This part of Chicagoland tells a story and it’s a pretty familiar urban tale: the rise and fall of a neighborhood. Rickety houses in complete disrepair mingle with neatly kept bungalows – the stalwarts, I like to call them – whose trimmed lawns and white painted bars over windows and doors tell a different story. Someone here has a job.
The stories people tell me and the stories I’ve run across.
During the mid nineties, I rotated through the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office for a few months during one of my medical resident rotations. One of the autopsies I witnessed involved a suicide in jail. The pathologist had gone to the jail, as I recall, and brought back some personal artifacts in order to put the case together properly. One of the artifacts was a suicide note and I was allowed to look through it. I remember something like this: “noone ever loved me my mom wanted to abort me noone wanted me noone wanted me.” The words aren’t exact, but I remember the white notebook paper the words were written on and the round loopy “running together” handwriting as clear as day. I always say none of this stuff gets to me but I remember a few details with such clarity that I wonder if it is really true.
A few days ago, I stop at a gas station in the neighborhood mentioned above. I’m running late. I park the car near a gas pump and walk inside to give the cashier some money. Two guys are on the curb outside, one standing and one sitting. White t-shirt, black t-shirt, baggy jeans. “You got some money for me?” says the guy standing. I say I’ll give him some money on my way back.
Inside, there are two women complaining and grumbling in front of the cashier, “grown men, grown men. Need to get a job!”
“I said I’d give them money, I shouldn’t have right?” I don’t know why I say this. I know the money will be spent on cigarettes or alcohol or worse. I’m not new to these neighborhoods, but I say it anyway. On my way out I give one of the men a dollar and I say, looking straight in his eye and with some resignation, “spend it on food okay?” He lifts up a pant leg of his jeans and shows me an ankle bracelet. “I just got out of jail.” This is his way of saying, “I’m not a loser, I got a good reason to need the money.”
Before you accuse me of being patronizing – or a patsy – he’s human, I’m human, it’s my life and these are my neighborhoods and you don’t know okay? You weren’t there. The other guy says, “mama, mama, you got some money for me?” And I give him a dollar too, but he won’t look me in the eye and takes a drag of his cigarette.
“That is real nice of you,” says the woman from inside, near her car now and trying to wash off the windows. I nod a little and go quickly to my own car. I’m not sure if it’s niceness or resignation, or some kind of talisman against all that I’ve seen.
What a failure the “war on poverty” has been. And even now, with generations of failure staring them in the eye, the same proponents of big government programs want more money to be spent on the very same failed programs or essentially variations thereof. How did conservatives get on the wrong side of this issue in the public? I think we have to accept that we fail at making our case with the general public in many instances. The failure is ours. We can’t always blame the “mainstream media” or Hollywood. We are not passive, helpless creatures.
How can we change this?