By Deirdre Guthrie
At Calo Pizzeria near Clark and Berwyn, the senior residents of the Pat Crowley House slide into the long booths and critically scan the lunch menu. Fritz, a former bartender, asks for a good, dry red wine, and James, who used to work security at the Drake Hotel, orders a Goose Island beer, sprinkling it with salt. “To kill the goose,” he says, winking. Sarah, 99, asks me to order for her: “If I’ve lived this long I’m sure what you order can’t kill me.”
John Baker, a newcomer, admires the glass ashtrays. “Not even one butt,” he observes. He points to the small white dish filled with globes of butter and asks the waiter if he has any sugar-free ice cream, since he’s diabetic. Later, when he realizes his error, he’s embarrassed. “That waiter must’ve thought I was crazy,” he says. The others console him. “Easy mistake,” says James.
Over coffee Baker tells me that he can’t complain about his life. In his 73 years, he says, “I’ve only smoked five reefers, never been high on whiskey, never spent a day in jail, never gone hungry, and never been stabbed or shot or had to kill anyone. Nope, I’ve been truly blessed.”
Five years ago he thought differently. He was living at Oakdale and Broadway, sharing rent with his companion Madeleine Floyd, and working at a public health clinic nearby. One night he came home from work, lay down for a nap, and woke with half his body numb. He’d suffered a stroke, and his left side has remained somewhat paralyzed ever since. “Now I need a cane and can’t make a fist,” Baker says, curling his fingers slightly to demonstrate.
Mike Nonah, owner of the Apple Bite Mart on Broadway, remembers Floyd and Baker as “beautiful people” who came down to his store frequently for coffee, milk, pop, and conversation. “In my home country,” he says, “older people are not cast off or stuck in an institution. I think it’s shameful the way they are ignored here, and I welcomed their company.” But last year Floyd fell ill; Baker cared for her until she died last summer. Without her income, he couldn’t afford his rent and faced eviction. “After the stroke he had to quit his job,” recalls Nonah, “and that was already tough on him.” Ed Kelly, a beat cop who’s known Baker for eight years, agrees: “He used to come up to me with tears in his eyes, but slowly he rehabbed himself.”
Baker says that after Floyd’s death he truly began to fear the future. “I figured I had lived this long, couldn’t hope for much better. I used to take the bus, just to look at life slowly rolling by out the window, and see the bums stealing into the crawl spaces underneath porches and wonder what would happen to me.”
Nonah, Kelly, and Officer Lydia Rodriguez, who works specifically with senior citizens, teamed up and began scouting out alternatives for Baker. Rodriguez contacted the Department on Aging to see about getting Baker financial assistance. “He was in the service,” she says. “He did his time and deserved to be compensated. Too many vets are out in the streets.” Nonah helped Baker fill out applications to homes for the elderly until finally a vacancy opened up at the Pat Crowley House.
The Crowley House, founded in December 1983, is a three-flat in Rogers Park with private bedrooms for low-income seniors who have lost their homes. The house has table tennis and a pool table in the basement, a sitting room, porch swings on each floor, intercoms in each hall and bedroom, and a garden teeming with flowers and bird feeders. There’s a fire station down the block. Twelve seniors occupy the first two floors, and four students occupy the third, usually premed, social work, and nursing undergrads from nearby Loyola who get free room and board every week in exchange for nine hours of cooking, cleaning, laundering, and helping seniors shower. Caren Tabani, the full-time coordinator for the house, occupies a third-floor apartment with her husband, two children, and beagle Patch.
Baker moved in last June. He says he feels safe now, and he enjoys bingo night and working out at the YMCA. There are adjustments: the residential street is strangely quiet. “It’s a ghost town,” he says. “Sometimes I look out the window for 20 minutes and don’t see a soul.” Sometimes he confuses the names of his housemates, particularly the white ladies who look so much alike, and he worries about slipping on the ice when he walks for exercise. But most of all he wonders what became of his old neighborhood. Baker hasn’t seen his childhood home at 43rd and Cottage Grove for 50 years. One afternoon we decide to find out.
