Promptly at 9:30 last February 18, Associate Circuit Court Judge John R. Ryan mounted the bench of his courtroom at Harrison and Kedzie. A pleasant-faced, gray-haired man, the judge coughed slightly and proceeded.

Through skylights that run the length of the courtroom, sunlight cascaded down. Yet it failed to make Judge Ryan’s court a cheery place. The atmosphere here was heavy with purpose.

People come before Judge Ryan for one reason only. Whenever public aid is sought for a child born out of wedlock in Illinois, the Department of Public Aid and the local states attorney are required by law to try to establish paternity. The father–if he’s able–must help the state support the child. Ryan’s caseload consists of mothers and alleged fathers that the state’s attorney has summoned to court.

Sheriff’s deputies in Ryan’s paternity court–one of three serving Chicago–direct the moms to the benches on the judge’s right, the dads to those on the left. Most babies and young children stay with their mothers, although this morning the judge could observe an occasional father cradling an infant in his arms.

Judge Ryan, who has presided here since 1985, is respectful to the men who come before him. “In the beginning I thought of this as an adversarial thing,” the judge has said, “but then I realized who these young gentlemen, the fathers, truly are. They not only openly acknowledge they are the fathers but they are proud of it; they see their children and visit them. As soon as that dawned on me, I made the fact part of my opening statement.”

In his opening remarks this day, Ryan outlined the process that was about to begin. A mother and alleged father would be summoned before him, the judge explained, and the man would be asked to affirm that he had sired her child. If the man said he hadn’t, he could submit to a blood test; if his answer was yes, he would receive a document acknowledging his paternity. “Then the gentleman can see he is the natural father of the child,” said Ryan. “This will be a record he can refer to for the rest of his life, and so can the child–I’m sure, with pride.”

A court bailiff began calling the names of the various men and women who now stood before Ryan in their turns. Most of the men acknowledged that they were fathers; the judge ordered some to pay small monthly sums–$20 or $40–but more often the fathers said they were unemployed and could contribute nothing.

One of those men was 37-year-old Johnny Washington, who came to court wearing a black Nike sweatshirt. Yes, he was the father of Natasha Young, born on January 28, 1987. Yes, he was on the public dole. And so it was done. Johnny put back on his worn cloth overcoat with fake-fur collar and his blue stocking cap. Limping from an old gunshot wound, Johnny trudged to the back of the court and rejoined his common-law wife Patricia Young, who was already waiting there with their two kids, one-year-old Natasha and Chaqueeta, who was two. The family took the bus to their home, which is a basement apartment on Monroe Street near Western Avenue.

It is possible to describe Johnny Washington entirely in terms of statistics. He was the defendant in one of some 38,000 paternity cases filed last year by the Cook County state’s attorney, 98 percent of which involved welfare families, according to that office. He is the man of one of the 120,000 Chicago families that the Census Bureau says exist below the poverty line. Until recently, he was among the 90,000 Chicago men on general assistance, which he is trying to give up for a more generous form of public aid.

If on the street you encountered Johnny, a thin man with a shaved head and rotting teeth, you might gladly drive him from your sight and mind. But look again–as Judge Ryan decided to do when he took over paternity court. While Johnny is no angel, he is a gentleman.

The 2300 block of West Monroe is a stretch of 19th-century housing ravaged by decay. Some buildings are gone, others stand abandoned. The building at 2308 is a two-flat whose stone front has been painted red and its ornate cornice green. Under the broad wooden front steps, at the edge of a dirt yard strewn with paper and empty liquor bottles, there’s a door into the basement. Ring the doorbell once for the front tenant, twice for Johnny, who lives in back.

Washington’s apartment consists of a living room and a kitchen. Chaqueeta and Natasha sleep together on the bottom of a bunk bed in one corner of the living room, under some porcelain sconces containing pink plastic flowers. The top bunk is empty. Johnny and Patricia, who is called Tricia, share a double bed across the room. Underwear and the girls’ sleepers hang drying from exposed heating pipes. On one wall is a print of street lamps along a seawall.

