“Oh my God, is that an eight-year-old playing pool in that bar?”
I crane my neck to look through the rear window to where J is pointing. I don’t see anything, and say as much.
“S, did you see that?” J asks. S, who is driving shrugs and quips,
“I’d hold off on calling the cops till you see them forcefully injecting him with heroin.”
“I wonder what it’s like to be addicted to heroin?” I ask no one in particular. S’s crucifix swings wildly from the rearview mirror as he makes a sharp turn on Roosevelt.
“I bet there are several dozen folks in our neighborhood who could tell you that,” says J, rolling down the window and lighting a cigarette.
“J, didn’t you give those up for Lent? And if you didn’t, could you give them up for the portion of Lent that you’re in my car for?” S says from the front. J grins and pitches the cigarette out the window.
“I don’t know anything about any heroin addicts, but I know this one lady who’s almost certainly on meth,” J says. “She stands outside my building and panhandles. She tells people she’s five months pregnant and that she needs bus money to get to the battered women’s shelter in…it’s either in Woodlawn or South Shore. Anyway, if you don’t give her money, or if you have the audacity to give her food, she throws a gigantic fit. Every time I see her, she’s yelling at people. Or yelling at cars. Or at bikes. Anything that’s mobile, really.”
“How do you know she’s on meth?” S asks.
“You can just tell. Her teeth are falling out of her head, and she has scabs on her face. I know where all that ‘bus money’ is going. And she’s been five months pregnant since last year. Honestly. Just tell me what you really want the money for, and maybe I’ll oblige. Heads up, there’s the on-ramp.” S turns sharply once more, sending the Son of God into another frenzied dance.
“I saw this guy on a street corner back home, once,” I said, “who was panhandling with a cardboard sign. I was expecting it to say something like, ‘Homeless veteran, anything helps, God bless,’ but instead it said, ‘I’m not gonna lie, I need a beer.’ It was so funny that I gave him a quarter.”
“Yeah, I bet they make more in an hour than I do,” S grumbles.
“Maybe, but I still feel bad for them and want to help. Last week, I was picking up some food and this lady comes out of the shadows asking me to buy her something to eat. I offer her half of what I had just purchased, and she said she couldn’t handle Asian food. I had a few minutes, so I offered to get her something from somewhere else. The somewhere else she wanted food from ended up being closed, so we kept walking down the street, looking into restaurants, hoping they’d be open. Eventually she settled on this Thai place.”
“I thought she couldn’t handle Asian?”
“I know, I know, but at that point, I was a block and half away from my car and in my pajamas, so I was like, whatever. So she settles on this Thai place, we go in, and she tries to order some soup. They guy’s all, ‘We’re out of that.’ So she asks for something else. ‘We’re out of that, too.’ When she’s distracted by something, he turns to me and pantomimes for me to basically GTFO. She sees him and starts a big fuss about how he won’t serve her, and he’s telling me that she’s going to try to steal my credit card, and I’m sitting there wondering why I decided to leave the house.”
“Well, that was really generous of you to try to help her out like that,” J says. I blush, thankful for the darkness of the car. “So what happened?”
“Eh, eventually he says he’ll serve her, and she orders some fried rice, but to make sure I suffer, the guy makes me stay while they make it. Meanwhile, I don’t have my phone, and my friend’s in the car freaking out. But she and I had a nice conversation. She just seemed like she was down on her luck. I don’t think she’d been on the street for more than a year. I’ve had a little experience in homeless relief, and I like to think I can tell.”
“So she wasn’t nuts?” asks S. He is going at least 15 over, but I’m too tired to care about traffic laws. Other cars are still zipping by us.
“No,” I say. “Probably a little bit of an alcoholic who found herself out of work. Not nuts, though.”
“Have you guys met Snake?” J asks suddenly.
“Who?” asks S.
“Snake! Come on, Snake! You probably couldn’t have a nice conversation with Snake.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Snake’s a millenarian psychopath, so he’s always sitting around muttering about the end of the world. He also takes it upon himself to cast the demons out of those who pass him, and then goes on diatribes about how Christ will return and punish all the gays, or something.”
“Naturally,” I say.
“I call him Snake because one day, when I was walking by his favorite haunt, there was this lady with her little chihuahua waiting at a crosswalk and Snake starts staring really intensely at this dog, as if he can see something no one else can about this dog. The dog stares right back, probably wondering if he was going to get eaten that day. Then Snake goes like this.” J holds up his hand, his thumb touching his ring and middle fingers, then he shoots his hand quickly towards my face. I gasp in fright.
“SNAKE!” shouts J, yanking his back just as suddenly as he had put it out. “That’s what he did to this dog. He did it just once, and he did it really fast, and I swear to God, the dog pees and then runs behind its owner.” J is doubled over in his seat laughing. S is chuckling and shaking his head in the front.
“Wow,” I say, smiling. “I kind of want to meet this guy, now.”
“Don’t worry,” says J in a creepy voice. “Snake will find you.”
We laugh as we pull up to a stoplight under the Metra. I glance to my left and see a man rolling out a sleeping bag below an overhang, several bulging plastic bags scattered around his feet. His shoes are dirty and falling apart and he is moving with the assistance of a battered metal cane. I look at S’s crucifix and pray that it stays warm tonight.