We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

By Zak Mucha

Jennifer Kihm and two young boys are washing the outside windows of a small fast-food restaurant on South Cottage Grove that’s been closed for some time. Slowly a crowd gathers to watch. One man finally breaks from the group and asks, “You opening the fish restaurant again?”

“No,” says Kihm. “It’s going to be a cafe for the homeless.” She points to the window, where the name Living Room Cafe is painted.

“Cafe for the homeless? That’s good. We need that around here. That’s nice.” The man pauses. “Can other people eat there?”

“Sure,” Kihm says, smiling brightly, “but you gotta pay.”

“OK. I’m not homeless, but I like breakfast.”

“Then stop in. What’s your name?”


“Rudy, I’m Jennifer. I’ll see you later.”

The boys finish washing as much of the windows as they can reach. Kihm peers at the rusted awning that reads J.J. Fish and wonders how she can tear it down before the cafe opens next week.

Before it opened last fall, the Living Room Cafe, modeled on Uptown’s Inspiration Cafe, hoped to attract 25 to 35 homeless people from the Woodlawn neighborhood for several meals every week. They’d be able to choose from a varied menu, be served by waiters, and sit at tables decorated with flowers. And, Kihm emphasized, “They’ll be called guests, not clients or customers. “Guests’ sounds warmer, more inclusive.”

Once the guests were established, the cafe’s priority would shift to connecting them to the services they needed to get off the street. Through the cafe and a network of local churches and community groups, they would be able to find housing, go back to school, get a job–possibly even a position at the cafe as its programs expanded.

The list of organizations that had agreed to work with the cafe was long, but the principal referral service was to be the Mentoring, Training, and Employment Project, which has been helping Henry Horner Homes residents find work since October 1994. MTE would offer educational and vocational testing, literacy and GED classes, support groups, and job-skills training, among other things. Guests would also be referred to Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and medical care if needed. “We will eventually be used as a site for some of the programs,” Kihm said. “If a guest is in AA or NA, then we will offer the cafe as a meeting place.” But many of the programs would be at other agencies.

Guests would be interviewed the first time they showed up at the cafe to determine what kinds of services they needed. If they agreed to the rules they’d be given an ID card that would let them be served the next time they came in, and if they signed up for some kind of recovery program they’d have to bring proof that they were participating.

The Living Room Cafe was to remain a grassroots organization. No larger agencies were funding it. Nothing was holding it up but Kihm and her volunteers and donations.

Kihm wasn’t planning to run the cafe forever. Maybe just long enough to get it up on strong legs before letting someone else take over. She thought the best candidate to replace her would be a person who lived in the community, especially someone who’d gone through the Living Room Cafe’s program. “There are people who have lived their whole lives in Woodlawn and can do probably a better job than I have,” she said.

The Living Room Cafe, 6422 S. Cottage Grove, sits in the middle of a block surrounded by a Harold’s Fried Chicken, the Paradise Lounge, the Studio 2000 hair salon, empty lots, a day-care center, a liquor store, and a pool hall. A sign hanging in a second-floor window says Asbestos Investigation. At ten in the morning in early October it’s hard to see which businesses aren’t yet open and which won’t open at all; steel accordion gates are closed all along the block.

It’s a week before the cafe is supposed to open. An RC Cola machine sits in the middle of the dining area, tarps and cans of paint are stacked in the corner, and a disconnected pay phone hangs from the wall near the front windows. Boxes of dishes, linens, tabletops, and a Xerox machine–almost all donated–are scattered in the corners. The dining area is filled with a hodgepodge of secondhand chairs and tables, and the walls are covered with panels of flexible white plastic divided by red trim, part of the J.J. Fish motif. The windows still have a film of dirt, and sections of the floor roll and dip like a little golf course. In a corner near the front windows is a manager’s booth complete with one-way mirrors and a security camera. “We’ll probably keep that,” Kihm says, “in case someone needs a little privacy.”

Volunteers, mainly friends of Kihm’s, are cleaning the kitchen–sweeping, mopping, washing windows. At four tables that have been pushed together in the middle of the dining area, several children are making name tags and watching a slide show of mosaic walls put together by Lee Tracy, an artist friend of Kihm’s who has a grant from the Chicago Public Art Group and Illinois Arts Council to do a mosaic mural for the cafe with the children. The boys and girls, all of whom live in the Robert Taylor Homes, have been handpicked by Kihm from the ranks of the Youth As Resources program, which she’s been working with for the past two years. The boys are all around eight or nine, the girls older by four or five years.

