Standing on the Wilson Avenue el platform for the first time, back in ’77, surveying the surrounding neighborhood, with the odor of wet plywood, alcohol, and engine exhaust seeping through the planks, I got the vague impression that some Precambrian swamp was attempting to reclaim the city. Strange weeds were sprouting up through the cracks in the sidewalk, water was running down the gutters, and vines ascended the marquees of the old ballrooms and movie palaces. Pigeons flew in and out the dark windows of burned building husks. The crumbling ornate facades tilted on their foundations, and the street itself seemed to roll west into the oily sunset over some lethargic underground current.
The faded signs on the side of the Wilson Club Men’s Hotel offered rooms for $1.75 (or something) and eight-dollar divorces. In those days I could understand the appeal of both. There seemed to be the potential for a great singles neighborhood here. Indeed what originally brought me to Uptown were the For Rent ads: the rooming houses, studios, kitchenettes–and you could pay by the week.
History tells us that Wilson Avenue east of Clark was once a business and small-time theatrical district near Wilson Beach, until that beach was filled in. It was once the terminus of the elevated line, until that was extended to Evanston. It was once an express stop on the North Shore railway. It was also once “a conglomeration of cheap assignation houses, dope-peddlers, and the ubiquitous burlesque bars, with their hustlers and all the accouterments for clipping sailors and soldiers.” This description is from the oft-quoted Chicago Confidential by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, published in 1950.
Twenty years later, in the book Uptown, Todd Gitlin and Nancy Hollander confer on the area’s raffish qualities, “This was once Chicago’s Bohemia; prostitution is said to have been legal on Wilson Avenue until 1922.”
In ’89 Charles Hoch and Robert Slayton came out with their study New Homeless and Old: Community and the Skid Row Hotel. They describe how the postwar subdivision of apartments into rooming houses, coupled with the already existing concentration of residential hotels and other one- and two-room housing units, made Uptown the second most densely populated neighborhood (after Lawndale) in the city.
Despite this high density, vacancies were plentiful, acting as a vacuum to attract immigration from American Indian reservations and Appalachia, followed by waves of Cubans, East Asians, Koreans, and Arabs. During the 60s and 70s there was also a migration from the dismantled skid row of Madison Street. And at the same time, state mental health officials were using the area as a dumping ground, moving more than 7,000 mentally ill individuals into the community in a single year alone.
All this combined to make Uptown one of the more unique areas of the country, both in its motley mix of humanity and in its air of baroque decay, with Wilson Avenue as its hard heart. It became one of those places a lot of people avoid. Others couldn’t. They stayed in the Aragon Arms, the Norman, the Darlington, the Leland, the Delmar, and a number of other apartment hotels, including, of course, the Wilson Club Men’s Hotel. The winos call it the Iron Lung, perhaps due to the amount of hacking and wheezing that goes on inside. Indeed, it is hard to imagine men in smoking jackets chortling and harumphing and talking about bear hunts, smoking cigars in overstuffed chairs, in this men’s club.
The Wilson is one of Chicago’s only remaining cage hotels, that infamous genre of skid row domicile where for the price of a cheap steak dinner you get “a cabinet and bed, separated from the next cubicle with a partition topped by chicken wire.” This description comes from William McSheehy’s 1979 book Skid Row. These cubicle hotels are not to be confused with those Japanese cubicle hotels for businessmen. This American variety is rather designed for what we might call “out-of-business” men. It is the classic flop, fleabag, whatever, and there is no lack of nightmarish imagery in the literature of skid row associated with these cages. Words like dark, dank, fetid, vermin-ridden, and squalid constantly appear. But the Wilson Club is a modern place after all and has codes to live up to.
