“Thank you for your smile,” the stranger said to me as he stood with a stack of local Chicago publications under his arm.
Like many others on a warm summer Tuesday morning on their way to work, some of us made eye contact with him and politely returned a slight smile, then immediately looked down indicating disinterest in what the man was trying to sell. Admittedly, I did it. He was a stranger, an old man soliciting newspapers, on a downtown Chicago street corner in an area known as “Old Town.”
I grabbed my Iced Tea in Starbucks then went outside to find a good table to write. All of the tables were taken, except for one that appeared to already have a Starbucks coffee cup on it. The old man walked over towards me, “You can take this table, it’s not taken – promise, I’ve been standing here for sometime now, ya’ know?”
As I got ready to focus on writing a distraction occurred– common in any writer’s workplace (so I’ve learned).
A young woman in workout gear walked up to the man, “Hey Sam. This is Zepher, watch him for me, ok?” She handed the leash to him with an chocolate lab puppy on the end of it. “I’ll be back,” she turned away and went inside.
When I should have been focused on writing, I couldn’t help but observe the salesman’s interactions with people passing by – some who knew him well enough to leave their dog with them as they went inside to grab their latte, and others who would ignore him and look down as he tried to engage them with kind words.
Since he was kind enough to offer up the table, I decided to buy his publication – it was only $2. Enthusiastically he said, “It’ll tell you all about the Taste of Chicago coming up this month.”
“Fantastic, I’ve never been.”
“Really? You aren’t from Chicago, huh? Ah, man…it’s a great event around these parts. You should check it out,” he said.
“Nope, born and raised Pittsburgh. Are you from the area?”
“Yep, all my life – Chicago,” Sam replied. I knew his name now only because of the strangers who said good morning to him walking by.
“Whereabouts in Chicago?” I asked.
Being new to the Chicago area and familiar with only a few of the suburbs, I discretely texted my husband, Chris, and asked where that was. Chris texted back, “Pretty rough area – why?” I didn’t respond to the text – Sam had just grabbed the seat next to me under the table umbrella out of the sun. I asked him if he grew up in South Side, and that’s where his story began.
Sam said, “Been in South Side all my life. Ya gotta be on your toes at all times.”
With curiosity written all over my face, I asked why.
“Can’t wear a hoodie in the winter on the streets there…ya’know?”
He laughed, “you gotta be able to see what’s going on around you at all times…the hood would block your side views.”
“And ya definitely can’t wear flip flops in the summer.”
“Why?,” I asked again feeling quite a bit out of touch.
“Ya gotta be able to run at all times – run fast. Flip flops, they’ll slow you down.”
As I listened to Sam describe his neighborhood, I asked if he had children – imagining how hard it would be to raise kids in such a neighborhood.
“Yes, and fortunately they are all grown adults now…26, 24 and 23. My daughter is in her last year of medical school, my son is in the Navy, and my youngest son is in college. I’m so proud of all of them. But my daughter, man she is something special. She battled bone cancer and had to take a time off from school – but she is finishing now. I’m so proud of her – proud of all of my kids. She’s gonna be a doctor y’know. A doctor. Can you believe it?”
I asked, “How did you get them through the teenage years?”
“I told my kids, not to do what I did – waste education – and to stay outta gangs and drugs. I had to talk to the ‘the board’ many times to make sure they stayed away from my kids.”
“It’s the leadership of the gangs – the guys who you don’t want to cross paths with. Grew up in it…I was 11 when I was working and selling drugs for them. Not proud of it, but it was a way of life. It was in my family. It was my family.”
“What changed for you?”
“God. Simply put, I found my faith. And I didn’t want my children to have a father like that or get messed up in it. I had an experience with realizing enough was enough. 11 years ago I joined AA. I’ve been sober ever since from drugs and alcohol. I didn’t want to live that life anymore. I didn’t want my children doing what I did – I didn’t want to be that guy any more. My best friend was murdered – and so many others in my life screwed up or murdered. I was out. I just made the decision. And that was it.”
He went on for a bit about his life of 57 years. Sam said he lived a hard life when he was much younger. He said he had done time in prison twice on possession of drugs – though, when he shared that piece of his life with me, he communicated it as if he were a lucky man – that it was “only” twice and both short terms. That it could have been way worse for him.
Sam explained that he is now a part of an active community group called SWAT – which stands for “Saving with A Testimony”. He and a few additional past gang members talk to the young kids of the South Side about getting out of gang life – getting away from drugs and guns.
“We reach out to the kids standing around on the streets or in church. I also sometimes speak to kids at grammar schools.”
“How often do you get called upon to speak in schools?,” I asked.
“Man, how often are kids getting shot?,” he responded.
“Kids get shot here all of the time. I am in schools about 1-2 times a month – but there are other guys like me – from gang livin on the streets – they also get called on to speak at the schools. Lotta kids getting shot.”
Sam had to head back to his neighborhood when we were wrapping up our conversation. I thanked him for sharing his story and asked if it was ok if I wrote about him. He wasn’t sure why, but graciously agreed.
Sam, if you are reading this, I wanted to write your story because you reminded me how one person can inspire hope and change even in the darkest of places. It’s evident you took your hardships and choices, and turned into change – change for yourself and for your children. Change for the kids living today on the streets of South Side.
We watch gang-related movies and hear about shootings in inner cities from the media, but it isn’t often that you get to hear the real stories of someone who made it out, who raised successful children through it – and who is going back to the streets to help the kids figure a way out of the violent life.
Sadly, only 5 days after meeting Sam on that sunny morning, one of CNN’s headline news stories reported the aftermath of a very bloody 4th of July weekend in the streets of Chicago – with 82 shootings and 16 deaths – most in the South Side of Chicago. Much of the media blaming gun control issues and growing gang and drug related violence.
Sam, your courage to change, spread hope, share your testimony with the kids in your neighborhood and provide them with a realm of possibilities may be just what your city needs right now. If your community hasn’t done so already, they will someday – “thank you for your smile.”