This young man needs a hand up, not a hand out

Thursday, April 24, 2003 at 1:00am

As I tipped down Chicago's State Street toward Marshall Field's, all I could think about was needing a pair of flat shoes. "Miss, would you be interested in buying something?" a young man asked as he walked up to me holding a cardboard box.

My first thought was this must be some sort of scam. Peering inside, I saw plastic tote bags filled with the kind of products I normally buy from a beauty supply store.

"This isn't stolen merchandise, is it?"

"No. I am selling this wholesale for a company," he said.

"Why are you doing this?" I asked. "Why aren't you in school?"

"I'm not smart enough to go to school," he said matter-of-factly.

I was stunned. "What do you mean you aren't smart enough," I said. "Of course you're smart enough. You are standing out here selling stuff on the street."

He looked back at me through eyes lined with lashes long enough to curl backwards. A clean white business shirt peeked out from a casual spring jacket. He wore a tie and his shoes were shined.

"What's your name? How old are you? Where are your mother and your father?" I asked, extremely curious, but also because I was drawn by something I saw. There was innocence in his eyes. He wasn't hustling me. He wasn't begging. But standing on State Street trying to sell lotion and bath oils from a cardboard box to a harried woman with tender feet should not be his life.

"I've been in foster care most of my life," he said, again matter-of-factly. "My mother's out here somewhere. I don't know my father."

I reached into the box he had put down on the ground and picked out one of the product-filled sacks.

"How much is it?"

"Ten dollars."

"How much do you get to keep?"

"Between $2 and $1.50."

"Look at this," he said, opening a box that contained a candle in a jar topped by a small figurine.

I learned his name is Chris, and he's 18.

We talked as we walked to the nearby Walgreens because I didn't have any change.

"What about school?"

"I graduated," he said, giving me the name of the high school and the neighborhood he lives in. "I wanted to go to Harold Washington [College], but I couldn't pass the test."

"Of course you can pass the test," I said. "Look at what you are doing. I couldn't stand out here like this."

The more I looked at Chris, the more disappointment crept over me. He made me angry and sad. I kept thinking: This just can't be this young man's life. We can't let this be his life.

There are a lot of boys liked Chris out here. It was easy to ignore them when they were taken away from their homes and placed into foster care. The only time we were forced to think about them was when some horrible story about an abusive situation became public. But now they are visible. They have been left to make their own way in the world.

Because of the epidemic of drug use in urban communities, many of these young adults have been raised without the support our own kids take for granted. Yet despite the odds against them, here was a clean-cut Chris standing on State Street trying to earn an honest buck.

"Well, where do you live?" I asked fearing the worst.

"I live with a cousin," he said. "I'm trying to find a job, but this is all I could find. It's OK. Our managers are out here doing the same thing."

But it is not OK for an 18-year-old to believe selling goods on a street corner is all that he can do. Chris was asking for a handout, but he could clearly use a hand up.

"Here's my number," I said. "Give me a few days and let me see if I can find someone who can help you get in school."

We exchanged telephone numbers. I looked back once to see Chris walking briskly across the street. When I got back to my office I put the tote bag filled with toiletries on my windowsill. It will remind me about Chris.

Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Filed under: City Voices