The Cesspool Obama and I Crawled Out Of

A Memoir of life in Hyde Park

Elvin Bishop, a fine guitarist, but perhaps not always the best judge of human affairs, said that he liked Hyde Park because you could piss in the sink there.  I don't remember doing that, though I can't say I didn't; but I do have many vivid memories of Hyde Park before it became the gentrified home of Barack and Michelle Obama. 

Claire and I went into a fried chicken place and sat in a booth.  At the counter was a drunk cop, and in front of the juke box a young black moved his legs in time to the music, deciding what to play next.  The cop told him to stop dancing, but he put in another dime.  The cop told him again and got up from his seat, staggering over next to us.  He drew his revolver and tried to point it at the offender.  It floated lazily upward, turning this way and that, as if it had a drunken mind of its own, stumbled, and fell to the level of the table.  Then it seemed to clear its head and rose again, only to fall clattering to the floor.

The song over, the dancer left, and the waitress brought us our chicken.

****

We went into a liquor store to get change for the Laundromat.  A man came in to hold the place up, so we retreated to the back.  For some reason, despite the exchange of several shots, the result was still in doubt, and Claire and I became impatient.  By now it was time to put the clothes in the dryer.  There was no help for it, so we walked past the register and out the door.

****

It was late and cold.  Conrad and I were walking down 53rd Street.  There were more than the usual number of thirteen and fourteen-year-old black kids with their car antennas, but nothing happened till we reached a four-stand hamburger joint, the only circle of light for blocks around.  Suddenly, from across the street came thirty or forty of these kids, their leader screaming, "Now we're all going to get supper tonight!" 

Conrad froze, and I pulled him into the middle of the street, toward the attackers, but where we would be somewhat protected by the traffic.  Conrad still wouldn't react, and when I turned to pull him back again, the antennas started coming down in my face.  That seemed to wake him up, and we got away.

After making it a few blocks, we came to a patrol car.  I said to the officer, "They're playing it a little rough back there."

"A little rough?"

"A little rough."

"Whereabouts?"

We told him, and he drove off in the opposite direction.

****

Claire and I were startled awake by the sound of a gun going off in the alley.  I looked over at her with deep feeling and knew that I could never really protect her.  "Claire," I began, but she yawned and turned over.  She just wanted to go back to sleep.

****

It started to rain.  Hard.  The little mouse scurried across the hall, and we knew we were in for it.  Sewage came up through the floor.  I bailed it, futilely, stupidly, into the bathtub, from which it undoubtedly went right back where it came from.  Soon our mattress was an island, and then it went under.  The only dry place was our roommate's bed, and after an hour's struggle, Claire and I gave up and lay down on it.  I put on a Paul McCartney record, a truly incongruous choice, and despite the unromantic setting, Claire was especially friendly.  Puzzled, I asked her why, and she told me it was because I had tried so hard against the flood.

A few hours later, the sewage subsided, and we took our mattress out to dry.

****

I couldn't sleep.  Too many memories...

I came home from work one summer covered with tar.  There was Conrad with two girls on the roof.  Only one was pretty, and he wouldn't leave her alone.  I didn't want to be bothered.  I needed a bath, and there was Conrad.

The next day there was a "be-in" at the Point, where a park juts out into Lake Michigan.  Five hundred people, black and white, stoned and straight, in a picnic atmosphere.  At the center were half a dozen conga players. 

Next thing you know three carloads of police arrived to tell the drummers to quit.  The crowd argued back, black and white together, and when the police put people in their squad cars, the crowd rescued them.  They'd surround a car, and before the police could get out, someone would get down on his knees, shielded by everyone else, and slash the tires.  It was great fun to watch the crippled vehicles roll off on their rims.

Hundreds of police reinforcements arrived and stood in a long line.  They ordered everyone to leave and fondled their nightsticks.  One big fat one put on a pair of black gloves, to the general merriment of the crowd.  The line moved forward, people scattered all over the park, and it took hours for the police to clear the place, so they took out their frustrations by beating a few bystanders half to death. 

