Anyway, it was getting into late evening, or so it seemed, when we rolled into Chicago. I had been asleep until we turned left off of the main road and awoke to see myself surrounded by a neighborhood that felt oddly familiar. I thought for a moment or two that Neil had turned the truck around while I was out and brought me back to my the apartment I had in Minneapolis, after I moved out of the shithole in Dinkytown. The roads looked cold and icy and Christmas lights still hung in a few small, bare trees that lined the street as they had in Minnesota, but there were far more apartment buildings, in far worse condition than the ones in my former environment and the license plates on the cars were those of Illinois, so I held my tongue and smiled that we had arrived.
The sun had gone down hours before and being on the road for the entire day really wore us out, so it was quite a relief when we found the address of Neil’s high school buddies. We both exited the cab of the truck and stretched our bones for a good couple of minutes before crunching and slipping across the frozen, wintry mess that had been, to a certain extent, slushy earlier in the day. It was always a good feeling, or sign being out on the road in the winter when the shit in the gutters was all crusty. It usually meant the day had been fair and the next few days would be as well.
We made our way up the salt sprinkled, though still completely dicey sidewalk to a well lighted, arched doorway of a classic 1920’s brownstone apartment with the heads of little cherubs watching over the threshold. The heavy, wooden door, which looked as though it had been hand carved, at the entry way was locked, which I was strangely surprised by, as every apartment building that I have ever lived in, or visited in Minnesota did not have a secure entrance. We buzzed apartment number 2L and a couple of minutes later a tall, lanky fellow in jeans and a t-shirt came down the stairs, peering from behind a nap of greasy, blond hair and glasses that were as thick as bottoms of those old-fashioned pop bottles. When he saw that it was Neil and I, he waved and jumped over the last four or five paisley, carpeted steps to let us in.
“Neil, man. How are ya?” he laughed, laying my bro some skin and embracing him in a hug.
“Not bad, not bad,” Neil said through the guy’s shoulder. I had always thought my brother was tall, but standing next to this freak of nature, Neil was a midget. “Mitch, you remember my sister Mary, don’t you?”
“Yeah, Mary. How are you? How old are you?” He asked and took me into his snake like arms, “You have grown up a lot since the last time I saw you. You had to be about twelve years old.”
“Yeah, I think I was actually around fifteen.” The last time I had seen him, I was indeed fifteen. He was just about to move to Chicago. Actually, I think it was his going away party. For one reason or another, I had told my mother I was going to swim practice and afterward had a German study group over at a friend’s house, where I would be spending the night. Instead, I skipped swimming, had Neil pick me up from the Y.M.C.A., and went to the party. It was the first time I had ever gotten drunk and of all things it was off of Stroh’s. So it goes.
“No, it is okay. I look young for my age.”
“You will be happy about that when you get older, I bet.”
“That is what they say,” I said cheerfully, but I was burning up in anger on the inside. I have never really liked my brother’s friends he had in college. Bunch of chauvinist assholes with no respect for women, and that is saying a lot, considering at the time I was only nineteen years old and had felt that way for quite some time.
“Well guys, come on in.” We did. Right up the stairs to Mitch’s second floor apartment that he shared with two other guys him and Neil had gone to college with as well, James and Tom, also a couple of pig faced mofos. “We were just about to head out for some dinner. If you would like to join us you are more than welcome. Otherwise there is some food in the fridge. I think there might even be a frozen pizza.”
“Mare, what do you feel like doing?” Neil asked as he stomped the snow, salt and sand off his shoes just before we entered Mitch’s warm, dimly lit abode.
“Um, going out for food sounds good to me, if it is cool that we tag along.”
“Mare, are you sure you want to go out and spend your money you should be saving for your apartment, when you could be e-mailing your new roommates, or at least trying to find some?” Neil nodded to me. I hate it when he talks down to me, like I am a retard trying to put my boots on the wrong feet.
“Uh, yeah, I guess so,” I took the hint. He probably wanted to go out with his friends anyway, you know, catch up on old times, “It is cool if I make that pizza?”
“Yeah, absolutely,” Mitch smiled, clapped me on the back, and led me into the kitchen to show me where the oven mitts and such were kept.
A joyous round of Hey, how are ya’s came from in the hallway had caught Mitch’s attention and just before he dashed back out to be with the testosterone convention he smiled at me and said, “You are a woman, I am sure you can find your way around this place better than anyone!” I just smiled and nodded, while on the inside I wanted to take his testes in between my thumb and pointer finger and mash his nuts until they popped. God, I wanted to scream. In my mind I imagined that I looked like one of those cartoon characters that blow their top in anger and fury like a steam whistle. All too soon though, the four of them returned to the kitchen.
“Mary, remember James? We used to play Dungeons and Dragons in the mudroom when we were teenagers,” Neil laughed. I did too because you never saw a geekier group of seventeen year olds, sitting around dressed up like wizards and such just for a stupid game.
