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Uninvited Company


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By David Harrell

Around 11 on a cold, drizzly Friday night I pull into the parking lot of the White Castle at 22nd and Wabash. I haven't had a bite to eat all day. After waiting forever to get to the menu board, I put in my order and roll up the window.

From around a corner comes a man in a wheelchair. He rolls up beside my window, shouting something.

I try to ignore him. I turn up my stereo and sing, fiddle with the heating controls, rummage around in my glove compartment. He's still there. I roll the window down.

"How you doin', li'l brotha," he says, offering me the filthiest hand I've ever seen.

I hesitate, then awkwardly give him my left hand.

"Look," he says, "man to man, brotha to brotha. I'm just a homeless man out here on the streets tryin' to survive. Vietnam vet. Just tryin' to stay alive. You know how hard it can be out here for a black man. I'm tryin' to get somethin' to eat. Can you help a brotha out? Whatever you can give--five dollars, two dollars, one dollar."

Five? If he can shame just one person an hour into giving him five bucks--in addition to all the fours, threes, twos, ones, and quarters--he might end up pulling in more per hour than many of his benefactors. I look at him hard, and say, "Some guys out there would just use the money to get more booze or crack or whatever."

"Naw, brotha man. Naw--I'm goin' right in there," he says, nodding toward the White Castle entrance.

I pay for my food and drop the change--75 cents or so--into his palm. "Use it wisely," I warn, realizing too late how patronizing I sound.

"Thank you, brotha. Thank you. I'm goin' right in there to get somethin' to eat." He rolls toward the front of the Castle and disappears around the corner. I can't tell whether he's actually gone inside.

I'm still waiting for my food when another guy steps into my headlights, holding a bulging garbage bag in his right hand. His left hand holds up a video titled, in big yellow print, Bangin' Black Booty. He raises his eyebrows.

I shake my head vigorously.

Looking incredulous, he throws up his hands, then points to the cover, mouthing, "Five dollars."

I shake my head again.

Another bedraggled guy saunters up. I try to ignore him, but he keeps waving at me, trying to say something. I roll down the window halfway.

"Whassup, dawg," he says. "Look, man, my car ran outta gas, and I gotta get back home--all the way to 79th Street. All I need is a dollar. Can you help a brotha? Can you help a brotha out?"

Behind his back is the independent adult-film distributor, smirking. He shakes his head no, then lifts an imaginary bottle to his lips and drains it.

I get the message. "No, I can't help you, man. Sorry."

I'm still sitting there, wondering what they're doing with my dinner, when a woman shuffles up to the passenger door. No--it's a man with a perm and a ponytail. He stoops for a few seconds, then comes around and knocks on my window. He looks half asleep, and a cigarette dangles from his lips. I pretend I don't see him. He knocks again. Finally I open the window a crack.

"Hey, man, you got a tree hangin' out yo' do'," he says, his words slurring. "Open yo' do', man."

There are now three guys standing around my car, and the wheelchair guy's probably lurking around the corner. I'm the only customer in line. "Don't worry about it," I say, waving the guy away.

But he keeps knocking. "I can get it out for you, man. Just open yo' do'."

Finally I open the door ever so slightly, keeping a tight grip on the handle. He stoops again. I hear a swiping sound, and he stands up, proudly holding a tree branch up for me to see.

"That's nice," I say. "Thanks." I shut the door and lock it.

Just then the White Castle guy opens up his window and hands me my food. I grab it and drive straight out of the lot.

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