When I was a medical intern at Cincinnati General Hospital many eras ago, I was working one night in the ER. A very young woman came in, clearly high. “What is your problem?” I asked. She replied, in a slurred voice, “That’s life in the big city. When you snooze, you lose. I rest my case.”
Pause. I asked again, “But what brings you here to the hospital?” She replied, “That’s life in the big city. When you snooze you lose. I rest my case.”
Fast forward a half-century, to an entirely different setting. I am walking my dog one early evening in Oak Park. Approaching me is a late-middle-aged, African American man. I nod, say, “Hi, how ya doin’?” and move past him. He does the same, then stops and says: “Sir!” I stop. He says, “Thank you. ” I look at him quizzically.
“In what you just said and the way you said it,” he continued. “You treated me with respect. I don’t mean to offend you, but I’m not used to that. I’m not used to being treated respectfully by people like yourself.”
I stood silently. I didn’t know what to say. He continued. “Can I talk to you a minute? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude. To be honest with you, I just got out of Statesville. I was there for 17 years.”
I reflected on this and said, “That’s a long time …”
“Yes sir, it was. And I’m not used to being out to tell you the truth. You just saying hello to me, I have a reaction to that. I don’t expect it.”
The man had tears in his eyes.
“I’m doin’ OK,” he said. “They gave me a set of clothes, I got these shoes on my feet [I glanced at the brand-new sneakers], “and I am a free man.
“I don’t have anybody around here,” he continued. “But I got a grandmother up in Milwaukee. And I need to get up there. If I can get up there, get situated, then I gotta place to start. But I gotta get up there. And the bus fare is $22.50.”
I liked this man. He seemed honest and sincere. I said, “Can I say a few things?” Tears still in his eyes, he nodded.
I said, “When a black man stops a white man on the street and asks if they can talk, just as sure as the sun will come up in the morning, the black man is going to ask the white man for money. It’s just a fact. It’s life in the big city.”
I continued: “So then the white man has to think: Has this man got an honest story? Does he really need the money for what he says? You know what I’m saying?”
The man nodded. “So I’ll tell you. Your story sounds real, and so this is what I’m thinking. Maybe your story is real, and maybe it isn’t. I really can’t tell. So here I am faced with a man asking me for money. You know what? I think you need it. There isn’t any question that I have more than you do, which is mainly why we’re having this conversation at all. But I’m not going to give you $22.50. I’ll give you $5.”
I took out my wallet and gave him five dollars. He looked at me, clearly with mixed feelings, and started to say something along the lines of, “But, but …” I said, “Take it easy,” and walked away — yet one more time, not sure what I was feeling, or what was the right thing to do.