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Sunday Soliloquy: Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent March 14, 2010

Painting By Alice Neel - Westreich Family

For sometime now I have been sporadically posting. I should share with my readers that that I suffer from panic/anxiety disorder.  The condition cropped up when I was living in New York, triggered by September 11th stress and the death of my beloved Dalmatian- Paloma.  Afrocity thought she knew how to cope. She handled homelessness, starvation, September 11th…Why should the death of a dog be any different?

It was.

"Last Sickness" by Alice Neel

After staying awake all night with my dog who was obviously having trouble breathing, I fell asleep for one hour.  When I woke up, she was dead. What do you do with the body of a dead Dalmatian in New York City?  I decided to call the veterinarian who instructed me to physically wrap and bring the body four blocks to 75th and Broadway.   My hair was all over my head, dark circles were under my eyes.  I smelled musty.  Must run a bath first.  Must wash up.  The dog is sleeping upstairs.

Then it hit.  A sharp pain in my left arm. Throbbing chest pain, my heart began racing. I was sweaty and faint.  I was gonna die. This is what a heart attack feels like. Oh my God, I am dying.  Call 911!!!

The next thing I knew, paramedics were carrying me down five flights of stairs, past a few onlookers. What a beautiful Saturday morning and I was dying.

That day, my heart rate would dangerously elevate four times before the doctors finally decided to dope me up with Xanax.  Before discharging me that evening, the physician gave me a card.  It was for a psychiatric facility.  I had panic disorder and would deal with it the rest of my life.

Why now? Why after all of these years of coping with molestation, hunger, cold winters in Chicago without heat– why would the death of a Dalmatian send me to a shrink’s Eames daybed?

Questions still persist five years later. I  still deal with anxiety, especially when something from the past harasses my present and future.

My lease is ending and I need to find an apartment. The scars of evictions past haunt me to this day, despite my well heeled zip code, my more than adequate income. Despite my good fortune, I am still anxious and at the mercy of young Afrocity and mother, walking the streets with the Chicago Reader classified ads.  We wanted to live on the North Side of the city. With the white people so I could attend better public schools where my classmates did not get pregnant.

Alice Neel, "Nancy and Olivia"

Our being on welfare was a huge obstacle.

Section 8 housing was beneath us. Mother never applied for it. She hated welfare enough as it was.

“Section 8 only puts you in projects with other niggers,” she told me.  “If we want to live in Lincoln Park, we can. We just need a co-signer or someone to give us a break.”

Day after day, mother and I would look for apartments. Levolor blinds were always a draw for me.  It just sounded classy, unlike the newspaper that covered my windows at the time.  Levolor blinds, electric stove, elevator building with a doorman.

That break never came for mother and I.  There would be no co-signer. No welfare moms in Lincoln Park.  We could not afford $500 a month for rent when our check was only $225.

“Maybe if you found a job-“

“Be quiet Afrocity,” she retorted as we sat on the stairs of a brownstone apartment. We were just rejected again. “I am thinking…Shut up and let me think.”

Heat was shining on us. We were getting blacker by the second.  A half eaten bag of Doritos would do nothing for my thirst.   Across the street was a school, white kids were playing on the swing sets with their nannies.  See Sawing up and down without a care in the world. Though I am ashamed of my thoughts then, for a moment I wondered how our lives might be different if we were white.   There would be Levolor blinds,  a father who worked on Michigan Avenue.  I would attend fancy schools and learn to play Suzuki string violin.

“Here is a place on Pulaski and -“

The very mention of the street name “Pulaski” snapped me out of the daydream.

“Pulaski!!! But that is on the West Side you promised we would live where the white people lived this time,” I protested. “You promised me we would live on the North Side with good school and the Levolor-“

“Not this time,” she shook her head. “School is about to start and we need an address. We can take one of the places where we can get a place… You said you liked Oak Park better than Chicago anyway.”

Glass came over my eyes. I put my head down.  She did not like to see me cry.  She never allowed it. Lumps came in my throat.  Envy swelled for the kids in the school yard.  Mother stood up which meant it was time to go.  I left the paper and bag of Doritos on the brownstone steps,  the #72 bus was waiting to take us home.   While I looked out the window, the bus passed through neighborhoods turning from vanilla to coffee, to chocolate.  Within an hour, we were back in the ghetto, defeated again.

