The cap. The gait. The goatee and the shaved head. He has the appearance of Lenin. He removes his cap as he sits down. Beady eyes and writing in a spiral notebook. Furiously writing. Furrowed brow.
He wears no watch and no rings. His cuffs are unbuttoned but not rolled up. His clothing is not fitted but loose though not inappropriate for his frame and his brown shoes are in desperate need of a shine. I’m texting a friend in another state about this. He suggests that I approach him. I ask why. “Sheer curiosity I suppose”, he replies. I see no need.
His hands are wide. Thick. Veins struggle across the tops of them. While he writes with his right, in his left he holds a blue coffee tumbler. He unscrews the lid and takes occasional sips and glances around the car.
Now he’s reading a thick book though it’s title is hidden from my sight. I continue observing him and while he is aware of his surroundings he never once realizes that I’ve been watching him for the past ten minutes.
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It wasn’t their physical appearance that caught my eye, but rather the fact that they looked at one another while they were speaking. Sauntering down the street in no apparent hurry, side by side — they’ve known one another for some time. The narrow space between them filled with familiarity and trust.
A well-built man was leering at me in the shower at the gym. His unexpected proximity startled me. When I asked if he was looking for something he darted away quickly. While toweling off I introduced myself. He smiled from ear to ear. Because I think that is what he wanted. An opportunity to say something. An opportunity to be noticed himself.
Out to dinner with a friend that I’ve long admired, we sat on the same side of the table so that we could share a computer screen. There were glances from around the room as people noticed and smiled, just slightly. I liked having him next to me. I suggest that we go to New York together. He won’t say yes. He won’t say no.
His ruff and tumble photo is just a facade which does not accurately portray just how much of a pussy cat he really is. I know this because we speak on the street. It’s the man from Scruff who lives less than 600 feet away. I wonder if he’ll ever take me up on my offer to have dinner together.
The man who lives in the Loop who texts me about my weekend accomplishments, but never asks to be a part of them. But then, I’ve yet to extend the invitation. Until yesterday when I suggested that we meet for a coffee and a donut next weekend.
The Wacker Drive executive who is so handsome that he makes my insides melt whenever we meet for a drink. He’s kind. Friendly. Charming. But he won’t initiate a conversation. He admitted once that he has no idea what he’s looking for.
We’re all so close and yet we’re hiding. It’s done now in plain sight but it’s still hiding. “Don’t look. Don’t touch. But please notice me.” That’s the mantra. Except that it’s not working. We should be over this by now because we’re nearing our nearing fifties. We have the resources to accomplish almost anything and yet we keep ourselves from accomplishing this.
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If it were not for the occasional grey at his temples he’d easily be mistaken for one of the Hardy Boys. His boyish face and boyish frame – remnants of an earlier age, are still present, such that I’m convinced that he has freckles despite the fact that he doesn’t.
The look on his face is difficult to read. At times he appears timid. Or deep in thought. Perhaps he’s confused. He looks up at the train map every now and then and his forehead contracts deepening the creases that are already there. He watches commuters board at each stop and when he does this he lowers his face but looks up with his eyes. Now he appears as innocent as he was when his his mother caught him sneaking gum drops when he had been explicitly told to wait.
It could be that he is new to the city. People that are new to the city have different mannerisms when they ride the trains than do people who have lived here awhile. It’s the glancing up at the map, and the attention at the stops. New people to the city watch others board the trains not because they think a friend might get on but because they’re studying how the crowd functions. It’s a subtle difference. As for the map – eventually they learn to feel their way along the Red Line based upon the sounds and the sway of the cars.
While his mannerisms appear to be that of someone new to the city, his style of dress does not. His brown suede shoes have salt stains. Nicely cut navy-blue cotton slacks fit him perfectly as does the black quilted winter jacket that is tapered near the waist. The collar and placket of his wool sweater is visible because his jacket is half unzipped. His charcoal hair has a slight sheen and is parted precisely on the left. The cut is borderline hipster but is kept far above his eye brows.
He pulls a book from his brown canvas bag. On it’s pages are charts and graphs. Statistics. The subject congruent with his appearance. Mostly the book is a prop because he doesn’t spend time focusing on the pages. When he thumbs through the pages I notice the ring he’s wearing. It’s the same matt-finish tungsten ring that I’m wearing. I think he’ll notice mine when it catches the light – that he’ll see that it’s the same as his and this will cause him to look up at my face but that doesn’t happen.
I loose track of his actions by the next stop not because he has left but because the train fills and those that are standing block my view. Maybe now, with no clear cut view of anything, he’ll begin studying the pages of his book.
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He boarded the train a couple stops after I had.
The nearest open seat was between two commuters and in it he squeezed. Those on either side adjusted themselves accordingly. He was glossy eyed and unshaven. He wasn’t a commuter on his way to work though it appeared as if this may have been a fairly common routine. A green ball cap covered all but the fly-away gray curls that sprung forth around it’s circumference.
