Monday, April 27, 2009

Doing Black Hair at Ossamas: Raising more than a few hairs

By Ramycia Cooper
African-American women and girls walked into Ossamas Hair Design beauty salon one recent Saturday morning, winded and ready to begin their day of hair care.

“Who’s next?” shouted a dark-haired, middle-aged Egyptian man.

A brown-skinned black woman dressed in light blue jeans, white gym shoes, and a bright yellow T-shirt that peeked out from underneath her dark black smock approached the man standing near a shampoo bowl inside the hair salon in west suburban Oak Park.

The woman sat down then leaned back in the chair then placed her head over the shampoo bowl. Soon the male Egyptian beautician picked up the sink’s black water hose and sprayed the woman’s hair then poured on shampoo and massaged her scalp, white soap bubbles forming.

After a final rinse, another Egyptian man about, 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a round face and short curly hair, directed her to his chair for a blow dry. Soon her hair was curled, fluffed, feathered and sprayed and another appointment at the beauty shop complete. All for the price of $45—cheap, many around here say, compared to many salons.

It is a typical scene that plays out almost daily at black hair salons in neighborhoods across Chicago and beyond. Except this recent salon session was not at a black–owned beauty shop, but an Egyptian-owned one. The success of Ossamas and others is evidence of a growing trend among African-American women, some of whom say the Egyptian-owned and operated salons are less expensive than their African-American counterparts. Some women also contend that the immigrant newcomers do as good a job when it comes to styling their hair as some black stylists.

But African-American beauticians see the delving of Egyptian-run salons into the business of doing black women’s hair as encroaching upon their territory and the decades-old industry by which many African Americans have made their living. Some also contend that the Egyptian beauticians don’t know how to properly care for black women’s hair. But some Egyptian stylists like Casey Almazry say that’s not the case and that their work speaks for itself.

“The African-American women love ‘the look’ we provide, we keep the hair healthy, we help the hair grow back if it’s damaged. Overall, we take care of the hair,” Almazry said.

Whatever the case, this much is clear—as clear as the buzz and hum of the blow dryer at Ossamas and the steady stream of clients: Change is in the air.

The History

According to Casey Almazry, 8-year stylist at Ossama’s, the first Egyptian-owned hair salon was opened in 1999 by Ihai on Dearborn Street and Congress Boulevard in downtown Chicago.

Many African-American women found out about these salons because of friends and chose to try them out.

“About six years ago when I was in high school at Jones Commercial downtown, I went with one of my friends and she got her hair done, I liked it and it didn’t take much time,” said Tiara Dixion, 24, a regular at Ossamas. “Ever since then I’ve been patronizing them every once and a while.”

The Critics

Dixion says that she doesn’t think that the Egyptians know how to keep the texture of African-American hair healthy or know how to truly take care of it. She doesn’t have a regular African-American beautician but said that if she did that she would go to them instead because she would think they knew how to take care of her hair a lot better.

Many of the black women who utilize these shops say it’s mainly because of convenience. “I go to the Egyptian shops because I know I don’t have to make an appointment, I don’t have to wait usually, I will be out the door within an hour or so,” said Dixion.

On the other hand, some Black women agree with Almazry it’s because of “the look” they continue to come back.

“At some African-American beauty shops, it costs about fifty-five or sixty dollars to get a perm along with a style, but I can go to the Egyptian salons and get that perm look without the perm price,” said Jessica Robinson, 20, a client at Ossamas.

“I especially love the blow-drying technique they use, it leaves my hair really bouncy, flowey, and bone straight” said Ladrina Terry, 28, client.

According to Almazry, African-American beauticians don’t view him and other Egyptian stylists or salon owners as being any different as competitors than competing black-owned and operated shops. He adds that in his experience black women try his shop and other Egyptian-run shops because they like Egyptian Hair Designs.