A cubicle room is generally seven by five feet, and seven and a half feet high. All rooms have a door and a lock and are partitioned by plasterboard or corrugated metal walls. There is a steel bed frame, three by six feet, with a mattress at least three inches thick. The room may have a stool or metal locker. Occasionally they have electrical outlets. To maximize ventilation, cubicles have wire mesh ceilings; this is also to impede unlawful visitors. A low-wattage bulb suspended from the chicken wire is the only light source. And there is a four-inch gap between floor and wall for further ventilation. In his book McSheehy describes Chapter 78.1 of the Municipal Codes of Chicago, which lists building specifications for existing hotels:
Spatial requirements: the number of occupants permitted on a floor is computed by taking a floor’s total square feet from wall to wall, including halls and washrooms, and dividing the number by 50 (70 square feet per room per person for other buildings). Sanitary facilities: at least one flush water closet, and one lavatory basin and bath or shower for every 20 persons (for every 10 persons in other buildings). Ventilation: no requirements (5 percent of floor area in other buildings).
McSheehy says that “if it were not for modifications of normal building ordinances men’s cubicle hotels would be forced to close.” Hoch and Slayton point out that some stayed open simply because the city and state used them, in programs with inexpensive lodging vouchers. In any case, cubicles have declined virtually to the point of nonexistence, due to numerous factors including rising maintenance and building expenses, gentrification, urban renewal efforts, and restrictions imposed by new building ordinances implemented in the 50s, specifically natural-lighting laws that hold that all residential units must have some means of effectively transmitting light from the outside.
In 1958 8,000 men lived in cubicle hotels in Chicago. Today that number is in the hundreds. The decline of the cubicle parallels the devastating decline in low-rent housing. From the late 60s to the early 80s nearly 80 percent of skid row stock disappeared and more than 18,000 SRO units citywide were converted, abandoned, or destroyed. Of course, skid row populations had been falling for some time (60,000 in 1907, 25,000 in ’23, 12,000 in ’58, 8,000 in ’70) so that today skid row per se is no longer so easy to locate. In a way it has become tinged with a certain air of nostalgia, a sort of mythical place lost to memory. Some thank God and others don’t. It’s not that people are better off today, but that the borders of poverty have grown porous.
Those skid rows that remain have an anachronistic movie-set, wild-west-town sort of quaintness about them–a block or two, perhaps a pawn shop, a hotel, a saloon, maybe a thrift store–looking a lot like a strange vestigial appendage of a gone culture, or even a tourist re-creation. Universal Studios or Ripley’s or some Disney whiz might have cooked up a model from an old sociology book, complete with wax figures of drunks and down-and-outs, and the admission charge could be more than what it cost to stay in those rooms when they did exist. America can take its children, show them how the world once was.
Hoch and Slayton’s study covers three general SRO districts: north (Edgewater, Uptown, Lakeview, Lincoln Park), central (Loop, near northwest, and south), and south (Grand Boulevard, Hyde Park). These areas may or may not contain or be proper skid rows. McSheehy’s earlier study however speaks of five specific skid row areas: Wilson/Broadway, South State, North Clark, West Madison, and Milwaukee/Division. The latter three are mostly gone. Wilson Avenue is still somewhat vital. That vestigial movie-set quality is most apparent in the South State area, particularly on Clark Street south of Harrison, a block out of time with the monstrous high-rise and glass-skinned city of information that grows around it. There, a cage hotel, the Erwin, sits above a pawnshop, whose arrow you can see out the lobby window lit up in the night while the prison looms ominously across the street. In the lobby the men eat cans of soup bought from a vending machine; they play cards and watch videos, go to work if they have jobs, and wait for the condemnation orders to come from the urban renewal gods.
West Madison of course was once the grande dame of skid rows, and its plight is emblematic of land-clearance programs of the 70s. There were once more than 20 cubicle hotels as well as other SROs, shelters, and lodging houses in this area. Now there are none. I remember when they tore down the Starr (one of the last cages) back in ’82: a small crowd stood around watching bed frames fly out the windows. Winos drank on one side of the street, while office people ate lunch in the plaza of the Social Security building on the other. Amid the dust of the wreckage a few people exchanged anecdotes about the falling landmark and its history.
