Cookie used to dance in the Maxwell Street Market, on the vacant lots where the blues bands play. She wasn’t a performer; she spent most Sunday mornings hustling beer, cigarette lighters, and often her body to anyone who’d buy. But in the afternoon, after she’d accumulated enough money to buy her fill of alcohol, she’d sometimes prance out in front of the Maxwell Blues Band or the Black Knights Blues Band and careen, walleyed and gap-toothed, through the crowd.
There was nothing outwardly remarkable about her. She seemed like just another broken-down, wine-soaked Maxwell Street hard-timer, one of the core of regulars who scuffle and survive on the street amid the swirling throngs of vendors, shoppers, and sightseers who congregate there every Sunday. She’d been a junkie, some folks said, but these days she mostly drank.
What finally drew my attention to her dancing I’m not really sure. Some of the people who dance down on Maxwell are remarkable; with a bit of training and a few breaks, they could easily become professional hoofers. Cookie was somewhat ungainly, even when relatively sober. Maybe that’s what made her stand out. Whatever the reason, one Sunday morning as the band played some funky soul standard I noticed how she moved: she was doing the same steps they used to do in my high school in the 60s, and to the same music.
That flash of recognition changed forever the way I’d see her. We tend to spread a chasm of safety between ourselves and those who are “other”–street people, the mentally ill, the homeless. Watching Cookie boogie and sway as if in a time warp obliterated that chasm. I grew up with people like her, I thought; she could have been my classmate.
Someone’s little girl, wild in the streets, dancing to the tribal drum of the 60s–it used to be a romantic image. For a lot of us, it still is. That’s what filled me with such an eerie combination of nostalgia and dread as I watched Cookie dance through her decline. When I first noticed her seven or eight years ago she was already in serious trouble; she had an alcoholic’s puffy, water-laden appearance, the veins on her wrists and arms bulged amid sores and scars. But her friendliness and good nature never flagged, she seldom looked dirty or hungry, and on a good day she was almost pretty.
That combination of despair and little-girl-lost exuberance was probably what endeared her to the Maxwell Street crowd. There’s a gruff affection down there for anyone brave or foolhardy enough to take on the harsh realities of the street and young enough to still consider it an adventure. Before long, though, she began to deteriorate noticeably. When you talked to her it became obvious that her downhill slide had gathered too much momentum to be easily stopped.
She’d been living with a series of men–each new one treated her “real nice”–and she was always going to get a straight job and turn things around. She claimed she’d kicked heroin, but her drinking increased and within a few years she became bone-thin, her skin a mass of red sores and blotches. Her mouth was a chamber of horrors, her teeth broken and discolored, foam crusting about her lips; there were times when merely talking to her took a strong stomach. Her eyes became so blank and clouded you could barely tell their color. She went for longer and longer periods with no steady residence; some Sunday afternoons on Maxwell she ended up in a vacant lot, asleep in the dust under a tree.
Incredibly, she still turned tricks–$10 a throw–and she even found something like a home for a while. She moved in and set up housekeeping with an old junkie who lived in an abandoned garage on the west side. They seemed to be buddies as much as lovers. He tolerated her infidelities, treated her as kindly as their habits and bare-bones life-style would allow, and was probably as grateful for the companionship as she was for someone helping to keep her off the streets.
Eventually she either moved or was kicked out of the garage, and after that I don’t think she ever lived in any one place again. Her appearances on Maxwell Street became sporadic. Sometimes she’d show up at other places around town where there was free music and the chance to turn a trick or two, but her physical condition had become so bad that it must have been nearly impossible for her to support herself that way. Few who knew her thought she’d make it through another winter. She rarely danced anymore.
She surprised everyone by coming back to Maxwell this spring, in better shape than she’d been in for years. She’d gained some weight back, her clothes were clean, she seemed mentally alert despite her drinking, she’d even had her hair done. She’d always retained a sense of dignity, and when she nearly tore some guy’s head off for trying to snatch up her dress in public, I admired her spunk and began to wonder if she might still be able to summon the strength to turn her life around. She said she was living somewhere on the south side.
A few weeks after that, she was dead. It’s possible the alcohol killed her, but the word on the street was that she’d taken an overdose. It wouldn’t have been the kind of situation where anyone was likely to dial 911; some people hinted that there might even have been foul play involved. One of the singers on Maxwell announced her death through the microphone; a few people drank to her memory. I later learned that she died not long after her 37th birthday.
It’s tempting to say nobody will miss her. Street people aren’t known for their sentimentality, and even those who tried to befriend Cookie were discouraged by her refusal to seek help, her physical repulsiveness toward the end, and the chaos that often intruded on their own lives. But her old junkie partner in the garage seemed genuinely grieved when he got the news, and a surprising number of people have expressed fond memories: her love for dogs and babies, her unflappable good nature through all the hell life threw at her, her partying and dancing as if there were no tomorrow.
I’m told she ended up in a pauper’s grave, after the county conducted its usual search for relatives and heirs. Some might consider that an appropriate end to a virtually worthless life. But Maxwell Street teaches one a lot about the tenuousness of security and the nobility of survival. You learn to seek the stories behind even the most blank and hopeless eyes. A ruined life, an anonymous death, opportunities missed, and hope abandoned–but still, someone’s little girl is gone. She died young.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.