As I leaf through home decor magazines today, I see much of the same furniture not through some North side stranger’s window but in my own apartment.  The Levolor blinds of yesterday are now the stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops of today.  I have a real estate agent that helped me find an apartment.  My foot and more is in the door.  Open houses are now offered by private condo owners facing foreclosures.  Beautiful empty apartments once inhabited by slap happy metrosexuals. Others by families who have to move in with their parents because someone lost a job.

“It is cheaper to rent my condo out and live with my parents,”  a woman would tell me.  “…Recently…there have been some unexpected circumstances in my life…It can even be furnished if you like.”

Somewhere in the Bible, there is a verse that says:

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

-Psalm 118:22

Funny how life works out.  Who ever would have thought that the nappy headed little girl would now get calls from people in Lincoln Park actually needing her.  Needing her to rent their apartments. That once  enviable feeling has now turned into pity. Pity over the foreclosure sales, pity that healthcare is being shoved down everyone’s throat while people are losing their jobs and homes.

Painting by Alice Neel

I still have my own bitter pills to swallow.

Xanax guards me from my nightstand.

The thought of moving yields night sweats and panic.

So what is it like to rent an apartment now?

It is not different than before.

It never will be I suppose.

The fear always moves with me no matter how much I box, bubble wrap and pack it away.

I can find the perfect place with the perfect arrangement of bay windows,  a lakeside view.  Like the place I live now. The place my mother died before she got to see it.  A high-rise in the sky.

Mother never made it to the promised land.

She never got to see me with the blinds.




Sunday Soliloquy: Afrocity is Politically Right of 637 N. Central Avenue August 23, 2009

Victorian Shirt-Waist

Victorian Shirt-Waist

“Late August was always characterized by an increase in anxiety for young Afrocity.”

August symbolically heralded the end of summer. I did not care if the autumnal equinox was not until September 21, for most adolescents summer was over the day one returned to school.

Summer is something of a mixed blessing when you are living in squalor.

Summer represents days of relaxation, sunshine, time with mother, more television, waking up at the crack of noon with nothing to do but live.  The darker side of summer also marked the beginning of days cooped up in an un-air conditioned bedroom with no running water or stove.  Meals were served straight from the can or cooked on our Sunbeam electric hot plate.

It was 1982. My place of residence was 637 N. Central Avenue in Chicago’s Austin community. It was my uncle’s 6,000 square foot, four-story Victorian home. Large, painted white, with shingles, gorgeous wood work, crown moldings.  Despite being run down, the house had its charms. There was a porch swing in desperate need of a paint job which could still swing but scratched the bottom your thighs with chipped paint and splinters if you wore shorts.  A steeple roof was a round shaped room and had tiny windows all around it.  My uncle purchased the home during the early 1970’s from an aging marijuana addicted hippie, the son of a wealthy man who never quite aspired to the same ambitions as his father. The hippie had turned the home into something of a boarding house which was quite understandable because it had 10 bedrooms.

The actual home I lived in on 637 N. Central in Chicago as it looks today. The two windows directly above the porch roof is the bedroom where I lived with my mother for 5 years. Today the home is section 8 housing.

This is the actual home I lived in on 637 N. Central Ave., in Chicago as it looks today. The two windows directly above the porch roof is the bedroom where I lived with my mother for 5 years during the 1980's. Today the home is gutted and was turned into section 8 housing.

Neglect made the home far too heavy of a burden for the hippie. The neighborhood was also getting darker by the year. My uncle got the fixer-upper for a song. Always a work in progress, the home would get sporadic attention. A kitchen updated here and there, a wall painted, a floor sanded. After some time my uncle’s wife who was blond and very Polish American wanted to return to her own neighborhood and the comfort of her parents.  They would move, leaving the home to a starving artist named Al, their dog Gypsy, and my alcoholic uncle.


Drawing from 1800's edition of Peterson Magazine

It was with passive obedience that I followed my mother to 637 N. Central after being homeless for 3 months. There was little doubt that it was better than living in the homeless shelters and depending upon the kindness and quirkiness of strangers.  However, from my perspective it was free, dirty and a place where my mother could become too comfortable (lazy).