Some African-American beauticians disagree. Deverra “Dede” Jackson is the owner of De’s Hair Cottage on Chicago’s South Side. Jackson, who has been a cosmetologist for more than 20 years, contends that the process the Egyptians use on the African-American women hair is damaging.

“A lot of Black women have chemicals in their hair such as perms, the blow drying process is damaging because it’s a lot of heat on the hair which it turn thins the hair out,” said Jackson.

Jackson also said that one of the ways the Egyptians marketed their salon was the blow-drying technique they use, which, in her estimation, it gives African-American women that full-body European look so many of them seek.

“The problem I have with the black women is that they go to them for so many years, and their hair is so damaged they always have to come back to the sisters that know their hair,” Jackson said. “They always have to go back to where they’ve come from.”

Jackson also contends that the Egyptian stylists do not know what it takes to keep Black women hair healthy.

“I’m into healthy hair. I always tell my clients that hair is like grass, you have to water it, fertilize it, keep the ends trimmed,” Jackson said. “I give my clients deep conditionings. I use protein, and I use products and techniques that will keep the hair strong and healthy.”

“I love the way Dede does my hair, she makes it shine, and she knows my hair because she is African-American,” said Lilly Johnson, 29, referring to Jackson. “I feel really comfortable with her.”

Jackson also explains that the Egyptians’ techniques are more for African-American women who do not have a chemical perm in their hair, but wear their hair natural. But the bulk of their clientele are Black women with relaxed hair.

“Another problem I have with the Egyptians is that they do not educate their clients on the damage and after effects of the process they use on African-American women hair,” Jackson said. “Their not educating the Black sisters at all, their just making the money.”

“If we see that the hair is damaged, we encourage our clients to get a hot oil treatments and deep conditionings, it’s up to them to utilize the suggestions” said Mona, Egyptian stylist at Sara’s Hair Salon in west suburban Oak Park.

“I have tried the Egyptian salons and their technique thinned my hair out really bad, so now I stick to the Black beauty shops, I trust them more so than the Egyptians with my hair,” said Shoniece Brown, 23, former Egyptian client.

“After I blow dry the hair, I use pomade on the hair to give it shine and bounce, as far as thinning the hair, I’m not sure of what she means,” said Mona.

Deborah J. Williams, deputy director of operations at Dudley Beauty College in Chicago, says that the blow dryers that are used in the Egyptian Salons are harmful to the hair over a period of time.

“Going to the Egyptians Salons every once and while is not bad. They do very good hair, I mean the hair is beautiful. But after going to them for several years the hair has lots of breakage and it’s damaged severely,” said Williams.


Jackson doesn’t see the Egyptian-owned salons as new competition, she says. As a hair dresser, you have to look at longevity.

“I don’t feel that they are competition if I have to correct their work,” said Jackson.

“One of their strongest marketing tools is the men who do hair in the shops,” Jackson said. “The men are talking to the women, making them feel good, convincing them to let them ‘take care’ of their hair, when really their just making the money.”

Although many African-American women are apparently alternating, or in some cases abandoning the black-owned salons, many still remain faithful, even if some aren’t.

“Coming from a family of hair dressers and barbers, I have and always will continue to support African-American salons,” said Toni James, 32, a client at De’s Hair Cottage. “If something goes wrong with my hair, I know exactly who to go back to.”

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At the heart of The Center: Making a difference

By Cassandra Dowell
On a chilly Wednesday evening, a group of about 40 youth gather in an open room on the second floor of a South Side shelter known as the Center on Halsted. Outside, the sky darkens as the evening’s collaborative youth group meeting gets underway.

Do-rags, beanies, and caps turned sideways and backward adorn the heads of many of those gathered in a circle for the center’s once-a-month Seminar for Success. The majority of those present are 19 to 23 years old, although the center’s youth program is open to teens as young as 13 and to young adults up to 24 years old. The attendees are predominantly black and Hispanic.

Regardless of race or gender, the youths share a common denominator: They are part of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender community.

