“Let me know if you wanna grab a drink or seven this weekend.”
Who knows where the morning went. Suffocated in its sleep by oppressive temperatures and humidity or washed down the gutter by intermittent deluges that kept breaking the heat and putting it back together again. Like me with my life. Since I’d been off work, I’d taken my waking slow, filling the am hours with an easy journey into consciousness. I awoke at dawn, when a giant black cat sat on my pillow whispering all the ways he could kill me in my sleep until I arose to feed him. I made coffee in a French press. I read trendy lit magazines. I did yoga and ballet. I wrote. I re-wrote. I stood with the fridge open until overcome by lightheadedness. I forced something down my gullet. I showered around 2pm. A life of leisure? Perhaps… But I required from this world, in return for not hanging myself, a daily quota of leisure and sanity. I’d recently transitioned from being off work to being out of work, out of health insurance, out of money and out of luck. I was in no position to part with what quality of life I had left. Institutions seemed no more enamored with my existence than I with theirs, so why devote every hour of my precious day to garnering their approval? If they wanted a trial separation, I was happy to oblige. It was the same with institutions and men. I had expectations of being treated with a modicum of dignity and believed myself worth fighting for, but if they found me expendable, I wasn’t going to grovel. Only a dog can thrive in an environment where it has to beg.
My ability to maintain an attitude of graceful disaffection meant I still had pride left to insult when my bank card was hacked and my transit pass stolen, after having lost my income. The latter was replaced without ado. Such accommodation from a bureaucracy renown for its incompetence and casual hostility reinforced my belief that something was celestially out of alignment. It was the Summer Solstice. I’ve never been a pagan, but I can recognize a formidable opponent. I couldn’t get another human to return my calls; whatever was going on out there had the power to determine the rhythm of oceans and length of days. I decided to ride out the cosmic chaos until the universe figured out how to keep itself sane too. Until then, just leaving my apartment felt like choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if simply staying alive meant looking for trouble, I thought I may as well make it interesting trouble. Anyway, I had no caution left for throwing to the wind. And that’s why I’d accepted the offer of a drink, or seven.
The plan had been to meet up in Jefferson Park after I’d had my energy properly rearranged at an acupuncture clinic in Logan Square. But late afternoon thunderstorms and customer service reps at the bank kept me in till nearly 5pm. There was also a cat I was being paid to care for who had the good sense to live en route to the bar. Unlike the radical health collective. My friend was already on his to Fischman’s Liquors after a long day of his own. Now that I thought of it, I’d never met this person for drinks before. Friend? Acquaintance. He’d invited me out and offered to treat, presumably because my life was in pieces and I had no money, or no money I could actually access without a damn ATM card. Presumably. Why wouldn’t I presume that? This question became serious as I contemplated the contents of my closet. This is what people do when someone hits a rough patch – invite them for a bit of conversation and distraction, raise glasses and spirits. Perfectly normal. Except the last time a fellow arranged to meet me at a dive bar for moral support, a nude sketch of me ended up in a local literary magazine.
I looked out the window at the ominous sky, at my phone for a missed call from the bank, at the clock for confirmation of the late hour despite the high sun emerging from the clouds. I threw on a blouse and corduroys and sandals and a scarf. Underneath that, something more trouble appropriate. After all, you never know when you’ll be in a car accident. Or man accident. With my recent string of luck, I left my apartment prepared for both.
After a cat-sitting detour, I headed for the westbound Lawrence bus. Next to the bus stop, a drunk hobo had taken keen interest in a street sign that had fallen over, blocking the sidewalk. “Imagine if that had fallen over on you. Look at it, it would have killed you, and no one would even care, because this is the ghetto, they don’t give a fuck about us here. That could have fallen on you and killed you and no one would even fucking care,” he kept repeating. He probably thought I was being polite when I nodded my head in agreement and contemplated the street sign-as-guillotine phenomenon, or perhaps my eyes gave away the sincerity of my concern. I smoked nervously as I waited for the bus. Anything can kill you. At the same time, knowledge that I had evaded the murderous rage of this street-sign filled me with a sense of invincibility.
There’s nothing much more exhilarating than Lawrence Avenue on a steamy summer Friday night. The rain was gone, and the heat had been put back together. The east-west street flooded with the glow of sunset each evening, blinding those foolish enough resist the lure of the beautiful lakefront. The post-rain haze added another layer of texture to the already gritty atmosphere. On Lawrence on a summer Friday night, out west of Western, everyone is outside, everyone is from somewhere else, everyone is living their own interstitial lives, refusing to be sapped of vitality, invincible, electric. The street is lined with food stands, ice cream carts, people selling mangoes by the box out of the backs of trucks. The stores have names like “Sexy Girls of The Hollywood.” Young men cruise by in low-riders while teenage girls gather outside convenience stores, striking tough poses in bejeweled nails and severe hairstyles and Hello Kitty backpacks with their boyfriends’ names markered all over them. The same magic marker is used on the day-glow poster-board signs plastering shop windows. Small children run to keep up with serious grandmothers not much taller than they are. Men stop to tell passing women how beautiful they are. Buses and bikes and cars and pedestrians vie for each spare foot of space as they make their way down the avenue. I once saw a car stop at a red light, windows down, stereo cranked up and everyone on the sidewalk spontaneously broke out dancing to “All Night Long.” Just like in the music video.