“How long will we be staying this time?” I asked her. I needed to ask because I never knew exactly where I would be from month to month.

My two shopping bags filled with my belongings were sitting in a corner of this bedroom. The room had two windows, smelled moldy and had cob webs. The floor was wood but looked like dirt from all of the dust. Noticeable was the absence of a bed.

“Until I get back on my feet,” she answered.

(Great that means never) “Can we find an apartment in Oak Park (Illinois) like before? I don’t understand why we can’t Ronnie found a place for her kids and she was homeless like us.”

“Ronnie” was a woman that mother and I had met at the homeless shelter. She was a battered wife with two kids who escaped from her husband in the middle of the night. Leaving all of her possessions behind. She boarded a Greyhound bus to Chicago. Her family wired her money from Arkansas to place a deposit on an apartment and start a new life.  Within record time, Ronnie secured a job as a waitress and was out of the shelter in three weeks.  Ronnie, was a different kind of mother. Not better, just different. Mother and I would never be so lucky.

“I can’t find a place without a job or co-signer you know that. We can stay here just fine. Your uncle says there is a used mattress emporium on Chicago Ave., we will get something there to sleep on.  I need a place to think and rest. I could not do that in the shelter with all those chores and bible classes they made us go to.”

victorian-clipart-4I was silent.

I needed her to focus. Her clear mental state was imperative to my survival. Lately, she had not been responsive to my pleas to find a job.

Her actions were suddenly marked by a certain lack of domesticity. She no longer washed my clothing, or cared about my meals –which concerned me. The homeless shelter gave me three squares a day Now I was worried about going hungry now that we were on our own again.

Considering that I had to steal to feed us in Oak Park before we became homeless, mother lapsing into the deep state of depression which got us here in the first place would not be beyond the pale of her normal behavior.

“What will we do for water?” I asked.

The pipes had frozen and burst the winter before.

“We will have to buy it in jugs, I guess.”

She shrugged her shoulders.

This movement denoted that she was “winging it”.  “We can flush the toilet with water.”

Oh, I had not thought of that. I was only 12.

It was difficult to understand her mood. She almost seemed happy and that was a good change.  Her attitude must have caught on. I began to understand but I needed her to understand me as well.  I did not want to ever attend a Chicago Public School.  As a “CPS” virgin, my peers would smell me out like fresh meat in the dessert.

victorian-era-clothing-7I feigned a half smile- a very weak closed mouthed smile.

“Promise me we will be out of here in time for me to start school…Okay?”

She looked guilty and only nodded.

It was not a lie if “Okay Afrocity” was never uttered from her lips.

And it was a lie.

Within a few weeks time, mother would enroll me in the Chicago Public School system for the first time.

I would remain in that Victorian home on Central Ave. for nearly 5 years.

My menstrual period would start there, my breasts would grow there and my self-esteem would end there.

That house watched me put on makeup for the first time, attend high school and would hear my nighttime tears more than any other,

Dusting off her jeans which were two sizes too big because they were given to her by the shelter, mother went to leave the room. “You know this is not permanent, right? Someday we will look back on this and laugh.”

“I know,” I said lowly, resigned.  She lied to me again. I would never look back and laugh.

Sighing, I sat down on the floor. There was nothing I could do but make the best of this. At least there were no roaches, only silverfish from what I could see. No curfews like at the shelter. I took a small green Gideon bible out of my shopping bag. The shelter had given it to me. It only contained the New Testament and books of Psalms and Proverbs.  I read Psalms 23 as mother found a broom from the basement and began to clean.  Her thick black hair had become nappy from the summer sweat so she hid it under a red bandanna. The dust made her take the bandanna from her head and tie it around my mouth and nose. She did not want me to get the sneezes.  Adjacent to my left was a closet door with a full length splotchy mirror. I looked like a bandit.

victorian clothes

“I’m the bible thumping bandit,” I laughed. It would be the day’s only humorist dialogue and our collective sanity clung to that one God given moment.

Autographed Letter Signed,



Hopeless Shelters: Welcome To The Motel California June 24, 2009

Hope and Wrath The recent depictions of the Democratic party as the masters of hope and change have taken an interesting twist. Remember the homeless woman who Obama reached out to during a town hall meeting last February in Fort Meyers, Florida?  Her name was Henrietta Hughes and she cried out to Obama for help. Henrietta was without the means to take care of her children.