Two television sets–a large color console and a small black-and-white–are usually flickering in the living room; the small set is silent but it gives the family an idea of what’s on a station other than the one they are watching. Johnny prefers to watch TV from the living room’s plaid sofa. “I like westerns and gangster movies,” he remarks. “I don’t like soap operas, mainly ’cause I wonder what the big deal is. They are like everyday life, it seems to me.”

The kitchen has a Gibson refrigerator, topped by foil pans and a corn flakes box, and a grease-caked, four-burner Kenmore stove. A small shelf holds the seasonings–chili powder, garlic salt, black pepper–and assorted cups and glassware are neatly placed on a small table. Old clothes are stashed in a cardboard box. On the floor next to another couch are a children’s table, a rattle, and a toy phone. The walls are pea green; a bare bulb illuminates them.

For this–and a community bathroom down the hall–Johnny pays $175 a month. The rent includes heat, but the radiators provide insufficient warmth and Johnny and Tricia keep the stove burning in winter; even so, says Washington, “the kids come down with colds.” Just the other day, Johnny finally plastered the holes in the kitchen ceiling and gave it a new coat of paint. The ceiling had been in such bad shape there were places you could see right up to the joists; but Johnny’s landlord, who owns a nearby hardware store, was slow giving him the money to make repairs.

The community john “stays filthy,” Johnny maintains, “’cause there’s nobody in the building who cares to keep it clean. The guy who lives in front leaves the front door unlocked, so people off the street use it all the time. Half of them leave their stool smeared all over the floor, and they urinate, too.” To improve matters, Johnny has posted a sign. “When you take a bath, wash the tub out,” it says. “And mop up the water. Do like Dad, not sis. Lift the lid before you piss.”

Though Johnny does not have a job, his days obey a certain pattern. He rises from habit by 5:30. “I can’t get back to sleep once I’m waked,” Johnny says. “All I do is stay on the bed and toss and turn.” Sometimes he’ll flip on the TV, but soon he’s fixing breakfast, which consists of two eggs done over easy, bacon, and coffee.

If the weather’s cold, Johnny stays indoors; otherwise, by seven o’clock he is off foraging the west side for discarded cans, copper and brass pieces, and old batteries, which he will sell to a junkyard for a pittance. His scrounging takes him near Cook County Hospital and then back, “though if it’s real nice out I go all the way to Division Street and back ’round. I may be out five or six hours, and on weekends I go out at night, to catch the tavern closings.” Johnny avoids the fancier north-side neighborhoods. “The transportation there ain’t good. And lots of times you go through the alleys in certain parts of town and people, who know you’re not from around there, will call the police on you. I’ve had that happen a few times.”

Washington skips lunch, but supper is a family meal shared sometime after six o’clock. “We eat hearty,” says Johnny. That can mean chicken or pork chops, mixed vegetables, and greens. At night there is more television. Books? “I have several books that I am interested in,” Johnny explains, “but they are packed down. I haven’t had a chance to read ’em. I need to go through that box in the kitchen. I don’t know the names of those books, ’cause they were gave to me.” Bedtime is 9 for the girls, 10:30 for Tricia and Johnny, unless the TV watching is good, in which case he stays up till the wee hours.

This life is not sustained merely by scrounging. Until last November, Johnny was receiving $154 a month in general assistance, the state subsidy to poor people who don’t qualify for any other form of public aid. In November, however, Washington filed a petition to receive what’s called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) instead, SSI being earmarked for aged, blind, or disabled people who cannot qualify for Social Security benefits from a record of employment. Pending a ruling on his petition, Johnny was awarded a monthly “bridge grant” of $150.56 from the Department of Public Aid. He also gets $81 a month in food stamps. Tricia’s food stamp allotment is $172. In addition, she gets $342 a month in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ADC).

Because Johnny has acknowledged his paternity of Chaqueeta and Natasha, the Department of Public Aid will probably shift the whole household soon to a new “family case” category of assistance. A department spokesman said the family will receive slightly less money, but more food stamps.

