His puffy, smiling face hadn’t seen a razor in days, thick white whiskers hovering between heavy stubble and thin beard.
His workman’s fingers clutched a CTA card.
He wore a black windbreaker and black basketball pants, the uniform of a slightly cold old man who doesn’t care about impressing anyone. On his head was a navy blue flat-brimmed cabby cap, the twin of the gray one I wore.
He had innocent blue smiling eyes.
We waited for the bus at a stop with no shelter, just a bench advertising a tattoo parlor. I left to throw away my empty cup of coffee. When I returned he said he had seen the bus coming.
“It’s a good deal, those CTA jobs,” he said. “$29 an hour”
“$29 an hour?” I said. “Nice. But you have to, like, know someone, right?”
“Yeah, I think so,” pause. “I think it helps if you’re a minority.”
Here we go.
In Chicago, Illinois, the major activities for white people are drinking beer, strolling aimlessly and casual racism.
From the old-timers’ “blacks are like this, whites are like this” to the youngsters’ proud not-racism that insists Seth McFarlane-style that the racist jokes that would make a klansman blanch whiter are OK now, Chicago still has major racial issues.
And for some reason, old white men look at me a lot and decide I’m the guy to tell their racial theories to, including this man’s thoughts on affirmative action and the civil rights movement keeping protests going too far.
“White people are more like ‘Whoa, I don’t want any trouble.’ Black people are like ‘GAH!’” he said, jabbing a demanding finger in my face. “‘Give me that!’ And it’s working.”
He shook his head and gave a loud exhale.
“They talk about the meek inheriting the earth, but that ain’t happening,” he said. “I mean look at the violence. On the South Side, it’s a war zone. And the good people there, they’re caught in the whaddyacallit. They can’t afford to get out of there.”
I told him a story about Big Charles, an old friend of mine who lives in Englewood. Family guy, two jobs, big fella who played a couple seasons with the Colts, I think it was.
The man at the bus stop with me nodded along with every step.
“Yeah, you get a guy like that who works and has a family and he comes back Friday night and it’s like ‘Stick ‘em up!’” he said, miming a finger gun. “Because they know he got paid.”
I had to nod. Charles says it’s dangerous. He won’t even let his white friends drop him off after work because “You’ve got no reason to be there.”
The old man and I stood by the tattoo parlor bench outside the Whole Foods waiting for the bus to come by.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said.
I’ll never understand race in this city, how each different group seems comfortable with identifying the other’s whole but not its parts. I’ll never understand how this man could shift seamlessly from calling black people inherently violent to worrying about the good people caught in the whaddyacallit, ignoring that they’re black too.
It made sense to him to kill time waiting for the bus by telling a stranger his theories on black bus drivers. It made just as much sense to, when the bus finally pulled up, beam brightly at the black bus driver and with a genuine affection and all the love those innocent blue eyes could muster, call out “Beautiful day!”
“Yes it is,” the driver said, beaming back.