The Man Who Marks The Time

June 2, 2009 § 4 Comments

There are 2.8 million people in the city of Chicago and it covers a total of 237 square miles.  Come August, Brian and I will have lived here for 14 years, lived in five different apartments and I will have worked at five different jobs not including temp work and theatre.  During that time, I have encountered the same particular man, somewhere in the city, at some point, at least once every couple of years or so.  Were I not married I would honestly believe that God was trying to tell me something, trying to shove me into the path of Pepe Le Pew with a white stripe of paint down my back.

He’s a man a bit younger than me, not ugly, not handsome, not short or tall, just a guy.  I first encountered him when I started my job as an Executive Assistant for a brilliant but scatterbrained institutional investments consultant who rented space inside the Hancock Building.  I was a temp, and The Man © was a permanent employee in the office we rented space from.  He would run into me in the lunch room and give a nod, and a hi, and that was about it. 

Five or six years later, I started doing improvisational comedy at The Playground theatre on the North side of the city, and a few months into it I arrived at a performance only to see The Man© performing in the show right before mine.  I introduced myself and he remembered me from the job that I had just quit a few months before.  We laughed at how small the world was, and as it happened, I never saw him at the theatre again.  Time went by, we moved to two different apartments, and I got a new job in a completely different part of the city.  Shortly thereafter, I saw The Man© while at lunch in a food court somewhere near my building.  It was becoming something to take note of.

Now I am a classic victim of “Van On The Corner Syndrome”.  I learned about this via The Straight Dope, a Chicago newspaper column I’ve been reading for about twenty years now.  VOTCS happens when you start spouting off that there’s ALWAYS A VAN ON THE CORNER AT THE END OF OUR STREET!  ALWAYS!  The problem is, you only think of mentioning this when you notice a van on the corner, which means that you’re blocking out all the times that there ISN’T a van on the corner, therefore making your argument invalid.  So I began to say that The Man was THE GUY I SEE EVERYWHERE, when really, I’ve only ever seen him in about seven different places.  But it seems strange to me, that I see him in each of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, each of the areas I’ve worked and at the theatre where I expressed myself creatively.

I had nearly forgotten about The Man© when I saw him standing on the corner of Wells and Hubbard, making his way to the same train that I take home from work.  I audibly guffawed, shook my head in disbelief, and then my eyes widened in horror.  His hair was going gray.  I’ve only lived here for fourteen years, but that means I’m fourteen years older, just like him.  And just like it’s hard to notice weight loss or gain when you see someone every day, it’s hard to notice fourteen years of aging.  I remembered back to the first time I saw him, and I thought he looked like a kid fresh out of college (not unlike myself).  I thought back on all the milestones of my life over these years – birth, death, gain, loss, struggle, success, friends made and treasured, friends lost or outgrown.  And even though I’ve only said about three sentences to him in my whole life, it felt important to see this man at the corner, hair gray at the temple, but still truckin’, still strong and relatively young.  I wonder if he saw me, and if the look of my face, my skin, my hair, had marked the time.


The City Dwellers

July 10, 2008 § 4 Comments

I have a soft spot for the little outcasts of nature; those deemed ‘disgusting’ simply because they live too close to us and remind us too much of ourselves.  I love to watch brilliant white seagulls screaming at each other, fighting three miles down the beach over one French fry and then forgiving each other and flying off together to find a dead fish.  I love squirrels – the ‘furry rats’ that run around our neighborhood with whole tortillas in their mouths, or half of a hamburger bun, or my favorite, half of a hollowed coconut, trying desperately to maneuver it up a tree into their cozy hut.  I click my tongue at them so they’ll sit up and put one hand to their chest as if saying “Me?”

But most of all, I love pigeons.

I love that they’ve decided to stay here.  Instead of being pushed out to ‘nature’ while we carve out our giant footprints, they chose to adapt and stay in the city.  I crack up every time I walk down a busy sidewalk in Chicago and see pigeons amongst the people, walking right along side as if they, too, are late for the big meeting with Handleman. I love their head bobbing, their iridescent necks, the way they gather in little gangs on warm roofs in the wintertime, poofing out their feathers to become little grey balls with heads.  I think it’s great how tough they are.  You see big fat healthy pigeons trudging forth with one eye, one foot, toes chewed off, whole swaths of feathers missing, pigeons that look like they’ve been dipped in Vaseline and shaken out like a troll doll, and yet there they go, walking with you to the bank, crossing at the crosswalk, flying up to the nest they’ve hidden behind the neon sign.

I like to give animals names and backstories, dreams and goals, crises and commitments.  The squirrel with no fur on his tail that lives at Springfield and Ainslie is named Jimmy Rattail.  He’s in the mob.  The limping gray cat I fed every morning on the way to work is Roy, a traveler, a mystery.  So it’s probably my own fault that I react so dramatically when I see an animal hurt, abused or laying dead on the side of the road. 

The day I went to Target, I was preparing for our trip to Vegas and Charlotte’s trip to Canada.  I was feeling better, backwise and in good spirits as I left the store, humming on my way to the car.  I saw a pigeon walking towards me, slowly, his head slowly bobbing.

for once, in the foreground

for once, in the foreground

“Lazy guy.  C’mon on now.  There’s things to do,” I said with a smile.

