Thoughts on living in tents: under an Archer Avenue viaduct...in Chicago parks... that one time in Idaho...and that time in California's Steinbeck Country

Thoughts on living in tents: under an Archer Avenue viaduct...in Chicago parks... that one time in Idaho...and that time in California's Steinbeck Country

Sometimes, my former journalism students from Columbia College call me when they’re working on stories about the South Loop, where I’ve lived for almost 30 years.

One call will always stand out. A young man rung me up to ask about homelessness in the neighborhood. He wanted to pick my brain on everything from the prevalence of living in the street to the efficacy of such a lifestyle in my neighborhood.

At some point, I told him I didn’t advise under any circumstances that anyone live under the stars, without bathroom facilities, if for no other reason than they may be prey to people who might try to abuse or even kill them. Not that a roof over one’s head are certain to prevent that–but he knew what I meant.

Why make it easy for drunks, sadists or madmen to have a little fun with a sorry soul, who may be mentally ill, sorrowfully addicted or hopelessly without resources and support of any kind.

I told him there were plenty of places out there that take people in–from churches to do-gooder shelters to government-sponsored programs–to get people off the streets.

And I said I thought it was terrible that so much housing gets torn down and ends up as rubbly lots in downtrodden neighborhoods, when these same groups and government programs could rehabilitate them and provide decent housing for those who need it, thereby helping the neighborhoods and the homeless at the same time.

“I’d hate to see the city turn into a bunch of tent cities,” I said. And he got very quiet and I could tell he probably thought I was a little too much a law-and-order right winger who just didn’t get it.

I got it, alright.

And it’s happened. We have a bunch of tent cities around town that are disgraceful. They aren’t Woodstocks, Haight-Ashburys or Amsterdam in it’s drugs-wow! heyday. They are horrid symbols of how all the institutions–governmental and nongovernmental–have failed. Completely and miserably. Whatever the cause, I can’t buy that it’s here to stay. No one is doing much about it, but maybe if we elect the right people, that will change.

Or maybe not.

When there are potholes to fix, CTA routes that don’t run right and gang shootings downtown, everyone concentrates on that.

And human beings living and doing all their business in the streets? Living in a tent in Chicago. Is it freedom they seek?

No one lives anywhere in total freedom. And a tent under a viaduct on Archer Avenue, for instance, isn’t really living free. I’s not free from pollution, knifings, filth and communicable disease.

A while back, I was walking down Archer when I got to a long stretch of a viaduct with high sidewalks on both sides. Problem was, it was impossible to get down either sidewalk, packed as they were with tents that touched each other and left no room to walk. I considered walking in the street but it was very dark down under and cars might not see me. And it would be impossible to vacillate between street and sidewalk when cars came, due to the aforementioned sidewalk height. So I retraced my steps and and took the long way.

Granted, not a big problem in comparison to being homeless, sick, drug addicted or mentally ill with no treatment in sight and laying about under a bridge, albeit in a tent.

But why do we allow this anywhere in this City–or in this Country? Those empty lots as a result of the torn down houses that the city owns? Why can’t they be designated as campgrounds, with toilets, water and group visits that bring food and offers of help of various kinds?

I’ve heard of such attempts but unless there’s room for all–and everyone is forced to go there rather than on a sidewalk, they aren’t working. Some will say that making people go there robs them of their freedom.

But if I didn’t pay my real estate taxes, I’d have my house taken away. There are rules that govern any lifestyle. Rent not paid: you are out on the street. Income taxes not paid, cable bill not paid, condo assessments not paid, I could go on and on. There are unlikeable consequnces.

Ultimately we are all doing things that if we stop doing them, there are grave consequences. and no group of people, no matter how downtrodden and poor, should escape at least some responsibility. And camping in a lot provided for that is not a heavy consequence. So the powers that be should provide them. No living on the sidewalk allowed, should be a hard and fast rule.

Recently, my mother, brother, daughter and I took a ride to the neighborhood I grew up in. We made a stop at Margate Park, where I spent much of my childhood–inside the field house in the gym and in the arts and crafts room with Mr. Myers, the art teacher who provided us with all sorts of plaster figurines that we could paint to our hearts’ content.

