Are we who we are regardless of where we lay our heads? Selections from the Neighborhood Writing Alliance

The following collection of writings spans a decade and a range of interpretations of housing and home. Yet the interplay between the internal and external is clear throughout. Are we who we are regardless of where we lay our heads? Or are our selves mediated through the experiences to which we are subjected or subject ourselves? Here, seven Neighborhood Writing Alliance writers speak to us directly about living outside, inside, and between “homes.” The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) provokes dialogue, builds community, and promotes change by creating opportunities for adults in underserved neighborhoods to write, publish, and perform works about their lives. NWA amplifies the voices of writers by hosting free weekly writing workshops; publishing the Journal of Ordinary Thought and a blog, Every Person Is a Philosopher; hosting readings and events; and partnering with other communitybased organizations. You can learn more about NWA at www.jot.org.

—Hollen Reischer, Editor of the Journal of Ordinary Thought

NEEDS

Pat Guy (Tricia)

Originally published in “Lost in Darkness: JOT Writers on Housing and Homelessness,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Spring 2002.

I need shelter from

the rain, then snow.

I need a house

that the winds don’t blow.

I need a home,

one that I own.

(Come over here boys)

I need a piece of land

centered around a tree.

I need a 12’ mat,

a concrete slab for three.

I need a home,

one that I own.

(Gina, where are you?)

I need a room and stairs

locked from the three bears.

I need height and space,

a balcony, with midnight sky.

I need a door opener.

GRAVEYARDS IN THE GHETTO

Michael Bowie

Originally published in “Lost in Darkness: JOT Writers on Housing and Homelessness,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Spring 2002.

Picture this; let’s build a prison

But call it a project

Say it’s for development

So no one will object

We’ll make them look pretty,

Yet plain

None of them different

Yet none of them the same

They’ll look clean and green

But in reality just a dream

Decorated with flowers

And trees

Hiding the stench of pee stains

In the hallways

And some other disease

Picture-like windows

To look out

Unprotected

So kids can fall out

Even elevators, make sure they

Never work

Walking up unlit stairwells

Is bound to get you hurt

Good foundation

But holes in the walls

Make nice tunnels

For criminals to crawl

All of them will be

Secure and protected

Some police presence

But not that effective

Even visited by the president

And other political figures

Make them think they’re

Some kind of special niggers

And the best part

Of this design:

To destroy

The black mind

Let’s begin the construction

Of destruction

MOVING

Al Klinger

Originally published in “The Open Gate: JOT Writers’ Visions of Freedom and Liberation,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Spring 2012.

He watched movers remove furniture,

mirrors, books, clothing, shoes, pictures.

Each piece appeared casketed as

if an entombed buddy, chum. Fifty

years floated on the shoulders, in the

biceps, of the Bernard Brothers, as if

they were chosen pallbearers. Efficient,

capable total strangers lay his uncomplaining

companions out in a van

built like a gigantic ice cream box full

of popsicles; fudgsicles maybe. Or

maybe built like an incinerator; solid,

firm like the fist of Muhammad Ali.

Well, what did he expect? Snare drums,

whistles, flaming loops through which

dogs are jumping, tumblers, acrobats

on the high wire, clowns, ladies on one

foot arabesqueing on prancing white

horses festooned with jangling bells

engulfed in organ-grinding music,

surrounded by polka-dot all-encompassing

coveralls, bulldog-muzzled

bulging shoes slapping against the

ground like swollen tongues?

This not a circus, you know. More like

a funeral without the rabbis, priests,

bishops, ayatollahs, catafalques,

memorial services. His tyranny of

possession, his whole lifetime of ownership

being outmaneuvered by time,

eternity. Before he thought he could

defy sliding tectonic plates, tsunamis.

All the illusion ripped away. He is

barely a ripple in the puddle of a

sidewalk.

A CASUALTY OF THE TIMES

A Homeless Ex-Flower Child Wanders the Streets

Charlie Clements

Originally published in “Lost in Darkness: JOT Writers on Housing and Homelessness,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Spring 2002.

Forgive me, I am a dream.

My hands and feet bear wounds of the thief left behind on a cross to suffer the

martyrdom of skepticism.

I carry the corpse of the New Year’s child of a year not yet arrived.

My shattered teeth have been replaced by typewriter keys, my tongue

converted to a paperweight.

I am euphemized in the madhouse, eulogized in my lifetime.

With ball and chain around my dreams I scream my fear on paper!

Things were different once.

For an ancient instant out of time I roamed the streets with chalk in

hand tenderizing the cement with naked poems of playful

rawness, and relentlessly tending the growth of love and peace

in underground gardens.

I was a terrorist then, conspiring to overthrow the world with fiery poems

and powerful roses.

I was eternally young back then, politically left of insane asylum.

Now I’ve become an anachronism, old before my time.

Now I’ve become the prophet of my doom.

The other night I dreamt that I was whipped and pounded to the pavement

by the Bacteria Police.

What could I have done? My clothes were filthy, and my screams were

long outdated.

