The building was erected one year after Chicago hosted the World’s Fair, and it stretches seventeen stories into the finicky midwestern sky. It sits on the corner of Dearborn Street and Van Buren, where the El rattles the glass inside its panes every few minutes, where commuters and residents walk through its shadow in hurried, deliberate steps. The corners of the structure are rounded by bay windows that set it distinctly apart from its neighbors, and about a hundred feet south on Dearborn Street, it nestles up comfortably against the Plymouth Building next door. Across the street sit a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a barber.
Built by a Boston lawyer, the Old Colony Building was named in honor of the first English colony in America at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The first three floors are sheathed in Bedford limestone, which give it a markedly regal look, and the upper floors are finished with grey Gainesboro brick and porous terracotta. Both entrances to the building are adorned with the seal of the Plymouth Colony—a design choice of the once-prestigious architectural firm, Holabird & Roche. The year it was built, it was the tallest building in Chicago.
As with most of the structures in the City of Chicago, years of unforgiving winters eventually took their toll and it began to deteriorate. Once filled to capacity with engineers and lawyers and architects, the tenants of Old Colony finally got tired of heat that didn’t warm and air conditioning that didn’t cool, and slowly, as the years dragged on, they began to move out. By the mid-2000s, the building was only around sixty percent full. The antiquated elevators strained themselves to get from one floor to the next and were frequently out of service. Entire floors were empty. The fate of the building’s future was in jeopardy.
Sometime in 2005 or 2006, I began to frequent an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that met, fittingly, on the 12th floor of the Old Colony Building. The building’s uncertain fate had caused lease space to become unusually cheap, and an AA group had decided to move from a nearby space when its lease expired. Because it met during the chaotic Chicago lunch hour, the meeting was called “Nooners,” and it was a liquor soaked amalgamation of businessmen, janitors, construction workers, and the occasional homeless person. Meetings were held in a timeworn room that smelled of mildew, mothballs, and stubbed out cigarettes, and its walls were plastered with crudely constructed homemade posters—most of them yellowed and curling at the corners from age. Written on them were the tired sayings of AA—ever present in sobriety: It works if you work it. Your misery is refundable; see nearest bartender. It’s alcohol-ISm, not alcohol-WASm.
Being new to sobriety, there were a lot of days that I simply didn’t want to go to meetings at all—a lot of days when the monotony and repetition of AA weighed me down and made me yearn for something different, something more exciting, something less like sobriety. I got tired of working the steps and reading the Big Book and hearing about drinking and drugs and the repetitive ruining of lives. I got tired of “identifying,” and saying over and over again that my name was Tim and that I was an alcoholic. And, sometimes, I even grew tired of the people that I saw in those meetings. I often spent too much time focusing on the differences I observed in people and not enough time recognizing the similarities. I often wanted to deny that, even though we all came from different places and did different things and destroyed our lives in different ways, we were all, somehow, the same. We had all hurt people. We had all been hurt by people. We had all suffered at the hands of an addiction that we ourselves had fed.
The meetings that I spent cramped inside that rundown little room on the 12th floor of the Old Colony Building were often filled with tears and pain and remorse. Having lived within the confines of our drug and alcohol addictions, we had essentially subsisted on the periphery of a normal existence. Our lives, once fractured, were now on the verge of being fixed, but the road to redemption was a painful one. I bared my soul in that room. We all did. I talked about my daughter, Haley, and the agony I felt for spending money on cocaine or vodka instead of her birthday presents. I talked about all the people I’d let down, about the disappointment I felt, about the aching inadequacy that settled down on me the minute I awoke in the morning. I told complete strangers that I was scared of failing, even more scared of succeeding, and confused by the changing face that I saw in the mirror every morning. I told them these things and they listened, and when I was done, I felt purged—my demons exorcised—if only for the moment.
But on days when sobriety silenced me, days when my ongoing metamorphosis stilled my tongue, I would listen. I would hear about broken hearts and broken families and pending divorces and rich men who now found themselves poor. I’d watch the eyes of the people talking glaze over as they reached deep into their pasts to retrieve memories of happier times—recollections lost within days not yet ruined. And then I’d watch them return from those places, those dusty rooms in their minds, holding back tears as they again realized what they’d become. The truth, it seemed, stung us all.
The progress that happened inside of Old Colony was painful to watch and feel, but that pain was part of a necessary process. It was a time to face the truth about who we had been and who we hoped to become. It was also a respite from the façade that the world demanded we put up—a time to face the brokenness of our own humanity for the greater purpose of our individual evolutions.
During one of those meetings at Old Colony, as the summer breeze found its way from Lake Michigan to the room’s open window, I sat in my chair and listened as an old man began to talk. I hadn’t seen him before. His hair was gray and white, and the wrinkles on his face suggested a life lived the hard way. He had a gentle voice, one filled with sincerity, and he seemed to be speaking from a deep place—one only accessed through the doorway of honest appraisal. He spoke of a ruined marriage and a lost job and a lost home. He described a fragmented relationship with a child who was now grown and only saw him as a drunkard. He talked about his estranged grandkids, about not being able to face them, and he talked about a doctor’s appointment he’d just returned from.
