Last summer, when we’d only just arrived, I was out exploring our neighborhood one afternoon and realized I needed to buy bread but didn’t have my wallet. I turned back toward home to grab it and on my way a kid — maybe late teens or early twenties — stopped me outside our L station.

He said he needed help.

He talked so fast and looked a little frantic.

He’d said he was homeless. He was sorry to ask but he needed to pick up a prescription but didn’t have the money. He kept apologizing. He didn’t want to bother me but he was desperate.

I felt broadsided and not a little afraid. I was still getting used to the big city and all its daily crime reports and new dangers. That first week I felt my small-town naiveté was tattooed on my forehead just waiting to be exploited.

I made my excuses saying I didn’t have my wallet and might be back out later. Almost automatically I said “Will you still be here?” and this sharp little look crossed his face, exactly like my brother gets when he’s frustrated explaining something to me and said “I’m homeless. Where would I go?” His eyes softened and looked down.

Back in the quiet of my apartment I breathed deep. I felt scared. Scared he’d be there if I went back. Scared he’d seen me turn onto our street and knew where I lived now. Scared he’d been lying to me. Scared I was some stupid hick to be preyed upon.

But I couldn’t help thinking, too, what would it be like if I didn’t have a home to come back to right now?

I replayed the exchange back to myself. He had been tired, but clear-eyed and articulate. Respectful and reasonable.

I ran potential scenarios in my mind. When I ventured back out it felt like a monumental act of bravery. I secretly hoped he wouldn’t be there.

I popped to the shops without incident and a block later found myself lingering on a street corner. It’d taken so much courage to muster up to this phantom encounter. Now what?

As I waited for the light to change I spotted him across the street. From a distance I could see a slight limp and hunchback. He walked painfully slowly. I watched as he asked a handful of people in turn, the same explanation and plead. A woman ignored him completely. And then another guy. A man started shouting and swearing and threatening him and the kid shrank while the people around the pair didn’t even look over. He sat on a bench for a minute, took a deep breath and then got up and asked someone else all over again. A college kid. Didn’t even take out his headphones or look him in the eye, just pulled a quarter out of his pocket and hopped away.

He still hadn’t seen me. I could still walk away.

When my walk sign came I crossed over to him and tried to smile. A funny look crossed his face when he realized he’d been recognized, but then he recognized me too. He almost looked relieved.

In the spurt of the moment I thought we both needed a do over. I gestured to the coffee shop take-out window and said “I don’t have any cash, but it’s hot out. Would you like a drink?”.

His eyes widened, and after a long pause, “Can I really have a Powerade? Are you sure?”

I noticed that his hands were out of scale to the rest of his body; long and crumpled like they belonged to a small giant with arthritis. His spinal deformity was more noticeable up close, too. Curved lines crossed his face like it had been kissed by a knife.

While we waited for the cashier to get the drinks and run my card I asked casual questions, like we were new flatmates or on a first date. What he did. What had happened. What the prescription was for. His story went something like this:

He’d had an apartment but got kicked out when he couldn’t make rent. He tried the shelter downtown but it smelled really bad and the people were mean and sometimes dangerous. He’d taken to sleeping on the trains whenever he could, sometimes people would tap him through on their debit cards. He’d never been kicked off but he saw it happen.

He’d got his GED. He wanted to go to college someday.

He had a type of brittle bone disease which made getting around hard. He was in a hit-and-run the other day. He showed me the huge swelling and infected gash in his leg. He had a prescription for the infection, but he’d already maxed his Medicaid prescription limit on the pain medications and bone density and formation drugs he took each month.

He didn’t have any family anymore. His parents had been Polish immigrants. He was an only child. His father was abusive. (I decided not to ask about the scars.) His mother had gone back to Poland.  I asked if someday he wanted to go there too, if he could. To live with her. All he said was “My mother made her share of mistakes. She left for Poland…” and suddenly tears were in his eyes and he shook his head with shaky breath.

I wish now I had hugged him. Instead I asked how he would get to the drug store where the Rx had been called in. I explained about some of the social services in our area; that my husband was studying social work and there were lots of people in the city to help. He wasn’t entirely alone. That he was doing great, even if this was super hard.

He looked about ready to collapse into sobs.

In the end I gave him $8 — half the prescription cost — and my ride-card which still had a few days travel left so he could get the train the next couple of nights.

I said I hoped he would get what he needed. That he could get where he wanted. That I hoped I wouldn’t see him out like this again, but that if I did, I hoped he would say hi.

He offered me his hand. “My name is Adrian.”

“I’m Sara”. I took his long knobbly hand, gently.

We parted ways.


And that afternoon I decided something.

Maybe he made the whole thing up. Maybe it was an elaborate ruse and he took me for a ride. Maybe I lost $8 and the price of a yellow Powerade.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if he was alone in the world. What if he was sick and abandoned and scared.

If that’s true, $8 isn’t half enough. $8 is a drop in the ocean.

If that’s true, I can only hope talking to someone who respects you as a human being and wants to help, however meagerly, is worth something.

I want to believe that. And I want to keep believing it no matter how big and soulless a city this size can be. Because I won’t let it change me. I won’t allow myself to become skeptical and cruel to save a few bucks, and I won’t turn my back on a kid without hope.

I would rather be taken in than be mean. Yes, I might feel sheepish or stupid or naive from time to time when someone takes advantage of that. I might get into trouble. I might be hoodwinked.

But I would rather be wrong than be afraid. I would rather someone had too much than any went without. Because what if the need is real? Can I really deny a fellow human?

Can I live with the haunting wonder of what if I had helped?


Over the last eight months I’ve thought of Adrian off and on.

When I took a 6am train downtown and all the people leered at the smelly woman sleeping next to me.

When I shoveled the car out from under four feet of snow.

When guys walk up and down the highway ramp with cardboard signs and Starbucks cups full of dimes.

When the forecast hit 30 below zero.

I would worry and wonder at what could have become of a kid like that. It was a hard winter and a rough year for public services.

And then, yesterday, I saw him.

On crutches. With a giant leg brace up to his hip.

We were five lanes of heavy traffic apart. By the time my light changed he was lost in the crowd.

But while I waited I watched the second person I met in Chicago slowly make his way up the busy street, not asking anyone for anything.

4 Responses to “Adrian.”
  1. esqwearsprada says:

    Gave me tears. You are a kind, kind soul, Sarabara.


  2. Nice shot! I need to visit Chicago.


  3. Greg says:

    Really really wonderful post. Keep the light alive.


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