Though they wore surgical masks and gloves, the antiseptic children of the

21st century ran right past me like GOOD little clones.

Whereupon I expired.

An environmentalist came by, removed my body from the germ-free

landscape, stuffed and took it away to a glass museum

UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Allen McNair

Originally published in “I Am Here,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Fall 2011.

The psych ward is under construction

As the patients restructure their lives.

The maintenance crew is restructuring the ward.

Internal emotions change, as does the wing.

Furniture of the mind is uprooted

As physical furniture is uprooted in the unit.

Objects in the objective world are moved around

As the subjects of the subjective are also moved.

Hopefully the unit of the hospital is improved

Like the individuals undergoing treatment.

Through counseling and group therapy

We can get a better handle on ourselves.

Medication helps to stabilize the patients,

Just as setting furniture in a different place

Will stabilize the various rooms on the ward

Where we strive to better cope with our lives.

The hospital is initially turned upside down

As our lives, at first, are upset when brought

Into this hallowed institution as we make

A valiant attempt to right ourselves emotionally.

Some of us want to reconstruct our lives

Which started out in desperate disarray.

Others are still under reconstruction,

Struggling through a mess of difficult emotions.

The hospital unit is slowly put in greater order.

The patients are also slowly becoming more orderly.

Just as external order is ongoing,

So internal order progresses in minds and hearts.

LIVING AT THE  MARGINS 

 Susan House  

Originally published in “Lost in  Darkness: JOT Writers on Housing and  Homelessness,” Journal of Ordinary  Thought, Spring 2002.

 The first time was when I came to Chicago. I didn’t know anyone here, had never been to the city before, and only had a few dollars. I slept the first night in the park at the east end of Lawrence Avenue. The next day I found out what single room occupancy (SRO) hotels and day labor places were. I lived hand to mouth for months until I managed to convince welfare to allow me to go to their industrial training program to learn welding. It was a very hard existence. My take home pay was  $12.10 each day. For that I had to work eight  hours in a hot factory and travel on the day  labor bus an additional hour each way. I  had  no rights in the workplace, no benefits, and  no security. Every single morning I had to be  in a line before 5 a.m. to try to get selected for  a job. My SRO room was about $40 a week. I  walked everywhere because I couldn’t afford  a bus token. I used to walk along the driversside  of parked cars early on Sunday mornings,  looking for change dropped by less than sober  people digging for their keys. I used to glean  an additional $5 a week that way and would  treat myself to a newspaper on Sundays. I lied  to the winos who lived in my building and  told them I knew how to cut hair and they’d  give me change to cut theirs. Luckily, they  were too far gone to notice how bad my hair  cutting skills were.

I was young and it all seemed adventurous  to me, but it was a dead end. In no way did I  earn enough money to take a day or two off  each week to look for a real job. If I caught a  cold and missed a few days of work, I’d have  gotten evicted from the SRO.

Welfare’s welding school lasted about three  months, then I immediately got a job. My pay  leaped from $12.10 per day to $40 per day in  a week! It was great. I was able to save some  money, get some sturdier clothes for work,  and afford salads to go along with my macaroni  and cheese dinners. I even got to go to  a few movies. Eventually, I started making  some friends and even started to date. That  man and I lived together and moved to Canada  together. Once in Canada, he started to drink  and became abusive.

In 1975, I escaped from him in northern  Manitoba, hitchhiked to Winnipeg, and hid  for four days in an attic there. It was over a  holiday and I couldn’t get any money to leave  until the banks opened the following week.  Bernelda, his cousin’s girlfriend, was hiding  me. I was badly beaten, had two black eyes, a  ruptured ear drum, bruises everywhere, and  was pregnant. I was so nervous that I could  neither eat nor rest. I was also homeless again!  Luckily, I’d been fanatic about saving  money before I met him and had left $500  in an account in Chicago, so I was able to buy  a bus ticket. It’s a long ride from Winnipeg,  Manitoba to Chicago, Illinois! In retrospect,  the distance has become symbolic of how  far I’d have to move emotionally in order to  recover from that terrible relationship.

Once back in Chicago, I spent the rest of my  money on some bus tokens and an abortion.  I had no money left for rent. I was a welder  and was quickly hired at Stewart Warner, but  would have to work for awhile before I could  afford a place. I was so broke that I had to go  apply for the job and then go to the abortion  clinic on the same transfer!

When I moved to Canada, I’d left some boxes  of books in the basement of a casual friend.  I called her to see if I could sleep in the basement  for a month. She was kind enough to  agree, but didn’t want me to arrive early in  the evening. She lived close to Western and  Roosevelt Avenues. It was kind of a rough  neighborhood, but it was a roof over my head.  I would leave there before 6 a.m. and take the  Western Ave. bus all the way to Diversey. I’d  walk from Western to Wolcott so I didn’t have  to buy a transfer. Once at work, I volunteered  for all the overtime (OT) I could get, but even  so, sooner or later, I had to leave each afternoon.  The first shift ended at 3:30 p.m. and,  if I didn’t have OT, I’d have to roam around the  city for six hours before I could go back down  to Western and Roosevelt.

