posted in: Chicago, Day In The Life 19
Homeless man, Bowery St., NYC, 1942. Photo: Wikipedia.
Homeless man, Bowery St., NYC, 1942. Photo: Wikipedia.


My building takes up a quarter of a city block and has two different entrances.

The front door is manned by a doorman; the back way puts you out into the alley that runs between my block and the next one. The Green and Orange line El tracks run overhead the whole length of the alleyway, so when you’re back there and a train goes by overhead, it’s pretty loud — loud enough to do a terrific impression of Liza Minnelli when she screams with the trains in Cabaret. Not that I ever do that.

There is a conscious decision to be made when I’m coming or going as to which door I should take. Mostly, the circumstances of my arrival or departure dictate which entrance is best; the building is big enough that the entrances really affect travel time, depending on where you’re headed or coming from. My mood factors in, too. And lately there is another consideration which I’ll get to in a moment.

Reasons for coming/going through the front door may include:

I’m carrying heavy bags of groceries and need a hand
I’m headed to/home from the airport and am lugging two suitcases, a purse, and a totebag and my brain and need a hand
I’m going out on a date and feel like making a dramatic exit
I’m coming home from a date and feel like making a dramatic entrance
I wanna say hi to Stanley or J.C. (favorite door guys) if they’re working
I’m headed south or east

Reasons for coming/going through the back door, through the alley, under the El tracks may include:

I’m going to yoga (I shave about 4 minutes off the walk this way)
I need to pick up packages (the receiving room is in the back hallway out to the alley)
I’m not really wanting to chat with the doorman (even Stanley or J.C.) because I’m grumpy
The alley is pretty awesome in a gritty city kind of way

You may be thinking, “Hm. Big city alley. Loud train overhead… Are you sure you should be using the back entrance much Mar? At least at night, maybe you should take the front door.”

While you are nice to be thinking of my safety — and right to question it — in many years of living down here, I’ve never felt unsafe going through the back way. My neighborhood is a busy one with many college campuses sort of crammed on top of one another (e.g., East/West, Columbia College Chicago, Roosevelt, Spertus, and SAIC not so far, either) and there’s heavy foot traffic around the entrance to my alley most of the time. There are huge blocks student housing nearby, a 24/7 gym on the corner above the 7-11, a Peet’s Coffee not far away, and I’m not the only person who uses the back entrance, either; I often say hi to neighbors who are also lazy or anti-social.

But over the past month or two, something’s changed.

The beginning of the alley is the back of a Lou Malnati’s pizzeria. All the restaurant’s dumpsters are clustered back there, nestled in what could accurately be described as a cove. (In fact, let’s call it “The Cove” for the purposes of this story.) There’s a huge space between the actual alley street — like where cars drive through — and the entrance to Lou Malnati’s, and an enormous overhang shelters this area. It’s really hard to describe but trust me: There are many hundreds of sheltered square feet as private as a restaurant dumpster area in an alley can be. Put another way: If you lived on the street, this spot would be an excellent find — and I’m not trying to be funny.

Over the years, I have come to expect there will be people hanging around The Cove from time to time. Sometimes I see kids bumming around smoking cigarettes there, but usually it’s an older, sadder crowd: mostly homeless men or men who appear homeless and are certainly living far, far below the poverty line. Sometimes there will be someone sleeping there; sometimes there will be someone peeing there.

And not until recently did I feel that it was a drug spot. But I think it is, now. Something’s changed at The Cove. There are rougher-looking characters there and more of them at once: five or six people congregated instead of the usual two or three. When I pass, I really get checked out. No one says anything, but I am being scanned for sure: Am I a threat or not?

I can’t be sure there’s drug stuff going on, though. And it’s so cold. Tomorrow it will be -8 degrees in my city. People who live on the streets have to go someplace, don’t they? It’s a really good spot, I can see that. And no one at The Cove has ever made me feel that I was in danger, so I had major guilt when I thought about alerting the authorities.

Still, I had a bad feeling. I do get skeeved these days when I walk by. And anxious. What if letting the cops know about the increase in traffic back there could keep something bad from happening to me or someone else? And if these folks are in need of shelter, the cops could help them find a way better place than The Cove — a place with blankets and food that isn’t garbage. I looked up online what to do about such a situation and found great information from homeless coalitions and social services organizations who did encourage me to call 311.

So I did. I chatted with the lady about the alley and told her how conflicted I was about the whole thing. She said it was the right thing to do to let them know and that they’ll keep their eye on it. I told her I give to the Chicago Food Bank but other than that, I feel pretty helpless about the homeless problem in my city or in any city. She agreed that it’s really hard, especially in winter. We hung up. I felt like I had tattled to the teacher or something. I felt weird.

What would you have done?

Negative eight degrees tomorrow. Negative eight.