Stereotypes, cynicism, and the transformative power of alternative journalism
2009 © Chris Lyons / lindgrensmith.com
Bar time was 60 minutes old when I pulled into the ramshackle shed my landlord charitably referred to as a garage, a one-stall structure that sat 30 yards behind the house in an unlit alley, just a block from an inner-city parking lot where dealers dealt in the dark. Beat from a busy Saturday-night shift, I climbed out of my compact, compact car and did a full-body search for a cigarette. A split second later I saw him for the first time, standing just a few feet away, an inch from the back bumper, blocking my only way out.
He looked to be in his late teens or early 20s. Dressed in a dirty orange tank top, baggy jean shorts, and unlaced high-tops, he had the shoulders of a gym rat and the pallor of a barfly. If I had seen his shaven head in a prime-time crime drama, I would have laughed at how stereotypical he looked. At that moment, however, I was not amused.
He asked if I needed a light and I said no. He asked if I could spare a smoke and I said yes. And then he launched into his story.
If you’ve ever been solicited on the street, the plot will sound familiar: Down on his luck, he was in Minneapolis looking for work, but his mom was sick and he needed to catch a bus back to Detroit. He’d never done this sort of thing before, and he would be forever grateful for whatever I could spare. If I was willing to part with $40, though, he could be home before sunup.
On the street in the middle of the day, I could have thoughtlessly waved off the request or magnanimously parted with some pocket change. This was different. I feared that I would have to pay, one way or the other. Luckily, I had just stopped at a cash machine and had two crisp twenties in my pocket. I gave them over without hesitation. He said thanks, told me he would not forget the gesture, and walked away.
It turned out to be a solid investment.
Two months later, as summer was turning to fall, my roommate and I were hanging out in our backyard grilling burgers and tossing around a football. A young, bright-eyed guy wearing a brand-new Yankees cap poked his head over the fence and asked how we were doing. We were doing great.
“I’ve been looking all over for you, man,” he said to me, unlatching the gate. I was still trying to place the face when he produced a $50 bill. “With interest,” he said, smiling.
He thanked me again, told me his mom was feeling better, and that it taken him a while to find me because he couldn’t recall exactly where I lived. He did remember being a little uneasy that night, though.
After all, it was dark out, and it’s not as if I lived in the best of neighborhoods.
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