Chicago Goes On…

Hello Everybody,

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.

Blurry LA rainbow...

Blurry LA rainbow…

“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?”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking the MetroLink 902. Are you taking MetroLink 902.”

“No.”

“What are you taking? Are you taking Amtrak?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Yep.”

“Which airport?”

20131112_160150The 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?”

“No.”

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.”

20131113_204426More 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?”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

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Broadway and Lawrence, an old familiar intersection of my life.

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.

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Appropriate metaphor for my self-delusion during my Chicago years.

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???

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But there were always moments of sunshine…

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.

Be well…

Refugees in the Court of Fortune

Hello Everybody,

At once, the Universe, and only a tiny part of it.

At once, the entire Universe, and only a tiny part of it.

I sat across from a bum on the D-train the other day.  The two seats next to him were vacant because nobody wanted to sit by him.  Everytime the train stopped at a station, the morning New Yorkers would rush in to find a seat.  They’d rush to the two seats next to The Bum, only to turn away once they noticed him, as if repelled from a magnet.  They’d bounce away, contented to stand as the train moved closer to the great paycheck that made everything fine and worth the struggle.

The Bum sat like a statue with far away eyes that most institutional bums possess.  He wasn’t trying to see the future, I was sure he’d already been there.  Nope, I’m certain he was looking through reality itself.  When people scurried away from him and his ripe odor, he weathered the breeze created from their desperate shuffle, never moving.

The Bum, moments after he put his companion away.

The Bum, moments after he put his companion away.

Then suddenly, as if an alarm clock went off in his belly, he jerked and the look of sudden rememberance came upon his face.  He rifled through his duffle bag, finally pulling out a pink, plastic squeeze toy the shape of a pig.  The little toy pig fit in the palm of his hand.  The pink, plastic, innocent thing looked so clean and fragile.  However, The Bum held the toy in his big dirty hand as if it were a child, totally dependent on him.  He gazed upon it with an affection so pure that I had to turn away from the scene for a moment.  It was his moment and I did not want to soil it.  When I finally looked again, he’d set the pig on the empty seat ahead of him, and like a child he pushed the pig along the seat, pretending it was walking.  His was talking to the pig very softly.  I could not here what he said but his smile and lightened eyes said it all.  And the pig showed total trust, confident that it was being taken care of by someone who loved it.  When we came to the next stop and more people rushed into the train car, he gently picked up the pig and held it to his chest.  Then he discreetly placed the pink toy pig back in his duffle bag – eyes careful, untrusting of all the unrealness around him.  When the train began to move again, he resumed the endless stare into that place called Truth.

At 34th Street, The Bum picked up his bag and exited the train.  He passed through the boarding hoard of Data Enterers like a ghost.  A young man came in and sat where The Bum sat, replacing that tiny beautiful moment where a bum played with his toy pig and both were happy, safe and free.  The young man just moved to the beat pumping into his head from his smart phone – in the same seat, but at a totally different location in Spacetime.

Nobody acknowledged The Bum as he walked through the crowd on the platform but he wasn’t asking for attention.  He looked to prefer invisibility as he set down his duffle bag and proceeded to rummage through a trash can.  He nearly had his head completely inside the oracle of filth as he pulled out newspapers, half-eaten muffins, emptied containers of yogurt.  No, he wasn’t asking for an audience.  He looked like he didn’t need to ask anybody for anything.  In fact, he looked like he’d stopped asking them a long time ago.

That night I walked down Broadway from Midtown to Union Square.  Christmas Consumerism was in full swing in the Big Apple.  Macy’s famous Christmas windows were illuminated in the night, displaying various tableau of all things Christmas.  Elves, reindeer, snowflakes – each window looked like its little electric world of wonder.  One window really caught my eye, however, and that was of a dancing Christmas elf holding a gift in each hand.  He sported the soulless thin smile of a wooden dummy.  He moved up and down on one leg, his hands lifting the gifts up and down.  I was stunned with fascination by the mechanical elf and drifted far away from New York as the rush-hour crowd bounced and frowned all around me.

Jester at the Court of Fortune.

Jester at the Court of Fortune.

At some point in my stupor, the elf transformed into the mighty Jester at the Court of Fortune.  As I watched, The Jester danced, bearing his gifts to some while denying others simply at whim.  I stood, dumb, hoping – almost begging – for the Jester to gift me when a hulking day-jobber lumbered into me.  I never got a good look at the guy – just saw his overcoat and briefcase swinging in the night.  I looked back at the Jester of the Court of Fortune but he was gone.  Just that unreal, untrue Christmas elf was there…up and down, up and down.

