It’s 1988 in the middle of January, where I’m attending Columbia College in Chicago, Illinois, trying to major in the Theatrical Arts, with a minor in Psychology. I’m also a nineteen year old freshman living in a dormitory in the middle of the city. The college campus was in the metropolitan, so there wasn’t any distiction between the school buildings, and everyday activity in Chicago. Columbia College had about five different buildings throughout a ten block district, so all the students had to adapt to big city living very quickly. For example, I needed to learn the transportation system, neighborhoods to avoid, and people to trust. Every student stuck out like a sore thumb, because we would walk around with our back packs and books trying to get to our next classes. The young freshman students even had to attend seminars on how to survive in the big city and ways to avoid any complications that comes with living in the middle of downtown. At the time I thought these seminars were a joke, until I saw all the different people that one encounters on the streets. Remember, I was a typical suburbanite who lived in his neighborhood and really didn’t venture outside my safe haven. It really was a culture shock. Everyday life in the city had bums, hookers, street performers, to business associates, all in one day. Therefore one learns to start to look over your shoulder, you always keep your wallet in your front pocket, and you try to avoid walking alone. Naturally, the longer you live in the city environment, the more comfortable you get, and the everyday activities and/or behaviors of the city become a way of life; You see a bum and you wave him off, A hooker ask you if you want a date, you say, “No”, and if a business man steals your cab, you flick him the fuck off! (Laugh) In other words, your personality gets a little rough and you even start to become rude to others to endure in this big city lifestyle. My thought process toward other started to change to what was going on around me; “It’s fast pace, so you got to do whatever is necessary to keep up, or the city will swallow you up.”
I really didn’t notice that I was falling into this pattern of thinking, until I was assigned a project for my Psych Class 101 class, where I had to come up with an example of how human behavior changes in extreme environments. As I left the class that day I was thinking about what the professor assigned for us and wondering what examples I could use to start this project. And really what stuck out to me was the word “extreme”, but how was I going to convey that for my final paper. Like every other day, I’m walking down Wabash Ave toward my dormitory, when I start to see one of the bums approaching me to ask me for money. Again, like every other day I start to slip on the headphones to my walkman, so I can act like I didn’t hear him or even acknowledge his presence. Yet again, I’m just living the pattern of behavior that seems to be “normal” in this selfish and quick lifestyle. I didn’t even realize I had the answer for my paper right in front of my face every day, until it hit me once I got to my room. The word, “EXTREME”, just kept with me the whole afternoon, so I decided to go back to that bum that I passed by every day to take notice to his existence, and ask him a few questions about his life. I think being a dwarf might have helped me out with this fragile man, because I doubt that I looked as threatening as most individuals. I also decided to stop by the local McDonalds and grab a few hamburgers, so I could offer to sit down with him for a snack. This way I thought he will see that I’m showing an interest in his needs and not only give him the food, but share it with him. Therefore, this time the roles reversed, I was the one walking up to him to try to start up a conversation, and he seemed to be the nervous one. I thought that was so odd, because everyday this frail man would try to get people’s attention all day with no success, but when he was approached he didn’t know how to react. It’s almost if as he expected to fail, so this man didn’t know how to respond to a successful interaction. It took some time, but I got this delicate man to sit down on the curb with me to eat some hamburgers and shoot the shit. Now after about a half hour I started to get this man’s trust, where we were able to introduce ourselves to each other and I successfully got his name, “Charlie”. Like I said earlier, I think my physical appearance really helped me out on getting Charlie’s trust, because once we started the conversation, I could basically ask him anything; Where he was from? How he got this way? And how did he survive on these cold streets? I even told him how I was a student at the college that he sat by and that I wanted to do a paper on his life and his everyday interactions with people. Then Charlie responded and said the most interesting thing to me; “If ya wanta know what it’s like, try it”, then laughed at me with a raspy voice. Holy crap Charlie you’re a genius, this is going to be my greatest paper ever; A DWARF, LIVING AS AN INVISIBLE BUM! This is going to be a real challenge to make myself invisible to others, because I’ve always been in the spotlight my whole life. Really I can’t walk anywhere without being noticed, not even to this day! I had the hardest time with the concept of making myself undetectable, until I really thought about what makes bums unseen. I had to make myself physically and mentally undesirable, so society would avoid me when I tried to interact with them. The whole idea of this project was to figure out and prove what makes the behavioral change in society toward others in extreme environments. What more extreme is a dwarf that gets attention everyday to a bum seeking awareness everyday from society? Genius!
