Note from 1–49 W Calhoun Pl in Chicago

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Homeless Man (oil & wood)

The old man with long, brown and grey-streaked hair stood outside the train station muttering to the world.

It was three degrees. I could feel it, because I took my gloves off to check the temperature on my iPhone.

I could feel that familiar sting of air with barely a few degrees to it in spite of the bright sunshine overhead.

I could hear his words clearly, as I walked closer to the man.

“I don’t belong here anymore,” he said in a thin tenor to start the verse.

“You don’t know what they’re like, you don’t have a single clue,” he continued.

“I’m actually all right, all right,” he finished, as if practicing the words to a garage-rock song for a Friday-night pop-up show.

He stood directly behind a push cart loaded with a dozen plastic bags of pastel colors all strapped tightly to the cart with bungie cords.

His body was turned away from me as I approached him, but he was swinging back along his arc as the second hand on a clock does after it reaches its apex.

By the time I went past him, trying to make myself small so as not to catch his attention, he was looking straight at my left cheek with his body turned perpendicular to the door I was about to enter.

The words of his refrain hit me straight in the side of the head.

“I don’t want to be here anymore,” he said, sadly.

And his voice trailed off into a distorted croak as the door closed behind me.

Once inside, I walked to the radiator and put my hands on it to warm up. A tall man wearing fashion-torn blue jeans and a leather jacket stood at the ticket counter complaining to the ticket agent.

“He’s out there again,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder at the door behind him.

“Who is out there, sir? the agent asked.

“The guy with long hair who talks to himself,” he replied. “The guy with grey hair and the cart of bags and stuff?”

The ticket agent looked quizzically at the man for a moment.

“Oh, that guy,” she said. “He’s on about once a week.”

“I know, but he’s going off, man,” the guy said. “I think someone must have set him off, he’s being really loud.”

And he was, you could hear him through door, and everyone inside stood around awkwardly acknowledging the difference in the morning from yesterday, when we all did the same thing, except the old man with brown and grey-streaked hair was not there.

I took off my gloves and rubbed my hands together to spread the warmth from the radiator around a little.

Several women walked around to the back of the building instead of entering the front door where the yelling man stood.

One lady sat down and asked nobody in particular, “What’s wrong with that poor guy?”

The guy who was complaining walked past me and answered the lady’s question, “He’s usually pretty quiet, except when someone sets him off. Then I usually ride the slow train if he’s on the express.”

“Poor guy’s had a hard life?” she continued her line of questioning that no one could seem to answer.

No one did answer.

For a moment, I thought about taking the slow train. Just to avoid what could turn out to be a police-assisted stop, if things got out of control.

The electronic voice announced the imminent arrival of the 8:10 express to LaSalle Street station.

The front door opened up, and the old man with the brown and grey-streaked hair walked in and turned to the ticket agent.

“Excuse me,” he said in a measured and  much softer version of his voice. “I’d like a round trip ticket to 35th Street, Bronzeville, please.”

The room was quiet, calculating, perhaps judging, mostly wondering.

We boarded together, and the old man with the long, brown and grey-streaked hair stood on the platform with his push cart and many colored plastic bags and watched us leave.

The problem with the stigma around mental health is really about the stories that we tell ourselves as a society. What is normal? That’s just a story that we tell ourselves. – Matthew Quick



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