I also learned to swim “at Margate.” Actually, we put on our suits and walked over to the Boys’ Club a few blocks away to use their pool. We got our walking and swimming in–in one fell swoop.

And nothing beat Day Camp in Margate Park. Doing all sorts of stuff in the park behind my beloved field house. I can still taste (and smell) my daily bologna sandwich on Wonder bread that my mom packed for me every day to eat outside at lunchtime. How I loved those sandwiches, although these days I wouldn’t touch one with a 10-foot pole.

What we found that day when we visited the park was a tent city that covered every square foot of the park surrounding the field house, which was closed.

So where did everyone use the bathroom? If they used the grass, no one would be far from other people’s excrement–since the tents were wall to wall. I saw no portable toilets or potable water sources. Did good-hearted souls come during the day or at night with provisions and other accoutrements of comfort?

All I could think of was the current crop of day campers like I used to be. There was no room to sit with fellow campers and eat a bologna sandwich. Maybe picnics these days are held inside or off-site or not held at all. Where do the kids from the neighborhood play? There wasn’t an inch of space for kids to do anything from what we saw, staring at the volume of tents.

And yet…. I find myself remembering one of the best times in my life, more often than not. The summertime driving trips I took with my first husband Tim in the mid-1970s out west–always with the same destination: to visit his father, who headed the town of Torrance, California. We took a different route in our red 1967 Camaro that my mom gave me when I came home from college a few years before, when she decided to share a car with my dad.

It had a standard transmission with a gear shift adjacent to the steering wheel. And Tim and I were always armed with Mobil Travel Guides, so we didn’t miss any sites along the way.

One year, a couple we’d just met through our work–we were both telephone installers for Illinois Bell but I can’t remember which one of us installed their phones–invited us over for dinner.

He had been French actress Jeanne Moreau‘s boyfriend before she married William Friedkin–and before our host married his wife. And we had a wonderful time listening to their stories.

When we were leaving, we told them about our pending summer sojourn, and they insisted we take their little orange pup tent with us; for those times it was hard to get a place to stay, we could always get a spot in a campground or in a National Park.

We loved that idea, just in case. And we ended up spending many a night in it, just as they suggested, in wonderful campgrounds of all kinds

Once, we were in Idaho, and we ran into some sort of a festival and couldn’t get a campground–or a motel–but there were people who let those of us who were stranded camp in their front yard and backyard–and use their bathroom. Lovely hospitality and lovely people, I must say.

And then there was another time in California, in John Steinbeck country, you might say, where we were exhausted and couldn’t find anywhere to stay. No motels, no openminded homeowners anywhere. Nothing.

In our groggy state, we did spot a very darling city park in the heart of a very nice town, the name of which I don’t remeber. I think the park was called “Steinbeck Park,” however. We looked at each other, raised our eyebrows and thought, why not?

We pitched our pup tent in the park. No one was around. It was the middle of the night and we slept soundly, safely and very comfortably, our car parked nearby. Where (or even if) we used a bathroom, I can’t remember. There may have been a public restroom nearby, open all hours in the park, but I don’t know. I have no memory of that.

When we woke up it was sunny and we drove on and stopped for breakfast somewhere.

What I do remember, though,very vividly is the complete feeling of independence, self-reliance, freedom and strength I had that day, a feeling that I call up every once in a while to see me through whatever.

That we could drive to a strange town, pitch a tent in the park, find comfort…. And everything turned out fine. No bad guys, no cops, no varmints, no interruptions at all.

When we got back to Chicago, we had that couple over to our house for dinner, to thank them for the use of their wonderful little orange tent and how it made us feel ever the more self-reliant and relaxed that we had it.

When we gave it back, it had a tiny hole in it. I thought maybe I shouldn’t even mention it. But I did. But they didn’t care and didn’t even check it out.

And I wasn’t sure if they did look for it, that they’d be able to spot it. It was so minuscule.

And in my memory it gets smaller all the time, in comparison to what that little orange tent ultimately gave me, which gets bigger all the time: a feeling of freedom and a lack of concern that has stuck with me ever since.

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