Some hobbled down the stairs clutching walking sticks. Some had babies or toddlers pressed to their hips.
Most appeared a little shell shocked as they emerged from the stairwell into the bright lights of the supermarket, where businessman and mayoral candidate Willie Wilson shook their hands and handed out $25 grocery vouchers.
“Hola, Mr. Wilson. God bless you!” said an elderly woman with a silver cross on a chain around her neck.
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Few if any of the hundreds who streamed into the Cermak Fresh Market in the Belmont Gardens neighborhood Wednesday morning seemed to care that, as critics contend, Wilson might be trying to buy their votes.
“I’m just thankful that someone cares enough to help people out,” said David Badiali, 74, who came from Edgewater to get one of the $25 vouchers.
Badiali, a retired furniture finisher, lives in public housing.
“I was doing good, but that inflation is starting to kill me,” he said.
Wilson plans to give away $1 million in groceries and gas this week. The grocery giveaway is a partnership with Pete’s Fresh Market and Cermak Fresh Market, which have 29 stores in the city and suburbs. Each company received $200,000 to participate in the giveaway Wednesday. The rest of the money will go toward a gas giveaway Thursday in Cook and DuPage counties.
And as with previous giveaways, Wilson was treated like a celebrity Wednesday, with well-wishers swarming toward his entourage and folks asking for selfies and eager to shake his hand and praise his generosity.
The event was “humanitarian,” not political, Wilson insisted before reporters could ask the question.
“As I sit in my car this morning, it’s sad to see so many people come in need of food,” Wilson said. “It is absolutely horrible to see so many people who are in need of food.”
Asked about how he would deal with poverty as mayor, Wilson, who will be 74 in June, promised to address the issue at a later date.
“Right here is humanitarian. After I get out of this [Dr. Willie Wilson Foundation] hat here, then I’m ready to answer any questions you guys want to ask. That fair enough?” he said.
Meanwhile, folks filled bags with bulk pinto beans, fresh papaya and corn — among other grocery items.
Curtis Warfield, 72, a Marine veteran and a retired truck driver, said Wilson’s heart is in the right place, even if there may be an issue of motive.
“What it all boils down to is it’s all politics,” he said.