Tyner White is shifting his weight nervously and twitching his head from side to side, standing before the judge here on the 11th floor of City Hall while the building inspector ticks off his city-code violations. For the hearing White has shed his usual ripped army jacket in favor of a black and white checked overcoat, and his frizzy reddish brown hair is tied back in a ponytail. But none of this seems to be scoring any points with the judge, the building inspector, or the counsel for the city, who are well acquainted with White.
“Well, shall we call Streets and San?” the judge asks the city counsel. The counsel shrugs.
“Is it dangerous?” the counsel asks the building inspector, who bursts into laughter.
“Of course it’s dangerous,” he says, adding a remark about fire hazards. White, visibly annoyed, interjects, “Your honor, I’d like you to consider . . . ” But the judge, who’s been polite to everyone else who’s come before him today, is clearly exasperated with White and ignores him.
“Let’s set up a date for Streets and San to come and clear away the debris,” he says.
“I would like you to consider,” White says, “we have cleared away 14 tons of wood.”
“You’ve been here 14 times? Is that what you said?” the judge asks facetiously.
“We’ve removed 14 tons,” White repeats. “It’s not debris. We have a truck coming to take away some of it, but it will take a couple of trips to get the rest of it down to southern Illinois.”
But the judge has already turned to the counsel and is saying, “All right, set up a date for Streets and San. Clear away debris.”
“Thank you, your honor,” White says defeatedly.
It looks like the end of the line for Tyner White’s master plan: finding new uses for the discarded lumber he has collected over the years and piled up in a vacant lot on Maxwell Street one block east of Halsted. If White doesn’t clean up every last scrap of wood in the next two weeks, just before the final hearing, the Streets and Sanitation trucks will come and clear away the pallets, the planks, the two-by-fours, and everything else White and his sometime partners have collected. Just two weeks to get rid of years’ worth of work, but all White has at his disposal are a friend from southern Illinois, the friend’s school bus, and his own black pickup nicknamed “Tinkerbell.” This isn’t enough time to get rid of everything, and even if it were, White has nowhere to put all the wood.
Soon the asphalt trucks will come and pave White’s dream into a parking lot for a sports-clothing store. But he isn’t giving up. Even with the city’s deadline drawing near, he storms out of court and spends the rest of the day collecting bits of broken glass for artists to use in mosaics, scrap lumber to sand down into children’s blocks, and other odds and ends that might be useful to someone somehow, all the while trying to figure out just what to do with all the wood he has already.
“These materials are my wealth,” White muses. “If the city bulldozes these materials, they bulldoze my ability to make jobs and to justify all the abnormal things I’ve done which I desperately want to justify. The situation I face is that I might have put all my time and effort into this, and tomorrow it might be gone.”
Maxwell Street is best known as an open-air marketplace, a spot where out-of-towners get duped into paying a hundred bucks for a gold chain they assume is stolen or can snag a cheap porn flick from one of the salesmen who move from car to car snarling, “Movies, everybody. Movies, check ’em out.” But Maxwell Street is also a semipermanent home base for an underground of socially conscious squatters.
In several of the buildings, some owned by the University of Illinois, others abandoned or donated by philanthropists, groups of men and women live in unofficial transient hotels. They sleep in makeshift loft beds over discarded cardboard boxes and cans of food, and meet to discuss global warming and deforestation and to plan for the upcoming revolution.
Poorly organized, deeply factionalized, and lacking any genuine political power, these “alternatives” have migrated to the Maxwell Street market where, amid the odors of grilled onions and Polish sausage and overflowing garbage, they plan to change the world. If you listen carefully, underneath the throaty sounds of Howlin’ Wolf blaring from cassette tapes you can hear the strains of NPR wafting out of many a seemingly abandoned building.
East of Halsted on Maxwell are a number of deserted lots, some overrun with weeds and dead grass. In the lot White uses, between the old tailor shop and the sports-clothing store, is a deserted white school bus filled with books. Its occupant, another squatter, has gone south for the winter months but is expected back in town shortly. Surrounding the bus are piles of wood, planks stacked up higher than Yertle the Turtle’s throne, vats filled with wooden blocks, cardboard boxes overflowing with tiles, glass, and envelopes.