This is the first day Tracy and her volunteer artists have got together. She asks the kids what they’d like to see on the south wall of the cafe, which is covered with plywood, and gets back a few shyly offered answers and uncomfortable silences. She makes some hesitant suggestions of her own. Someone says the wall could hold an image of a giant table setting with three full meals. She prods for more ideas, but the children only grow quieter.

Tracy starts describing how a mosaic wall is built, but the boys soon become restless. Vassie wants to help the other volunteers clean up the restaurant. “It looks like fun,” he says, racing away from his seat. Another boy suggests they do pictures of African animals, then he too goes off to join the cleaning crew. “Can we wipe down the tables?” he asks Kihm.

Tracy has never done any public art, never taught any classes, never worked with children. For the past ten years she’s been working out of her studio loft, doing freelance illustration and odd jobs and selling her own paintings. Around the time when Kihm was beginning to pull the cafe together Tracy received her grant, which stipulated that she work on a project with the people who live in the neighborhood. Tracy asked Kihm if she’d be interested in a mural for the cafe. Kihm told her she could have a whole wall to herself. Then Tracy said she had a vague idea that she’d like to work with children. “You want kids?” Kihm said. “I got kids.”

Kihm chases a few of the boys back to the worktable, but they keep drifting away. Finally she announces, “OK, who needs something to do?” Soon all the boys are cleaning. One zealous boy who’s been given the job of picking up loose floor tiles starts scraping up tiles that are still holding firmly. Kihm tells him to stop, but he kicks at a couple more to test them.

Tracy keeps talking to the girls, who faithfully remain at the table, trying to draw them out. But they’re only making mumbled suggestions. “What do you guys want to do?” she keeps asking. Kihm is better with the children. She confidently passes out instructions, and her voice carries across the room. And she knows these kids.

One of the volunteers steps around the boys working with brooms and dustpans and heads outside to have a cigarette. Two women dressed in miniskirts and leather jackets are walking toward the cafe. One smiles and asks the volunteer if he has an extra cigarette in his pack. He says he does and reaches inside his jacket.

“I bet you’re married,” the woman says. “You’re too fine not to be married.”

Sheepishly, he says he is, then drops the cigarette while handing it to her.

“Oh,” she says, her voice turning sharp. “You’re too good to touch a black woman though, huh?” She refuses the new cigarette he offers and walks away. “Fuck you,” she says over her shoulder.

Asked why she’s opening a cafe for the homeless, Kihm answers as if she couldn’t imagine a dumber question. “Because I want to. Because it’s needed.”

Kihm is 26 years old and college educated and lives on the north side. Asked about the neighborhood where she works, she says, “A lot of people hear “Woodlawn’ and tell me, “Oh it’s so bad.’ But they have never been here, and they most likely won’t come. I always tell people they should just go to the cafe for one day and see for themselves before they pass any judgment.” But she admits that it’s a rough neighborhood, a hard place to live–though that’s why she wants to work there. Then she adds, with some sarcasm, “I didn’t just come down here and announce that I was going to save all these people.” She knows it isn’t her community and doesn’t pretend it is. But she says no one from the neighborhood has called her an outsider.

In 1994, the year she received her master’s degree from the University of Chicago, where she was in the Social Service Administration program (her name was then Wiener), Kihm was nominated one of five “angels” in her graduating class, one of those noted for their vision of a better community. While still in school, she’d taken a job with the Chicago Area Project, where she still works; she’s now the coordinator of CAP’s Youth As Resources program, which provides small grants that allow young people to work in the Grand Boulevard area doing tutoring, renovating houses, and offering antidrug education. Between the hours she spent at school and work she also found time to volunteer at the north side’s Inspiration Cafe. Since it opened in 1992, the cafe has helped nearly 300 homeless people, 40 to 55 percent of whom have moved into regular employment and more permanent housing.

From the time she first began volunteering, Kihm wanted to start her own cafe for the homeless. While working at the Inspiration Cafe, she went to a conference in Atlanta sponsored by the ten other cafes for the homeless that existed in the country, and returned full of ideas for her Living Room Cafe, which she soon decided she wanted to set up in Woodlawn.