But civic history that can’t be turned into a mall or theme park (a la Cannery Row in Monterey, California) is not financially viable. The Starr and other such hotels were considered cancers in the social landscape, tumors, a rampant growth of cells, each holding a little man or woman whose function in the larger organism was dubious. People did not want to see them, possibly because they might be omens, threats of a past or future self.
The obvious solution was to do what Chicago was doing, to visualize a better self. Thus the day they tore the Starr down was (at least for me) the day the identity of the city changed, forsaking its organic nature, its history and legend, for some planner’s ideal of Function. But it was also a popular transition. For barely distinguishable from the traffic and wrecking balls, a collective hurrah could be heard from the society at large, knowing Presidential Towers was going to rise on the site of Chicago’s onetime world-famous skid row. Today that ironically subsidized development stands gleaming and proud and sans patina, like a perpetual erection of a vigorous youthful society.
Of course it’s well-known that among baboons and other species the males strut and cavort, displaying their erections as a sign of dominance. Forty blocks north, the Wilson Club Men’s Hotel survives, no doubt due to its distance from the testosterone of the property market.
Nothing produces the willies in middle-class Americans faster than the words “transient hotel.” Visions of Richard Speck and Travis Bickle roll across the TV screen in the public head. The windows roll up in both liberal and conservative minds. The family car steers straight ahead. The children stare at their seats or play Nintendo, while gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, drugs, and sloth rage outside, and men with runny mouths paw at the windows. Or so the stereotype goes.
Creating definitions is the best way of manipulating public opinion. One has to name the disease before one can claim to have a cure. The American Republican, Protestant, antiurban ethic has long equated economic failure and physical deprivation with spiritual lassitude. Government and religious groups alike maintain these stereotypes, usually as a means of fortifying a bureaucracy or getting reelected or simply getting rich off the payback.
Hoch and Slayton discuss the fact that for the total annihilation of SRO neighborhoods in America to have been successful, several misconceptions and double standards had to be reinforced. Alcoholism is one, but as studies show only about 17 percent of skid row residents are true alcoholics. And over 50 percent are either light or nondrinkers. Mental illness is another. But indeed only 10 to 15 percent of SRO residents can be shown to be verifiably mentally ill (also a porous border these days). Sloth is yet another. But hard-core unemployment is a recent visitor to these areas. For skid row was actually the diminutive scion of a naturally evolved labor exchange known as the Main Stem.
Hoch and Slayton chart the development of this Main Stem to the smaller and more pathological skid row of the 50s and 60s and finally into the modern “zones of dependence” of the 80s. They cite the well-known issues: the conquering of the frontier, the decreased need for a mobile labor force, industrial and railroad decline, mechanization, real estate speculation, biased and shortsighted lawmaking, erratic institutionalization, etc. Sloth and Unemployment were never intrinsic to these neighborhoods; the idea that they were was in large part imposed on them by outside forces.
The other important stereotype is “transience.” The association of rootlessness with debauchery and criminality has long made the lack of an address a stigma. Ironically, characters woven deep in the country’s ethos–the cowboy, the rambler, the old Knight of the Road of the Main Stem, those Guthriesque drifters celebrated in folk culture for their American virtues of individualism and antiauthoritarian heroism–have come to be disdained by a society that only recognizes transience as a legitimate life-style if it takes place in a white-collar framework: what in American Dream terminology is called “social mobility.” A good American has an address (and/or its modern equivalent, a credit-card number) and preferably other binding identifiers.
But as in the case of the previous stereotypes, most studies of “transient” areas show that the residents move only slightly more than normal unattached individuals and working-class people in their age categories, and often when they do move it is under duress. In one study about 50 percent of SRO residents had lived in their present unit for at least two years and 29 percent at least four years. A few had resided in the same hotel for as many as 10 to 40 years. The transient was/is in fact very often a resident, but only at a “wrong” address. An address like 1142 W. Wilson.
