in pads and set aside on the lawn. Items that James fears might be damaged--a washer-dryer and an enormous black leather couch--are placed in a holding area in the garage; they'll stand at the very edge of the truck to form a sort of bulwark.
He barks out orders like a quarterback calling out plays: "Is there another sofa piece?" "Just a chair?" "Let's put the chair on the wheel well." "No table yet; I want to get that leather chair. Then the TV, then the table and the grill in the back and that plaything."
"I need some toys here, Fee," James calls out to Robles. "I need things to build with. Get me some boxes of toys."
"I need small pieces of furniture," he tells Johnson. "I need lamps up there. I need end tables down here."
"Hey Hank," he says to Swanagan. "Take some pads and go wrap some drawers."
Of the surfeit of consumer goods parading by him as the crew goes about its business James says, "Look at this. We live in corporate-marketing America. People think they need more than they do. It's like overeating. We create the need even though there isn't any. So when we move people we find a whole crapload of things. And these people, when you bring their stuff out, they go, 'You mean you're still bringing stuff out? Where did I get that? You mean I still have more stuff? Where did it all come from?' Me, I don't hold on to things."
Johnson staggers by, carrying an enormous dresser wrapped in blue pads on his back, and James starts cracking up. "This guy just put a dresser on his back and carried it out," he giggles, impressed. "That guy's humping dressers on his back. It just shows you size doesn't matter."
Johnson clunks the dresser down on the floor of the van and grunts, exhausted. "Steve, can I smoke a cigarette?" he asks.
"Absolutely," James says.
"I'm from the old school," Johnson explains. "I only take a break when Steve says take a break."
James lives in a small, sparsely furnished studio apartment on the northwest side within a mile of the building where he grew up. He's been in the apartment for a little more than two years. Before that he was attending school part-time and living with his mother in a condo in Arlington Heights, but he doesn't see her much these days.
"I try not to stay too close, because I know my mother," he says. "I'm a 44-year-old man and she still wants to know where I'm at. I guess that's what happens with women, with mothers. That's how they are. She always worries about me. She just can't seem to stop that. There's not much I can do about it, so I don't spend a lot of time there anymore."
In the apartment he has only a bed; a bookcase, where he keeps mostly French books and magazines (he's currently reading Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins in French translation); a desk with a computer on top of it; a TV, where he watches the occasional news program, usually Jim Lehrer's NewsHour; a chin-up bar; and a dresser topped with bottles of cologne.
"I'm going through a real low period right now, I'll be honest with you," he says. "I'm 44 years old and I'm looking at where I'm at in life, and I know people say you shouldn't look at others, but I'm a 44-year-old guy and I'm not as far along as I would like to be in life in a lot of ways. I move a lot of guys my age, some younger than me, and I look at what they have and what I have and there's not a lot of parity. I look at guys with beautiful wives and kids. They're settled down and I'm still not. And part of me would like to settle down. I'd like to get married, I'd like to have a house, I'd like to have kids. I'm starting to realize the importance of posterity. Sometimes when I compare myself to other people, it gets a little discouraging. So yeah, this is the downtime of my life. It's not depression. It's just reflecting.
"I look at where a lot of men my age are and I'm not there, and I'd like to be there, but at the same time I love physical labor too much and I love too much to travel. I love the world out there, and if I get married and settle down, that's a trade-off. Human nature is fickle. We always think the grass is greener on the other side. And I've gotten into my job and the freedom of it so much that I haven't always realized that there are other things out there."
As a potential solution for this apparent midlife crisis, James has embarked upon a few projects. He's been interviewing for a job loading cargo for a major airline, which would allow for him to work for Cunningham Movers part-time and get health and travel benefits. He's been writing a bit of poetry.
"If my heart is romantic, I can write poetry," he says. "I can kill a woman with romance. I love doing that. It comes naturally. It just flows."
He is also working on a manuscript, currently 120 pages long, about the psychological side of physical fitness, which he has tentatively titled "Skin and Muscle." "That's what the body should be--nothing but skin and muscle," he says. The book begins, "The world is my gym."
"It's true," James says. "The world is a gym to me. I can drop down, find a tree, a pole, and do pull-ups. I can drop down anywhere and do 50 push-ups. I can do crunches throughout the day during my breaks. I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted to have a good body. I wanted to be in shape so I just did it. Sometimes when I'm feeling down, that's what gets me through it.
