when you’re working, most of the time, with people who wander the streets.
Not everyone that I work with is ‘homeless.’ But, I think everyone that I work with is wandering aimlessly in Chicago, going from place to place.
I spent a lot of time on Chicago buses and trains now, usually at odd times in the day. The regular 9-5 crowd and I don’t cross paths too often. The other day, I was on the Brown line around 11:30am. For some reason, they were running a long train on that route–usually they cut the train down to fourish cars when they know that there won’t be many travelers. The Brown line is a 9-5 line; in to the loop in the morning, out of the loop in the evening. Any other time and it’s almost silent.
A man got on the train–late middle age, African American, and with a severe limp. He had, I think, had a stroke. Half of his body didn’t work properly and he walked with great effort. He came up to me and handed me a notecard, on which was written (in excellent cursive) a request. He was deaf, homeless, and in need of a donation. He walked back in the train and then wandered back, slowly, hobbling one side in front of the other.
I handed him a cliff bar that I had in my bag. We had a brief conversation in gestures, but I didn’t understand much of it. He was very kind, and I gave him back his hard. Then he went forward in the train, to pass between the emergency doors into the next car.
Before he went, he had something he really needed to communicate to me. He was serious. He kept insisting that I needed to know something, but I really had no idea what it was. Finally I understood–he was mimicking his bag getting snatched. He sort of pushed that word out of his mouth. Then I looked around the train and realized that we were alone in the car–he was worried about me. Alone in a train car is never a good thing for a young lady to be, and he was going to leave the car.
I hadn’t even noticed that I was alone. I was grateful. Then I watched him as he tried to pass between the cars. He had a heavy cane, and his body didn’t work properly–he limped so significantly and I wasn’t even sure he could stand in the train as it rocked back and forth, let alone cross between the cars. The CTA go-betweens are not real platforms or anything; they are only for emergencies. The cars bob up and down. I can’t really imagine doing it safely in an able-body.
He opened the first door and I watched carefully. I thought maybe I should go hold it for him–but he had it down. He knew what he was doing. He must do this all the time, I thought. It was a panicked few moments for me, though. I watched him struggle to get the other side of the car open. He couldn’t push it at first. He threw his whole body against it and then managed to pass between the two cars. For about five seconds, though, I was already running the panicked 911 call in my head. I thought he was going to fall and die.
Some people have asked me what CPE with the Night Ministry is like; it’s like a lot of things. Confidentiality is very important, so I’m not going to regale the public with stories about the people I meet there. A lot of stories are like this one, though. People do the craziest things. They live in the most intense ways, doing things that we would never consider having to do. But, a lot of times, they’re worried about me and my safety. When kindness is the only commodity you have, it becomes intensely valuable. Some folks are loners, but in general, I haven’t met a group of people who are so devoted and dedicated to keeping each other alive as I have met through the Night Ministry. This story is a lot like that–after all that he was doing to just ‘do his life’, this guy was worried about me.