by Micah McCrary
When I moved to Chicago, at twenty-one, I moved into a dorm in the Printer’s Row neighborhood on the south end of downtown, across the street from a string of bars and a little café. Around the corner was a homeless shelter that all dorm residents were warned to be careful around. It isn’t there anymore, but during my first year in Chicago I often found myself walking by the shelter on my way to class or to the subway.
The people hovering around the shelter’s entrance often asked if I could spare any change, and I almost always said no. What I’d known then about city life and the homeless I’d learned from movies and TV, and I thought, having grown up in Central Illinois in a town surrounded by nothing but open corn and soybean fields, that the characters denying their homeless neighbors money were either being too cautious or too selfish. I wanted to be neither, and tried to find a middle ground between protecting myself and not being annoyed by the homeless people who often asked me for money, so I decided to stop carrying cash. That way, at least if I was being too cautious or too selfish, I wouldn’t also be a liar.
While in my hometown I’d carry cash all the time because many restaurants and stores there weren’t up-to-date with credit card machines. In contrast, living in the city almost seemed to require one of two things: making sure that I always had cash, or making sure that I never had cash. I wouldn’t have an actual credit card until years after I moved to Chicago and found myself using ATMs when I entered places that only accepted cash. This let me carry cash only when I really wanted or needed it. I acknowledged the ability to only sometimes carry cash as a class privilege, and one I exploited as an excited undergraduate who’d just moved to a metropolis. But it also discouraged me from examining the grittiness around the corner—or, at least, to pretend as if living near a homeless shelter had prepared me for the blemishes of my new city.
Enjoying ice cream with a friend one night on the patio of a Baskin Robbins near our dorm, we were approached by a man who wasn’t homeless but who said he needed money. I don’t remember much about how he looked, except that he was black and wore many layers. It was warm enough for us to be on the patio, so his layers might’ve meant those were all the clothes he had. He stood next to our table for a few minutes as he told us his story, and my friend looked uncomfortable as the man kept talking. Neither of us would finish our ice cream any time soon, it seemed, so I agreed to help the man so he could be on his way.
What he told us was that he was in a lot of money trouble, and that his wife was very pregnant. From the patio he pointed to his car—the one detail I can remember is that it was a red sedan—and although I couldn’t see her clearly at the time, I could make out a woman sitting in the passenger seat; I couldn’t tell if she was pregnant, or if she’d been watching us. I asked my friend to excuse me, then stood up from our table to walk with the man to the KFC next door to Baskin Robbins.
As we walked past his car I could see the woman he’d pointed out earlier, who indeed looked pregnant and made intimate eye contact with the man I was walking with, indicating that she knew him. He and I went inside the KFC, and I asked him what he wanted. I offered him a few choices from the value menu, being a college student who didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but he went for the largest-sized bucket of chicken available, saying that his wife gets very hungry (and that he hadn’t eaten well in a while, either). I think there was also a small side of coleslaw with our order, and maybe a few biscuits. I felt I’d been coerced into feeding a family and convinced myself that it was OK to spend the money because it was for someone else. After the order was done, I handed it all to the man, who thanked me and walked out of the restaurant and to his car, then drove away as I went back to sit with my friend.
Although nothing violent took place, my actions felt dictated by the man, which was then exacerbated by my friend’s physical discomfort. I’d acted, I thought, to protect her from this uneasiness—caused, perhaps, by his poverty, by his maleness, by his blackness. The man might’ve assumed I was a student because of my youth, khakis, and Polo shirt—these latter two serving as superficial class markers—and with he and I both black men, and my friend a white woman, I thought it might put my friend at ease to know that I was placing myself between them.