I went to the local thrift shop to find some over sized beat up winter clothes, and then peed all over them for a couple of days, so it would soak, and dry up in the clothing. Got a bottle of Jack, swished it in my mouth. Okay that’s a lie, I’m not Bill Clinton, I swallowed! (Laugh) I was ready to go out into the world and make this discovery, but I needed more to make me desperate, so I could really feel the “bums” difficulties. I left all my ID’s, money, and keys at the apartment on the north side of the city and had a friend drop me off in the warehouse district for one week on the south side. Now this part of town is where a lot of the bums, hookers, and drug dealers would hang out to do their business, etc. And I would say this area of town was at least an hour drive away from my side of the tracks, so I wasn’t too familiar with the area. I told my roommate not to let anyone know where I was at, not even my family, so I couldn’t use them as an escape goat. I basically wanted to be lost physically and mentally in the streets of Chicago for one whole week.
Once I stepped out of the car and my roommate drove away the feeling of loneliness set in followed by extreme fear. Here I am standing in the middle of this dark alleyway thinking; “What the hell did I just do? Did I really think this through? And now I have to figure out how to survive!” First thing I needed to do was find some kind of shelter in the middle of this factory district, which were basically alleyways and loading docks for the local businesses. I noticed that there were sleeping bags lying around the corners of the buildings, kind of bundled up in balls. As I approached these findings, which I thought was going to be a savior to keep me warm for the night. I noticed feet sticking out of the bottoms. Nevertheless, when I approached the dangling feet underneath the sleeping bag, I got a rude awakening of a screaming man shooing me away from his space on the dock. I looked around the dark space as each individual seemed to be very territorial about their space and property. So here I was standing out in the middle of nowhere not knowing what to do next and there was no way in hell that I was going to get any help from these experienced bums. Even though I was a little person struggling on this first night freezing my ass off, there was no sympathy for me and my situation. I learned really quick that this was going to be a one for all type of environment, when it comes to survival. (Laugh) Side note; SLEEPING BAGS TO STREET PEOPLE ARE A BIG DEAL, WHICH I HAD TO LEARN VERY EARLY IN THIS EXPEREMENT! Now I had to figure out how I can get something to keep me warm, since earlier I pissed on my clothing to appear as if I was a street person. GENIOUS RIGHT? Nothing is worst, than crusty frozen clothing, when it is about twenty degrees outside, with no shelter. Now when you have nothing to your name, trade becomes a way of life as you collect things on the street. One of the sleeping men started yelling my way to get my attention, and I didn’t know what to think, but I do remember thinking at least someone is taking notice of me. What a change of thinking when the comforts of life are stripped from your existence and really all you have are the people around your space. The train of thought totally changes, to get people around you to join you in your inner circle, so the feeling of hopelessness subsides. When I invited him to approach me, he asked if we could deal. I had no idea what this man was talking about, but again I was just glad that he was willing to hold a conversation with me during this lonely time. He asked if I was willing to trade some items and if I needed anything that he could offer. Trade? I have nothing to trade, but the clothing on my body, and there was no way in hell he was getting that off this little frame. But then he pulled his little shopping cart with all this stuff in it and asked if I needed anything for my knit cap on my head? And there I saw that he had two sleeping bags in the cart and thought this was what I just needed for my nights. So, being the experience negotiator that I thought I was, I proposed one of his sleeping bags for the hat. Since he had two of the bags I figured I could finagle this transaction with much success, and being a college student I should be able to outsmart a bum. He gave me at glaring look and came back at me and asked if he could get the gloves and hat for the much needed product that he could provide for me. WOW, this a true negotiation on trade just like any other business men on Wall Street. (LAUGH) I always wondered why I would see the street people have the shopping carts of junk with them, which they had to struggle to tow around throughout the day. This was a means to their survival, not only could they use this stuff to live on, but they could use the junk for barter.