And for many, like Lizette Sierra, 20, who have found their way here, the center is not just a hang out space, but a home.

According to Nicholas Ray’s “An Epidemic of Homelessness,” a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, about 20 to 40 percent of the 575,000 to 1.6 million number “of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).”

According to the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, “A 2005 University of Illinois report on homeless youth funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services found that as many as 25,000 Illinois youth are homeless.” In 2007, 18 to 21 year olds made up 4 percent of the total homeless population in Chicago, according to a Homeless Count Summary Report published in 2007 by the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.

According to officials, the Center on Halsted has about 1,400 registered youths and each night serves about 40 to 50 who seek the refuge, counsel and camaraderie of the center.

“Youth come here, and just having those conversations with the youth, and seeing them grow, despite their families missing presence, it does a lot for the soul,” says Antonio Jones, the Center on Halsted’s youth program coordinator. “I know that might sound cliché, but it does. They will thrive in an environment where they are accepted.”

The Center on Halsted opened its doors in 2007 and, according to its own self-description touts itself as “a safe and nurturing environment”—one that “serves as a catalyst for the LGBT community that links and provides community resources, and enriches life experiences.”

Center of Success

In the center’s youth space stands a door, painted and propped as a canvas, in-between an art room and a more intimate group meeting space. “Building a Safe Place for Family and Friends” is written across it in bold letters.

Jeremy Carter, the Center on Halsted’s prevention coordinator, leads the evening’s Seminar for


Carter begins by urging everyone to stand up. He stands in front of the wall-sized window and the group encloses around him, despite loud chatter and some hesitation among participants.

The group activity is intended to help these young adults become successful by learning “how to

meet people where they are at,” says Carter.

“Some of us will learn a little bit about each other. Some of us will learn a lot,” Carter says.

When a statement Carter makes applies to someone, he or she is told to step forward. And in order to show support for those who step forward, Carter tells the participants to cross their thumb over their middle fingers, with the pinky and pointer finger sticking out.

“It’s not a gang sign or anything like that,” said Carter. “It symbolizes support.”

When Carter asks whether anyone has experienced being “harassed by police,” the group takes an eager step forward. One girl, previously seated, leaps out of her seat.

“If you’ve ever seen an act of violence … shooting, stabbing,” Carter says, “step forward.”

The majority of participants move forward, laughing. For them the answer is a no-brainer: Yes.

For some, the activity stirs up their emotions. One young man returns to his seat before the exercise is over.

Expressing his exhaustion, he says, “You have to be physically and emotionally involved.”
Soon two staffers begin cleaning the nearby kitchen and preparing a meal with ingredients from two large-sized bins. For some, the meal that the Center on Halsted provides is the only way they will eat tonight.

Some are homeless; they have been kicked out of their homes because they opened up about their sexual orientation, or LGBT status.

Jones, the youth program coordinator, began working at the Center on Halsted in February 2008 after working at the state’s Department of Children and Family Services..

Jones, who says he has always been “interested in social services, especially child welfare,” notes that there are several youth at the center who are homeless because they “came out” to their family about their sexual orientation.

Jones says he enjoys his work and seeing how the center assists those who need it. Artwork given to him by students whom he has helped over the last year dot the walls of his office. One drawing shows the slender body of a female with red heels and black fish-net stockings. “Look @ me” is written along the woman’s torso.

Home away from home

Lizette Sierra began going to the center a year ago. She says she told her mother about her lesbian status when she was 14 years old and was very open about her sexual identity throughout high school.

Sierra, who has light brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair buzzed above her ears, describes herself as being “kind of masculine looking.” She prefers baggie pants and loose-fitting shirts to dresses and more feminine-looking clothes.

Sierra says she first heard about the center when she was a member of a gay-straight alliance at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But it was her job at the Shell Circle K gas station located near the center that ultimately led her to attend…

...Reggie Scruggs, an intern at the center, started working there Oct. 27, 2008. He says that he had never been to the center before working there, but had heard about it.

