My morning grind the other day had me driving through some of Chicago’s most troubled West Side neighborhoods. In case you haven’t heard, Chicago is in the midst of a violent crime wave that (if you believe the press) is pervasive. It was a cold, grey morning with a biting wind throwing icy snow. In these grim surroundings I found myself in the left-turn lane of a busy intersection, waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic.
To my left, on the far side of the street was a young man dressed better than his environment, a book bag over his shoulders. He was showing more sock than he’d like under last spring’s trousers and his jacket wasn’t up to the task. He was trying to get the attention of the driver of a CTA bus that was stopped for another passenger on my side of the street. Between the student and the driver were four lanes of traffic. The driver was careful not to look up. Those who have experience riding the bus in Chicago know that many CTA drivers have a knack for not seeing passengers trying to get their attention–especially in bad weather.
The light changed yellow as the bus pulled away. The young man’s shoulders slumped, and he shook his head as he crossed the street in front of me, huddled and squinting into the wind to see if there was another bus coming behind us. I knew the look. I knew the feeling. Late for school. Again.
As I turned left, he was shivering at the bus stop behind me amid the rubble and blight of what comes to be called our mean streets.
Without thinking it through completely, I finished the left turn, then made a U-turn, then a right turn, and then another U-turn so that I (with some drama) ended up in the curb lane adjacent to his bus stop. I rolled down my window and gestured with my head. “Hop in. I can catch that bus.”
He narrowed his eyes. I could see his mind working. He was suspicious. Really? A middle-aged white guy offering to help a black teenager? In this neighborhood? He hesitated. He looked into the wind for a bus. He considered his alternatives. And then he got in.
He sat with his knees together, his arms hugging his backpack to his lap. He looked straight ahead and said nothing. After an awkward pause he looked away and asked, “Why’d you pick me up?” I told him I knew what it was like to be the guy bus drivers ignored in bad weather. He looked surprised and said, “You ride the bus?” I told him I used to. The Austin bus, north and south. For years. He shook his head and said, “Man, all I know is I’d like to punch that driver.” I laughed and told him through the years there will be hundreds of drivers he’ll want to punch.
We passed his bus and I pulled over. He opened the door and jumped out without another word. I began to pull away, and my door opened. Now it was my turn to be surprised. He leaned in, smiled, thanked me and offered his hand. We shook quickly and he turned and ran onto his bus. In my rear-view mirror I saw him board and shuffle to a seat.
The point of the story?
No, we didn’t solve Chicago’s crime problem. And we didn’t make any major strides in bridging the nation’s racial divide. But for that very brief period of time we were two people with common experience heading in the same direction against the elements.
Sometimes the elements can feel so damned oppressive to all of us. It’s a little better when we travel together.
Paul Jenkins, President and CEO