|Photo for the Chicago Sun-Times by John H. White|
Travis Hugh Culley friended me on Facebook last week. And suddenly it was 2000 again, and a colleague was telling me about the man downstairs sitting at the base of the Wrigley Building, dispensing free advice.
A newspaper columnist is always looking for the extraordinary, and this was enough to send me hurrying to take a look. This column followed, as well as the review I wrote about his book, which I'll run Sunday. I'll also update you on Culley today.
Travis Hugh Culley, a handsome young man in shorts, black T-shirt and sandals, sat cross-legged on the sidewalk at the base of the Wrigley Building on a beautiful late-summer day. His bicycle was parked beside him. Lunchtime pedestrians on Michigan Avenue hurried by. Culley was not begging, or protesting, or resting, or selling.
Set before him was a brown cardboard sign, weighted by a pair of books. The neat hand-lettering read, "Advice: $0.00."
Curiosity got the better of me.
"OK, I'll bite," I said. "Performance art or creative beggary?"
"I believe mankind is best in the service of another," he said.
Has anyone sought advice? He said yes, some have.
"But I'm accomplishing what I came here for, even if nobody stops," he continued. "Opening up public discourse helps to purify democracy. I believe in making public space something to go to, not just go through."
Two young women stopped. A tall blond with her hair in twists, and her shorter friend, who began talking about her job.
"I don't hate my job. I don't want to go back to school, but I want to get into something else," she said. "I majored in education. I'm a creative person. I thought I might be a teacher."
Culley said this: "We choose our careers around what will make us money, not what our service to the world is." He told the woman she didn't need to change jobs to be a teacher. "You can be an educator in your office. The problem with democracy is that we expect to be paid for the service that we do. Part of being a free country is that we have to take on duties we aren't paid for. Take on things you want to be within your own context."
The women seemed reluctant to leave. But people were lining up. A shabby-looking man holding a cane and wearing a vest with a hospital visitor's pass stuck on it launched into a protracted complaint.
"I went to the patient advocate at the VA. . . ." he began.
Culley listened as intently to the older man as he had to the two young women. When the man finally finished, Culley said: "The VA hospital is built to operate. It doesn't operate well. You have to force it to operate. . . . If you give up now, you give up too easily. The thing that's supposed to work should work. Stand up until it works. Push."
The man finally shambled away. A pasty, entirely bald fellow stepped up, casting a glare of distaste at the departing man. "Certain people should be gassed," he said. "The worst substance abuse is kindness."
As the man spewed out hate, Culley gazed at him calmly. When he stopped, Culley said: "You're turning into a poor man, emotionally."
I watched Culley talk for two hours. At times, a dozen people stood in a semicircle around him. They ranged from a petite elderly lady in an elegant summer outfit to a janitor to a boisterous group of Irish tourists, one of whom was considering marrying a woman he didn't love to get at her family's land ("Don't," said Culley. "She'll know.")
Old, young, black, white—all stopped. The trolley to Navy Pier paused on Michigan, and the driver yelled a question about a man constantly trying to bum a lift ("I'd say give the guy a ride," said Culley).
Finally the cops arrived: a lone bicycle policeman, about Culley's age. "Technically, you're peddling," he said, halfheartedly. The officer looked around at the people gathered, then shrugged. "Does he give good advice?" he asked a woman, who had just posed her young daughter with Culley and taken their picture. He left.
The questions kept coming. A college student wondered whether he should make a special trip home to put his ailing dog to sleep or let his parents handle the chore. ("I'd go home and take responsibility for your dog," said Culley. "Clean up after yourself.") A man in a Spike O'Dell T-shirt, carefully smoking the stub of a cigarette, asked Culley what he thought of David Duke ("I would not take his points seriously," said Culley. "You cannot live in a free country and be exclusive.")
He told me he grew up in Miami, where he began his street dialogues, inspired by a towering Hassidic Jew named Simcha Zev. Culley is 27 years old and works as a bicycle messenger and writer.
A successful writer. His first book, The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power, a mix of political tract and autobiography, is being published in March by Villard.
For a moment I thought I had finally put my finger on it. This was a book publishing stunt. But if a book publishing stunt, it was an odd and subtle one. Most people went away never hearing about the book, and Culley didn't mention it to me until I asked what kind of work he did, almost an hour after I showed up. "Book stunt" didn't seem to fit him any more than "Communist" or "Jesus freak" or "Blissed-Out Cultist" or any of the other labels I tried to slap on him.
He was an image out of ancient Greece: the philosopher in the street.
"I have very strong ideas about the automobile," he said. "Bit by bit, we're destroying the public space that makes us a democracy. The problem is that the whole shape of the American city doesn't bring us together as a people at all. It limits our capacity for random interaction. We are not in a dialogue."
"Exactly," said a man in a suit and red tie. "We've moved the model of the suburbs into the city."
I had trouble tearing myself away. Partly because of his magnetic personality, partly because of what he had to say, partly because of the fact that people on the street responded.
They stopped. They talked. They laughed. They gave advice of their own.
Taking one long last look, I headed toward the newspaper, convinced in my heart we have not heard the last of Travis Hugh Culley. "I want to have an impact on America," he said. As improbable as it sounds, he might.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 10, 2000