BY J. WEINTRAUB
This story was first published by Karumu, Spring 2009. Copyright is held by the author.
When Mr. Ledbetter staggered into our southbound Red Line train and announced for anyone aboard to hear, “I want to get off at Harrison, somebody let me know when we get to Harrison,” I had a pretty good idea where he was headed.
Standing on South State Street between Harrison and Polk, the Pacific Garden Mission had ministered to the needs of Chicago’s down-and-out and destitute for over 80 years – providing shelter, hot meals and, if desired, spiritual sustenance. The original building was a square, four-storey red-brick structure, attached to a newer addition with a beige frontage that seemed to gradually merge into the rectangular concrete boxes of the Jones College Preparatory High School next door. For most of its years, it had been a fitting complement to the flophouses, porn shops, and light industry nearby, and to the bars, hotdog stands, credit exchanges, and liquor stores lining the ground floors of the first-generation skyscrapers on Dearborn, their grand past disguised beneath a century of grime.
But in recent years, those ancient walls had been sandblasted and the warehouses and workshops converted into resident lofts and condominiums, and as the cranes towered in the empty lots nearby, the message on the Pacific Garden Mission’s south wall, proclaiming the wages of sin to be death and that salvation could be attained only through the words of Jesus Christ, seemed to be, if not a cry in the wilderness, at least sadly out-of-place.
The Mission, of course, would soon be gone. But when I first moved to the South Loop, its two-story red fluorescent cross remained a beacon in the night for all who passed, reminding us that Jesus Saved. It was not easy to ignore, but even if I had overlooked it in my first days as its neighbour, Mrs. Wadsworth insisted on bringing it to my attention.
“What a splendid view you have here,” she said, after I’d I invited her inside, after she’d introduced herself to me as the president of our condominium board. “We’re not quite as high, but we also enjoy a nice eastern exposure.”
“It was the view that clinched the deal for me. Over there you can even see the lake between those two buildings. Just over the el tracks. When it’s clear, anyway.”
That day was one of those grey February mornings when the grey of the lake blended into the grey of the horizon through the thick, moist grey of the atmosphere, so Mrs. Wadsworth had to take my word for it. I offered her a cup of coffee.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said, “but I’ve already had my cup for the day. I just stopped by to welcome you to the neighborhood, and as a new resident in the building, I was hoping you would add your signature to our petition. I know this is very short notice, but there’s a ward meeting tonight, and the condominium board wanted to express our unanimous position to the city officials who will be in attendance.”
It was a petition to support the condemnation proceedings undertaken against the Pacific Garden Mission by the city and the Chicago Board of Education.
“There’s a good offer on the table,” Mrs. Wadsworth explained. “Jones has been looking to expand for years. They need a gym, they need a library, and the offer’s as rich as any they’d get from a downtown developer. There’ll be plenty for the Mission to set up elsewhere.”
I asked her where elsewhere might be. She replied that the city’s Department of Planning and Development had been searching for a site for some time, and they were currently looking at lots along the abandoned railroad tracks a mile or two away to the southwest.
“That’s a pretty isolated stretch, isn’t it?”
“Other southside communities have concerns similar to ours. But this is something the city wants very much to do, and the complete and total support of the residents involved would certainly be appreciated. There’s a lot at stake in the redevelopment of the neighborhoods bordering the Loop, and we all have an interest in that, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
Personally, I didn’t think the presence of the Mission would hinder the current redevelopment — a process which had been underway for some time — or, for that matter, property values, which had been soaring despite its existence nearby. Besides, I felt that the Mission was as much a part of the neighborhood as, say, the Fisher Building or Dearborn Station, far more so, in any case, than our own structure, which had been a parking lot five years before.
“You’d feel differently, Mr. Levin, if you had children, and I’m not just thinking about those students who pass in front of it every day to go to and from school, but younger children who wait for the bus every morning on the corner or who play in the parks down the street. I realize many of these men are homeless and unfortunate and just need a place to stay for a time, but there are also addicts and disturbed people and ex-convicts, and there have been incidents.”
