He sat in the door frame, propped against the wall on some ledge hidden among the two-liter bottles of off-brand citrus soda.
Leaning forward, his hands bracing himself on his knees, he wheezed a bit, his large body still recovering from the effort of opening the door and coming in. His walker rested on the sidewalk outside.
I slid past him to get the six-pack I promised a friend.
The man was large, white and reeked of street life. His walker outside was laden with bags of what I could only assume in the best of times would be considered junk. A hobo’s shopping cart for a man without the ability to push one.
His face was fat and gin blossomy, a bloated W.C. Fields nose with pores deep enough to fall in. He wore layers of long shirts that hung around him and a grimy pair of sweatpants that sagged down below him.
The combined effect looked like robes, a flowing fluttering parody of the Arabian Nights, a genie wishing only for a plastic bottle of cheap vodka at a late-night liquor store.
He pulled himself from his corner by the lemon-lime pops and limped over to the register. He leaned on the counter to brace himself when he got there.
He dickered over the price of vodka while I searched the fridges for a six-pack that, despite my moralizing, would also get consumed by people who didn’t need it.
Cheapest vodka located by the two young guys behind the counter, the man pulled out a fold of singles and started counting the amount. He asked for a plastic bag. The two young guys shot each other a look, wary of which one would break the news to him.
“That will be seven cents,” the young guy closer to the man said.
“What?” the man demanded.
No one had told him about the bag tax.
In an effort to squeeze the populace just a little bit tighter under the guise of environmentalism, the city of Chicago recently ended the ban on plastic bags, replacing it with a seven-cent per-bag tax for either paper or plastic. It went into effect Feb. 1, despite the consternation of journalists, voting groups and the occasional rummy looking for a spot to hide his street booze from the cops.
“What am I going to put it in?” he asked.
The two young guys explained in as few words as possible the tax, the start date, all that info. They pointed at the copy of the ordinance they had laminated to the counter for situations, just like this where someone didn’t believe the late-night liquor store wasn’t the one trying to screw them.
“Who did this?” the man finally demanded.
The young guys looked at each other.
“The mayor, man,” one said.
“Do you got a gun?” the man asked. “And one bullet? I’ll shoot him myself.”
The mood was jokey. Don’t worry Rahm, you’re not in any danger. But it was a dark joke, a bad one. He tossed a quarter on the counter as defiantly as one can get with small change. He shuffled out the door, toward his walker, still fuming and muttering about shooting the mayor of Chicago.
I like the stories that have no beginning or end, just an endless middle that we’re lucky enough to share a slice of. I think of that man right now, holed up in wherever his fold of dollars affords him, liver-deep in cheap vodka, muttering and swearing about one more seven-cent strike against him.
It’s not a pleasant image, but it has the virtue of being real.