I tend to tuck away funny, unusual or “huh” experiences and mull them over now and then. How much better it is to find a way to make them into building blocks for stories, especially when you can expand on them by asking yourself “What if?”
Sally Saville Hodge
One of the things that bothered Sofia about living in the city was the number of people who had their hands out, trying to get something for nothing in the name of homelessness, joblessness or just plain bad luck. It wasn’t only the sheer number of them, especially compared to the tony north suburbs of Chicago where she’d spent the majority of her life. It was the great variety of tactics they engaged in to part people with their money.
There were those who just thrust their cups in drivers’ faces as they ambled between the rows of cars trapped at traffic signals, not even bothering with the obligatory “Help a homeless person out?” Others, though not so common these days, would wash your car window whether you wanted them to or not, demanding change or preferably folding money for the service. The Streetwise guys at least tried to give some value – the latest edition of a flimsy so-called newspaper recounting developments affecting the homeless community in return for a buck.
It was those who were playing an outright con who bothered Sofia the most. Not long after departing the suburbs for city life a decade earlier, she’d given five dollars to a presentable young guy at her neighborhood gas station. His credit card had been denied, he woefully told her, and he needed enough gas to get home to the suburbs before his dad found out he’d taken the car to the city and grounded him for life. Right. When she went back the next night for her daily pack of cigarettes, he was still there, using the same story. “I gave you money last night,” she accused him, amazed at his gall…and that she had fallen for his act. He skulked off as the gas station attendant quietly appeared beside her to shoo him away.
It had all left Sofia feeling jaded and cynical. But that didn’t stop her from also feeling vaguely uncomfortable when she didn’t part with a handful of change every time someone approached her with a hand out and hard luck story. Once in a while, that discomfort outweighed her cynicism, especially if there was friendly banter involved, which often happened with, say, the Streetwise guys. But she had no rules, as some of her friends did, about circumstances under which she’d dig in her pockets or poke around her purse’s bottom for loose change. And often as not, she’d charge by, feigned deafness and blindness her protective gear.
On this early fall evening, Sofia watched her fellow travelers cut a wide swath around the woman and child who partially blocked the bottom of the stairs exiting the El platform in her River North neighborhood. It had been a long day at work, dealing with her clients’ expectations and demands, reasonable and not, her employees’ expectations and demands, reasonable and not, and her own expectations and demands, which, of course, were always reasonable. She was tired and out of sorts and just wanted to sink into the embrace of her living room couch while mindless television played in the background. But she had a suspicion that the pair below her constituted just the first in the inevitable parade of beggars and street people that would mark her route home.
They did not, however, seem to be your typical street people. For starters, they were clean. And not badly dressed. The woman was wearing spotless white sneakers and tight black capris topped by a gauzy print blouse whose ends were tied at her waist. She tightly grasped the hand of a toddler wearing appliquéd overalls and a matching jean jacket. Nor were they unkempt. Both woman and child boasted matching, tightly woven cornrows. On the mother, they pulled her face into sharply angled planes. They pulled the child’s eyes up, giving her features a slightly oriental cast.
They also didn’t look as lethargic as most street people. The little girl’s curious gaze darted from her mother to pedestrians passing by and she almost broke loose to try to pet a pigeon that was pecking near her feet. The woman seemed more worried than anything else, and the big brown eyes that captured Sofia’s as she approached the sidewalk were beseeching, not calculating like street folk with a con, or vacant, like those who had been on the bottom too long.
Still. You couldn’t trust your impressions, as she had found with the gas station hustler long ago. Sofia shifted to the other side of the final stair to avoid the two as she finished her descent. Too late. She should know by now to never make eye contact.
The woman turned toward Sofia. “Lady…” she began.
“No,” Sofia said shortly, and tried to walk around her.
“I gist need a dollah, lady,” the woman said.
Sofia headed down the sidewalk. Three blocks to LaSalle Street, and she’d be past the worst of the homeless traffic that tended to cluster along Chicago Avenue. Funny, she thought, how passers-by sped up and averted their eyes. She wasn’t the only one who knew that eye contact with either the panhandler or her victim would get them ensnared themselves.
Sofia felt a tug on her sleeve. The woman, without relinquishing her grip on the child, had followed her.
Sofia was getting irritated. “Look, no. I’m not going to give you money. I’m sorry if you lost your money and need bus fare to get home or if you need money for gas or if you need food for your little girl. I’m late for, ummm, an appointment. It’s just not my problem!”
By the time her rant was over, Sofia’s voice was one decibel below a shout. The child started to wail, which died down when her mother picked her up, parked her on her hip and began caressing her face. Sofia took that as her cue to walk away, but the woman grabbed her arm before she could take two steps.
“It’s a dollah, lady. Hep me out. Ah got my wallet stole. Ah need money t’git home wit’ my lil’ girl. I ain’t no beggar!”
Sofia was assailed by feelings of violation at the physical contact and embarrassment at being involved in a public scene. The pedestrians who weren’t rushing by were looking at both of them with curiosity, but, of course, were not getting involved.
What overpowered it all, though, was, well, that she was feeling a little guilty. And kind of sorry for these two. She knew what the woman saw. A well-fed, well-dressed, well-coiffed older woman. One who wasn’t swimming in furs and jewels, but was certainly a few notches up the food chain. One who could certainly spare a dollar.
The aggravation, Sofia decided, was not worth the principle. She reached in the front pocket of her purse, where she usually stashed a few dollars, and pulled out a well-worn bill. It wasn’t a single, but a five, she saw. She sighed. Well, she hadn’t succumbed to a street person’s blandishments in a while. She supposed this would make up for it.
“Here.” She thrust it at the woman and turned away once again, heading back down Chicago, hopefully to get home without getting waylaid again.
On a late fall evening some weeks later, Sofia pulled up her jacket collar to fend off the chill as she walked down the stairs from the El platform after another long day of work. She was mentally checking off her evening’s to-do list as she cut around at the bottom of the stairs to head over for a quick stop at the Walgreen’s before heading home. Walking west on Chicago Avenue, she was going against the crowd and got a bit jostled for it by the occasional passer-by. What she wasn’t expecting, though, was to have someone pulling on the sleeve of her jacket. She turned. “What?”
“Lady.” Sofia searched the speaker’s face. It was, in fact, the same woman who had relentlessly pushed her for a handout some weeks earlier. This time, she was without the child.
“You.” Sofia said flatly. “Need money again?”
The woman shook her head. She wordlessly thrust out her hand and pushed money into Sofia’s. Sofia gaped at seeing the five dollar bill, and looked at the woman questioningly.
“Thanks.” The woman turned and disappeared into the crowd.