To the untrained eye, and to the city, this is a junkyard–a junkyard that’s in violation of any number of city codes. The owner of the property also finds it a nuisance and is trying to get the city, or somebody, to clear the wood and everything else off his lot so he can build his parking lot there. Even some of the neighborhood merchants chuckle about the wooden graveyard and worry about what would happen if somebody dropped a match in it.
But to Tyner White, a self-styled inventor and leader and would-be social reformer, and to a few of his friends, these piles of wood represent a solution to many of the world’s problems. If he were given the chance, White says, he could use this scrap lumber to build all kinds of things, thereby conserving wood and protecting the endangered forests, employing unskilled laborers, and even saving endangered bird species.
Over the past few years White has traveled the city in his pickup, gathering wood and bringing it back here. He removes the nails, sands the wood down, stacks it up, and waits for a buyer. His idea is to donate some of the wood to poor families who need it for their homes, and he makes a little bit of pocket money by selling the scrap lumber to environmentally conscious carpenters. Some dumping companies leave their wood here at White’s lot, for 50 bucks or so, instead of paying the exorbitant fees charged by city dumps.
“I’m the Robin Hood of disposal,” White says.
Tyner White has taken a rather circuitous route to Maxwell Street. Born in Cincinnati, he graduated from Wilmington College in 1962 and got his master’s in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1966. He says he spent a lot of time in the late 60s and early 70s in Europe, attending classes in Germany and living in an apartment that looked out over the Berlin Wall.
White has lived in a stone windmill in Amsterdam, and even on a small island a ferryboat ride away from Barcelona. In Europe he lived with his former wife, who sold quilts. White made his money there selling what he calls “miniaturized smoking utensils,” a business he used to engage in here when he moved back but gave up because of our strict laws against smoking paraphernalia.
“He used to walk down the streets with a huge thing of tokers,” recalls White’s friend and fellow environmentalist Joe Czuba. “His hair was all frizzed out and he’d try to teach you about how to smoke all these different kinds of herbs.”
“There were periods of time throughout the 70s when you might get arrested for some technicality about vending licenses or something like that,” says White. “You’d stay in jail overnight, but they never confiscated anything. The only times that tokers were confiscated were in 1972. In 1975, I was arrested three different times for possession of reefer. They knew I was a public presence selling tokers. I was arrested and held overnight. I had to send in a letter every month to some bureaucrat. Since then, I have not suffered any kind of arrest for anything relating to reefer. I don’t sell the tokers now, and I guess I have effectively achieved ‘narc-proofing.'”
Since he returned to this country, in the early 70s, White has lived in Chicago. For a time he lived on Lower Wacker, in a building that let out onto the Chicago River. He’s given up his early goals of making a living as a fiction writer or poet, devoting himself full-time to salvaging and storing discarded materials. He says that in the past 30 years he’s never made more than $4,000 annually.
“I left the system and haven’t been able to reenter it,” he says.
These days he lives on Maxwell Street on the ground floor of an abandoned storefront, his bed a loftlike structure over a file cabinet. Over his bed is a glass stand, a structure he designed and built, and in the winter he places his books face down on it so his hands don’t get cold while he reads. Currently he’s reading a Czechoslovakian language-study book and a number of musical scores, which he reads while listening to the music itself.
“I say I don’t live anywhere,” White remarks. “I can honestly say that my living expenses are zero–or under $200 a year. Any money you give me goes straight into the cause. I sleep right here, within range of the door [he’s something of a doorman for the building], and because I’m sleeping above the floor in a loft I don’t even occupy any floor space.”
The “cause” is White’s ten-part scheme to save wood and find new uses for it. There are five steps for reprocessing the wood and five methods by which it can be reutilized. The arrangement into two sets of five is not accidental–White says the ten-part reprocessing plan should be treated like two rather more famous tablets. “When I wrote these up, I felt like Moses,” he says.
