Chicago Portrait no. 26: Being Good

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She was struggling to push a grocery cart with a swiveling, busted wheel. It was a mild November day, and the snow was melting, but that didn’t help her. The snow had come on Friday, too soon according to the ground, and it melted as swiftly as it fell, and ran as water as thick as the flakes had been, then it grew colder, and it froze overnight. Everything was encased in thick cold glass the next day. Probably the old woman had stayed locked inside to avoid falling and breaking her hip, knee, shoulder.

Now it was milder, and the ice was churning again, rivulets on the pavement, and she had gone out to stock up on groceries to last her through the next disaster, but it was too much to push. She turned, a face dark with makeup, and begged at me.

“Honey, honey! Can you help?”

I was on the way up to Loyola, stomping in boots with music blaring in my ears. I was in a hurry for no reason. Already I had cut in front of slow-moving couples, old men smiling over their walkers, and cars lingering into the crosswalk. But for her I stopped.

“Is it stuck?”

She said yes. I took hold of the cart’s handle and eased it over the bump. Chicago sidewalks are treacherous. I have a friend in a heavy, unwieldy electric wheelchair. She lives in Ohio, and could never live here; the paths are too brutal and unrelenting in their caprice. Not every train station has an elevator. Every two blocks she would have to cross to avoid torn-up concrete, slabs of metal intended to smooth the rough edges, but with too steep an incline for her wheels to climb, patches of unmolested ice, and gravel that would eat up her tires. I am sympathetic and can sometimes use enough imagination to empathize, but not often enough.

The woman thanks me. Then she asks me to help her take the groceries to her home. I’m trapped. Social rules are forcing me to do the right thing, and for that I am thankful.

“Keep going,” she says. “All the way up, honey.” She keeps calling me honey.

“Where do you live?” I ask, bent over the handle, trying to tame the swiveling wheel, staggering and bumping into fence.

“All the way up,” she says. “Sheridan and Hollywood.”

The old folk’s apartment complex. Right. Two long blocks up and one east, towards the lake. My lower back is stinging. The cart is overfull with canned goods, bags, luggage, a clutch of wilting sunflowers.

“Okay,” I say.

“You are an angel,” she says as she walks behind me. “Angels are everywhere, honey.”

I don’t know what to say to this. I can say “Oh, it’s nothing,” about me being an angel, but about angels being everywhere? “Yeah,” I stammer. “You just have to know where to look.” A toothless platitude. Oh well.

As we walk, she tells me I am so nice. When the wheels get stuck on a curb or a crack and I slowly work the cart over it, she tells me I am strong. It takes more work to let her say these kind things than it does to actually push the cart. It would be rude to turn her compliments into a self-castigation. I want to say no, I’m not strong, I’m weak, I need to work on my strength, I keep meaning to — that’s not right. That’s rude.

“I will give you so mahh-” she says, then cuts herself off. Halfway through to the word “money”. She starts again. “I will give you some canned food.”

“Oh,” I say. “That’s okay, you don’t have to.”

“No noo,” she corrects. “Everyone must get repaid.”

As we walk, the woman tells me that she saves her money and sends some away to her daughter and grandchildren. She has four grandchildren, and they do not have a mother. Two are in high school and two are in college, back in her country. I ask her which country. She tells me the Philippines.

“Well,” I say, stumbling with the cart around a passer-by, “Hopefully once the college-aged ones graduate they can help out.” I sound so inane.

“Where do you live, honey?”

“Foster and Sheridan, a few blocks south.”

“Where are you going, to work?”

“I’m headed up to Loyola.”

“You are an angel. Are you going to school?” People always assume I am a Loyola student, not a professor.

“Uh, well, I teach Statistics there,” I say. Even when I tell people that I teach at a university, they always ask me if I teach high school students. It’s staggering how often this happens. Even when I say the word “university” they look at me and see a school teacher. Probably one who works with young kids. I am sweeter looking than I can fathom or feel.

“A teacher!” she says. “That is a very honorable profession. A good profession.”

I promise I am not writing some made-up Orientalist crap. She said teaching was honorable. Verbatim. I promise you. She said this many, many times as we made our way up the block. This I also did not know how to respond to.