Afterward I found Claudia (the pretty one) on the roof again.  We visited a friend, and the next day we took a long walk, with her Golden Retriever swimming in a pond after sticks I threw.

I was to see her again the next day after work, but John and I got home early when the job ran out, so there were a couple of hours to kill before Claudia got home.  A smoke, Chuck Berry, and out for frisbee.  We were both playing hard, running flat-out for long throws.  I stretched way out for a low one -- and stepped in a hole.  John had to take me to Michelle Obama's hospital.

Claudia waited for me, but when I didn't come, she went out for a walk.  She was raped on the rocks by the lake.

Once Jan came to visit John and me in our cardboard-walled basement.  Only John was home.  He heard a scratch and went out to investigate.  There she was, down the street, across a shoulder, but he caught up and managed to free her.

Lisa was eleven when she was first raped.  Just dragged into the bushes on a crowded street.

Claire had hers under the mailbox of a Southside apartment.  That was before I met her.  It would have destroyed my mind.

I remembered, could not sleep, and wondered what it was like to hold in my arms a girl who had not been raped.

****

I was a transportation man in Billings Hospital -- before Michelle Obama made a ton of money pretending that it wasn't as corrupt as the rest of the damned town.  It was my job to take the bodies of patients who had died to the morgue.  I never had a job where I got fewer complaints.

But if they make you work all night, on each floor there's a long deserted corridor and a lonely black woman laboriously making her way from one end to another in a silence that lasts years.

Down in Emergency every night in February thirty big black women come in with pneumonia, and a quart of green mucus is sucked from each one's lungs.  There are people sitting for hours with bullet wounds, brooding over how they happened.  Saturday night someone like that arrives every few minutes and all the doctors split, leaving only a few interns.

A surgeon makes a mistake in an operation, the patient dies, the surgeon sews him back up, writes in the chart that the operation was a success, and sends the body to the recovery room so the nurses there can get the blame.

A transportation man, black, with thick lips, gently maneuvers a patient from the recovery room into the elevator that never meets the floor, pushes the patient to Neurosurgery, carefully slides this living man onto his bed, shifts the IV bottle, and goes for someone else. 

A doctor comes in, fumbles around with the bandage, and kills the man.  "This patient is dead," he shouts.  "He brought a dead man here."

The transportation man is summoned and the ward clerk told to call the wife, you'd better come, your husband has taken a turn for the worse.

****

I managed to climb up the side of the building high enough to bring the fire escape down.  We climbed past numerous darkened windows and a few lighted ones as well, quietly, like burglars.  Twenty-five stories, and we were on the roof.  It's strange, but no matter how ugly a city is, it's always beautiful at night from above.  Even Chicago is like a jewel then, so we lit a joint and enjoyed it.

****

John and I lived in a $60 a month basement on 61st Street.  The walls were made of cardboard; a maze of pipes ran everywhere, carrying waste from the toilets upstairs, through the kitchen, past the coal pile.

The bullet-scarred building to the north was a whorehouse, and little black kids ran out front.  One couldn't have been more than two feet tall, but did she hate white people!  When I tried to walk past, she'd block the way, beat on my leg, and after I was finally able to get by without hurting her, scream, "I showed you.  Don't ever come back again."

Lake Michigan was about a mile to the east, but these children were so deprived that they had never seen it.  They might grow into their teens without going more than a few blocks from home.  Once a dog walked by, and they went wild with excitement.  It was the first they had ever seen.

This was the only place I'd ever been that had junior high school students carrying shotguns.

****

Everyone called it 6020, but it was actually both 6020 and 6022 Woodlawn.  A typical Chicago apartment building.  Three stories; six apartments, maybe seven rooms in each, stretching from the street to the alley; three feet to the north and south identical buildings.

But 5,000 people must have known about 6020.  Go into any apartment and see suitcases of grass, trips by the thousand.  It was quite open. The police didn't seem to be on to the place; people attributed it to their stupidity.  All this dope changing hands, and no one making much money.  Think about it.

People were starting to have bad trips.  I didn't understand.  Mine were always smooth.  Claire and I would drop at midnight, rush through the night, and coast down the next day.

