When I graduated college, most of my cohort opted for post-grad volunteering, law and medical school, traveling the world with their lovers, or relocating to far-flung states. None of that occurred to me, and I wouldn’t have known what to do about it if it had, so I went back to the south Chicago suburbs where I grew up and worked in a public library.
The library had nineteen leaks in the roof. We counted one rainy day. We couldn’t afford to fix them. Our patrons couldn’t afford much of anything either. When I arrived in the morning, people congregated outside the doors with all their belongings, luggage pieces and two coats per person. One lady carried a supply of toilet paper and oranges.
Inside, when I wasn’t shelving or checking out books, I fielded endless requests for “Circuit Breakers,” or Illinois Department on Aging applications for tax and prescription drug assistance. I managed the bathroom keys for people who had no other access to water or toilets during daylight hours.
I assisted folks who desperately needed to “get a Yahoo” to look for a job. That is, they needed an email address for job applications that required one, which was most applications. But helping people “get a Yahoo” was difficult since those who asked had invariably never been on the Internet and didn’t know how to type. Computers were an alien, unaffordable universe, part of a life that passed them by long ago.
Other folks needed library cards not for books, but as ID. Banks, payday loan stores, and webs of interlocking government agencies often refused to do business without multiple forms of identification. Nobody really knew if places were accepting library cards, but it was worth a shot because they were free. Saving a few bucks meant a couple rides on the bus, getting people to the places demanding the ID.
The library was a municipal agency. An ordinance required I become a city resident. I could not afford to move so I eventually left, enduring a long period of unemployment. One evening in those days, I went out for a haircut. Two people about my age, mid-twenties, entered the salon and sat down. They recognized each other and chatted.
The guy said he hadn’t been around because he’d been in jail and just got out. The girl talked about all the people she knew who went to jail. It seemed “everybody our age still around here” was constantly in and out of the slammer. The guy hoped he could get out of town soon, seeing there were no jobs. Besides, there wasn’t much to do except mess around.
Driving home, I had a vertiginous feeling that I too would go to jail. It was nonsensical: I didn’t steal, or do drugs, or hang out with the wrong crowd, or get in drunken brawls on the lawn. But I now grasped that some places in America are vortexes, tight swirling pools of no opportunity. People who live in them, even good people, can drift toward trouble and then get caught in the system and stay there. I had now been unemployed just long enough to intuitively understand, to stare quietly into the abyss.
Working again, I now ride the train to downtown Chicago. Roaring up through the South Side, I see crumbling factories with broken windows, abandoned rail yards, blocks of weeds and refuse, clusters of repair shops looking like lean-tos amid fields of rusted vehicles. Businesses are often small storefronts, with signs saying things like CA$H NOW, LOTTO, or LIQUOR. If I listen to the conversations on my train, variants of certain phrases pop up noticeably:
“So why are you going to jail again?” Or: “Then why didn’t she ask for a jury trial?” Or: “How much bail money do you need?”
Coming home at night, I occasionally stroll down North Michigan Avenue. I take in the glittering splendor of the shops, the expanse of the Chicago River, the lawyers and assorted financial people barking into smartphones, and the regular panhandlers who have been there for as long as I’ve been doing this. I also notice more panhandlers today than when I started.
Lately the leaders of my Catholic faith speak of how the foundations of our society and families are under attack. I agree. But it is not LGBTQ activists, or “radical feminists,” or other scapegoats of the moment who do it. Our decay comes from a mercilessly competitive society that exercises a preferential option for the swift, the lucky, and the soulless. We create de facto, bifurcated colonies of “winners” and “losers.” The aftereffects rip through us the way hairline cracks shoot through a foundation.
Catholic leaders need to return to the basics, to the words with which Jesus began his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord…Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Jesus started this way for a reason, and as he started we must continue.