In Dependence Day

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?”
“You’re hungry?”
“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.”

A pause.

“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?”

No answer.

“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.”
“OK”

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:

  1. A man was trying to feed himself.
  2. A store owner was trying to protect his/her business.
  3. 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.



Categories: Food, prison

Tags: , , , ,

9 replies

  1. oh that is so touching. In Brussels where we lived, almost everyone that begged as a gypsy. There were children out begging during school hours. I remember when tourists would buy then food, the children would throw the food back at the tourists and curse at them. Another group were the addicts. The girls and I would pack lunches for the ones that lived near the park. We would hand them out. There is an art to packing lunches for the homeless, especially addicts. Non crunchy food that is easy to eat. We would bring peanut butter with us by the case from the US (the European kind was awful), and some of our addict friends came to love it. Good for you and yet also didn’t go bad and you could eat it with bad gums. Now, I hate to see the growth of homelessness. Our local small town of Keene NH has a shelter, however it closes doors at 10pm. Many people that are homeless, WORK, and their jobs at restaurants don’t let them out until 11pm -midnight. They sleep in the woods, or couch surf. We have a few couch surfers, we say “if it’s cold, call us, no matter what the time”. Our daughter also has 2 people that surf on and off. They all WORK, but affording and finding a place to stay in a crowded college town is almost impossible on minimum wage. It’s not just a big town problem anymore, small town America has a horrible problem with young people being homeless.

  2. Thanks for that Jeff. I work in DC, so I run into this a lot too. Amongst the violent drunks and addicts there are people just like us…and a little bad luck, a few missed paychecks would be all it takes for a huge number of regular folks to share space on some pretty mean streets with some very shady characters. We’ve been putting up walls, and creating green zones surrounded by red zones just like they’ve always done in the third world. It’s scary how easy it would be to drop into a red zone for permanent.

  3. You may have done him a favor…ticket unpaid will equal jail time…a bed…food…don’t ignore them just help but stay safe….you can’t save the world but you can help….

  4. thought provoking…. good u helped, not many would do that.

  5. The big question is what happens if you see the same guy in the same place again? Being a city person, I know you don’t buy gas very often but it would be interesting. Boston street people are basically in the downtown area and are well known to us locals. I once gave $10 to a particularly needy looking individual and saw him again the next day buying lottery tickets!

  6. Several months ago, I was approached by a man in the parking lot of the grocery store and like you I tend to ignore like that. There was something a little different about this gentleman. Not wanting him to continue to hang around where he would likely get in trouble, I went home and packed two shopping bags of groceries, juice and sandwich stuff, then drove back to give it to him, took maybe 15 minutes. It doesn’t happen very often and the key factor is always about how safe I feel but I can afford to give up a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and some juice pouches. When you personally know people who have been there, it’s easier to see the human being.

  7. Great story, Jeff! You did the right thing all the way around.

    I get taken in by street hustlers often. I once gave a person a five dollar bill outside a car parts store. He had quite a story to tell. Nancy was waiting in the car and watched as the man went around the corner, met up with his friends, and commence to laugh at the “sucker” they just beat out of a fiver.

    It didn’t stop me from helping the next person though.

    It’s been a while since I’ve lived that close to the edge that I tend to forget what it was like but I have a young friends that are struggling to get by. One sells his blood to get enough money enjoy a night out. A flat tire or other unscheduled expense can cripple his budget for the month and he has a masters degree!

    I don’t mind helping folks out from time to time but like most folks hate being played for a sucker.

  8. I love your honesty, man. I admire that in you so much. And I can see how much this bothered you (and understand). I can pretty much see myself in the same situation, including the earbuds scenario; I do it all the time. But, shit, this is so sad it made my chest hurt…

    This man has been helped, momentarily, by one of us (you) and let down by all of us. The police and our laws are an extension of us, the public. Generally the public that lives above the poverty line as we’re the ones who vote and curry favor from those we elect. The police do our bidding. And, essentially, as illustrated here, we’ve tasked them with keeping this person and anyone like him out of our sight (i.e. – in jail) as often as possible.

    He was let out of jail — for essentially making a hard survival choice that entered into our zone of comfort (he was sleeping in one of ‘our’, the non-impoverished, properties, even if it was not in use) – and then forced to live on a razor edge that does not apply to the people in cars or with money in their pockets. He’s tossed out of jail in a ‘fend for yourself’ attitude, but we’ve made fending for yourself almost impossible… because we don’t want to see him. Because that would remind us that we fail many of our own utterly. We just have someone else do the hard part for us. Out of sight out of mind… or, at least, in the back of a cruiser or a cell. And now the police are watching him like a hawk, as we’ve tasked them too, waiting for an excuse to put him back out of sight should he offend our eyes again… for being hungry and desperate.

    And they pounced. We’ve turned asking another person for help to survive, free speech, much less survival, be damned, into ‘soliciting’. Yes, on public property since Chicago got shot down trying to make it also illegal in public spaces, but still… I guarantee had he asked you “My car is out of gas and I’m broke, can you give me some gas?” that no one would have complained. Certainly not the business as it’s a few more bucks in their till. Because this request would be coming from ‘one of us’: He owns a car.

    This story made my heart ache and made me ashamed that a) I understand exactly the position you were in and I do the same and b) nonetheless, I and all of ‘us’ (we have computers, so we’re definitely ‘the public’ as far as the above goes) have utterly failed this man.

    Gonna go weep a bit until I can forget it again until next time I’m confronted by our failings… 😦

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