Jen and I decided to head out for a bit on the Fourth of July. We pulled into the local gas station to fuel up. As I removed my wallet to put my card in the reader, I saw a man with a suitcase standing behind the car.
“Excuse me sir, I’m terribly sorry to do this. Would you mind if I pumped your gas in exchange for some food?”
“Yessir, very hungry.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll take care of you after I’m done pumping the gas.”
It’s Chicago. Homeless people are abundant if you care to look. They’re found at many major intersections and often at busstops – two places where you’re stopped and have no way to avoid them. Judge me as you will, but I usually ignore them and go about my business.
This was different from my usual encounters. He was a clean cut black man, about my age. His hair seemed freshy trimmed and he had white stripes in his sideburns. His suitcase was large and full. I did not feel threatened.
It was an awkward moment. I stood pumping 15 gallons of gas into the car, and he stood five feet away, watching and waiting.
“So I just got out of the county lockup today. I was in for unlawful tresspass. They caught me sleeping in an abandoned house.”
Not sure what to say, I said that first thing that came to mind.
“They let you out on Fourth of July? Happy Independence Day.”
“Well, they let a bunch of us out early. I was supposed to be in another week.”
“I’m not sure that was much of a favor given that you’d at least have AC and food in there.”
“Well, not really. They really don’t feed you in there.”
“What kind of sandwich would you like?”
“Something with a lot of meat in it.”
“But no turkey, if that’s OK.”
I looked at the pump. Five more gallons to go. I could haved stopped at any time, but the thought never occurred to me.
“Would you like something to drink too?”
“Some water? A soda?”
He stammered a bit and said, “I’d really like some orange juice, if that’s OK.”
He had passed the test. If he had asked for alcohol of any form, he wouldn’t have received any.
“OJ is fine,” I said.
I looked at the pump and it was at 13 gallons. Almost done. We had a moment of silence.
“Because they let me out, I’m going to have to sleep on the train tonight. They didn’t give us a CTA pass or nothin’.”
“I’ll take care of that.”
The CTA is Chicago’s train and bus system, and I had some cards in my wallet. This is very close to money, but I decided that he should have them.
15 gallons rang by, and the pump stopped. I took the nozzle out of the filler and placed in the holder. As I was doing so, the man with the suitcase jumped forward, grabbed the cap, and screwed it back on clumsily.
“You stay in the shade. I’ll be right back,” I said.
I walked towards the convenience store, and noticed four bicycle cops coming out of the store. They were all women, wearing helmets, sunglasses, vests and shorts.
One of them walked towards me.
“Did he ask you for money?”
“No, he asked for food.”
She walked past me, and I went into the store.
I picked up two diet cokes for the ride, and as I turned around, I heard another voice.
“Excuse me sir, did the man out there ask you for money?”
“No, he asked for food.”
“Ok, well he shouldn’t be doing that here.”
She turned and headed for the door. I yelled after her.
“Will you be getting him some food?”
“No, I’ll be giving him a ticket.”
There was a brief pause as I let that thought sink in.
“Will you give me a hard time if I get him some food?”
“Oh no, you can do whatever you want.”
I got the sense that she was somewhat relieved that I’d be getting him some food. I found the orange juice and grabbed a rather disappointing ham sandwich, and headed for the counter. My phone trilled, signalling a text message from Jen.
“Your friend is getting written up.”
Feeling some urgency now, I asked for two bags, and put his things in one along with two CTA passes. As I exited the store, I saw the man sitting on the window sill with two police officers standing over him. One of them was writing a ticket.
I handed him his bag and said, “I’m sorry for all the trouble.” He said “Thank you,” but one of the police officers said “Oh no, you didn’t cause a problem.”
She didn’t realize that I was apologizing to the man.
I walked through the sweltering parking lot and got back into the car with Jen. We drove off, and had a discussion about what had just transpired.
Jen could hear the entire conversation, and she was very concerned for my safety. A strange man talking about jail was standing close to me while I had my wallet out. She had good reason to be concerned. I was also concerned, but less so. I had the nozzle and hose between us, and I was perfectly willing to defend myself with the nozzle if need be. Spraying gasoline into someone’s face would be quite a deterrent. It was also about 1PM in a very crowded gas station. Still, he could have had a gun or been crazy.
And then a thought occurred to me. It was *my* fault that he got a ticket.
The ticket was for “soliciting on private property.” The probable cause against him was my statement. If I had simply answered “No” to the police, or if I had said “We were just talking” he would not have received a ticket. The charitable side of me sees a man down on his luck, who’s got deck stacked against him. A ticket received for trying to get some food seemed like some obscene insult.
But more analysis followed. There were three things going on there:
- A man was trying to feed himself.
- A store owner was trying to protect his/her business.
- The police were trying to do their jobs.
And I want all three of these things supported. If a person is hungry, I want him fed. But by feeding him, I’m encouraging him to break the law again, and I know that if people are asking for things at this gas station, patrons are going to find someplace else to buy gas. The police were trying to enforce the will of the store owner, and I think that’s proper as well. By the way, they were professional and efficient.
So what was the right thing to do? Do I resolve to support homeless shelters? Do I call the cops when someone is soliciting on private property? Do I inform the property owner?
Ultimately, I just feel guilty about the whole thing. I spent about $20 trying to do the “right” thing, but in the end… I don’t think there was a right thing. It made me very aware of how close I am to the situation he’s in, and how difficult it would be to get out of it. For all I know he could have been a murderous villain, but he could also be a former autoworker or school teacher who got laid off and couldn’t find anyone to support him. I’ll never know. And if something like this happens again, I’m not sure what I’ll do.
I wish I had a closing paragraph that tied up this incident with some meaning-filled sentiment, but all I have is the sense that many of us live right on the brink, and once you go over it’s very very difficult to climb back up. If I put myself in his shoes, I don’t know what I’d do.
Epilogue, July 5th
In preparation for this post, I walked down to the gas station and took the pictures you see here. While walking around the perimeter fence looking for a sign that said “no soliciting” or something similar, I noticed a man with a terry cloth towel around his neck. He seemed to be looking at the people pumping gas. Ignoring him, I took my photos and went inside to buy a 44oz soda (screw you, NYC).
After paying, I put on my headphones and started walking home. The man with the towel was apparently waiting for me, and just as I set foot off the property, he called after me.
I didn’t hear what he said, but it looked like “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”
And now I know what I’ll do if “something like this” happens again.
While walking away, I gave him a glancing look and pointed at my headset. I mumbled “I can’t hear you.” Though it wasn’t my fingers that were in my ears, the music and my words were close enough to “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you” to make me feel guilty all over again.