In the early 1950s more than 90,000 people lived in Woodlawn. At the time 60 percent of the residents were white; ten years later 90 percent were black. About 27,000 people now live there, 90 percent of them black. In 1990 a study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Urban Inequality found that 37 percent of Woodlawn’s population was homeless and 76 percent was unemployed.

Somewhat unsure of what she wanted, Kihm talked about her idea with friends, coworkers, and past professors whenever the chance arose. She and several friends who’d agreed to be volunteers began having meetings to discuss the details, and more and more volunteers kept appearing. “Very quickly we had a pretty diverse group,” Kihm says. “People from all different neighborhoods. We had meetings every month or so just to see how we were doing.” Responsibilities were doled out: donations had to be solicited, grants had to be written, a space for the cafe had to be found, fund-raisers had to be organized.

Kihm began introducing herself and her proposal to Woodlawn’s existing social-service groups. “I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, but I was willing to try.” She’d found that while the homeless have an incredible chain of connections among themselves, they have trouble getting help from local social-service agencies because they don’t know what’s available to them and they spend so much time each day just meeting their immediate needs. There are also fewer such programs on the south side than on the north side.

The last thing Kihm wanted to do was push people through some new kind of social-service meat grinder. She cautiously admits she has reservations about agencies that have pat answers for all problems.

Yet many of the groups she approached were helpful, and one connection usually led to another. Eventually she built an advisory board that included such south-side heavy hitters as Jeanne Marsh, academic dean of U. of C.’s School of Social Service Administration, Leon Finney Jr., chairman of the Woodlawn Organization, and Laura Lane, associate director of the African-American Leadership Partnership.

Kihm also pulled together two benefits by spring 1995–one at the DuSable Museum, the other at the Aldo Castillo gallery–and forced everyone she knew to come and help out. She collected about $10,000.

In just under a year and a half the Living Room Cafe was ready to open. It had a five-year lease on the building where the J.J. Fish restaurant used to be. It had also been incorporated as a not-for-profit organization; that made donations tax deductible, which helped raise money.

But in October it’s still a struggle to pay the rent and bills. “We’re running out of money very quickly,” Kihm says. At the bottom of a neatly itemized list of estimated and received funds for the year is a balance to be raised of nearly $100,000.

At 9 AM on October 21, opening day, the tables are surrounded by colorfully painted chairs and topped by vases of fresh flowers. The plan had been to offer two meals a day four or five days a week, but to start, the cafe will offer only breakfast and only on Saturdays. For one thing, the kitchen stove isn’t working, because the gas company hasn’t started the cafe’s account. Today’s breakfast has to be things that don’t need to be cooked–doughnuts, rolls, bagels, fresh fruit, juice, milk, and coffee. “We just couldn’t keep putting opening off until everything was perfect,” Kihm says. “We made the right decision.”

But no one has shown up. Kihm and a volunteer, Emily Lloyd, have to go out and find their first guest. “We were heading to this restaurant to talk to this guy,” Lloyd says later, “to ask him to send people over to us. On the way over there this man on the street asked us for a quarter. We said we couldn’t give him a quarter, but we’d get him breakfast. So he came with. He was the first one.” But by 11 o’clock all but one of the ten tables are filled with prospective guests. Some of them eat, then leave and bring back more people.

The volunteers know the first few weeks will be tough, because they have to keep the door open to everybody who can find the place until they can be interviewed. Winston Craighead, case manager from the Inspiration Cafe, instructs Lance Toma, another one of Kihm’s friends from U. of C.’s Social Service Administration program, as he interviews the prospective guests one at a time after they finish breakfast. He gives them a little privacy by sitting at a table behind a pillar, out of the direct view of the rest of the cafe, as he explains what the cafe offers and what it expects.

“We stress wellness, independence, and change,” Toma says later. “The guests of the cafe are to think of this as a step in changing their own life.” He’s looking for a core clientele of around 35 people and says there’s a good chance that many of the 17 people he interviewed today will return next week. But he points out that they have work to do. “So many, you can tell, are using something. First thing they have to take care of is that problem.” According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, about 30 percent of the homeless have serious mental problems and one-third to one-half also have alcohol and drug problems.

