Alley Talk — Alley With Emergency Room by William Dolan

William Dolan

This is a series of essays that are inspired by and inspire my drawings of Chicago alleys. It is meant to compliment and add context for the work. We are defined by where we are, where we come from or where we want to go. I come from the alleys of Chicago.


Edgewater Medical Center has been closed for a couple of decades for now. It was run into the ground by a bunch of investors, a couple of which, I believe are still in jail. A massive hulk of a few interconnected buildings, it has been declared an eyesore by many in the community. It is the birthplace of my brothers and Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. Governor Jim Thompson frequently used the heliport. The shuttered maternity ward was used as a set for the emergency room scenes in the movie Backdraft. The plant has survived only because it’s too big to tear down. It is a big yellow brick monument to all those who were born, died and healed there.

My Mom, now a retired registered nurse spent the bulk of her career working the midnight shift in the emergency room. This enabled her to be at home when my Father was at work. That way there would always be a parent at home. This was during the 1960s and 1970s, before it was okay to stuff the kids in daycare while mom and dad worked to put food on the table. In fact, her application to one of my grade schools’ PTAs was rejected as they frowned upon the mother working.  It also gave her permanent bags under her eyes.

Working the emergency room also enabled her to make it through the night. The constant action required her to be on her toes and made the time go quickly. Being on a floor would have been excruciatingly dull. Sitting at a desk while the patients slept would have made the clock tick slowly.

To say that she had seen it all is an understatement. Most of the really crazy shit that happens in the city occurs after midnight. Many of the people involved, wind up in the emergency room. For some, it’s a stop on the way to jail. For others, it’s a stop on the way to the morgue. It’s a place where lives dramatically change and something my mom witnessed over, and over.

She watched the neighborhoods around the hospital fall into decline and start to rebound. During the 1980s, the declining birthrate of those with medical insurance and the increasing number of babies being born to poverty forced them to close the maternity ward making the emergency room the place where people were born. Around half of those children were born addicted to cocaine. Patients being treated for problems stemming from the social ills of urban decay were on the increase as well as use and abuse of public aid.

For years, my Mom would talk about Kenmore and Winthrop Avenues. The nightly violence on these two parallel streets in the three mile stretch from Uptown to Rogers Park alone, often filled the ER. Stabbings, beatings and shootings were the norm. It was a densely populated ghetto all to itself. The newspapers refused home delivery to anyone in that area. Despite the efforts of Loyola University to take over much of the property on the north end in recent years and continued gentrification on the south, there is still a lot of crap that goes on in the Kenmore and Winthrop corridor.

A lot of assholes go through the emergency room on any given overnight shift. I remember being home one day when my Mom had to give a deposition over the phone regarding one such asshole. This big burly guy got into a bar fight whereby he was hit in the head with a pool ball. He kept fighting all the way to the ER. He refused treatment every way possible, including physically (hitting staff, etc). At one point, they realized that they could not treat him so they released him, even though it’s against the law. Well, it turned out that this douchebag had a concussion and sued the hospital for letting him go without diagnosing and treating him.

Well into my adult years my Mom forbade my brothers and I to ride motorcycles. Anyone that has worked in an emergency room has seen their fair share of the end result of shit going wrong and those that are there after the bars close get to see some really bad things. One morning, my Mom came home and the first thing she said was: “You kids are not to ride motorcycles!” She was treated to the site of a rider that broadsided a police car at about 100 MPH and was decapitated by the Mars light as he flew across the roof.

She has seen a lot of things during her 25 years at Edgewater. There were hookers that police would bring by on the way to the lock-up so that their gender can be identified by medical personnel. Garbage men with rashes that would flare up in the middle of the night; welders with burned retinas that would keep them awake; people with cockroaches nesting in their ears; maggot-infested squadrols that needed a dousing of the really strong disinfectant that hospitals carried … these were all part of the routine. She washed the feet of the homeless. However, unlike Jesus Christ, who did that as a display of humility, she had to do that to remove their socks that were stuck to their maggot-infested soars.

When my brothers and I were older and could take care of ourselves, my Mom moved to the day shift and eventually left to finish her career in a quiet doctor’s office.

Today, Edgewater Medical Center sits. I hope that at least some of it can survive as a reminder of where the life and death stories took place.

Alley with Emergency Room

Alley with Emergency Room, ink on Arches paper

An article at DNA Info describes Edgewater’s current condition.

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