“It was just a regular appointment—one my wife used to call ‘an old guy visit.’” His eyes grew moist as he spoke. He took a deep breath, exhaled, and looked at the floor. “I was sitting on top of the exam table, you know, the one with that white wrinkly paper, and the doctor came in the room to give me the result of my blood work.” He paused for a minute, steadied himself. His voice was softer when he started speaking again. “The doc told me they had found cancer markers in my blood. He said they couldn’t say for sure, but things didn’t look good. Six months, he said. A year would be a gift.”
The room was quiet as it took in what the old man was saying. Through the window we could hear the sounds of the city below—the El train roaring, voices of commuters passing, an ambulance in the distance, its siren echoing off the buildings around us. The sounds of living people living their lives. But in that room on the 12th floor of Old Colony, a dozen floors away from the thriving city below, a man was dying. A man was accepting the fact that he was dying.
The old man went on to tell the room—all of us folks that he hardly knew—that he wished he hadn’t spent his life being a drunk. “I just wish I could change things,” he admitted, his voice trembling. “It all seems so important when you’re going through it. But one day a doctor tells you it’s all coming to an end and you realize you were worried about the wrong shit.” A tear slipped from his eye and traced one of the many wrinkles in his cheek before falling into his shirt’s collar. A woman in the back of the room coughed. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands, trying to comprehend what was happening, what I was witnessing. I knew that, cognitively, we were all aware that one day we would die, but this guy was dealing with it right then, at that moment. Regardless of the fact that he was sober, he was still paying the ultimate price. And it all just seemed so ridiculous. Where was his happy ending? Where was the affirmation that he had done the right thing? Where was the point in sobriety for him?
The guy sitting next to the old man reached over and put his hand on his shoulder. I lifted my head and caught the old man’s eye for a second. He looked away, spoke again. “There’s a big part of me that wants to say ‘screw it,’ hit the liquor store downstairs, and drink until I can’t feel anymore. But the other part of me, the part that recognizes that I’ve got six months of sobriety under my belt, that part of me knows that I’ve done the right thing. I might be dying, but I get to die sober. And I’m going to make amends with as many people as I can before I go.”
As I listened to the old man speak that day, I felt an incredible sadness creep up from somewhere within my soul. My chest tightened and my breathing quickened. My palms became sticky. My seat suddenly felt uncomfortable, and it dawned on me that I wanted to run. I wanted to bolt from my chair and barrel down twelve floors of stairs and crash through the doors onto Dearborn Street. I wanted to run to the shores of Lake Michigan and shout to the heavens that I was sorry, and that I wouldn’t do it again, and that I would no longer waste my life. I wanted to scream to God that it was finally beginning to make sense to me. I wouldn’t hurt people anymore. I wouldn’t squander my opportunities anymore. I would no longer take for granted all that I had.
When the old man finished speaking that day, the room was still and Old Colony seemed silent. There was a heaviness that pushed on each of our hearts, and it appeared that there was nothing adequate to say. A man had wasted his life and he was going to die. And that meant that we all had to suddenly face a similar reality. Because we could have all just as easily been him. We all sort of were him. His time had literally run out, and someday ours would, too. I could only hope to face the ending of my life with the same courage that he had. He’d lived as a drunk, but he would die sober. And while there was sadness in that, there was hope, as well.
Although I wish I did, I don’t know when that man died or what happened with all the relationships he was trying to rectify. I don’t know if he was able to fix a lifetime of pain in a few short weeks or months. I don’t know if his heart was still broken when he finally said his last “I’m sorry” and traded in this life for the next. But I do, however, know this: he impacted a room full of people that day in a way that few have the power to do. In a rundown room in a rundown high-rise, a rundown old man changed my life. And because of the things I heard in that room that day, felt in that room that day, I was able to find a sort of inner peace with my own struggle for sobriety.
The group that the Old Colony Building was named after, Plymouth Colony, later became known by a much more familiar name—the Pilgrims. Initially arriving in Massachusetts after fleeing religious persecution, it only seems fitting that a building named in their honor would host a group of men and women looking to escape the persecutions of addiction.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the realities faced in that 12th floor room, it’s that we need to live as that old man did in his final days—with intention. We need to live with purpose. With meaning. With the knowledge that one day it will all be over, and we will only exist in the memories that other people have of us. We need to ask ourselves–with the same conviction we live–exactly what those memories will be.
Tim Hillegonds is a graduate student pursuing a master of arts degree in writing and publishing (MAWP) from DePaul University in Chicago. His work is forthcoming in RHINO and Brevity, and he was recently awarded an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the New Millennium Award 36. He is currently working on a memoir about recovery.
Read our interview with Tim here.