“I’m like a junkie for these peppermints!” Baker smiles, fumbling in his pocket for a sugar-free candy. He gazes out the car window as we drive south on State. “I wonder if old Langley Tavern is still there–or King James Bar.” He tells me he grew up below a whorehouse where whiskey was made. “They would throw those stinking barrels in the vacant lot out back, and I could smell them from my bed.” He lets out a long, low whistle as we pass the skyscrapers. “This is a funny feeling seeing this again. It’s like a new city!” Farther south he sighs at the long, morbid succession of housing projects. “Damn–never knew there was so many,” he says. “Ugly looking things.”
Baker has never been inside a housing project, though he says he knows all about being poor. His father was a hobo from Texas who lost all the toes on one foot while jumping a train. “And my mama, she had a college degree, which was unheard of back then,” says Baker. She taught his father to read. “But he wouldn’t let her work. Shame too. She could’ve been a teacher or something.” When his father couldn’t find work the family went on welfare, or “charity” as Baker calls it. At age 12, Baker was sent to Mosely, “a school for bad black boys. A white teacher slapped me in school.”
“But what did you do?”
“I slapped him back.”
Baker says Mosely was a rough school, full of gang members from the Deacons, the Hornets, the El Rays, and the daddy of them all, the Four-Corner gang. But Baker carried a .38, so they left him alone.
We pull up to the corner of 24th and Indiana, where Baker thinks Mosely used to stand, but there’s no school there. A woman on the street says she’s never heard of it. “Well, it was here 50 years ago!” says Baker. After school Baker worked as a delivery boy for the A & P, earning $16 a month. Then in 1942 he lied about his age and joined the navy; from his wallet he pulls out a black-and-white snapshot of a tanker, a passenger ship that held 5,000 of the U.S.’s first integrated troops. Baker was one of a handful of helmsmen chosen to guide the ship. “Imagine me, a black man from the Chicago ghetto, steering a ship with all those white boys on board!”
He continues flipping through his wallet and lingers on a photo of a white lady. “That’s Dolores, my wife,” he says softly. “She came from Ohio to be a nurse at Cook County–that’s where we met.” She left him after three years, taking their baby boy. “I suppose he’s a grown man now,” says Baker. “Her family never did accept me.” He stares hard out the window.
We’re nearing 43rd and King. “Used to be called South Park,” Baker says. “If you lived here you had money.” He searches for something familiar, but farther west on 43rd is nothing but chewed-up blocks of chained-up stores, boarded-up buildings, and vacant lots strewn with broken glass and debris. The apartment building where Baker lived is gone, replaced by a dingy brick community center. He struggles out of the car and stands on the street, disoriented. He circles around on his cane for a while. “Nothing,” he mutters as he gets back into the car.
“Are you sorry you came?” I ask.
“Well no,” he says, “I came to see what it is…and it ain’t! That’s life in the big city for you.” He lets out a throaty laugh.
We pull into a McDonald’s for lunch and Baker snubs a panhandler, grumbling that a “young, able-bodied man with a leather jacket like that has no business begging on the street.” Inside he muses at his pilgrimage. “Now I can say good-bye to that place. Do you know everyone I grew up with from that ghetto is either dead or did time?” He shakes his head and recklessly pours salt on his fries. Back then, he says, black-on-black violence never made the papers. “Still doesn’t, I suppose. Though I never thought I’d live to see the day when a black woman would have such a good impact on race relations here in Chicago.” He brightens at one of his favorite subjects–Oprah Winfrey.
“‘Course, life is full of surprises–look where I ended up!” he continues. “If you’d told me a few years ago that I would end up in a place like the Crowley House, I would’ve said you were crazy. No, I can’t say I have any headaches. Lady Luck has been smiling down on me.”