I dashed across 35th Street and caught the 29 bus pulling out of the stop on its way downtown. The crowded bus had only one seat available, in the rear and on the aisle, and I took it. My meeting at Youth Connection Charter School ended a few minutes earlier, and I needed to do research for a project at the Harold Washington Library. Getting the 29 right away meant that I would be at the library in about fifteen minutes.
In my travels around the city on the bus and el, I always bring a book to read. An “old-fashioned” book, one with paper pages, not one on a Kindle or iPad. Despite my short jaunt to the Harold Washington Library, it was my intention to read a few pages of the book in my satchel, The Master and Margarita, a satirical Russian novel often viewed as a masterful critique of the Stalinist regime.
After pulling out the book, the man sitting next to me by the window seat noticed the title and asked me if I was enjoying it. He was a black man, probably in his early forties, wearing jeans a size too big and an army fatigue jacket with the name “Jones” emblazoned on it by the pocket. The man tightly held an empty Dunkin Donut cup in his hand.
He mentioned to me that he read The Master and Margarita when he was deployed in Kuwait during the first Gulf War and it really hit home. “It was surreal man, just like the sand and the burning oil fields around me at that time,” he said. We made introductions. His name was Henry Jones, and life hadn’t been easy for him after leaving the army.
Henry thought that a veteran would have great opportunities in civilian employment. He went to dozens of job fairs and couldn’t find anything. After a while, he became depressed and hit the booze and dope. Henry found himself in and out of rehab programs, his life going around in circles. He eventually stopped looking for work and nowadays he spent most of his days panhandling outside of the stores downtown. That’s why he was holding the empty Dunkin Donut cup in his hand.
As I got up from my seat to leave the bus, I dropped twenty bucks in Henry’s cup. I couldn’t help but think what a shame it was that such an obviously intelligent man could have come to this hopeless place in his life. How could a veteran, a man who gave so much to his country, now be cast adrift in Chicago as a panhandler? For me, it seemed that those fifteen minutes on the bus were more surreal than anything I was reading in The Master and Margarita.