“On The Free And Easy Part IV”
(Following is Part IV of an unedited excerpt of my recent rants about my travels across America to Chicago via LA as they unfold with more to come every few days. I hope you enjoy.)
It seems hard to believe coming from Chicago, a major American metropolis that there are many people out there across this great country that have never even seen a building over two or three stories much less lived in one. I mean yeah sure I know there out there but you don’t really think about it until its right in your face.
When I met Shirley, a thirty-four year old single mother of three daughters it was in passing in the trains lounge car. One of her teenage daughters inquired as to why I had my head buried in my laptop. I told her I was a writer and liked to get work done on the train which in turn gave way to a conversation on my intimate knowledge of Chicago, LA and everything in between. Finally her mother Shirley joined us. The first thing I noticed aside from their thick southern drawl was the very small gap in age between Shirley and her daughters. If she was fifteen years older than the oldest it was a lot. It turned out that she had her eldest who was eighteen when she herself was only sixteen. There obvious excitement about their trip to Chicago was cool watch and they peppered me with questions about what to do and where to go. Apparently they had been given the trip by a relative who paid for a ten day stay in a nice hotel and all expenses. They opted for the train as they had never flown and were in no rush to experience it.
As our conversation progressed it became apparent none of them had ever been further than a few hundred miles away from their home in very rural Arkansas. Shirley herself had only been to a major city in Houston once before as a very young child and aside of television her daughters had never even seen a skyscraper or more than a few dozen people on the street at the same time. I did my best to explain to them how crowded the streets would be with cars, pedestrians and row after row of buildings but they didn’t seem to totally understand it. It’s wasn’t that they could not comprehend what I was saying or that they were not bright in fact they were extremely intelligent. It was just that what I was trying to explain was so foreign to them that their excitement got the best of them. At one pint one of the girls stammered and said she felt dumb about not knowing what I was saying. I explained her being unfamiliar with where I was from was no different than my being unable to understand how they grew up. Shirley who was younger than I by ten years told me of how as a child her family lived in a tent near a swamp and regularly swam in the swamp waters aside alligators and snakes. The girls laughed when they saw the sour, squeamish look on my face. Maybe I played it up just a bit to ease them on our worldly differences but in truth, I didn’t play it up much.
The tales they gleefully shared with me about how they lived and played in the country made me realize how fortunate I was to have grown up where I did with so much diversity and culture at my fingertips. It occurred to me that except for a few major urban areas and medium sized cities that I considered tiny by my standards, the vast majority of America was made up of rural areas set next to sub-urban towns not much larger. Though I had been to some of these tiny cities and rural areas and enjoyed visiting them I could not honestly say that I had a great desire to ever inhabit one of them for any extended period of time. The boredom alone would probably kill me not to mention the lack of urbanity or anything to do on a regular basis. After being informed that foraging for a simple loaf of bread for dinner meant driving fifteen miles to the nearest gas station truck stop in a town of less than a few hundred people I had a new respect for Jewel Food stores or Starbucks. Quite honestly it scared the living shit out of me. I mean, no wonder there were stories of old folks being found mummified in their homes propped up in the rockers. Shit! No one would even know you live out there in the country much less check up on you, I thought to myself. Who needs that shit! I kept my thoughts to myself so I didn’t offend the women.
Still it simply amazed me what a vast country we live in and how cultures clash right in our own back yards. It re-affirmed my belief that while all these people are running off to visit the cities of Europe and the ancient ruins in the Middle East they’re missing out on all the great history and geography we have here right at home in America. I once again vowed to not even think about going out of country until I have seen all that I want to see right here at home. Not being able to get a passport upon last application sort of helped forge that decision but just a little bit. But that’s a whole other story.
Texas is a big state with a big storied past. A lot of those stories are as big as Texas. So many of the folks I met on the train were coming or going from the big state.
Between the big state and Chicago there was a whole lot of things to see passing me by in the window and a whole lot of time sleep. There is just so much to see out there in America that I am at times overwhelmed by it all. One of my simple goals in this lifetime is to see all that I can squeeze in and whatever I do miss I’ll catch in the next lifetime.
Union Station was just around the corner and I couldn’t wait to see it again. Most of the stations on the trip were small and local and even those in larger cities such as San Antonio were tiny in comparison to Chicago’s Union Station. There is something about Union Station that just screams greatness and that speaks volumes about the true metropolis of urban America. I’ve been a lot of places and lived in several including some great cities but nothing can compare to Chicago in terms of, well, anything.
It never ceases to take my breath away. The city breathing and alive never sleeping really, maybe just a late night nap but Chicago never truly sleeps. You can’t really compare it to anywhere else because it isn’t like anywhere else. It’s better than anywhere else really. I know I have done the right thing working towards having a home here where I love being on the streets and a home on the beach that I so love as well. That has after all been our dream since we all went out west to LA. No sooner do I step off the climate controlled train and into the true to Chicago weather high nineties and one hundred percent humidity steam bath that I start sweating. How I have missed her, the city that sleeps with me every night, the city that like a mother raised me to survive.
A few days have passed and I’m back to work on the bar and floor at Butch McGuire’s one of the great loves of my life. It’s still the heart of Division Street just like it always was. It pumps life onto a street with so many nicknames that has seen generations of night crawlers come and go and some come back again. I feel
comfortable here. The old saying is wildlife in Chicago can be seen on Division Street after midnight, so true.
