My homeless year began early October 1985 and ended in the last day of August 1986. I was thirteen, and then fourteen, and it’s a story I’ve never told in part because I slept so many different places that year. I slept in the broom closet of a friend’s apartment building. The closet was just inside the entryway, past the eight slotted mailboxes. It was the size of a single bed, crowded with mop buckets and cleaning solutions, and I could stretch all the way out and my toes would just touch the door. The building itself was a tan/yellow brick four flat. Kwan lived with his parents and grandmother in a two-bedroom on the second floor, part of a wave of Korean immigrants arriving on the north side of Chicago in the early eighties on their way to the suburbs along with the Kurds and Russian Jews. When I would come over to visit after school his grandmother would clutch my head in her bony hands and pray for me.
“She wants to know if you’re going to church,” Kwan would interpret. When it was time for dinner Kwan would politely ask me to leave.
I had a leather bomber jacket my father had given me in one of our better moments, and some clothes, and I wore all of it when I slept there. It was just as hard and cold in the broom closet as it was outside and it was winter in Chicago and I was thirteen. I could see my breath pooling in the dark and woke shivering in the middle of every night. I had a watch so I knew it was usually three and then I waited until six and I went to the laundromat on California Avenue and sat there trying to get warm. But after a while I couldn’t get warm and even in school I was shivering all the time, vibrating in my big jacket.
But this isn’t about school (I was in eighth grade). And it’s not about my father handcuffing me to a pipe and leaving me there in the basement of his old house. And it’s not about the hotel room I ended up in one homeless evening with a white man in a nurse’s uniform and a wig giving head to three black men, lines of coke spread haphazardly across the table. All of that is true but this is just a list of the different places I slept. It’s the only way I can get any perspective.
I slept at home. I went home several times. I had a large bedroom and the walls were covered in wallpaper that looked like an open sky full of birds and clouds. I had a down comforter and two pillows in Charlie Brown pillowcases. I had a manual typewriter I banged on and I taped bad poetry over my walls and listened to Pink Floyd albums on the cabinet record player. I made dinner from endless cans of Chef Boy ‘R Dee and stacks of frozen steaks. If I was to guess I would say that between rapprochements with my father I slept at home a full month out of the eleven I spent as a homeless child in Chicago. Friends who ran away would climb in through my window and sleep beneath my bed.
I turned fourteen in a basement I had broken into with my friend’s Albert and Justin. Justin was often homeless that year and he slept many different places as well. The floor was blue cement and we sat up most of the night against the wood storage sheds working our way through pints of vodka and confessing to things like masturbation. In the morning the police woke us with flashlights and boots and sent us back to the streets.I slept in the police station, the 24th District, the flat dark building with the giant parking lot on Clark Street. I was arrested for curfew, then drug possession, then breaking into parking meters. I slept on the scratched steel cot inside the cell in the juvenile unit or sitting upright with my wrist next to my ear, handcuffed to a steel loop in the wall.
A Jewish man found me in the broom closet. He seemed confused. He couldn’t understand why a child was sleeping there. He probably owned the building. He was probably just coming to get a mop. “It’s OK,” I told him, gathering my things in my arms, careful not to look in his eyes, and walking away. I was fourteen. I didn’t want to answer the obvious questions. The broom closet was locked after that.
On the coldest nights when my lashes became icicles I snuck into a boiler room and slept next to the warm pipes and left when I heard the banging that meant someone was coming down the stairs. I walked along Devon Avenue when the bank clock read twenty below. I had hypothermia. It was like a circuit at times: roof, roof, boiler room. Other times it was a pattern and I would go to the same place over and over again and go to sleep just like anyone else.
I slept at my father’s girlfriend’s apartment on a couch in her living room and I watched her sleep through the half open door to her bedroom, her blanket riding up her naked thighs. She slept flat on her stomach with her head turned breathing softly into the pillow and her legs slightly spread. I watched the balls of her feet, the curve of her toes and her tan calves. This is not about her struggling to hold on to me arms wrapped around my waist while I lunged for the doorknob, my father on his way, upset over the social workers that had begun to bother him about his homeless child. Or the violence that would occur after he found me walking late that night down Chicago Avenue covered in snow and took me home for a single night smacked me across the face and shaved my head.