Johnny tries to bring in other income. For one thing, he is a barber of sorts. “I cuts my own hair, and most everybody else’s in the neighborhood,” he says. The haircuts are executed in the Washington kitchen, underneath a sign that says “Due to the increase in tax and the high cost of living, haircuts are $4 and up. When you come here, what you see here or what you say here let it stay here.” One of Johnny’s better customers is himself: Washington regularly shaves his own pate bald. “See, I gots bad hair, the kind of hair you have to wet in the morning ‘fore you can comb it,” he explains. “So I figure, what do I need my hair for? It’s comfortable to me all gone. The way I see it, hair ain’t what makes the man.”

Money from odd jobs–painting, shoveling snow, cleaning out basements–also comes Washlngton’s way, although he is usually rebuffed when he solicits work beyond his block because strangers are suspicious of him. Johnny spends this money on milk and Pampers. Often, however, he runs short toward the end of the month and has to borrow. Recently, he went on a wild search lasting a couple of days for money for a box of Pampers; the girls had a doctor’s appointment, and Johnny wanted their hind ends properly covered when they were examined.

Tricia’s welfare check arrives at the end of each month, Johnny’s on the ninth, and then the family shops for food. Johnny pays a friend known as Papa Cool $10 to drive them–“He doesn’t ask for it, but I know gas doesn’t run on air.” The destinations are Aldi’s, at 13th and Racine, for an average of $45 worth of canned goods, and the Panellinion meat market, at Halsted and Jackson, for $200 or so in meat. “In canned goods, we buy a case of whole-kernel corn, a case of cream style, sugar, and lard,” says Washington. “At the meat market we get ground beef, 15 to 20 chickens, beef and pork liver, round steaks, pork chops, oxtail, neck bones, and things like salt and pepper.”

For clothes, Johnny and the family go to the strip of budget stores stretching south of Roosevelt Road along Halsted. “Sometimes, too, we go north to North and Damen, where you can catch a sale,” adds Johnny. Shoes are usually purchased at a Payless Shoesource; Johnny’s pair of ersatz top-siders cost him $9. “And lots of stuff people throw away can be used,” he says: Johnny got his topcoat from someone he did a job for, also the print in the living room. Johnny does the family laundry twice a week at a laundromat at Madison and Campbell.

Johnny has never taken a vacation. He finally scraped together the dollars to install a phone just this week. He doesn’t buy a newspaper. His major outlay in recent years was $219 for the color television, which Johnny considers an essential (Tricia bought the bunk beds). Another must is TV Guide each week: “I make sure I get mine, if I have 75 cents to spend. I be at the newspaper stand up on Madison when it comes out on Wednesday, at 5:30 or 6 in the evening. If I wait until Thursday morning, the newsstand will be all out.”

Spare moments are spent watching television or talking out front with friends and neighbors, often while enjoying one of the several cigarettes he smokes each day. He also loves to sketch; Johnny’s specialty is faces, and he is quite good. “I guess I just have God-given talent,” he figures. He once responded to an ad in TV Guide for a correspondence course in art. Soon a salesman stopped by, but the fee he quoted for the course struck Johnny as outrageous.

Johnny’s greatest pleasure is his daughters. “When the weather is nice, in the summer, I take them to the zoo, to the neighborhood park at Homan and Madison. I play with them, but I don’t get rough with them. Ain’t nothing but girls, you know. Sometimes Chaqueeta, she can get out of hand. She’s the older one, and since Tasha’s been born. she wants to be the baby. But I explain to her that if I’m spending more time with Tasha I’m not neglecting her. She’s a big girl; she has to look out for her sister. I don’t treat them different, you understand. If I give to one, I give to the other. I love ’em, though, I love ’em. They are beautiful, beautiful–I wouldn’t take nothing in the world for them.”

Johnny Washington was born at Cook County Hospital on July 28, 1950. His mother, Ruth Washington, was 31 years old at the time. His father was one Johnny Ivory. They both hailed from Mississippi, according to Johnny, and they had already had a son who died at birth. Johnny says his parents were married; he was given his mother’s last name “’cause I was with her and not with him.”