White calls the five reprocessing steps the five “re”s. First is retrieval, which involves Dumpster diving and going to the dump to find any wood that can be reused. Second is reorganization, which means devising shelves and lofts and bookcases that maximize the use of space. Third is remanufacture, which is finding new uses for discarded wood. “Let’s say we find an old chair. Do we need more chairs?” White asks. “There are plenty of chairs. Let’s use them to make shelves.” Fourth is remarketing, a step White claims is well suited to his Maxwell Street location. “Let’s create barter and neighborhood markets,” he declares. “Let’s move from Marx to marketing, and distribute the wood to people who will use it in some way, targeting the low-income groups and the neglected.” Fifth is reeducation: White says all people should be taught to reuse instead of throw out. “Let’s train users of items to think of them as permanent,” he says. “In this society there are industrial organizations and corporations which profit from the prejudice against buying anything used–that ‘throw it away and buy a new one’ mentality that creates jobs that exist only because the customer is unwise. It would be nicer if we had an economy that was based upon consumers being smart instead of stupid. Smart customers would buy as little as possible. But people have been trained to stay away from anything that’s used. People are afraid to even touch dirty old wood.”
Then there are his five possible uses of reprocessed wood. He would build houses for animals and rodents. He would build storage facilities like shelves and lofts. “The shelving unit empowers you to save or retain things which would otherwise be thrown away because of the problem of disorderly piles on the floor of the house,” says White. “If there is enough shelving, more people can store their property in the house and you can have a larger family without fighting for space. Lofts eliminate the need for bedrooms–rooms solely devoted to bedding.”
White also says the wood can be used for “educational microcarpentry,” which includes reading desks and bookcases. Birdhouses are also high on White’s list of priorities: “With deforestation there has been a massive reduction in the amount of nesting opportunities for various species who are heading toward extinction. But we can substitute for five million nesting places by building five million birdhouses. Birds reforest the planet. Birds eat bugs that eat trees. Birds pollinate plants. Making birdhouses sounds like a serious solution to me, and you have millions of people who might use the building of birdhouses as a method of expressing themselves.”
Finally, the wood can be used to build the “antioverdose tokers” that White sold in Europe; this method of smoking, he says, eliminates “side-screen smoke” and allows whatever is being smoked to burn at the lowest possible temperature. He contends that this is a much healthier form of smoking than traditional methods. The antioverdose toker’s wooden base and intricate network of valves and clear vinyl tubes make it look like some sort of Dr. Seuss or Rube Goldberg contraption. It can be used to smoke any of the hundreds of herbs White keeps in little plastic canisters in his dwelling–all of them legal, he is quick to point out. This is just one of the many inventions he’s perfected over the years.
“The problem with being an inventor,” White says, “is you run the risk of making a lot of people look stupid by promoting methods that allow one to recycle instead of buy new items. I have perfected a number of items that I feel could become standard methods for ways to recycle ordinary things.”
White makes knives by inserting a razor blade into a block of wood and winding tape around the entire thing to keep the blade in place. Then there are the “wire dispensers,” which he makes by slitting open a bit of telephone cable, allowing access to a rainbow of multicolored wires that he says can be used for making jewelry. And his pet project: an outdoor chess game that can be played in the garden or the family driveway.
“There is a segment of Gulliver’s Travels where Gulliver gets to a country where there are no nouns, and in order to describe something they have to actually show you the item,” White says, holding up a bizarre Tinkertoy-like wooden creation with a rectangular body and spikes jutting out of what appears to be a head.
“In this case, there is so far no word that has been invented to describe it,” White says. “I have rejected the idea of referring to this as a ‘king’ because in my experience I know that this can lead to the abuse of authority, so I will refer to this as the ‘president.’
“This,” he says, holding up a similar but shorter figure, “is the ‘first lady,’ and all of these can be referred to as ‘pawns.’ This type of chess piece could be used on an eight-by-eight-foot square painted on a driveway. It moves chess out of the sitting room and into the garden, where the whole family can participate. The persons who decide what moves to make in a game of chess like this might give directions to children, who might move the pieces for them.” White is visibly excited as he envisions his game being played throughout the country.
“The numbers of the squares could be marked,” he says, “and you could hear the person who moves the pieces–let’s refer to him as General Weiskopf. He’ll say, ‘Vanna White, will you please move our bishop to rook-4?’ And this three-year-old girl dressed in a gorgeous costume gets out there and moves the piece, and when she’s moved it to the correct space anyone who’s watching politely applauds. Just like a TV show. And then you can have a hired volunteer from the Chicago Chess Club or some other reputable organization speak into a microphone and speculate about what’s going to happen next. Just like on Inside Politics.