At least that’s the Lawrence Avenue I knew. I could be foolish, but not foolish enough to stray too far from the lake for fear of being sucked back into the vast emptiness of the great plains, whose existence I’d escaped at the age of 18 and still feared as I looked west down the city avenues that grew flatter, emptier and more harshly lit by the summer sun as they reached the hazy horizon. I’m the kind of girl who can get claustrophobic in wide open spaces and places I can’t catch a cab or bus home from. Like a penguin who carries its egg nestled between its legs, protecting and transporting it, ensuring it is never left alone, the city gives me a sense of security. I am hesitant to jump into the frozen sea of suburbia.
But like those who braved the cruel conditions of the West in search of opportunity, I was buoyed by the possibility of adventure as the bus left the inner-city and entered the land that time forgot lining the city limits. The streets all turned to K’s, buildings from brown brick to blonde, signs from Spanish and Serbo-Croatian to Korean and Polish. Traffic gave way to small, fissured parking lots. The aesthetic out here was like a mausoleum to the American 1950’s. Safe. Boring. Overwhelmingly white and working class. People liked to call this the “real” Chicago. People with art school or journalism degrees who could only afford to slum it anyway, and why not with another species on the brink of extinction? Who was I to judge… Wasn’t I doing the same thing? Still, for the “real” Chicago, this place was growingi ncreasingly quieter as the weekend began. There were few people outside. Few places to even gather outside. What kind of city keeps its authenticity hidden behind the front doors of single family homes?
Upon reaching Milwaukee Avenue, the bus did not stop, but veered into a depot, as if even the hardened employees of the Chicago Transportation Authority were unwilling to go any further. As I exited, I half expected the driver to shake my hand, thank me for the company and wish me luck on the next leg of my trip. I picked up my rucksack and headed on foot to Fischman’s. It hadn’t rained for a few hours, but the air was as wet as ever. The sun blazed as it neared 9pm.
A dive bar on a sultry evening feels like a womb. The buffer of darkness, the lazy churn of ceiling fans, the muted tones in which patrons sprinkled along the counter make half-attempts to socialize, the way the world outside stays outside when you step in. I quite like such easy establishments. Even more, I like the kind of fellow who asks me to meet him at such a clandestine locale. Tonight it was a political staffer, a longtime acquaintance. I scanned the room as my eyes adjusted to the light. He sat opposite the door in shirtsleeves, forehead in hand and nose in a book on constitutional clauses, nursing a snifter of something the same color as the wood paneling. A real Josh Lyman type who probably would have been just as at home in DC as in the Chicago hinterlands. But he’d taken a job with one of the “rebel” Aldermen who was part of an emerging bloc of reformers openly challenging the Mayor. The old Machine was effectively dead, but the current leadership’s bank account held just as much power as the old Party organization. Only instead of ripping up private airport landing strips, they were ripping up public schools. In a ward populated with city workers, it was now politically viable to oppose a mayor who was openly hostile to anything public or anyone who had to actually work for a living. Chicago politics had always been interesting, but there was a growing sense that it could also be participatory, dynamic. It was an exciting time, at least out here in the “real” Chicago. He’d also studied theater and named his cat after Gertrude Stein. A girl like me could do worse than spending a Friday night with a fellow like that in a place like this.
He stood up and gave me a bracing hug, and I slunk into a wobbly bar stool. Dive bars stock up on beer and whiskey, neither of which I know how to drink seven of, but Ricochet’s kept some not too shabby box wine on the back bar, and the Rainbo a bottle of red table wine under the counter for when boys like that drag girls like me in. Fischman’s had no wine. Apparently it’s uncommon for girls like me to get dragged here. The constitutional scholar tried to impress me with a sample of a local gin. We both agreed that we’d never been big gin drinkers, but that our tastes had matured with age and we could appreciate the botanicals now. “The botanicals,” we smugly agreed, as we took a sniff and then a sip. We agreed it still tasted like medicine. Botanical medicine.
“Do you have vodka here?” I inquired hesitantly of the barman.
“It’s a bar. Do you know a bar that doesn’t?” he got socratic with me. Well, no I didn’t, but I was confident the universe of possibilities transcended my personal knowledge. Did he know anyone almosted killed by a street sign?
