Winter Shack

My name is Roman Cicero. I had been homeless for a while now and this is my story. I hope not to offend anybody by my language or an occasional angry word. I am only human. I am not a preacher; I am not a saint. Like you, I have my ups and I have my downs. I am only human. I live on the streets of Chicago. It is by choice! Others I had met, they didn’t have a choice. Many were forced to the streets. This is their story. This is our story…

 “What the “F” is wrong with you?” This B.S. question I hear much too often. Almost as often as this one: “Why don’t you get a life, you fricking bum!” 

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me. My shopping cart was stolen last night. Along with my bag of beer cans and the last of my personal belongings –a pair of baggies, two raggedy sweatshirts, a few pairs of crew socks, the old pair of combat boots, my toothbrush. And my canteen– the only thing I had managed to save from the war. I feel sick to my stomach because my canteen’s gone. That’s what’s wrong with me.

And why don’t I get a life. This is my life. And I’ll tell you one thing — to acquire this life of mine I didn’t beg, steal or borrow. Call me a bum, go ahead. I didn’t take anything away from you. You don’t support me. Your tax money doesn’t do a damn thing for me. I am self-supporting. Like it that way.

And I have peace of mind, knowing that I don’t have anything to contribute to your stupid wars, bloated bureaucracies nor do I help finance your Park Avenue Apartment or the upkeep of your chauffeured limousine. Go ahead, call me a bum. And I will call you an ignorant a-hole. Fair enough.

To use this city library’s computer I donate my time. A fair exchange. And before the library closes, I clean the bathrooms, take out the trash. I like to keep busy.

Lucinda the Librarian told me as long as I manage a bath every once in a while and contain the talking to myself to a whisper I am no bother. And she appreciates my help. And I appreciate hers. A fair exchange. Sometimes Lucinda lets me go around and put the returns away.

I have become a Dewey Decimal System aficionado. Cleaning the bathrooms, putting away the books, gives me a sense of purpose. And helps to fill my time; sometimes I’ve too much time. But I am grateful. Living on the streets I’ve met those who ran out of time. Heroin, suicidal tendencies, abject poverty can stop the clock at any given moment.

When I first met Lucinda, she looked at me as though she should feel sorry for me. A poor specimen of a human-being I may have appeared but I soon assured her that behind the fifth generation hand-me-downs and 12 week scruff of beard I am a man of integrity.

Self-governing, free, contented, brutally honest — that is who I am. Oh, and compassionate. I care about my friends. I’ll do anything for them. Lucinda, although she didn’t want to admit it at first, especially to those jeweled mothers with the fake smiles or to the Donald Trumped-Up forgeries of manhood, she took a liking to me. She even whispered to me one day: “I bet behind that long beard you’re quite a handsome man.” Someday I may prove her right.

Last night before turning in, before extinguishing the last ember of makeshift lamp I folded the corrugated once again– a stiffer base to her concrete bed. And then I offered her my last blanket. Mammie, the matriarch of our clan was ever so grateful — been complaining lately of an aching back. I took serious the issue because everybody knows that Mammie is not one to complain.

Mammie promised me as a show of gratitude she’d cook me up sometime today a mix of oats and dried bananas. To help dulcify the blandness she’d throw in a packet or two of Sweet N’ Low — the takings she’d managed to trade the other night from a down-an-outer for a swig of her Jimmy Beam. Living the ascetic life has its rewards.

I am sitting here this morning mourning the loss of my dear shopping cart. It has been my only reliable vehicle now for three years — given to me by old Gus The Greek, right before he added a brand-new fleet to his Greek Market on Halsted. Every other day for the last three years I took the pains to ensure my vehicle was shined clean and looking pretty, its wheel hubs polished free of dirt and grime. And I had Johnny Littlefeather engrave my name on the front plate with his beloved arrowhead– a testament to his forefathers legacy which was ensured at Little Bighorn.

Johnny, ever the renegade left the Big Country about five years ago — hopped aboard an eastbound — ended up first in Kansas City, found it boring and then a few months later — railed his way here, Chicago. He’s been here ever since.

Many a night we’d sit around the campfire and he’d engage me with a mix of Sioux folklore and torrid tales of his big-time womanizing days, a reason I suspect, he had left the Big Country. Jealousy in those parts is often met with historic ritual and Johnny, on numerous occasions, had confided me with his desires of life. I share with him the same option. Although from outside appearances I may not seem the type to relish life, especially my own, but I do.

Well, my computer time is up, allowed only an hour each sitting. Besides, a good-looking gal with a stack of books and a serious disposition is next in line and I’d hate to encroach on her research time. Somebody told me she is priming herself for lawyering and I think, if I heard right, she is considering working for that Barack Obama guy.

Seeing I don’t own a television I don’t keep up too much with the news. And the occasional newspaper I manage to obtain is often used as an igniter of the flame — and a warming of the hands or a quick heat-up of the soup nowadays is much more important than reading about the latest dalliances of the Washingtonians or the goofy goings-on of the new sect — Lohan, Hilton, Rosie and Ruggedy Dan or something like that.

Another friend of mine, we call him The Mayor had related to me that he may have spotted my shopping cart, although he was under the influence…all right, he was quite fucked up. I asked him, “Where did you see it?” He said, “I don’t know where it was but I am pretty sure I saw it.” And, he too, living this nomadic existence, well he could’ve been anywhere. Besides, he owns one of those C.T.A. monthly passes, which makes his range a lot further than the rest of us.