“It would be very routine manufacturing work,” White says. “It could be sold from anywhere between 20 and 200 dollars, and families would get something that can be used for generations in their neighborhood. You can make something that looks like garbage into something useful.”
Abandoned warehouses are White’s typical workshops. He also stores his half-finished projects there: chess pieces, wooden blocks, colored wires, knives hanging on the walls. “I am interested in virtually everything,” he says. “Most of my time goes into a succession of tasks ranging up to making shelving units, but usually smaller tasks. I try to keep various ideas going. I have hundreds of ideas. I’ve talked for many years about doing many things, but somehow I haven’t done nearly as much as I’ve talked about.”
On an unseasonably cool spring day, White is working diligently, trying to comply with the city and get rid of the wood as quickly as possible before the Streets and Sanitation trucks come. While his black dog Rainbow lopes around the lot, he’s loading wood onto another school bus, a ’57 Dodge that belongs to friend and former partner Joe Czuba. Czuba used to help White salvage wood, but he grew tired of the politics of the green movement and moved to southern Illinois to work in the movement to save the Shawnee National Forest.
Czuba says he’s spent some time in the Air Force and taken classes in the design department of Southern Illinois University. He has stringy blond hair, a skimpy mustache and beard, and an angry-looking face. Today he’s wearing a blue and white baseball cap with a policeman’s star on it and the words “Homicide–Our day starts when yours ends.”
The plan is to load up Czuba’s bus and take the wood down south to show the logging industries how trees don’t need to be cut down in order to generate adequate supplies. Czuba has come north on gas money given him by some Shawnee forest activists who are interested in increasing public awareness about the need to recycle wood. But there are two problems. One, there’s not nearly enough room in Czuba’s bus for all the wood that’s supposed to be removed before the city’s deadline. Two, Czuba hasn’t yet figured out how he’s going to get gas money for the trip south. He says he might work some odd jobs in town before he leaves.
“Me and Tyner want to show people that this wood is a resource and not a deficit that should be bulldozed,” Czuba says as he uses some duct tape to cover up the holes inside his bus. “A lot of this is really beautiful wood that can be used to make treehouses and birdhouses and billboards. We can use it for making solar greenhouses or compost boxes. It’s recyclable. People have got to become aware. I’ve gone to jail trying to stop them from cutting down the forests. They’re running out of woods–they’re cutting everything they can, and if they’re not stopped there’s not going to be any left.”
Observing the loading is another green activist, a man named Merlyn in a cap with flaps that go over his ears. He’s walking his dog Jerry and looking for cardboard boxes to recycle. “Tyner is really concerned with saving trees, and that’s so important,” Merlyn says. “But they really better get some better housing for the wood, because out here it really takes a beating from the elements.”
After Merlyn leaves, Czuba continues to sort through the wood while White pulls nails out of boards. They had hoped to be able to work on this during the warmer summer months, but the deadline has necessitated quick work. “All this stuff needs to be sorted through,” White remarks, gesturing vaguely at the piles of wood and other materials. “It’s a slow task that tends to keep you sort of stationary while you decide what you’re going to do about them, so you can’t do too much of that when it’s cold. When it’s winter we spend our time cutting and making lofts, vigorous things that are going to keep us warmed up, and we use our nonworking time in bed. You have the radio. You have WBEZ. There are books you can read. In summer we’ll spend less time in bed. Perhaps that’s where we should be now.
“See, if we had the labor, we could cause all this wood to vanish out of here and create useful wood products. But it’s hard to attract labor because we don’t have the money. If we could somehow get hold of three or four thousand dollars, we could divide it up to pay people to move the wood out of here.”
“It’s hard to attract money,” Czuba agrees. “People see us, with our long hair and my beard, and they treat us like we’re a lot of hippie freaks.”
