by Laura Sosnowski
I was 19 in the mid 70’s, and worked in the Chicago loop, taking the train everyday from the suburbs to the historic underground Union Station. Like cattle we trudged past fast food restaurants, neon advertisements and shoe shine stands, among historic pillars towering toward decorated ceilings. As one, high powered professionals and millionaires, secretaries and mail clerks turned the corner toward the worn cement staircase that led us blinking into the outside light.
En masse we walked the bridge across the river, then scattered to our jobs in the skyscrapers that stood behind street musicians and beggars. We were close to the strangers walking with us; there was no such thing as personal space. One held on tightly to purses and other valuables.
One dry sunny day, the crowd coming out of the train station was sparse — perhaps it was a holiday. As I crossed the bridge there were only two people ahead of me, a woman and a man. They were not together. The woman was dressed professionally, on her way to work.
The man was dressed in old dirty clothes, carrying a large piece of cardboard, like an unfolded, flattened box, and holding it stretched out in front of him. I wondered mildly what it was and why he carried it that way. With so few people crossing the bridge, I also wondered why he was walking so close to the woman. Maybe he didn’t notice there was more space for walking today.
Maybe he was trying to pass her and couldn’t because of his cardboard. Used to crowds, the woman probably didn’t think much of it. He would walk up close to her, then fall back just a bit, then walk up close again.
Suddenly from across the street a man in a business suit yelled out “Hey Lady! That guy just stole your wallet!”
He started running toward them, dodging cars, as the man with the cardboard bolted away. She stopped and turned to check her purse. Hearing the yell, another man, also in professional dress ahead of us, jumped into action and headed off the escaping thief.
The two men tackled the thief to the ground and retrieved the wallet, brushed themselves off, thanked each other, and returned the woman’s wallet. Stunned, she merely thanked them.
And — on the outside — everyone continued on their way as if nothing had happened. On the inside, I bet I’m not the only person permanently impacted by the speed and kindness of those two strangers in the city. I saw them help someone, ignoring any personal risk.
My passive role was an important one, though it may not seem so. I was the young observer, in training for a life of being of whatever use I can be to others. For their inspiring example, I’m still grateful to them both.