#233: A Question Mark

October 23rd, 2013

“Pardon me,” he yelled to the rumbling train car. “May I have your attention?”

Oh god. Here we go.

He’s looking for gas money for his car. He’s selling candy for a school basketball team. He’s so totally super deaf and he wants to give you a card giving the basics of American Sign Language and any gift will do, no matter how big or how small.

The man yelled for attention. I looked away with intensity.

This one was a fit white man with buzz cut brown hair. He wore a white T-shirt and what looked to be fireman’s pants with a yellow reflective strip running up the side.

“I’m going to read you some names,” he yelled to the ‘L’ car.

The names he read were of fallen soldiers, killed defending our freedoms in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was going from car to car, walking through those between-car doors mid-trip to collect money for their families.

The man in the buzz cut and bottom half of a fireman’s uniform spoke of their sacrifice in simple, humble, elegant terms. I didn’t write them down because I didn’t yet know his paean was going to be today’s story. I just listened, drawn in by this man’s dedication to such a beautiful, noble cause.

And I didn’t believe one word of it.

Nope, not a word. Not a single line, not the names he called out of fallen soldiers, not when he hollered to the rumbling car “I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, but I sure know what it’s like to lose a (rumble rumble sound that blurred out whatever patriotic euphemism he chose for ‘fellow soldier’).”

I did not believe one single syllable of his chest-heaving, hand-wringing, sackcloth-rending display of bullshit, jingoism and post-9/11 emotional triggers.

I mean, why the hell would a soldier be wearing fireman’s pants? Soldiers have their own pants!

Ah, Chicago, you fickle beast. You hog butcher to the world and trainer of cynics. It’s a cutthroat town on the make and we get trained soon that no one can be trusted unless we know their name, three of their relatives and, depending on how far south you go, their parish.

I smiled, thinking of the telling off this man would soon receive and the cricket-chirp silence that would follow as he slunk shame-faced off the Red Line to cry to the heavens that urban savvy had bested his con yet again.

Yeah, you know where this is going.

One by one, the people around me fished their pockets and handbags for money as he walked through the car. One by one, they pulled out coins and bills and sprinkled them in the milk jug he had cut the top off of and pasted color photos of soldiers on the sides of.

“God bless you!” I heard a woman behind me call.

No, even now I don’t doubt that I was right. I mean, the pants. But that’s not my question mark. My question mark is what I lost by not believing him.

I saved a buck. I got a bit of smug self-congratulation for being a savvy urbanite. And by admitting there’s a chance I could have been wrong about the guy in this sentence right here, I get the double-smug whammy of also looking like a good guy. (And I could donate to Wounded Warriors or something if I actually wanted to be one.)

But I wonder what I lost by not falling in love with what I think are lies. I wonder the good feeling, the kind sense of duty to man and nation I would have felt had I believed what he said and threw in one of the many dollars I had in my wallet.

How much sense of peace and pride would a dollar have bought me?

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You are currently reading #233: A Question Mark by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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