I slept in my grandparents small flat outside of Sheffield, England. My grandparents are dead now, both of them. They weren’t expecting me. I drank barley wine at night with them and my grandfather told me stories of the great war and made jokes about his missing thumb. When they went to sleep I journeyed out to the pubs and I drank some more. During the day I hiked the Uden valley, watched the sheep in the long green fields. I found my first strip club in the back of a small pub with a broken window. Several times I hitchhiked into Sheffield to watch punk rock bands and met people who were looking for fights. I wasn’t looking for a fight. After a week my grandparents sent me back to America.
I slept above the Quick Stop on Pratt and California, only a block away from my grammar school. I climbed the gutters to the roof and laid in the corner beneath the lip to block the wind. Sometimes I would poke my head up and see the crossing lights and the black empty streets and I would feel so lucky and free. There were video games in the store but I wasn’t allowed inside. The teachers knew I was homeless and bought me lunch but no one offered to take me home. My friends parents also didn’t offer to take me in. At PTA meetings parents were warned to keep their children away from me. I was a known drug user, an eighth grade drinker when I could get the money together. One time Justin’s father chased me down the sidewalk in his Taxi, trying to run me over. When I jumped the fence to get away he pressed a gun against my friend Roger’s chest and demanded he tell where I was. But Roger didn’t know, and that, like so many other things that happened that year, is not what this is about.
I stole food from the dumpster behind the Dominick’s, cold packets of meat just past date. I slept at the canal where we built fires and planned adventures, all the neighborhood’s forgotten children, the ones whose parents didn’t notice them missing or didn’t care, dancing near the flames. Nobody looked for us. We named things. The tree I sat in was called Steve’s office, the fire pit was Pete Brown’s grave. Pat had a throne dug into the dirt below the path and Rob had Rob’s chair, which was just the tip of a boulder protruding horizontally from the slope. We respected each other’s space most of the time. We built a fire every night and we threw rocks at the rats as they scurried in and out of the filthy water. We had wonderful times at the canal playing heavy metal music and popping acid while trying to stay awake for cops and tougher kids that might want to beat us up. One time Fat Mike came running, out of breath. He had seen headlights near the baseball stadium. “Dude,” he said. “Could be a cop car, could be a party car, I don’t know.” We laughed for hours over that. We woke up covered in dirt, reeking of smoke, and went to school.
I slept at home. My mother was dead. My father didn’t always notice me when I came back; other times he woke me with a loud whistle. He never reported me missing when I left again, we didn’t want each other, and eventually he moved himself to the suburbs with his new wife and didn’t bother to get me his forwarding address.
I slept three nights with a Christian man who did painting work for my father. He lived in a small apartment and his wife was dying rapidly, like my mother had. I went with him to church. I ruined his baking pan cooking hamburger on his stovetop. It wasn’t working out, he told me. Years later my father still tries to contact me demanding I write his Christian friend a thank you letter.
There was a man named Ron. He had an apartment beneath Pat’s mother’s apartment. Pat’s mother was a junky and Ron was just a twenty year old slacker who would one day go to community college and get a degree in hospitality that would allow him to work in a hotel. I had stolen some money and bought a quarter pound of marijuana and Ron let me stay with him until the marijuana was gone. Pat’s mother is dead now. Justin’s parents are also dead. Roger’s dad is dead. Dan’s mom is dead. It has nothing to do with the story but my friend’s parents all died young.
I slept beneath Brian’s bed and when Brian’s father caught me he kicked me out then he beat Brian. Brian’s father saw me stumbling down the street drunk with my shirt off in the middle of winter and he said to his daughter, “I ought to put him out of his misery.” He did too much coke and had a bad heart. He died too.
I slept in the closet of an independent living home for wards of the state. The home was on Sacramento. A normal, boxy looking house in the middle of the street with a small basketball court in the backyard. Eight boys lived there, transitioning between group homes and living alone. Some of the boys snuck me inside. The closet was small and I had to sleep with my legs crossed sitting up. I was discovered by the staff and they fed me a bowl of cereal. Someday soon the state would take custody of me and I would also be a ward of the state and I would live in that very home for a time.