February 11, 2008 BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

FORT MYERS, Fla.-A woman’s hard-luck tale at a town hall meeting in Florida moved President Barack Obama to leave the stage.

When Henrietta Hughes complained she’d been down on her luck and was living in her car with her son, Obama walked to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Hughes said she was out of work and homeless, with “a very small vehicle for my family and I to live in.”

A White House press secretary said administration officials asked the local housing authority to contact her after the exchange in Fort Myers.

Meanwhile, the wife of Florida state Rep. Nick Thompson offered to let the woman stay in a house she owns that’s vacant about 30 miles away.

For matters of clarification, lets summarize the situation. The hopenchangling attends town hall meeting February 10, 2009. There he meets homeless woman who is obviously an Obama supporter. The change deity listens to the woman’s pleas for help and her desires to someday have her own kitchen and bathroom. The change deity hugs woman (smiles for camera) and tells her that she will be contacted by someone on his staff. The woman, Henrietta Hughes is then helped by of all people- a Republican state representative and his wife who gives her a home.  In many articles the fact that Nick Thompson (R-Florida) and his wife Chene were Republicans went unmentioned. The mainstream media did not want the word to get out that despite the Obama DNC love and promises to help that Henrietta received in front of the flashing lights and cameras, it was actually someone behind enemy lines that actually lifted a finger to do something. It has been nearly five months since Henrietta first met President Obama and she is still holding out for hope.

April 23, 2009

Woman who pleaded to Obama is still struggling

(CNN)The homeless Florida woman who made a tearful plea for help from President Obama earlier this year is still jobless and struggling financially.

Henrietta Hughes caught the nation’s attention in February when she cried for help during one of Obama’s town hall meetings.

After her plea, Hughes was given a free home to live in temporarily, but she is still struggling to find a job and might soon lose that home, CNN affiliate WINK reported Thursday.

Hughes, who is in her 60s, faithfully goes to an employment center in Fort Myers in hopes of finding a job.

“It’s almost our second home,” Hughes told WINK.

She and her son have taken a computer class at the center to help land work. Hughes said she has applied for as many jobs as possible but has struck out. Her son has had no luck either.

Now Hughes says she feels time is running out. The home she lives in was donated by the wife of a Florida lawmaker, Chene Thompson, who has been trying to sell the vacant home in the Fort Myers suburb of Lavelle since 2006. Once the house sells, Hughes will have to leave.

But Thompson told CNN that she will do everything in her power to make sure Hughes is not back out on the streets even if her house sells.

“I’ve told Miss Hughes … she will never again be homeless, even if I have to personally assist her with her rent,” said Thompson, who is a longtime advocate of the homeless.

Thompson said Hughes reminds her of her grandmother and that she and her son are “upstanding, good-hearted people.”

“Her concern is that she doesn’t want to be a freeloader,” Thompson said, but Hughes and her son have helped deter vandals who have targeted vacant homes in the area.

“They really are a blessing for me,” Thompson said.

But Hughes told WINK that she worries that she could end up living in her truck again if she has to move without a job.

dustbowlGiven the power of the President of the United States, you would think that Barack Obama could some how get this woman and her son a job. In de-emphasizing the political party of Henrietta’s true helpers, the mainstream media once again evades the hypocrisy of the Democrats. Didn’t Florida’s electroal votes go to Brack Obama? Surely there is someone there that can give this woman a job or a more permanent home.  While looking for more stories on Henrietta Hughes, I could not help noticing that the Obama family has failed to take part in personally reaching out to this woman and her son. Doesn’t Henrietta deserve more than a peck on the cheek? Judas kissed Jesus too you know…Just sayin.

So much for Henrietta being the “face of America’s failing economy”. That should be changed to faces (plural). Apparently the economic stimulus package Obama was peddling the day he met Henrietta was never intended to help Main Street folk. So extensive homelessness in America has become that the state of Massachusettes uses motels to shelter those who cannot sustain themselves.

Boston Globe

June 24,2009

A room to call home

State sheltering a record number of struggling families in motels

By Jenifer B. McKim

Robert Cutler and Tanya Labitue wake each morning in a rundown Saugus motel room to the buzz of busy Route 99 and the coos of their 6-month-old daughter, Ashleigh.