The next time the guests come they must have some proof that they’re participating in a recovery program if Toma has told them they have to. “We can let them in for a few visits, but if nothing is completed–no detox or anything–then we have to say that they cannot come anymore.” During some of the interviews he and the guest both knew that no steps would be taken. “Most promise, definitely next week, but it’s always up to them.” He shrugs, knowing that some of them will return only for a free meal. But if that’s all they want there are other places to go.

The cafe has many strict rules. Reservation cards are issued to those who become members and must be shown when they enter the cafe. If a card is lost, a replacement costs 50 cents. And cards are renewed each month only if a guest is making progress toward finding housing and work. If the guest is going to miss a meal the cafe must be notified; two absences without notice end the membership. There’s no smoking, no wearing of headphones or hats, no fighting, no drinking or doing drugs. Guests who have a relapse must go to a detox center or treatment program. Two relapses in a six-month period end the membership, though after six months the staff can reevaluate their decision.

The staff and volunteers expect to be flexible about the rules for a little while. But, says Kihm, “We can only help people who want the help. They have to prove to us that they want to turn their lives around. For us to do anything, the guests have to show that they are going to work at it. What we want the guests to do is set their own goals.”

As the guests trickle out the door later that morning, Kihm tries to persuade one man who has more than a little trouble standing steady to be interviewed by Toma. The man mumbles excuses and edges toward the door. But Harry Rogers, who runs the Inspiration Cafe, catches the man from behind. “You know anything about carpentry?” he says sharply.

“Do I know about carpentry?” the man wheels around to see who’s asking. “Right I do.” He gives an impromptu resume as Rogers leads him through the back room, pointing out the work that needs to be done on the walls that separate the cafe from the apartment next door. When they reemerge the man asks, “So what do I get paid?” Rogers tells him there’s no pay, that all the work is done voluntarily.

“I don’t get paid?” the man says incredulously.

“No,” Rogers answers as they make their way to the front door. “This is Jennifer. She runs the place. You’re going to be helping her, OK? Now we’re gonna depend on you. Be here next Saturday, right?”

“OK. Yeah. I’ll see. I think so.” He leaves without sitting for an interview.

Lee Tracy, her studio assistant, Kate Barrows, and the volunteer artists show up early, when the tables are still filled with guests. The kids, seemingly in no hurry to begin working, spread out at the dining tables and start conversations with the guests.

After the cafe closes, the girls–Marchetta, Candi, and Latasha–work steadily and quietly, drawing on and then painting the unfinished ceramic tiles that are to be the border of the mural. The boys are discouraged because the elaborate pencil drawings they’d done earlier are tough to reproduce with paint and brushes. Jason admires everyone’s work but his own. Terrance is disappointed by the limp paintbrushes that can’t reproduce what he’d imagined. Tiles are started, then abandoned. Each artist looks around and decides that everyone else’s work is better than his own. Tracy spends a lot of time consoling artists who are ready to give up.

On a scrap of cardboard one of the boys draws a pitchfork framed by the letters G and D in elaborate script. Tracy asks what the drawing means, even though she knows perfectly well. “Nothing,” the boy says, and, looking embarrassed, folds it up.

With the guests and volunteers gone it’s soon apparent that there’s no heat in the cafe. In fact, it’s as cold inside as it is outside. Tracy tells the kids she didn’t know there was no heat and promises to mention it to Kihm. The boys run off to the back room, where they’d seen a couple of space heaters in a corner. They drag in three heaters, then dig through boxes of clothes that have been donated to the guests and slip into sweaters and jackets that are way too big for them. “We have to remember to give these back when we’re done,” Tracy tells them.

They stop for a snack break, which consists of breakfast leftovers. Lunch was another thing Tracy hadn’t planned. Nothing seems to be going right. No one wants to paint, there’s no heat, and everybody’s hungry. The boys start wrestling matches and race from one end of the room to the other. As Tracy gets one to sit down, two more bound up.

Barrows has to separate two of the boys. She warns them that someone’s going to get hurt, and they reply, “We were just playing.”

“Well, someone could get hurt playing like that.”

“But we weren’t trying to hurt anyone.”

By the end of the afternoon Tracy and Barrows are dead tired, and they still have to take all the children home. Later Tracy acknowledges that if she’d known what the project would entail she might have been scared away. But she insists she isn’t thinking of quitting. She only wishes she’d been better prepared. “I’ve never done this before,” she says. “I want to lean on someone for advice, a little bit of support. But everyone’s got their own work, and I’ve got to convince people to help me with mine.”

