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‘She had heart’: The bleak death of an addict and prostitute


Cynthia Barnes

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Updated: November 5, 2011 5:19PM

Cynthia Barnes and a boyfriend who answers to the nickname AWOL had bedded down for the night in their usual spot on the sidewalk behind a sandwich shop at 59th and Kedzie when the rain started.

This was a week ago Friday night stretching into early Saturday, the night we had that big storm. As the weather worsened, Barnes and AWOL decided they should move.

AWOL says it was about 1:15 a.m. when they picked up the cardboard they used for sleeping mats and headed for another place they sometimes took shelter down the street near a bank building.

That was when Barnes got a call on her cell phone. Barnes didn’t say anything about the call right away, but soon enough, she changed course and announced she had decided where to spend the night, and it wouldn’t be out on the street taking a chance of getting hassled by police.

AWOL knew what that meant. Barnes had found a “date” for the night.

He was used to it. You can’t be possessive or judgmental when your girlfriend is a prostitute and a drug addict, and the both of you are living on the street and one of you has a chance to get out of the rain.

But that doesn’t mean he liked it.

“You want to leave me out here in the rain, then go,” he says he told her, but still walked her to the door of an apartment building in the 5800 block of South Kedzie.

Today would have been Cynthia Barnes’ 40th birthday.

She won’t be blowing out any candles.

Some hours after AWOL dropped her off, Barnes came flying out the third-floor window above. Police say she was pushed.

She landed on the sidewalk, but not before hitting her head on an air conditioner on the way down. She was dead at the scene. We ran a short story.

A man who police think was involved in sending her through the window jumped from the third floor himself minutes later, they say. He broke his neck and fractured his skull — and at last check was still in the hospital. No charges have been filed, but it doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere soon.

AWOL says it was the next afternoon before he learned Barnes was dead.

“The last time I saw her was going through that door,” he said.

I had found AWOL leaning on the mailboxes at the corner of 59th and Kedzie one evening last week, just a few doors down from the botanica where Barnes sat on the stoop most nights, waiting to get her next date.

He was nursing a quart bottle of MGD in a brown paper bag. We talked maybe an hour, occasionally stepping aside for folks wanting to use the mailbox.

I explained why I was there: I’d been flagged to Barnes’ death by the staff at Southwest Chicago PADS, a homeless shelter in Marquette Park about which I have often written in the past. Barnes was one of PADS’ “guests,” as the shelter refers to the many homeless individuals who stop there for food and clothing and for help getting back on their feet.

I also told him what I’ll tell you now — that I didn’t know if any good could come by my writing about Barnes’ bleak story, but that sometimes you just tell it and see what happens. Over the next few days, I’m planning to relate Barnes’ story through the eyes of several who knew her.

“Once you got to know the other side of her, she was good people. She had heart. She was tired of the lifestyle she was leading. I know that,” AWOL told me. “She hated that lifestyle. She really did. I’ve seen her sit there and cry.”

AWOL’s real name is Waldestrudis Zayas, 39, formerly of Humboldt Park. He says the nickname was hung on him after he escaped from a police station, though he also answers to Wally.

If you ran across AWOL in a yuppie bar in Lincoln Park in the same sleeveless T-shirt and shorts he was wearing the day we met, you wouldn’t think him out of place, might even figure him for a beach volleyball player. The reality, of course, is that he has his own demons.

“She used to get mad at me because I’ve got a place to go. I’ve got a family,” he said. “I loved Cyndi, and I didn’t want to leave her out here by herself.”

AWOL was reluctant to talk about the prostitution. People will judge her, he said. I told him that’s true, but that they’d judge her anyway, so just tell it.

“Cyndi did what she did for the money,” he said. The money was to buy drugs. A heroin addict earlier in her life, Barnes’ addiction at death was crack cocaine.

“When I met her, I knew what she was about. I knew I couldn’t change that,” he said.

Barnes, who was paroled in September from a 2009 robbery conviction, was expecting her parole agent to send her back to prison soon for having failed to stay off the drugs.

Her goal had been to remain free just long enough to celebrate her birthday, then to turn herself in and finish out the last seven months of her sentence, AWOL said.

AWOL stared across the intersection at the spot where Barnes plunged to her death.

“I sit back, and I think: ‘What were her last thoughts coming out that window?’ ” he said. “That’s what’s messing with me.”

Then he swigged down the last of the beer.

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