The man on the train

The L train in downtown Chicago approaching Van Buren Street in the Loop. Photo by pikappa51/Shutterstock.


A litany of children sticky with candy cane juice jammed the aisle of the Chicago Transit Authority holiday train, grasping for an early glimpse of Santa. Our entire suburban neighborhood, including my husband Sean and our two kids, seemed to be there, with a few CTA employees strewn about dressed as elves, jingle bells dripping from their red and green felt caps.

Among this homogenous lot of commuter train passengers, one man was an obvious anomaly.

He looked lost. He looked homeless, his body branded with the marks of the myriad health challenges a lack of stable housing implies. He was alone, sitting adjacent to my husband Sean and our 4-year-old son Henry, so close their elbows touched.

Sitting across from them, I noticed how the man’s bare ankles ballooned from the mouth of his worn boat shoes. The fingers on his hands swelled like bratwursts, and scar-tissue tributaries ran up his wrists. Skin cells flaked like snow from his face, and his lips moved as he mumbled faintly. His gray-blue eyes shone from his ragged old body, flitting like minnows over the throng coursing through the car. His presence broke the mold the rest of us had unconsciously formed of our night — and, more broadly, of our community and lives: We had so very much and had failed to notice this person in the center of our midst, who clearly had so very little.

The man tilted his head toward Sean and Henry and mumbled something.

“No,” I heard Sean say. “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything.”

Sean and I didn’t typically carry cash and rarely handed out money to beggars. It felt pointless to give a few bucks to someone when such a pittance wouldn’t make a dent in deeper problems like homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. Still, I was conscious that our son was watching us and I felt uncomfortable that Sean had turned down the man’s request.

We were close to home with only one more stop on our short eastbound jaunt. We didn’t have a lot of time. Sean looked at me and noticed my eyes bulging for his attention. I pulled out my phone and gestured to him to do the same.

“Do you have any money?” I texted.

“Yes,” he texted back.

“I think we should give some to him.”


He put his phone away and pulled out his wallet. He took out a few dollars and handed it to the man, who nodded, his glassy eyes continuing to skim the scene. At the next stop, as I walked past him on my way off the train, the scents of urine, hooch, and body odor rose from where he sat. With our kids in tow, Sean and I started walking home, and the train left.

As we got ready for bed that night, we mentioned the man on the train to our kids: that some people don’t have a home and it’s important that we help them. The moral of our story was a blur for 2-year-old Magnolia. Henry, though, watched and listened to us.

Several months later, Henry was helping me cook dinner. An impromptu wave of gratitude filled me as I filled a pot with water and set it on the stove, then went to the fridge for some veggies to dice.

“You know how lucky we are, Henry? We have water in the faucet and a stove to cook on and food to cook. Not everyone has those things.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, I do,” he said. “We have lots of coins.”

“We do,” I said, surprised by his perceptiveness. “So we have to share what we have, right?”

“I know that, Mommy.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. Not everyone has a home,” he said. “Like the man on the train.”

“The train?” I asked, having forgotten about the man on the holiday train.

“Yeah,” he said. “I was there next to him. Daddy gave money to that man. He didn’t have any home. We have to share our coins like daddy did.”

That evening, after the kids were in bed, I told Sean that Henry had remembered him handing a few dollars to that man.

“His eyes were blue,” Sean said.

I pictured his clear eyes sweeping the L train for something to focus on, and was grateful for what he’d given our family in inviting us to give him a few measly bucks.

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