Kadner: Frances and a carol for the poor
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org December 21, 2012 5:32PM
A woman named Frances helped set Phil Kadner on a path to try to help the homeless, and he's keenly reminded of her this time of year.
Updated: January 24, 2013 6:33AM
Frances is my personal Christmas Carol.
She haunts me as a combination of ghosts past, present and future.
For a period of more than two years, I wrote columns about the elderly woman who I first met as she was being threatened with eviction from her apartment.
She had no living family. Apparently she had worked a few jobs for short periods in her younger years but never had anything you could call extended full-time employment.
Chicago police once told a colleague of mine that she was a professional con woman, who was forever ducking out on landlords when the rent came due.
“People are always defaming me,” Frances would say. “When you’re poor, people can say things about you because they know you can’t sue.”
Frances weighed less than 100 pounds.
She was fond of wearing a threadbare, dark blue all-weather coat that she wore in the hottest days of summer through the chilling winds of January.
My wife once bought her a nice warm winter coat that Frances had no use for.
“It’s too nice,” Frances explained. “If I’m walking to the grocery store in a coat like that someone might think I had some money and hit me over the head.
“And people won’t stop to help me when I wear that coat. When I wear the other coat and walk to the grocery store, people stop to offer me a ride.”
So maybe there was something of the con artist in her.
But she never had any money. I can swear to that.
She usually ate oatmeal for breakfast, one hot dog with pork and beans for lunch and some tea and bread, with jelly if she had it, for dinner.
She never, ever ate out, refusing even when people offered to treat.
Her enjoyments were simple ones. For about an hour one day, we stood on a sidewalk on Harlem Avenue near 57th Street and stared at a tree with a double trunk.
Another time, she made me stop my car to look at a carving of the three wise monkeys in the wall of an apartment building on the South Side.
“See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil,” Frances said. “People should do more of that. Speak no evil.”
Her apartment furniture at the end consisted of a lawn chair, a folding card table, a twin bed and a small TV, which I had given to her.
She never watched the TV. Electricity cost money.
Same with the refrigerator.
In the winter, she informed me, you can hang groceries out of the window and they’ll stay cold.
Frances told me she was raised in a close-knit Italian family with two brothers, and it was her job to take care of them.
When they died, rather early in life, she was left to fend for herself, and as far as I could tell lived mostly off the kindness of strangers.
She was in her late 70s when we first met.
Frances did receive Supplemental Security Income, a federal subsidy for the elderly, the blind and the disabled. It amounted to a little more than $400 a month.
“All I want is a second-floor apartment in Garfield Ridge,” she told me over and over again. “If I could have that, I would be happy.”
But rent on such apartments often ran more than her monthly income.
“Landlords always want a month’s rent in advance,” she would say. “Who has that kind of money?”
I explained that the landlord wanted that money in case a tenant damaged an apartment or refused to pay rent near the end of a lease.
“I don’t pay the rent in the last month because they never give that money back,” she said.
I realized after several attempts that a discussion on that topic was pointless.
Many people offered to help Frances over the years, but eventually she would turn them all away.
“Just because you’re poor people think they can run your life and tell you what to do,” Frances said.
Guilty as charged. I was always trying to tell Frances what would be good for her, and she would always tell me, “Why don’t you just leave me alone if you don’t like the way I live.”
I stayed with Frances until the end for a number of reasons that are difficult to explain.
But one thing I know is that in an odd way I enjoyed her company.
With her, I saw the world through a different set of eyes.
Some people would accuse her of being a leech on society. She certainly didn’t contribute much, in terms of labor.
Speaking at her funeral, the Rev. Michael Pfleger said Frances had nothing, but gave the people she encountered the greatest gift of all: She let other people feel better through helping her.
They benefited far more from their acts of kindness than Frances ever did, Pfleger said.
I would like to believe I helped Frances in some way, but it certainly didn’t work out the way I had hoped.
She started me off on a path of trying to aid the homeless that has had so many detours I’m not even sure of the direction that I’m traveling any more.
When people complain about tax hikes on millionaires or wasting tax money on programs to help the poor, I see Frances shrugging her shoulders and stretching out her arms, fingers interlocking, palms outward, in a gesture more befitting a puzzled little girl.
There would be a bemused grin on her face that seemed to say, “That’s the way people are when it comes to the poor.”
It’s at this time of year, when people are at their most charitable, that Frances appears to me like Marley’s ghost.
She reminds me that the poor should not be defamed because they are poor and that people who have more are not necessarily better, just different.
Frances had nothing, really. But she had a lot to offer.