From Bad Times to Verse

Can you see me?” asked Chris Christmas, in a poem he wrote for StreetWise. “I’ve followed the sun / And the sun follows me. / Each homeless night / Feels like an eternity.”

Needing to be seen if he were to move any newspapers, Christmas employed strategies. He learned where to position himself. “I stood in front of the Board of Trade and tried to sell the paper. I got a certain response. I stood in front of the Art Institute and got a much more positive response.”

He entertained. “I would hawk the paper with a rhyme: ‘It’s only a buck, ain’t no sense buckin’ around. It’s StreetWise, to help the homeless in this town.’ Things like that. I’d do a little theater.”

And he studied his market. “You sort of get a street wisdom of feeling out who’s happy, who’s sad, who’s grouchy. There’s a lot of apathy. Most people are apathetic, I guess. And what I would look at in the crowd is those who needed cheering up. For example, one of my greetings was ‘Good morning. You’ve got to be up for it anyway–you might as well put a smile on your face.’ Most of the time those who needed cheering up bought the paper. I got a lot of sales from people who said, ‘Hey! He made me smile.”’

Christmas–it’s his real name–studied marketing at Columbia College, promoted musical groups, and helped raise money for state senator Donne Trotter, a longtime friend, in three election campaigns. As an army reservist, he repaired helicopters during the gulf war. And a few years ago he went broke. “I’d stay at different hotels, and when I didn’t have any money I stayed outside. That’s when I met other homeless. I was on the street for two months. I found I could sell the Sun-Times and Tribune at two in the morning. The hustler captain will pick you up in his van. You load papers onto the van. And then they drop you here, there, and everywhere. Like the entrance to the Stevenson. I’m hawking it, you know? You’re beeping your horn, and I run up and sell you one. It’s a hustle job. At the end of the day, which is about 9 AM, you get picked up again by the hustler captain and they’d take us to a bar. You’d count the papers you sold, and you owed 25 cents a paper.”

Back downtown with $20, maybe $25 in his pocket, Christmas would try to scrounge up a job passing out flyers. “Some of the guys would go straight to panhandling. Others would go washing windows, washing cars. Others would be so drunk by then they’d just lay it off. If things got tight people would show me where you got food. I got to know this whole lifestyle.”

When StreetWise got up and running a little over three years ago the 75 cents he’d make on every issue sold looked good to Christmas. But he didn’t just sell the paper; he went out and recruited other vendors. Then he began selling advertising. A management shake-up in ’93 drove Christmas away, but he’s been back on staff since last January as advertising sales manager.

And he wrote poetry. “I started writing what I felt on the street,” he says. “My poems came in points of reflection, sometimes points of frustration. You don’t want to yell this out at anybody, so sometimes you write this down. In the early days of StreetWise we filled the paper with poetry, in lieu of trying to get more stories. In fact we printed poetry in big-point type to fill up a page, do you see what I’m saying?”

Among the paper’s regular readers was Harriet Choice, a Chicago-based vice president of the United Press Syndicate. “I don’t really care about the restaurant reviews and the movie reviews,” she told me, “but I was always interested in the vendor profiles and the poetry.” Because she travels heavily, Choice had never been able to commit herself to the marathon Monday editing sessions where journalists such as the Tribune’s Richard Longworth give the next issue of StreetWise a professional gloss. But the poetry gave her an idea.

“I come from a company that has made a huge success out of synergy,” she said. “If you have a successful comic you do the book, then you do the mug, you do the greeting card, you do the TV show. I had been very moved by some of the poetry. So I said, why don’t we do a poetry book?”

She called Longworth. In short order the two of them and StreetWise’s editor, John Ellis, and executive director, Anthony Oliver, were meeting regularly at Riccardo’s to plan an anthology. Ellen Hunt, director of publications at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s, wandered too close to their table and was put in charge of PR. These sessions ennobled Riccardo’s final hours, and when the restaurant closed forever in August the group shifted to Choice’s office in the Wrigley Building.

The result: From Hard Times to Hope: The Poems of StreetWise, a $5 collection that Longworth has placed in bookstores up and down Michigan Avenue. StreetWise vendors will split the proceeds–minus a small carrying cost charged by those bookstores that haven’t waived it altogether. Individual vendors are also selling the collection, and they get to keep $3 for every book they sell.

Every possible service, from design to paper to printing, was donated. Choice provided the Doonesbury panels on the back cover. (Cartoonist Garry Trudeau frequently volunteers at a homeless shelter.)

“Can you see me?” begins the poem that begins From Hard Times to Hope. “How can you not hear / The cry of my homelessness?”

Some people did see. “People would talk to you,” says Christmas. “They’d want to know ‘How does this happen? What’s life like? I’m just about out of a job myself.'”

He saw too. “You were the people who had it all,” he says, “and didn’t know it sometimes.”