Of course, these days an address is getting harder and harder to maintain. And it’s not just displaced industrial workers, those ill prepared for service jobs, the mentally and physically vulnerable, or the outright hard-luck story, either. An increasing number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, baby boomers raised on the illusions of infinite growth, find themselves living on the fringes of strained job and housing markets. With the educational system failing the middle class, it can’t do much for the poor. And skid row is no longer the sole province of downward mobility.
In the realm of low-rent housing, the Great Depression and the ensuing New Deal consummated the shifting trend from the private to the public sector. Those private enterprises that once served the urban poor had to face an increasingly hostile environment of housing regulations, government intervention, and public morality. The absence of the profit motive finds the public sector searching for justifications to shoulder this responsibility. Social problem analysts vie with social order analysts. That a debate can rage as to whether housing is an issue of entitlement or compassion is an indication of the moral climate of America. But my purpose here is not to reiterate the arguments about homelessness and the decline of the SRO, but to relate the problem to a lost vision of “community,” that old buzzword of the politicos. For indeed, it is one of Hoch and Slayton’s main points that while politicians denied it, skid row was actually a form of the very “community” they so loved to extol before their public.
Far from the dens of vice that public opinion would have, the hotel was actually a resource, the keystone of an organic community, playing an important part in the urban housing infrastructure, a functional neighborhood that came into being because it was needed (not that you’ll find the men at the Wilson arguing free-market economics) and is still needed, though perhaps for different reasons. For while the old Main Stems of the cities, the old skid rows, may not have been pretty places, they did embody the ideal of the socially diverse, mixed-use walking city, and they functioned on a moral authority and societal hierarchy that were internal rather than imposed and, incidentally, not that different from the ideals of the culture at large: they provided proximity to work and services, choice within limited means, autonomy, privacy, freedom, and a sense of community. And, as one cubicle resident put it, “If you don’t live in a place like this, you live on the street.”
While the government’s role in serving the poor was increasing during the 60s and 70s, college professors, architects, and social theorists were getting involved in the formation of urban policy. As part of this movement, which Hoch and Slayton call “scientific welfare,” concerned students, proteges, and earnest do-gooders took to the streets with clipboards and tape recorders; they did case studies and statistical analyses, and made a graph of the world in order to change it. In doing so they ignored the organic processes by which neighborhoods evolve and maintain themselves. The resultant policies of intervention were big on things like zoning, the “natural” segregation of functions, and the separation of the “moral” private sphere from the “chaos and immorality” of the public sphere.
Of course as one looks to our malls, deserted downtowns, and massive housing projects, one might argue that urban programs have almost never worked. And in their wake they leave an inorganic overlegislated fouled-up wasteland in which private efforts are bound to go astray on a false foundation. Thus abandoned both by private sector capitalism and Reaganism, the poor are pushed on the street, the visible “new” homeless of the 80s.
Hoch and Slayton’s own study is often buttressed with precisely these sorts of graphs, percentages, statistics, case studies, and surveys. The following passages are not from their book, however, but are excerpted from one of the many recent studies about homelessness:
“Data that are generated from homeless samples are often from univariate designs . . . [and they] offer little knowledge of associations found through bivariate approaches and none of the controls in multivariate designs. . . . Zero-ordered correlations [can be] computed for status of employment with variables. In [an] earlier study the following were the bivariate results, four of the variables are significantly associated: gender (x2 = 16.5548; phi = .3049; p less than or equal to .001); disability (x2 = 9.4052; phi = .2305; p less than or equal to .01); education (x2 = 5.9380; phi = .1826; p less than or equal to .01); and health (x2 = 3.7561; phi = .1452; p less than or equal to .05). [Consequently we have]: Job finding (x2 = 15.0937; phi = .2912; p less than or equal to .0001); child care services (x2 = 6.5597; phi = .1919; p less than or equal to .01); social service benefits (x2 = 8.4497; phi = .2178; p less than or equal to .01); and individual counseling (x2 = 4.0323; phi = .1505; p less than or equal to .05).”