"If there's one thing I could be good at in life, it's being a motivational speaker," he says. "Everybody has within them the ability to conquer or to collapse. Two c words. People can do anything. Within you, you have the ability to look good and to stay looking good the rest of your life. It sounds narcissistic, but that's OK, because everyone's into it. You cut and you carve your body. You create a theater in your mind and you see yourself beautiful, cutting. And the process is going on 24-7; it just doesn't start when you get off the fucking job and go to the gym. Once you conquer that area, you translate those principles into other areas of your life. If you conquer this, you can conquer other areas. The toughest thing anyone has to conquer is themselves. That's what I still have to conquer sometimes--so I don't collapse."
The moving truck in front of the house in Mundelein is just about full. Only a few unwieldy items remain on the lawn--a couch, the washer-dryer, the mattress. The challenge is making it all fit without calling Bill Cunningham up to bring another truck for the few remaining items; for James, doing it all in one trip is a point of pride.
"Most every time, I can tell if I can make it in one trip or not," he says. "You can get a sense of how it will all fit together the moment you see the house, but this is real close."
So far the move has gone well. Moving a household of belongings into the back of the truck has taken a little less than four hours. "I'm hoping," James says. "God, I'm hoping. God, I'm hoping we're not gonna need to bring another vehicle out here."
The client has already handed James a $20 bill so he can "buy the guys some Cokes" on the way over to the new house. "I have customers who give me $50 tips and they live like paupers. I've had other customers who live like kings and they didn't give me a dime," James says. Movers, perhaps more than workers in any other profession, are able to get rare insight into the true nature and quality of people. Though they might only meet their customers once, and even then only for a few hours, in that short time they see nearly every one of that person's belongings, how they arrange them, what they want to keep and what they want to throw away. They learn about people's most cherished possessions. They learn about the lives of the celebrities they may happen to move--that Marlo Thomas is persnickety and Phil Donahue is easygoing. Unlike most people, who more often than not meet others during times of relative stability, the mover meets people during times of transition--moving into a bigger place or a smaller one, getting married or getting divorced.
"You learn about people: you learn demeanors, you learn whether they're fudging you, whether they're telling the truth," says James. "You can tell a lot about people by what they have, how they dress, how they present themselves, how they act toward you. They're not always gonna tell you their life story, but you can kind of figure it out from looking at them. You can tell whether they're gonna snap on you, whether they're gonna pay the check, whether they're gonna be nice to you. People are Jekyll and Hydes when it comes to their personal belongings. They start out as Dr. Jekyll, but at the end of the day they'll turn into Mr. Hyde on you. After a while you can pretty much predict that behavior."
Several times James has met people he suspected were involved in illicit activities. Once while moving a prominent Chicago-area businessman, he found a baggie filled with stacks of hundred-dollar bills; the client was later arrested for drug dealing. Twice James has moved customers whom he suspected of dealing in child pornography.
"We had a guy who was a pedophile. He was living downtown on the Gold Coast, and we walked into this house and there was this smell of urine and there was pornography all over the place, dildos all over the place. It was repulsive. He had these walking dildos you could wind up. You just don't keep that stuff out there when you got movers coming in to move you. You put that stuff in a box and you hide it."
Twice this July, while doing jobs in Geneva, James got involved in tiffs with customers. The first accused him of stealing checks from her; the second called the cops on him when he talked back. He says it's the only time that an argument during a move has resulted in a visit from the police.
"This lady was very condescending, I gotta tell you," says James. "We're in her house and I guess we're not moving fast enough for her, so I hear her say, 'Fuckin' movers.' And I said to her, 'Ma'am, you're very condescending. There is a way of speaking to people without being disrespectful.' I started out talking like that and I ended up calling her a bitch because she kept on with the 'fuckin' movers.' I said 'You know what, lady? You're a bitch.' She called the police on me. The police came out. I told the police, 'You're silly for being here. I cannot dance here with somebody and be at odds with them without them calling big brother. Why don't you talk to her?' The cop said, 'Yeah, you're right.' It was silly. You're seen as a thug. I wanted to say, 'Lady, walk a mile in my shoes. Try doing my job.' She called the fucking police on me. Small-town people are like that."
James has had both men and women proposition him on the job, but he won't go into detail. "It's nice. It's a compliment. It's fun. It's flattering. And, they're nice customers. Period." He says the worst time he ever had moving somebody was when he accidentally scratched a client's table while moving it into a van and she started crying.
