Van Gogh's Boots

Look hard at Van Gogh's painting of the boots and you begin to breathe in his weary leather sadness from across the centuries.

Boots on a walk through time.

The boots are pausing for a moment in the dimly lit gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago on a late Friday afternoon in spring. The crowds are a low background hum. There is only the sweat and leather of the boots breathing.

Like two sorrow-drenched soldiers resting side by side.

Time just stops. In the slump shouldered, beaten down rhythm of the resting boots there is every stinging slap suffered by the artist who saw himself as a failure. Never thought he was all that good. Painted his boots and his bedroom and called his own work 'ridiculous.'

You want to tell the artist, "You were Van Gogh! It's 100 plus years later. Now the whole world knows that you were Van Gogh. The world knows what that means."

But the artist himself never knew what that meant. Never knew what he left behind. Never knew that he would still be here now.

Even now. His boots are alive. Come take a look.

Inspired by the soul of the artist, you board the Brown Line overhead train at Randolph just as the evening rush begins and at the next stop Chester gets on, A dusty, hollowed out shell of a man, swirling the grime and sorrow of the streets. The train jumbles north and a circle of space opens up around Chester, then people pull back.

Not just from the smell. His nerves force a twitching of his neck, then his shoulders roll, and then some sort of electric current of nerves shoots through his frame. A never diagnosed nervous disease. Could be Huntington's chorea. But we'll never know.

Because now when the emergency room ambulance guys scrape him off the street every 3 or 4 months, there is just a patch up job of whatever is bleeding that day. No real money left in the state of Illinois. Before the current Governor, there might have been a chance for Chester. But not now. He doesn't have much time. And that's the chant he rails out loud as the train continues north and people keep backing away. Chester sing-songs the lines, "It is so fine, but I know I don't got much time."

Used to be he'd ask for money. Now he'd forgotten that he needs it. Now he just joins in this family of strangers on the train and sing songs his line. "It is so fine but I know I don't got much time." And if you were to look at him, really look at him, you'd see he was wearing Van Gogh's boots today.

Just turning dark, you leave Chester and get off the train at the Addison stop. Walking under the viaduct at Grace Street. It's beginning to drizzle. But Richie has rolled out his dirty yellow sheet of foam on the sidewalk. Underneath the streetlight. He'll be sleeping in the cold spring rain tonight. He is bedded in early. When your head is 20 feet from a stop sign, you don't get a lot of sleep. So you start early.

With Richie, it started with the marriage. She was having way too much fun in the bars and he was staying home. But then came the cancer. Then the recession hit, nobody needed another leadership development trainer--no one really even knew what that meant. So Richie lost his job. The wife, the cancer and the job. Those were Richie's three. He lost his apartment and next thing you know, he is sleeping on the street. And of course since the new governor's been in office, there is no money for the homeless.

There are the cruel fantasies, like "Oh, he wants to sleep outside." There are the shelters, where the screams of the unseen rip the heart out of anyone who tries to get out. Of course since the new governor came, most of them are disappearing too.

So there lies Richie, stretched out on the sidewalk on his foam mat, huddled under the army blanket issued when he served in Afghanistan. You see his shaved head at one end. And, as the drizzle turns to rain, you see sticking out of the blanket at the other end, you see a pair of Van Gogh's boots.

You wonder if Richie's crazy nights in the rain were anything like Van Gogh's nights in the asylum. But what you see is Richie wearing Van Gogh's boots.

Turning the corner your roof, your safe, warm home in site. Climbing your front porch stairs, the rain now coming down in sheets. Richie huddled under the viaduct, Chester will be riding the trains shaking for the night till he finds a stop where he can curl up in plain site and not be seen. You put the key in your lock, open the door, crossing your threshold you look down and see them. Just for one thunder cracking, lightning flashing moment in time . . . .

On your feet, you are wearing Van Gogh's boots too.