“The first day of working, it was like, culture shock,” he recalls. “… I had never been exposed to that many minority LGBT. It all came at me at once. It just opened my eyes to like a ton of different perspectives.”

For example, Scruggs said, “most people think that gays are like all in Boystown”--referring to a well-known gay neighborhood on the city’s North Side. Scruggs says that area is a “very small portion of the LGBT community.”

“There’s a larger population out there that [many] don’t know much about,” he adds.

Since her experience at the center, Sierra has moved back home to Naperville, Ill., to live with her mother and three younger sisters. She no longer works at the station and has been working at Meijer Grocery since August of 2008.

Sierra notes that she was nervous about coming out to her mother because she never heard anyone in her family discuss homosexuality. However, she always felt her mom accepted her. Sierra said that now “basically everyone knows” about her lesbian status and that she “feels comfortable” in her home.

Sierra remains in contact with some of the people she met through the center and feels that many who attend greatly need the center’s support.

“A lot of them come from those kind of families where they’re not accepted at all,” said Sierra.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

A Baker's Tale: Finding her own recipe for success

By Jordan Glover
A massive, rusting, retro-inspired, sign hangs perpendicular to the storefront, advertising “organic bakery” in green and white light-up letters. Hanging in a frame above the front windows are wooden letters, spelling out the bakery’s name: The Bleeding Heart Organic Bakery.

The unique ambiance does not stop short of the door—the interior of the bakery, at 1955 W. Belmont Ave., is painted sky blue, and the worn hardwood floors coated a jalapeno-lime. Most of the walls are covered in artwork: posters from The Sex Pistols and The Clash mixed with local artwork accompanied by price tags.

Light bulbs hang from the ceiling encased in enormous baker’s whisks. Glass display cases are lined with tarts, scones, cupcakes and candies.The smell of chocolate cake wafts from back kitchens. Heavy punk-inspired music streams from a radio.

To founder and owner Michelle Garcia, 30, The Bleeding Heart Bakery is not just a job. It is a way of life.

“I asked myself, ‘What kind of a world do I want to raise my children in?’” said Garcia, whose bakery embodies her hope of creating a better world.

After her own difficult childhood, through her teen years riddled with addiction, and a difficult transition into adulthood, Garcia knew she wanted to give her children what she says she didn’t have growing up: The confidence to walk down the street, and the grounding to be comfortable in their own skin.

It was that desire that also inspired Garcia to open what she calls an alternative bakery, one with an organic twist as she seeks to make her corner of the world just a little bit sweeter.

Her day starts by making breakfast pastries, including the bakery’s famous “Take a Hike” scone, which Garcia sells over 2,000 of a week. The scone is a blend of flax and pumpkin seeds, oats and a variety of dried fruit.

“I hate making breakfast pastries,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, if we didn’t make the “Take a Hike” scone, we would go out of business. It’s that popular.”

While scones and tea cakes are baking, Garcia sets up the front of the restaurant. Coffee is brewed, filling the large room with a rich, nutty smell. A small coffee preparation station is stocked and organized, complete with organic sugar and a recycling bin for used wooden stirrers.
Garcia wipes down four wooden tables, which are giant cut-outs of cupcakes, painted with a lime green base, black frosting and hot pink hearts. Two bright orange, contemporary style couches sit on either end of the room.

After the front is set up and the breakfast goods come out of the oven, Garcia packs any orders that are to be delivered that day. She then goes on a delivery run, bringing customers their cakes, cookies and other pastries.

Once these essential tasks are complete, Garcia’s schedule changes—what she does is completely different from day to day. Some days she makes cakes, a task that usually belongs to her husband Vinny, 31, who doubles as her business partner. Their cakes range from five-tiered, classic wedding cakes to giant zombie heads being devoured by goblins.

