…on much in the way of politics. We grew up in vastly different eras. Mitch cut his teeth on Chicago’s tough near West side in the 1940s and 50s. I am a child of the 1960’s and 70s. Mitch and I are neighbors, and at a glance one might think that’s about all we have in common. Maybe to wave, share a couple of neighborly non-descript words or tip a beer from time to time, but beyond that…
last week Mitch pulled out a Chicago History book, part of a series on Chicago neighborhoods and heritage. He pointed out the house he was born in during the Depression. Much of the rest of his childhood he skips, opting instead for stories from a long career as a Bell Captain and some of Chicago’s most iconic and well-known hotels. that is where he met his wife Helen. That was back when being a Bell Captain at a fine hotel was more than another service job catering to the “I’m the celebrity in my own reality TV” everybody’s Listening to stories about running elevators for President Kennedy, or giving Sinatra that extra little bit of service one begins to understand that it was, with caveats, and thick rose-colored glasses, a time of honor.
I know that world, at least a little bit. Having known city cops, shady politicians, and Made Guys from that era, I understand. My dad knows a bit of that world. He’d grown up in the Depression in a little Iowa farm town, but arrived in Chicago at a young age after the army, around 1960. But the common denominator here is the Depression, which didn’t simply congeal a nation, but underscored the bonds that held communities together. That was evident the other day when Mitch called me over.
For the last several years the Wife and I have been actively working with what seems like an ever increasing tide of homelessness. We don’t have much, so compared to the need or large organizations, it’s a literal drop in the bucket. Several years back we began working to organize HelpHouseChicagoHomeless, a neighborhood non-profit in Englewood and Woodlawn on Chicago’s troubled Southside. In truth, at least for me, it was an effort to help a man I had met amid the Occupy Chicago protests, named Tom Turner.
Tom and I have had these conversations. I tease him about being shot and stabbed so many times that I’m considering nicknaming him “Swiss Cheese.” Tom has a temper and makes bad decisions a bit too often for his own good. Not criminal or dangerous, mind you, but the sort of decisions that keep sliding him back from the progress he so sorely wants and needs. Some of it is his doing. Some of it is living a life in which one solves crisis-Thomas doesn’t have problems- on the fly. That, the hardscrabble life on the Southside, education, a criminal record all have a weight in everything he does, and that hurts him. That could easily engender negativity and frustration, but with so many folks, like Thomas, for a world of reasons struggling at the margins, true friends understand how fine a line that is to tread, and that slipping from time to time is inevitable.
The thing is, I’ve known Thomas for going on 7 years now. I have seen him in damn near every possible mood and state of mind. I would trust Thomas with my life. he is family to me. I don’t babysit the man. We are about the same age. I help when I can, Sometimes that’s a bit of cash. Sometimes it’s advice, mostly it’s just being a friend. That same sense of honor in a seemingly unending crisis that I’ve seen in Mitch or my dad is what I catch in glimpses of Thomas when he struggles. I met Thomas when he was homeless, and though he may not see it, there has been progress. He has a job. It doesn’t pay much, but it does keep a roof over his head. Still there is that margin, and slipping or tumbling from it is all too easy this close.
Mitch came across the yard and said, “Helen and I want to help for all the work you do to help the homeless.” He reached out to shake my hand, a $20 Dollar bill tucked in his palm. He wasn’t interested in making a big deal, though to me it was. Thomas had called just the day before, worried because he was a short on rent a few dollars because he needed food and a bus pass to get to work. It felt like a loop had been closed, that something else wanted to see Thomas catch a little break, if only for a moment…