While Czuba continues to load up the bus, White confronts a guy in a blue denim jacket with a bushy black beard and wild black hair who is yelling at him in a low, gruff voice. Tim (not his real name) is a former associate of White’s and now a rival. Tim, White, and Czuba were once members of an organization called Maxworks Coop, which united a number of leftist causes under a single roof on Maxwell Street. But for a number of reasons, Tim and a group of others evicted another group that included Czuba and White. Now White lives in the building across the street from the Maxworks Coop building, but the other day he went in to fetch some mail that came for him to that address. And that’s what Tim is so pissed off about.
“You took the mail that was addressed to our address, my man,” Tim snarls, his face a couple of inches away from White’s.
White explains in a calm, measured tone of voice that for some reason the post office continues to send his mail to that address, though he’s tried to get that changed, and he’s just picking up his own mail. “And no one in your building is interested in the kind of mail we get anyway,” he adds.
“That still doesn’t give you the right to enter our property,” Tim says, getting hotter. “You have a problem, then you deal with the post office.”
“You’re dogging a major attitude,” says White.
“I’m dogging a major attitude?”
“What is your program there that excludes us? And how do you justify such a program?”
“I don’t need to justify such a program.”
“Well, if you don’t need to justify it, that explains your whole attitude,” White scoffs.
“You’ve engaged in a criminal trespass against our premises,” Tim bellows.
“Oh Tim, you’re not even an owner,” Czuba interjects angrily, adding a feisty “You’re so full of shit.”
“His name is not on the 1988 deed,” White remarks. “My name is on the 1988 deed.”
“I’ll go for your fucking throat,” Tim snaps, pointing a finger at Czuba. “You should rot in hell for all of your perversions.”
“Come on, Tim,” Czuba says as White holds him back. “Come on, do something to me. You don’t own the building. Come on, do something to me.”
“Now let’s not fight,” White says to Czuba as Czuba points a finger back at Tim. “No physical.”
“You have nothing to say,” Czuba shouts at Tim.
“No physical. No fingers. No fingers, Joe,” White pleads.
“I have plenty to say about it,” Tim shouts.
“No fingers, no physical,” White says to Czuba. “Remember that ‘you’ and ‘always’ are two words that negotiators should never use.”
The argument goes on for a bit more, mostly between Czuba and Tim, and then Tim stalks off. A moment later he returns, saying “If I see any of you in that building, you can figure you’ll wake up in a hospital tomorrow.”
“Did you hear that?” White exclaims, knowing I have tape-recorded Tim’s threat. “Wake up in a hospital? We got him!”
Czuba spits in Tim’s direction.
“We got him,” White repeats.
Czuba spits again and White takes him aside. “Now let’s not do anything that’s characteristic of him rather than us,” he says. “Our job is to collect the evidence.”
“He threw all of the nonsmokers out of the building,” Czuba explains. “All the smokers got together and threw all the nonsmokers out. He isn’t even in the building anymore.”
“He spends all his days in the subway serenading commuters with his Autoharp,” White says sarcastically.
The exchange between White, Czuba, and Tim is typical of the kind of factionalism that has arisen in this Maxwell Street community. A rift has developed between those who are concentrating on recycling products and those who favor more violent social upheaval. The split also seems to have gone down between those who smoke and those who do not.
“The smokers are longtime guerrilla troops in a kind of left-wing cause,” says White. “In 1984, [Tim’s] roommate arranged to have blood thrown under the feet of some ROTC marchers. That’s typical of the kind of tricks they do. They’re supposedly in favor of the people being liberated in El Salvador or Cambodia. That’s the tradition this guy comes from. Now, he has become progreen. He was disgruntled by our ideas of using scrap lumber to dislodge new lumber from the market. He thought we were going to get him in trouble because we had a disorderly recycling center. He thought we would threaten the survival of his guerrilla movement, and he couldn’t stand to have our reformist approach conflict with his paramilitary attitude. He claims he was a Trotskyite at age 17. But he’s graduated to Stalinist practices.”
It wasn’t always this tense, as White recalls. At one point the opposing factions were able to live in relative harmony because they had a leader who was able to unify them: according to White she was an independently wealthy person who dreamt of getting an army together and overthrowing the government. “She was tempted by that sort of romance,” he says. But she moved to Oregon and had a baby, leaving them leaderless.