From a distance it looked like he was carrying a stick in his mouth.  Then I saw that the end of it was yellow, and a bit frilly.  A flower? Was he indeed bringing me a flower?  I was flattered.  I told him that this whole situation was awkward as I was married and took a few steps closer to him, wishing I had my camera.  As he approached, however, I saw that it wasn’t a stick at all, and it wasn’t in his mouth.  It was a stainless steel dart, and it was about eight inches long, jammed straight through the fat part of his neck, poking about four inches out the other side.  I audibly gasped and my instinct was to reach for him, not even knowing what I would do had he let me pick him up.  Surely pulling the dart out would kill him, letting the wound bleed and be open to infection, but the dart had to be killing him just by being in there, didn’t it?  I walked behind him as he made his serpentine way around the covered parking lot.  There was no reason to follow him, no reason to keep saying “it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok,”, but I did.  It was comforting to me somehow, that I was trying to help him even if it was just by offering a kind word in a language he didn’t understand.

When he ducked under a parked car and I realized I was four rows over from my car, I shrugged and headed back, sad that I’d seen such a thing, a little impressed that the pigeon, like his one footed, one eyed brothers was still soldierin’ on, and then I was angry.  I was furious to the point of tears that not many folks would understand because “cripes, it’s just a pigeon, J.”

Of course. Just a pigeon. And I’m just a Midwestern white girl.  And my dog is just a mutt, and we’re al just living things.  And what made me cry for the pigeon, that “flying rat” or “vermin” that everyone despises, is that it didn’t put a dart through its own neck.  He couldn’t possibly have gotten that eight inch metal spike through his flesh in a perfect horizontal fashion.  A HUMAN BEING, the supposed ‘most intelligent’ of creatures on this earth, for some reason that no one will ever know or be able to justify, stabbed a living thing and left it to die.  I care because I think the biggest step on our path to ‘enlightened’ humanity is to care enough to have compassion and empathy for ALL living things, no matter how ugly, or distasteful or small.  And I guess I believe that we shouldn’t go out of our way to do them harm.  Useless harm. Harm for harm’s sake.  Harm preceded by “hey, watch this.”

It started me thinking of people who blow pot in cat’s faces, or tie their tails together, or throw firecrackers at puppies or things so much worse that I can’t even type them.  I have no interest in knowing how these things are “funny” or “entertaining”. I don’t want to hear how we have to laugh at these things or else we’d cry.  I don’t want to ever meet the person who feels that one living creature is so insignificant that it can be tortured and killed without any kind of remorse. 

I thought of the pain that little pigeon was feeling. The hot, stinging, ache of infection?  The woozy loss of blood? Exhaustion? The weight of the metal yoke forced upon it?  Perhaps animals don’t have emotions, or names, or full time jobs.  But I’m positive they have central nervous systems and can feel pain as exquisitely as you or I.

Were I not me, I could probably convince myself that being a tough city pigeon, he’d carry on, living life as Ol’ Mikey DartNeck, with a super great story to tell.   But I’m me, and I know he’s no longer with us.  No longer walking the sidewalks of the north side, greeting the folks at Target.  He’s gone for no reason other than being a pigeon.  

I really hope the person who stabbed him was thoroughly entertained.




February 7, 2008 § 2 Comments

When Brian and I got married, it was with the understanding that I had pinned all of my hopes, dreams and ambitions on the city of Chicago and all of its treasures. We were young and he must have been smitten to blindly accept such a venture. We laugh now at how quickly we pulled up our tiny stakes from the middle of Perrysburg, Ohio and hit the road. We had nothing. The sum total of our belongings fit in two cars and a tiny U-Haul.

Our apartment was a studio rehab with no air conditioning and a stunning view of three dumpsters in the alley. The apartment broker had assured us that the Edgewater neighborhood was rapidly improving and was hot and up and coming. To hear him talk, we were getting in on the ground floor of the next Greenwich Village. In what could only have been described as “most outstanding acheivement in interior design,”, the “closet” of the two room studio was six feet deep and twelve feet long, opening into the bathroom. To us, it was a master suite. Our mattress and box spring slid perfectly against three walls, and for dramatic effect our clothes hung on a rod, tickling our feet as we slept. One couch, three local channels, no jobs and $700. My grandmother in the suburbs gave us a package of frozen bratwurst and a bag of buns to see us through the lean times.

But we learned the city quickly. We bought rolls of tokens and took the el downtown. We learned to not wear open toed sandals on Bryn Mawr, to silently walk around the young man defecating in the corner of the train station rather than scream out for some semblance of decorum. We stocked our fridge, paid our bills and survived a heat wave that killed nearly a thousand people by taking ice cold showers before bed and diving between the sheets soaking wet while fans blew over our heads.

It wasn’t until October (months after our arrival) that I realized we’d done it. We were grown up adults on our own in the greatest city in the nation. We were walking hand in hand that day. The sky was a beautiful shade of blue, the first crayon you’d pick from the pack. At home, chili was bubbling away in a crock pot and we were carrying a thick Sunday paper that we’d bought on our way home from church. It was football Sunday. We would cuddle up in our big girl pants with a blanket and enjoy our day off. I was so content with so little, so comfortable on a hand me down couch, so satisfied with ground chuck. I have truly never wanted for much, and at that moment – I had it all.

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