Marv is a little drunk this morning, a bit unsteady as he circles through the courtyard of the Olive Branch shelter in search of a cigarette.
“Yo, Johnny. You got a smoke?”
It is 75 degrees but Johnny is wearing a heavy winter jacket. He only shakes his head at Marv. Bullface, the front-door guard, doesn’t have any either, nor does Slim the registration attendant. Marv doesn’t even bother asking Harold, the white guy in the camouflage army jacket, or Phil, the wrinkled man with the rubber bands around his shoes. Instead he approaches Billy, who has just cashed his government check at the currency exchange and bought a pack at the liquor store up the street. “No problem, man,” Billy says, slipping him a crumpled Camel. “But I’m clean out of matches.”
Marv moves back across the 20-by-40-foot fenced-in cement courtyard past a dark brown woman in her late 40s wearing an African-style head wrap. She is sitting on a bench and resting her feet up on the overstuffed luggage caddy in front of her, slowly smoking a half of a cig. But Marv passes her by, not asking for a light, and stops at the next bench, where Junior is telling a story to Small Head.
“Yo blood, I’m tellin’ you. I hit the muthafuckin’ ground when they came around the corner.” As he listens, Small Head picks at a sore on his left foot; his basketball shoe and sock are on the ground beneath the bench. “All of them had Uzis ‘n’ shit,” Junior continues. “Boom, boom, boom. We was in the park over by the projects.” Junior acts out the scene with an imaginary machine gun. Marv places his unlit Camel between his dry lips. He has already heard about this incident–an altercation between the Black Disciples and Junior’s posse, the Vice Lords. Junior notices the unlit cigarette. “Lemme smoke wit’chu, Marv.”
“I need a light,” Marv says with a frown after a slight hesitation. Junior snatches the cigarette from Marv’s mouth.
“That’s my only smoke, doc,” Marv protests.
“It’s straight, cool. Don’t worry,” Junior reassures him in a tone somewhere between a promise and a command. “I’ll get one for both of us.” Junior is wearing only a T-shirt, so his muscles are there for all to see. Twenty minutes earlier he threatened to knock a guy’s teeth in if he got his clean white high tops dirty. Marv concedes defeat and slumps quietly onto the bench, leaning slightly to the right, his mouth open, his eyes half shut.
Just then Felix, a bearded man wearing a tweed cap and cowboy boots, walks up with a lighter and holds out a flame for Junior. “Share some of that?” he asks Junior. “Sorry, bro,” Junior says, pointing at Marv.
Felix moves to a nearby bench and drops heavily on the wooden seat. He removes a plastic cigarette holder from his breast pocket and places the empty device in his mouth. “You smoke?” he asks the next guy over, who does not. “Bad habit, I know,” Felix says in a voice filled with disgust and regret. “But I’m gonna keep doing it until I get out of this situation. I never used to smoke but now it relaxes me. At this point I don’t even want to stop.”
Felix says he smokes because he’s upset about his situation. He once was a drug counselor and now he’s out of a job and down on his luck. “All these crack-headed fools are gonna smoke up their welfare checks by tomorrow night anyhow,” he says. Suddenly he launches himself off the bench. Bullface is walking back in from Madison with smoke coming from his nose and rolling back past his ears in a trail of white. Felix begs and Bullface obliges, taking a soggy, filterless butt from his mouth. Felix thanks him and begins puffing on it immediately. He does not use his plastic holder until he returns to his bench. Content for the moment, he takes out a Tribune.
After lunch a young counselor heads out the door toward Madison Street and the chorus in the courtyard calls for a cigarette in a nearly unified voice. She laughs and says she doesn’t have any. Three minutes later she is running back into the courtyard with bright blood all over her face. An angered regular has hit her in the nose. Bullface calls the police.
When a cop arrives at the Olive Branch entrance, Marv stands in his way and asks for a smoke. A pack is visible in the pocket of the policeman’s light blue shirt. He ignores Marv, who then mumbles a word or two. “What the fuck did you say to me, you goddamn bastard?” screams the officer of the peace. “Why I gotta be all those names?” Marv yells back. “Just shut the fuck up,” the cop screams, then spins around and enters the building. The lone woman with the head wrap and the luggage caddy looks up, shaking her head, then returns to her cigarette and stares at the ground.
Sitting across from this woman is a coffee-with-cream-colored man with a squashed face and a kente hat. A darker man with a rough beard and a gap in his teeth sits on his right. He is wearing a brilliant green one-piece snowsuit. This man has an entire bag full of tobacco. “Got any E-Zs?” he asks the man with the kente hat, who produces some without comment.
“Muthafuckin’ nearly 90 degrees out here!” yells a brother named Jackson from across the courtyard. He is wearing an unbuttoned white dress shirt that’s wet under the armpits. His comment, directed partly to the man in the snowsuit, draws laughter and banter from the rest of the group, but the butt of their joke ignores them, intently folding the rolling paper over into a boat shape, then extracting a pinch of tobacco from the pouch and placing it carefully in the center of the paper. Immediately the wind blows half of the pile onto the pavement. The man curses and asks his partner in the kente hat to cover the loose tobacco with a cupped palm. Soon they produce a rolled cigarette. It looks like a joint, but the smell that follows is definitely tobacco.
“I gotta find a pad soon,” Jackson tells Max while he absentmindedly watches the snowsuited man roll the cigarette. He is holding an unlit Newport in his right hand. He also has his own lighter. Jackson has been without a place to stay for five months. “I can’t take this kinda living much longer,” he says, frequently moving the Newport and the lighter close but never quite connecting them.
Max, who will share the smoke with Jackson once it is lit, commiserates. He has a place to stay, a single room in a flophouse on 21st Street, but he’s having trouble finding work. “I been lookin’ every day on the sign-up boards in the Loop. Still ain’t got no answer. I gave ’em the number of the shelter here an’ I been expectin’ a call.”
“Don’t worry,” Jackson reassures him. “They’ll call you. I know they will.”
On the next bench over the woman smokes in silence. In another hour the door will open for dinner. She sits with a forward lean, one elbow resting on her crossed legs. The smoke rises above her in the sunlight and floats away on the southern wind.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.