by Michael Dymmoch
This is the time of year when the media have human interest stories revolving around Christmas themes—home for the holidays, secret Santas, gold coins in the bucket. Some publication reruns Royko’s famous “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style" (Chicago Daily News, Dec. 19, 1967). TV news reports the theft of Christmas by real grinches. Channel 5 reruns It’s a wonderful Life. This year, I stumbled into my own Yule season story. Only it’s more like the “Turn of the Screw” than “A Christmas Carol.”
It started when I was approached in front of the AMC Theater by a diffident young man with a South Shore Metra schedule in hand. His red hair and beard made me think of my mother, whose always been partial to red-heads. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you help me?”
I stopped. He looked lost and a little depressed, and I’m used to giving directions to tourists.
"I’m trying to get home for Christmas. My mother told me I’d be more likely to get help from a woman.”
OK. That sounded like something I might tell my son—only I’d add that a woman might be more likely to be scared of a strange male asking for help. This kid didn’t look scary.
“I have to get to the South Shore station at Michigan and Roosevelt,” he told me.
Easy enough. I pointed toward Michigan. “Just go up to Michigan Avenue and take a bus to Roosevelt.”
“I can’t. My wallet was stolen. They took my student ID, credit cards, everything.”
“Then you need a policeman.” I looked around—never a cop in sight when you need one.
“No, I’ve been to the cops. They gave me this....”
He shoved another paper at me. I didn’t look closely, but at a glance it was a...
“...Police report. But that’s all they could do. I need to get to the station by four o’clock or I’ll miss my train.”
Ah. It was either a scheme to scam me out of train fare or a real hard luck story. I couldn’t tell which. So many panhandlers accost us with sad tales that city dwellers are pretty much inured to hard luck stories. But his story was plausible. And what the heck. I’m willing to plunk down $25 in a bookstore for a good yarn, why not bus fare for a line I haven’t heard before? I gave the kid $2 and said, “This’ll get you to Michigan and Roosevelt.”
“But I don’t have money for the train. I just need $44 to get home, $18 to get to South Bend and $26 for the bus from there to Evansville.”
“Can’t you ask your folks to send it to you?”
“They can’t. That’s just the thing. They won’t wire you money if you don’t have an ID.”
I hadn’t thought of that. But I wasn’t going to give him $44 even if I'd had it.
“OK,” I said, “Let’s go to the station.” I figured I could buy him a Metra ticket with my credit card and he’d be that much closer to home. And maybe his fellow Hoosiers’d be willing to front him the difference.
He followed me back to the steps leading up to Michigan Ave, and took the lead crossing it to get to the bus stop, ignoring the don’t walk signs and signaling a bus driver to let us on even though we weren’t at a proper stop. As we rode south, He explained that he’d come from school on a train and had fallen asleep, waking up at 71st street without his money and IDs.
When the bus driver called the South Shore stop at Michigan and Randolph, my new young friend told me he wasn’t going to go in there because he’d been there earlier, begging for help, and he’d been told by a cop to leave or be arrested for panhandling. We stayed on the bus.
At this point, the needle on my bullshit meter was flopping in the red, but I wanted to see how the drama would play out. When we finally got off the bus, the young man led the way to the Metra station. Climbing snow-covered steps and following him down onto the enclosed platform, I wondered if what I was doing was sane, never-mind safe. But there were other travelers around, and I really wanted to see how far things would go.
The end was anti-climax. The Metra station ticket dispenser wouldn’t accept credit cards--something I find amazing, since you can even pay for parking with credit cards these days. Unable to buy the kid a ticket out of town (which he wouldn’t be able to use or return if he was just scamming me), I broke down and gave him what cash I had ($9) and wished him luck.
He said he’d go back to Michigan Avenue and try his luck with other passersby.
I noticed, however, that he didn’t stay on Michigan, but kept going west. So I was left thinking he may be just a scammer with a better than average line. If he was scamming me, he’d worked really hard for my $9. And I got a story out of it.
But what are people to do when they get robbed in a strange city and can’t prove their identity? What would I do under the circumstances? What would you do?