Friday, September 9, 2022

Wheelchair Tent in Chicago


Wheelchair Tent in Chicago, 2022, Watercolor on Paper, 40" x 60"

He called himself Shadow. Or so he told me. This painting reminds me of him because he was a homeless guy in a wheelchair. Though I don’t think this was his wheelchair and tent. I suppose there’s a possibility this was Shadow’s since I never saw the person presumably inside the tent. But I also never saw Shadow with a tent.

I would see him on my way to class, walking through downtown Chicago from my dorm. He was often sitting in his wheelchair outside the 711 with a cup for people to put money in. I’d say hi, maybe talk to him for a bit, and give him a five or something. After a while, I got to know him better. I learned that he was a biker and was in a biker gang at one time. He also said he was a bouncer at a bar. He seemed to have had an interesting life. He also said he was dying, that he had lung cancer. As he tossed his spent cigarette into the street.

Sometimes he asked me to help push him somewhere. Usually just down the street to the bus stop. Once on my way back to the dorm. I ran into him being pushed by someone else. I never saw this other person again, so I never got to know her, but she looked like she could’ve been another art student at SAIC. She just had that vibe. Anyways, he told her that he knew me and that I could push him the rest of the way.

Like usual, he was being pushed in the wheelchair backwards so that he was facing me. For whatever reason, I didn’t understand why, he claimed that it was easier… oh yeah, if I remember correctly, he said something about his feet hitting the ground. He wanted to go to the drug store to buy some whiskey. He was really excited to show me how he bought the whiskey.

We got to the store and went straight to the liquor aisle. I was very familiar with this aisle at this drug store. I would get this bottom shelf 1.75-liter bottle of vodka for a little over ten dollars. Well, with tax, maybe closer to fifteen. That stuff tasted horrible but was nice and cheap and lasted me about a week. Back to Shadow though. He wanted a fifth of some bottom shelf whiskey. The store wasn’t too busy at this time, so we were able to walk right up to a cash register.

I offer to help, but he says, “I got this.” Shadow stands up from the wheelchair, a few steps away from the register and puts the bottle on the counter. He turns back to his wheelchair and fumbles through the bag hanging off the side until he finds his cup. He pulls out a few bills and a pile of coins. I notice a five, but the total is barely eight or nine dollars. Without saying anything the cashier rings up the bottle, never making eye contact with Shadow or me, and takes the money.

Shadow looks at me, smiling, “See they know me here, they’re cool.” He’s gesturing with a thumb’s up behind him toward the cashier. While they do seem to recognize Shadow, they are very much not smiling or as happy as he is that he’s here. Shadow gets back in the wheelchair, and I push him out the store. He seems so proud of himself.

Shadow has me push him over to the bus stop. As we go, he takes a swig of the whiskey. “Hey, you have some too.” He hands me the bottle. I kind of shrug my shoulders and take the bottle, “Sure, why not?” I took a swig myself, like the degenerate alcoholic I was back then.

My memory is a bit fuzzy and mixed up. I’m not sure when some things happened on which night. I’m pretty sure we were at the bus stop for some time, drinking and talking shit. I have this image in my mind of the bottle being spilled or thrown in the street or something. I think this was also the time that he invited me to hang out with him at his place sometime. Shadow said he was staying at some sort of shelter, I think, that charged five dollars a night… I think. He said I could draw him, or we could drink or something. He wasn’t really clear on what we’d do. I was a little nervous about this idea, not being sure where exactly his place was or what I was getting myself into. But to some extent, I thought this could be an interesting experience to say the least and maybe the nerves are just my social anxiety.

Now I’m really not sure what I did the rest of this night. Did I just go to my dorm? Or was this the night that I thought hey, I’m drinks, let’s go take pictures, get more drinks… I think this was that night. And if it was, this might have also been the night that I met David Sudler. But I don’t know, that’s a different story. And another potential friendship that I screwed up with my lack of social graces. Oh well, too bad.

