Not Your Mama’s Bus Tour

StreetWise Vendors

through June 22

By Laura Molzahn

I wondered whether I’d feel like a dopey tourist in my own city when I went on Not Your Mama’s Bus Tour, conducted by a dozen formerly homeless StreetWise vendors. But it turns out the show works best for those well acquainted with Chicago, people with their own mental and emotional map of the city. I left the tour more in love than ever with my adopted hometown of 30 years–more aware of my own touchstones and fortified by those of others.

I should mention that I’m a big fan of amateur theatricals, probably because of the homegrown musicals my Edgewater neighbors staged during our block parties. I’ll never forget the sight of my friend Marianne and several other moms dressed as Arabians rounding some bushes for performances of Amahl and the Night Visitors. Caught between laughing and crying, I could forgive any missed notes or errors in delivery. Of course we love those close to us–friends, family, and immediate neighbors. But we also love, and need to have, a sense of community, and that’s what Not Your Mama’s Bus Tour–like all good theater–provides.

Scripted by the vendors, who are involved in a writing program at StreetWise’s Work Empowerment Center, the tour stops at six sites in or near the Loop, where the performers and audience members (43 max, including the actors) disembark for the show’s “dramatic presentations,” usually autobiographical monologues. The soundman is a burly guy who hauls a bulky, low-tech amplifier on and off the bus; the microphones don’t work very well. This year (the second for the tour) the performers tell their stories from memory instead of reading them, thanks to the efforts of director Mark D. Hayes of Black Ensemble Theater–who notes that StreetWise vendors are used to performing, so this wasn’t such a stretch for them.

One of the most effective things about the tour is its “sets.” We don’t marvel at a realistic re-creation of Maxwell Street–we stand on one of its most run-down blocks, so pocked and gravel filled it’s like a country road, surrounded by vacant lots and fencing that looks more sturdy than the few standing buildings. Here Michael Ibrahem talks about coming to the Maxwell Street market nearly 60 years ago, during its heyday, to work and mingle. (“Young and old,” he says, “all happy. They were supposed to be shopping, but it seemed to me they were doing more eating.”) His sexual coming-of-age story is bittersweet, pervaded by the resignation and transcendence some older people bring to their experience; he talks about being rescued and about the “fabulous beauty” he’s seen throughout his life.

Many of the monologues and some of the tour guides’ spiels are haunted by what’s gone forever from Chicago, or will soon be–not just the old Maxwell Street but the Plymouth Hotel and Cooley High, Cabrini-Green and Cook County Hospital. The performers also remind us of Chicago history. Sitting on a bench in Grant Park, Lorenzia Shelby and Joe Harding recall their impressions of the 1968 Democratic Convention–Harding was surprised to see that “white boys get beat by the police too.” Driving by the United Center, tour guide Curly Cohen recalls the nearby Black Panther raid of 1969, when police killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Cohen also remembers working in a breakfast program for poor children that the Panthers started near Armitage and Halsted.

The tour intertwines public and private history, and we find ourselves doing the same. At dusk the massive Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s complex is covered with twinkling lights, looking like a set for a sci-fi flick; Cohen describes it as “the rich people’s hospital,” but for me it’s where my husband died. Seconds later, Cohen makes us laugh with his tale of the “toothless Olympics” at Cook County, where you had to race other poor folks for the privilege of getting a tooth pulled. Poet and “vendor historian” Addie Bell stands on Wells under the el delivering a memorial for Joseph Gould, the StreetWise vendor shot and killed several years ago by an off-duty Chicago police officer.

Some presentations are more effective than others, and the evening goes on a bit too long (our tour lasted just over two hours–of course traffic and weather have their effect). One of the best is by a woman whose talk takes the form of a game show. Audience members pick cards from a bunch spread on the ground; on them are such words as “family,” “dream,” and “age,” and the woman–who has asked to remain unidentified–decides whether to discuss the subject. When someone picks up “my exercise regime,” she talks about being kicked out of a warming shelter at the crack of dawn on a winter day and walking for blocks, carrying everything she owned on her back and hoping that “my homelessness wouldn’t show.” Young, beautiful, full of pride, and strong enough to make herself vulnerable, she delivers a knockout punch to any preconceptions we might have about the homeless.

Kay O’Leary looks as if she’s been sent by central casting for the role of sweet little old lady vendor; she talks about the night just a few days after she started selling StreetWise outside Orchestra Hall when she was invited to attend the New Year’s eve concert and gala celebration there. “Hostess” Pennie Brinson sings her own song, “Laundrymat Lady”; tour guide Greg Pritchett recites his poem about racism; and “security” Robert Dillard cracks jokes about any “loose ladies” who might be riding the bus. The middle-aged Richard Wallace talks about being homeless at 18 when a romance with an older woman of 24 went sour; I’ll never drive by LaSalle and Division again without thinking of him standing on a street corner on a cold September night, wondering whether he had too much pride to go to a friend’s house on Elm and ask for shelter.

Not Your Mama’s Bus Tour remade the city for me. Driving back to the StreetWise offices on South Michigan in the dark, everyone was quiet, even the tour guides, and I felt the peace of a genuine experience shared with strangers, who weren’t so strange anymore. The mission of this tour–which will be repeated June 8 and 22 and possibly later in the summer and fall–may be to “empower” the men and women who’ve scrambled out of homelessness. But I’m in it for me. And I enjoyed the hell out of my bus ride.