Johnny Ivory “was around some, I guess,” explains his son, “but you know how separations are. My mother and father separated for good when I was nine years old. Never divorced. My father used to work, but at what I can’t right tell you. He was the type who didn’t stay at home very long.” Officially, home was at 1436 S. Spaulding. “He drank,” says Johnny, adding that he learned of his father’s death when he went by the Spaulding address to show off baby pictures of Chaqueeta and was told Johnny Ivory had passed on.

Ruth Washington raised her son in the same neighborhood where he now lives. It was more peaceful back then, says Johnny, and was populated “by what we call white people, light-skinned blacks.”

Johnny attended four grade schools, the principal one being Victor Herbert at Hoyne and Monroe. He says he was a solid student. At age eight or nine he started to show his artistic bent, “and my teachers encouraged me to do something with my talent. But I never did. As a young boy, all I had in mind was playing with the rest of the guys.” Johnny’s free time was spent in the alleys. “I’d be out there throwing things off people’s garages.” One gang (the name escapes him) wanted to draft him, but he would have none of that.

During his years at Crane High School Johnny was “wild,” but only with girls, he insists. He had “numerous” girlfriends. “I used to go with two sisters at one time. They were twins. You couldn’t tell ’em apart, least I couldn’t. I had my adventures with ’em, I tell you. I would leave out the bedroom of one of ’em, slide through the back door, and come in the side window of the next one’s room. And I believe they really knowed what was going on. I was just that way, hot to trot.”

Meanwhile, his mother had a run of bad luck. “She worked for a while, until she got sick with tuberculosis. Then she got her leg broke in a robbery. She was coming home from her sister’s and three boys robbed her, breaking her leg in two places, ‘bove the knee and below.” The way the leg was set caused Ruth Washington’s feet to turn inward.

“I never got a chance to graduate high school,” Johnny explains. “After my mother got hurt, of course, she wasn’t able to work anymore. When she got her welfare check I had to go cash it. I took care of the bills, or whatever else I could do for her at a particular time. She had to have someone; she wasn’t able to take care of herself. I cooked for her, bathed her, took her to the washroom, it fell to me to get all this done. This affected my work in school, so I had to stop. I dropped out two or three months before graduation.”

For a time Johnny shouldered three jobs–grocery store clerk and usher at two movie theaters, the Imperial and the Four Star–and he was drawing $175 a week. That was a good wage, he admits, “but the strain that was on me in holding down three jobs was really tiresome. I started losing sleep. I wasn’t getting to work on time. Soon I let the jobs go.” Anyway, the grocery burned in the west-side riots that followed Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, and the theaters soon closed. Johnny toiled in a gas station until the owner died. “His wife shot him,” Washington says.

Johnny was shot himself in 1970. He was on his way home to his mother’s when two fellows stuck him up. He gave them what he had on him–$36–but it wasn’t enough and one of them fired at him. Doctors at Cook County Hospital removed the bullet; its legacy is a left hip filled with pins and clips, and a limp. In cold weather, says Johnny, “my hip aches somethin’ awful.”

Until he was 27 Johnny lived with his mother. But one day he ran afoul of her boyfriend. “He was using her for what he could get from her. He knew she had a problem with alcohol, and he’d get her full of liquor and take advantage of her, take a little money, a little check. Me and him got into it, I dropped on him, and my mother asked me to leave. Anyway, she had to live her own life.”

Johnny moved west, to a building in East Garfield Park owned by a ghetto realty company for whom he did janitorial work in return for a small salary, free rent, and gas. But the company eventually sold the building and Johnny came back east to the old neighborhood. He also went on general assistance; he forgets exactly when he became a welfare case, but it was “too long ago.”

Johnny says his criminal career also ran its course long ago. He was arrested “on several occasions” for such offenses as disorderly conduct and theft, and was convicted of both possession of marijuana and possession of stolen property. This property, says Washington, was a portable TV and a camera that he didn’t know were hot. He explains that because of his prior record he pleaded guilty, and he spent ten months at the Vandalia Correctional Center.

“I met Tricia through a friend,” Johnny says, “and we started going out.” A small, pretty, quiet woman of 28, Tricia is a product of the Henry Horner project. She graduated from Crane and later worked as a cashier at Woolworth’s and a factory worker at the W.F. Hall Printing Company. W.F. Hall was then located in Cragin, and eventually Tricia quit; it was too hard to get there by bus. Around this time, five years ago, she met Johnny.