I was briefly baffled by what seemed a flagrant and unjustified use of regression technique until I read further: “Logistic regression procedure was selected because it is especially designed for dichotomous variables and does not require a joint multivariate normal distribution . . . while [at the same time] deriving expected cell values that are minimally different from the observed counts. [In the spirit of simplicity]: Six regression equations are computed because the size of the sample does not permit simultaneous regression of all (demographic) variables. . . . The variables that were significant from Regression I and II were regressed on the dependent variable in a single regression (Regression V), and likewise. . . . [It thus follows that]: . . . these subjects are victims of economic dislocation.”
OK, that put it in perspective for me; this web of words may very well have something to do with the men at the Wilson, but they could probably give a rat’s ass. They only know the chicken wire ceiling has begun to look more and more like the social net that was supposed to catch them as they fell, and somehow they ended up underneath it. But at least they are somewhere.
Cyberprophet Marvin Minsky has said, “Many things we regard as physical are actually psychological.” Minsky echoes Hume in describing the mind as a heap or aggregate of functions and perspectives, microminds or chips if you will, arranged in societal hierarchies called towers, an appropriate image because not only is it the ivory towers themselves where such speculation takes place, but it is the fall of such a tower (aka Babel) that brings about the collapse of the will and the reign of confusion. Perhaps the cubicle hotel is a sort of degraded version of this ivory think tank where the yes/no switches have failed and intelligence has given over to fear and frustration. As if the global software had crashed, a question mark appears on the monitor and no one knows how to get the world started again. It is natural to strive to reverse this process, to take the Starr Hotel and build it into a Presidential Tower, a thing that transcends its immediate purpose.
But to speak of a wall as more than the sum of its bricks, a tower as more than its stories, or a hotel as gestalt is to admit the power of institution. Paranoiacs might say gestalt comes from the same root as gestapo. Psychiatrists will tell you how a state of mind can slowly become a state of crisis. There is a scene in David Lynch’s movie Blue Velvet where the protagonist checks out the infamous building on Lincoln Street, a huge block of stone mustering ominously at the curb. And that building (like all bad evil ominous buildings in your town, the one where your grandma told you you better not ever go) comes to symbolize the dark reptilian sub-brain, the place of bad thoughts and evil deeds, where disillusionment awaits in the form of knowledge.
Now we all know that protection is often only a device used by a State that also molds, enslaves, and devours. By associating itself with these parental functions, the state plays upon love-hate relationships inherited from darkest childhood, strangely erotic in its evocation of infant sexuality, oedipal envy, electra anxiety, and sadomasochism. In the latter case, the desired fantasies are best realized on a morally isolated stage, in rooms literally without windows.
If we briefly allow (as the powers would have it) that the cubicle hotel represents an aberration or cancer, we might also say it acts as a mutated or sub-state of mind, which (as any Freudian would agree) virtually demands visitation. Thus we should encourage the Young Goodman Brown in everyman simply because no holiday in life is complete without a trip to this cultural subconscious, in this case particularly the male animus mundi, as it is manifest at the Wilson Club. Here, the accumulated smell of men overrides and impregnates everything, like locker rooms piled high on top of each other for centuries in some vast H.P. Lovecraft cavern. Your clothes reek of it.
Here, a thin film of dust clings not unromantically to the chicken wire, the walls bleed old grease from hot-plate meals, tobacco juice, and masturbation stains, while the ceiling fans slowly circulate overhead. The textures are heightened or dulled depending on your state of consciousness. Now, you could be staring at the grease stains on the walls and seeing faces–that’s madness. But if those faces are drawn there by someone specifically for you to see (like the ten o’clock news) then that’s information. Thus some might say paranoia is the result of propaganda. Others might contend the above theorizing is a lot of noise, and it is, but you have plenty of time to entertain noise in your room here at the fringes of the cultural soul.