A couple of days later Tracy receives a phone call from Kihm saying that two of the boys who were wrestling took a cellular phone that belonged to the next-door neighbor. The boys return the phone and apologize to the neighbor. Kihm tells them they can’t come back to the cafe for a week.

The next Saturday Tracy drives around picking up all the kids. There are more this week–they barely fit in her car. They sit in one another’s laps, laughing and complaining of numb legs and pinched arms as they pass around a bag of cheese popcorn.

Several conversations run over one another, and questions are thrown at Tracy. Is this your car? How long did you have it? Are you married? How old are you? Is that one guy your boyfriend?

The cafe is still clearing out when they arrive. Toma is finishing the last interviews. Kihm and the volunteers are cleaning up in the kitchen.

The kids are a little more serious about their work today. And Tracy seems to have picked up some pointers from a schoolteacher friend who spent the weekend with her. She gives step-by-step instructions and demonstrations. She asks questions that require concrete answers. The room feels more like a workshop or grade-school art class, except that the heat still hasn’t been turned on. Everybody keeps coats zipped or buttoned throughout the day.

An older man with gray hair and a thick mustache is seated at one of the worktables with Terrance, Tyshwan, and Jason. They’re all painting the tiles that are to border the whole mural. The boys say nothing to the man, and he says nothing in return. Finally Kihm comes and makes the introductions. “This is my friend, Luis,” she says, patting the stranger on the back. “He’s a famous artist, and he’s from a country called Colombia. Do you guys know where that is?”

Tyshwan looks up from his work. “Yeah, I think so. Do they have bagpipes there?”

“I think that is Scotland,” Luis Fernando Uribe says.

The boys take turns peeking over Uribe’s shoulder to check out the tile he’s designing. Soon they surround him with compliments. One boy tells him he must be an artist because he can really paint. For the next couple of minutes they ask for Spanish translations of “hello,” “goodbye,” and “How are you?” One boy wants to know what “aloha” means.

Tracy gathers the kids around one table and shows them how the tiles will be transferred to the wall. Having decided that each child should have a separate image to work on, she says that by the end of the day she wants to know what they all want to do with their own sections of the wall.

After a couple seconds of silence Jason says, “I want to do a house.” The other boys jump on the idea, and they all start drawing A-frame houses with window eyes above the front doors and chimneys poking out of slanted roofs. The houses sit on wide lawns under bright skies. In one sketch the sun wears dark glasses.

During lunch, Tyshwan, Terrance, and Tyrone playfully tease one another, until finally one of them says, “Oh, you talking white.”

“I am not talking white,” insists the object of the insult.

“Yeah you are.”

This volleys back and forth, growing in volume. Tracy comes up to the table to ask what “talking white” is.

Tyshwan explains, using a haughty nasal tone. “You know, “Hi, there. How are you, man? I’m cool.”‘

Tracy says nothing, and the boys change the subject.

Two prospective guests wander in. Both are smoking cigarettes and smell of alcohol, and one is wearing flip-flops, even though it’s 30 degrees out. One of them mumbles something about breakfast. Tracy tells them that no more food is being served, but neither man moves. She runs to the kitchen and comes back with a handful of bagels. She tells them, “Next week if you show up earlier there’ll be a better breakfast. Before 12. Sorry, that’s all I have left.”

The two men quietly thank her and walk outside. A relative of Tracy’s who’s visiting from out of town says softly, “I’ve never seen people like this before.”

Tracy starts to show slides again, but the children complain loudly that they’re boring. She hands over control of the projector to Jason, who starts a running commentary on the different murals as he recognizes the faces of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The other kids start paying attention, and soon almost everyone wants a turn.

Then they set to work on their own designs, and Tracy jumps from one table to the next helping them. The girls call her Miss Lee, and the boys call her Lee.

The boys leave early because they have their own ride. After they’re gone, Tracy lays a blanket on the floor so the girls can begin breaking the tiles that will be used in the mosaic. She passes out hammers and gloves and goggles and tells the girls to wrap the tiles before they start smashing them. The girls dive in, talking and laughing. It’s the first time they’ve all opened up. An hour later, when it’s time to go, they don’t want to leave. “Miss Lee? Let us finish one more box of tiles.”