In large part because she is quiet, it is hard to figure out the relationship between Johnny and Tricia; but Washington expresses great devotion to her. “Tricia’s there when I need her,” says Johnny. “When I’m upset, we sit down and talk, you know, like couples do. And that is a big comfort to me.” Is he faithful? “I try to be, though I can’t say I’m 100 percent that way. Sometimes you get in that mood, you know.”

Johnny doesn’t drink booze or take drugs. “I don’t go in for drinkin’, ’cause I’ve seen what it did to my mother and other people. They so much as smell alcohol and they go craz-ee.” Ruth Washington died of liver disease at Cook County Hospital a decade or so ago. “I don’t know the name of the cemetery she’s buried at,” Johnny says. “I been there, but I don’t like cemeteries.”

If Johnny has any extended family to speak of, it is Tricia’s folks, who live out west near Laramie and Crystal. “I have a couple of aunties and a couple uncles, but we’re not what you’d call close-knit,” he says. “Once every four or five months I see this uncle who lives out by Adams and Bell, but the rest of my people put themselves above me. They got their own homes and everything. They’re uppity; they look down on me. But I say ‘Hey, you can’t make it all by yourself in this world. Someone’s got to help you.'”

Johnny knows lots of people, but the only one he counts as a true friend is the man who rents the front basement apartment in his building. “I can trust John,” he says.

“I don’t belong to no particular church,” Johnny says, “whereas I used to go to several.” He was baptized at the Bethlehem Healing Temple, a Pentecostal church near his home. But he didn’t like the pastor, and hasn’t attended services there for several years. Tricia and the kids go to the Metropolitan Missionary Church; Johnny doesn’t like to accompany them, because he prefers someone home at all times to protect it, but they all went together on Easter, the kids in new pink-and-blue outfits he’d bought them.

“You can’t go too far in this neighborhood, ’cause when you come back you can have nothing at all,” Johnny says. He learned this hard truth the hard way. Two years ago, just before Christmas, burglars came in and took the food, a color TV, blue jeans, boots, and Chaqueeta’s sleepers.

Festive days are observed modestly in the Washington household. January 28 and August 22, the birthdays of his daughters, merit “a little ice cream and cake,” says Johnny, and at Christmastime “we set up a little plastic tree we got. We get up the kids and let them play with their toys, and I get down there and play with them, too. We fix dinner.” The meal consists of duck or capon (Johnny hates turkey), dressing, and potato or macaroni salad with diced Spam; dessert is cake or sweet potato pie. “Sometimes we have company, but we try not to put ourselves under no strain, ’cause it could get hard for us going through the rest of the month.”

The neighborhood has changed dramatically since Johnny’s boyhood. His block is the turf of the Disciples street gang. A junkie operates out of a building at the end of the street.

Johnny knows he has to protect himself. “I used to own a gun,” he says, “a .32 revolver. It was really a hassle, though, with the quick temper I got. But, nope, I never shot it off.” He didn’t have a license: the gun was bought from someone nameless and sold the same way. Now a red-handled knife with a curved blade serves as Washington’s defense. When he goes shopping Johnny tucks the knife in his pants.

He has yet to use it; he struggles to stay nonviolent. “Like this guy I went to see over on Harrison the other day. Owed me $22.50. He tells me he can’t pay it, but he sits there with all this cocaine on a mirror that he’s going to smoke. Now I ask you. I could have gone and gotten an iron pipe and banged it ‘cross his head. But I wouldn’t have gotten nothing for it but a world of trouble. I try not to be a violent-type person, but as my mother used to say ‘If you be with intellectuals you become an intellectual, but if you be with fools you become foolish.'”

Johnny laments the new character of the neighborhood. “Young kids spend their lunch money to buy drugs from the junkie every morning. I tell ’em ‘Why do that? You should use your head for more than a hat rack.’ Sad to say, that just goes in one ear and out the other.

