#987: The Americans

October 1st, 2018

I don’t want to write where this was because I don’t want the cops to roust them.

I’ll say it was on the North Branch of the river, in a spot where blue herons and kingfishers dance among the plastic bags and floating bottles. I’ll say it was where the water striders skim the surface so diligently their trails look like raindrops, and the sound of oars slicing the water overcomes road traffic and O’Hare-bound planes, but only for a bit.

I’ll say it was under a bridge since the story won’t work without it, but giving that much information frightens me, that tipping the world to their existence will get someone to call someone to call an alderman or cop and the laughing men and women and the community they built will be torn down and shoved out.

But they smile and laugh and wave and drink way too early on a Sunday, and they yell to us few on kayaks that they’re Americans.

I don’t know the context for the gag, but it seemed to get a laugh from his crew. It was brief and nonsensical, like all true stories. A few friends and I decided to rent kayaks from a surly Scotsman working from a park district boat launch, we paddled for a bit, came across a shantytown hidden under a bridge and a guy yelled some stuff at us. That’s it, that’s all, come back Wednesday for story #988.

But that’s not it, not all and not it at all.

The river is a mix of urban and rural beautifuls on a Sunday morning. There are parks that abut it, allowing joggers to bound among prairie grass. There are birds and trees and one lonely dragonfly swooping the water looking for something it’s too late in the season to find.

There are the also the backs of rich people’s houses with rotting boat docks or for sale signs on sailboats that turned out to be bad economic calls this far from the lake. Bridge underpasses bring graffiti, either expertly textured and layered declarations of “Yes I exist! Yes I am!” or crude spraypaint dicks.

Still-green leaves rustle for a moment before a Loop-bound Brown Line shoots across a bridge above the water.

And somewhere on this route specific enough to give a sense of place but vague enough that no neighbor reading this thinks “I should give the cops a call — to help those poor people, of course, with my preserved property value nothing but a happy side effect,” a homeless encampment of humans living like trolls under a billy goat gruff bridge on Chicago’s North Side.

It looked established, and comfortable. Tents and tarps and mattresses dragged and propped under where road guards from rain. A group of about five to 10 of the shantytown’s neighbors sat in chairs or wheelchairs on the flat top of a massive concrete tube meant either to rush water in or out of the river. They sat in chairs with beverages in hand, watching the water and all the things and people floating down it.

It occurred to me their rich riverside neighbors built those abandoned, rotting docks for the same purpose.

And one man yelled at us.

It was friendly yelling, and on our return trip he yelled “There they are again!” and asked us how the day’s paddling went. But on our first pass by, the yelling was hopeful, nice and too far away to be heard coherently. We did catch, though, the man yelling “We’re Americans! We’re Americans!” as the others laughed as you do at the cheeky friend who brings outsiders into an inside joke.

They’re Americans, whatever that means.

They are failed Americans, your political comfort covered by the ways that verb can be used. You of the right with gumption and unction and pulling-up-by bootstrappery will see them as failed Americans meaning they failed at being Americans. They lost the game. They weren’t good, smart, sane or rich (for those things are the same) enough to stay good, smart, sane and rich (for those things are the same). Thank you for playing, please don’t try again.

You of the left, with policies and programs and plans to save the earth through a combination of federal regulation and putting your plastics in a different bin than your food waste, you see them as failed Americans meaning they were failed. America failed them. We failed them. We didn’t do enough, didn’t give enough or flash our bumper stickers well enough to save these U.S.-icans from life under a billy goat gruff bridge. The leftie halos we put on our own heads didn’t shine bright enough. We couldn’t smug them into a home.

“We’re Americans!” he yelled. “We’re Americans!”

We paddled on.

On the way back, tired and arm-ached and with the North Branch Pumping Station forever singed into our nostrils, we passed the camp again. Here’s when he yelled “There they are again!” Here’s when he asked how it went and we had a pleasant back and forth as the south-facing current carried us along.

They didn’t yell nationalities this time, but here’s when I realized they meant it.

On the other side of the river, under the other end of the troll bridge, some, few, none or all of them had built a house. Nestled under a bridge that whooshed with cars, the house looked sturdy. It was simple — blue tarp pulled across a wooden frame — but looked waterproof and warm enough for at least the next few weeks. It was a labor of grimy love, a few people with nothing gathering what few things they find of value.

There, hung by the homemade home’s door, an American flag.

More on the red, white and blue

Where the homeless of Michigan Avenue go

A review of “Hamilton,” written before I saw it

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You are currently reading #987: The Americans by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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