If I’m going to be completely honest I usually don’t make it a point to speak to homeless people. Not that I find them repulsive or anything like that but because my arch nemesis is a homeless man and I don’t need another one.
It’s January 1997 in Chicago and we’re having a heatwave. It gets up into the mid 30’s during the day, just enough to turn the snow to slush. I’m in wingtip shoes for work which is not waterproof and after just a few misplaced steps I can feel the ice cold water soak my socks. No matter, just a few more blocks and I’ll be home.
A block away from home I see a homeless man making a beeline for me and yell, “Give me $5 dollars!” like I did something wrong. I mean this was close to being a stick-up. He was mad. I didn’t appreciate him speaking to me this way so I asked him why and he’d reply, “None of your business!”
I will say this confused me when I heard it. Was it my business? On one hand, if you ask for a loan from the bank they will want to know why you want the money. On the other hand, this was not a loan. He never said he was going to give me the $5 back. No, this was a gift and if it’s a gift then once I give it it’s now his to do with what he pleases. I have no right to ask.
It didn’t matter because I had no cash or coins on me anyway. I had deposited every last dime a few blocks earlier so I’d have enough for my rent check. Even though I knew my wallet was empty I opened it in front of him so he wouldn’t think I was just blowing him off. I then said what everybody does in that situation, “Sorry buddy, I don’t have any cash on me right now.” I figured he’d just keep walking but no. Now it was time for me to get a tongue lashing. He responded, “You piece of shit. I hope you get frost bite.” Huh. I wasn’t expecting that, especially since he saw my empty wallet. I wanted to say “Well, I hope you get frostbite too.”, but that could actually happen to him being homeless in Chicago so I said, “Sorry.” and walked away defeated. I can’t believe I said that. I was so angry with myself. I had been given this nasty motion by a guy and I didn’t do anything.
As laid in bed that night with no frostbite I thought of great comebacks for the next time we met. I was sure he’d say something like, “Did you get frostbite yet?” and I’d say, “Did you get a job?” or “No. Did you?” Or maybe he’d walk right past me not saying a word but giving me a dirty look and I’d say, “What’s the matter? Frostbite got your tongue?” Yea, that’d show him. Or better yet, I’d show him my wallet with a crisp $5 bill and tell him why he wasn’t going to get it.
I didn’t have to wait long, the next afternoon as I walked down the sidewalk I saw him. I was ready. As he grew closer I grew a little happier with every step. I’d finally get my revenge. I did a quick check to make sure the $5 bill was there. Yep. Now all I have to do is let him make the first move so I could adjust my comeback from there.
But the next time he saw me he didn’t even recognize me. There was no mistaking that look. He looked at me as though this were the first time we had ever met. No, instead of him referring to our last argument he just yelled at me for $5 again. I was so thrown back that he didn’t recognize me that I found myself confused again and stumbling over my thoughts. How could he not recognize me? We were mortal enemies. He was my nemesis and I was his.
But I had no time to ponder this, I had to act quickly. I started out by saying, “No. And I’ll tell you why.” This was going to be good. He’ll see the error of his ways by the time I was done, but before I could give him a tongue lashing he called me a piece of shit, hoped I got frostbite and chased after someone else across the street.
It all happened so fast. Before I could react he was halfway across a busy street. This was bad, not only did I get called a piece of shit again but my own nemesis doesn’t even recognize me. Matter of fact, this time he blew me off for someone else. Now I could only watch helplessly as he attacked an innocent bystander with his wicked words. Although I couldn’t hear due to the sounds of city life, I could see my nemesis demanding $5 and then the other man, who looked confident, said something. I don’t know what he said, but my homeless nemesis just turned around and walked away. He didn’t call him a piece of shit he didn’t wish frostbite on him, he just walked away.
As I laid in bed that night my toes were cold. Maybe I’d wake up with frostbite but who cares. Why didn’t he call the other guy a piece of shit? Why didn’t he recognize me? I didn’t sleep much that night.