Anyways, not too long after this- I think- was when I saw Shadow with a group of guys that were arguing over something. Shadow sort of motioned me over, I didn’t want to get involved but I didn’t want to just keep walking and ignore Shadow either. “Don’t worry, he’s cool, I know him,” Shadow reassures the other guys. They talked fast and with a pretty thick Chicago accent, so I don’t quite remember exactly what they said. They seemed nonplussed by my presence and kept arguing. If I remember correctly, they were arguing about turf and this guy wasn’t supposed to be on this street.

He tried to walk away from the other two, going into the 711. They followed him in, Shadow went in too while beckoning me to come with. At this point, I’m not sure what to do. I really don’t want to get involved but I kind of am now. And then part of me is curious, need to have weird experiences to reference for the art stuff, right? The one guy who is not supposed to be there is trying to buy something. The other two are still yelling at him. The 711 clerk is trying his best to just ring up the stuff and get this argument out of the store.

Something is said, I don’t remember what anymore, but the one guy seems to finally agree to back down and leave this street. Or rather, he wanted to leave, and the argument wasn’t going anywhere. Either way, he takes whatever off the counter and hurries out the door, into the crowd. We leave the 711 as well. The other two guys talk a little bit with Shadow, but don’t say much. Probably don’t want to say anything more in front of me. Then they’re off too.

Shadow turns to me, “Those guys are cool. They work for me, I run this street.” Wait, what? Aren’t you homeless? “If you ever want to make some money…” He seems to tell from my face and hesitation that I don’t want to get involved. “Well, if you change your mind…” “Uh, yeah, thanks, um, I got to go to class.” And I did. Like usual, I left early so this little delay wouldn’t make me late, but I did need to go soon. “Yeah, right, see you soon, man.” Shadow waved, I waved and started heading to class.

I’m pretty sure after this encounter, my therapist told me I need to stop hanging out with Shadow. I told her about the invite to hang out at his place, not being sure about where exactly that is, and of course the whole argument with the guy over turf and Shadow saying he ran that street. Not sure how serious he was about that or what exactly he meant, maybe he just watches the street for them or something and says he runs it.

Either way, my therapist is not thrilled, “Why are you spending so much time with this man experiencing homelessness?”

“Well, he’s interesting and he talked to me first so he’s easy to talk to.”

“You’re going to this big art school, with all these talented classmates. They’re interesting, they’re more interesting and you have more in common with them being an art student too. You should be getting to know your classmates.”


“Besides, he seems to have his own issues going on and I don’t want you getting involved. You’re both going to make each other worse off.”

“Yeah…” She was right about that. He was definitely not the best role model to be taking advice from and I was not in any position to give him the help that he’d need. So, staying away from him was probably for the best. I was also a little afraid of Shadow at that point too. Curious but afraid I was starting to get myself involved in something I really didn’t want to be a part of.

The next time I saw Shadow, I told him straight up, I can’t hang out with him anymore. I think he asked me to go to his place again or maybe he just wanted to drink with me again. The one thing from this last conversation I do remember was him crying. I told him my therapist doesn’t want me to hang out with him anymore and though I still wanted to hang, I was trying to deal with some issues. So, I wanted to trust the therapist and do as she say. Tears roll down his face. He tries to convince me not to, says that I’m a cool guy and he really liked drinking and hanging out with me. His voice is actually shaking. Maybe he really is crying. I tell him I’m really sorry, but I can’t.

I don’t know. Even in hindsight, I don’t know. With him being involved with those dealers, probably was best that I walked away. But still, the way he was crying. And were my classmates really more interesting just because they go to some school. Most of them were younger and didn’t have as much life experience. Shadow had life experience and stories to tell… well, actually I probably already heard them all since I’ve heard them about three or four times. But still, he was the elder alcoholic with stories and that beautiful sort of cynical attitude that goes with drinking yourself to the point of not feeling the cigarettes being put out on your hand and not caring. I didn’t meet anyone else at SAIC who had the scars to prove they also know that feel. …but this is exactly why I needed to get away from him too. I know I was in no position to help him but to leave him crying like that.


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