The rails, tho busy, were easier to deal with than roads. The paths go straight, are kept quite clear, and I prefer to dodge trains than automobiles. They are much more predictable. Even after dark, so long as they headed east, towards the moonrise, it was a far better to take the railroad than the highway. This is Illinois. They can’t go but one way.
Getting into Chicago – and then, getting out – was much harder than being there. Like any major city, the length of suburbs were the more difficult part. Once I got into the heart itself, I was just another vagrant. I have tried, whenever I have relocated, to blend with the locals, to do as they do, go where they go, eat what they eat. In a grey hoodie, off-color grey pants, grey hat, I fit in with the grey city. Wherever I am is where I’m from.
A well-meaning girl had warned me in Iowa to watch out for police officers in Chicago, since they might think I was homeless.
- I am homeless.
- -Well, I meant like those that sleep on park benches.
If that is the sole distinction, then I did not sleep on any benches, and so don’t qualify by her measure. But there are few traits to otherwise distinguish me, at least from those I met on the Loop and the South Side. They are these:
1. I am younger than 40.
2. I carry a tent
3. I am reasonably clean-shaven
4. I am not black.
They were all good folks, the ones I met, and like folks anywhere like you better when you act and talk like them. I never withheld money - if that is what was asked of me - and never took a photograph without offering something.
By the third day, the anonymity and neural stress of the city were more than I wanted, but I stuck around while some prints got developed. It was like being in a bus station or an airport when everything necessary has been done and all that remains is for something, some one thing – some great thing? – to happen. Two more days and they were done, and I headed out, towards Indiana, thru the South Side.
I had long known that the city I had seen was not for me, but the notion was fixed when I went into a gas station to ask directions from the clerk and found him completely surrounded by glass, a knot of cracks, a bird’s eye, in front of his neck where a bullet had stopped.
Fifteen blocks further south was a forest preserve. Dan Ryan Woods. I had chosen it since a satellite map showed a park within city limits where the crowns of the trees touched. Figuring I would have better cover there, I headed for it.
Inside the woods there was very little undergrowth, suggesting either wood gathering or the tramping of feet. There were bottles, cans, cigarette butts, the usual urban detritus, and a few worn footpaths casually growing over in creeper . I wandered to find both a place to spread my bedroll and to find those who camped here and gain their permission. But tho I found food wrappers, clothing, and marks of a toilet, there was no sign of fire or even of a cleared area for sleeping. Even the shirts and socks I found were half-rotted and had likely sat sinking into the earth since before the last winter. Whatever indigenes there were had gone elsewhere.
Under a broken locust, I set out my bedding. Dogs and traffic whined thru the night, but I slept well, having come back to a place where I could respect the rules of conduct. In the hour before dawn, from the north side of the woods, an owl cried.
Some folks wanted to interview me for a podcast. You can listen to it by clicking here.