The subway lumbered south to Union Station. It was the morning rush hour, most of the seats were taken. Most passengers dozed or stared into space as the train swayed side to side, except a gray-haired, plump lady wearing glasses, a patchwork dress, turtleneck sweater and a wallet necklace. She paced next to me in shiny white orthopedic shoes.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” I asked. The lady looked down at me. “Would you like to sit here?”
“Oh, no,” she replied.
“Are you sure?”
“Oh, yes, thank you. I like to stand, I like to stretch my legs.”
I resumed my weary gaze, swayed with everybody else. The lady held onto the perpendicular subway handle that ran from the back of my seat to the ceiling. She twisted a little with each jerk of the car.
“I’m going to Union Station,” said the lady, leaning toward me, looking me straight in the eye. “Are you going to Union Station?”
“I’m taking the MetroLink 902. Are you taking MetroLink 902.”
“What are you taking? Are you taking Amtrak?”
“You’re not taking Amtrak, what train are you taking?”
“I’m taking a bus.”
“What bus are you taking?”
The lady’s sharp voice carried throughout the car. A few people had begun to look our way.
“The Fly Away bus,” I said quietly.
“Is it a fast bus?”
“I hope so.” I was running late.
“Where are you taking it?”
“To the airport.”
“Oh, are you flying?”
The fellow across the aisle opened his eyes, rolled them, sighed heavily, then looked at me as if I had a responsibility to silence the lady. But I felt helpless, as if I’d been fated to meet this woman at this particular spot in Spacetime. Nothing was gonna stop her line of questioning, so I simply shrugged my shoulders, smiled at the fellow, and said, “LAX…the airport.”
“What plane are you taking?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what plane you’re taking?”
But I did know. I was flying to Chicago via Spirit Airlines. I’m not sure why I lied. A growing urge to come clean and tell her the truth began to gestate deep inside me, but before it could get born the lady’d already moved on and began asking another passenger down the car if he had the time, and, “What kind of watch is that?…You like that watch?…I have a watch…I wonder if your watch is better than my watch?…But my watch is pretty good…I’m taking the MetroLink 902, are you taking the MetroLink 902…”
The doors opened at Union Square and she scooted off to become another piece in the city puzzle. I swam my way into the current of commuters and headed to the bus docks, hopped on the Fly Away. About a half-hour later, I was herded and prodded through security, and managed to get my boots and belt back on, and skip to my gate in just enough time to find that my flight had been delayed. General chagrin and Christmas panic ensued around the airline representative.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the representative, “we’re just waiting for a mechanic to come take a look at the lavatory. Hopefully, we’ll be boarding shortly.”
“Ha!” exlcaimed the man next to me. “Broken shitter.”
But the delay was miniscule, and soon all of us were run down the cattle chute and into the cabin, stampeding to our seats. I sat in the last row, by the lavatory – the working lavatory.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a flight attendant over the intercom, unfortunately, the lavatory at the front of the cabin will be out of service for this flight. Please use the lavatory in the back.”
More and more people began to board. Families bargained with other passengers to get seats together. Passengers hustled down the aisle to find a place to stuff their bags in the dwindling overhead space. People voiced their concern to the attendants that being delayed anymore might cause them to miss their connections, that they MUST NOT MISS THEIR CONNECTIONS! The attendants just smiled their hired smiles and told them everything would be fine.
The plane was up and away quickly. As soon as the seatbelt sign clicked off, people formed a line at the bathroom. An attendant scooted around them to begin asking patrons if they wanted any, “Purchases?” while holding a menu close to her face, “Will you be making any purchases today, sir?”
“Coffee is considered a ‘purchase’, huh?”
“Yes, sir? Coffee is $3.”
“Fine. Credit or debit only, huh?”
She ran my card, then another attendant came out of nowhere and handed me an 8.oz cup of coffee. I nursed it like it was the last drops of that electric-life-water in the movie Tron. After the attendants made their way back from taking all the orders, one cracked open a book and sat down to read, the other took a nap – her head bent at a drastic angle against the curvature of the airplane hull.
Soon there was another line at the lavatory – there would continue to be for the duration of the flight.
“Do you guys mind,” snapped the attendant, slamming her book shut, “standing behind that line?” She pointed to the carpet line separating the cabin from the lavatory/storage area. Her smile was the same, but it now looked like a threat. “Personal space, you know.” She turned back around, resumed reading. The other attendant was out cold, her mouth slightly open.