I figured the sleeping bag was a necessity for the warmth of the cold nights, even though I was giving up the gloves and hat for use during the day. Also, now that I know the means of survival was a scavenger hunt, I figured the gloves and knit cap would be easier to find than a sleeping bag. SO I HAD MY FIRST SUCCESSFUL TRADE WITH A BUM WITHIN HOURS OF THIS EXPERIMENT! I was feeling good that I pulled this off, so I went ahead and found a corner on the dock to zip up the bag over my head to have my first night of sleep on the streets. You would think you would have a feeling of seclusion as you lay on the cold dark dock with a sleeping bag, but it was totally opposite from that sensation. With all the fellow street natives lying around on the dock you almost get a feeling of comfort and since of unity. In other words, I felt as if I was in the inner circle with this community of street people, because we all were dealing with the same struggles to endure in this harsh environment. How odd was this that in the “normal” society I would get the impression that I had to prove myself in my actions to belong in the inner circle life. But, with this experiment I was finding a feeling of comfort with the people around me, because all these individuals just wanted to endure, so our physical differences didn’t matter. Believe or not, I actually fell asleep the first night existing on the street with all the stress I felt earlier on during the night. The loneliness standing there in the alleyway, when my roommate dropped me off, turned to a strange since of belonging. WOW!!!!!!
How things can change so quickly in eight hours, when the sun starts to come up and start a new day. I still had the sleeping bag zipped up over my head when I started to hear a beeping sound, almost as if my alarm clock was going off in my apartment. Side Note: I hit the snooze button at least four times every morning before I get up, because I’m a very deep sleeper once I fall into my comfort zone. There I am half asleep bundled up on a loading dock trying to reach for my alarm, while swearing at an enadement object.(Laugh) Then I noticed I’m getting a whiff of exhaust just covering my whole body, while the beeping continues to pierce my peaceful sleep. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, as I popped my head out of the enclosed bag, and saw a huge tire backing up toward my head. Then I hear a door slamming shut, when this huge truck driver starts to walk toward me at the back of the semi, while screaming at the top of his lungs. Okay at this point I’m waking up very quickly as I’m trying to pop up swiftly, before this man reaches the spot where I’m laying. I couldn’t tell you how many curse words were coming out of this man’s mouth, but it was obvious that he wasn’t happy with me lying on his dock. I looked around the area for a split second and none of my fellow peers were in there designated spots when I fell asleep. I think my street mates knew something that I didn’t? Wake up and get up early! (Laugh) All of a sudden this huge driver was standing over me, while kicking me in the gut and screaming at me to get off his property. I started to try to bawl, but this burly man knocked the breath out of my little body, before I could do anything to get away from the area. Here I was stuck on the ground getting the shit kicked out of me, when I decided to just start rolling away from him inside the bag, until I fell off the side of the dock. Now this was not an easy bump, I probably had about a six foot drop, which I really didn’t feel at the time. My adrenaline was pumping so fast at this point and all I could think about was to get the hell away from the big bad burly man. As I was lying on the ground the driver was shooing me away and telling me that I was not welcome on his property. No shit Sherlock, I think I got that point as you were punishing me with your foot on the side of my gut! Just as I was getting the feeling of belonging the night before the great reality of life pushed me right out of the circle the next morning. (Laugh)
Side Note: The feeling of hopelessness started to run through my hungry body again and all I could think about was when this week’s going to be over. Forgetting what I had set out to do with this project, all I could reflect on was the future to my warm apartment with a comfortable bed. I started to hope for the conclusion of the week, so my life could go back to some normalcy. Throughout this project and the week these thoughts would approach my consciousness, so I could try to keep my focus to finish out goal at hand. Later in my conclusion to this mission of “A Dwarf Being an Invisible Bum” is a very important life lesson in the extreme behaviors in society.