“All the kinds. What you you want?” I listed off three different kinds before the bartender confessed to having only one.
“Do you know how to make a martini?” I asked. The bartender looked at my friend as if to ask if he wanted him to kill me. “I’d like a vodka martini straight up dry with olives,” I rattled off. “Can you make that?” My friend laughed. “What?” I shot him a defensive look.
“No, I like it. You know what you want.”
The bartender gingerly, with real fear on his face now, sat a champagne coupe on the counter. I shook my head. Those were for people unemployed by choice or living under Prohibition. “Or, I can go down to the basement and get a martini glass. Would you like that?”
“Do you think you could?”
This is why I am afraid of being sucked into the bizarre world that lies outside densely populated urban areas: routine human expectations suddenly become exhibit A and poof, you’re convicted of High Maintenance Personality crimes. But once the martini actually appeared before me, I had no more complaints. I even felt bad for insinuating the bartender could not make one when the truth was he was just short of supplies. Pioneer life…
“I should warn you, there are only three subjects I enjoy talking about,” my acquaintance leaned in and confided as we headed out for our first cigarette.
We spent the evening steeped in effortless, friendly discussions of sex, religion and politics, as well as condo law, theater school, benzos, motorcycles, urban husbandry, psychoanalysis and feline epilepsy. I was having a swimmingly fabulous time and not simply because I had my head in a martini glass. He was buying. “Unless that makes you uncomfortable.” It had been the caveat, not the offer, that made me uncomfortable. We stayed long enough to watch the clientele change from blue-collar men stalling before heading home after work to young hipsters taking advantage of low rent libations, and back to the “real Chicago” guys who either never made it home or waited until their wives were asleep to make their escape. From day drinkers to connoisseurs to last hurrahs. I’d happily agreed to a second martini and was unready to go home when it came time for a third. Around 1:30am I emerged from the girl’s room to find my companion in a James Dean pose in front of the jukebox. The Violent Femmes were playing, and a fresh martini sat on the counter in front of my seat. I had left home expecting trouble and here it was.
The lights came on, I asked the bartender not to let the rest of my drink go to waste and we tumbled outside where we smoked our last cigarettes. My friend pointed to a bench by the Milwaukee bus stop that had been installed to face inward, toward the building behind it. “It’s brilliant,” I proclaimed. I imagined a whole city of people literally turning their backs on social expectations. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see the bus arrive, it doesn’t matter if you miss it, the world will continue to turn in exactly the same way. I thought maybe it was supposed to be art. Or a terrible mistake the ward lacked funds to rectify. He explained that it had been his boss’s idea, to encourage people to socialize. “See?” He sat, no, leaned, on the sloped ledge of the building facing the bus bench. We silently faced each other on opposite sides of the deserted sidewalk in a deserted part of town at a deserted hour of night, as if preparing for a duel or something equally as dangerous. They’d only get away with this out here, I thought, just like they’d only get away with lethal street signs in the ghetto. No one fucking cares about this bench. It’s the tragedy of freedom.
We crossed the street, and I waited outside the all night convenience store while my friend replenished our cigarette supply. He re-emerged, cigarettes in shirt pocket, leaned against the neon-lit storefront. “What’s a girl like you doing in place like this?”
“Standing on a street corner in the middle of the night? A girl’s gotta make a living.”
“This isn’t the street corner. That’s the street corner,” he pointed to the sign a few feet away.
“I’d make a terrible prostitute…” I was only half-joking. I literally did not know where mynext meal was coming from.
“There, there. I think you’d make a fine prostitute.” He led us up Milwaukee Avenue.
“Wait. Where are we going? The bus stop is back there.” I pointed toward Lawrence. “And where are you going?”
“Home. That bus won’t come for another half hour at least.” That bus drove past. I looked at him, incredulous. “Where do you even live?” He used to live in my neighborhood, out east, in civilization, before a marriage and a divorce had created multiple dislocations.
“Now there won’t be another bus for a half hour.” He gave his address as Northwest Highway and a street I recognized as the last one before the city’s hardscrabble west side gave over to a posh suburb. In fact I only knew of it because when staying with friends in said posh suburb it was the street we were instructed, repeatedly, to avoid. Posh and nervous, that is.
“I don’t believe you. I take the Lawrence bus home all the time later than this. There is a ‘Northwest Highway?’” I’d never heard of a Northwest Highway, and I’d lived here a long time. Sounded made up to me. Like a cartoon name.
“It goes all the way out to Yellowstone National Park!” he elaborated with bourbon-infused exuberance.
“How am I getting home?” National parks are great for bears. I probably could have devoured a man alive in the mood I was in, but I was not an actual bear.
“You have three options. You can wait another half hour for the bus. … Or you can come home with me,” he explained as we casually walked toward a cab. The second option was the only moment of the evening I have no memory of.