“Last night this girl from the projects was out in the alley suckin’ a man for drugs. I didn’t get close enough to the car to see who he was, but you could see his head and then hers, which was bobbin’ up and down. Afterwards I told her ‘It don’t make no sense, doin’ what you’re doin’, even if you have kids and you’re trying to help them.’ I see this kind of stuff a lot. ‘Round here, you see everything. When the weather gets warm you see people screwing in the halls, in the doorways. For drugs–that’s the only thing it can be for. You see prostitution out on Madison Street every day. These are young girls, 16 and 17 years old. You can’t fault ’em. You have to fault their parents, their mothers, who encourage them. Why there’s venereal disease runnin’ rampant, and half these girls don’t know what a douche is.”

Johnny says he wants people to leave him alone. “People wants to cry on your shoulder. People are lying, they’re nosy, and they want what you got. I can’t be bothered; I have to take care of myself and my own.” On the other hand, he can’t restrain himself from putting in his own two cents worth.

“Sometimes Tricia gets mad at me for speaking up like I do. She says ‘Your mouth is too big–it’s going to get you into serious trouble.’ But if I see something wrong, I say so. Whether they listen to me or not, I let them know what I know.

“Like this kid the other day. He was no more than seven or eight. The kid was throwing bottles, and I told him to get his little butt out of there. I said ‘I’m going to tell your momma.’ So he tells me ‘You black son of a bitch, shut up!’ With that the kid lits off down the street, and, what do you know! back comes his momma. She says ‘You know my son wouldn’t say nothing like that.’ I says ‘You can never say what your son or daughter will say when you ain’t around. And I’m sure you’d rather have someone come and tell you what he’s saying than someone come tell you that your kid’s brains been blowed out.'”

The Chicago Stadium stands a few blocks east of Johnny’s apartment. Those nights when the Bulls or the Blackhawks are in town, thousands of sports fans, most of them white, stream into the arena, enjoy the game, and head swiftly to their cars for the trip home. When Johnny was young he used to park cars on lots around the Stadium, and once he took in an Earth, Wind and Fire concert there. But that was years ago. The last time he checked, Stadium tickets were $12 (the cheapest Bulls tickets now run $17 apiece), “and every dollar we have could be put to better use than me enjoying myself.”

How often does he come into contact with a white person? “I’d say every other day,” Johnny replies. “I go around, up to North Avenue, Chicago Avenue.” But whites seem uncomfortable when he’s near. “The impression they give is that they are afraid, that they don’t want to be bothered with me. Now I have no hard feelings toward anyone. In the Bible it says that we are sisters and brothers regardless of race. If we don’t pull together to help one another, we are going to do more harm than good.”

Johnny has the idea of changing society through the ballot box. He votes strictly for Democrats, though if a Republican pleased him he claims he could punch that number without a second thought. Information about the candidates comes to Johnny the way all news does, from the TV. He has never met a major officeholder (nor, for that matter, has he encountered anyone remotely famous). It’s on television that he’s found his ideal leader. “Now that Walter Jacobson, there’s a guy I’d like to run for president. He’s point-blank about things; he’s right out there. That commentary he gives, it’s beautiful, beautiful–he speaks exactly what he feels, and so if it’s on his mind he lets you know. He’d have my vote.”

Johnny says, “I was skeptical in the beginning” about Harold Washington (no relation), and although he felt bad when the mayor died last November “this next mayor might be better.” In the March primary Johnny went with Aurelia Pucinski over Jane Byrne and voted against 27th Ward Alderman Sheneather Butler for committeeman because he didn’t think Butler had produced jobs for the ward. His choice for president was Jesse Jackson; Johnny says he likes where Jackson stands on jobs and education.

Physically, Johnny has been going downhill. Last fall, a pain developed in his right side that he took to be a cold, but it lingered and he went to see a doctor at Cook County. He was hospitalized for six days with a diagnosis of pneumonia complicated by tuberculosis.

He has stopped taking the pills he was prescribed then out of fear he’d become dependent on them. Normally the Chicago Board of Health assigns an investigator to ensure that all TB patients are taking their prescribed medicine; however, Johnny has no one checking up on him.

The hospital bills and other medical costs of Johnny, Tricia, and the girls are covered by Medicaid. An orange card entitles them to treatment at Cook County.