In the next two days; here I was bruised and beaten walking down the cold streets with my bear head and hands, while lugging my new sleeping bag over my shoulder. The hunger pains were settling in and the thoughts of giving up were the only thing crossing my mind. As I’m trying to figure out how to get myself out of the situation I put myself in, I saw a small family sitting by a restaurant dumpster. There was about four children huddle up against their mother and they were actually smiling, and laughing with each other. This family was struggling financially, but they were still striving in their lives together as one unit. They were sharing food, shelter, and the findings between each other that they had collected for the day and checking on the comparisons as if they were on an Easter egg hunt. It appeared that the family would make a competition out of the items that they found and see who would get the grand prize at the end of the day, but in all actuality it was a game of life. I couldn’t believe it; the family had an inner bond between themselves that gave them a personal peace within the crazy world that they lived in. All the outside distractions of the streets that were causing me to feel alone and desperate didn’t even to affect the inner circle that this family built. So once again I was looking in on this circle and learning things about myself on how to survive even in the toughest environments. First I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, which caused me to stop taking the steps necessary to move along with the day. I would just ponder on what I didn’t have, instead of fighting and finding what I needed to have for comfort. I noticed that my depression was leading to my demise and/or focus to the task at hand, which led to the idea of giving up. So I shook off this “feel sorry for me attitude” and really started to watch this family’s survival routine, so that I could copy there successful techniques. It’s simpler than you think. Hungry: find food. Tired: find a place to sleep, and money: find loose change. You wouldn’t believe how much money you can find, when you really look for it. For example, on the subways when the hustle and bustle of rush hour with people trying to get to work, money was misplaced, dropped, and even given away in small increments. I swear between the morning and evening rush hour a good twenty dollars could be collected on any given day. My pockets at the end of the day sounded like a babies rattle when walking down the streets. Naturally, I had to try to keep quiet to prevent from getting ripped off. I learned a trick or two about being unnoticed in the cruel world like stuffing toilet paper from fast food joints in my pockets to keep the change from scuffling. As far as food, I learned why the triumphant family would hang out by the restaurant dumpsters; the food was always fresh from the leftovers of the day. I’m telling you the truth, the chow that was wasted was unbelievable and it was always the daily special! (Laugh) I know what you’re probably thinking; how the hell can you eat out of the dumpster? Well I was hungry and I know you’ve heard the expression before, “the five second rule.” Trust me, when the food still smelled good and the hunger pains are hitting you it’s pretty easy to put your pride and/or pickiness aside. And if you really got lucky some of the bus boys would just hand over the left over trays, before throwing it away in the barrels. That was like hitting the jackpot or getting a 3 star meal from the Olive Garden. (Laugh)
And last, but not least, to get some shelter, a place that never closes, it’s always warm, and a bench waiting for you and your sleeping bag with open arms; A CHURCH! When observing the family later on in the evenings they always found their way to a local church that seemed to receive them on a nightly basis. At the time I was thinking that the priest was opening the doors to the families in need, so I was trying to figure out my approach to get my cold ass to a warm environment. With that in mind, I was thinking of ways to hustle a priest to let me in the golden gates of warmth. (Laugh) Never thought that those words would ever come out of my mouth, “hustle a priest?” I planned the scheme out and played it up to a tee, gave him the whole spiel on how I couldn’t find a job that would hire a “short person”, and that I’ve been searching for shelter, so that I could get cleaned up for a better presentation of myself. ChaChing, the priest let me in the door and proceeded to tell me if I would give up the drink that he smelled on me, he would set me up in one of the shelters in the back of the church during the evening hours. Cool, the plan was coming together and all the preparation I did with playing my greatest role as an actor to this day: A BUM! I reeled the preacher in and he continued to tell me if I would proceed to better my spiritual self and find Jesus in my life, he would allow me to work an honest day’s wages at the shelter. So I figured I could find Jesus with this man for food and a warm bed, even if he did push his values onto my forbidden soul. (Laugh) Don’t get me wrong, I do believe, but sometimes the messengers are a bit forceful in their particular beliefs. Forgive me Lord for I have sinned, which I have lied to this gentle man on several occasions, but I was desperate during