I developed an elaborate system of clothing,  laundry, and other ways to deal with my needs  while I had no place to be. I would clean up  and change into slacks and a blouse when I left  work. I’d take my work clothes to a laundromat  a couple of blocks from the factory and wash  them, then return them to the factory. After  that, I’d walk over to Clark Street, or down to  the lake. Sometimes I went to the library, other  times I window shopped or went to a movie.  The old nature museum that was at 2000  North Clark had free admission, so I spent  lots of time in there. In the evenings, they  sometimes showed nature films or had lectures.  I got to know the Chicago Herpetology  Society, a group of folks who did a lot of traveling  then gave lectures and slide shows about  their travels, and any other groups who used  the small auditorium there. I loved the nature  museum! On the weekends, I went to Lincoln  Park Zoo or just walked in the parks.

After about nine months of that, I could  finally afford an apartment of my own. I had  saved as much money as humanly possible.  After the first couple of weeks, I paid $20  a week for the sleeping space, spent a little  money for food and transportation, but saved  the rest. I wasn’t able to shake the ghost of how  badly I’d needed that little bit of money I’d had  in my savings when I escaped from Winnipeg.  Being out and about everyday meant I  was meeting lots of people. Many of them  were other eccentrics who were very kind to  me. One helped me find my first apartment,  another brought me coffee when I was sick.  I was starting to feel like a real part of the  human race.

Since that time, I’ve done well. Having a  skill, in my case welding, is so important. It  was the key to economic freedom for me. The  job at Stewart Warner was hot and hard and  unhealthy, but they offered medical benefits  (I had a tubal ligation because I was acutely  aware that a child would have not had a good  life with me) and tuition reimbursement. I got  to go to college. When I received my degree,  I immediately started teaching my fellow  workers, many of whom were non-readers.

If I had had to work for minimum wage  in a nursing home or done other low-paying  menial labor, or had children to support, I’d  never have been able to go to school and would  probably still be stuck in the daily grind of  poverty, fear, and restlessness. I might have  even ended up in a relationship with another  abusive man. Poverty does horrible damage  to women’s self esteem and makes it easy to  prey on them.

I do not regret my homelessness, but I do  not want to experience it ever again. I’m no  longer young and I think I’d find it all too difficult.  I continue to work with low literacy  level adults and will probably spend the rest  of my life trying to help people get out of their  dire circumstances. My own past experiences  are the fuel that keeps me going. I totally and  personally know how difficult life can be when  one is living at the margins.

MY NAME IS JAIL

Jerry Hall

Originally published in “I Am Here,” Journal of Ordinary Thought, Fall 2011.

Hello my name is jail

I’m found throughout the world with supreme clientele

For reservations, you need no fees

I’ve housed well-known members of society

My name alone is the opposite of home

Your name becomes a number, even if well known

I’m known by plenty of names when they mention me

The Joint, the Big House, and Penitentiary

I’m also known as the Tank and the Can

I’m a successful establishment for murder and greed

I’ve broken the strongest men down to their knees

If you commit a crime

You’re welcome anytime

I call it a minisuite, it’s really a 6’ Å~ 9’

I’ll give you exactly what you need, no more

You’ll have everything you need once behind my door

But suicide is performed even by those who think they’re so hardcore

So keep up the good work; you’re the ones that are fools

I employ lots of people and am preferred over schools

Everything you do is done when you’re told

I play a major part when people say the world is cold

Also residing here are pimps, pushers, molesters, and creeps

I’ll tell you when to eat, bathe, socialize, and speak

All because you couldn’t behave

You might leave here heading straight to your grave

Once inside you’ll turn into a modern-day slave

I’ve been turned into a Fortune 500 company, with private investors buying my stock

I love taking inner-city kids off the block

The more you visit, your stay gets longer

Your mail starts to fade as you become a goner

There are commissary sheets, but you’ll never see your cash

When visited you’ll remain behind my thick glass

Oh wait, my bad, I’ve made a mistake

You can have a contact visit when you go downstate

I’m not that bad, I’ll let you hold your kid

But add time if you’re out of line and increase your bid

Matter of fact, you can hit the yard for a stroll

Probation or parole, man, I really love those

I’ll turn friends into enemies, bringing tension and beef

I find it humorous the way you display yourself on the streets

I add to your problems, that’s what I “solve” them for

I’m designed for you to come back through my revolving doors

I love to see you come back, greeting you with a hug

I’m associated with alcohol, violence, and drugs

Some rebelled against me and started riots

I have a special place for those to keep them quiet

I guarantee you’ll cry as life passes you by

Your kids turning full-grown, when you left they were knee-high

My name is jail; my doors are open 24-7

 You need no money, just time to check in

First off, I thank alcohol for that hit and run

Much respect to violence for you carrying a gun

And my main man, drugs, you in the house, no doubt

I’m easy to get into, but hard to get out

My name is jail!