On the way to get my lunch today, I was stopped by a man who proceeded to ruin my entire afternoon. When he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir,” I assumed he was about to ask me for directions. Eager to show off my vast and newly acquired knowledge of Chicago (at least the safe, northern, middle-class, white bits of it), I stopped and made the huge mistake of saying, “Yes?” When I should have just kept walking.
Back in NYC I’d have kept on walking, regardless, because other peoples’ problems are not my problems, and who has time for that? But I’m a mid-westerner now, and people in the midwest are polite, so I foolishly stopped and asked the man how I could help him.
He reeked of cheap booze, and I immediately regretted stopping, because now there was no polite way to brush him off, and I would have to hear what he had to say. It took him twenty-five minutes of backstory to get to the point and tell me what he was actually wanting from me, which was $18.50.
“You’re a good man,” he said. “I can tell, because you’re the first person who hasn’t told me to fuck off, excuse my language.”
He’d ridden a bicycle from downtown, presumably stopping people along the way to ask for $18.50 for a train pass (which doesn’t cost $18.50, so I’m not sure where the figure came from, but didn’t want to quibble). Apparently no one had given him the time of day, except for me since I’m a total sucker. A shop owner had suggested he come to my neighborhood with it’s tree-lined streets of three story brick buildings, and blonde yoga moms with double strollers, because there were “a lot of good people here who’d be willing to help him out.”
The story he told me was a sad one, regardless of how much was actually true. He’d recently been released from a maximum security prison, he’d said, after spending 10 years in jail for being caught selling 10 kilos of cocaine. Prison, had naturally been a horrific place of unspeakable violence and things a man like me, no offense, couldn’t even imagine. He’d been serving time with murderers and rapists, and all he’d learned from his time inside was how to become hard and violent himself.
He repeated himself a lot during the telling, and contradicted himself a bit as well. He said he’d come to Chicago in 1984 from Tarzana California after having been a student at UCLA. He was naive and didn’t know how difficult life could be until he met a homeless man and his family living in a box, begging for food. He gave them a few hundred dollars, and wasn’t it ironic that he was now in a position where he was having to beg for money?
He stated that he’d basically been tricked into selling drugs since he was what his father called an “intellectual dummy.” He wasn’t street smart, and was just a kid who didn’t know any better. (Later in his story he said he was 51 years old, so if he’d been in prison for 10 years, he’d gotten caught when he was around 41 which was hardly a naive kid fresh from college, but I didn’t want to press that point). While he was in prison his parents had both passed away, and his wife and children had fallen into poverty, and now his wife was dying of colon cancer.
At this point he broke down and started crying while I stood there, feeling helpless and embarrassed and wished that I could think of some polite, but reasonable excuse to get away. My neighbors, all white and middle class in jogging suits and designer sunglasses all hurried past us without the slightest hesitation.
His story went on. He told me that prisoners used to get a bit of money upon release to help them get reestablished in society, but due to recent budget cuts, this was no longer the case, so when he was released after ten years, they sent him out into the world with nothing.
They did help him get a job which was the crux of his problem. He couldn’t afford the train to go back and forth to work, his job wouldn’t advance him the $18.50 for the ticket, and if he didn’t go to work, he’d violate his parole and have to go back to prison.
I didn’t ask him why he didn’t just ride his bike the rest of the week, since the weather’s nice. I didn’t ask him why he’d spent money on booze when he needed a train ticket. (After 10 years in prison and re-adjusting to life outside I could hardly begrudge a man a drink). I just smiled and nodded and resisted the desire to flee as he went on.
He told me that his wife and children were living in public housing and he’d used the last money they had just to get to work that morning. He told me about the polyps they’d found and the two hysterectomies his wife has had. (My knowledge of women’s reproductive systems is pretty limited, so I didn’t pipe up that I thought you’d only have that the once). He talked about prison again, and how it was full of innocent men like him, and how he was watching his wife die before his eyes. He told me about how he’d been considering suicide because life was too difficult to bear. (He stopped to sob some more, while I stood helplessly by, wondering what the appropriate response is to being present while another man cries.)
Then he said, again, that he could tell I was a good man, and he just had a feeling about me that I would stop and listen to him. He told me that if I’d just kept walking like everybody else, it might have pushed him over the edge, and he might have gone postal. He said he understands now how people can just be pushed to the limit and do bad things.
At this point in his story, I went from feeling uncomfortable and annoyed, to quietly terrified that eventually I was going to have to tell him I didn’t have any money to give him and he was going to “go postal” and kill me. I didn’t have any cash on me, and I wasn’t about to have him follow me to an ATM to get any. And my job doesn’t start for three more weeks, and we just spent our savings moving across country, so I didn’t really have the money to spare anyway. I thought about just giving him my VENTRA card since I’d paid for a month’s worth of transit that I really wasn’t going to use, but I’d registered the card, and it was tied to my online account, so I wasn’t sure I could just give it away, and I’d paid $105 for it, so I didn’t really want to give it away anyway.
Then the gentleman, who said his name was Daryl Something, shook my hand and got my name, and re-iterated that he could tell I was a good man. He felt that God had brought him to me in his time of need.
And there I was on the spot with a desperate, admitted convicted felon, on the verge of going postal, who was looking to me to solve his problems via a non refundable cash donation of $18.50.
The thing is, I’m not a good man.
I’m kind to animals, sure. And I don’t go out of my way to intentionally hurt people. Usually. But my commitment to social causes is “liking” them on Facebook. And I spend untold hours imagining how wonderful things would be if Ebola wiped out a sizable portion of the population, completely destroying society as we know it, so that I’d never have to sit in a cubicle and could eat Twinkies and read books all day for the rest of my life.
I do not like other people, and I especially don’t like being forced to interact with them, or to be made to feel guilty for not giving them $18.50.
So I told the man that he was right. This was a good neighborhood, full of good people, and I hoped that some charitable person would be able to help him out, however, I was not that person, being unemployed myself (which is mostly true.) I told him that I hoped things worked out for him, wished him the best, and walked away.
The look on his face was one of total defeat.
I felt guilty all the way to the Thai restaurant down the street where I got takeout, to take with me back home to sit on my comfortable couch and watch a documentary about Tunisian refugees. This way I can feel good about myself for having compassion for others, as long as they have the decency to be unfortunate very, very far away.