Christmas Eve should be a night filled with magic and love. But for Anderson, down on his luck and homeless in Chicago’s frigid chill, it’s a fight for survival. Whether he’s sleeping on the el, or holed up in an abandoned car, all he really has are his memories to keep him warm-memories of a time when he loved a man named Welk and the world was perfect. When Anderson finds a book of discarded matches on the sidewalk, he pockets them. Later, trying to keep the cold at bay hunkered down in a church entryway, Anderson discovers the matches are the key to bringing his memories of Welk, happiness, and security to life. Within their flames, visions dance-and perhaps a reunion with the man he loved most.
"Don’t do it! Please don’t do it!" Anderson whispered, watching from the shadows and knowing it would do no good to put much breath behind his words. He could scream until his lungs were raw; it wouldn’t change the fact he was losing his home.
They wouldn’t listen.
His "home" was a 1992 Chevy Impala, brown, nearly indistinguishable from its scabs of rust. It had all four tires, all bald, one flat. The windshield was cracked.
But he had called it home for the past several nights. Outfitted with a sleeping bag he had found in a Dumpster in an alley off Clark Street, the automotive residence was almost palatial for Anderson, who had grown accustomed to shivering in doorways throughout Chicago’s arctic winter nights, warmed by cardboard and newspapers.
"Please don’t take it away," he whimpered. He clenched his fists as he watched a Chicago city tow truck hoist the old car up and maneuver it out of its spot, where it had been abandoned in the labyrinthine underworld of lower Wacker Drive. Anderson had hoped the vehicle would go unnoticed until at least spring.
Wouldn’t that have been just grand?
A cold wind blew through the lower level street, which ran beneath the city’s tony Michigan Avenue. Anderson watched the car disappear, moving through the darkness of the tunnel, hooked to the back of the truck with its whirling lights. He wanted to stamp his feet, he wanted to cry, he wanted to run after the truck and throw himself on the mercy of the driver, pleading that it was Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake.
But he would do none of these things. Anderson was used to being quiet, to walking around invisible, as if his homelessness had transformed him into a ghost.
People didn’t notice the homeless. They averted their eyes when they saw him coming, perhaps afraid that he would ask for spare change or that he would remind them of their own vulnerability or-God forbid-he might try to touch them. After all, he hadn’t bathed in weeks. He knew he stunk. His beard had grown riotously over the past several months, along with his hair, and both were greasy and matted. His skin and clothes were grimy. And the clothes? The wool coat, the jeans, the flannel shirt, the sweater, and hiking boots? They had all degenerated, the fabrics almost rags, the boots worn beyond usefulness, a hole patched in the left one with a piece of cardboard.
Anderson knew he must be a horror at worst, an object of pity or scorn at best.
He hadn’t always been this way. Less than a year ago, he was one of them, the people he saw bustling along Michigan Avenue, or coming out of dry cleaners or grocery stores, or later at night, in and out of nightspots along Clark Street or Halsted. People who were warm and clean, wearing new clothes as though they thought nothing of it, and-most importantly-people who had homes to go to, a place to lay their weary heads at night. They were people who ate on a regular basis, consuming what they wanted when they wanted, and took it all for granted.
Yeah. He had been one of them, not so long ago. He trudged up a metal staircase that would take him to upper Wacker Drive, where he could mingle among the daytime crowds in the Loop. Today, Christmas Eve, downtown Chicago would not be quite as bustling with working people. Perhaps he could hole up in the lobby of an office building for a while, where it was blissfully warm, before being chased away by security.
Yeah. Good luck with that. Anderson emerged into the wind and the sleet, which felt like needles pelting his skin. He looked to the east and saw a bank of deep gray clouds, bruising, hanging over the roiling slate waters of Lake Michigan. He knew the clouds were just waiting to unleash inches, perhaps even feet, of snow by late afternoon.
Dreaming of a white Christmas? You got it, buddy. Nice if you’re inside, perhaps next to a crackling fire and beneath the glow of Christmas tree lights.
If someone had told Anderson he would fall so far so fast even as little as a year or so ago, he wouldn’t have believed them. If that same person had pointed out one of the homeless selling, perhaps, a StreetWisenewspaper, and said, "That’s gonna be you one day soon," he would have laughed in their faces.