“There was another woman who could have united us,” White says wistfully. “She also had a baby, but she made the decision to live around here. But in August of 1980 she got in a van with a friend of ours named Preacher John. They were driving on U.S. 30 to Plainfield, Illinois, and as they were driving, the vehicles in front of them flew off the road and he tried to get to the side, but she was sucked out of the vehicle and was killed instantly. The baby landed on the yellow line and somehow survived.”
After that the friction between the smokers and the nonsmokers, between the revolutionaries and the reformists, grew to the point where it became unbearable. One of the revolutionaries wrote a “14-page double-spaced letter accusing Joe and myself of sexual perversions,” White said. “He accused Joe of raping him.”
After the smokers evicted Czuba, White, and some others, White says, “they got a box of champagne to celebrate their triumph because they’d kicked out those environmentalists, those pack rats, those hoarders.”
The old Maxworks building is now inhabited by only one person, a man who has so frightened all the people who used to live there that even Tim has found other lodgings.
“This is the kind of thing that happens to left-wing groups and organizations,” White remarks. “A faction like this forms. Before, we had all this loft space. We were able to offer anybody a place to stay. Now, no one’s welcome. They turn away people at the door. They consider the building theirs rather than ours, even though nobody really even uses it.”
But fighting the others has proved fruitless and even dangerous, according to White. If a member of the smokers’ faction decides to retaliate against White and burn his wood, White will be held responsible because of all the city-code violations his wood storage entails. “I can lose the most,” White says.
Czuba points to political in-fighting as the reason he decided to move to the Shawnee National Forest. “I’ve stayed with peace groups for a few months, and I just can’t handle it,” he says. “It’s not peaceful. There are so many problems. It’s just an insane situation. For me, it was easier to get away–it was too nuts. Anybody can burn down the wood if they’re mad. Everybody gets ripped off around here, it’s a way of life. There are a lot of junkies. There are people who keep coming around and they take whatever they want and they get away with it.
“The problem with the peace community is they don’t get angry enough to shoot somebody, which is really what would have to happen for people to realize that they shouldn’t mess around. But I don’t want to shoot anybody and nobody else does.
“These days, I wake up with birds singing around me. Birds singing, that’s it. No vehicles or anything. Here, it’s just ugly and dirty and everybody’s fighting and it’s just insane.”
“You can’t motivate people to work together, either,” White adds. “Many of the people around here are nocturnals who don’t enjoy being up in the day. Others are individualized to the extent that I am, and they don’t like working on carpentry jobs or working in partnership with others. The instinct is to go ahead and start working on something alone rather than going through the social bric-a-brac of getting teamed up with someone to do a job. Plus, our instincts from a lifetime of various kinds of frustrations and experiences before we got here make it difficult to work as partners.”
“It’s all part of the tobacco conspiracy,” Czuba says with a knowing wink.
The “tobacco conspiracy” is an expression you hear quite a bit around Maxwell Street. It was partly responsible for the split at Maxworks Coop, and if you listen to Czuba and White you’ll be half-convinced that tobacco is the source of much of what ails the world. White has promoted his miniature tokers as an alternative to tobacco smoking, and Czuba says he once went on a hunger strike in front of the Capitol in Washington to protest federal funding of tobacco companies. He spent his time there passing out herbal cigarettes to anyone who happened to pass by and asking them to sign his petition against the tobacco companies.
Czuba says he first realized the evils of tobacco when he was in jail doing a bit of time on a drug charge. “I lived in hell when I was in jail,” Czuba says. “I’d been in the military for four years, and I had to clean the ashtrays of the people I worked with just so I wouldn’t have to breathe it. But when I went to jail, I had to live in an ashtray. You could cut the smoke with your hand, it was so thick. I was stuck in cells with people who chain-smoked every day for 30 days.”
“If there’s a conspiracy you should concentrate on, it’s the tobacco conspiracy,” White says as we sit inside Czuba’s school bus to warm up, picking our spots amid the wood piled up on the bus’s floor. “Cigarettes deform and corrupt personality. There is a kind of mental insensitivity that takes over the person. The work system is deformed to fit the nicotine requirements–the cigarette break, the coffee break, and so on. People are trained by the government to smoke.”