In information theory “noise” is that state of sound from which nothing can be learned because nothing can be distinguished. When order is perceived in or imposed on noise, information is the result. Knowledge itself is little more than a functional organization of chaos for the purpose of control. Artless hotels like the Wilson defy the segregationist tendencies of modern bureaucratic planners. It was not designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies Van der Rohe, it is not holistic or ergonomic, but more like a Borgesian labyrinth of rat-gray halls leading to hundreds of rooms and the tortured minds in those rooms and the torture rooms within those minds.
In the absence of natural light, one’s sense of time is subject to the false divisions of erratic human schedules. Inside the hotel men snore loudly in the day and talk all night: 4 AM is the same as 4 PM. One hears constant cursing, groaning, farting, belching. There are guttural guffaws and childlike exclamations of “Well I’ll be damned,” or “Fuck you.” There are also the incessant sounds of wheezing vacuum cleaners, sloshing water buckets, rolling bottles, singing radios and TVs. Doors forever open and close. There is exasperation, discontent, and disgust. One way to get a handle on it is to stay put in your room and play radio receptor (a luxury unique to the cage hotel). Let passivity be your route to knowledge, as stories, arguments, and explanations fly overhead between ‘Nam vets, out-of-work truckers, once-upon-a-time clerks and day laborers, and mentally and emotionally damaged people, some placid and resigned, others ready to snap at the mention of a wrong word.
Their stories converge from different directions; the voices drift above your head like a mist. But things are fast in the hotel; the cycle of life and death in the congested space of poverty is fast. The stories intermingle. The man from 357 is talking about somebody who shot his wife for four dollars. His story gets mixed up with 341, who is talking about his brother being ripped off by a con. The stories are subject to the distortions that broadcasts are subject to–confusion, delay, misinterpretation, indifference, psychological graft. A man flies into a rage and several people have to calm him down.
“Hey, man, take it easy.”
“Shut up down there.”
“You all right, man?”
“Yeah I’m OK. They stole my fuckin’ pop though.”
“I got to go to work.”
“Yeah, well, I got to get some sleep, man.”
“Man, what’s buggin’ him?”
“You know these guys they stay in a place like this too long and they are just bound to crack.”
“Yeah, I heard . . .”
“At least you’re here on the third floor.”
“Could be down at the Nickel polishing the bar rail with your face mother- fucker . . . ”
“Bush must be proud of Uptown, 15-year-old girls gettin’ fucked in the street.”
“Bush is proud.”
“Hey you comin’ to work?”
“I can’t make it.”
“I wish you’d come, friend.”
“For what, to be treated like a shit?”
“Still I wish you’d come, we’ll never get out of here otherwise.”
“Go on, man, you go.”
“Hell, I can get treated like shit right here.”
“Yeah, and at least it’s cool up here.”
“I hear on the second floor guys are shitting in their rooms.”
“Quit that goddamn puking, man.”
“Hey 359, you got a visitor downstairs.”
“Fuck you, I’m sick.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“Hey man, I’m 47 years old and I’m tired.”
“You’re only two years older than me, want I should start digging your grave?”
“Well I’m 64 and I’m more tired than both of you, so shut up.”
“Been eatin’ that County food for three months, and I’m sick.”
“That ain’t food they give you in County.”
“Hey don’t you know there’s rules in this hotel, you’re not allowed to have visitors in your room.”
“This is a clique, you know.”
“Fuck this, fuck you.”
“Hey 370, it’s six o’clock.”
“You got to join the clique don’t you understand.”
“Hey brother, you got any matches?”
“I ain’t your brother.”
“At least you’re straight about it.”
“I might be your friend, but I ain’t your brother.”
“You got any matches, friend?”
“Who is that screaming over there? Tell him to shut up.”
Ten minutes later the place is quiet until the next eruption of unmanageable energy. One guy is slamming his door over and over. A guy goes insane on the second floor. A fight breaks out downstairs at the poker table.
OK, so it’s no Ragdale. It is however an atmosphere without time or telephones where in the privacy of a 40-watt bulb and a 40-ouncer one can contemplate grand mythopoetic concepts like the Male Mother, the King, Warrior, Magician, and Lover. But here the Male Mother might turn out to be a bag man.
