The Homeless Man Who Wasn’t There

There is a homeless guy who sits on a milk crate, just outside the Chipotle at State and Madison. I see him most days, Monday through Friday, whenever I walk by. He’s an older black man, with a bit of gray in his hair. He speaks kindly to those who pass by, giving everyone a small salutation: “Hey there, sir. You have a good day. Hey there young couple, you be good to one another now.” His voice is cracked when he speaks, from the strain of trying to say hello to nearly everyone who walks by him.

On occasion, if someone is struggling with opening the door to Chipotle or to the nearby Garrett’s Popcorn, he’ll leap up and help them out. He never asks for any money, though I’m sure this act improves his chances. I think that while it may be a savvy move on his part, he likely also has the same desire that we all do: to be of some use to others.

He rarely asks people, directly, for money. He just greets everyone, and says hello to them. But everyone walking by understands that he’ll accept money, since he holds an empty cup in his hands.

He notices me every time I walk by. I think I’m a fairly easy guy to spot, as I kind of stand out (Asian guy with glasses, long hair, goatee). But I also think he has a decent memory, as he’s been sitting in the same spot watching the same people pass by day after day. We humans are, after all, wired to notice patterns.

When he sees me, he addresses me directly each time. Usually it’s some variation of:

“Hello there, young man.”
“Be grateful for another day alive, young man.”
“Thank God for another day alive, young man.”

I do think he genuinely means it when he says this to me. And you know what? I genuinely do feel happy and lucky to be alive, and I do give thanks to the powers that be for my fortune.

But the thing of it is: I don’t give him any money. I never do.

I’ve lived in Chicago a long time now, nearly 15 years. When I first arrived, I’d give change out to nearly anyone who asked. But after a short while, this becomes an impossibility. Because there are so many who ask, and it’s just not possible to always be giving out change.

Whenever I walk by this man, I smile politely and end up looking away. Because he tells me the truth about my fortune and my good luck, and it becomes difficult to look him in the eyes when confronted with that.

He’s seen me countless times, walking by to get lunch. He saw me leaving the office one afternoon, as I was walking to the Orange Line… towing a suitcase behind me, headed to Midway. He said to me then “Have a good vacation young man, get out of this cold.” And when I returned on Black Friday to go back to work, he saw me get out of a cab and said “Welcome back, young man. Hope you had a good vacation.”

Last week, for about two days, I noticed he wasn’t at his usual spot. There’s another guy (who begs change across the street) who showed up instead, and was actively asking people for change. For a small while, I wondered if the older man was still around.

Is he dead? I wondered, or is he away? But where else would he go, if not here? The man had asked me to be thankful for being alive so many times, it made me wonder if he was still alive somewhere. It felt strange to no longer have him present, reminding me to be grateful about my life.

And after a few days, I saw him back again in the same spot. Sitting on the same milk crate, speaking pleasantly to everyone who passed by.

The man is old enough to be my father. I see him at least three or four times a week and yet I don’t even know his name. I know he’s in need, but the cynic in me prevents my hand from reaching for loose change.

A part of me thinks: these greetings and reminders… this is what he does. This is his angle. And another part of me thinks: so what if it is?

A part of me thinks that giving him $20 as a one time thing would be fine, a kind of payment for his existential reminders. Another part of me thinks I’d just be paying him off to ease my guilt.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I’ve been thinking about him for a few days now, ever since he was gone and ever since he returned.

What am I thinking? That I’m happy and lucky to be alive, born into the comfort and privileges that came to me and not others. I’m thinking that when I see those less fortunate than me offer thanks, it makes me more thankful.

I really don’t know where I’m going with this, or how to end this post. I guess just chalk it up to me sharing what I’ve been thinking about this man, and what I think about when he reminds me to be grateful.

And that when he was gone, even for a short while, I noticed.

[CC photo via Leon Rice-Whetton]

Tom Stone: Portraits of the Homeless

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. There used to be a couple of homeless people who waited at the end of an exit ramp near my house. Older white guy with a short, grizzled beard, and a woman who may have been Native American in a wheelchair. She had a wide, squashy face with a scowl pressed into it. He did all the talking; she never spoke. I’d roll down my window and give them some money — not a lot — if I happened to be in the lane close to them. The guy would come out from behind her wheelchair to take the money, say thank you, whatever. Then I didn’t see them there for a long time. I wondered about them. Many weeks later, they were back. I rolled down my window, said I’d noticed they hadn’t been around lately. I was genuinely glad to see them because it meant they were still alive. He said she’d been in the hospital for a while, and he’d been there with her, looking out for her. He looked over his shoulder at her, like he was worried. That was the last time I ever saw them. I’ve never seen them since. But every time I use that exit ramp, I think about them, wonder what happened to her, where he might be now.

    These people are in our lives. Maybe on the fringes, but they’re there. Their presence does mean something to us. And I think for you, this guy means something to you. He is telling you something true, and acknowledging that YOU exist. How many people do that for us in a day? I don’t want to dictate anything to you, but it seems to me that’s worth you acknowledging that HE exists, in some way. To him, as he has done for you.

    Juliet Williams Reply

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Juliet. You’re right, in that this man does mean something to me – evidenced by the post, and me thinking on it for so long. And I’ve been thinking on your comments as well.

      I plan on talking to him, and telling him as much. Although it still feels difficult for me to look him in the eyes, as every greeting he gives me I take as an admonishment. But I am happy to see him again, and you’re right – I need to convey that.

      avoision Reply

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