The next day as I rode the Red Line listening to the sounds of tracks I pondered my existence. Why did this man hate me so? Why only me? Then I asked myself the right question, “Why do I care?”. Forget that he’s homeless, he’s just some guy. Who cares what he thinks of me. It’s my experience that some people can’t stand to see others doing well and will say and do things to get you to stop succeeding. Heck, I can usually spot those type right away. Even the hard ones to spot. You know, the people who pretend like they’re helping but you always leave them feeling a little less of yourself and your abilities. The ones who give you compliments that don’t quite feel right. Like, “That was really good…for you.” or the ones who give you “constructive criticism” without you even asking for it. They put the word constructive in front of it like I’m supposed to buy it. It’s still criticism. The first definition of criticism is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes“. “Constructive” my ass. Why do I need your approval again? Not that someone telling me they hope I get frostbite is constructive, but that’s where I ended up in my thoughts.
As I listened to the steel wheels of the Red Line role along I felt better. Matter of fact I felt good enough to tell my good friend who was riding next to me the whole story. As I told him there was no way I could have known the shell shocker he was about to tell me. You see, he knew exactly who I was talking about. I expected that this homeless guy was relentless. But he also knew that this guy wasn’t homeless at all. Nope. Turns out he lives in my friends’ apartment building, which is much nicer than mine. He has a car, a job and likes to berate people for a pass time. I thought I’d be livid but I wasn’t. I had already figured this guy out so it didn’t really matter why he was doing this. It didn’t matter to me if he was homeless or not. A jerk is a jerk and their occupation or living arrangements don’t define them. You can either decide to be a good person with integrity and honor or not. You don’t need $5 to make that decision.
That night I found my shoes filled with slush as I walked to my apartment. Only a block away I saw my nemesis on the other side of the street. As soon as he saw me he darted through the traffic right to me leaving a trail of angry cabbies. But this time I knew him for who he really was, just some guy who was trying to squash everyone around him down to his level. I didn’t really care anymore. When he looked into my eyes I saw recognition. He didn’t recognize me, but he recognized that I knew what he was truly up to. Never mind that I knew he wasn’t homeless, I knew why he was out here doing this to people. He paused for a bit, then delivered his $5 line, nowhere near as confident. This time instead of trying to come over top of me he shrank. After he asked for the $5 I said no and he walked away… defeated. There was no witty comeback on my part, no vile words on his part. Just a complete ending of this charade.
I know some of you reading this are disappointed that I didn’t thrash this guy with wicked words and witty comebacks but don’t worry, the story doesn’t end here.
I hadn’t walked but a few steps to hear him yelling at his next victim, a nice middle-aged black woman. Now I knew this lady, sort of. I had seen her quite a few times in the local convenience store. We had exchanged pleasantries here and there she was a mother of four, very fair and loving but her kids didn’t dare cross her and for sure they would not disrespect her. She was a proud woman with honor and integrity. If you ask me, mothers are the backbone of society but I’m getting off track.
Now I do believe that if he had to do it over again he would of never demanded $5 from her and he certainly wouldn’t of called her a piece of shit who would get frostbite.
I’ve never heard foul language flow out of a woman’s mouth with such grace, it was like listening to poetry. And it wasn’t just foul language at the same time she was lecturing him like he was one of her children, only she had no love for this child.
Turning around I found him darting through traffic again, not to attack his next victim, because there was no one on the other side of the street, but to get away from this woman. Not that it helped because she followed him. He wasn’t getting off that easy. And if this guy’s day couldn’t get any worse, he was walking into the wolfs den and didn’t know it. He had no clue he was heading toward her apartment building where three of her girlfriends just happened to be coming out of the front door. He was surrounded. Oh, it didn’t take long for our heroine to bring her girlfriends up to speed. A couple of quick sentences and they were briefed enough to join in on the fun. It was a barrage of vulgar verbal assaults. They had no pity on him because he was “homeless”. After a while I found myself thinking, “Dude! Just keep moving. Just find a hole, shoot through it and book it out of there!” I can’t believe I was feeling bad for him but that was a slaughter. He finally got away with his tail tucked between his legs. I couldn’t help but notice that after he left the women all acted as if it were just another day at the office. They didn’t make a big deal out of what just happened, matter of fact they were already admiring one’s new winter coat. He was forgotten. Amazing creatures women are. I’m sure I could learn something there. Probably the fact it doesn’t really matter what happened to you in the past, it’s what you’ve got right there in front of you that you should be focusing on.
After that day I never saw him again. I’m guessing the fact that I knew what he was really up to made it not so appealing to work our block anymore. Plus a beautiful mother of four and her friends are enough to scare off anybody. I told you mothers are the backbone of society.
Oh, and to this day I have yet to get frostbite. Although, I did move to L.A. just to play it safe.