For more than three months, the tiny room has been their home. Cutler and Labitue spend each day caring for Ashleigh, looking for work, and watching television. They eat microwaved food, cram provisions into a small refrigerator, and dream of a place of their own.

Still, said Cutler, the motel is “better than being on the streets, and we get to be together.’’

Cutler, 34, and Labitue, 30, found themselves homeless in March after Cutler lost his job. They are among 751 families, including about 1,000 children, housed in 39 motels at a cost to state taxpayers of $85 per room a night on average – nearly $2 million last month alone.

Many motels are in congested commercial districts on busy thoroughfares without sidewalks. They often are dingy, with poor lighting, worn carpeting, and – in some places – bedbugs. Families are not allowed to have visitors in their rooms, some of which lack microwaves and refrigerators. Children have parking lots as their only playgrounds.

More homeless families are being lodged in hotels than ever. Officials blame the increase on rising unemployment and a flood of foreclosures. The state says it provides families with services similar to those offered at shelters, including transportation for children to their original school districts, and referrals to community resources for food and clothing.

“We are obligated to put them in a place where they can have at least a roof over their head,’’ said Bob Pulster, executive director of the Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, created by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007 to end homelessness by 2013. “A motel may be the best we can do right now

Poverty_kidsWhile the motel shelters seem generous, there is a concern among many that they offer no supervision or counseling for the inhabitants. As someone that was once homeless, I cannot emphasize enough, the need for safety and security within a homeless shelter. My experience had a profound effect upon my psyche. Yes many people are homeless but what is not said is that many of those engage in criminal behavior, are often abusive to their children and spouses or they may be mentally ill. They may be prostitutes or drug addicts. Sometimes there are problems with lice and scabies.

What I am trying to say is that there is nothing romantic about being homeless. I have been there and each possible social ailment I have just stated describes a woman who was in the shelter with my mother and I.

There was Diane who was a prostitute and turned tricks in Grant Park while her three year old son sat on a bench unattended while she was in the bushes.

There was Karen, a drug addict and her two children who watched while our floor mother had to call the police because Karen refused to stop doing drugs in the shelter. She would sell her food stamps for drugs.

Laurie was in the shelter because her husband beat her, and her two children.

And then there was my mother who had a problem with depression that was so severe, she would let her daughter steal food just to be fed.

Cities such as Cambridge are grappling with issues brought on by an influx of motel families. For instance, officials last year learned about a growing number of homeless families at the Cambridge Gateway Inn following an uptick in emergency calls about medical problems and criminal activity at the motel. The Fire Department found minor safety violations, including prohibited hot plates and toaster ovens, and now makes weekly checks.

“It’s an extraordinary waste of money when we know the best way to house people is in permanent housing,’’ said Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which works to promote affordable housing and economic development.

Some question whether motels are an efficient use of tax dollars. A monthlong stay costs an average of $2,550 – similar to rent in some upscale Boston high-rises.

Last week, the Legislature voted to tighten family eligibility requirements for emergency shelter, something that could leave hundreds scrambling for a place to live. Currently, families whose income does not exceed 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for shelter. The new law drops it for incoming families to 115 percent of the poverty level, or $25,357 annually for a family of four.

The city’s health department is concerned about bedbugs, after complaints from residents and reports from school nurses that children from the motel appeared to have suffered bites. Sam Lipson, director of environmental health for the Cambridge Public Health Department, said officials worked with the motel in February to address the problems and have heard no new complaints. But hotel guests might be reluctant to complain for fear of being forced out, he added…

While the state has placed families in motels since 2007, when the 2,000 rooms in homeless shelters reached capacity, the temporary solution has become a long-term problem. The number of families in motels as of June 15 – 751 – was 355 percent higher than the 165 housed in them as of mid-June last year. Families are also staying longer. As of May, the average time was two months, compared with one week a year ago, but stays can stretch as long as eight months.

As a result, budget motels like the Gateway Inn have essentially become homeless shelters, with nearly all rooms occupied by state-paid guests. Massachusetts is one of the few states that mandate shelter for homeless families.

Hopeless shelters, that is what I call them. Such a lovely place.

Autographed Letter Signed,