I was on the treadmill at Fitness Formula Club on Lake Street, watching the street below and marveling at the surprising success of a panhandler in front of Five Guys. At one point, there was actually a woman waiting for another person to move along so she could give her money to the guy. One person, I kid you not, actually brought the man a bag of something from Five Guys, which he eats on the street (I think maybe he’s not welcome in the place; peanuts are maybe free only for paying customers).

Panhandlers are now a regular feature in Oak Park, and sometimes I give them money, sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I give – and get – more.

A few years ago, I was at Blockbuster on Harlem, dropping off a few movies. As I parked the car, I noticed a guy approaching. I try to ignore him.

GUY: You have any spare change?

ME (hurrying): Sorry, bro.

GUY (angry): Thanks for nothing.

Now, I was angry. I drop off the videos, quickly, and walk back outside, aggressively.

ME: So, what…you think I owe you something?

GUY: All I asked you for was change.

ME: And you give me this …? (we pause, not knowing exactly what we’re both angry about, so I say) Hey, you want dinner?

GUY: Sure.

We go to Long John’s Silver, but it’s closed. He (his name, I find out, is Pops or Lester – he seems to prefer Pops), suggests Wendy’s – which is a walk, but it gives us a chance to talk. He’s 61, and sells Street Wise. He makes better than $100 a day, mostly on tips from people coming out of Starbuck’s (POPS: “People spend six dollars on coffee, and all I want is one, they figure, what the hell? And they usually give me two or three dollars and don’t take a paper”).

At Wendy’s, I’m interested in what Pops will order. He goes with a Cheeseburger with Bacon and a Double Stack (getting these two menu items separately is a better deal than a Triple Stack, Pops points out, and it’s true), fries and a Frosty. I get a Double Stack; it’s abysmal, but I’m not that hungry. Over dinner, we talk.

POPS: I been in the penitentiary five, no six times since 1998. Last time, it was total b.s. I was in alley, and this cop stopped me, said I had coke on me. The color of the bag he said I had didn’t even match the ones the dealer he also busted had.

We talked about Jeff Fort and the GD (Gangster Disciples), which Pops said was a gang he joined when he was very young. That affiliation, he sagely observed, helped him avoid being raped while he was doing time. We talk about his kids living in Atlanta, and how some punks ripped him off earlier today.

And so it goes.

As we walk back to the parking lot, Pops comments aloud concerning the derriere of every woman who walks by. They seem appreciative, which I find surprising. No offense taken. They make eye contact. A few smile. I didn’t know this could happen.

At my car, we shake hands, firmly.

POPS: See you at Starbucks!

So, that was a cold wash of reality, and it cost me only $10 (I bought “dinner” and gave Pops the few bucks change).

Driving home, I detect the distinct smell of Mennen coming off my right hand. It is not unpleasant.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...

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