“Baking is the only thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Garcia said.

Growing Up

Garcia never met her biological parents. Her father was in jail when she was born, she says, and her mother—a heroin addict—died shortly after delivery. Garcia was addicted to heroin from birth, a disease that would follow her well into adulthood.

“My parents were doctors,” Garcia said of her adopted parents. “They were busy. I was pretty much raised by nannies.”

Garcia was very rambunctious growing up on the city’s South Side—her hyperactive nature a side effect of her heroin addiction during infancy.

Garcia’s adoptive mother, Sharon Zandell, who now works at a veteran’s hospital, recalls her daughter’s active nature as a child, and says that she was involved in many extracurricular sports, including basketball and competitive ice skating—something she believes her daughter has carried to adulthood.

“When I see her now and I look back, I can see why she is so good at competing,” Zandell said.

But in addition to competing in sports, Garcia, as a teenager, was soon wrestling with a more difficult—and potentially deadly—foe.

“I started using heroin when I was 12, then I left home when I was 13,” Garcia said.

As her mother recalls it, she had run away several times before. And Zandell started to realize that her daughter’s problems were more than merely a tough transition into her teenage years, she says.

For several years, Garcia admits, she was in an on-again-off-again relationship with heroin as she tried unsuccessfully to beat her addiction. It wasn’t until she entered a rehab program called Cedu in California—an organization which closed its doors in 2005 after struggling with financial issues—that she fell in love with baking.

“When we got in trouble, we were sent to help in the kitchens as a punishment,” Garcia said. “I found myself getting in trouble on purpose just so I could go cook…”

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Garcia awakes early, well before she arrives at the bakery around 4 a.m. She wears denim capri pants, Vans brand tennis shoes with hot pink socks and a brown screen-print T-shirt which says,

“Cake is awesome!” Her dreadlocks, a wild combination of hot pink, red and blond, are pulled back off of her face. Tattoos, ranging from “jailhouse” style to mementos of her children, to a wooden leg, adorn almost every visible patch of skin.

“I can’t wear cool clothes as an expression of my personality,” Garcia said. “My work is too messy. My tattoos do what clothes do for most people.”

Some days, Garcia places product orders to any number of local food distributors.

“I completely support organic and local farmers,” Garcia said. “I get my dairy from Organic Valley in Wisconsin, my pork from Faith’s Farms in Illinois. Everything is local. Everything is organic.”

Garcia has been clean for 10 years and three months. Her 10th wedding anniversary is just around the corner.

Garcia tries to finish her daily work with plenty of time to spend with her children, Gabriel, 4 and Sofi, 2.

“Vinny chose the name Gabriel because it was the name of his childhood best friend,” Garcia said. “I chose Sofi because it is the name of the candy bar I was addicted to when I was pregnant with her.”

Garcia said the bakery serves as a natural filter for the type of people she wants her children to be around.

“The people who come in here understand what we are doing, they are generally punk-rock people, too,” Garcia said. “I don’t want them to only experience a Republican world.”

One of Garcia’s biggest fears is that her children will share many of the negative experiences she had growing up: low self-esteem, feeling out of place and insecurity over who she was.

“I want them to be comfortable walking down the street,” Garcia said. “I want them to know who they are and not fear that person.”

Garcia’s children have done more for her than she could have imagined. It wasn’t until Garcia became a mother that she reconnected with her own parents, she says.

“My parents are cool now,” Garcia said. “I appreciate the lessons they taught me. They taught me my work ethic...”

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Cityscape in our eyes...

By Kristin Bivens
If the city were a woman, she wouldn’t be a cheerleader, but she’d definitely be the popular girl in high school.

She’s a heartbreaker, after all. She’s reminiscent of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening—she’s realizing her potential and not letting any one person posses her, she is the people’s woman.

