Saturday, October 23, 2010

The thin red line

I’ve lived in Evanston for more than 5 years. During that time, I’ve met a lot of interesting and colorful characters.

When the White Hen Pantry used to be located on Main Street, just east of Chicago Avenue, I frequently ran into a gregarious African-American gentlemen who was selling copies of “StreetWise“ from his chair right outside the front door.

A few years ago, the building that housed the White Hen Pantry was torn down to make room for a new commercial/residential development that never materialized due to the current state of the housing market, but the StreetWise vendor still mans his post, day in and day out.

He works from noon until 4 on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and noon until 7 on Thursday. He spends most of his day on Sunday in church, and he takes computer classes on Monday and Tuesday at the Jane Addams School.

From time to time, I would buy a paper from him, and his greeting was invariably the same, “how are you today, young man?”, even though I’m a few years older than he is.

His name if John, and he’s been selling StreetWise in Evanston for 8 years. Although he once lived in Evanston, for about five years, he currently resides in Rogers Park.

His amiable face is trimmed with a carefully groomed white beard. Due to his stocky build, and his friendly disposition, it’s not hard to imagine him serving as a Santa at a suburban shopping mall somewhere.

Although he has lived in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, his melodic voice still contains a bit of his native Alabama. He was born in Huntsville, which meant that he grew up in a place that was the epicenter of the space race in the 1960’s.

He first came to the Chicago area in 1967 as a result of the Job Corps, and for a time, he attended culinary school. Like many young folks, he never achieved his dream of becoming a famous chef, and he worked a variety of jobs over the years.

The last time that he held a “traditional” job was 10 years ago, when he worked for a moving company. In his spare time, he also worked evenings at The Good News church, feeding the hungry and the homeless.

Throughout his life, John has been plagued with poor health.

During the height of the Vietnam War, he was declared unfit for the draft, which may have been a blessing for his parents. He had a heart attack in 2004, and a stroke on January 2 of 2010.

Even though more than 60% of Evanston residents have a college degree or advanced degree, and 92% ot its resident would be considered “white collar” workers, the unemployment and foreclosures that have decimated other parts of our country have also taken their toll in Evanston.

The truth is that there’s a very thin line between the life that John lives, and our own, and it’s ironic that his station is directly across the street from a Starbucks Coffee House.

Michael Gates Gill was a high flying six figure income advertising executive - until he was abruptly fired. He ultimately wound up working as a barrista at a local Starbucks for $10 an hour, an experience that he claims saved his life. If you’d like to read more about him, take a look at his book, which is titled “How Starbucks saved my life”.

The next time you stop in at the Starbucks on Main Street for your $4 cup of grande latte, save a couple of bucks for John across the street.

Your contribution will do more good than you can possibly imagine.

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