Wednesday, December 20

one million south side stories

Chicago Day 3

We returned to our abandoned warehouse on the south side, half-expecting to have a run-in with bad bad leroy brown, badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog.

The tires still stood, i guess Leroy hadn't heard about them yet.

This place was bordered with the river on one side (down a slope from those trees) and the freeway on the other.

The fire exploded out here.

From the smokey smell and hint of warmth still coming from the remains, the fire seemed pretty recent.
I was dumb enough to walk into this room, collecting paper receipt rolls in the name of Art.

"Oso" was my first nickname on the mission - especially appropriate since i was there with Jimmy, who i trained on our missions in Spain. But that's 2 million other stories...

So that's your setting and I'm ready to give you
Jimmy had to drop me off this time and leave me. I started to calculate the increased danger this gifted me with: Alone, no car, no first aid, cold, wet, south-side, collapsing buildings, King Kong, junkyard dogs, Leroy brown. Naturally my first decision was to quickly step into the most dangerous area immediately available to me - the burnt-out offices - to take care of some business in the charred bathroom before getting started collecting all the furniture from the building. With my danger calcs fresh in mind its safe to use the phrase "nearly paralyzed with fear" when i heard tramping footsteps right around the corner. But instead of crouching behind the toilet i somehow decided to walk out and meet the tramper head on as he turned the corner. He screamed. I screamed. We told each other we scared the other (he using a metaphor). Jose introduced himself and confirmed his apparent homelessness by pointing to the small charcoaled room next to us and identifying it as his place. As he showed me his blackened books, magazines, bed and clothes he simultaneously gained my trust and made me fear for the security of my own two bags of belongings i had stashed around the corner. I slipped away, grabbed my gear and exited the offices, circling to the back of the warehouse to re-enter and hide my stuff in a desk there in the otherwise abandoned football field sized space. Although i wanted to talk to Jose more, i also instinctually felt i should flee. So i walked this way, following the river upstream toward an abandoned bridge that offered an irresistable hike.

I walked across this abandoned train bridge contemplating the freezing temperatures of the waters viewed between railroad ties with background images of "Stand By Me" playing in my mind.

I had been wanting to cross an abandoned bridge ever since Jimmy showed me this one on my first night in Chicago:

It satisfied my version of bridge thrill seeking: walking across.

I had some other miniscule adventures on my way back to the warehouse but they pale in comparison to my second encounter with Jose:
As I made my way back into the warehouse, heading toward the burnt offices, i could hear Jose banging around. I walked straight into his workroom, nervous again, and startled him a second time. But this time as he spun around, wide-eyed and sweating, he was clutching a hatchet. I then realized i had forgotten to list "chopped-up and eaten by lone axe murderer" on my list of possible dangers of the day and held up my hands as if begging for mercy. He was relieved to see it was me and explained his freelance efforts of harvesting copper wire encased in tubes running through the ceiling. I was relieved that i wasn't going to die under an axe blade and followed Jose's advice to explore the upstairs offices. His advice was of one homeless dude to another - there were still good rooms to spend the night in up there.

When i saw this scene i decided that i couldn't make a better installation than it already was - created by taggers and pillagers who had overturned all the desks in an aesthetically pleasing rampage.

Even though i had been straight-up with Jose from our first meeting about my artistic purposes at the warehouse (taking ownership of the tire stack), he continued to insist in the obvious fact that i was also homeless. This led to some touching moments of offering me beer, advice, and blankets.
When Jose left with his duffle to sell his copper wares, I began making a desk piece that had been in my head and my sketchbook for the last couple of weeks.

Well, i had finally made something and i was pretty hungry. I set out under the freeway overpass looking for a gas station. I was excited to see the evidence of more homelessness tucked in that corner right under the freeway.

As i got closer and saw a figure behind that makeshift sheet wall, the figure called to me, "Jared! How did you find me? This is my place!"
It was Jose cleaning his wires.
I declined his offer to come-up, motioning towared the gas station and saying i would stop by on my way back. By now i was thouroughly amused and enchanted by my 40-year-old Mexican buddy and decided to bring him back some lunch.

He was gone when i returned. I was secretly glad as it gave me an opportunity to snap many photos of his elaborate set-up.

Details like these carefully placed christmas ornaments were heartbreakingly sweet.

I found Jose upon returning, back to work hatcheting the wiring, and he offered me one of the beers he had bought with the four dollars earned from his morning of sweat, effectively breaking my heart to the point of nearly trying alcohol for the first time in respect of his offer; the guy with nothing offering me everything. I declined and went to explore the only part of the warehouse unknown to me: the showers was creepy

I came out and smelled smoke even stronger than ususal. I found Jose had built a bonfire INSIDE! He needed light in the one windowless room in the building, to harvest more wire. Amused and stunned, i stuck around coughing and trying to sneak some photos. Finally Jose, with dangerous levels of smoke in his lungs, ran out shutting the door with the bonfire still going. He reported that the smoke might be seen and the cops would be called.

It was then that i knew it was over. I called Jimmy to abort the mission. He was just getting out of the hospital with Salime - Doctor appointment for their soon-to-be-born-son - so the timing was perfect. Jose left, packed with even more wire, and offered me not only extra blankets, but to stay with him in his under-the-freeway home. I declined but promised to see him the next day.
True to my word, I showed up early the next morning. But instead of Jose, men in orange vests and hard hats were beginning the official clean-up of our little warehouse. We drove away, passing Jose's home and waving to the sheet wall, hoping he would find more wire and blankets to make it through the Chicago winter.


Anonymous said...

I'd read your memoirs any day! You better be careful on these "missions" in the name of art. People in those circumstances could be pretty desperate at times. Luckily, you're the jolly giant... but even so. The desk piece was great, especially accompanied by the story.

teeny said...

Well, I think that left the Green POint Polish food adventure in the dust. I can't compete with homeless bonfires and beer.

savoury toothed tiger said...

sc-i'll have to start emailing you my diary and thanks for all your support.
teeny-once you add the rest of the williamsburg stories into the equation i think you'll find yourself a strong contender with homelessness indeed.

lizblizz said...

I'm so glad you told/wrote this story, and I love the photos. More than anything it was out of this world to see you in Chicago!!

Keep up the fabulous work.