Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Man with the Milk Crate

I look for him every morning. He’s not always there, and when he isn’t, I worry about him. I don’t know this man’s name, or where he came from—all I know is that he has a small milk crate on which he sits, bundled up, holding out a McDonalds’ cup. The man is of an indeterminate age. Because he sits at the first corner past my train stop, I always see him just as I’ve walked out the doors, just as the icy, Chicago air first hits my face.

Lately, stepping outside to start my walk to my office building is like preparing for battle—scarf, gloves, hood, and hat are my armor. And still the cold manages to hit me, even when I’m bundled up so much in my ridiculous, blue puffy parka that my figure has morphed into a big, down-covered blue blob. I walk as fast as I can to my office building, feeling like I did as a kid when I’d try to keep up with my mom on one of her speed walks at the gym. I’m racing against the cold, and I can’t keep up.

The first day I saw him it was painfully cold. That morning, I had woken up with my fleece blanket wrapped tightly around me, warm and content. I scurried to the bathroom, turned the space heater on high, and turned the water on as hot as I could stand it. After I got out of the shower, my skin pink and warm, I got dressed as quickly as I could. I put on an enormous, warm turtleneck. When I walked outside that day, I had almost won my cold war. I barely felt anything at first. Because I’m a huge geek, I smiled, pleased with my small victory. I waited for the train and felt smug. Ha! I am finally bundled properly. Screw you, Chicago winter. I win. For the first time, as I pushed open the door to leave the Clark and Lake stop, I didn’t dread the cold smacking me in the face.

That’s when I saw him: sitting on his milk crate, with the hood of his dark brown jacket pulled over his head. Everyone kept walking past him as if he was invisible. I dug my hands into my pockets, hoping I had some change. I did, but it was such a small amount I felt stupid about it—it couldn’t have been more than 40 cents. I didn’t know what to do, and I couldn’t bear not to do anything, because it was so goddamned cold out, and here was this man, old enough to be my father, sitting on a milk crate. I dropped the change in his McDonalds’ cup, and he looked up at me, smiled, and said:

“God bless you, ma’am. Thank you.”

My throat swelled as I looked at him and said, “You’re welcome”—fighting the urge to apologize for the measly change, wishing I had the nerve to offer to buy him a cup of coffee or to go bring him a sandwich instead of dropping my random change in his cup.

Now, I’m not so naive I don’t realize that his response wasn’t a novel reaction to someone handing you money on the street. I get it. He probably said that to everyone who gave him some change that morning.

But. But!

His voice. It was lilting and deep, the kind of voice that makes you sit up straighter and pay attention in class. He could be a preacher or a poet, it wouldn’t really matter. It was like everything he’d been through in his life, everything he’d seen and done, all came out in one sentence: “God bless you, ma’am.”

I give him change whenever I see him now, and every time he says the same thing. One morning I walked out, and saw his crate, but he wasn’t sitting on it. I looked around for him—what if he was hurt? what if he’d gotten sick? where did he sleep?—and just as I had to cross the street from his corner, there he was! He was walking right toward me, holding his cup and a McDonalds’ bag. I grinned at him, relieved that he was okay. He looked at me blankly, as if he’d never seen me in his life.

Maybe he really hadn’t. But I wanted him to know that I had heard him, even if I don’t really see him. There was nothing I could say. I had to keep walking.

Still, every morning, after I walk past him, I wish I had asked him if I could buy him a cup of coffee, and if I had, if maybe he’d sit down with me and tell me his story in his beautiful voice.

And then maybe he would see me, and I would see him.

No comments:

Post a Comment