Johnny Washington maintains that his physical problems have hampered his ability to function. His gunshot wound, he says, “has affected me in that I’m off balance, so far as it comes to lifting; I can’t put as much weight on my hip as I would like.” Arthritis also afflicts the hip, Johnny claims. Johnny has only 13 teeth left–four on the bottom, nine on top. Recently a painful abscess developed on the right side of his mouth, and a dentist told Johnny all his teeth should come out. Not that he minds (“My food tastes so bad with my teeth as they are,” he moans), but he wonders how he is going to afford dentures. Actually, Medicaid will underwrite the cost, according to a spokesman for the Department of Public Aid.

There isn’t much Public Aid can do about Johnny’s limp, however, which he’s convinced has crippled his ability to find work. “You go for a job interview, and they look at the way I walk and say ‘He can’t work.’ I’d rather be working. I’d take a job sweepin’ and moppin’, anything.” This past winter he hunted for employment on the west side and found nothing. He either was rejected without cause or was told there were no openings.

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that Johnny has applied for pays a maximum of $354 a month. That much aid would be a godsend to Johnny–and he was bitterly disappointed when his application was turned down twice, the second time in a February letter from Marlene Moleski, the regional Social Security commissioner.

“The medical evidence shows that you did suffer a gunshot wound to your hip in the past,” Moleski wrote. “Current information shows that the fracture has healed. You are able to stand and walk without assistance. You can use the joints in your body adequately. Examination of your lungs shows that they were clear and no abnormal breath sounds were heard. No totaling [sic] restricting problem because of pneumonia or tuberculosis are seen.

“Based on the medical evidence you can perform sedentary work, for example, lift a maximum of 20 pounds and walk through a six to eight hour day. We realize your condition prevents you from doing your past job as a custodian, but considering your educational background of 11 years of school completed and your age of 37 years, you are able to perform other types of work which are less demanding.”

On March 14, a Monday, Johnny traveled to the local Social Security office at 120 S. Sangamon, to appeal his case one last time. It was cold, and Johnny wore his topcoat, knit hat, Nike sweatshirt, brown pants, and tan boots. This writer joined him.

What did you do over the weekend? Johnny was asked. “Not much,” he said, adding in passing that there’d been a shooting Saturday night in a liquor store parking lot a block from his home. A man from the neighborhood had been gunned down by several assailants. “These guys had bought cocaine off the one man,” Johnny explained, “but what they got turned out to be milk sugar and they came back lookin’ for the guy.”

The shooting happened to take place as Johnny was returning from the liquor store after buying milk and bread. Some cops stopped and searched him, looking for a gun but finding only his red-handled knife. He was released.

Some night, said this writer. Johnny shrugged–police searches are routine occurrences for him. He said the worst thing about the weekend was that Natasha had diarrhea. “She was wakin’ up at two or three in the morning.” He felt better knowing that Tricia was taking her to the nearby Mile Square Health Center for treatment.

The Social Security office on South Sangamon is located in a basement decorated in postmodern style–rough-hewn beams and posts, heating ducts painted pink, and gray industrial carpeting. Johnny walked up to the counter and took a number. “Number 39,” a clerk quickly called, and Johnny was ushered back alone to meet with a caseworker. An attractive woman in a red sweater, she filled out the paperwork necessary for Washington’s appeal to go forward. According to Johnny, she also advised him to go get a job (advice she later denied when asked about Johnny’s visit). The consultation lasted some 30 minutes.

When it was over, Johnny limped out the door. He said he was getting to feel “just like a number, number 39. It sure seems that way. If you aren’t dead or halfway dead or shufflin’ along with both legs and arms, gone, you aren’t going to get anything in this man’s world.”

Johnny talks about his ambitions only grudgingly. He wants Chaqueeta and Natasha to attend Saint Malachy’s School on West Washington, rather than his alma mater, Victor Herbert. At Saint Malachy’s the girls will receive “better training and a better outlook on life,” he thinks. “I would like to marry Tricia,” he says, “but I want it to be under much better conditions than this. This”–he motions around his living room–“just ain’t going to cut it.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.