Tracy promises to have more tiles next Saturday. She turns off the lights, locks the place up, and packs the girls into her car. Snow begins to drift down and dot the windshield. “Turn up the heat,” says someone in the backseat as soon as the engine turns over.

Driving through the Robert Taylor Homes, Tracy passes a pickup football game. Two of the players are cafe artists, and they stop between huddles to wave.

The first weekend of November Kihm arrives at the cafe right before nine o’clock and starts unloading about 40 pounds of bagels donated by Arnie’s Bagels. She sets the tables with placemats, flowers, milk and sugar containers, little dishes of leftover Halloween candy, mismatched bowls, cups, and silverware donated by Crate & Barrel.

Soon the other volunteers arrive and start preparing the rest of the food. The heat still isn’t working, so they all keep their winter coats on as they cut apples and oranges, split bagels, and slice vegetables for sandwiches.

Tyrell, the landlord’s young grandson, comes downstairs with a space heater Kihm had asked to borrow. Because the cafe is a new account and a nonprofit organization, she’s having trouble persuading the gas company that the bills will be paid. She’s faxed copies of the incorporation papers, nonprofit forms, her ID–all to no purpose. She’s made two appointments to meet someone from the gas company, but no one showed up either time. Whenever she’s called she’s been told by a person she’s never spoken to before how busy it is at Peoples Gas.

One volunteer walks in with her cousins, three young boys who are visiting from the western suburbs. They find waiters’ notepads and immediately offer to be waiters. They practice taking orders from one another until the guests arrive.

The first guest is a little man who’s been waiting outside since nine o’clock. Kihm greets him at the door, and the eager waiters lead him to a table. They take his order as a group and run it to the kitchen, yelling out each item just as waiters are supposed to do. Then they take the plates back to the table and hover around the guest while he eats.

“Is the coffee ready yet?” one boy yells back to the kitchen.

Someone replies that it isn’t, and the boy relays the information to the guest. The boys go on checking with the kitchen every 30 seconds or so, until Kihm chases them away from the man’s table.

But soon one of them returns and asks the man, “How’s your breakfast? Want anything else?”

“Just coffee.”

“Is that coffee ready yet?” the boy yells with exaggerated impatience. “What’s taking so long?”

The man covers his mouth to hide his laughter.

Two more guests finally enter the cafe and occupy a table across the room from the first guest. All three already have their cafe ID cards, and Kihm greets each by name. She sits down and talks to them while they wait for their breakfast, asking how they’re doing, where they’re staying.

The guests don’t stick around long. They eat and leave. But Kihm expects that as the weeks pass they’ll come to know one another, and it will begin to be like having breakfast with a group of friends.

Of course the guests may also be leaving because the heat isn’t on. A couple of the waiters notice that it’s colder in the kitchen than it is in the walk-in refrigerator, a theory they test by climbing into the fridge.

It’s a disappointingly slow day, with maybe seven or eight guests total, not all of them members of the cafe.

Two men standing inside the doorway catch Kihm’s attention. They’re obviously younger than the regular guests, and they don’t have the haggard look of people who’ve spent the night in a crowded shelter or in a doorway or abandoned car. They’re almost cocky, as if waiting to be noticed. They tell Kihm they want to talk to Winston Craighead, then stroll unescorted to a side table to wait for him.

Kihm remembers meeting the men before–they’d warned her not to use the outside pay phone because it wasn’t hers. She’s also seen them outside the Robert Taylor Homes, and when she asked around she learned that they were drug dealers. She didn’t want them around her cafe. They were everything it wasn’t supposed to be. They’d made comments about donations they might be persuaded to make and hinted that they could have bought her building from the landlord. She wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be intimidation or braggadocio.

Her first instinct was to throw the men out, but Craighead told her that would just make trouble for her. He offered to talk to the men, and that Saturday he did. The men agreed to respect Kihm and give her room to do what she wanted, and she would do the same for them. “I told them they could come in for breakfast whenever they wanted,” she says.

A little later Lee Tracy pulls into a parking lot in the Robert Taylor Homes and turns around. While she waits for the girls to come down, two police cars pass by, their backseats full of young men; they’re followed by two more empty police cars. An unmarked car stops in front of Tracy, and an officer climbs out and walks over. “What are you doing here?” he asks, the expression on his face perfectly matching his question. He smiles and shakes his head slightly when he hears “outreach program,” then walks away.