these trying times. In conclusion, I decided to play the “dwarf card” and get some sympathy on how I had nowhere else to go, and if they could give me a couple of nights just to get myself straightened out on the right side of the tracks. Side Note; meanwhile this man was feeding me all sorts of items out of the refrigerator, so I was sticking to my story. Okay I know that was a lie and I shouldn’t ever fib to the man of cloth, but you gotta do whatever it takes to succeed to live, even though in a couple of nights I would be done with the obligation and back into my apartment. Also during the time the feeling of guilt was nonexistent, even though I was taking the food out of someone else’s mouth that really needed it. All I could think about was myself and how hungry I was at the time, so thinking back on my actions it was not my proudest moment. Remember this was an assignment on human behavioral change on extreme environments and the feeling of desperation set in, which caused decisions that I wouldn’t usually make in normal circumstances. I got back to the attitude of what I thought I needed and nothing was going to stop me from accomplishing my goals and/or main necessities; sleep, money, and food! Thanks to the family I followed the last couple of days and the nice man in the church at nights, I thought I was on easy street for the rest of my thesis experiment. And all I remember thinking was that I’m really going to accomplish this incredible feet without any other problems. HOW WRONG I WAS! (Laugh)
Just when I started to trust people around me in this very small community of individuals living on the street as one, I ended up putting my guard down in comfort. I had the feeling of ease, because the community I ran across on a daily basis for the past week seems to acknowledge my presence with open arms. So really the only threat I felt during this week long trial was that of the citizens in society away from the protective circle that was built by our community. WOW, I’m running into this sense of belonging with the “inner circle” that I always struggled with, but this time I was exactly where I was supposed to be; “A Dwarf Living As An Invisible Bum Inside The Inner Circle”. Then all of a sudden the spotlight shined upon my content face with about four strange screaming men laughing at me, as I was lying on the pavement counting my collections from the hard day of savaging for change. They swooped me up off the ground and threw my fragile little body against the brick wall slamming all my belongings to the ground. I looked up in a state of shock and all I remember at this point was feet kicking me all over my sore back. Great! Two ass kicking’s in six days. If this wasn’t bad enough, one man was picking up all the change on the floor as two other men pulled out their penises and started to urinate all over my face. And I think the fourth man just continued to kick my body as I was hearing a distant laugh when I started to black out. As I said earlier in my memoirs, when the intrusion of others start to invade your private circle, the feeling of fear and anxiety rushes through your body. But this time I didn’t have my older brother or Scooby Doo lunch box to protect me. I was completely vulnerable and at the mercy of these four predators to do whatever they chose to do to me. This was the first and only time in my life that I felt completely helpless, where my future was in the hands of these maniacs. I do remember trying to scream out for help, but the breath was completely knocked out of my lungs. Besides, on the streets when there was any kind of conflict everyone fled away for their own protection. This could be it, this could be my final days on this earth. These “bullies” obviously saw me as a victim ready for their picking as if I was a small antler in the wild waiting to get pounced by a lion for his feeding. This just was another reminder, as a dwarf living out in the world, no matter the situation; I couldn’t go unnoticed even in the toughest environment where everyone was just trying to endure. That’s the key word that I had to learn in a brutal manner; “SURVIVE”! In those desperate circumstances people are going to do whatever it takes to make that happen. So being different physically was the first impression that these bullies’s saw and thought that I was the most vulnerable person to take advantage of during that moment in time. So here I am once again pushed to “live outside the circle” with my shame and pride taken away from my desperate soul. The only thing that really kept me going as I laid on the cold pavement was that in about twelve hours it was all going to be over, and I would have accomplished my goal to live on the streets for one week. I do remember one last gentle gesture that came my way was that of a stranger whom I never saw before pulling my beaten body up and wrapping it in a warm blanket around my remains. As I’m counting down the hours, walking in my bare feet to get to the destination that my roommate dropped me off to start this experiment, all I could think about was getting home. My roommate’s car pulled up right on time and all that crossed my mind. I MADE IT! My friend saw me all beaten up wrapped in a dirty blanket, with a tear in his eye, and asked if it was worth it to feel the extreme life of a bum. Believe it or not, I answered, “YES”.