It couldn’t happen. Not to him.
Except it did.
One day he was a graphic designer for a little company in the Wrigleyville neighborhood that did custom silk-screened T-shirts, working 40 hours a week and bringing home a regular paycheck. It wasn’t much and didn’t go too far in a city the size of Chicago, but it was his and it afforded him a studio apartment just three blocks from the Lake in Rogers Park on the far north side. That paycheck bought him food, the occasional beer at Big Chicks on Sheridan Road, heat, water, even a broadband Internet connection, although he never could afford cable TV. It made him one of the regular folks, the ones with a place to bed down at night.
And then the cutbacks came. Because Anderson had been with his company for a while, he was not the first to go. But then the place went out of business and no matter how smart or talented he was, there was simply no job anymore. Anderson landed in the world of recession he had only heard about on the news or read of in the papers.
He had unemployment and he could get by. Surely he would find another job before the government checks dried up.
Except he didn’t. The streets were swarming with unemployed graphic designers and his background at a T-shirt company did not put him anywhere near the top of anyone’s hiring list. He even looked into working at grocery stores, restaurants, even fast food. But it seemed there was fierce competition for those jobs as well.
It didn’t take long for the unemployment checks to run out. He begged his landlord for more time, getting further and further in arrears. He even offered to do maintenance, but he was unqualified. Eventually, his cute little studio was no longer his. He found himself evicted, one of those people he used to pity, with all their belongings put out on the street.
It was amazing how fast he found himself on the streets. He turned to friends, couch-surfed for a while, but that door stood open only for so long.
His parents had long been dead; his mother ravaged by cancer and his father in a car accident.
It was a woeful tale made even more woeful by the fact that even his boyfriend, a strapping blond cyclist named Welk, was also gone, claimed by a drunk driver as he rode his Trek to work in downtown Chicago one morning. When Welk expired at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, his life draining out of him on cold concrete, Anderson had thought the world would never be the same without the man he loved in it.
Little did he know how prophetic that thought was.
So, he ended up one of the homeless. At first, it was warm outside and wasn’t too bad. He could sleep in Lincoln Park sometimes, or hole up next to a breakwater on a beach.
His story, he realized after a while, was not so unique. Those living paycheck to paycheck, he learned on the streets, were just a gossamer curtain away from losing everything. It was easy. The spiral downward was not as long or protracted as he once would have thought.
Anderson was not alone. There were thousands like him on the streets of Chicago, competing for spaces every day in the missions and soup kitchens.
It was a lousy way to live, made more disheartening by the fact that the longer he stayed out here on the streets, the harder it would be to ever get back in, where life was comfortable and warm, where there was enough food to eat, and a roof over one’s head to keep one dry and to protect a person from a whole host of maladies awaiting those who no longer had a place to call home.
Anderson looked up as the first flakes of snow began to fall. Once upon a time, he would have been excited by the Yuletide fluff, would have gazed out at it from someplace warm, with perhaps a pot of vegetable soup simmering on his stove and Welk queuing up It’s a Wonderful Life in the DVD player.
His mouth watered at the thought of the soup. He pictured a bowl of thick, brownish redbroth with steam rising above it. He imagined carrots, peas, corn, and potatoes. These days, he found himself fantasizing about food as he once had about sex.
Stop it now, he told himself, stomach grumbling.
Almost as if to match the growl of his gut, an el train rumbled overhead. Anderson watched its course as it made its way around a bend in the famous Loop, shrieking and sending out sparks.
The train! Of course…the train. I can board and ride it all day. It’s warm, dry. I can sleep.
Anderson scratched his beard. But I need money to get on board and I have nothing.As if to prove the point to himself, Anderson patted his empty pockets.
Even though desperate times called for desperate measures, Anderson still had not gotten over his aversion to begging. More than the refusals, he hated the way people ignored him if he deigned to ask for a spare quarter, walking by him, gazes forward, as if they didn’t see him.
As if he didn’t exist.