Two of the girls Tracy was expecting climb into the backseat. Tracy notices Candi’s newly braided hair and says, “You look great.” They all discuss Candi’s braids as three more squad cars stop. Police pull four boys from the car parked alongside Tracy and position them spread-eagle against the hood and trunk. One officer kicks empty beer bottles from the backseat while the boys are searched.

A new cop appears at Tracy’s window. “Can I see your license?”

“Yes, sir.” She hands it over. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Is this your car?” he asks, stepping back to check the license plates.

“Yes.” She explains that the car was bought in Wisconsin and she still has to get Illinois plates.

The officer asks if the car is in her name, if the address on her driver’s license is her current one, how long she’s lived there. She tries to answer, but he keeps interrupting. Finally he hands her license back and tells her to get new plates.

“Is that it?” she asks.

“Yeah. This is a hot narcotics area. That’s all.”

The girls don’t seem to think it’s at all strange that the police were checking Tracy out or that the young men were being searched.

No guests are at the cafe when Tracy and her crew arrive. The tables are already cleared, and the kitchen is shut down and cleaned. Very few guests showed up, and Winston Craighead is reassuring Kihm that it’s because the weather suddenly got cold. He says it will take a little time for people to get used to walking around in the cold, that it does every winter. Kihm wonders if the guests who did come were staying in the neighborhood or had places close by. Craighead says a lot of homeless went to the shelters last night, and the closest was at 57th and Vincennes, too far away to walk to the cafe for breakfast. “People know about it,” Kihm says, sounding a little reassured. “They know we’re here. It’s just going to take some time.”

Tracy’s artists change from week to week. Someone’s always missing, and the regulars always bring a friend or sister only for the day. Some children have come only once or twice. But Tyrell, who’d intended just to drop off a space heater, ended up doing a lot of work on the mural. And Terrance called Tracy Friday night to say he wouldn’t make it, but that he would miss everyone and would definitely be there the following Saturday.

The mural isn’t going to be a unified picture, as Tracy once thought. She says that each week her expectations change. But the final product doesn’t seem to be a major concern. Once the kids could put their hands on the tiles, smash them with hammers, and piece them back together to build the images they’d drawn weeks earlier, the project became enjoyable.

“Having them at the cafe is great,” says Kihm. “It’s good for them. Their lives are very sheltered, just the same as some white people who never leave their neighborhoods on the north side, just like anyone who never leaves their own neighborhood. Some of these kids have never been downtown, some don’t know how to take public transportation. The idea of getting on the el is scary to them.”

She hopes the kids will keep coming to the cafe after the mural is completed. “There is one guest who was, let’s say, difficult. Just a grumpy man whenever he came in. But on days the kids were there they’d be talking to him, and he’d actually be pleasant. His whole demeanor would change. I could joke with him and ask what got into him. Kids are very honest. They don’t have the preconceived notions adults sometimes do.”

The children begin filling the pictures they’ve drawn on graph paper with pieces of tiles. They keep changing their designs, and Tracy has to coax them back to their original plans. Jason is working on a fish swimming through beams of sunlight; Ray and Terrance are sticking with their house plans. Candi has two images, a rain cloud and some flowers. Marchetta has a map of the world, and Latasha is piecing together a red-and-black heart. Tyshwan has flying birds. The mosaics may be ready to go up on the wall by next week.

At the end of the day they clean up, then pile into Tracy’s car for the ride home. A woman has been murdered in the building where the girls live, and now they start arguing about the details. They’re not sure whether she was raped or only stabbed several times. “She was holding these boys’ drugs,” Candi says confidently to Tracy.

“It’s always drugs,” Latasha says. “Drugs and money.”

They start arguing again about whether the woman’s head was cut off or she’d been stabbed through the eye. Latasha announces that she knows the details best, then tells the gruesome story again. She concludes, “They stole her weave. They killed her and left her bald-headed.”

Someone in the backseat says that it was the woman’s real hair and it wasn’t stolen.

As Tracy approaches the last building on the block, the girls ask her to drop them off at the back door. Tracy says it’s no problem to drive them to the front, but the girls insist that they can just walk around the building.

“Why? Are you embarrassed?” Tracy asks teasingly.

“Yeah,” they say quietly, and climb out of the car. It’s not clear what they’re embarrassed about.