I recalled my run of the previous morning and how I detoured from my intended route beneath the tracks of the Green Line when I noticed a dark group of men in the shadows of its pylons huddling around a smoking trash can, awaiting, I was sure, the opening of the Mission and their breakfast. That same evening, I reminded my wife to take a cab home rather than the CTA when she needed to work late into the night.
“We really would like to present a united front,” continued Mrs. Wadsworth, “and the alderman said it would make a considerable difference for all the owners to sign, for it all to be unanimous.”
I wanted to be a good neighbour, so I signed. Mrs. Wadsworth thanked me and said she hoped to see me there that night, at the meeting.
But the Pacific Garden Mission was still there on South State Street, between Harrison and Polk, when Mr. Ledbetter stumbled into the Red Line car and collapsed into the pair of seats directly across from me, facing the opposite direction. As the train lurched out of the Belmont Avenue station, his head snapped back, and then it fell forward, his chin dropping to his chest. Certain that he would soon be dozing off, I turned back to my Times “News of the Week in Review.” But although the paper remained in front of my face for the remainder of the trip, I read very little of it, because Mr. Ledbetter did not fall asleep.
“Cold out there,” he said, straightening up suddenly and speaking to no one in particular, certainly not to me. “And that wind. It don’t let up ever. Not one bit.”
“You ought to know,” replied a voice from right behind me.
I thought the car had been empty, but apparently others had also boarded at Belmont, and I was tempted to turn around to see who would have been foolish enough to engage Mr. Ledbetter in conversation, an act most regular CTA customers would have regarded as favorably as a dip in the Chicago River. Instead, I drew the centerfold of the newspaper closer to my nose.
“What do you mean by that?” said Ledbetter, straightening up even more and now staring from across the aisle directly over my shoulder. He was, apparently, as surprised by the remark as I was.
“What I mean is,” replied the voice from behind me, “you seem to be pretty well acquainted with the streets. The great outdoors, I mean.”
The man behind me spoke calmly, articulating his words precisely — the voice of someone careful with his diction, the voice of a lawyer or a teacher in front of a class. It was also the voice of an African American, and I wondered how he felt about Ledbetter’s calling him “boy” — which Ledbetter simply may have been accustomed to using as a general form of address — when he replied, “I’ll have you know, boy, that I may not have a roof over my head right now but I’ve always paid my way, always, by God, and look how they treat me!”
“You trying to start something with me? Well, don’t. I’ll have you know I fought for this country and never asked for one goddamned thing in return. Nothing. And I was a Marine, by God. Semper Fi!”
“Yeah, sure,” said the voice. “And I’m Muhammad Ali.”
“You mean Cassius Clay, don’t you? Yeah, that’s right. Cassius Clay. His real name, and you can look it up if you don’t believe me. A draft dodger, and you can look that up, too. Well, I weren’t no goddamned draft dodger. I fought for this country. ‘Nam. Lookee here.”
He thrust his left leg out into the aisle and pulled up his pants. The leg seemed hairless, as if it had recently been shaved, the skin so pale as to be almost translucent, and the calf was as white as a slab of marble with an occasional thin blue streak branching upward. A vivid blue-black-brown-yellow bruise was just below the knee, as if he had collided with a turnstile or gate on the way into the station, but I saw nothing that resembled a scar. Perhaps he was showing us the wrong leg.
We pulled into Fullerton and a group of girls, the age of undergraduates, streamed into the car. Their outerwear was disheveled, as if they’d been forced to leave somewhere in a hurry, but their clothes, in general, seemed designed to have a haphazard look, garments carefully purchased at rummage sales or second-hand shops, with a clear eye to the total effect. I assumed they were art or design students, returning to their Columbia College dorm.
Some were still clutching Styrofoam cups, and from their red-faced exuberance, I guessed they were coming from a party on the DePaul campus or from a Lincoln Avenue Pub. Caught up among themselves — joking, shouting, laughing at each other — they quickly took possession of the upper end of the car, oblivious of the other passengers and of Ledbetter’s leg sticking out in the aisle.