At Union Square, I saw a young woman begging for change by the subway.  She was cute, wore makeup on and her hair was nice.  Her clothes were hip and she looked put together.  She smiled at people as she pointed to her handmade sign that read:

“Homeless Girl – Need $$$”

I would have taken her picture, but also written on her sign was:

“No Photographs Without My Expressed Consent”

Spaced out dummy in Bergdorff-Goodman window.  Substitute photo for "homeless" girl at Union Square.

Spaced out dummy in Bergdorf-Goodman window. Substitute photo for “homeless” girl at Union Square.

I didn’t know the girl, but she looked to be slumming it.  I doubted she was really homeless.  Her eyes were clear and gazed upon this world, and they looked to know this world – understood this world.  She was still asking, and she was not shamed to ask.  She wanted the “$$$” that the Data Enterers slave 8 hours a day for.  She wanted the “$$$” that is one’s ticket for a seat in this world.  She was not a bum.  She knew how to look good.  More so, she rememered how to look good, perky – knew how to put herself on display.  Her nail polish proved she didn’t have trash can hands.  The fingers on her hands could still dial the number to Home, and someone from Home would still answer her call.  She had a long way to go before she would need a pink plastic toy pig.  But just how far does one have to go before one does?

On Saturday, I talked with an old Black man who’d fallen on hard times.

“I’m 63 years old and I just got outta Riker’s Island.  Again.  All ‘dem young people in there callin’ me pops and original gangsta’, while I’m sittin’ there wonderin’ how I got there.  Again.  What did I do to get there.  Again.  Police said I broke a car window.  Wanted me to cop a 2 year deal but thank god my public defender got it down to 90 days.  So I’m sittin’ in jail.  Again.  But I’m old now, see?.  And I get upset at those young people in there.  They crazy, like they don’t care who they hurtin’.  Then I think, when I was young, all the old people thought I’s crazy.  So I guess maybe things is the same as they always was.  But today, everybody’s livin’ like they’s refugees.”

Later, I walked down 5th Avenue from the Plaza Hotel to Rockefeller Center.  If you’ve ever been in that part of New York in December you know that it is packed shoulder to shoulder with Middle Americans who made the Pilgrimage to the Mecca of American Christmas.  The buildings were decorated with beautiful Christmas lights.  The store windows – such as Bergdorf-Goodman’s – were decked out with immaculate tableau – some were real works of art.  However, looking up to see the lights, looking to the side to see the windows, or looking inside yourself to smell the roses could be detrimental to one’s health, because the crowd had become one entity – a throbbing creature – and a body could get trampled if he or she stopped moving their feet.

The Dummies in the windows at Bergdorff-Goodman have grown rather tiresome of the Trobbing American Monster.

The Dummies in the windows at Bergdorf-Goodman have grown rather tiresome of the Trobbing American Monster.

Thousands of us moved in unison, southward toward Rockefeller Center and it’s giant Christmas tree.  After a while, I stopped wanting to do with any of it and desperately wanted out of the scene.  But I couldn’t escape.  I had to go with the crowd.  I was a mindless, rather irritable part of that Throbbing American Creature by the time we made it to the tree.  However, when finally in the presence of the giant green electric monolith, the child awoke in me.  I was happy to see the big Christmas tree.  I remembered how excited I was when I was a kid in Texas on Christmas morning.  I would wake up and run to our plastic tree and stare at the presents.  I remembered seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center on TV.  New York City –  and the rest of the world for that matter – seemed so far away.  I remembered being a child, carefree and unaware that the world will trample you if you can’t keep up with it.  But I didn’t remember any of that for long, because some angry father rammed me with his child’s stroller.  So I moved along.

Mecca of The American Christmas.

Mecca of The American Christmas.

We all moved along and soon we’d ceased to be the Throbbing American Creature and were little individual humans again.  We were from all over the country – even South Texas.  The cops strung ropes at the crosswalks, corraling us until it was time to cross the street.  We didn’t care.  We were all very tired, as if we’d all completed ardous journeys from far away lands.  Besides, the police knew what was best for us – sending us across this street, across that street.  Go over here.  Wait over there until further instruction.  Halt!  Until we tell you where to go.  Now, go!

We did as we were told…just like refugees.

Be well…