starfish story

Below the Streets of Chicago

by Greg Gonzales

Last week, I was walking down a Chicago street, 10:30 at night, emerging from one of the sub-layer roads beneath the hotels. Nearly two centuries previous, the city’s inhabitants managed to raise up sidewalks, roads, and buildings by three feet, by hand, using jacks. Faced with a challenge, both private and public citizens rose to the task. Now, the city is far more complex, intricate, and gorgeous. However, a Chicago pedestrian inevitably comes face-to-face with the city’s homeless population, which number more than 120,000 by some counts. They raised the city, but its people were left below, in the muck.

I had trouble, though, doing my part. In the face of overwhelming loss, suffering, and fear, we can’t always know what to do — especially in the moment. So I hope this sparks a conversation, or an afterthought, to give someone in need more than dismissal.

“Hey, will you do me a favor?” I was still walking down the street, to a local brewery, and a stranger was asking a favor of me. “Well, maybe,” I replied. “What do you need?”

He lit up a bit. “You look just like my friend John!” he exclaimed, getting closer as we plodded over a crosswalk. “The hair, the eyes, the jacket — everything!” He seemed legitimately floored. “Are you him?”

Nothing set off alarms in my head: He was a black man, maybe an inch taller than I am, with a friendly and raspy voice, wearing a puffy red hoodie that hung loosely over his belly, and a military-green beanie. However, the side-comment threw me off.

“Can’t say I am,” I replied. “My name’s Greg.”

Then he asked again if I could do him a favor, and again I agreed to hear him out. Two bucks, he said, for the bus. Sounds easy enough, but he was the third person on that walk to ask for money, and the sixth or seventh person to ask me on that five-day trip. When I told him I didn’t have any cash (I didn’t), he insisted I go into 7-Eleven and get cash back. At that point, I still said no, as I was tired and in a hurry to eat and go to bed.

In hindsight, nothing could have been more selfish. I’ll bet he was in a hurry for the same thing that chilly night. The difference was, I had a hotel to go back to. In the moment, I failed to live up to my own standards, and settled for less than my best.

Let’s backtrack. My first day in Chicago was on St. Patrick’s Day, and again, I didn’t have any cash. One big, boisterous guy sitting on a green milk crate asked for “a few bucks.” Since I had nowhere to be, I picked him up a coffee, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and went on my way. Passing on my way back from the pub, we greeted each other again, and then parted ways for good. Shortly after, I was headed to 7-Eleven, when another man began walking alongside me, sporting a head of dreads and a light blue long-tee that’d seen better days. He asked for a couple bucks, and I didn’t hesitate to say I’d help him out. Then, he launched into a schizophrenic rant; each word was cut down to about a quarter, he seemed to almost be shivering his speech out despite holding himself confidently and smooth, and the only word I made out was “Muslims” over the course of two minutes. So I went to 7-Eleven, picked up a little cash with my beer, and handed him a couple dollars on my way out. We wished each other the best (or at least I think he did, too), and went on our way.

Two more men approached me for cash the next day, but I was cashless and thought myself too busy to stop. I felt fatigued from all the requests, I suppose. When I’m not out looking to help people, or don’t keep a beneficent state of mind, I find it easy to fall on excuses and except myself from helping where I can.

Have you ever read “The Starfish Story,” by Loren Eisley? The story goes, a young man walks up to a beach that’s covered in thousands of starfish, after a storm. He notices an old man in the distance, gently tossing starfish into the water, one by one. “Old man,” the young man says, “there are thousands of starfish out here; you can’t possibly save them all, or even a fraction of them. You can’t make a difference.” The old man pauses, smiles, and throws another into the safety of the ocean. “Made a difference to that one.” We can’t help everyone and save the world ourselves, but each individual act of kindness makes all the difference to those who receive it.

So the guilt still stings. I could have stopped and talked with him, invited him into the brewery for some suds, or actually stopped at 7-Eleven to give him a couple bucks. The night would have gone on just fine. I’m just one person, but a quick visit to the store could have made a difference. Each and every life comes with its lifetime of experiences. Each one of them matters. We all come from the same place.

When the people of Chicago raised their city in the mid-19th century, it was because they needed a sewage system and to create drainage, of which there was none, and they were wallowing in their own filth, causing epidemics. Now the city has another epidemic to face, but it’s not disease, it’s a small city’s worth of homelessness, of suffering, of tragedy. When cities are raised and people are left below and ignored, we must do our best as a whole to raise them up with it.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

– Isaiah 58:6-8 (NRSV)