“Yeah,” I venture. “I like it. I feel good, doing it.” This is the truest thing I’ve told the woman so far.

“I have three sisters,” she says. “All are teachers.”

“Oh yeah? Cool!”

“It is a good profession.”

As we make our way around the corner past Hollywood, I say some bloodless thing about how nasty the intersection is, and how unsafe. She says, “Really?” as if she’s never seen the cars careening into the crosswalks. For now, the street is strangely placid. Totally quiet and still, even though it feeds into a major highway.

“It’s good at this time of day, I guess.”

“Yes.”

I’m slowing down. The bags on the top keep falling over the edge and dangling from the handle where she’s tied them. At once, the old woman reaches out and takes a few into her own arms.

“Let me lighten your burden,” she says. I really like how she talks. Very formal and precise and florid. She’s like a fantasy character. Or someone from the Victorian age.

“What’s your name?”

“Erika.”

“Erika! That is a very pretty name!” It dances in her mouth, slightly more accented than her other words, which sound like those of a native English speaker. She makes my name familiar and newly cherished at once.

I ask the woman for her name, and she says it is Eva. Also a very pretty name, I can honestly say. I tell her it’s the name of my cousin. It’s an Americanization or a replacement for what her family calls her, probably. But she has made a very lovely and classic choice, which comes as no surprise.

We get to the door of her building. Another old Asian woman rolls past us with a similar cart overflowing with food. Eva says something to her but the woman’s face is a bit more pinched, exhausted with her years, and she makes no reply either verbal or nonverbal.

“That’s my sister!” Eva says as the woman goes inside.

“Oh, you live in the same building! That’s so great!” I’m envious for a moment. I would love to grow old in the same independent living facility as my sister. The old problem with Chicago is that my family is not in it. If they lived here, I certainly wouldn’t ever leave. If Berea, Ohio was more like Chicago, I might have never left. Well, probably I would have. I wouldn’t have known better.

“Your building has a really nice courtyard,” I tell Eva. I have passed it hundreds of times, every day on my walk to work. There are many retirement homes, rehabs, and independent living facilities lining Sheridan, hugging the beach. They vary from depressing to ornate. Hers is middle-brow, well-appointed but not snobby. She agrees with my compliment, but in a vague way.

I ask if she needs help up to her room, but she demurs. We park at the door and I say good-bye, but she offers me groceries, and is insistent. I really really do not want her groceries. I say no thank you, it’s nothing, a few times, but I’m not sure what the etiquette is, here, or how many times is rude. Eventually I help her untie the bags from the cage of the cart, and hold onto a thick plastic Jewel sack while she loads it up with tomato paste, mac and cheese, and stew.

“Oh wait,” she says. “This is my favorite, I only bought one.” She pulls a stew can out of the bag I’m holding. “I’m sorry honey.”

“No,” I say. “Please. Of course.”

Then she offers me the sunflowers peeking out of her cart. It feels good to accept those. They’re a token, a feeble gasp of spring. I don’t want to take food from her mouth, but I can accept a beautiful trifle. I like how they look sticking out of my bag. I like their smell, and how they will look in a bottle of water and sugar sitting on my counter.

I walk away with the bag of groceries that I do not want and the flowers that I do and she thanks me, and tells me to visit her. She gives me her room number, and I feel like I should visit. Maybe I will get the courage to. If I do, I’ll bring her flowers. Maybe a nice potted plant from Gethsemane, a few blocks too far for her to walk when it’s cold.

Up the street, closer to my house, there is a United Methodist church that runs a food bank. I always mean to volunteer there, and I have no valid excuse not to. I feel the guilt and the need to give more of myself every time I say no to someone begging on the street, every time I pass someone and mutter, “I’m sorry,” under my breath. I always acknowledge their existence. I always say that I am sorry. I like to think that counts for something, but probably it doesn’t. I owe the world a lot more than that.

I will give the food to the food bank, but that will not absolve my guilt. It’s still a payment I did not deserve, for doing a good deed that was, itself, a gift to me. I will keep the flowers for myself. But perhaps I will find a way to repay that gift as well.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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