A stone’s throw from the steps of the Wisconsin State Capitol stands a man holding a newspaper in one hand and a battered umbrella in the other. His eyelids frantically blink away the pelting sleet on the first day of March. But he’s not planning to read the newspaper; he’s holding it upright over his heart, and a set of weathered clothing and frayed duffle bag begin to tell his story.
His name is Chris and he is silently selling copies of Street Pulse, a newspaper that supports homeless and low-income individuals. His non-confrontational approach to sales has served him well, Chris tells me, on this cold and snowy day that serves as one final set-back to Wisconsin’s slow march toward spring. I ask Chris if he’ll tell me more. An ever-growing drop of wetness balances on the tip of his nose, refusing to jump to the icicled blonde and white mustache below. He agrees, seemingly happy to have someone to talk to for more than a couple minutes.
I tell Chris I’ll be right back – I just have to run into the nearby bank building and get some cash – an excuse he’s no doubt heard countless times. I get some cash and stop at a convenience store to grab him a coffee, bottle of water and Cliff bar. As I step back out onto the sidewalk, I see he is patiently expecting me.
The Wisconsin State Capitol on March 1, 2017.
I tell him I’d like five copies of the newspaper and pay him $5 plus some extra, later wishing throughout our conversation that I had given him much more. I hand him the water, energy bar and coffee, and mutter, to my own horror and regret, “I’m not sure how good it tastes considering they only had the powdered cream—er, but, ah…” He however doesn’t skip a beat and politely thanks me, smiling as he removes one of his soft black mittens to take the cup from my hands.
Chris has kind blue eyes. Kris Kringle eyes, really – the kind that smile before the rest of his face does. He is tall and sturdy and wears khaki-colored clothes from head to toe. But he is cold. The fabric of his coat has now blackened in several spots and he wears a lanyard with a Street Pulse name badge. His shoes are desert boots – or as rural kids like me used to refer to them – “shit-kickers.” Chris will turn 48 later this month and is kind, well-spoken and self-deprecating. I like him immediately.
I don’t think the story of how Chris became homeless is any more unique than anyone else's, although as I stand there I admonish myself for having an opinion at all considering I’ve never actually stopped to ask. What may be unique – or is at least to me – is that Chris credits his seven years of homelessness with staying alive, as other homeless men and women die around him. One recent example is highlighted in the newspaper issue he holds.
“My story’s not as depressing as most stories,” Chris said.
Page 3 of Street Pulse's March 2017 issue.
Chris worked for ten years in the pressroom of a local newspaper for $10.75 an hour before being fired. As if on cue, a Pabst Blue Ribbon truck pulls up to a nearby restaurant. Chris points to it with both nostalgia and sadness when he tells me, “That was always my favorite.” I knowingly nod as he continues.
If he had a home, it’s likely he would have drank himself to death in it by now, Chris said. Instead he focuses on survival. That is of course not to say that the freedom he feels during his daily struggle to survive outweighs having a home and a better life.
“Being homeless might have saved my life, but it has changed my life,” he said.
After losing his job, Chris cashed out his 401(k) to pay the remaining months of his apartment lease. For the last seven years, he has sought sanctuary throughout Madison including parking ramps, alleys, and outside area churches. At night, his duffle bag serves as his pillow. Throughout the winter months he wraps himself in donated sleeping bags, having devised a layering system with -10 and -40 degree below zero survival-rated covers. He also usually wraps his feet in Ziploc bags to keep the heat in – he says he can tell it works because when he wakes up in the morning, his feet have sweated through his shoes.
Chris's duffle bag and pillow.
Chris has taken on several odd jobs throughout his homelessness. He has taped boxes and worked at car washes. Due to his size and strength, he is often asked to help move heavy furniture up and down stairs at nearby homes and apartments. He doesn’t accept many of those requests anymore.
“I’d hate to slip a disc with $35 in my pocket,” he said.
An older man riding an expensive bicycle zooms up to us, hops off and says he will buy two copies of the newspaper today if Chris has change for a $10 bill. The man is “a regular” Chris later tells me, one of about 50 who sustain him throughout the year. “It's guys like him who keep me going.”
Chris makes change and pockets $2 as the man’s bicycle falls over. I squint in judgement through the sleet as the opening verse of Mr. Wendal inappropriately runs through my head. I think, “That’s probably the worst thing that will happen to that man today." In that moment my anger swells because everyone in Capitol Square should be ashamed for not giving more – including me. As I watch Chris put his mittens back on his slightly purple hands, I grimace as I think about how on the drive from Milwaukee to Madison I had looked down at my hands and thought, “Yikes, my cuticles.”
The man takes off on his bicycle, having not accepted any newspapers, which I imagine happens more often than not. Too late, I realize it’s obviously so Chris can continue selling the rest, when I had asked for five. I admonish myself for my snide thought and continue to feel pathetically out of touch.
We find commonality when Chris tells me he daydreams about winning the lottery, although I’ve never actually bought a lottery ticket. He has also imagined Bill Gates pulling up and giving him $1 million. The closest he’s ever come to the latter was one New Year’s Eve when a man being driven in a limo stopped and dropped off $100 for Chris and his friend to share. That doesn’t happen very often and $50 is the most he’s ever received from one person, Chris said. He tells me if he ever did win the lottery, he would order four caramel lattes a day (he is stationed near a Colectivo Coffee) and move down to Florida. My own coffee habit having now been deemed asinine combined with the fact that I once lived in Florida and moved back to Wisconsin, I change the subject to avoid beating myself up further.
During the summer months, especially during the local farmer’s market, Chris does better selling newspapers, which he has done for about two-and-a-half years now. Before this job he survived on the change that would fall from people’s hands as they fed coin-operated parking meters, which no longer exist here. I unsuccessfully scan my memory for the last time I paid for something in change. A $1 soda can buy Chris several hours of warmth at a McDonald’s, at least until 1 a.m. Then he’ll have to move on.
On the topic of food, Chris tells me he has a complicated relationship with a Capitol squirrel who steals his pizza crusts. The pudgy rodent is both friend and foe, providing Chris company yet concern he might “bleed to death” from a bite to the ankle one of these days, he jokes, and I laugh with him.
The sleet continues to pelt both of us and I resign myself to stand outside with him as long as I can tolerate it, in some sort of self-serving show of solidarity. I could stand outside with him an entire day and it wouldn’t matter, of course, because at the end of every day I will go back to my house.
I thank Chris for sharing his story with me and ask if I may tell it publically, going over the parts I would share. His only caveat is that I don't reveal where he currently sleeps so another doesn't claim it for his own. I agree, my own concerns for the remainder of the day having long been dismissed. Chris hopes his story will help increase Street Pulse’s sales and public understanding of homelessness.
He offers one mitted hand to me to shake, and I do, now finding it hard to look him in the eyes. I tell him I’ll come back in a month or so to visit him, another one I’m sure he’s heard before. But he graciously says he looks forward to it and suggests we get a cup of coffee together then. It’s only now that I realize Chris hasn’t sipped any from the cup I gave him – it stands untouched next to his duffle bag.
“I’ll be here,” he calls out as I walk away.
For more information about Street Pulse newspaper, visit www.facebook.com/streepulse.
Shelly Kuhn is a public relations professional and former journalist.