This isn't legal, of course. The CTA reserves the right to sell on their trains only to those major corporations who have paid to slap giant ads to the outside of the train car. But these are far from legitimate businessmen flouting the rules. As a rule, these folks are homeless, and the El has become a last refuge.
Typically, the pitch is a flat-out appeal for money, which is the most irritating, because who wants to just give someone money? Often, the panhandler will explain that they are trying to turn their lives around, and that the money is just so they can get a CTA pass (which always brings up the question of how they got on this train), but when you come right down to it, they're just begging. And years in the city make you hard to that sort of thing.
A few hardy souls want to sell you something. Sometimes it's a spiritual trinket, because there's probably a percentage of the population who can't turn down an appeal of a sacred nature. And I guess that's a step up from the Streetwise vendors who used to be a much more common sight on street corners.
(For the uninitiated, Streetwise is a quasi-periodical that homeless people are legitimately hired to hawks on the streets. I bought one the first year I was here, and I found it highly uninteresting. More memorable was the time a Streetwise vendor tried to sell me the latest issue in front of the Field Museum, and I was feeling generous, so I was prepared to hand over my dollar, and the guy tells me that he can't give it to me because it's his only copy. And then I got really annoyed, because I went from doing a good deed to being the victim of a scam in the space of a few seconds, and I guess it was only a dollar, but, you know, come on. So he didn't give me a damn Streetwise, and I didn't give him a dollar, and I've never been persuaded to try and buy one since. So that certainly worked out for everyone.)
The guy on the train today was different. I ignored the first several minutes of his commentary, because, you know, that's what you do. But as we neared the next stop (and probably moments before he switched cars so there was no chance of the authorities coming after him), he finally explained what he was selling.
It was his book of poetry.
His pitch kind of got more pathetic as it went on. Normally, he said, he sells his book for ten dollars. Sometimes, he went on, he marks it down to seven bucks. Today, he would be willing to let it go for a mere five-dollar bill. And if that wasn't low enough, he'd consider selling us a single poem for a dollar.
So there it was. I like to support artists. I like to get something for something. And by gum, I've got a dollar.
"This is called 'Glass Menagerie'," he told me as I dropped four quarters into his palm. "It's one of the first poems I got published."
It's not a great poem, of course, but it's interesting free verse. The poem is printed on nice paper. The poet -- Emmett R. McBain III -- has his e-mail address on the page. It's even got a copyright date on it. How on earth did this man find himself resorting to hawking his poetry on the El? The answer, interestingly enough, is in the poem. Since it's got a copyright on it, I won't share the whole thing with you. But this excerpt provides a surprising solution to my mystery.
Am I sane?
I am here
Am I sane?
Will believe so
Not a nice place to stay
Not a nice place to visit
I'm glad I bought the poem.
(P.S. Four day gap in posts. Not too shabby. Gettin' back on that horse.)