“It’s the opposite of getting high,” Czuba adds. “It makes your lungs black. It brings you down. It makes your hair fall out. It makes you old, ugly, and stupid. It kills the oxygen going to your brain.
“Tobacco is the root of all evil because it makes life hell for everyone by just being around it. People who smoke hurt others. It doesn’t matter who lights a cigarette, we all breathe it.”
“Anyone who tries to do the sort of recycling and cooperative work we do is threatened by cigarettes,” White says. “Cigarettes create an attitude of ‘Why bother with that? That’s not hip.’ Cigarettes also cause fires, and one of the reasons we’re in trouble is because of the fire codes.”
“The world is in hell because everybody thinks tobacco is cool, but it isn’t cool,” Czuba says. “I couldn’t even get any national TV when I was on my hunger strike. I went to all the press outfits. No one would cover it. They’re all paid off by the tobacco industry.”
“Look at what Jesse Helms opposes,” White says. He’s on a roll now. “Jesse Helms is against what he calls perverted sex–homosexual sex. Perverted sex is something a person might get a thrill from instead of a cigarette. That’s one reason he opposes it. Let’s talk about abortion. Why is Jesse Helms against abortion? Because they spend billions of dollars advertising cigarettes to get young women in the childbearing age hooked on cigarettes. Now, every time this woman takes a cigarette, the materials from that cigarette are flowing into her ovaries. That microscopic egg is getting addicted to nicotine and other drugs. They want that child to grow up and buy cigarettes. They don’t want that fetus aborted–they invested in it.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Czuba says and laughs.
According to White and Czuba, the tobacco companies have thwarted the efforts to legalize marijuana. If marijuana were legalized, White and Czuba feel that movements such as theirs would be more popular and people would be more likely to work together to reuse and recycle.
“Marijuana could heal this planet,” Czuba says. “It’s the most beautiful thing. I know that it’s the solution to our problems. But as long as people refuse to talk about it, we’re going to live in this tobacco hell. The government knows that if marijuana was legal, they’d be out of business because people would grow their own and share it. People don’t share tobacco and they don’t grow their own. It’s a whole industry.”
“Marijuana can encourage intellectual experience and learning,” White says. He mentions Bill Clinton and Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg, adding that neither of them could admit to reefer’s beneficial effects.
“But if we start promoting my miniaturized tokers and talking about reefer,” White continues, “we live in constant danger that the cigarette companies will mobilize their forces against us. So we have this knowledge, but we’re afraid to say it too loudly for fear of what might happen to us.”
Once the bus has been loaded with all the wood it can hold, Czuba gets ready to head back south. They’ve barely made a dent in the piles. He and White are beginning to realize how many of these trips will have to be made, and the reality is they’re running out of time. That obviously bothers White, but he tries not to let it show as he begins to sort through wood and sand it down. One of his fears is that if the city removes the wood he’ll be billed for it, and since he doesn’t have the money he might be put in jail.
“He’s a real inspiration to me,” Czuba remarks. “I see how his life’s kind of getting mixed-up and lost in all the clutter. But his spirit is true and he’s sincere.”
After Czuba leaves, White is back at it, sawing, denailing, wandering up and down Maxwell Street with his dog Rainbow, and trying desperately to alert anyone who’s interested about the need to eliminate tobacco and recycle wood.
“I take a lot of the blame for the problems that we have,” White says. “I jump around between jobs. I take on much more than I can, out of conscience. I don’t present myself well. I’m afraid to go out and face the public. Somebody as poor as we are doesn’t have the courage to face the public. It’s not easy to get clean clothes on and look normal and at the same time spend as much time as I do rescuing dirty stuff.”
As we walk down Halsted, he pauses every so often to pick up a spare piece of glass and deposit it in a cardboard box he carries. Several merchants wave and greet him as we pass.
“People think I’m disreputable because I come from Maxwell Street. Most people assume that everything here is stolen,” he says. “People who don’t know my history assume I stole everything I have. They see me as a scavenger or a scab. They don’t understand that what I’m doing is, in a sense, a form of prophecy.”
“Do you see yourself as a prophet?” I ask.
