“Hey, you got a cigarette? No? Okay. God bless you anyways.”
Meet Treasure. He’s a prostitute. He’s standing on a corner in Boystown, Chicago, holding a broken and bent cigarette in his mouth. He found it near the gutter next to him. His nails are long and dirty. His hands, dry and ashy. There’s a large open can of beer in one pocket of his coat, another one on deck in a plastic bag.
“T, you gotta light for that cig? Can I get a bite?” This is Fury, a name given to him because he says the word all the time: The fury of the cold makes you tired of fighting it. The fury of the heat just beats you down. Fury is always standing alongside Treasure. “We’ve been out here for years. We protect each other, with the fury of these streets, boy, you need protection.”
“Or at least a friend…a fierce friend…am I right?” Treasure replies with intermittent yawns and a raspy voice.
“You right, T, you so right.” Fury constantly looks like he’s hopped up on something. The naive part of me says caffeine. The realistic side of me knows it’s something you can’t get in a convenience store.
Men in a similar position to Treasure and Fury – T and F, as they’re known – acknowledge their reputation in this circle as they walk by the duo. Fury is the friendliest between the two, laughing and telling jokes with anyone who stops. Treasure never makes eye contact – with anyone – and seems to always be on the lookout for danger.
After giving a fist bump to another friend Treasure remarks, his head darting every which way, “These are our boys, you know? Just another one of us, am I right, Fury?”
“You right, T, nailed it right on the head.”
I met Treasure and Fury when I was volunteering with Emmaus Ministries a couple years back. It’s an organization serving men surviving the streets through prostitution. The ways these men have found themselves here vary, but their histories are similar: abuse of all kinds, drugs of all kinds, deep poverty, rejection from family. They work the streets because their self worth has been ripped out of them. Treasure and Fury share this life. They share this struggle, and through struggle they’ve created a bond.
Struggle. We all have it. To struggle in partnership with others makes the act of confronting obstacles a little easier and not as lonely. That’s how I heard Treasure’s acknowledgement of Fury’s friendship. Vulnerability itself can transform into safety when you are included instead of isolated. Wherever there is struggle there are people who endeavor to come together, lightening a burden too burdensome to bear alone.
I’m walking towards the train when I do a double-take. The face looks familiar: five o’clock shadow, uneven complexion, missing teeth, worn knitted cap. But I can’t place him. Then I hear him ask a passerby, “Hey, you got a cigarette? No? Okay, God bless you anyways.” It’s Treasure. I’m used to seeing him in Boystown, not here, outside the campus where I go to school.
“Hey, Treasure, how’s it going?” I’m hovering between over friendly and obnoxious.
“You got a cigarette?”
“Sorry, I don’t, but I can buy you some over –”
“Naw, it’s good.” Treasure seems a little more distant than what I remembered him to be.
“You waiting for Fury? He around?”
“He dead. Couple weeks now.” His eyes darting back and forth, avoiding mine. “Could I get a pack of cigarettes?”
“Yeah, let’s go, I can buy you two packs if you want, over there.” I point to the convenience store a few feet away.
I buy him the cigarettes. I also buy two beers. We walk to a slightly secluded place near the train. We open the beers. We light cigarettes. We take sips and drags. Treasure smokes fast, I try to keep up, but I can’t, I haven’t smoked in a long while.
Treasure is more than halfway through his cigarette when I decide to break the silence, “How you been doing?” I don’t know what to say. It’s clear he and I aren’t friends, only familiar strangers.
“I’m good.” He takes a long drag, tosses the cigarette in front of him, places the beer in his pocket. “Thanks.” He returns to the street. Almost immediately I overhear Treasure ask someone if he could buy a cigarette off them. I grin. He has two packs in his pocket. But in his asking he’s not looking for a cigarette, he just wants to be acknowledged, to be seen.
I see you Treasure. I see you.
The cover image, from Flickr user Marite Toledo, can be found here.