What could be cooler than three billionaires in a race to put people into outer space? I mean, this is right out of the science fiction books and movies of the 1950s, only better.
Yet, as I watched Richard Branson’s flight to the limits of Earth’s atmosphere on Sunday, I couldn’t help thinking of Alice.
I met Alice several years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago in the dead of winter. It was one of those terrible days with the wind howling off the lake, the temperature around 15 degrees and snow pellets whacking you in the face like BBs.
Alice wasn’t looking at the Monets. She was sitting on a bench just inside the front doors of the museum, several feet from the admission turnstiles and information desk.
I was killing time before a newspaper assignment, as I often did, by visiting the museum when I saw a security guard approaching Alice. He grabbed her under the arm, launched her to her feet and told her she had to leave.
Alice struggled to grab the two shopping bags nearby that obviously held her priceless possessions.
“You can’t stay here,” the security guard said.
Alice didn’t object. She shuffled toward the exit doors as if her feet were treading on broken glass.
I thought of that as Sir Richard was floating in space, smiling, enjoying the hell out of life with the people who had joined him on the first passenger flight of Virgin Galactic. As many as 600 people are said to have paid $200,000 a ticket for seats on future flights.
As for Alice, her mission in life at that moment we met was to find a warm, safe place to stay for an hour or so out of the cold.
I followed her out the doors of the museum and caught up with her as she paused on the top landing to contemplate the dozens of concrete steps leading down to Michigan Avenue.
“Can I help you?” I asked. “I saw what the security guard did and I am sorry.”
Alice was startled. Maybe even a little scared. The security guard had come out of the building now and was studying us, trying to decide if Alice was going to squat in the path of incoming tourists.
“Would you like to get something to eat?” I suggested to Alice. “I saw a McDonald’s a couple of blocks away. Can you make it? I will help you.”
She nodded and slowly we walked.
Inside the McDonald’s, we found seats near the back. It was surprisingly crowded for that time of day, between the morning rush hour and noon. But the crowd parted for us, and people at nearby tables quickly left after getting a whiff of Alice’s earthy odor as we sat down.
I took her order, hotcakes and coffee, and brought back a breakfast that also included eggs and sausage. We talked for about half an hour. Alice, who appeared to be in her 50s, had been homeless for some time. She said she often came to the Art Institute and sometimes they let her sleep on the bench inside the doors. She wasn’t angry at the security guard or the people there. She understood they had jobs to do. Still, she thought maybe they could have let her stay for another hour or so that day.
“I wasn’t bothering anyone,” she said. “I never beg for money there. I just need to rest my feet.”
I pushed some cash into her hand as I left and told her I had to go to work. She thanked me. Grabbed my hand with both of hers. And I glanced back at her through the windows of the McDonald’s once I was outside.
I would never see her again. But whenever I watch billionaires frolic in space, I will see her face as clearly as they see the blue Earth below. It is a haunting sight.
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