“What would you prefer?” I threw the ball back in his court and he ran off with it. We got in the cab and headed toward the Northwest Highway.
A gentleman, he gave me a tour of his new apartment, introduced me to the epileptic cat, lent me his most comfortable t-shirt and an assembly-required toothbrush from a hotel in Romania. And he went to sleep on the couch. I stood brushing my teeth in a state of shock. I knew he was a fan of Beckett, but this was really a bit much.
I attempted to wake him, unsuccessfully, and proceeded to consider myself kidnapped. Of course. I became determined to go home, but I had no idea where I was and no money for a cab even if I could hunt down a piece of mail in the dark from which to secure an address. I smoked cigarettes on the back porch. I texted insomniacs and residents of the West Coast without response. Was he really the kind of fellow who would just go and kidnap a girl? Not at all. And yet up until that evening I’d been going through life blindly believing street signs were not homicidal maniacs. Obviously recent events shed doubt on my being a successful judge of character. I sat on the couch and explained to him why kidnapping a girl, even a girl in a rough patch, was no way to behave. It must have been one hell of a boring speech – he slept right through it. I stared out the window as the humid fog which hung under streetlights evolved into a soft drizzle, bored out of my wits. And claustrophobic. I didn’t sleep, not understanding why I couldn’t do that alone in my own bed. I waited until a sensible hour to begin hostilely, physically demanding coffee. I had to specify that I was demanding he make the coffee. I only know a French press. He arose, made some and returned to sleep.
As I sipped the coffee, I felt a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. I sat the mug on the bedside table and hung my head over the side of the bed. The epileptic cat was on the floor below. She desperately attempted to play with a stuffed toy I lamely dragged along the floor. She kept falling over. It was all the benzos she was on. She frantically buzzed my hand , pawed at the toy, then looked at me as if struck by a horrible memory, and fell over. She repeated this behavior until I was forced to look away, heartbroken. The room was spinning. I thought that if I could just focus on an object, preferably not one about to have a seizure, I would be ok. I rested my heavy eyes on the coffee mug, which I’d assumed to be from Starbucks: white with a green image inside a green circle, with print in green lettering above and below. I rested my head on the pillow and the words on the coffee mug came into focus:
YARBROUGH MORTUARY SERVICES
I’m not just kidnapped, I’m dead already. My god, the Puritans who warn others about my libertine lifestyle choices were right. I scoffed that their conservative ways, and lo, I went to a bar, got drunk, went home with a man and now I am dead. Just like in a 1950’s detective drama. And no one cared. Just like the hobo had warned.
I lept up in a panic, suppressing the urge to vomit. I knew if I could get home I would be alive again. I threw on last night’s clothes, pausing to appreciate with regret my choice of lingerie, used the rough bristled Romanian toothbrush and woke up my friend? acquaintance? kidnapper? demanding to go home. He sat up, looked at his phone, looked at me and said there would be a bus at the end of the street in twenty minutes. The fact that he wore those boxer shorts well may have saved his life.
“A bus. And where does this bus go, precisely?” To Yellowstone National Park probably, I thought. I shook my head and gave him the same look the bartender got when he pulled out his champagne coupe. Buses were for people going home on a Friday night not a Saturday morning.
“Or, we could go get my car and drive you home. Would you like that?”
“Do you think we could?”
The journey to the car left back at his office required getting on the Northwest Highway bus, which I was convinced was going to transport me to Yellowstone National Park. In all honesty, I prefer a proper kidnapping over camping any day. The only thing worse than not sleeping in one’s own bed is being eaten by bears while not sleeping in one’s own bed. Annoyed by my declining the offer of bus fare, he asked if he’d said or done anything upsetting last night.
“You said all the signs were in Mexican. … Uhm, did I?” I asked, hoping to glean some insight into my abduction.
“No, no, you were perfectly charming.”
“Oh.” I scowled out the window. If I’d had telekinetic powers, the whole bus would have burst into flames.
We got off, somewhere, and walked down Milwaukee Avenue back toward Fischman’s, where the door was open and people were already inside. My stomach churned like the ceiling fans. A few doors down, we hopped in his car and headed east up Lawrence. The sun had dispersed the morning’s rain clouds, and the air was as heavy as ever. Strip malls and flat beige warehouses gave way to vibrant shops and restaurants, which gave way to chain stores, new construction and European cafes. Blinding sun to smog then to tree-lined streets. By the time I made it home it was already noon. I thanked him for the hangover and my release and darted into my apartment, free, tragic. The Begemot cat screamed at me for breakfast, then whispered a derogatory name for women who don’t come home at night as I walked past him into the bathroom. I showered around 2pm.
I knew perfectly well where the morning went. It was the night’s whereabouts that remained unaccounted for.