More often than anything I slept outside. I slept in parks and in the woods and on the neighborhood rooftops. But when you can fall asleep anywhere you often do. I was always the last to leave the party. I never had to go home.
Sometimes Justin would have a girlfriend and I would sleep on the couch and he would sleep in the bedroom. Justin was popular that way. He was beautiful, like a woman, with his long black hair. Sometimes Justin and I slept together on a gravely rooftop and he would wrap his thin legs over my legs and his sinewy arms across my chest and hold me tightly his face buried in my neck and I was never sure if he was doing that because he wanted to or because he thought I expected it from him.
Justin and I slept at the Maxworks, a hippy commune in Jewtown. The neighborhood doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve paved it over to expand the University campus. Maxworks was a three-story abandoned building taken over by radicals many of whom lived there for twenty years. They smoked dandelions and banana skins and made pocket money selling handmade pipes to the junkies sitting around garbage cans outside. Justin and I were too young to recognize what we had stumbled on, the failure of an earlier generation’s promise. They gave us acid, yellow sunshine, and one of the women, in a flowery skirt with unshaven legs and armpits, had sex with Justin. I don’t remember her name but I remember her spinning in circles in a trash heap near a fire. Her arms were outstretched and dress translucent. I was so jealous but there was nothing I could do about it. I was an ugly child and sometimes my ugliness kept me safe.
From the Maxworks, over the next eight days in the summer of 1986, Justin and I slept our way in cars and trucks across America. The truckstop in East Los Angeles was a sea of flashing lights, the air wavy with gasoline, open trailers filled with rolls of carpet, men standing on dock ladders or leaning back in their rigs chatting lazily on the radio in the deafening hum of the motoring engines. I slept in the cabin of a truck while the driver molested Justin in the front. I slept right through it and in the morning sitting in a donut shop under a blank grey sky surrounded by highways and the roar of traffic Justin told me he wanted to kill that man. He had stolen our only bag and inside was my poetry and our maps. I thought that was what Justin was talking about, the poetry and the maps, but it wasn’t. Years later when I was at a party telling my favorite story, about hitchhiking from Chicago to California with my best friend, he would interrupt me and say, “Steve, I was molested.”
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” I asked, which was a dumb thing to say. I was so angry.
In Las Vegas we slept in the juvenile detention center. We had caught a ride with a German and he took us from Los Angeles to the strip. He wore shorts and drove with a beer between his legs. Good beer, he said, from Germany. He stopped in a convenience store and bought cheap beer so we would have something to drink too. He had a small bong in the glove compartment and a pillbox filled with weed and we smoked that as we drove into the desert and he dropped us off at Caesar’s Palace where we stocked up on free matchbooks and wondered what to do next.
A state trooper answered that question. We were out on the entry ramp, trying to hitch a ride out of town. Our clothes were muddy and ripped. We were put in jail as runaways. They contacted my father who stopped in the printer and told the woman working there, “They arrested my son in Las Vegas. I’m not going to get him.”
“No offense,” she told me when I met her years later. “But I didn’t give a shit.
”I said goodbye to Justin in his small room with white walls on the ground floor of the institution. It was early in the morning, the desert sun rising above the low buildings, and he wasn’t quite awake. His dark hair covered his eyes. His gym shoes were in the hallway in front of the red walking line and he asked why I was being let out first. I told him I didn’t know. They drove me to the Greyhound station and then they took my handcuffs off. I slept on a bus for three days as it snaked slowly across the country from Las Vegas into Chicago. They gave me four dollars when they let me out and I spent it on cigarettes and candy bars. We stopped at the McDonald’s dotting the highway and a state fair in Carbondale. The man next to me fed me whiskey in a coffee cup and I slept against his shoulder at night. He was fresh out of prison and asked if I would be willing to snatch someone’s purse. I said I didn’t think I would be very good at that. Justin wouldn’t get out for several more weeks and when he did he would be re-arrested on an outstanding warrant and he would go to audi-home and his parents would refuse to pick him up and the state would take custody of him and he would spend the rest of his childhood in a state home in the Chicago suburbs.
