The following is a true story. Quotations are recorded accurately, to the best of my memory.
He stepped onto the train and I just knew. Everyone else in the car knew, too. The tattered clothes. The sunken backpack. The hospital wristband.
The Brown Line train rumbles to a start again, and we’re all looking at him, but trying to look like we’re not looking.
He gets on his knees in the middle of the aisle.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” he says. “I know you don’t like this. I don’t like it either. I don’t know if it’s the ratty clothes or the smell or the tattoos or what.”
He speaks loudly, with diction. He looks distressed and sorry to be doing what he’s doing. Sorry for himself, but for the rest of us, too.
“You got a cigarette I could buy? I need a cigarette. What I need is to quit smoking. I need help. My dad drinks. And when he drinks he gets drunk. And when he gets drunk he gets violent. He likes to make me feel like a bigger piece of s— than I already am. I got kicked out of my house. Right now a bus ticket to Rockford costs $18.60. I have six dollars and ten cents in my pocket. Anything. I’m looking for anything. Some food. Some change.” He doesn’t have a cup for anyone to drop money in, and no one is offering. “I’ve been sleeping on the lovely Blue Line for a week since I got kicked out of my house. I can’t take being homeless. I can’t take it no more. I hate my life. I hate my… I’m sorry. I know you hate this. I hate it, too. I hate my life.”
The train slows and the intercom tells us we’re nearing the next station. The man stands up, pulls his pack a little tighter to his shoulders. “Thank you for not swearing at me or telling me to shut up. Okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
He looked pretty young. Late twenties. Not much older than me. This was in the winter in Chicago, and I’m not sure if I’d ever felt so badly for someone pleading for money.
* * *
Until I saw him on the train two days later. Same baggy coat. Same baggy cargo pants. And an identical routine.
“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know you don’t like this. I don’t like it either. I don’t know if it’s the ratty clothes or the smell or the tattoos or what…. You got a cigarette I could buy? I need a cigarette…. And when he gets drunk, he gets violent…. $18.60. I have six dollars and ten cents in my pocket…. Thank you for not swearing at me or telling me to shut up. Okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I kid you not that it was the exact same speech, given in the exact same delivery. The only change this time was a passenger who handed him a few bucks, to which he gave the required thank yous and cowered.
This time I felt a similar sympathy, though perhaps a little less, and some of the other people in the car were a bit more disgruntled. Some questions did come to my mind: Do homeless people rehearse their pleas? And why did he still only have $6.10? Surely, someone had given him something in the last two days.
But maybe not.
* * *
A few days later, I’m on the Brown Line again. Same guy. Same thing all over.
“I’m sorry…. You got a cigarette I could buy…. And when he gets drunk, he gets violent…. $18.60. I have six dollars and ten cents in my pocket…. Thank you for not swearing at me or telling me to shut up. Okay. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
All of it, identical. That’s how I’m able to reproduce it here, because by the third time I had it memorized.
This time, it affected me much less. I felt uncomfortable. I don’t like suspecting homeless people of faking it. And I was struck by the fact that he still claimed to have only $6.10. It had been nearly a week since I’d first heard his spiel. Surely he could have earned the rest of his $18.60 by now. What’s more: I had seen him receive a stranger’s money with my own eyes.
It was pretty bizarre, and afterward I wondered for weeks when I would see him again. But I never did.
* * *
Until last week, about six months since our last encounter.
I recognized him by his face and backpack and clothes, even though his winter coat was gone. His voice was distinct, too. A bit high-pitched. A sort of up-speak.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry about this. And I’m not here to annoy you, because I know you hate this — I hate it, too. But I just got out of Rush [Hospital] last night and my leg’s all messed up. I have two infections. I’ll show you. I’m wearing the wristband so you know I’m not crazy. I need help. I’m sorry. I need money for clyndamycin. The prescription costs 18.60 and I’ve only got $4.00. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, but I need help. I’m begging you. And now I’m going to the next car to say the same thing. And thank you for not swearing at me or telling me to shut up. Okay. I’m sorry. God bless.”
The specifics of the speech had changed, but some details carried over. His profuse apologizing. The fact that his desired goal was exactly $18.60. The “thank you for not swearing at me or telling me to shut up.”
I can’t explain it, but it seemed very much like a performance. This time, though, he had evidence. He pulled up his pants-leg and revealed a grotesque apple-sized wound on his calf, and a red-soaked bandage near his ankle. The wounds looked very real, and very infected.
Most of the passengers were repulsed by him, especially his injuries. There were audible gasps and a few women stood up and walked to the other end of the car. One man gave him a dollar bill. (Curiously — and somewhat beautifully — the giver was another man in raggedy clothing who smelled of weed, who could easily have been homeless himself.)
* * *
The next day, I saw the man with the bloody leg who wanted 18 dollars and 60 cents again. And I saw him again the day after that.
Same. Exact. Speech.
* * *
This is easily the strangest experience with a homeless man I’ve ever had. Its repetition in tone and content, its rehearsed nature, the $18.60 — first for a bus ticket, then for clyndamycin — the injury, the frequency with which it happened, the six-month span in between. I don’t know what to make of it because none of my conclusions seem to fit.
- If he’s telling the truth — because he really did get kicked out of his house and really does need a prescription filled — why didn’t he take the bus to Rockford or buy the clyndamycin with the money he was given? It seems impossible that he couldn’t scrape together enough donations. And why did he maintain the exact same figures in each of his episodes — even though he was receiving money — six months apart ($6.10 in the winter, $4.00 in the summer, always with a goal of $18.60)?
- If he’s lying — because he’s a scam-artist, performer or scientist conducting a social experiment — how does one explain his injury? No scammer, actor or scientist would injure himself so badly. And even if he did, he wouldn’t let it fester for days on end.
- If he’s insane, he did a good job on memorizing his little skit. And how, when he went to the hospital in the first place, did doctors allow him to leave with such a horrific wound and no means of getting the prescription? Not to mention, of all the thousands of people who have witnessed his routine — some of whom must be social workers or medical professionals — how has he been allowed to continue like this?
I’m not sure if I’ll see the man again. And if I do, I’m not sure how to respond. At what point do I stop trying to figure him out? At what point do I actually do something?