There is a newspaper that is sold on the streets all over Chicago. It’s called Streetwise. Essentially, it was created to assist homeless people. Streetwise vendors are trained and required to carry badges. The idea is that the job is a stepping-stone to other gainful employment. Sometimes vendors are also contributors to the paper. It is literally a “man on the street” operation, and it gives its readers a perspective that is simply unavailable from either of Chicago’s major newspapers.
It’s been years since I was a twenty-something schoolteacher hoofing it around Chicago’s neighborhoods, but as far as I know Streetwise is still doing its thing. I always enjoyed buying a copy from a licensed vendor. It felt like I was contributing to something important, and in return I received a great little paper.
There was one instance when I purchased Streetwise that has become one of my mileposts in life. For various reasons, I often revisit this story. I suppose it was an incident that taught me something important about what I believe to be right and good.
This happened somewhere around fifteen years ago. It was a weekend, and I was walking downtown towards the train that would take me out to the suburbs to family. As I hustled to the train, I stopped to grab a copy of the paper from a Streetwise vendor. I was in a hurry, and probably since it was around the holidays, I gave the man a five and said keep the change.
He had a big grin as he took my money. He didn’t just take the tip and let me run. He got my attention. “Thank you! Listen man, I’ve got a column in this one!” He directed me to turn a few pages, and sure enough there was that same big grin staring back at me alongside a half-page column. I think it was a sports piece, and I seem to remember some stuff about Michael Jordan. Details fade with time. We chatted briefly and I congratulated him. Then I ran off to catch my train.
I read my paper from cover-to-cover on my way out to the suburbs, and I probably read that vender’s column more than once. I remember feeling really good about things.
A family member picked me up at the train station, and we went back to his house to visit. We were sitting at his kitchen table. I can still remember that very clearly. I was relating the whole story to him; how I gave the guy a five and wished him happy holidays; how he had seemed so proud that he was not only a vender, but also a writer; how we stood there and chatted about how he was getting back on his feet; how great the Streetwise concept was; the whole thing.
This family member—a car salesman at the time—listened to my story without saying a word. There was a pause when I finished, and then he sort of snarled, “So, did you tell him to get a real job?”
I know I turned red in the face, and I’m sure I was trembling. I shot back, “Tell him to get a real job? He’s got the same job as you. He’s selling a product. The only difference is that he has invested something of himself in the product!” Immediately, I could see my blow had hit its mark. It certainly didn’t make me feel better.
All these years later I still don’t feel any better about it.
Please visit http://streetwise.org/ if you're interested in Streetwise and its mission to provide people, “a hand up, not a handout.” Either that, or buy a copy from a licensed vendor next time you're in Chicago. It's worth it.
~ Chuck Cheesman, copyright 2012