Jan owed us two trips and came by one day with a little orange pill.  She told us each to take half, but the guy she was with said maybe only a third.  We sat at the kitchen table, cut the pill in two pieces, and each took one.  There were a few grains left on the table, so we wet our fingers -- gruesome little detail -- and licked them up.

I spent the first twelve hours watching Claire lying on the bed having convulsions.  Finally, she passed out, but nothing made any sense, and I was desperate to find something that made sense.  I put on Sgt. Pepper, but that didn't make any sense.  Then I saw my calculus book.  That had to make sense!  I opened it in the middle and found a proof.  My mind was racing, and it was hard to concentrate for more than a few seconds.  It took hours and hours for me to work through the theorem, starting all over again time after time.  I got to the last step, and it said, see page 453.

On page 453 there was another long proof, but there was no time for that because the man we were subletting the apartment from was due over soon.  We had to go to the realtor's and make arrangements to continue the agreement.  Otherwise, we'd have to move out the next day, and there was Claire catatonic on the bed and Jonathan infinitely stoned.

There was a bus strike, and we had to walk fifty or sixty blocks through an aroused ghetto.  Somehow the man didn't notice what was happening with me and made small talk on the way: "It's not like this in New York.  I seem to sense a certain distance between the white and black people here."  No irony in his voice as he said that.

Out-of-it Jonathan was not nearly as out-of-it as out-of-it subletter, but neither compared with out-of-it realtor, who couldn't get anything right.

Five days later I fell asleep.

A few months afterward, Claire and I happened onto a strychnine trip, and it took us a couple of more years to stop smoking grass, but this was the real end of the madness.

****

Snow in Hyde Park was beautiful -- until three minutes later it was covered with soot, garbage, dog crap, puke.  All winter long the snow preserved this excrement and after "the leaden winter" you thought "would bring you down forever" ended, the snow melted all at once and left it to rot in the three day Hyde Park spring.

****

"In this dirty old heart of the city / Where the sun refuse to shine / People say there ain no use in trying....We've got to get out of this place / If it's the last thing we ever do."

Claire and I got out.  I wish Michelle and Barack hadn't.
A Memoir of life in Hyde Park

Elvin Bishop, a fine guitarist, but perhaps not always the best judge of human affairs, said that he liked Hyde Park because you could piss in the sink there.  I don't remember doing that, though I can't say I didn't; but I do have many vivid memories of Hyde Park before it became the gentrified home of Barack and Michelle Obama. 

Claire and I went into a fried chicken place and sat in a booth.  At the counter was a drunk cop, and in front of the juke box a young black moved his legs in time to the music, deciding what to play next.  The cop told him to stop dancing, but he put in another dime.  The cop told him again and got up from his seat, staggering over next to us.  He drew his revolver and tried to point it at the offender.  It floated lazily upward, turning this way and that, as if it had a drunken mind of its own, stumbled, and fell to the level of the table.  Then it seemed to clear its head and rose again, only to fall clattering to the floor.

The song over, the dancer left, and the waitress brought us our chicken.

****

We went into a liquor store to get change for the Laundromat.  A man came in to hold the place up, so we retreated to the back.  For some reason, despite the exchange of several shots, the result was still in doubt, and Claire and I became impatient.  By now it was time to put the clothes in the dryer.  There was no help for it, so we walked past the register and out the door.

****

It was late and cold.  Conrad and I were walking down 53rd Street.  There were more than the usual number of thirteen and fourteen-year-old black kids with their car antennas, but nothing happened till we reached a four-stand hamburger joint, the only circle of light for blocks around.  Suddenly, from across the street came thirty or forty of these kids, their leader screaming, "Now we're all going to get supper tonight!" 

Conrad froze, and I pulled him into the middle of the street, toward the attackers, but where we would be somewhat protected by the traffic.  Conrad still wouldn't react, and when I turned to pull him back again, the antennas started coming down in my face.  That seemed to wake him up, and we got away.

After making it a few blocks, we came to a patrol car.  I said to the officer, "They're playing it a little rough back there."

"A little rough?"

"A little rough."

"Whereabouts?"

We told him, and he drove off in the opposite direction.

