offered to hold the baby or amuse the two-year-old.

“It’s all right,” she said in a soft slow voice. “Todd just be tired after staying up all night. We couldn’t get into the shelter ?cause the one they sent us to don’t allow babies. I couldn’t get me no bus fare to come back here and get them to find us a different place.”

“So what did you do?” I didn’t know which was more horrible-her plight or the resigned gentle way she talked about it.

“Oh, we found us a park bench up at Edgewater by the shelter. The baby sleep but Todd just couldn’t get comfortable.”

“Don’t you have any friends or relatives to help you out? What about the baby’s father?”

“Oh, he be trying to find us a place,” she said listlessly. “But he can’t get no job. And my mother, we used to stay with her, but she had to go into the hospital, now it look like she going to be sick a long time and she can’t keep up on her rent.”

I looked around the room. Dozens of people were waiting ahead of me. Most of them had my neighbor’s dragged-out look, bodies stooped over from too much shame. Those who didn’t were pugnacious, waiting to take on a system they couldn’t possibly beat. Elena’s needs-my needs-could certainly take a far backseat to their demands for emergency shelter. Before I took off I asked if Todd and she would like some breakfast-I was going over to the Burger King to get something.

“They don’t let you eat in here, but Todd could maybe go with you and get something.”

Todd showed a great disinclination to be separated from his mother, even to get some food. Finally I left him whimpering at her side, went to the Burger King, got a dozen breakfast buns with eggs and wrapped the lot in a plastic bag to conceal the fact that it was food. I handed it to the woman and left as fast as I could. My skin was still trembling.


Not St. Peter

The kinds of places Elena could afford didn’t seem to advertise in the papers. The only residential hotels listed in the classifieds were in Lincoln Park and started at a hundred a week. Elena had paid seventy-five a month for her little room at the Indiana Arms.

I spent four hours futilely pounding the pavements. I combed the Near South Side, covering Cermak Road between Indiana and Halsted. A century ago it housed the Fields, the Searses, and the Armours. When they moved to the North Shore the area collapsed rapidly. Today it consists of vacant lots, auto dealers, public housing, and the occasional SRO. A few years ago someone decided to restore a blockful of the original mansions. They stand like a macabre ghost town, empty opulent shells in the midst of the decay that permeates the neighborhood.

The stilts of the Dan Ryan L running overhead made me feel tiny and useless as I went door to door, asking drunk or indifferent supers about a room for my aunt. I vaguely remembered reading about all the SRO’s that came down when Presidential Towers went up, but somehow the impact this had on the street hadn’t hit me before. There just wasn’t housing available for people with Elena’s limited means. The hotels I did find were all full- and victims of last night’s fire, savvier than me, had been there at dawn renting the few rooms available. I realized that the fourth time a blowsy manager said, “Sorry, if you’d gotten here first thing this morning when we had something…”

At three I called off the search. Panicked at the prospect of housing Elena for some indefinite future, I drove into my Loop office to call my uncle Peter. It was a decision I could make only while panicked.

Peter was the first member of my family to make something substantial of his life. Maybe the only member besides my cousin Boom-Boom. Nine years younger than Elena, Peter had gone to work in the stockyards when he returned from Korea. He quickly realized that the people getting rich in meat packing weren’t the Poles hitting cows over the head with hammers. Scraping together a few bucks from friends and relations, he started his own sausage manufacturing firm. The rest was the classic story of the American dream.

He followed the yards to Kansas City when they moved there in the early seventies. Now he lived in a huge house in the tony Mission Hills district, sent his wife to Paris to buy her spring clothes, shipped my cousins off to expensive private schools and summer camps, and drove late-model Nissans. Only in America. Peter also distanced himself as much as possible from the low-budget end of the family.

My office in the Pulteney Building was definitely down market. Most of the Loop expansion in recent years has been to the west. The Pulteney is at the southeast fringe where peep shows and pawnshops push the rents down. The Wabash L rattles the fourth-floor windows, disturbing the pigeons and dirt that normally roost there.

My furnishings are Spartan gleanings from police auctions and resale shops. I used to hang an engraved sketch of the Uffizi over the filing cabinet, but last year I’d decided its intricate black detail looked too drab with all the olive furniture. In its place I’d put up some splashy posters of paintings by Nell Blaine and Georgia O’Keeffe. They gave the room a little color, but no one would mistake it for the hub of an international business.

Peter had been there once, when he brought his three children to Chicago for a tour several years ago. I had watched him swell visibly as he calculated the gap between our net present values.

Getting hold of him this afternoon took all my powers of persuasion, mixed in with a little bullying. My first worry, that he might be out of the country, or equally inaccessible on some golf course, proved groundless. But he had a phalanx of assistants convinced it was better to handle my business themselves than to disturb the great man. The most difficult skirmish came when I finally reached his personal secretary.

“I’m sorry, Miss Warshawski, but Mr. Warshawski has given me a list of family members who he’ll let interrupt him and your name isn’t on it.” The Kansas twang was polite but unyielding.

I watched the pigeons check themselves for lice. “Could you get a message to him? While I hold? That his sister Elena will be arriving in Kansas City on the six o’clock flight and has cab fare to his house?”

“Does he know she’s coming?”

“Nope. That’s why I’m trying to get hold of him. To let him know.”

Five minutes later-while I paid prime daytime rates to hold-Peter’s deep voice was booming in my ear. What the hell did I mean, sending Elena to him unannounced like this. He wasn’t having his children exposed to a lush like that, they didn’t have guest space, he thought he’d made it clear four years ago that he was never-

“Yes, yes.” I finally stanched the flow. “I know. A woman like Elena would just not fit into Mission Hills. The drunks there get manicures every week. I understand.”

It wasn’t the best opening to a plea for financial aid. After he’d finished shouting his outrage I explained the problem. The news that Elena was still in Chicago did not, as I’d hoped, bring him enough relief to agree to bail her out.

“Absolutely not. I made this totally clear to her the last time I helped her. That was when she foolishly squandered Mother’s house in that cockamamie investment scheme. You may remember that I retained a lawyer for her who saw that she was able to salvage something from the sale. That was it-my last involvement in her affairs. It’s time you learned the same lesson, Vic. An alkie like Elena will just milk you dry. The sooner you realize it, the easier your life will be.”

Hearing some of my own negative thoughts echoed on his pompous lips made me squirm in my chair. “She paid for that lawyer though, Peter, if I remember rightly. She hasn’t ever asked you for cash, has she? Anyway, I live in four rooms. I can’t have her staying with me. All I want is enough money to make the rent on a decent apartment for a month while I help her find a place she can afford.”

He gave a nasty laugh. “That’s what your mother said that time Elena showed up at your place in South Chicago. Remember? Not even Tony could stomach having her around. Tony! He could tolerate anything.”

“Unlike you,” I commented dryly.

“I know you mean that as an insult but I take it as a compliment. What did Tony leave you when he died? That squalid house on Houston and the remains of his pension.”

“And a name I’m proud to use,” I snapped, thoroughly roused. “And come to that, you wouldn’t have gotten your little meatball machine off the ground without his help. So do something for Elena in exchange. I’m sure wherever Tony is now he’d consider it a just quid pro quo.”

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