Her bright lights are like diamonds draped over the soft nape of her neck. She’s one’s light in the dark. She’s the woman of multiple faces. On one side, she’s a poverty-stricken single mother. On the other side, she’s Oprah and all her favorite things.

She’s a woman full of Midwest charm with a dash of worldly flavor. Her cold wind is the life and yearning that lives inside of her. She welcomes all countries. She does not judge. Michigan Avenue is her beautiful, head turning face. Wrigleyville and the White Sox, her full breathing lungs.

She’s a feminist dedicated to chivalry and the Old English gentleman. She’s a contradiction—breaking dreams and making dreams.

She’s like Cleopatra, with a greatness so real it’s endearing. She’s the type of woman every man wants to see and every woman wants to be. She’s kept her wits about her. She’s highly educated but humbled.

Her beauty and achievements have not made her haughty. She’s a bit loud at times and when she is, everyone listens. She’s a little dangerous, which only adds to the excitement.

And if anyone asks, she likes her whiskey straight up with a pink paper umbrella on the side.
* * * *

By Cassandra Dowell
An African-American male and female, presumably,
a couple with
little boy in tow
green jacket, blue pants
thumb by his mouth
The woman, black hoodie up
in between sobs, shrieks
the man consoles her. Man
white hoodie, baggie jeans, tan cap.
Little boy walks in circles
playing, pounding his hands
against his thighs
sputtering nonsense, giggling.
the man carries three plastic bags, one contains diapers.

At the bus stop.

Another man stops, “What are you doing?” peppered grey hair
blue jacket.

The bus stop is directly in front of The Gage restaurant. A
steady flow of people
go in and out. suits. A
tall woman, slender with
pixie-cut red hair and even redder lips
--deep lines around her mouth--
complains to the man beside her,
“We had six. How could they only seat five together? That’s ridiculous.”

Bus rolls up and a woman runs down the block, having just crossed the street a block north.
She pauses as it slows to a halt—
she made it.
* * * *

By Jordan Glover
The crisp, clean air of the chilly early April day did little to instill the feeling of spring in those who wondered through Millennium Park.

Some walked briskly, set on accomplishing a predetermined mission, while others meandered through, photographing the parks major features: the bean, the fountains and a large, bright red metal dinosaur.

He took a puff, and began hacking horribly, the sound of phlegm leaving his lungs drowning out the gulls and cascading water in the background.

He began to laugh, a deep, hearty laugh that made his small frame shake beneath a large, black Dickies jacket.

He started talking to himself, babble that could not be understood from 50 feet away. His cigarette went out after a strong gust of wind assaulted the man, he paced back and forth as he relit it.

Then he was silent, and merely standing and shivering in the chilly wind.

* * * *
By Ramycia Cooper
People with Winter/Spring jackets and coats walk to the rhythm of the downtown Chicago beat. An African-American woman, man, and child walk past. The woman cries out, her eyes red and filled with sorrow. The man tries to console her as he gently wipes the tears from her cheeks.
The little boy looks about 2 years old and is smiling and talking, attempting to run away. The smell of cigarettes, perfume, and cologne fills the air. A middle-age white man dressed in a navy blue puffy coat approaches my classmate Cassandra and I.

"What are you guys doing?" he asks.

I explain that we are capturing the moment of people walking down Michigan Avenue on a Tuesday evening.

He then asks whether that includes talking to people. We respond, "We guess so."
He says, “Good luck.”

Cassandra says, “Remember, Big Brother is always watching.”

* * * *
By Cassandra Clegg
A man walks onto the steps from the doors of the Art Institute. He saunters on down and pauses midway, staring straight ahead amongst the tall buildings and the steady traffic flow of Michigan Avenue. He is a middle-aged, dark-skinned man of medium build, wearing a tattered Raiders baseball cap, fading black leather jacket and a pair of blue jeans.

He gazes at the city winding down on this Tuesday night, staring out just as he may have stared into the masterpieces that adorn the walls of the building he just left.

