I lived in Chicago over ten years ago. The city was at that time more than a decade into the second Daley administration, and development money was sloshing through downtown: new stadium, new parks, new hotels, bigger museums, taller skyscrapers. Occasionally some cash would splash out of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, covering parts of the near North, West, and South Sides with balconied condos.
The attention lavished on the center of the city is obvious to visitors. I traveled there last week to take care of some paperwork, and I was struck by the immaculacy of it, for lack of a better word. You can practically eat off Michigan Avenue. Central Chicago, especially the Magnificent Mile, feels less like a real city than a kind of science-fiction San Angeles, where all surfaces are brushed steel and polished stone and dirt has been permanently banished underground.
Of course it is a real city, and despite efforts to turn downtown into a gigantic luxury mall it doesn’t take long to spot those who have fallen through the cracks. Ten years ago when I traveled to the Loop, I would as often as not be aggressively approached by panhandlers. They were almost always men and almost always black. About half were selling a copy of Streetwise in an effort to make the panhandling seem more like a voluntary business transaction. The other half would just straight up ask for money, and not be afraid to stoke my white guilt if they thought it would work. (I often heard variants of, “Don’t be afraid of me ’cause I’m black,” if I didn’t hand over a dollar.) I never saw a Latino beggar downtown. The few white people begging on the streets were always very thin, and usually young. Runaways? Drug addicts? Both? I never asked — just dropped a coin in the cup and moved on.
On my recent trip I noticed that the population of the desperate seems to have changed. There were a few men (all black) selling Streetwise, but no one came up to me to ask for money. Had the Daley/Emmanuel-era government imprisoned the rest in the sub-levels of the city? Given them all Section 8 vouchers to live out by the airport? Bussed them to the Indiana border with instructions to march until they reached Gary? I have no idea.
What I did see was quite a few women on the street: young and middle-aged, black and white. One on North Michigan next to the Eddie Bauer store was wearing a hijab. She squatted in the sun on the sidewalk, elbows on her knees and head in her hands, next to a hand-written sign describing how she had lost her home and needed to provide for her children. Another white girl (couldn’t have been over 20 years old) lay on the north end of the Michigan Avenue bridge with her face hidden and her own sign asking for help. I didn’t give them money or otherwise help them. They seemed defeated and ashamed, and I couldn’t bear to look any longer than I had to. In the end I handed over my pocket change to a deaf man on Lake Street behind the Chicago Theater who made eye contact with me as I approached him.
I can’t tell you why, but I found these women to be a lot more disturbing than the aggressive beggars I regularly encountered when I lived in Chicago. Is it because I learned to expect begging from black people? Maybe that is part of it. I always hated it when some guy would ask me for money and then not leave me alone until I ponied up, yet at some level I realized that he was trying hard to get by. I also was able to rationalize our relative positions in life — if this man has the drive to get money out of strangers, he could hold down a job. To some extent, he was on the street begging by choice (I told myself). Hey, it was the late ’90s. I was privileged and developed a nasty, dehumanized don’t-feed-the-bears attitude toward the homeless men who crossed my path.
To see a middle-aged mother just sitting in the street though… what an awful reminder of what could happen to me! “This isn’t just some lazy black guy,” said my subconscious, “this could be your mother, or your teacher, or your neighbor!” It was an ugly stream of consciousness, in the middle of that glittering wealth. I felt a wave of guilt and I hurried my pace to escape it.
I felt guilty for my racist thought, and I felt guilty for not using my own position to try to help those with fewer advantages than me. Like so many others, I spent the last ten years worrying about my own trivial problems, not caring for my fellow men and women, and our cruel and neglected society is my inheritance. No one cared when black America was being pillaged and jailed over decades. I didn’t. Now the rot is reaching ever deeper into the middle classes, and no one can stop it. The devastation will continue until its logical conclusion.
There is only one response: to care. To stop worrying so much about climbing the sweaty pyramid of shaved apes and give a shit about others. I don’t know, at this late stage, if I can do it. But I will try.