After a week of healing and reviewing everything in my beaten head about what I just went through I started to get a since of accomplishment. I’m thinking I actually know what it is like to live on the cold streets, because I did it for a whole week. Starting without any means for survival. I began to write my end of the year thesis and I just knew that this paper was going to be something special. Setting at the desk, in my dormitory, eating chips that never tasted so good before, the words were just flowing out of me onto the typewriter.
Toward the end of this incredible insight within myself, I thought I would grab some hamburgers and thank Charlie who gave me this idea for the experiment without even knowing it. He started me on this venture, so I thought I would conclude the paper with one of his last crazy phrases. Something like; Did ya try it little guy? And hopefully he would laugh with his crackly snorts. In my excitement I hurried to grab some hamburgers to find Charlie to have one of our curbside conversation, but couldn’t find him anywhere around. Thought that was really strange, because he really wouldn’t move away too far from his spot that he begged from on a daily routine. So anyway, I was walking around throughout the night with these cold hamburgers trying to get some answers, when another street man asked me for the food. I decided what the heck and gave him one being that I thought I had a better understanding of living the life on the street. With the remaining food in hand, I asked the man if he knew Charlie and where he might be, so I could tell him all about my venture. The sorrowful man had a heartbreaking look on his face when he told me that Charlie hung himself and committed suicide. What? I felt a complete sadness and had thoughts of absolute confusion. How could this silly, seemingly happy man do something that drastic? Even though I really didn’t know Charlie that well, he made such an impact in my life, I really felt a loss with this passing and almost ripped off that I didn’t get to say good bye. Meanwhile, at this young age I never really had to deal with death, so it came as a complete shock to my emotions. It’s funny what the slightest encounter of a stranger can bring to our attention, even if that one moment in life was a short one, it still can be life changing. As I got back to my dorm room to finish my paper, I couldn’t get the thought of Charlie’s actions out of my head. It got me thinking of the severity of his desperation. I started to reflect on how I was going to end the thesis and one word came back to me from the beginning of this project;”extreme”. I would never really understand the “extreme” anxiety of a street person, because during the whole time of this experiment I had a finish line. I had a thought process to accomplish a goal through the tough times. Where as a true down and out individual had no escape from the desperation of reality. Therefore, I could get the sensation with the disparity of the circumstances at the moment of time, but again I had a future to look forward to. A WARM BED, FOOD, AND LOVED ONES IN MY LIFE.
Oh by the way, when I turned in the paper my professor made it publically available for others to read. I ended up getting an interview with the local news and papers. “A DWARF TRYING TO BECOME INVISIBLE AN BUM”. To this day that was one of my most memorable times in my life.
Note: A follow up book will be coming out entitled: “A Dwarf Living as an Invisible Bum”. This will follow up on an Achondroplasia Dwarf who is in the spotlight everyday of his life, and how he becomes unseen to the world during a period of desperation in the time of need. The book will take its audience on a seven day adventure as Stevie puts himself in the middle of the streets of Chicago in January with only the torn up clothes on his body.