Our Vendors 

We’ll truly miss ‘one of Chicago’s best,’ Roark Moody

Tue, Dec 11, 2012

The late Roark Moody

Roark Moody’s hallmark was his consistency: as a vendor, as a poet, and as a veteran.

Greg Pritchett has been director of distribution and vendor services for 12 years and he says the loss of Mr. Moody, a 10-year StreetWise vendor, has hit him close to home. Pritchett had been a vendor at Randolph Street and Columbus Drive and he introduced Mr. Moody to his vendor location: the Chicago Cultural Center, just one block west at Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue.

“The point is I took him there and he never left. He would be there five days a week,” Pritchett said. “Whenever I needed a vendor to do an interview [for the newspaper, then the magazine and at least four times on StreetWise StreetScene, our weekly show on CAN TV cable access network] I could count on Moody being there.

“He was a good example of what we talk about,” Pritchett continued. “He worked his location like a job, he built his customer base and he was part of the production of the product – the magazine – with his poetry.”

When Mr. Moody came to StreetWise he had been living with a friend and he was jobless. At first he didn’t complete orientation.

“Then he came back eight months later and took a more serious approach,” Pritchett said. “He made up his mind he wanted to do it and he didn’t look back once he got serious. He was the face of StreetWise, he was so consistent. A lot of people knew about the vendor at Randolph and Michigan with his cowboy hat and unique style.”

As Pritchett worked to change the image of vendors – to that of people seeking a hand up, not a hand out – Mr. Moody was his case in point, Pritchett said.

“We talked about working it like a job and Moody was a part of that. We talked about ‘location:’ how to find one with a rush hour and a continuous flow; about ‘appearance:’ how you look; about ‘customer service:’ being able to answer questions in a professional and intelligent manner and about ‘inventory:’ how many magazines you have. He had pride in all things we talked about; he had dignity in his appearance and the StreetWise image, in working this like a job.

“I used him as an example of someone who worked the location.” Pritchett continued. “A lot of vendors bounce around. Moody is the only one who has been there 10 years, even during the remodeling of the [Metra] station.

“He’s the perfect example of the vendor who had regular customers on a weekly basis. He was not out there for the tips (although people gave them to him). He was out there to sell the magazine.”

Mr. Moody participated in the gamut of activities at StreetWise. He was a member of the QAT (Quality Assurance Team). He also participated in vendor recruitment, in their orientation, and in working as a team to monitor them in the street.

He was part of an entrepreneurship class at DePaul University and he worked the front desk of the Single Room Occupancy hotel where he lived.

Mr. Moody had a degree from Columbia College and had been an editor at a government agency until a layoff in 1994, so Pritchett considered him a natural contributor to the StreetWise publication and brought him to the attention of Editor Suzanne Hanney.

Hanney encouraged his writing about vendors and real-world issues because it was authentic.

“It was his consistency that made me trust him as someone who could quote give readers a true picture,” Hanney said. “Because he was true to his job I felt his word was good across the board.” She especially sought his opinions about issues concerning veterans.

“When talking about his four tours in Vietnam, his eyes would cloud up…only to move on and become peaceful again,” said Ben Cook, who was an intern and then production manager between June 2007 and May 2011. “Despite whatever Roark experienced in wartime as a young man, he had found a way to be at peace, and being a part of StreetWise and its mission was a big part of that.”

Later, Mr. Moody segued into more subjective writing, burnishing poems he had written long ago. “It helped him to do new poetry,” Pritchett said, “to get those creative juices flowing again. I believe it helped Moody get those things out that were bottled inside him. Poetry became therapeutic for him. “

His topics were hard-hitting, ranging from homelessness to slavery. Pritchett pointed to two poems in particular.
“Here I stand, day in, day out. Empty man’s eyes shout out for help…but you walk on by…Thirsty pockets mumble ‘help me, please’ …and you go your way. As my spirit chokes, the corner shares my pain…” he noted in Homeless!
Mr. Moody talked about injustice in the criminal court system in his poem, It.

“Big mistake, being wrongly arrested and falsely found guilty of being less fortunate. Told, it’s alright. It’ll be okay, it’s just a mistake. So day after every stress-ridden day I’m suppose to be okay with sorry, Charlie. Though I be less fortunate, I still command justice or, is it just us who pay the price to balance the scales of justice…”

Mr. Moody’s poetry “speaks to the heart and soul,” artist/videographer Nancy Bechtol wrote in an email upon hearing of his death. “I will always think of your creative spirit and the way people engaged with you. Your poetry lives on.”

Bechtol had met Mr. Moody at his StreetWise vendor location in 2005 and had collaborated with him on an exhibit at the ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation in Chicago. They remained friends, “meeting up for lunch and chats, or just a hug and a paper,” she wrote.