A Strike to the Heart

Some of life’s choices are between bad and worse. Later on kibitzers will be happy to tell you which was which.

The other day I talked with a reporter at a newspaper so traumatized that the working staff–as opposed to the striking staff out on the street–have been visited periodically for the last five months by two clinical psychologists. Earlier in the year these psychologists, who specialize in stress intervention, had gone to Oklahoma City after the federal building was blown up.

“I’ve been in on three of these sessions now,” said the reporter, Pat Anstett. “They’re pretty helpful.”

I’d called Anstett to see how she was surviving the long newspaper strike in Detroit. She said she and her husband both stayed out a month, but then they went back to work.

“We got these letters on a Tuesday that if we were not back at work on Thursday we risked losing our jobs,” she said. “The week I got the letter was the week we pretty much had no money.”

The Detroit Newspaper Agency, which under a joint operating agreement publishes both Gannett’s Detroit News and Knight-Ridder’s Detroit Free Press, was struck by the Teamsters, the Newspaper Guild, and four other unions on July 13. A few days later Anstett’s mother, whom she’d helped support, died.

When Anstett returned to work in August, she wrote a long elegiac feature story on loss. It appeared in the daily paper that the nonstriking staffs of the News and Free Press had combined to publish–in competition with the strikers’ paper, the Detroit Journal.

“Stumbling through the emotions I associate with my mother’s death, I’ve come to realize similar feelings about the newspaper strike,” she wrote. “When people ask me what it’s like inside, I tell them, ‘It’s like working inside an empty bowling alley.’

“Emptiness. That feeling again. I wonder how I’m ever going to get time to grieve.”

The newspaper strike in Detroit– like strikes in San Francisco and Pittsburgh before it–has hinged primarily on work rules and staffing levels rather than on wage scales. Journalists enjoy rendering all their strikes as historic, and this sometimes violent struggle became national news. When Anstett and her husband Tim Kiska, a TV writer for the News, went back to work, the out-of-town press took note. She told me they were identified in a Boston Globe article as the parents of children in private schools; for the next two weeks Kiska was taunted as an elitist money-grubber with cries of “Private schools! Private schools!” as he ran a gauntlet of pickets outside the News. In fact, Anstett and Kiska’s two oldest children go to public schools and the youngest is in day care.

The picketers also derided Kiska’s height, shouting “Short scab!” The business offices of the Detroit Newspaper Agency are located in the News building, Anstett explained, “so the angriest people, including the Teamsters, are down there.”

Anstett’s the medical writer at the less tempestuous Free Press. “But there are people here who get their share of hatred,” she went on. “I won’t say their share–it’s not their share. But they get hatred directed at them. For whatever reason–and I could speculate what the reasons are–I haven’t gotten the brunt of the anger. I’m grateful for that, and I’m hesitant to say that lest it change tomorrow.

“I think it’s because of sympathy for my mom’s death, because of the piece I wrote expressing feelings that strikers told me are their feelings, and because word got out that at meetings we’ve had [inside the building] I’ve spoken up about various things.

“But up to now I’ve been fortunate. My closest friends are outside journalism, so I haven’t lost my best friends.”

Anstett and I used to work at the Chicago Sun-Times together. In 1978, when the Daily News was closed and the two staffs were merged, we were both deemed excess baggage. Reporters the Sun-Times hadn’t wanted to keep were summoned one after another for brief, unpleasant meetings with the editors. “Remember how I announced to the newsroom I hadn’t been retained?” Anstett said. “I came back to the newsroom and shouted at the top of my lungs, ‘I’m out!’ It was my way of telling everyone without being approached individually.”

She remembers the experience as “that great kick in the pants.” It taught her that a newspaper isn’t family, and that ultimately owners get their way.

“I have spoken up, and I have tried to be a voice of reason,” she said. “But I cannot change what Knight-Ridder thinks. For some people, that’s a hard lesson to learn.” Some people who believe in family, she says, are still picketing outside Detroit’s two newspapers, carrying on a strike she thinks is lost. Both papers are again being published, more than half her paper’s striking guild members have gone back to work, advertisers and readers are returning, and she knows from her mail that readers are responding to what they read. The papers are resuming their organic function in the city.

The Wall Street Journal asked Anstett how she felt the day she returned, and she said she felt like a rape victim. “It was really awful to be forced back like that,” she told me.

How then, I wondered, can you offer your paper any loyalty (with all due respect for the group counseling it’s provided)? She said she didn’t. “I’m not here as a matter of loyalty,” she explained. “I don’t feel and I don’t think I’ve ever felt since I left Chicago that I have to be loyal to my newspaper.

“What I’m here for is to work hard and get messages out to the public that I think they need. But what I learned in Chicago is that loyalty is not something that you owe your employer. Having said that I would also say I work very hard for my employer.

“But that’s two different issues. I’m loyal to my husband. I’m loyal to my children. And I’m loyal to my friends.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.