Always on the hunt for interesting Chicago characters, I've met and written stories about a lot of them over the years — fruit bag salesmen, rat-killing specialists, singing cab drivers, novelist cab drivers and Jesse Jackson Jr. to name a few.
But there's a guy out there — the "Sock Man" of the CTA — who I haven't actually met yet, but can't stop myself from telling you about. Plus, I'm hoping to meet him one day to get a great deal on socks.
I was virtually introduced to Sock Man via a Facebook video that showed the traveling salesman of sorts boarding a CTA bus heading south toward 115th Street.
"There is no need to fear. Your Sock Man is here!," Sock Man said to start his obviously well-rehearsed sales pitch.
Like folks on the bus, I couldn't help but laugh watching Sock Man, dressed in an Army green coat, flannel shirt and stocking cap, rip through a clearly scripted routine that could rival any "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
"I got men's socks. I got ladies socks," Sock Man says. "I got white socks. I got long socks. Black socks, [little-bitty] socks, thermal socks.
"I got…," he says, before stomping the bus floor and pausing for effect.
Folks who must have encountered Sock Man before shouted out his punch line before he could.
"Socks!" Sock Man said. "And more socks. Socks, socks."
Then Sock Man offered up a sad song of despair that got to the heart of why he's out there hustling to sell socks, and why it would benefit his fellow CTA riders and society as a whole if they would just buy some of his socks.
"I, I, I really need to make a sale," he sang. "That's what keep me up out of jails. I really need to sell these socks. That's what keep me up off your block."
The bus filled with laughter as he thanked everyone, especially "people who buy something," wished them a good ride on the "C-T-AAAAAAAY."
Sock Man interrupted his own act with a very important message to show his customers what he's up against just to make a few bucks.
"If CTA police happen to get on this bus, all sales and activity are ovah immediately," Sock Man said with Chris Rock's comedic timing, getting even more laughs.
"Now if anybody want a real good deal on socks, this is the last bus before I get home and I need the rent money. And I'm a little short," Sock Man said. "I need seven more dollars for the rent."
Sock Man again turned the attention on his own troubles, a portrait of man living on the edge in Chicago.
"I know some of y'all think all he's going to do is buy some alcohol and stuff," Sock Man said, beating the crowd to their own assumptions. "Look at me. Do I look like I need any more alcohol and stuff?"
Then, Sock Man made his CTA bus special — $2 for a pack of socks — a lesson in the value of a dollar for a man trying to make his rent in the middle of winter.
"Two dollars do not seem like a lot. But do you know I can feed a family of four off $2 or less?" Sock Man said. "Yes. I'll do the math right for you. It's called a bag of red beans, a box of rice, a piece of fatback, hot water, warm bread."
Regardless of whether Sock Man is really collecting money for food or rent, he's still a guy who must know enough about living on the edge in Chicago — that place one step above being homeless or in jail — to realize that when you tell enough good people the reality of what $2 can mean to a family, someone will buy your socks.
On that bus, Sock Man sold off what was left of his white socks and threw in a pack of thermals to get somebody at the back of the bus willing to fork over nine bucks for a fistful of socks.
Then, the video ended. I hope that $9 really did go toward paying his rent and for a modest supper of red beans and rice.
But whether you consider Sock Man a salesman, comedian or con man, it's clear from the video he isn't that different from a lot of people just doing what they can to get by.
After all, we all put our socks on one foot at a time.