****

Claire and I were startled awake by the sound of a gun going off in the alley.  I looked over at her with deep feeling and knew that I could never really protect her.  "Claire," I began, but she yawned and turned over.  She just wanted to go back to sleep.

****

It started to rain.  Hard.  The little mouse scurried across the hall, and we knew we were in for it.  Sewage came up through the floor.  I bailed it, futilely, stupidly, into the bathtub, from which it undoubtedly went right back where it came from.  Soon our mattress was an island, and then it went under.  The only dry place was our roommate's bed, and after an hour's struggle, Claire and I gave up and lay down on it.  I put on a Paul McCartney record, a truly incongruous choice, and despite the unromantic setting, Claire was especially friendly.  Puzzled, I asked her why, and she told me it was because I had tried so hard against the flood.

A few hours later, the sewage subsided, and we took our mattress out to dry.

****

I couldn't sleep.  Too many memories...

I came home from work one summer covered with tar.  There was Conrad with two girls on the roof.  Only one was pretty, and he wouldn't leave her alone.  I didn't want to be bothered.  I needed a bath, and there was Conrad.

The next day there was a "be-in" at the Point, where a park juts out into Lake Michigan.  Five hundred people, black and white, stoned and straight, in a picnic atmosphere.  At the center were half a dozen conga players. 

Next thing you know three carloads of police arrived to tell the drummers to quit.  The crowd argued back, black and white together, and when the police put people in their squad cars, the crowd rescued them.  They'd surround a car, and before the police could get out, someone would get down on his knees, shielded by everyone else, and slash the tires.  It was great fun to watch the crippled vehicles roll off on their rims.

Hundreds of police reinforcements arrived and stood in a long line.  They ordered everyone to leave and fondled their nightsticks.  One big fat one put on a pair of black gloves, to the general merriment of the crowd.  The line moved forward, people scattered all over the park, and it took hours for the police to clear the place, so they took out their frustrations by beating a few bystanders half to death. 

Afterward I found Claudia (the pretty one) on the roof again.  We visited a friend, and the next day we took a long walk, with her Golden Retriever swimming in a pond after sticks I threw.

I was to see her again the next day after work, but John and I got home early when the job ran out, so there were a couple of hours to kill before Claudia got home.  A smoke, Chuck Berry, and out for frisbee.  We were both playing hard, running flat-out for long throws.  I stretched way out for a low one -- and stepped in a hole.  John had to take me to Michelle Obama's hospital.

Claudia waited for me, but when I didn't come, she went out for a walk.  She was raped on the rocks by the lake.

Once Jan came to visit John and me in our cardboard-walled basement.  Only John was home.  He heard a scratch and went out to investigate.  There she was, down the street, across a shoulder, but he caught up and managed to free her.

Lisa was eleven when she was first raped.  Just dragged into the bushes on a crowded street.

Claire had hers under the mailbox of a Southside apartment.  That was before I met her.  It would have destroyed my mind.

I remembered, could not sleep, and wondered what it was like to hold in my arms a girl who had not been raped.

****

I was a transportation man in Billings Hospital -- before Michelle Obama made a ton of money pretending that it wasn't as corrupt as the rest of the damned town.  It was my job to take the bodies of patients who had died to the morgue.  I never had a job where I got fewer complaints.

But if they make you work all night, on each floor there's a long deserted corridor and a lonely black woman laboriously making her way from one end to another in a silence that lasts years.

Down in Emergency every night in February thirty big black women come in with pneumonia, and a quart of green mucus is sucked from each one's lungs.  There are people sitting for hours with bullet wounds, brooding over how they happened.  Saturday night someone like that arrives every few minutes and all the doctors split, leaving only a few interns.

A surgeon makes a mistake in an operation, the patient dies, the surgeon sews him back up, writes in the chart that the operation was a success, and sends the body to the recovery room so the nurses there can get the blame.

A transportation man, black, with thick lips, gently maneuvers a patient from the recovery room into the elevator that never meets the floor, pushes the patient to Neurosurgery, carefully slides this living man onto his bed, shifts the IV bottle, and goes for someone else. 

