Imagine waking up to find strangers parading through your bedroom and living room.
On my usual six A.M. power walk along the bike path in Chicago’s lakefront park, I pass by several wooded areas, eastern offshoots stretching between the park and the beach. Early morning sunshine dapples and dazzles through the leaves, its beauty assuring me that a power greater than ourselves arranges our beloved earth. So I always look east to see this mystical light as I pass these favorite spots.
In one of these, last Monday, seated at a heavy wooden picnic table, I saw someone reading a book and making notes in a notebook. For a moment, as I sped by, I believed this was a perfectly normal scene. But as I left that scholar behind, I realized the scene was not normal. Who would come all the way to the lakefront park at six in the morning in order to study?
Then I thought of the many homeless people who have appeared in this park at dawn all through the summers of my years of power walking. There was a couple who woke from a makeshift double bed. By the time I arrived in the morning, the woman was carefully folding the bedding, handing it to the man to stack in a rickety shopping cart. “Good morning!” she used to greet me, smiling.
There was a lone man who held what appeared to be a cell phone to his ear. He kept up a running stream of chatter, as if he had just dropped in to the park to conduct an important phone call at dawn, as if there were a listener who never replied at the other end.
All sorts of comfy, ordinary behavior to make it appear these people were living normal lives. To avoid the appearance of loitering or vagrancy. To avoid the police.
On my return trip on Monday, I looked more carefully at the reading note taker, and sure enough, under the picnic table by his feet stood a worn, raggedy duffle bag, full of who knows what. Yet I like to believe this was no ruse. Maybe the person is working toward a GED, or maybe he’s newly homeless and is in the midst of retraining to try a new line of work with more available job opportunities.
Now I sort of regret not having walked over to talk, to find out. Now I regret that I never have any cash on my morning walks. Yet how would I feel, waking up the second time, after hitting the snooze button for an extra 10 minutes, if a perfect stranger came to my bedside and said, “Hi! What are you up to?”