And though the man did not mug us, didn’t claim to have a weapon in his pocket, and was somewhat polite throughout the whole ordeal, the desperation in his approach left me feeling like I had no freedom to deny him. Perhaps he would’ve gotten angry, or perhaps my own guilt would’ve eaten at me, knowing that I could’ve helped the man but didn’t. I had no cash or change on me that I could’ve given him at the time, so my debit card saved the man and me both, and maybe it saved more than just the two of us—his wife, his baby, my friend. I’m not so certain that what I did was an act of kindness, so much as an act of being held hostage by my fear.
As new undergraduates we were given instructions on how to be safe in the city, which included advice about where and where not to go, and how to walk, and when. I remember a few of the rules: don’t talk to strangers on the way to class; don’t wear headphones at night; don’t take public transit too far south of campus, which would’ve meant Chicago’s “crime-riddled” South Side. And, just as important, never pull your wallet out in front of someone asking for money. The rationale was that they could snatch it and run, and then you’d lose more than just the few dollars you’d planned to give away.
There were other rules, I’m sure, but I realize now that the advice our RAs in the dorm gave us was different from the advice I gave when I began teaching in Chicago many years later to my own students, many of whom lived downtown. The RAs’ advice didn’t make total sense in retrospect—while the headphone rule is a good one, were I to tell my students about the homeless or about the CTA’s (Chicago Transit Authority’s) danger zones, would I be able to do so without feeling as if I’d perpetuated fear through some slight game of telephone?
Even more than this, I’d come to realize that I was being banned, in essence, from visiting my father’s family on the South Side. Although my grandmother had died three years before I began college in the city, I still had aunts, uncles, cousins who all lived in the very part of the city I was being told never to venture toward. I’d complacently let this keep me from visiting, too, and nine times out of ten, I would wait for my parents to come to the city before going anywhere near my extended family’s neighborhoods.
When I asked my students to relay what they’d been told about safety in the city, they repeated some of the same things I was told when I first moved there, and I started to wonder where the cycle began and ended. After eight years in Chicago some of it now comes across to me as rubbish, and I can see that my students were told they’d be safest in the city by remaining on campus, or even heading anywhere north of their dorms. They were told, implicitly, that they were safest in Chicago’s whitest and most affluent neighborhoods, in the places they might be less badgered by the city’s homeless, its violent, its drug-abused.
Don’t go too far south or west. Never ride the train late at night. Is Oak Park even safe? These, among other things, were what students repeated to me when I asked about the advice they’d received. What seemed strange was that these were students who’d made the choice to attend college at a school in downtown Chicago but were then told that, just like on other campuses, there are ways of avoiding certain dangers. But even other campuses—whether Chicago’s Loyola , or DePaul, or UIC—aren’t the arboreous bubbles of safety promoted in brochures, and they aren’t like the campuses in small college towns where everything outside of one’s studies is expected to be safe and boring.
When I lived in my dorm, I was terrified of the rest of the city. It took me forever to feel safe walking home from my night classes when I heard the constant and cacophonous whizzing-by of cars and ambulances. I didn’t bother to learn about Chicago’s other neighborhoods, either, because I learned to feel safe sticking around my dorm, building a haven out of a single Chicago block. It took me a while to use the city as cities are intended, as vast stretches of possibility and play, and during my first year in Chicago I listened perhaps too much to all those who gave me warnings. I was there for school alone, I’d decided, and the rest of the city was made for those who were willing to sever their roots, whatever those may have been.
“But what good are roots if you can’t take them with you?” Gertrude Stein once said, when asked if she was afraid of losing her sense of being American after living in France for so many years. While living in Chicago never put me in any danger of losing my Americanness, I did take with me what I felt were my own roots via the mentality of being from a rural college town. I took corn with me, and Central Illinois politeness, and the perception of many things as being either black or white, thinking that as long as I clung to my hometown I could remain the same person I’d always been.
Any time I gave my students Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” as a class we found ourselves comparing Didion’s move to New York with our own moves to Chicago. This isn’t to say that the two cities are comparable, but Didion’s move to New York at twenty and mine to Chicago at twenty-one are always juggled side-by-side in my head, as I look upon my first year in the city and regard my own naiveté. “Was anyone ever so young?” Didion asks in her essay, and I feel at times that I could not have been younger.