"She just literally bawled. She cried in front of me," says James. "Some people take their furniture really seriously, and I can't blame them. Oh man, when she looked at her table and broke down, it was horrible to me. It told me I failed. That I did a bad job. I made somebody cry. On the outside I look rough and I look intimidating, but really I'm a Tootsie Roll--hard on the outside, chewy on the inside. Soft. I'm a very sensitive person, ultrasensitive, so people's emotions matter to me more than the job does. If they yell at me, they'll get a punch. But if you break down on me because I did something wrong, I feel like garbage."
James and his crew have shoved everything into the truck except the enormous mattress and some free weights, but he won't have to call for another truck. He has asked Felix Robles if he can load the weights into his van. Though it's a brand-new van, Robles consented. As for the mattress, James has brought out some rope to tie it to the back of the truck. But he'll have to shut the door first, and before he does that he wants to take a moment to survey his work.
"It makes me feel good when I look at this," he says. "I like making square walls. I like making things join and fit. I look at paintings by people like Jackson Pollock at the Art Institute and I say, 'What does he find in there that makes it so good?' I can't jump into his mind or the people who like that stuff. Just like they look at me. They can't figure out why I like how this looks so much. I just like it when it all fits together, these square units. It just makes me feel right. I just like straight lines. There's a satisfaction in seeing that, in knowing it turned out right. I used to sketch a lot, and I remember how it felt looking at what I sketched. This feels just like that."
Unpacking the truck is much quicker than packing it. Bill Cunningham has driven out to Buffalo Grove to help, and the five workers get a little help from their client's children, who carry boxes of toys and stuffed animals into their new house.
"I have my all-star team here today," Cunningham jokes as he stands in the back of the truck, lifting items down to James. "I feel like the manager of a baseball team and I'm Babe Ruth and Steve's Lou Gehrig. We have different styles, but we complement each other. Steve likes to pack vertical and I like to pack horizontal. I like to think of this as a skill; Steve thinks of it as an art."
During the course of the move one of the workers drops a pressboard tabletop. It isn't really damaged, just scuffed up a bit, but James furiously storms off down the street and has to take a moment or two to catch his breath and calm his temper before returning to the job. "I've just got to keep reminding myself that people are not perfect," he says, half out loud, half to himself. "The Bible says that one day God is going to bring everything into submission, but for now he puts up with us because he loves people. God doesn't expect things of people. The Bible calls us dust. God calls me dust. What does God expect from dust? Not a whole lot. I get upset, really pissed off sometimes. But I gotta realize, people are dust."
He goes into the house and takes in the view from a wraparound deck off the second-floor master bedroom. The deck looks out onto a golf course, where elderly men are riding around in carts, and a small, placid man-made lake. "This is beautiful, this view," James says. "I wouldn't mind having something like this some day."
Once the truck has been emptied out and the final item--a giant stuffed Tasmanian devil--has been moved into the house, James looks at the truck and turns philosophical. "You start out empty, you end up empty. Everything else is the move," he says.
James, Cunningham, Robles, Swanagan, and Johnson meet around the side of the truck to split up the booty. At the end of most jobs the movers wind up getting items the clients can't fit into their house or have decided they don't want anymore. Much of Cunningham's house has been furnished this way; over the years he's received two pianos, a rowboat, an antique model fire engine, which he gave to his dad, and a shitty car. Today James has scored a new set of speakers, and all the guys argue over who gets which Beanie Baby in the plastic trash bag of stuffed animals that one of the children brought out to them. Plus they get to split a $150 tip.
But even though the tip suggests they have done their jobs more than adequately, James is still obsessing about the scuffed tabletop.
"I'm not God," he says. "I'm not perfect. If God was a mover, he would've done this job perfect. God wouldn't have scratched up any furniture. God wouldn't have scuffed anything up. But I'm not God.
"I try so hard to do a good job, and here's why," he says as he opens the driver's side door to his truck. "Because one day I'll see God. The Bible says I'm gonna see him and I'm gonna give an account of my life. He's gonna look at my life, sift the bad from the good. And what I hope he's gonna say is 'Steve, you did a good job down there.'"
James is standing outside an apartment near Harlem in New York City. He says he did the 800-mile trip from Chicago in about 12 hours. He would have liked to have gotten some sleep the night before, but he was up all night trying to fit all the furniture into a van instead of the large trailer he had initially rented, mostly just to test himself, he says, but also to save the client the cost of the trailer rental. He has done the drive himself and the move mostly by himself, hiring a kid from the neighborhood to lift some of the lighter items. James has carried on his back a set of speakers, a kitchen bench, a dining room table, a futon, chairs, and countless boxes of books. Now, even though his shirt is soaked through, he's ready for more.
"I'm going to head over to the park," he says. "I've just gotta do some push-ups and about 300 abs."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.