Story Archive: Under the El

Early in my sobriety, I ran into Dave P. while walking to the elevated train in downtown Chicago. He wasn't doing very well. I saw him from a distance and slowed down to watch him in action.

"Say, mister, I need a quarter for a burger," he said to passersby. "Got to eat to stay warm. Hey, lady, can you spare some change? I need to eat to stay warm."

Finally, I walked up, and he started into his pitch before he recognized me. "Dave, has it ever occurred to you not to panhandle in front of a liquor store?" I said with a smile. It took a few seconds for this to sink in, and we both laughed. Before he could hit me up for money -- which I knew would embarrass us both -- I took him across the street to a fast-food restaurant and bought him lunch.

As he ate, we talked about the old days and did-you-hear-aboutso- and-so. He told me about life on the streets and the food down at the mission. I told him about life on the Twelve Step plan. For a short while, we were just a couple of dudes from the hood, hanging out and being dudes.

As we left the restaurant, he asked how long I had been sober.

"Over six years, now. It's the best thing that ever happened to me. I wouldn't be in college now if I wasn't sober." I reminded him that I still lived in the same place and still had the same phone number. "If you ever want to stop drinking, I'll take you to some meetings," I said.

He appreciated my concern, but some important things were going on. "I'm supposed to get this job as a parking lot attendant," he said. "If it comes through, I'll be off the streets for the winter. By the way, can you lend me a couple of bucks so I can get a forty-ounce?"

Just like that, just slipped it right in there. My sponsors always said that we should never get between a drunk and their last drink. I laughed and gave him five bucks.

"I thought you weren't supposed to do this" he said.

"Sometimes, Dave, the kindest thing you can do for a drunk is buy them a drink," I said as I looked him directly in the eyes. He flinched and his smile disappeared. He didn't know what to say. He wasn't fooling anyone, least of all himself, and certainly not me. I had helped him see it.

I gave him a meeting directory, wished him Godspeed, and walked away. I forced myself not to look back. When I got to the top of the stairs at the train station, I turned, and he was gone -- another corner, another liquor store somewhere, just gone. But not from my mind, nor I from his, I hoped. All these years later, I still hope to look up and see him in a meeting.

-Stevie H., Chicago, Illinois