Soon a woman greets the man, interlocks her arm with his and they walk down the stairs in unison.

The pair stands at the crosswalk. The golden sun reflects off the tops of the buildings in the distance. The traffic flows with sporadic honking, frustration clearly present as the impatient try to move up that final two feet.

A small colorful group of young folk pass the pair at the standstill of the crosswalk and pose for an impromptu photo op with one of the statue lions at the base of the stairs. The girl with bleach blond hair and dark red pants snaps the photo of the boy with the sea foam green hoodie. He matches nicely with the fading green lion.

To the side of building sits a sweet city escape—an oasis amongst the rustle. Two people sit Indian style on a wide marble bench in the empty garden. It is an early spring evening with a crisp wintry breeze in the air.

The Asian-looking girl with charcoal black hair and bright pink highlights sits facing a scruffy and shaggy haired boy. They laugh and speak enthusiastically as each one tugs at their sweatshirt sleeves and pull them over their hands.

They remain a lively pair in the empty garden enclosed by leafless bushes and barren trees. They are early visitors to an empty garden on the verge of bloom.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Excerpts from among the best of the class... Fall '08

Dreams of a Father;
Realities of a lost son

By Susan Carslon
Family and friends gathered outside a neighbor’s home for a summer party. Ron Holt recognized the guests, but his focus remained on his playful toddler crawling through the bright green grass. While lying on his back in the lawn, Holt, a gentle-faced man with dark-rimmed glasses, picked up his young son and floated him directly above him in the warm air like superman. The father and son connected eye to eye, face to face.
“I am so glad you’re cute,” Holt said to the chubby-cheeked baby with chestnut eyes. Little Blair opened his mouth wide.

Suddenly, the father’s adoration evaporated as a giant gob of slobber dripped from the child’s mouth and landed right on his father’s cheek.

“Eeewwww,” Holt said, his face contorted in disgust. “Annette, take your son!” he said, calling upon his wife. She laughed, but didn’t budge. The baby, apparently tickled by his father’s reaction, giggled and kicked his legs in the air in amusement.

That tender moment between father and son disappeared yesterday morning when Holt woke up from his dream.

“I would love to stay in that dream for the rest of my life,” Holt said. Except the inescapable reality is that his son is gone and a father is left to grieve.

Holt has endured more heartache than many people might ever imagine. But in the midst of his suffering and an unenviable journey triggered by an assailant’s bullet, he also discovered a renewed sense of purpose. As a 17-year veteran of the Chicago police department, Holt dedicated his life to stopping crimes long ago. In the wake of his own personal tragedy, his mission has taken on a new fervor.

By all accounts, he and his wife did everything right. They talked to their son about gangs and drugs, and raised him in a loving home with an emphasis on education. As a police officer, Holt always felt confident he could protect his son from any danger, though he later discovered he could not.

“It traumatizes your psyche,” he said recently during an interview. “You ask yourself the would’ves, could’ves, should’ves. What could I have done to change that situation?”

This much is clear: What he has done since. This much is also clear: A father’s love for his son never dies, and that love may be sufficient enough for the journey, even a difficult journey from hurt toward healing and hope...

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Excerpts from among the best of the class... Fall 2008

When the city turns cold;
Thumbing through trash for treasure

By Antony Caldaroni
At the Adams Street entrance to Chicago’s Union Station, a man sits among the scurry of rush hour, holding a tattered cardboard sign that reads, “Hungry and out of work.” Commuters, bundled in long black wool coats with matching leather gloves and earmuffs, look straight ahead and do not make eye contact with him. As the endless group moves from the icy sidewalks toward the glass doors, a parameter forms around the hungry man as though a barrier were erected around his body.

“I try to make me enough to get somethin’ to eat and get some money for CTA,” says a man who calls himself Terrel James. “That’s what I do. Every day.”
James is a slender man with dirt-caked hair and an untrimmed beard. He wears an old Starter Cowboys winter coat two sizes too small for his tall stature. Worn grey shoes with no laces cover his feet. For socks and extra padding, he uses old newspapers that protrude from the base of his legs.

