Worthy Causes: breakfast at the Inspiration Cafe | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Worthy Causes: breakfast at the Inspiration Cafe 

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My family moved to Uptown in 1952. I was two. The neighborhood scared me to death until I left 30 years later to live in the heart of the Loop, where I've been ever since.

I was scared of the drunken hillbillies who roamed the streets, sure they'd grab me and push me down, or get close to me and yell. I was scared of the gangs of little white punks--who did grab me and push me down, and got close to me and yelled and spit.

I'd beg my mother to pick me up from the Riviera or the Uptown late on Saturday afternoon to walk or drive me the few blocks down Lawrence Avenue to the safety of our apartment--to save me from having to face the rowdies and screwballs and drunks. "Don't be silly," she'd say. "Just walk. You'll be fine. You'll be home in five minutes."

My father used to say, "You'll be better off for this," when I whined that I wanted to live in a more civilized neighborhood with our own kind. He thought people who settled in with their own kind were boring conformists. To him, Uptown had no economic or social pretensions to keep a person from knowing who they really were.

In the 70s, I installed phones in Uptown for Illinois Bell. I was afraid of the heroin addicts and other misfits whose apartments I had to enter and work in. But the phone company always knew where I was--and that, I figured, was my safety net.

I go back to Uptown from time to time to visit friends who are part of the creeping social and economic pretensions my father was so afraid of. And my brother still lives in our old building. The Catholic church and the Park District field house, two of my havens of security, are still there--and still havens of security for new arrivals.

The kind of people hanging around in the street have kept pace with my maturing fear threshold. There are more bums and more street people and more homeless people, more crazy people and more people on mood-altering substances. And there's more crime and more diversity.

And there's the Inspiration Cafe.

"It's 'Tramp Trail' out there," says Ed, who's looking out the curtained window onto Wilson Avenue just a few blocks from where I grew up. He's stuffing himself on a huge pancake and buttered raisin toast and bacon and scrambled eggs and orange juice and Honey Nut Cheerios and milk and a vitamin. "Out there, you're facing those bureaucracies; you're treated like less than human; you get beat down by the system. This place is like a breath of life."

It's 7:30 on a Wednesday morning at the Inspiration Cafe, and like every morning, it's full of customers ordering breakfast. When it comes, they can eat it and order more. The waiters and waitresses don't mind. They're pleasant and chatty. And they don't take tips. Most of them have other jobs.

"It's like a high-class restaurant here," says Daryl. "They treat you real good. They're real courteous."

Ed and Daryl and the rest of the men and one woman here are down and out, for the most part homeless people who are trying hard to get their lives together and clean up their acts.

The Inspiration Cafe helps by serving a good breakfast. Seven mornings a week. And dinner on Saturday and Sunday. For free.

Twenty-four customers at a time make reservations for one month. If things work out, they can make reservations for another month. Eventually, a customer gets himself together and moves on. Or slips back into oblivion.

The cafe's been open for about a year. A former cop, Lisa Nigro, who knew what the streets were like, wanted to do the right thing. She's Catholic. And energetic. A few years ago she made sandwiches and bagels and cream cheese and wheeled them around Uptown in a child's red wagon, handing them out to hungry, homeless, penniless people.

Nigro says that when she was growing up in Skokie no one wanted to get involved. Now she lives on the northwest side. Before she got involved she did some "market research" and decided Uptown was the place to do the right thing.

She feels fortunate to have gotten the storefront on Wilson Avenue. And now that the cafe is supported by corporate and foundation grants, she gets paid as executive director. The red wagon stands in a corner of the cafe as a memento of the cafe's roots.

"Everyone needs respect and dignity," says Nigro, as she pours pancake batter and scrambles eggs. While talking about the cafe, she also brags about nursing her newborn twins, who are at home with her husband.

The cafe is cozy and clean. There are condiments on the table in dime-store crystal. There are things to look at everywhere. There are newspapers. And books by Nora Ephron and L. Ron Hubbard. There is nonfiction on subjects like alcoholism and calculus. There are Mobil travel guides.

"They serve what you call a balanced breakfast," says Dedrick. "There's something from all four food groups. This kind of life has built-in drudgery--and the Inspiration Cafe gives you a light."

Richard, a 66-year-old, 43-year-veteran truck driver who "got into a bind" is talking to Joann, an out-of-work musician who's been evicted. Joann says she plays every instrument and every kind of music. "I'm kind of at loose ends as far as meals go," says Joann. "This kind of helps."

A young man wearing a tie passes them with an armload of textbooks. "I tried to start my own business," he says, "after I lost my job teaching. Now I spend time at all the libraries.

"The first time I walked in here I thought it was the Ritz-Carlton. It's heavenly, God-sent. Whatever I have left as far as dignity was brought back to life here. Coming here first thing in the day gives you inspiration. Dinner here, with sing-alongs and jazz tapes, is like a $50 affair."

Andre, who wears braces and a retainer on his teeth, explains that insurance paid for his dental work when he used to have a job "in sales." That was before he started sleeping in parks and abandoned cars and buildings. "Inspiration Cafe is a good place for people with life-threatening despair in their lives," he says.

Robert, who lost his job as a security guard, says he "never came to a place like this. You finish your meal and they ask, "So you want more?' They understand individual pain and suffering. They're so sweet and kind. They treat you like family. They have jobs; they don't have to spend time here. They love people and they have compassion for people in order to do this. Jesus fed 2,000 people with 7,200 loaves of bread--or something like that. He'd do what they're doing today if he were here. It's like roses in the countryside here. The wind blows; there's a sweet smell."

It's 9 AM and the Inspiration Cafe is almost empty. A few volunteers are in the kitchen washing dishes and straightening up. Before leaving, Andre shares some watermelon gum with a few stragglers, staff included. Bob, who used to be a truck driver but had to quit 12 years ago because of narcolepsy, sells me a copy of Streetwise and then leaves for a day of street sales. I follow him out the door and get in my car to go back to the Loop. For the first time in my life, I'm not scared of the bums in Uptown.

Tonight "The Inspired Art Auction" will be held at 7 at World Tattoo Gallery, 1255 S. Wabash, to benefit the Inspiration Cafe. There will be a raffle, fashions by Nadya, and live and silent auctions of artwork donated by local artists. Music will be provided by the Texas Rubies and cocktails and hors d'oeuvres are included in the $10 cover charge. A dance party follows. Call the cafe at 878-0981 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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