Eastward Ho: 30 Minutes in Chicago

I recently drove across the country to reach my summer camp location on the east coast. What follows is one of several real-life wandering stories from my incredible “Eastward Ho” adventure.

I’d thought about just passing by. It was already dark and getting kinda late. I had 500 miles to travel the next day and any extra miles I could tack onto tonight would make my tomorrow all the easier.

But this was Chicago. I couldn’t just zip into Indiana without saying hello to Chi-Town.

So I punched Millennium Park into my GPS and exited the interstate. Entered the illuminated skyline rather than simply admire it from afar. Became one with the city that changed my life three years ago — but that’s a post for another time.

I parked on the street and grabbed my nickel pouch. I have too many nickels. Where do all these nickels come from? Nickel is the new penny.

I approached the parking meter and figured 30 minutes would be enough time. Enough to walk around the park, snap a picture of “the bean,” and return to my car so I could continue eastward. Figured since I didn’t have much time for Chicago, I would at least do something Chicagoey for 30 minutes.

What I didn’t anticipate happening during those 30 minutes were the conversations with two total strangers.

I’d slid several nickels into the meter and heard “Joe” cackle something to my right, shaking his paper cup of change with a giant smile on his face.

Maybe I should have been unnerved. Scared. After all, I’m the introverted guy traveling the country by himself and now alone in the heart of Chicago at night. Surely my first instinct would be to turn from this homeless guy and get me hence to that bean.

Instead, I faced Joe and asked if he could use some change. I picked through my nickel pouch for some more substantial quarters.

“I’ll take anything you’ve got,” Joe said. “Quarters, nickels, dimes, it don’t matter.”

I’d never done this sort of thing in my life. I’d never been explicitly told, DON’T GIVE MONEY TO HOMELESS PEOPLE. Had more subtly understood, JUST KEEP TO YOURSELF WHEN IN THE CITY.

But something about Joe beckoned me to slip some quarters into his tall McDonald’s cup and break my long engrained city-rules.

Or maybe I was just tired of the constant excuses my introversion gives me in such situations with strangers.

I’d entered Chicago intending to walk briefly around Millennium Park with my obnoxious video-camera, since that’s what I do. Instead, I spent most of my metered minutes simply talking with Joe and “Cody,” the latter of whom was sitting to the side.

I learned that Joe had been homeless for 8 years. Learned about his family. That he and Cody had called Chicago their home for a combined 80 years.

I mentioned how I was currently driving around the country, and Joe thought that was the coolest thing. Cody said he had wandered about the USA himself many times, but that he’d always come back. Back to Chicago.

“New York has nothing on Chicago’s skyline,” he said.

I sincerely agreed. New York is too flashy.

Throughout the conversation, I kept looking at my watch. Not because I was impatient and wanted the conversation to end, but because of just the opposite and wanted time to stand still for at least another hour or two.

Eventually I asked these two gentlemen if they knew the way to the bean. Cody immediately leapt from his seat and volunteered to be my tour guide.

Along the way I asked if that really tall building over there was Sears Tower.

He eyed me as if I were joking. “You’ll see it when we round the corner,” he said, picking up the pace.

So we rounded the corner, and I asked if that slightly taller building was Sears Tower.

“No, it’s right there, through the trees!” He pointed, and after tilting my head I finally correctly identified Chicago’s tallest building. Only took me three tries. Then I reacquainted myself with THE BEAN. Chicago’s gorgeous at night.

Chicago at night

On our walk back to my car, Cody and I talked about the Cubs and how this city will go nuts when they actually win the World Series someday. How I’d love to be there for that celebration.

At one point, either Joe or Cody mentioned how they’d mentioned not eaten in a couple days. So I gave them some snacks from my car. How is it possible that people in this world, in this age, could go multiple days without eating? Why did no one else stop to talk with these two wonderful guys in these 30 minutes?

Why have I always walked past the Joes and Codys of this world without even a fleeting desire to acknowledge them? Forget handing out spare change or spare Austin crackers — what about simple love?

Last summer, YouthWorks forced me to interact with countless homeless and needy folks. But nobody forced me to talk with Joe and Cody in Chicago. Something inside me naturally gravitated toward them. And truthfully, after 30 minutes, it was tough to say goodbye.

Before I left, Cody asked about my blog. I told him what I blog about, that maybe I’d even blog about him someday. Wouldn’t that be something?

I hope Cody can read this post via his 15-year-old IBM dinosaur laptop. That would be awesome.

If either of you happen to read this post, know that you both had a profound impact on my life that night. I hope the spare change, cheese crackers, and conversation benefited yours too. Still thinking of you all these weeks later, praying y’all are well.

Something special went down in Chicago that night. Something life-altering.

And to think, I almost decided to pass right by Chicago.