She was a Muslim woman with a pure white head covering. She crouched by the side of Saks Fifth Avenue holding up fast food cup and a cardboard sign.
In weird, blocky writing with a Sharpie, the sign started with a “Salam Aleikam.” It said she lost her job and had three children.
On the Magnificent Mile, that strip of opulence that the stupid and rich confuse for Chicago, it was a day of sunlight rain, where mists and water come at intervals from humid, cloudless skies.
“Can I ask a weird question?” I said to the woman as I dropped 50 cents into her cup. “Where do you go when it rains?”
She looked at the two quarters that joined a few other coins and a dollar bill in her cup. She slowly, ever so slowly, looked up from the cup to me.
“I have a house but I lost my job,” she said so softly I thought for a moment she was just moving her mouth.
She folded up her sign as she talked.
Under an awning outside the Nike store a few blocks south and across the street, a tall thin man with a navy blue sweater hawked “Streetwise! Streetwise! Streetwise!” He had a gold-colored loop earring in his left ear and a distracting, purplish mole on the side of his nose.
I offered him 50 cents but told him to keep the magazine. He thanked me.
“Hey, where do you go when it rains?”
“Pacific Gardens Mission,” he said right away. “Or a hotel if I can afford it.”
I asked him about the mission. He said it’s on Canal.
“Or a hotel,” he said. “That’s why we’re out here. To make enough money for a place to stay.”
Just south of the Disney Store, almost exactly across the street from Saks, with a pure white head covering and a “Salam Aleikam” sign so identical I momentarily think the first one switched sides, another Muslim woman crouched.
This woman kept her fast food cup behind her sign, not shoving it to the world like the first woman. Her sign was written in the same blocky handwriting as the first woman’s. I looked across the street to check. The first woman was still there by Saks.
This woman’s sign said she has four children, not three. It said she needs help, not that she lost her job.
I believe her, but I wonder who made the signs. I wonder how much their cut is.
“Where do you go when it rains?” I said as I slipped 50 cents in this woman’s cup.
Her English wasn’t very good. I had to repeat the question.
“We have an apartment, very small apartment. Very small.”
As she spoke, I saw a mouth full of crude gold fillings. She smiled broadly and with thanks.
“God bless you!” she called after me. “God bless you!”
The last man was sitting on a milk crate outside the Walgreen’s where Shia LaBeouf once went bananas. He was sitting in layers of clothes topped by a Benson & Hedges cigarettes promotional cap. He sat on his milk crate, tap tap tapping an empty bottle of Gatorade. Tap tap tap.
He didn’t ask for money. I thought I might be insulting him when I hold out my last few coins, but he took them and said “Thanks, man.”
“Where do you go when it rains?”
He looked at me confused, tilting his head and slightly raising an eyebrow.
“To my room. On the West Side,” he said slowly.
Now I noticed his eyes look troubled. Now I noticed how much white you could see in those wild, wide eyes. Now I noticed something was very wrong with him. Now I noticed the smell.
“Thanks,” I said, looking back down this street of ritz and tourism.
I headed on home. I had to; it was starting to rain.