I moved to Chicago a number of years ago to try to make it as a comedian. Chicago is a hot town for comedy. Second City, Blewt! Productions, the burgeoning standup scene. My comedian friends all took day jobs as Starbucks baristas while they were waiting on their calls for "Saturday Night Live" auditions. I got a job as a case manager at a shelter for homeless men. Not because I was fuller o’ th’ milk of human kindness than my barista pals—it’s just that I’d had a little prior experience working with homeless people, and also, I was straight-up unemployed. Chicago is not a place that’s kind to a person very long if he doesn’t have a job. So I went for it. What else could I do?
Family and friends used to say, "I bet that kind of work gives you a lot of material for your jokes." It didn’t. What ended up happening was that I was packed full of stories, most of them unbelievably tragic. The more I got to know the homeless men who came through the shelter where I worked, the more I understood—in my limited ability to understand such things—what it really meant to have no place to go. And the less comedic I felt. Let’s face it, taken at face value, the world is a tragic place and most of us are ignoring it on purpose.
The men I saw got pounded in the streets. They got pounded in the shelters. By cops, by drunks, by crooks. Black-eyed for a couple of bucks, sometimes by the guys they rolled with the night before. They got the gospel stuffed in their ears whenever they were hungry—nothing whets the appetite for limp bologna like a reminder that you’re probably going to hell. DOC dropped them off at the shelter’s door in their fresh black-and-whites—the prison uniform for prisoners outside of prison. On the right side of the prison walls, I found out, you’re still a prisoner. Frantically, they talked to me in Spanish, Polish, Urdu, while I sat bug-eyed, lacking clue No. 1 as to how to help. Get a job? Get off drugs? Get an apartment. Get a girlfriend, a savings account, a big tank of sadder-but-wiser wisdom the young bucks won’t listen to. Impress those donors: Dance, monkey, dance!
So what about me? I should go to the theater in the evenings to try to make people laugh? I did it for years. But it always felt a little disingenuous. Not that I was pretending or somehow faking it onstage. Making people laugh is a blast. And there is a certain necessity in separating "work" from "play." But still. A block up from the theater, under the El, the same old raggedy guy in the same old suit with the same old swollen ankles. "Spare a little change so I can get something to eat?" Line of bull s$@# or not, that’s a damn terrible thing.
So I went back to school—had to—to study fiction writing. All of that—out there in the shelters, under the viaducts, half-asleep on a dock in 2 feet of snow—had to get out of me. My soul was at capacity. Maxed out. The short stories I wrote then, and even the ones I write now, years later, almost always feature a homeless person or some variation. A vagrant, a down-and-outer, a penniless lonely boy. Somebody who lives way out on the borderline between life and death. But hopefully, hopefully, somebody who still bears the marks of humanity, who is not beyond redemption, who wants to wake up to some kind of brand-new life.
Finally, I wrote a book. It’s called "Animal Heart." It’s a collection of short stories, it’s mostly about people on the fringes, and it’s not going to make me millions. (We’re still talking about short stories here. The last time somebody made a million dollars on short stories was NEVER.) Read it if you want. I hope you do. You’ll find, at its core, the beginning of this writer’s struggle to come to grips with the tragic that unfolds before us each day.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, "Animal Heart," is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.