In his hand he carried two things. Carol O’Connell’s book Shell Game and a beer wrapped in the plastic bag. Shouldn’t it be wrapped in paper?
Click. Schuup. Tick. Then he raised the can to his mouth as foam encircled the opening and took the first sip. His hands shook as he placed it between his legs, securing it as he opened his book to a dog-eared page. From his pocket retrieved his reading glasses.
With the exception of the beer and his shaking hands, his actions were completely normal for this hour of the morning.
I changed trains at Belmont and boarded a Purple Line Express that was now making local stops through Old Town. At Sheffield serval more passengers boarded, including two women who, at first glance, fit the Lincoln Park Trixie look to a T. Yoga pants, t-back sports tops, running shoes with florescent soles, one with pink and the other with lime green, and each with an expensive bag over her shoulder.
Both women had their hair pulled back into pony tails, both wore large dark sunglasses, and both were carrying their Starbucks cups and somehow avoided smudging their sparkling lip gloss.
The two women were classic Lincoln Park Trixie, except for one thing – they were pushing fifty. It was their somewhat thick ankles that first caused me to give them a second look. They did not have bony hips nor did they have petite waists. I was standing close enough to them to see behind their sunglasses and it was apparent that they had had their eyes done.
Though the train was somewhat crowded, the two woman pranced playfully in place as they talked to one another. A little too made up and a bit larger than the others, their movements reminded me of full-sized poodles on short leashes who had just run into each other again this morning at the entrance to the dog park.
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Two years ago I sold my car. I haven’t driven since and I haven’t given it a second thought.
The convenience of not having a car – and indeed it is a convenience to avoid paying for gas, parking, insurance, maintenance, etc…. is in direct proportion to population density and the frequency in service of public transit. These two situations are related.
While Chicago’s population density is on average 11,864 per square mile, my neighborhood is at 33,000 per square mile. Because of this density, transit routes are more profitable. With three L stops, express bus service as well as local service, getting to and from is a snap with 24/7 train service and 18/7 bus service.
When the need arrises for a taxi, the rides are short and inexpensive. Overall, transit connects both airports, and the Amtrak station. Regional trains connects Chicago to Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. I can visit friends in Milwaukee or take a trip to the beaches of Michigan.
With this density comes a level of profit for the providers of goods and services. Four full-sized grocery stores serve the area. Two Walgreen’s and two CVS’, each no more than a half mile apart. Scores of restaurants and bars are here as well as a new library. Two Target stores are three miles apart, each in an adjoining neighborhood. For the most part, everything is within walking distance and there are days when I don’t need public transit at all.
Within the city limits owning a car is discouraged through covert measures. Due to the scarcity of available land, parking is a premium and priced as such. Cars in the city require a permit. Gasoline is highly taxed. Residential buildings do not require a 1:1 ratio for parking – it would be too costly, regardless and pre-war buildings have no parking. Toll roads act as a barrier, and now city streets are being narrowed for the sake of moving the population more efficiently through the addition of bike lanes and BRT (bus rapid transit) lanes.
These circumstances combined create an environment where life without a car is quite convenient. And that is precisely why I made the decision to live here, car-free and stress free. It’s not complicated, but I did have to leave Ohio in order to live this way.
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I reach into my back pocket. Remove my wallet. Touch it against the sensor. I continue moving forward leading slightly with the left hip, pushing against the turnstile. It rubs against my thigh as it descends. My right arm arcs forward, up, and back around in a fluid motion that ends with my wallet being pushed down into my back right pocket. I am in.
It is choreography that no longer requires thought and this finely tuned sequence lasts no more than six seconds and occurs within a distance of ten feet.
I had nearly completed my descent along the first flight of stairs when he caught my attention and despite it being rush hour he and I were the only two people on the landing, if only for a few seconds. He was on his way up from the opposite platform.
Our eyes met briefly and then he looked away. They were dark and hovered in orbit under a heavy brow, accentuated only because of his slightly sunken face. Color had vanished in this moment. In it’s place, grayscale. His face neither pink, beige, brown, or olive but just a shade of gray, like everything else about him.
His oversized shirt, unbuttoned, exposed his dirty t-shirt and a leather belt which held up tattered trousers. In his right hand he carried a tarnished tin pail stuffed with rags and implements with wooden handles that protruded out as though they were stalks from a dead vegetable garden. His hands, tanned like leather, were soiled too.
My mind took rapid snapshots and compared them to pictures I had seen before, but from where? An old newspaper clipping or the cover of paperback by Studs Terkel on the shelf of a used bookstore – either one a possibility. It was if he was an apparition from an account of Chicago’s past.
A moment later he was behind me and living color returned as he headed up to the street and as I moved walked down another flight of stairs, holding on to the red-painted railing, towards the northbound platform.
My one minute repertoire had been interrupted.
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