Editor’s note: Deep in the bowels of my Yahoo email account, I’ve uncovered more rambling commentary on my visit to Chicago in July of 2002. My friend Jun was out of town, visiting a girl in Iowa City, when I arrived. Left to my own devices, I did what I usually do, which is hit the streets in search of troubled souls.
July 18, 2002
In Chicago, as I’ve taken to saying, you don’t have to dig for stories, you just have to hope to avoid getting buried beneath them.
I wandered downtown Thursday night around 10:45 as Jun wasn’t in yet and had a great time yukking it up with crack addicts, schizophrenic geniuses and dairy salesmen. No sooner had I parked the car on North Clark and crossed the street when a grooving fellow named Bruce Cummings, so he said, accosted me and seduced me into sharing a 22-ounce Budweiser with him beneath a steel skyscraper, where we’d be out of the view of the cops.
It was, at the very least, the most elaborate panhandling scheme I’ve yet encountered. Soon he was addressing me as “Family” (“You know what I’m saying, Family? You feel me, right? … John, let me ask you a question.”) and raising the specter of afternoon barbecues at his mom’s house on the South Side. He was very interested in me and my welfare and went so far as to shell out 25 cents to get me my own cup. Instinctively he knew I wouldn’t like hepatitis A.
Right off the bat, when we were back on Clark Street after procuring the cup, he asked if I got high and wondered aloud if I might do more than that. Next thing I knew he was patting me on the head and, when I confessed chagrin over male-pattern baldness, he was
quick to the scene with an uplifting philosophical outlook.
“It’s what’s inside that matters, John,” he said. “And if people can’t love you for what’s inside, then to hell with them.”
I still had some beer left in my cup when he suggested we could get some shit and maybe kick it on the waterfront or find a hooker whom we could both bang (“Uh, might I go first, Family?”) and really, whatever you’re into, John. Just help me out with $10.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what Bruce was into was crack.
When I turned him down, he gradually lowered his request to $8 then $4 then $3 and finally $2. I told him I’d take him to a blues bar and buy him plenty of beer, but he had his heart set on other things. No blues for Bruce.
In his defense, I’m sure he had enough blues to last him. He was crestfallen at my unwillingness to fund his crack expedition (I had to appreciate his candor about how he
loved to “get high and freak,” complete with an arms-and-hip shaking pantomime). He
looked like a man who had just spent hours wining and wining his date with the utmost solicitousness and sweetness only to discover too late that no blow job was in his immediate future.
He wore on his face a look of complete betrayal. He had, after all, bought the beer, and by rights I shoulda put out.
Later, after a one-song visit to Blue Chicago (Willie Kent and the Gents on stage) at 536 N. Clark, I left in the direction of their club of the same name two blocks to the north, entrance into my $7 cover charge granted me. Before I could get there I ran into
52-year-old Charles Kilgore on the sidewalk outside McDonald’s.
A listing black man who lives on the streets, Charles is a stark-raving lunatic-genius.
He allowed as how he once was given “awesome” powers of thousands of people, and that in life he’d seen some good and some “extremely traumatic things. extremely traumatic things.”
He’d been everywhere, man, from Memphis to Buffalo to Duluth to a hundred places I can’t even remember and don’t care to make up. Said he’d hung with the Queen of Hearts, which I think he said was the Ohio mafia, and the first family of Indiana (the Indiana mafia) and the seventh sons. He did not, I think, mention the seventh sons of seventh sons, but I could be mistaken.
I eventually paid him the princely sum of $2 to teach me the following refrain, because I found it beguiling:
“When a valiant man stands in a gap, he will be graceful under pressure.
For as gold is tried in fire, so will an acceptable man be tried in the furnaces of adversity.
For the wonderings of lust will undermine the simple mind,
as the bewitchings of naughtiness will obscure he who is honest.
When fools ride by on white horses and kick dust into the face of the gallant,
a prince will remain standing,
even though he knows he is standing in the middle of an overthrow …”
Or something like that. Charles said it was his birthday. I shoulda given him $20 but I’m too fucking cheap.
He surely is totally nuts, but his head was overflowing with a dazzling array of knowledge. Even if it was all nonsense, it still left me feeling like that biggest ignoramous in a 100-yard radius of the N. Clark McDonald’s.
Something he said prompted me to ask if he had read the Talmud, and he said he had studied both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud, the latter produced by 12 minor prophets in 17 chapters. He supplied an impressive litany of ancient names and places that you just couldn’t make up on the spot. But maybe he could.
He recalled that Herod had been installed as king of Judea in 13 BC., by Julius Caesar (whom, the record will attest, passed on 31 years previously). And he recalled that Herod came from Great Britain, which is the only country ever to name itself “great.” So he has a few historical facts completely out of whack? Who am I to quibble?
Herod was a madman, thus he is a kindred spirit to Charles Kilgore of Chicago.
As he was tilting perilously to port, I asked if he wanted money for beer. He said no man, he hadn’t had a drink since he was 16. He still remembers that one, though. It was something called “orange rock” in the hallway of his house with a girl name Betty.
Wonder what became of Betty?
After bidding Charles adieu, I ducked into the northerly Blue Chicago location, which was kind of dead. That suited me fine. I listened to the band with mild interest, sipped on a Corona and made a few notes of the evening’s encounters.
On the way back to the car later I was hit up by a dealer who had, when I was rambling about with Bruce (“that brother,” he called my Family) earlier, shown the generosity of spirit to ask me if I had everything I needed.
Now, pointing to a pair of towers on the southern skyline, he allowed that him and his buddies had just cooked up a quarter ki that was “pure butter.”
I only wish I had told him I was staying off the butter in deference to the wishes of my cardiologist. Then I was accosted by a recovering addict name Jarrell and his recovering
addict of a wife, a girl they like to call “Mona Lisa.”
Jarrell was happy to hear that I wasn’t going in for any crack, at least none this side of the butter variety, just yet.
I was happy to bid him a goodnight, wish him well and begin the journey back to Jun’s flophouse at 5043 N. Springfield, which is a scant four miles due west of Lake Michigan, upon the shores of which I might be kicking it now with Bruce “Family” Cummings and friends if only I’d been a more faithful friend.