There were lots of people walking past him right this very minute, many weighted down with shopping bags from Macy’s or Nordstrom. Surely they could spare a dollar or two so he could ride the el and get out of the cold.
But not one of them saw him. Not one of them would give him so much as a moment’s eye contact to open the door, so he could ask the question.
He could root through a trashcan or Dumpster, hoping to find a CTA transit pass someone had discarded with money still on it. But what were the odds?
Another train rumbled overheard. Anderson shook with the chill. It must be close to zero out here, he thought. And the snow is coming down heavier.
Anderson headed north, walking up Michigan Avenue. He turned right and took metal stairs down to Grand Avenue, where he knew there was a subway stop. At least he could get out of the cold and the snow, which was coming down now so heavily Anderson could barely see where he was going. Perhaps someone in the station would be kind enough to give him a Christmas present of a train ride.
Anderson made his way down the stairs into the Grand Avenue subway station, the mildew smell of the station rising up as he descended. A rush of commuters passed him going up; a train must have just discharged them. People edged by, giving him as wide a berth as possible. Just as he neared the bottom, a young woman with short black hair, wearing a down coat trimmed in fur, stumbled on the concrete stairs. She dropped her purse and its contents spilled out. Anderson paused and spotted the makeup, the few dollar bills-and a CTA transit card. A part of him told him to grab it and run, that she could well afford another one. If there was enough money stored on the card, it could get him through a good part of the winter.
But no matter how cold it got, no matter how much snow fell, no matter how well the woman could afford to buy another card, Anderson couldn’t do it. He just didn’t have it in him to steal.
He reached down to help her gather her things and she recoiled, gasping at the sight of him and scooting back and away. "That’s okay!" she said, quickly lowering her gaze to hurriedly pick up the things she had dropped.
It hurt Anderson to see the fear and disgust in her eyes.
In the station, Anderson didn’t know what to do. To access the platform, you had to have a card. Sure, he could jump the turnstiles and risk getting arrested; he had seen it done. Some got away with it, more didn’t.
Like stealing the woman on the stair’s transit pass, it simply wasn’t within Anderson to do something criminal.
Among the straggling commuters, Anderson spied an old woman who looked kindly. Perhaps she would take pity on him. With her upsweep of gray hair, her sensible wool coat, rubber boots, and hand-crocheted scarf, she appeared kindly, reminding Anderson of his own late grandmother. There was something lively and warm in her pale blue eyes.
Anderson stepped in front of her and smiled. "Excuse me, ma’am."
The woman stopped, regarding him.
"I hate to ask, but I need to get on the train and, honestly, I don’t have a dime to my name." Anderson thought for a moment and came up with a small white lie. "I need to get to the south side, where my family is." He smiled again. "It’s Christmas."
The woman didn’t say anything.
"Do you think you could spare a couple dollars so I could ride?" Anderson gnawed at his lower lip, hating the position circumstance and the economy had put him in.
"Get the hell out of my way," the woman said quietly, edging by him. She called over her shoulder, "Get a job, why don’t you?"
Anderson was taken aback by the coldness and the almost-hatred in her voice. It was so unexpected and so unnecessarily cruel.
Anderson felt the bright sting of tears at the corner of his eyes. His shoulders slumped. He was about to turn and leave the station when a young guy, about his own age, came up to him. Once upon a time, Anderson would have thought he was cute, and if he had opened the door a little, Anderson might have flirted with him. But now his only reaction was-what now?
"What a bitch," the man said, his gaze roaming over to where the old woman was mounting the stairs. He reached into the pocket of his worn denim jacket that looked too thin for the weather and pulled out a transit card. He held it out to Anderson. "Take it. There’s only one ride left on there. I wish I could give you more, but I’m pretty strapped myself."
Tentatively, Anderson reached for the card. "Are you sure you can spare this?"
"I wouldn’t have offered it to you if I couldn’t." He wiggled the hand holding the card. "Go on."
Anderson took it, wondering if some guardian angel, or even Welk, was looking out for him.
"It’s nothin’. Merry Christmas."
Anderson swallowed hard, feeling a lump in his throat. "Merry Christmas to you too."
The guy turned and headed up the stairs, out into the snow.