August 24, 2012
I saw Helen for the first time in a long time the other day, panhandling at the expressway exit at Belmont and Kedzie avenues.
The woman looked like Helen, at any rate. She was small and disheveled, though notably older and more battered than Helen had been the last time I saw her, which was several winters ago on a downtown bridge near Tribune Tower.
On the hot day this summer that I caught sight of her, Helen stepped into the line of idling cars, extending her change cup toward the parade of sealed windows. The other drivers locked their gazes straight ahead, in that "if-I-don't-look-at-you-you're-not-there" way that all city drivers learn, but I looked because I knew her.
Our eyes met. She turned around and scurried off.
It's possible she didn't recognize me, but something in the way her eyes snapped away made me think she did.
For a few years, Helen and I had chatted regularly as she squatted on the downtown bridge. She always appeared bruised, spiritually and physically, but she was generally cheerful even while telling stories of being robbed, beaten, stabbed and possessed by demons.
From time to time, I gave her money — once a large sum for "rent" — and once I brought her one of my coats. She wasn't wearing it the next time I saw her, claiming, as she shivered, that it had been stolen. I suspect she sold it or traded it for drugs.
Eventually, when Helen figured out that I'd figured out the ways she'd conned me, our relationship grew a little strained. Then she disappeared.
I mentioned Helen briefly in a column awhile back and afterward heard from Tribune readers who'd tried to help her. Gary Krysler, an executive at the Women's Council of Realtors, wrote to recall her hard-luck stories — "some believable, some less so" — and the ways he helped her out, occasionally realizing he'd been scammed.
"Helen made me sad," he wrote, "and does again now that I think of her. Clearly unequipped for work of any kind, she was out there, scraping and scrapping. I kind of admired her for her persistence."
I was still thinking about my recent brush with Helen, if that's who she was, when I ran across some posts this week on the EveryBlock website. Bucktown residents were reporting on a woman who darts in and out of traffic at the intersection of North, Milwaukee and Damen avenues. The posts ranged from concerned to slightly irked to curious.
"I have noticed this lady also and the way that the firetrucks race down Damen," someone wrote. "I'm very concerned she will get hit or cause a terrible accident if a firetruck swerves to avoid her."
Another warned: "Be careful! She has knocked on our car window and held on to our side mirrors so we weren't able to drive away."
"Is she much older, petite and looks elderly?" someone wrote. "If so, I've seen her at the Triangle, and as far west as Kedzie and Augusta. ... She's always asking for a quarter for the bus. ... She is definitely mentally ill, but not incapacitated."
Was this Helen, again? I began to wonder, and to feel a certain relief. I like to think Helen is still alive, even if her life hasn't gotten any easier.
But the truth is, there are Helens all over Chicago. They're people who are at once familiar and unknown, scrapping and scraping in a city that variously worries about them, doesn't know what to do about them and tries to pretend they're not there.
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