I find camaraderie with a writer like Didion because, like Didion, we both lived in our cities for eight years (though she intended to stay for just six months, and I intended to stay for two years). I suppose I could just ask them, but I still wonder how many of my other friends, from college or from graduate school, convinced themselves they’d just be passing through the city but found that they’d become more than transients. Do all cities have such a vacuuming quality? Do they inhale the naïve, just to hold them for ransom?
I can remember visiting my friend, Lisa, one night in her dorm room, and we chatted for a bit about me second-guessing my move to the city. I went to Lisa because she was a Chicago native, and because I felt she was the one person with whom I could talk about my newfound metropolitan anxieties. I told her about my nighttime fears, about my aversion to asphalt and noise and skyscrapers, and I told her that, had I not found myself in such an academically favorable position, I would’ve left. I’d convinced her, and myself, that I could stay only for as long as college lasted. I hung around for much, much longer.
In the few months before moving to Chicago, my oldest friend, Jeremy, and I would sometimes take weekend trips to the city to help me preview it, and we always stayed with a friend of ours who was attending the college I was planning to transfer to. On these trips we were awed by the possibility of a nightlife—the beauty of streetlights was never so obvious as when we visited Chicago, and it was just one thing among many that made me excited to move.
During one visit we met a homeless man at an intersection near Millennium Park one day, and I remember our meeting being one that shocked me into a reality far different from the one portrayed on TV and in movies. I wish I could remember everything about that man, but I can only recall a few details. He was tall and big, quite bearded, and made me imagine a black Hagrid (of Harry Potter fame), and his clothes looked more worn than dirty. I believe he talked about music—as in he used to be a musician—and though he told us how he ended up on the streets, I no longer remember why. But I do remember feeling at the time that he hadn’t done anything “bad.”
I also remember that Jeremy was the one who engaged in conversation, not me, and I wanted secretly, perhaps telepathically, to tell him to be careful, not to give away any information or money, and for us to cross the street as soon as the light turned. But the man was gentle and harmless, and I ended up imagining his situation being easier somewhere else—not that homelessness is easy anywhere, but I thought that, say, had I given him a one-way ticket to my hometown he might’ve fared better there than in the city. He could have found help from organizations like the YMCA, from local food banks, from places that could hide him from the wind and the cold. His fortune might have been that, in a town much smaller than Chicago, there’d be fewer people who could simply pass him by.
It took a while for me to figure out what and who to listen to when told what to be afraid of in the city, and it’s peculiar to me that this city is one that came with so many warnings. Chicago wasn’t a city that sold itself. It didn’t tell its new residents (or at least it didn’t tell me) about beauty or culture or about how the city was a gastro-paradise. It didn’t tell me about the diversity of its neighborhoods, or the scenic walks the city invites. These were all things I had to learn firsthand, by getting lost or by taking impromptu trips on the CTA to random neighborhoods, or attending events that required I leave whatever little bubble I’d built.
Had I chosen a college in New York, I wonder whether it would have warned me just as much. What about Los Angeles, or Houston? Or Philadelphia? I’ve heard it said that to be proud of showing off social bruises is an American thing, that it’s unique to us to want to talk about how bad we’ve got it, and Chicago showed off its bold bruises more than what it seemed to conceal. Was Chicago, therefore, a more American city because it touted its gritty realities? Or, I wonder, was there something else there, perhaps more ominous, that I should’ve seen when I looked at the city’s facade?
Micah McCrary is a contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in Essay Daily, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Brevity, Third Coast, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. He co-edits con•text, is an assistant editor at Hotel Amerika, and a doctoral student in English at Ohio University. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago. His book manuscript, Island in the City, was a finalist in the Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2015 Essay Collection Competition and a semifinalist in Ohio State University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize Competition.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • May 2017
Image header by Zulema (zoblue).