When I was young I was haunted by a specter of a hobo with hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, wearing what Robert Bly has called the dark overcoat over the soul. I first saw him on a road in Wisconsin in the middle of the night, looming up in the headlights of my car. I saw him again in Missouri, lurking on the outskirts of some town. I would see him many times through the years. And more and more, friends of mine would see him too, maybe in their peripheral vision, on deserted roads or in the mirrors of hotels like the Wilson. You don’t always know who lives next door or even in your own room.
In a big city there can be a riot a block away and you might not know that either. There’s a mass murder occurring down the street and you don’t hear about it. Anonymity creeps into every recess of the culture. What happens across the hall will remain a mystery unless you take a walk, play politician, or at least play neighbor and shake some hands in the ‘hood. But at the Wilson “meeting the people” takes on a pathological twist. You can walk past the serial doors, talk, pick a fight, share a drink or a curse or a memory. You’ll see men sitting on the edges of their beds, in their quiet womblike retreats, their shirts on hangers, these are the men with no names, and all their possessions jammed in a seven-by-nine-foot space. It’s like ministorage for human beings, only there’s no bright shining house or apartment waiting at the end of the transition period. Economic hostages buried aboveground in a minimum security prison. Maybe you could find their photographs on kidnap notes delivered to the society at large. “Economic dislocation” is what it’s called. But no one’s buying them out. No one arrives downstairs at the desk to say “C’mon man, I’m taking you home.”
A disease of society can eventually become a disease of the personality. It is possible that more than one generation has internalized skid row to the point that even if investment capital manages to obliterate it, it will continue to exist in some twilight zone–a street in the back of consciousness that acts as a magnet for everything that is tired, pessimistic, or beaten down in a person. There is a lot of talk these days about male alienation and the proper role of men in our society. It’s not my intention to advocate Robert Bly workshops in the lobbies of the men’s hotels, figuring that if we as a gender could get in touch with our feelings, we could go back out and reenter those families, jobs, and domestic situations we’ve left behind or avoided altogether. I would not like to say either that the crisis in social responsibility reflects a crisis in individual responsibility. Nor would I name any SRO the Iron John Hotel, although there’s an idea for a new-age entrepreneur. Nor do I mean to confuse the problem of homelessness and the state of male leadership. But sometimes things need to be mixed up. Zoning doesn’t always work.
Hanging in the Wilson lobby, watching the interactions, the discussions of politics, the critiques of television, the impromptu boasting and rap exchanges between men, one wonders about all this unfocused alienated male energy. And it isn’t just old men or middle-aged men, skinny men or fat men, it isn’t just men with the stuffing knocked out of them–it’s young men too, men of every color and creed, who found a temporary grip here, a way to stay off the street and salvage a bit of dignity. Some fully intending to move on. For others, with no place left to go, this is the final stop. One night perhaps there is a knock on the door and it’s that last friend with the last bottle. Which is why everyone keeps leaving their room to get some air. No one wants to be trapped by that grim messenger.
Standing out on the third-floor fire escape looking out at rain-slicked Wilson Avenue, one sees a big indifferent city. On a summer day you can hear the roar of the crowd down at Wrigley. You can hear the planes overhead bound for O’Hare. The psychology of living in a cage attunes one’s senses to what is far away. But what is far away can also be depressing. I came inside and closed my door. I don’t remember what time it was, but what followed was a short conversation that might ensue anywhere: in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, San Francisco’s Tenderloin, New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue, New York’s Bowery, downtown LA, Portland’s Burnside.
“Hey baby, are you listenin’?”
“I think I’m dying.”
“You wanna ambulance?”
“You’ll be all right, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“You tell me, I’ll get you an ambulance.”
“All right now.”
“But if I keep goin’ like this I will.”
“All right, now, get some sleep.”
“If I can.”
A bottle hits the floor, a TV plays softly. Outside a siren roars down Broadway. The ceiling fan blows a stale breeze through the cages; there’s the scent of rain on it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Madeleine Avirov.