“I found him by chance – searching for a vendor that was creative and interesting,” Bechtol wrote. “Roark impressed me instantly with his polite and engaging personality, and how excellent his poetry was. After talking awhile, and listening to some of his deep poems, I asked him if he was interested in showing/performing his work in an art gallery.”

Mr. Moody is the only vendor to have been so honored, as the subject of an art exhibit, Pritchett said.

Bechtol said the one-month art show at ARC Gallery was a conceptual piece, a joining of art and social issues, aiming to direct the viewer to think about things and people we discard/disregard in society and our daily lives. His poems were placed on large printouts in the installation, along with her video conversation telling a bit about his life and art.

“It was a very emotionally satisfying work, and Roark was actively engaged with the art visitors in conversation about his poems,” she wrote. “The collaborative art show of myself with installation and video of the Poet Roark E Moody brought art patrons in touch on a personal basis, with a homeless person in a gallery setting: an unusual approach to make connections. Roark E. Moody was engaged and loved this collaboration, he stated it was the first time he was in an art show. The art show was to show contrasts and what we had in common — one-to-one human interaction — in a relaxed setting rather the normal engagement on the street where he sold the paper for a living.”

A live element of the show was Mr. Moody selling StreetWise. Many people were surprised and Bechtol noted a mix of reactions. Some people engaged in unlikely conversations. Others ignored the installation or walked across the room to avoid it. Nevertheless, Moody sold out all his copies of StreetWise and Bechtol also gave him an honorarium for his performance in the art.

In one of her videos Mr. Moody said that while some of his writing involved research, most of it was from human experience. “It’s like an inner voice, a gift. My purpose for being on this planet is to be a writer, it’s a matter of just putting it on the pages and getting it out.” He said he had wanted to be a writer since he was 3 years old.

“He loved talking with the gallery visitors at the opening event!” Bechtol recalled. “I am still moved by this collaborative installation and an amazing thing [that] happened, which was profoundly moving. Roark’s son found my web posting of the show and videos of his dad. They reconnected after a very long time and started seeing each other often. This is the healing power of art.”

In October 2006, Mr. Moody was invited to read his poetry under the Tiffany dome of the Cultural Center, when Bechtol participated in Cultural Connections, a multicultural show curated by Jorge Felix in collaboration with Jane Stevens, curator at Illinois State Museum-Chicago Gallery. Bechtol had been working with Native American poet Emjayzee but invited Roark to the show since he was a poet. She asked if he could also read and curators graciously agreed, she wrote. Several of them already knew him from his location there selling StreetWise.

“Roark really enjoyed that opportunity and told many of his customers that he finally got to be ‘inside’ reading his poems to a good crowd, where he was a vendor selling ‘outside’ and daily sharing his poems on the streets,” Bechtol said. “It was awesome.”

Mr. Moody’s brother Lawrence also had not seen him for six years, although their father, a Hyde Park resident, had mailed him copies of Moody’s StreetWise vendor profiles to keep him current. Several years ago, when Lawrence was in town for his wife’s family reunion, he sought out his brother at his Cultural Center spot.

Instead, as Mr. Moody was walking up State Street, he ran into Lawrence standing at Madison Street, talking on his cellphone. His brother hollered a line from Alex Haley’s novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, about its central character, Kunta Kinte. “You old African! I found you!”

The brothers hugged and then hung out for several hours before Mr. Moody brought his brother to the StreetWise offices. They also went to his Cultural Center location.

“I unsurprisingly found myself admiring Roark’s interaction with his customers and people in general for several hours,” Lawrence Moody said in an email Nov. 12. “He was such a natural. Whenever I would be back in town I would go down to Michigan & Randolph and hang out, lunch and just be together.” His brother’s tribute is included on Page 4 of this edition of StreetWise.

Helping Mr. Moody reconnect with his brother and his son were gratifying moments in his job, Pritchett said, right along with seeing Mr. Moody’s customers supporting him and watching him do well. He was also pleased to see him start to fulfill his goal of getting a master’s degree in English. Although he was 62 years old, he had gone back to classes at Harold Washington College.

“Roark was very much a part of the StreetWise family–he didn’t just sell StreetWise, he was StreetWise,” Cook said. “He could be counted on–as a well-spoken guest on StreetWise Street Scene, training new vendors and answering their questions, making picture frames for fiveACCESSORIES [a non-profit that employed vendors to make frames with used CTA passes] or giving his feedback on what worked and what didn’t with each week’s issue. He will be remembered as someone who had a strong sense of self. He was a poet, a veteran, a positive influence and gentle. It was a privilege to have him be so open about the ups and downs of his life, especially watching him re-unite with his brother after so many years, culminating with Roark bringing him to StreetWise to show everything he was a part of. The corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street has lost one of Chicago’s best.”

By Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief


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