He was older, with a dusty blue ball cap over sagging slacks and shirt. It wasn’t the dirtiest outfit in the world, just a little ragged about the edges.
The only clue he was homeless was the salvaged chair cushion he was stuffing into the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
The cushion was light tan and small, a new and beloved find for the man. He had shuffled along the lower level walking path of the bridge clutching it to his chest.
And now he was tucking it into the bridge girder running parallel to the handrail, hiding his find under the thin crisscrossed Xs of metal designed to keep people from doing exactly what he was doing.
It was the point where evening becomes night, purple skies turning black. The man secreted his package while standing in a cone of yellow light from the bridge’s upper level.
He poked and prodded it, made sure it wasn’t in danger of tumbling into the water below or being spotted by a walker, biker, tourist or other street person above.
When he was satisfied, he gave the air a sniff and an almost invisible nod, then kept shuffling south on the bridge walkway.
I crept out of my hiding place.
I had pulled my bike over by the metal stairwell that takes people up down up down to Michigan, Lower Michigan or the river path, depending on how far they want to go. Once I was sure the man was gone, I snuck out of my hole and skittered over to the girder to peer in.
The cushion sat on top of a pile of goods. Two milk crates. Something wrapped in black garbage bag plastic. I took a photo with my cell phone.
“Now the underside of the bridge is icky, so don’t reach up and touch it,” an amplified voice came from behind and beneath.
It was one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation cruises on Mercury, one of their endless stream of boats called Chicago’s Something Lady.
“This type of bridge is called trunnion bascule,” the voice said.
The tour guide talked about what bascule means, about balanced seesaws and uneven arms. He talked about bridge houses and mechanisms, falling weights and rising roadways. His lecture grew dim as the boat slipped beneath and away.
I was alone with the homeless man’s possessions.
You want stats on homelessness in Chicago? Google them. You want stories of their lives and how they got to where they are today? I don’t have that tonight.
You want to know anything about this man who shuffled off into a purple-black night under the bright, chafing yellow of Lower Michigan Avenue?
I don’t have that either.
The story just ends here, another invisible human in the Chicago night.
A man hiding all he owns in trunnion bascule.