Random Acts Of Kindness | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Random Acts Of Kindness

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The old man was sitting at a picnic table alongside a fast food stand on North Lincoln Avenue. His head was down, resting on his forearm, like a grade-schooler taking a nap at his desk. There was no shade, no breeze, just the hot noonday sun beating down on his exposed scalp. A plastic basket of food sat in front of him--an uneaten cheeseburger and a mound of fries.

I was at the next table in the shade, licking an ice cream cone--a chocolate-vanilla swirl, soft-serve. Four nurses sat at the table behind me. They wore royal blue uniforms that looked like pajamas, and they ate big meaty sandwiches--Italian beef, gyros, cheeseburgers.

The man breathed steadily. His sunken chest rose and fell inside his clean plaid shirt. Near his elbow a styrofoam cup lay on its side. I almost asked him if he was OK, but worried that he might not want to be bothered. Perhaps he needed the sleep. Maybe he was drunk. The nurses seemed unconcerned. They were discussing the values implicit in The Simpsons.

One said, "I just love it. It's absolutely hysterical."

"Maybe so," said another, "but I don't let my kids watch it."

The man lifted his head and opened his eyes. He appeared shocked, as if he wasn't expecting this bench, this street, this city. As if he wasn't sure where this burger came from, but what the hell, he'd eat it anyway.

One of the nurses said, "I don't think it sets a good example."

Slowly the man lifted the cheeseburger to his mouth and took a bite. His hand descended, just as slowly, until the burger landed back in the basket. He chewed intently, eyes on the traffic.

I thought about asking him if he wanted a drink of water, or even just getting him one. But I worried if this would be invading his privacy. Would it make him feel weak and feeble? And what made me think he needed water anyway? The nurses weren't getting him water; there must be a reason. If he wanted water, he could always ask--unless pride or shyness prevented him. I wondered: when I become old and tired, what will I want?

One nurse said, "You're taking this way too seriously."

Another answered, "Alls I'm saying is it's not family orientated."

The old man said, "Excuse me. Could one of you ladies get me a glass of water?"

The nurses were silent. I jumped to my feet as if someone had pinched me. Inside the little fast food shack I ordered a large styrofoam cup of water with ice. I took a straw from the dispenser. The girl behind the counter asked, "For here or to go?"

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