The next week, the second week in November, Kihm decides to temporarily close the cafe until the heat’s turned on. She and Tracy also agree that it’s getting too cold to ask the children to work. Tracy calls the children who have phones and asks them to pass the news on to those who don’t. Terrance calls back right away, upset that he’s going to miss a day, wanting to make sure the mural isn’t being canceled.

The gas company still hasn’t sent anyone to hook up the Living Room Cafe, and it doesn’t sound like it will anytime soon. The latest reason is that the previous tenants haven’t paid their bills, though the spokesperson also repeats the line that the company has a long waiting list of people needing service before winter.

By the end of the week Kihm changes her mind, deciding that the cafe can’t just close itself, that someone has to be there in case guests show up. She takes a skeleton crew of volunteers to the cafe, buys some flowers for the tables at the shop across the street, and borrows an efficient space heater from the owner of the pool hall next door. By the end of the morning she estimates that 20 guests have come. “If we couldn’t have been there because of the cold weather,” she says, “then what would that have told the people who are supposed to depend on the cafe?”

After Thanksgiving the cafe has an open house for volunteers, friends, possible contributors; a $20 donation is requested at the door. “I knew a lot of people wouldn’t want to come down here,” says Kihm, “but if they wanted to help they could just buy a ticket beforehand. We sold a lot more tickets like that, I think.” Coffee, dessert, and red wine are served. The heat is finally on.

The mural is also complete. Tracy and Barrows worked some long days to finish the last bits, grouting the tiles and putting the border around the children’s images. Tracy invited all of the kids to the open house, and all of the girls are here, along with Jason, Tyshwan, Ray, and Tyrone, who are dressed in neon blue and gray sharkskin suits and ties. They take turns having their pictures taken with Tracy and Barrows. Tyshwan does some impromptu stand-up comedy, mostly rude imitations of his friends. The adults try not to laugh, but they can barely help it.

The completed 8-by-24-foot mural seems to impress the kids more than anyone. “Amazing that it’s even come together,” says Tracy, “and I think the kids are even more surprised than I am.” The wall does look as if it had been pieced together by a crew of professionals. The children start searching for their own pictures, which are barely recognizable as part of the completed wall. “Looks good,” says Jason coolly.

Kihm proudly announces that the mural is the centerpiece of the cafe. “It’s like a bright light in the dingy little storefront–and the guests are all shocked when I say that these kids were the ones who did it.”

Tracy has had certificates printed up, and she passes them out to the children as if it were a graduation. The children carry the certificates around the room, asking everyone to sign their names, just as if they were passing around school yearbooks before summer break. The kids even ask people they’ve never seen before to sign. “Who’re you? Do you want to sign mine?” they say.

The boys all hug Tracy before they leave, and later she says she feels a little sorry that the mural is finished. She says she wants to work with the kids again. She gives the girls a ride home. When they drive up 43rd Street, the apartment complex is completely dark. “Why are the lights out?” Tracy asks.

“It happens all the time,” the girls answer. “Because the gangs turn them off and then go door to door asking for stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Radios, whatever.”

Tracy tells the girls to be careful as they climb out of the car. Later she says she didn’t really know what else to say.

A regular group of guests now comes once a week to the cafe, which will begin serving breakfast on Friday as well as Saturday starting in June. More volunteers keep showing up, referred by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Cares. Money is still tight, but the cafe may get a $20,000 grant to do renovations and to expand. Some breakfasts have included guest speakers from the Inspiration Cafe, along with poetry readings and musical performances by Living Room Cafe regulars. After meals the guests help out with the chores–doing dishes, clearing tables, and sweeping up.

New arrivals are being interviewed by Kihm and Gina Krusinski, another volunteer, but qualified applicants are now put on a waiting list–there isn’t room for more guests. Several guests are now working toward getting jobs and housing. When they feel comfortable leaving the cafe, new guests will take their places.

Lee Tracy has been given a grant by the Chicago Area Project and offered volunteers by the Marwen Foundation to do a mural in the summer of 1997 with the same Robert Taylor Homes children. She’s been raising funds for the mural and estimates that she’s halfway there. She’s still working with the kids on a regular basis, encouraging them to draw in journals and notebooks. The designated site for the mural is the blank wall of a storefront that sits across the parking lot from the girls’ building in the Robert Taylor Homes and can be seen from nearly every apartment window.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.