Roaming the streets at eight pm as dusk settle on the city I forage for food which has never been a problem before. It seems my appetite has shrunk a little and I have become somewhat picky with my choice of food these days. It is a healthy kind of discriminating taste. I walk down Clark Street to North Avenue and for no obvious reason decide to step onto the westbound North Ave. bus headed to Damen Ave. and Wicker Park. The streets passing by take me back in time.
Stepping off the bus at Damen Ave I walk south hoping to discover my cousin’s restaurant at Damen and Division Street I have yet been to. I get there only to find that they are not there tonight. But what I do find is a neighborhood that has become boon of gentrification. What used to be an area one took there well being into their own hands traveling through is now a destination point for all walks of life. It amazes me how it never stops growing and getting better here.
Heading back up the street to intersection North Ave, Milwaukee and Damen I run into a girl whom I met earlier on Dearborn and Schiller Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood where I wandered onto the bus. It was uncanny as I had wished I would run into here again and here she was walking down the same street I am in a completely different neighborhood of the city an hour and a half later. She had stopped me asking where Division Street was I assumed to hit the nightlife. Apparently she must have been heading the same way I was via a different parallel main street even before I actually knew I myself was headed there. I knew she must either be visiting or living at the all girl college dorms on Dearborn Street. I knew someone who lived there once in another part of my life and she reminded me of her instantly. When she stopped me I could not help but notice her intense beauty. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-one or twenty-two. I was taken aback by her ability to strike me with the memories of that girl I still think of on occasion. Her long dark hair was put back into a ponytail and her pale brown eyes reeked of mischief behind her school girl glasses. Her voice was soft and deep all at once in a gravely sexy way. I knew she was taboo just as the one before her was, the one she made instantly invade my thoughts.
She stood at the bus stop and smiled “Oh, hi it’s you again” as if she already knew we would meet again. Again she asks me for directions as if running into the same strange guy and asking directions is a casual daily happening in her life. The one before her was like that too, just so casual about life. I think the taboo is what I liked so much. I wanted what I knew I could never keep. But I had her even though I knew the pain it would cause me and how it would quietly tear me up inside and eventually it did. Did I ever get over her? I smile and laugh a little. I don’t ask her for her name. I can’t seem to bring myself to. It’s as if I am afraid to know, afraid that it might be her again when I know it’s not but it reminds me so painfully of her, both painfully and pleasingly. I feel part two a story stirring that a part one has not even been written for yet. It’s a confusing, lustful and uncertain story full of laughter and pain, knowing and paranoia, passion and violence and filled with insanity. Ultimately it ends as quickly as it had begun, all of a sudden, if it actually ended at all.
I walk away not understanding why I ran into her again. OMG she reminds me of her so much. I welcome the memories both good and bad that flood my mind. It seems I still welcome the pain it once caused that I thought I left behind. I know myself well enough to know if there is anything I have welcomed into my life throughout the years it is emotional pain. I almost enjoyed it to the point of masochism. Now I know I will spend the next several days with her on my mind. I know I need not even mention her name completely confident that should she ever read this she will know exactly who it is I am speaking of. I am not afraid to admit it is the obsession in my life that both paralyzed and exhilarated me and that I miss it.
My mind settles a bit and I find myself at North and Ashland Avenues standing in front of an old standby diner that I have been going to since I was a kid, the Hollywood Grill. It looks and smells the same. It’s bright and open and the smell of an old neighborhood in a good way. At the counter stands a younger version of the same Puerto Rican host with a ponytail. The servers that used to be called waitresses are still a mix of neighborhood girls and small town Midwest transplants of actresses, models, singers and dancers. An oldie but goodie by Donna Summers “Hot Stuff’ blasts over the ceiling speakers. It feels all too familiar. Last time I was here a waitress caught a stray bullet from the street in the ass.
I ditch my bag in a booth and head for the bathroom. It hasn’t changed much over the years just a lot cleaner. Standing in front of a urinal with his back to me is a guy with slicked back greasy hair, neatly pressed slacks and a bright red short sleeved cabana shirt, the kind of shirt that hides your gun. In fact the bulge of the revolver handle blatantly sticks out. He has his cell phone propped up against his ear while he takes a piss and talks at someone on the other end while chewing gum. Stepping into the aluminum toilet stall I look down to my left and can see his shiny wing tipped Stacy Adams shoes, his right foots taps on the tile floor as he chews, talks and pisses.
I’ve seen this guy before or others like him. Hell I’ve been him. Just a street guy trying to make a buck, greasy slicked back hair, snappy clothes, probably wearing a poker face hard and absent of a smile for so long that it hurts when you try to smile. I make the guy for a bookie, dope dealer or killer or maybe all of the above. His name is Frankie or Paco or maybe they call him by his street name Dago Richie or Flaco. Stepping out to wash my hands he is still standing at the urinal now yelling into his cell phone away as the song on the ceiling speaker changes to the Bee Gees “Staying alive”, very fitting for the moment that we have found ourselves at. I split and head back to my booth. He exits and walks by me unaware that I have just sized every ounce of him up. I see his face. Yep he is that guy I knew he would be. At the end of it all, I stop and gaze out through the blinds out into the busy city street and think I see her standing on the corner. She still won’t leave my thoughts. This is gonna be a long night.
(To be continued)