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East Cermak Road

I didn’t get his name. He hailed me as I was crossing the street. It was 11:30 at night on East Cermak, and I was on my way to the L.

“Excuse me,” he said, and stood back. He said he smelled, that was afraid he’d scared me … I was a little apprehensive, sure, but not scared.

He said he was homeless. It sounded like a recent thing. A few weeks ago, he fell asleep on the train and … he lifted his shirt sleeve a bit and on his arm I saw a lump covered with a jagged line of stitches, he pointed at a cut face and a missing patch of hair. He wasn’t trying to impress me with his scars, but they told his story. I wasn’t scared or taken aback at his injuries, but I felt what he’d been through.

I don’t know the true story about how or why he got cut, but that’s not a great thing to happen … he got around to askin for a few bucks … most days I haven’t much cash nor the charity to part with it, but tonight I took the change out of my pocket and was about to hand him what I had though was $3 but was actually $18.

“Have you heard of Kankakee? I just need $8 ….”

I had heard of Kankakee. I have a draft of a poem I wrote two months ago after a homeless man in my own neighborhood, who seemed to be on the level, had spoken at overly great length of the need for some cash to get to Kankakee … he had seemed to have high hopes of Kankakee helping him straighten out … but I hadn’t so much cash at the time.

Something struck me as I stood there with my fist between us, holding $18, and instead of the singles or the five I pulled out my ten, and handed it to him. He looked at me kind of shocked, not that he’d gotten cash so easily but that … well, he just hadn’t expected $10.

The cynical part of the brain thinks he may be a great con, but fake scars like that don’t come easily to a smelly guy wandering around on Cermak near midnight. I don’t know what’s in Kankakee but the last guy made it sound like good things. This guy on Cermak, I felt no guile from him. He had been cut, and ten dollars off a stranger had him lost for words. He was a stranger to kindness?

We would always like to do more, wouldn’t we? I didn’t want to tell him what to do … I’m not some condescending preacher, nor am I looking to make friends with smelly guys on Cermak lookin to get to Kankakee.

I saw it as he wasn’t feeling worth much. I looked him in the eye and touched his arm and told him to take care of himself, that I hope you get where you’re going. He still seemed shocked. I was touched. Touched enough to write up this story to share with you.

I was on my way. I was wondering if I wanted to avoid walking around here at night, when beneath a viaduct I heard a rustling in the brush. I stopped to eye it and a passing guy asked if it was a rat.

The rustling had been loud. “Aint no squirrel over there at this hour.”

I didn’t see it, but a rat, a large one, it had to be. “That’s trippin’,” I said.

“Sho’ is,” said he.

The train station smelled like pee and a far shiftier panhandler accosted me at the bus stop on Chicago, unrewarded for his efforts. It is not so much that I want to avoid walking down Cermak, but any other night I must make that trip, I prefer to ride my bike.

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