When you put yourself in challenging situations, outside your comfort zone, the likelihood is high that you might actually learn something. Maybe.
Sometime in 2007
I’m at Blockbuster, dropping off a few videos. As I park the car, I notice a guy approaching.
GUY: You have any spare change?
ME (hustling): Sorry, bro.
GUY: Thanks for nothing!
This passing comment pissed me off. I drop off videos and walk back outside, aggressively.
ME: So, what…like I owe you something?
GUY: What the fuck? All I asked you for was change.
Pause, with Aggress-o-meter redlining; I change my tone.
ME: Hey, you want dinner?
Getting to know this guy, just a little, I thought, might be a way of learning something about street life, about another side of this life. Asking the guy to dinner was also, not incidentally, a way to avoid catching a beating: this guy was bigger and way rougher than my usual dining companions.
We get to Wendy’s, and this guy–his name is Pops–orders a Cheeseburger with Bacon and a Double Stack (getting these two menu items, Pops points out, is a better value than a Triple Stack). Pops tells me about his recent bust for cocaine possession. Before that, he did time at Marion supermax, where he buddied up with fellow-con Jeff Fort of El Rukn and the Black P. Stones; that protective association, he said, helped him avoid rape on more than one occasion. He also explained how standing out in front of Starbucks in Oak Park is a great place to sell Streetwise: “People spend six dollars on coffee, and all I want is one, so they figure, what the hell? They usually give me two or three and don’t take a paper.”
For the price of a few burgers, I got a peek through another’s eyes, which is one of the best lessons one can learn.
I teach creative writing at a local penal institution. My students are about a dozen women, many of whom have committed crimes serious enough to put them behind bars, sometimes for a very long time. Last time we met, we had this exchange:
WOMAN #1: Where do you get ideas for what you write?
ME: There are a lot of sources for inspiration. When I was a kid, I had a writing teacher, and he said, “Just write about what you know, interesting things that happen in your life.” But I was like fourteen. I had no life!
WOMAN #2: Neither do we!
Being good at changing tones, I started talking about my exchange with Pops. I got to the part where I storm outside the video store and ask, “So what…like I owe you something?”
WOMAN #3: You DO owe him something!
Class goes quiet.
ME: Maybe I do.
This brief exchange started me thinking that maybe it was time for another crack at taking another panhandler out to eat, perhaps because I owe the guy something, but also because sometimes these experiences are a way to learn about how others approach the task of living.
Few weeks ago
It’s about 9:15pm on a Tuesday. It’s lightly misty, I’ve just finished working out at FFC in Oak Park. I’m crossing Lake Street over to Five Guys for a post-exercise burger.
The street is glazed, reflecting neon. As I cross, I notice a guy hitting up a couple for change. I keep walking and the guy hovers toward me.
GUY: Spare some change? I’m hungry.
ME: How you doing?
GUY: I’m alive. So that’s good. Spare change?
ME: Tell you what. How about I buy you dinner?
This guy, younger than Pops and less beat up, quickly pulls back and slouches away. As he does, he mumbles, sotto voce, in an aggravated voice, “Faggot.”
There’s a life lesson there somewhere. I just wish the hell I knew what it was.