“Still got a limp today,” said Ledbetter, “because of what you’re looking at.”
“Limp. It looked more like a stagger to me.”
“I spent months on my back in the V.A., and I still have to go back regular for the medicine. The pain! You never get used to that no matter how much rehab . . . ”
“Rehab, huh?” said the voice from behind. “It looks like they did a terrific job. Our tax dollars at work.”
“I paid for them benefits with my blood. Not like some deadbeats and welfare cheats I could name who get it for nothing!” He rolled his hand up into a fist and bounced it against his chest. “No, sir, Albert Ledbetter paid his way!”
“Albert!” a voice next to the one behind me burst out. “Albert!”
“Now, look here, Albert,” said the man behind me, a hint of sarcastic laughter coloring his voice, too. “Just what do you mean by deadbeats and welfare . . . ”
“That’s Mr. Ledbetter to you, motherfucker.”
The hints of laughter behind me turned silent. For the first time, I noticed the clickety-clack of the wheels beneath me. Although I hadn’t read any of my paper, I was tempted to unfold it and turn the page, just to have something else to concentrate on, but I thought better of it, not wanting to draw attention to myself with the rustling of newsprint.
We descended into the underground, toward Division.
“What’d you just say?”
“You heard me.”
“That crack about welfare cheats, deadbeats . . .”
“What’s there to say? You know a lot better than me what’s going on. I’m just some dumb ass who tried to make an honest buck and work hard all his life, and look what it’s got me. Makes me sick. You see it every day, on every corner. They all want handouts or to suck off the government tit. You can’t walk downtown without some young buck trying to hustle you on every corner or some girl already on the dole with kids hanging around her neck. All of them looking for something for nothing. That’s the element that’s wrong with this country. Makes me sick.”
“Why, you old drunk, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. People like you who poison the air every time they open their mouths.”
“I can say whatever I damn-well want to say. This was a free country last time I looked, and no one’s going to stop me from speaking my mind, least of all, someone like you. Yeah, I know your type. I saw plenty of your type when I was in the Army. Not worth nothing.”
“Army? What happened to the Marines?”
“That’s enough, Charles,” said the voice next to him. “It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Yes, it is,” said Charles to his neighbor. “My dad was a Marine, and I’m not going to let him get away with that kind of motormouth shit.”
“Your daddy a Marine, huh? What? Scullery boy? Floor swobber?”
By now we were rolling into the Loop, and despite the late hour, the car began to fill up with passengers — retail clerks coming off their shifts, teenagers working after-school jobs at Subway and Footlocker, security guards, both male and female, and others still in uniform. They were joined by men and women dangling multiple sacks from Walgreen’s and Marshall Fields, some holding onto children as well, people who worked all day and weekends and could shop only at night. Many had already been on their feet for hours and were disappointed at not being able to find a seat, and since we were heading into the South Side, the majority of passengers were now African Americans, most of whom would still need to make one or two more connections before reaching home.
They were not, of course, likely to sympathize with Ledbetter’s point of view. Still, most of the time, passengers on the Red or Blue Lines, on the Jackson Park Express or the Number Three bus traveling down King Drive, would let an old drunk or mentally unstable person rattle on to his heart’s content, judging any response to be hardly worth the effort as they calculated the stops remaining before they could get off.
But Charles, sitting behind me, had broken the ice, and the numbers were on his side.
“Shut up, old man,” said someone nearby.
“Yeah, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Listen to the fool.”
“That’s right,” said Ledbetter. “I’m a fool. A fool who pays his taxes on every penny he’s earned and it sure as hell don’t come back to me.”
“What’re you talking about? I work hard for what little I got, and I pay taxes, too!”
“We all pay our taxes here, Mr. Ledbetter,” said Charles. “Perhaps you’d better explain yourself to these people.”
