I always feel woefully unprepared to find the language that describe these weekly homeless outreach experiences. How should I put into words someone violently trying to break free of their lost identity of success in order to have any sense of Joy with their current life on the streets? In simpler terms, the gravity that keeps us from not comparing ourselves to the life we thought we’d have is sometimes inescapable. Recently, I’ve been daydreaming about my father and grandfather. As all of us have lived and worked in Chicago, I wonder what a dinner between the three of us, all at 45 years old, would be like. As I’ve traveled these streets of Chicago, they often appear timelines. If I were to break bread at the same table as these men, would I be proud of the life I’m leading?
Last Tuesday at 9:45pm at the Target on the Corner of State and Madison within the Chicago Loop, I had the bus pulled over helping the homeless. I had passed out needed items to about fifty people, when I noticed a man trying to balance a new sleeping bag, some food and water in his right arm, while his left arm hung limp. When I asked if he had hurt his arm, he said yes but it wasn’t anyone’s worry. It seemed as though I needed to gain some trust before he’d reveal his injury. As we casually talked, I learned his name is Ricardo, age 27, homeless for four years and a cradle Catholic.
There was about 30 homeless around the bus, when Ricardo finally agreed to take a seat and show me his arm. Fighting back my reaction to his diseased flesh, he told me that doctors at North Western had advised that his arm needed to be amputated or he’d likely lose his life. When I asked why he didn’t follow their advice, he took in a breath and said, “…the truth is Ryan, if you were to slit my throat; I’d apologize with my last breath for bleeding on the street.”
“Well, it would make me feel better if I could clean it up a bit, is that OK?”
“Sure, Ryan, if it would make you happy,“ Ricardo said as a clean tear gathered dirt running down his soiled face. As I sprayed Betadine surgical scrum on his arm, he was expressionless. Over the next five minutes, the dead tissue melted away and his arm started to openly bleed.
With this he started to weep, “I don’t want to lose my arm; I don’t want to live like this anymore. What kind of life is this? I’m a shame on my family.” While tending to Ricardo’s arm, a small group of drug dealers had gathered around the bus and started to loot the lockers of the food, sleeping bags and medical supplies.
As I tried to maneuver myself between the crowd, one of the larger gang members grabbed my shoulder, pinned me against the bus and lifted his shirt showing his gun. “You ain’t got permission to be here, you get’n taxed son,” and with his free arm he struck my chin. As this occurred, Ricardo grabbed the man with is right arm and pushed him away; and with one clean motion pressed a knife to his throat with his disease arm. The rest of the gang members, took notice, but didn’t stop grabbing items off the bus. Another man went to open the bus door and get inside. Just as he had his hand on the latch, a police cruiser whaled its siren and several police cars pulled up.
Within minutes, the gang dispersed and the scene settled; blood dotted the side of the bus and sidewalk. Ricardo’s arm was dripping red, a gang member gripped his neck with bloodstained fingers and two of my teeth were loose and bleeding.
As the paramedics loaded the two men into ambulances, I asked Ricardo if he’d be OK. “Well, Ryan, my mother always said that pain is real, but so is hope.” And with that the ambulance doors were shut.
It takes faith to think that Ricardo would lose his arm in the hope of saving his life. I’m still awestruck at the courage needed to rediscover one’s happiness despite a life that in no way resembles what your family expected of you. God’s speed Ricardo, I’ll pray that as the devil takes his pound of flesh, God’s Grace carries you toward your new path to Joy.