When I got back to Chicago I slept on the streets, as I had been doing for so long now. I slept on a friend’s porch until his mother found out. I slept on the same rooftops. I hooked up with a children’s agency and they put me in Central Youth Shelter. It was a gladiator arena filled with children awaiting placement stuffed thirty to a room. We sat around during the day watching television or playing basketball in the fenced in yard. The shelter was understaffed and nobody would tell me where I was going or when I would get out. Then I walked away.
I slept for a while in a house connected to a Catholic church and in private homes of people that had volunteered to take in children while the state waited the requisite 21 days to decide if they were willing to take custody. There was something wrong with the adults that took me in, all men living alone. I think they were pedophiles and I was a disappointment to them. I played pool with other homeless children at the Advocates center beneath the Granville train tracks. There was a girl there, a year older than me, tall and thin and freckled. She always beat me and then did this little victory dance with her hands, fingers stretched like wings. She had the biggest smile.
Then I slept in the house I had grown up in which my father was in the process of selling. It was an obvious mistake.
I woke into his fists and I tried to cover my face. He dragged me into the kitchen where he had clippers, forced me to my knees in front of the cabinet, and he shaved my head. It was the second time he had done that. There were giant bald patches from where his hands slipped and I looked like a mental patient, which was ironic. He must have been waiting for me, or searching the neighborhood. He had planned to do this. Revenge for something. The meanest thing possible, worse even than the beating, worse than handcuffing me to a pipe, to be humiliated in front of everyone. To be a circus freak. It was an act of raw cruelty well within my father’s emotional range. Something he felt was owed him for the negative portrayal of himself as a parent, for the hatred he saw when he looked in my eyes. But that’s not what this is about at all. This isn’t about hate or love or what went wrong between my father and I or the kind of resentments that never go away. This isn’t about splitting the blame between bad parents and bad children. It’s not about culpability. It’s about sleeping and the things that are important to that like shelter and rain.
That night was the last night of my homeless year. It was the end of August and high school would start in a couple of days. I had cut my wrist open and there was a bright red gash that bled through the afternoon. It was hot and a festival was underway in the park. A soft breeze cut around the sleigh hill and a few clouds pocked the long sky. I solicited beer and people bought me beer because they thought maybe I was crazy or maybe they could get me to leave. I asked one man if I could go home with him and he said, “Look, I bought you a beer,” which was true enough. As night fell a band ascended the stage and I danced while they played, slamming in the moshpit at the top of the baseball diamond, my wrist still open splashing traces of blood on people’s clothes. Proof I was there.
I crawled in the entryway of an apartment building across from the park. I didn’t care anymore. I slept in the open and I heard footsteps pass and a door. The floor was small tiles held together with cement and the door was a glass case barreled in dark wood. I rested with my head on my arm and my knees pulled toward my chest. I had a sack of clothes somewhere. A friend’s parent had given it to me, long white shirts and discarded pants, but I couldn’t remember where I’d left them. My jeans were torn and I wore a black rock and roll t-shirt. I knew it was only a matter of time until the door closing became a phone call and the phone call became swirling red and blue lights and the lights became a backseat and a window with bars. The police came and they asked where my parents were. I told them I didn’t know, which was true. The police weren’t mean or angry. They were just doing their job. In the morning I met a different set of officers who didn’t wear uniforms or carry guns. The new officers offered me sandwiches and something to drink. They asked what happened to my wrist and I told them I fell on a tin can but they didn’t believe me. I was taken to a hospital and a kind nurse used surgical tape to close the hole in my wrist.
“Why would you do that?” she asked and I wanted to laugh at her. I wanted to ask if she was offering me a place to stay. But she was just concerned and nice and I would meet a lot more people like her. Things got much better after that though it took me a little while to recognize it. Things were going to work out fine save some scars.
Writer: Stephen Elliott
Location: California & Devon, to name one
Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books including the memoir, The Adderall Diaries. He is finishing directing a feature film based on his novel Happy Baby. And he is the founding editor of the online magazine, The Rumpus.