November 4, 2008 | Leave a Comment

Category: Auto-Biography

I moved into the one-room studio on Cornelia, near Halsted and Addison, in Chicago in 1978.  The room was about four blocks from Wrigley field, in the building called “The Tuxedo,” which was filled with minorities and poor.  For $125 a month, I roomed with roaches but could paint watercolor abstracts without interruption when I wasn’t working for my dad.  During days, I apprenticed to running a small girdle and bra factory, a family business that was started by my dad’s dad in 1926.  I was being paid $580 a month.  I was saving money to do something interesting with my life.  I had no car.

William and Junior were the sons of the very large black woman, Mary, who managed the run-down apartment complex.  William was maybe twelve, Junior around seven.  A lot seemed to happen in the hallway.  I discovered that if I left my door open while painting, children wandered in.  So I got to know the locals, particularly the kids.

During one stretch, a stench emerged that lingered on for weeks.  Eventually, arriving home from the factory, I noticed the smell was less.  Junior told me they’d found a guy, dead, leaned up against his radiator.

On a Saturday I was painting in my room with the door open when I heard what sounded like scuffling and then a crash.  The sound came from the front of the apartment complex, near the door.  I approached the entrance as other folks came out of their rooms.  Mary was unconscious on the stairway.  There was blood.  Someone called an ambulance.  Mary’s aunt alerted us to the fact that this was a “female problem.”  The bleeding was vaginal.  It was a hemorrhage.

William was not around.  Junior was standing in the hallway.  Several people were in the hallway when the ambulance arrived.  Two white guys approached Mary where she lay upon the stairs.  One leaned down.  “She’s drunk,” he said to his associate.  He didn’t touch her.  They left and drove away.

Appalled, frightened, ashamed–the ambulance drivers and I were the only white guys at the scene–I ran out the door and down the block to the police station.  I begged the white officer behind the desk to send another ambulance.  I explained that she was bleeding.  Hesitant at first, he obliged.

A different ambulance arrived.  Animated tenants explained the bleeding.  Junior and I watched the eyes of the white ambulance drivers as they listened.  Then they quickly got her on a stretcher and out the door.

Folks wandered back to their apartments.  Junior and I still stood in the hallway.  Mary’s aunt said that everything was under control and that she would be going to the hospital.  She said not to worry.

Junior followed me to my room.  We sat on the floor where I lay down paper, crayons and other drawing materials.  We both started drawing.  I stopped and watched.

Junior drew a picture of an ambulance speeding rightward across the page.  Junior then crayoned a picture of himself on the street with a gun pointed toward the ambulance.  As he drew himself shooting at the ambulance, he made the sounds of gunshots with his mouth.  Then he was sobbing.  I held him.

When Mary came home from the hospital, she used a cane.  A few weeks later, I moved out of the Tuxedo and into another apartment down the street.  Another young black boy, Justin, about five years old, had kept turning up to become a portrait subject when I was drawing children for free on the sidewalks near Wrigley Field.  Eventually, his mother came to investigate.  She was a white woman named Jane.  She had thought I might be a “pervert.”  After Jane and I dated for six months, I moved in.

I saw Junior around the neighborhood for a couple years.  I now lived across the street from the police station, not two blocks from the Tuxedo.  But the neighborhood was quickly changing, upscaling and becoming an urban gay hub.  Rental costs were climbing.

When I saw Junior while with Justin, I don’t think I was imagining it when I saw questions in Junior’s eyes.  I never saw or asked about Junior’s father, Junior Senior.  Here I was, becoming father to another fatherless black boy.  Later, I would marry Justin’s mother.

I was always happy to see Junior.  I also felt loss.  There is a lot of loss to remember in the city.


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