The hooded giant passing through the plywood enclosure stalks a man and a woman. His urgent speech sounds indistinct from where I walk, a dozen steps behind him on West Randolph Street. The couple never stops, but, sensing my approach, the sweatshirt-hooded man does. Built for speed, six-foot-eight, smooth-faced, in his 20s, he has a foot on me easy. The giant convulsively nods and shakes; the gray warm-ups he wears are no match for the shredding wind and the single-digit wind chill.
"C'mon, somebody," he moans, pathetic and aggressive when I reach him in the narrow passage. "I'm begging you and I don't beg." The statement is followed by a loud musical sigh that slows and finally halts me just outside the makeshift walkway. "Damn, it's cold," he exclaims. The guy positions himself a foot away. His looming stance gives a view of bloodshot eyes.
"I've got to be on that airport bus by four"--he points to the Bismarck Hotel across the street--"and my money's gone, man."
He plays semipro basketball with a league in Italy, he explains. He's in town shooting a TV commercial for athletic shoes. The hooker he brought to his hotel room last night split unseen with his wallet, he relates. His delivery has changed from threatening to literal, like the narrator of a documentary who takes your attention for granted. Tony B. is his name, and he needs a loan.
I ask the first dumb thing that comes to mind: "You know Horace Grant?"
"My man!" comes the bouncy return. Passersby start to notice our odd couple.
He gets back to his situation. His agent has left him a ticket at O'Hare for the flight home to LA. The airport bus arrives in 45 minutes.
"I ain't asking for something where I won't pay it back, understand." Tony B.'s words cloud the cold air.
I pass him a pen and a piece of paper at his request. Tony B. scribbles his full name, Los Angeles phone number, and address. The numbers and letters look squiggly and ambiguous. He asks for my business card and I hand one over.
"You get paid, hear, soon as I make LA."
I try to backtrack, asking if he has tried a victim assistance program. I'm short on specifics. Does it cover situations like this, I wonder, where a guy has picked up a prostitute? Any cop should know, I tell Tony B. I sense him winning the longer we talk together in the arctic chill, but I can't tear myself away. His story might not be true; his act is. Is either worth the freight that he will ask?
Tony B. knows all about victim assistance and has ruled it out. The authorities will need to verify his identity--no wallet, remember--by calling his mother in LA. She's a nurse and won't be home when they call. Poof. I grasp that he has thought this through, maybe even in the last half minute.
Running in place, Tony B. improvises a sort of workout dance, back to the wind, arms crossed over abdomen. I'm more warmly dressed but nervous too, overdue at my job steps away.
When I fumble in my pocket for a loose dollar bill and wave it toward him, his cry of indignation has heads nearby turning and me wincing. Talking loudly again, in a belligerent tone, Tony B. makes it clear time is running out; if I don't help him all the way he will be stranded.
"I can't be going around everyplace," he protests, "I got somebody holding my plane ticket."
Holding firm, I insist the police and the hotel staff should be looking out for his interest. What's a concierge for? Tony B. responds that hotel people referred him to the police better than an hour ago. I would like a word with the officer, I put in, really getting in deep now. The cop left the hotel, Tony B. volunteers, but he can take me to him.
Tony B. leads me down Wells Street, battling a determined wind. By the time we reach Wacker Drive the cop Tony B. had complained to is gone. He was standing right there, directing traffic, Tony B. whines. We stand shivering on the corner. Tony B., moaning anew, pogos violently, blasting his breath into the cold.
"Oh man, can't you tell now I ain't lyin'," he howls, "or why are we standing out here?"
I fish my wallet out. Tony B. brightens. My numb fingers count $12; I'm relieved there are singles instead of a five spot. He keeps his distance while I handle the wallet; we never break eye contact.
"Thanks, man, you won't regret it: you saved my life," he swears as a hand closes on the cash.
We double back to where we first met, shaking hands when we get there. I run up to my office and don't even look when Tony B. crosses the street in the direction of the hotel. The airport bus will or will not appear in 15 minutes.
Several weeks later, I see the widow of bluesman Howlin' Wolf give a public interview downtown. She was suspicious of Wolf 's motives when he first courted her, she confides, because maybe "he just whittle me and let me lay." Just hearing that figure of speech reminds me: (1) Tony B. has not kept in touch; (2) CTA rapid transit trains run to O'Hare; and (3) a part of "Smokestack Lightning" goes, "Woo hoo, let a poor boy ride / Can't you hear me crying?"