The seatbelt sign flashed on as we began our final descent, but there was still a line at the bathroom.
“Please return to your seat, sir,” requested the flight attendant to a man who did not immediately return to his seat.
“Sorry, but when you gotta go, you gotta go,” smiled the man.
“Well, it’s not like I can make you do anything,” smiled the flight attendant.
Suddenly, I became aware that the cabin was much colder than it was at take off. I shivered as I bent over the sleeping passenger next to me, to look out the window. The land below was covered in snow. The sun was setting and a faint dusting of shiny yellow covered the white ground. The buildings on the edge of Chicago appeared – first only a few, then more and more, then suddenly the flat sprawling metropolis spread out all the way to Lake Michigan. When the sun dipped below the horizon, the city turned gray. White plumes of smoke or exhaust rose here and there, as if The City was some kind of industrial Yellowstone with some mysterious infernal source boiling below it. But the surface looked hard, frozen. I lived in Chicago for about 3 years, ten years ago. I’ve only visited it a few times since. But my view of it has never changed. You gotta be mean to live here, I thought, mean, numb, running from something or lost on some kind of chase. You gotta be OK with the streetlights coming on at 3:30 in the afternoon. You have to build a relationship with Cold and Darkness to live in Chicago – or know of no other way to live. Sure, the summers are nice here and quite warm. But how many people have you ever heard talk about the Chicago Summer?
We landed at O’Hare. As we taxied to our gate, our sleepy-eyed attendant brushed her hair from her face, picked up the intercom and told us to, “We hope you enjoy your stay in Ft. Lauderdale…………………….Oh! Chicago, sorry! Merry Christmas!”
Then the rush of the passengers to get off the plane. I sat and watched. I didn’t want to get off the plane. Every time I make it to Chicago, I don’t want to step out in it. Besides, it was 6˚F.
But of course, I had a great time, despite the freezing temperatures, like I always do. I stayed with old friends, we broke bread together, we didn’t sleep. Everybody looked older but the same. There were new buildings where old buildings used to be, new business in old buildings, but Chicago still felt familiar. Everywhere I turned was a memory. Truthfully, I have more bad memories of Chicago than good. My memories of the Windy City serve as proof of survival more so than fond reminisces. But I laughed a hell of a lot during my stay, as I have during all my visits. Maybe that’s all what survival’s about.
Around sunset on Christmas Eve – after leaving a friend’s house – as I rode an eastbound bus down Division Street, the memories came alive. The city grew darker. Ten years dark…unemployed, unemployable except for little jobs that I found whilst wandering through a hazy fog of alcohol and drugs with low visibility and even less rationale…the bus was occupied by a handful of old black, bent men in work clothes that all seemed to know each other. They all had gray stubble on their chin and balanced rolled up ski caps just perfectly on the top of their bald heads. They were tired, but joking around. Further down the street, we passed by where the old Cabrini Green Housing Project used to be – once considered one of the worst projects in the nation. But now there’s nary a trace of it left. Now, it’s all newer, angular condos at market price…I ended up in Cabrini one night, two fellows took me there. God knows why (I know why). One of the fellows knocks on a door. It cracks open, two wide eyes poke out from the darkness behind the door. They peer into me, then to one fellow, then to the other, then back to me. He lets one fellow inside, shuts the door. God knows what happened next (I really don’t know)…the black men and I got off the bus at the intersection of Clark and Division…I used to live here, a block away, I see the building…nite girls and panhandlers outside the check cashing place. Thin dark ghosts roaming the parking lot of the grocery store…broken teeth back then, ramen noodles, lost phones, late rent notices, lost keys, broken doors, confused and angry looks from friends, desired loneliness, then one day where are all my friends???
It was one of the darkest periods of my life, the year I spent in that neighborhood. I felt stuck back then, permanently stuck. I couldn’t see beyond the city. Little did I know that only months later I’d be whisked away to New York City. It took me years to find my way out of that city too, but at least the winters weren’t as bad. Of course, now I live in LA – just another city, just as easy to get lost in, but the weather’s quite lovely there.
I hopped the Red Line subway at Clark at Division, north to another friend’s house…another friend, friends, friends…in Uptown. Soon the train popped above ground and I was above the streets, looking out into The City. Day was now night. The sun keeps on rising and setting, winter keeps on coming and I keep moving through Time with no control over anything whatsoever.