The old man kicked an empty pop bottle between two of the slim bars that made up the wrought iron fence.
“Two points!” he called, throwing his arms up in the air and turning to me. “From the blue line!”
“Nice!” I called back, as non-committal as I could make it sound.
Encouraged, the man walked up next to me at the bus stop at Ashland and Madison.
The section of the Near West Side by Union Park is an area in transition, as they say. It’s public housing next to glitz union offices, vacant lots next to the first peekings of new restaurants. It’s an area still trying to decide if they’ll let the muggers or the condo association take your money.
“Can you see it?” the old man said, leaning out into the street to look for the No. 9 bus. “I think I see it, coming over the bridge, but it might be truck running lights.”
The old man wore a ratty, stained blue hoodie with the hood pulled over a Bears baseball cap. He had thick, new glasses in frames that would be hipster stylish if that’s what he had been going for.
His bearded face had that desiccated Santa look old white men get if no one’s there to care for them. He spoke, smiled, joked and laughed through a toothless gap that ran between his canines.
I liked him a lot. He was kind and entertaining. And completely enjoying having an audience.
“That’s why I live over there with the nuts,” he said, finishing a story I hadn’t noticed him starting.
He gestured at a high rise I would later find out was called the Patrick Sullivan Apartments.
“The nuts and the old people. I’m the token white boy,” he said. “It’s for old people but they ran out of old people, so they let in anyone who’s 55 or older. HUD gives you a good deal. You never pay more than 30 percent. I don’t tell people how much I pay for rent because people get mad at me.”
His blue eyes matched mine for a moment and he smiled between the gap in his teeth.
“I decided to go to mass,” he said, launching into a story that started as how residents have to reserve an elevator in the building but the more he talked I realized had become about the previous bus being too crowded.
“So I step back, back, back,” the story about the elevator or bus repeated several times.
The rest is bits and blurs, a whirlwind of talk from the smiling, blue-eyed man with the gap where teeth should be. Cars, joggers, walkers, bikes all went by as the man kept talking.
“On the weekends they go to the hospital and run them right up and you see it and it’s a 126, but you can’t see that so you’re like ‘All right, all right’ and then it goes by,” he said at one point.
“I couldn’t decide whether to go to praise Jesus or to go to the park and annoy the shit out of my friends there,” he said at another. “If I get the one bus, I go to this church. If I get this other one, I go to that church. If I get on this third bus, I go to that church. Or the park. Talk to my friends.”
“Which one did you go to?” I asked.
“I went up to Chicago. They have a park district facility there with a track that goes ‘round,” he said, drawing a horizontal loop in the air with his hand.
“Chicago?” I asked.
“Chicago and Lake Shore Drive,” he said.
“Ah. I thought you meant Chicago and Ashland.”
“No, no, no. Chicago and Lake Shore. They have a park up there and I go up and annoy my friends.”
He smiled and looked around at the scene, at the vacant lots by union offices and the area deciding if it wanted to be heaven or hell.
“They interrupt me,” he said. “Not like you. And when they interrupt me, I’m so old I can’t remember what the fuck I was talking about.”
The bus arrived.
Read about other people met on the street:
- A drunk
- A unicycle salesman
- A kind man
- A man in a hat
- A musician
- An artist
- The Great Chicago Friar
- A tightrope walker
- A bather
- A penile protester
- A cyclist with a prosthetic leg