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Feb. 26, 2005

If you spend much time downtown late at night, you will eventually fall for the stranded teen scam. It's like the Spanish prisoner scam, in that a fool and his money are parted, but much less ambitious and not nearly as intricate. I fall for it about once a year.

Usually it's a boy. He flags you down and gives you a convincing sob story about how he was here visiting his girlfriend but now he's $10 short for the train back to Indiana and he's embarrassed to ask but can't you just help him out? And because you are caught off guard and because you are a generous person you give him a few bucks and never expect to see it again.

Tonight it's an older guy, maybe 40. It is just after midnight underneath the AMA Building. He's wearing a construction outfit and a hard hat and is talking frantically on a hands-free cell phone. He's smoking. His hands are dirty.

Once he has my attention he ends the call and explains his situation.

His family owns a construction company, he says. I recognize the name, not just from its signs around town but from reports of its close and thus questionable ties to the mayor. They're doing the demolition of the Sun-Times building. Tonight somebody broke into the site and stole some equipment. He was in the middle of a beer and a sandwich when he got the call and had to come down to deal with it.

Then his truck broke down and AAA isn't covering the tow truck that came to fix it. He has $220 but is $50 short and of course he left his wallet at home. If he can't pay, his truck is going to get hauled to a pound at 60th and State. There are gangs there, he says. He is frantic, but shoves in my face a towing receipt that seems to support his story.

So what the hell. I get ready to give him $50. While I dig around for some paper he keeps talking. Mentions his trust fund, the $58 an hour he earns as a crane operator. Points to a nearby skyscraper he worked on. He's not some bum, I'm to understand. He asks me where I work, says he knows some of the union guys there. I say I just do computer stuff.

I write down my address for him and write down his. He lives in New Lenox, which I gather is a suburb. (I don't leave the city much.) I give him the money. His hands are full so he sticks his cigarette in his mouth in order to shake my hand. His grip is strong and calloused. We hug.

We walk through the plaza. He says how thankful he is and how angry he is "at, I'm sorry, that black guy. The tow truck guy. I'm not prejudiced, but jeez."

At the stairs to the Red Line I give him my hand again and tell him to take care. He shakes but looks at me in disbelief. "You're taking the train home?" he asks, as if we were at the shore of Lake Michigan and I'd said I was going to be swimming home.

He looks down the stairs and sees two black guys talking at the bottom. StreetWise vendors. "You're going to go down there? Alone?" He says he's going to walk me down. I try to beg off. I do this all the time, I say. It's the city. I live here. He's even more frazzled than before but he insists.

We walk past the StreetWise guys. One asks him for his cigarette. "Y'now you can't smoke on the train," he says.

"Well, I'm not riding the train," my new friend says with a nervous growl. He looks like a man who could make a bear cry uncle, but the CTA has cowed him.

At the turnstiles he asks if I really do this every night. Does stuff like that happen all the time? "Hey, it's the city," I say, all the while thinking: "Stuff like what? Stuff like black people living in Chicago? Stuff like StreetWise vendors wishing they had a cigarette? Yes, I imagine it happens almost every night."

I thank him for the escort and shake his hand yet again. A few seconds later he yells after me.

"Hey, guy," he says, "are you married?"


"You seeing anyone?"

Yeah, I guess I am. What, does he want to set me up with his trust-fund sister?

"Well, my dad is going to see that you take her out to a real nice place. I mean it."

I insist that I don't expect anything more than my $50, but he means it. Me, I've already written it all off as a karma deposit. Then he thrusts his grimey paw through an iron grate and I shake it one last time and wish him luck.