A doctor comes in, fumbles around with the bandage, and kills the man.  "This patient is dead," he shouts.  "He brought a dead man here."

The transportation man is summoned and the ward clerk told to call the wife, you'd better come, your husband has taken a turn for the worse.

****

I managed to climb up the side of the building high enough to bring the fire escape down.  We climbed past numerous darkened windows and a few lighted ones as well, quietly, like burglars.  Twenty-five stories, and we were on the roof.  It's strange, but no matter how ugly a city is, it's always beautiful at night from above.  Even Chicago is like a jewel then, so we lit a joint and enjoyed it.

****

John and I lived in a $60 a month basement on 61st Street.  The walls were made of cardboard; a maze of pipes ran everywhere, carrying waste from the toilets upstairs, through the kitchen, past the coal pile.

The bullet-scarred building to the north was a whorehouse, and little black kids ran out front.  One couldn't have been more than two feet tall, but did she hate white people!  When I tried to walk past, she'd block the way, beat on my leg, and after I was finally able to get by without hurting her, scream, "I showed you.  Don't ever come back again."

Lake Michigan was about a mile to the east, but these children were so deprived that they had never seen it.  They might grow into their teens without going more than a few blocks from home.  Once a dog walked by, and they went wild with excitement.  It was the first they had ever seen.

This was the only place I'd ever been that had junior high school students carrying shotguns.

****

Everyone called it 6020, but it was actually both 6020 and 6022 Woodlawn.  A typical Chicago apartment building.  Three stories; six apartments, maybe seven rooms in each, stretching from the street to the alley; three feet to the north and south identical buildings.

But 5,000 people must have known about 6020.  Go into any apartment and see suitcases of grass, trips by the thousand.  It was quite open. The police didn't seem to be on to the place; people attributed it to their stupidity.  All this dope changing hands, and no one making much money.  Think about it.

People were starting to have bad trips.  I didn't understand.  Mine were always smooth.  Claire and I would drop at midnight, rush through the night, and coast down the next day.

Jan owed us two trips and came by one day with a little orange pill.  She told us each to take half, but the guy she was with said maybe only a third.  We sat at the kitchen table, cut the pill in two pieces, and each took one.  There were a few grains left on the table, so we wet our fingers -- gruesome little detail -- and licked them up.

I spent the first twelve hours watching Claire lying on the bed having convulsions.  Finally, she passed out, but nothing made any sense, and I was desperate to find something that made sense.  I put on Sgt. Pepper, but that didn't make any sense.  Then I saw my calculus book.  That had to make sense!  I opened it in the middle and found a proof.  My mind was racing, and it was hard to concentrate for more than a few seconds.  It took hours and hours for me to work through the theorem, starting all over again time after time.  I got to the last step, and it said, see page 453.

On page 453 there was another long proof, but there was no time for that because the man we were subletting the apartment from was due over soon.  We had to go to the realtor's and make arrangements to continue the agreement.  Otherwise, we'd have to move out the next day, and there was Claire catatonic on the bed and Jonathan infinitely stoned.

There was a bus strike, and we had to walk fifty or sixty blocks through an aroused ghetto.  Somehow the man didn't notice what was happening with me and made small talk on the way: "It's not like this in New York.  I seem to sense a certain distance between the white and black people here."  No irony in his voice as he said that.

Out-of-it Jonathan was not nearly as out-of-it as out-of-it subletter, but neither compared with out-of-it realtor, who couldn't get anything right.

Five days later I fell asleep.

A few months afterward, Claire and I happened onto a strychnine trip, and it took us a couple of more years to stop smoking grass, but this was the real end of the madness.

****

Snow in Hyde Park was beautiful -- until three minutes later it was covered with soot, garbage, dog crap, puke.  All winter long the snow preserved this excrement and after "the leaden winter" you thought "would bring you down forever" ended, the snow melted all at once and left it to rot in the three day Hyde Park spring.

****

"In this dirty old heart of the city / Where the sun refuse to shine / People say there ain no use in trying....We've got to get out of this place / If it's the last thing we ever do."

Claire and I got out.  I wish Michelle and Barack hadn't.