For the past few moments, Ledbetter had been staring down at his feet. He had removed his leg from the aisle, but his pants were still rolled up almost to the knee, and he seemed to be sagging lower and lower, as if he were about to nod off and totter into the place next to him, the only seat left empty in the car. But then he grabbed the back of the seat in front of him, pulled his head up, and proceeded to explain himself.
“Bunch of loafers and welfare cheats. Babies, one right after the other on every corner and on my tax dollars! Everything for nothing. Always gimme, gimme, gimme. Take, take, take, like we owe them something. And drugs, too. Driving people out of their neighborhoods with their crack houses and drive-bys. Animals. Leaving nothing but garbage behind.”
“That man’s too drunk to know what he’s saying,” said a woman all the way from the other side of the car, “or even where he is.”
She was right. As we headed further and further down the Red Line, Ledbetter had become less and less coherent. I’m sure he would have preferred by then to sleep rather than to continue the charged conversation he himself had instigated. Moreover, he seemed less and less aware of his surroundings, and far more likely to respond in foul and rancorous language. I was glad to see we were leaving Jackson and approaching Harrison.
“Used to be a decent working man’s town.” He continued. “Now the freeloaders own it, and the crackheads, and I know what I’m talking about ’cause I been around and I got a right to say what’s on my mind to anyone and anywhere I damn well please ‘cause the last time I looked this was a free country that I fought for and I’m going to keep on fighting for ’gainst anyone trying to shut me the fuck up!”
“Next stop Harrison!” I announced in a tone loud enough for even Ledbetter to hear above his own voice. “Harrison this way out!” but as I rose up from my seat and turned down the aisle to pass Ledbetter, hoping he would follow me out the door, I found my way to the exit blocked. It was Charles, standing in front of me.
From his voice, which was always soft and controlled despite the increasingly inflammatory direction of the conversation, I expected to see him in a suit or sports coat, perhaps his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned after a long day’s work but certainly, at least, carrying a briefcase or laptop computer. Instead, I was facing a black turtlenecked sweatshirt, broken by several semicircles of thick gold chain. I looked up, and although his cheeks were pocked and he needed a shave, his face still seemed to be carved of black granite. His friend, who had also moved into the aisle, wore a similar black leather jacket over his black sweatshirt.
“This a friend of yours?” Charles asked me in that same soft, controlled voice as he interposed himself between me and Ledbetter, whom I could no longer see.
“No, but he said he wanted to get off at Harrison.”
“We’ll see that Mr. Ledbetter gets off at his stop.”“Excuse me,” I said, but rather than trying to force my way through Charles and his friend and the other passengers in the aisle, I reversed my steps, toward the door at the other end of the car.
“This is Harrison!” I called out over my shoulder as the train braked to a halt. “You want to get off here, Ledbetter. You want to follow me.”
The doors slid open, and I was surrounded by the students from Columbia College, debating where they wanted to go for coffee.
I turned to find Charles still staring at me and Ledbetter still hidden from view. “This is Harrison! Ledbetter!”
“Come on, mister,” said one of the students. “We want to get off, too,” and although I can’t recall anyone pushing me or forcing me out, I found myself standing on the platform, watching the train pull out southwards, towards the next stop, Roosevelt Road, then on to Chinatown and south down the Dan Ryan, past Sox Park and the Robert Taylor Homes, and into the neighborhoods of Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Washington Park, and Englewood, to its terminus at 95th.
The next several days, I purchased both the Trib and Sun-Times, scanning the Metro sections for any word of unidentified derelicts found beneath the tracks of the Red Line or within the vicinity of its stations. But as expected, I found nothing. The car had been crowded when I left and I had faith that most of my fellow passengers understood that Ledbetter was drunk and tired and angry and not entirely responsible for his rant. Besides, considering his appearance and general condition, I was sure he had suffered far worse indignities in his life than having to pay an extra fare or to walk a few extra miles late at night or to lose a few hours sleep in a warm bed. All in all, I’m sure that nothing much happened that night, other than the fact, of course, that Mr. Ledbetter missed his stop.