So much for my shopping cart. Whoever took it, I just hope they didn’t strip it down. At least, if anything, whoever took it would pay me great mind if they’d put it to good use. That I could live with.

Tonight, I am going to help out at the soup kitchen, wash and scrub the pots and pans, mop up the floors. Because of my good deed, I’d get a few extra cans of Spam to take to Mammie. She’d do right by it, just like always.

I love this library; it has all my favorite books. I am what you call a voracious reader. I had taken to fiction more recently — starting with the classics — Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, nothing too esoteric. I don’t read too much the current events, the newspapers — too depressing sometimes. And slanted at times. Fuck, let my view of the world stay unobstructed. I used to take an active role in politics, in religion too but then, it seemed my views always led to a barroom brawl. I used to be big on fighting, learned most of it in the war. Fuck fighting! Fuck the war!

Lucinda the Librarian, she keeps looking at me, a different way now…Above the big stack of books on the counter she’s ogling me, leering at me, and I think, if not mistaken, she is planning on seducing me. Although I hadn’t the pleasure of a woman’s warmth in over five years, I am not sure I could go through with it, if in fact, that is Lucinda’s intention and not my imagination running its test patterns upon my weary soul.


Last night I found ample reason to vacate my bereavement and atone for my previous renunciation by joining the crowd out on Rush Street, whose occupants were hooting and hollering and dancing like it was “1999″ or some shit. The revelry, I learned, stemmed from victory on the gridiron, something about the Chicago Bears beating some ass–the New Orleans Saints.

High spirits abounded throughout the night and into the wee hours and, for once in a very long time, I was accepted by the otherwise uppity mass of indulgent and inveterate sojourners of material rectitude. They slapped me high-fives and offered me temporary membership into their exclusive little club and since I was still mourning the loss of my dear shopping cart I was not about to refuse the offer.

Luckily, I was rather dressed for the occasion — I received an invite from St. Vincent de Paul’s the other day, by way of one of the parishioners, who I had committed myself the last three years to doing her yard work — pulling weeds in the summer, shoveling her walks in the winter. St. Vincent’s refitted my wardrobe with a few cardigans, blazers, dress shirts and a couple pair of Dockers plus the usual contingent of jean pants and long john underwear. And a nice pair of second-hand boots–I think waffle stompers.

This morning, I awoke to a blistering hangover and gladly, Mammie offered a few good swigs from her cask while holding a damp cloth to my forehead. She, ever the nurturer, had reminded me to eat sparingly the Spam and green bean pie later. “The cognac you had last night really won’t mix well with the pie,” she said. She knows well enough the proper remedy.

After all, in her younger days, before bouts of depression and alcoholism dealt her a leave of absence, she was a nurse at the Cook County Hospital — and I am sure as shit that it was there where she first became depressed. Some really tough cases came through those doors — victims of knives, hatchets, guns, rapists, arsonists, heroin, suicide attempts.

I told Mammie about last night, she ever the forgiving one, slapped me (gently) and said, “The next time you go on one of your ritualistic safaris with the saloon set on the fancy street think twice about the kind of money you’re throwing away when you could, instead, buy a few nice bottles of the Martell and stay here with me, Johnny Littlefeather, Cousin Jed and the rest of the brood and we could toast our lives all night.”

She has a point but of course, I really didn’t spend much money last night. For one, I didn’t have much money, hardly ever do. It is burdensome and as I had iterated on previous occasion it usually carries with it the levy. I don’t like being levied. Not when I don’t know where the levy is going. Sometimes, I think the levy is counter-productive and instills laziness. Or irresponsibility.

I am a barterer. Works well for me, and has worked for me very well since leaving the executive suite some years ago. I traded in my old life for this one, and I’ve no regrets. To many, to those who don’t quite understand, the puppets — think I had completely gone insane. Perhaps. So what gives? I traded my Rolex for a two-dollar Mickey Mouse watch and by the same light of day, the measurement of time is pretty much calculated the same.

Last night’s Cognac and finger sandwiches were compliments of the house — a sports bar that was in celebration of the Bear’s victory and as many proudly saluted: “To the Bears. First time in twenty-one years.” The Happy Hour was extended into the far reaches of the morn’ by one of the revelers — a wealthy guy who walked in with two very attractive dames… He bought the house for the night, in layman’s terms — he paid for an open bar until closing. I just hope that whatever levy was assessed on this one would be put to practical use.

I managed a few sandwiches to bring back to the hovel — and Johnny Littlefeather swore up and down that he was ready to convert– he may just take that job up at the Hero’s sandwich shop– up on Western and Addison. I think it would be a good thing for Johnny. He has an appetite of a horse. . . and a lot of times, Mammie’s offerings are frowned upon as mere appetizers.

Besides, Johnny’s not so good a barterer as me so I think it good for him to take a regular job, albeit a part-time one. A little structure too, he’s not many hobbies, hates reading. Besides, he’s just about out of stories and I’m quite sure a job at the sandwich shop will re-freshen his repertoire.

He can enlighten us with tales spawned on by the lunch set–teenage kids with loud mouths and boisterous dreams, the blue collared dregs betrothed to spiraling hopes and the occasional stuffed shirt –unknowingly, still operating on borrowed time.

I am truly looking forward to Johnny’s professorial renditions of the shop talk. Added will be, no doubt, his little twist on the tale — his propensity for heightening the story is second to none. Mammie says, “Johnny can turn the simplest of nursery rhymes into a three-hour farce that would’ve made P.G. Wodehouse stand on his head.”


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