“A prophet is merely a person who perceives possibilities that others are ignoring.” White shrugs. “There is nothing strange about prophecy. Every child has a prophetic urge that can be developed, and the degree to which it does not develop or mature is the degree to which the child’s personality development is contained or crushed or stymied or thwarted. They have tried to thwart me, but somehow I manage to keep on.”
One day before the final court date, the deadline, and Tyner White is panicking because the city inspector is due any minute. He hopes that the inspector will notice that a lot of the wood has been removed and give him yet another continuance. But given how the last hearing went, this seems unlikely. Two men in a beat-up black Ford ask White to do an odd job for them, some repairing, but he shakes his head, laughing nervously.
“This is a bad day, a bad day for that,” he says. “I have the city inspector coming, and if I don’t have everything gone I think this might be the time they really come and take it all away.”
White has nowhere to put the wood right now, but he’s trying to make everything look presentable at least by arranging it all in nice, neat piles. He’s enlisted the help of a rugged young man from the north side who’s eager to help out in the green movement, and they’re placing the pallets with the pallets, the planks with the planks.
“Inspectors terrify me,” White says. “But maybe this time he’ll be reasonable. I didn’t like how he acted toward me in court last time.”
I ask what was wrong with how he was treated.
“He painted the worst possible scenario so the judge would have no choice but to order in the demolition trucks. He didn’t have to do that.”
White has spoken with a man named Tony who has agreed to sell him a trailer for 250 bucks. So far White’s only got 50, so he’s trying to figure out if there’s anything like 200 dollars’ worth of recyclable materials in his stacks.
“If I get enough cardboard together,” he says, “I think I might be able to make 200 dollars by the end of the week.”
I stand there amid the rubble and the broken glass and the piles of wood and wait for the city inspector who will, I am sure, deliver the death knell to White’s wood. True, progress has been made, but this is still a bonfire waiting to happen. There is no way any city code could permit this kind of place to exist. But then something funny happens. Or rather, doesn’t happen. The city inspector never shows.
D-Day. Eleventh floor of City Hall. 10:30 AM. Tyner White was supposed to get here at 9:30, but he hasn’t showed yet and the last building-violation cases have just come before the court. Suddenly White bursts into the courtroom carrying a stack of Polaroid photographs, busily scribbling captions on them. All the cases before have been called by lot number and address. But when White comes in, the judge, the counsel for the city, and the building inspector look up with recognition and annoyance.
“Yes, Mr. White?” the judge asks.
“I was ready for the inspector yesterday, but he didn’t arrive,” White says, and shows the Polaroids to anyone who’ll pay attention. “Here’s the lot that was filled with wood and now it’s empty. Here’s another view of it. And I recently have obtained access to a trailer and I plan to park it on the lot and use it to load up the remainder of the wood.”
“You can’t just park the trailer on the lot,” someone says. “You need a permit for that.”
“Yes, and I will obtain it,” White says. “But I believe I have made significant progress.”
The judge, the counsel, and the city inspector look at each other. Since the inspector didn’t show, they seem to be stuck. White is granted a continuance to June 18, and if everything isn’t removed from the lot by then, the city trucks will come.
“I don’t think it should be any problem once I get the trailer,” White says as we leave the courtroom and take the elevator down to Daley Plaza.
“I figured maybe if I didn’t call the city inspector then he wouldn’t be there,” White confides. “You’re supposed to call as a courtesy to him to remind him to be there, but even if you don’t he’s supposed to arrive anyway.”
“But he didn’t come and that gives you the extra time and you think you can have the rest of the lumber removed by the time he comes again?” I ask.
“I didn’t say that word,” White said.
“What word?” I ask.
“‘Come,'” White says. “‘Come’ is a word that is free advertising for the cocaine business. Come is also used in most all commercials for cigarettes, and I certainly don’t want to give them free advertising.”
“What?” I say.
“And when you quote me,” White adds, “make sure that I don’t use the words ‘all’ or ‘OK.’ ‘All’ is the first part of the word ‘alcohol.’ And ‘OK’ is at the root of the word ‘cocaine.’ And they don’t need free advertising.”
“I guess you’ve won for now,” I say. “Are you surprised?”
“No, not really,” he says. “But I was frightened there for a while. Now all I need to do is get about 20 or 30 workers and we can really start to get to work on this lumber.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.