Winter in Chicago is particularly hard on James and others like him who have no place to call home. And while some sleep in shelters, others survive on their own terms in the streets. The 2000 US Census estimated that 6,378 homeless lived in emergency and transitional shelters in Illinois. As far as the number of homeless nationally, Robert Bernstein of the U.S. Census Bureau questions the agency’s accuracy in accurately predicting their total population.

Some experts say the best approximation is from a study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which concludes that about 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.

“As far as the homeless population, we haven’t produced any kind of estimate or count of the homeless population recently,” says Bernstein. “In 2000 we produced an estimate of a number living in a transitional shelter but that was not intended to be an accurate count of the homeless.”

Whatever the count of homeless on American streets, organizations such as the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, work diligently here to feed and clothe many of Chicago’s less fortunate.

“We provide beds and three meals a day for the homeless,” says Steve Brown of Cornerstone Community Outreach on the city’s North Side. “We make sure folks get what they need for the cold. We have a free store here so they can get things like coats, clothing, toys and anything else that they need.”

Yet efforts to reach out to the homeless often fall on deaf ears. Regardless of how cold it gets, some, like James, refuse to go to shelters for a warm bed.

“I don’t go to no shelter,” says James. “Every time I go there, someone’s takin’ my stuff or is tryin’ to tell me about Jesus.”

Instead, James spends most of his time on the street, braving bitter gusts of cold air accentuated by the manmade canyons of Chicago’s skyline. When the numbness of cold overcomes him, he goes into the station and naps until the rail police remove him. When hungry, he scavenges through trashcans, he says. Most of his late evenings are spent moving throughout the city on Chicago’s CTA. It is a place where he can get out of the cold and remain alone.

“Two dollars a night,” says James. “I get out of the cold and I got a place to be by myself, ain’t nobody bother me.”
* * * *

Recently, after hours of sitting on the cold, concrete slab outside of Union Station, James decides to go inside to warm up. He is hungry. As he stands, he folds his sign into quarters and stuffs it into one of his two large Old Navy bags.

In these bags James carries what he calls his “treasures”: magazines, newspapers, tattered cloths, scraps of food and cigarette butts. What others throw away as trash, James collects as treasure.

Once down the stairs, James walks toward the wooden seats located near the outskirts of the food court. Before sitting, he removes the black circular top to a large trashcan, thrusts himself into the receptacle and pulls out a Styrofoam plate inside a plastic bag marked “Thank You” in bold red letters.

“I eat better on my own than in any shelter in this here city,” says James with conviction. “I get some barbeque chicken and noodles or the rice almost every day.”

James reaches into his “treasure” bag and pulls out a small handful of white, Popeye’s hot sauce packets. He opens three and begins spreading them liberally on his dinner. With his chapped, dry hands, he grabs a plastic fork in his fist and begins to shovel the food into his mouth. The long, lo mein noodles reach down past his chin as he sucks them up, leaving a trail of red hot sauce on his spotty beard.

When finished, James collects his things and begins a different method of asking for money. He walks toward the standing tables, which have a clear view of the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers game featured on two flat-screen TVs at the bar.

“I got some friends on Western,” says James to a man drinking a beer in a frosted plastic cup. The man focused on the game intently, trying to ignore the homeless man’s imposition. “I just need another two dollars to get a ticket, can you help me?”

With no reply, James moves to the next table where he again is ignored...

To hear more on this story in a report on literary journalism by Reporter Antony Caldaroni, click below:

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Excerpts from Among the best of the class... Fall '08

When Love Goes to Prison

Reporter Stephanie Johnson writes of one woman's dilemma of having to raise the children alone-a situation faced by thousands of families nationwide when husbands, boyfriends and lovers go to prison. For more, click below:

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