“How could I forget?” I smiled and extended my hand. I tried not to laugh too hard, or at least not make it very noticeable, but I am not sure it worked. I have never been able to act my way out of a wet paper bag.
“Hey Mary,” James said, “I have not played D and D for so long.”
“He still has his sorcerer costume though!” Tom laughed.
“Tom, you remember Mare, don’t you?” James asked, blushing and trying to brush off the fact that he did indeed still have his costume. When they were gone that night, I actually did some investigating. It is in fact wrapped in acid free paper, hung on a hanger and painstakingly swathed in plastic from the dry cleaners.
“Yeah, Mary. It has been a while.” Of all of Neil’s friends, the one who disgusted me the least was Tom. Tom was cat that not only played D and D dressed as a druid, but also played trumpet in about five different school bands, was a member of the Mathletes, Science Olympiad, and the Future Interpreters of America sign language club. Some called him a geek, others called him a nerd, tho I think he prefers the term ‘Renaissance Man.’
“Neil, we were thinking of getting some chow at the tavern just down the street. Food is not so good, but the beer is cheap,” Mitch explained as he wrapped a long, black muffler around and around his skinny little neck, making sure that no amount of skin was susceptible to the biting winds that Chicago is known for.
“Cheap beer sounds good to me,” Neil smiled and rubbed his hands together, “Mary and I ate just outside of Milwaukee, so I am really not that hungry.”
“Well, gentlemen,” James chirped and danced toward the door, “Shall we go before happy hour is over?”
“Do you guys have the internet here that I can use while you are out?” I asked just to make sure it was okay. I always hated it when I would go out with friends and come home to a mess my roommate would have made while using something of mine without asking. Amongst other things, that was a major reason why I had had enough of living with her.
“Yeah, here, lemme show you,” said Tom, “It is just over here in the living room.” I followed him back down the long, dark hallway and through an arched doorway into a living room that could have easily been mistaken for a garbage dump. Empty pizza boxes, beer and pop cans, bottles, crumpled napkins, you name it, it was on their floor, coffee table or anywhere there was space. There was garbage piled up even where there wasn’t space. There was garbage on top of garbage. It was disgusting with a capital D.
“Sorry, it is kind of messy in here,” Tom said, kicking aside something that I am almost sure made a hissing noise, “You can just kick things out of your way.”
“Are Neil and I going to have to sleep in here tonight?” I asked, trying not to sound too unsure about the condition of the room, but like I said before about the wet paper bag.
“Yeah, um, if you want I can clean up a little bit before you go to sleep.”
“Naw, I think I will do that while you guys are out.”
“You don’t have to do that. Seriously, you should not have to clean up our house.”
“Well, you guys obviously do not know how to, so how about I clean in here, and then you guys can take care of the hot deals at happy hour?” I am an anal retentive bastard when it comes to cleanliness in the common areas of an apartment. I mean, if you are going to have to live with other people, you may as well be clean about the areas that you share. It is not that hard to clean up after yourself, is it?
Poor Tom. He cleared a path through the wreckage to a desk in the corner that was; you’ve guessed it, covered in trash. He gave a nervous giggle and said, “Well, here you go. It should be connected to the internet already, all you have to do it click on that button,” and pointed at a small globe icon on the desk top.
“Thank you,” I said, “Tom?”
“Yeah?” he turned back around just as he was leaving.
“I am sorry about crabbing about the mess, er, your living room.”
“It’s okay.” And with that he disappeared back through the archway and joined the laughing voices in the front hall.
“We will be back, I do not know when, but we will be back!” James yelled.
“See ya Mare! Want anything when we are out?” called another voice, but I was not sure if it was from Mitch or Tom.
“Some garbage bags!”
“Good one, Maaareeey!” laughed Mitch, his laugh was so loud and unmistakable that I knew for sure it was him, “Have a good time tonight. Don’t burn the place down while we are gone!”
“I will try not to. Bye boys!”
“Late, M.J.!” Neil yelled. I quickly ran to the door to catch him before he exited to say I was serious about the garbage bags, but I was too late. The big, solid wood door slammed shut just before I got there. I stood in the hallway for a moment, assessing the situation.
If there is on e thing I am good at, it is assessing situations and breaking down what needs to be done into smaller, easily achieved goals. You could say that I am a goal oriented person, and I am to an extent, from my years as a swimmer, but if you were to observe from afar, you would realize that these goals are just lists. I make lists for everything. That way I know exactly what needs to be done, can keep track of what I have done, and that way I am sure to do a thorough job and not miss any detail. Before I go to bed at night I actually make a list of errands, chores, etcetera that must be done the next day, starting with:
1. Wake up
2. Get out of bed
3. Shut alarm clock off
I know it seems silly, and maybe even a little obsessive-compulsive, and maybe it is, but in order for me to function on some level of sanity, I need that sort of structure first thing in the morning. Otherwise I will be screwed for the rest of the day and not be able to get things done.
First thing I did then, naturally, was go to my book bag for a piece of paper and a pen, so I could make a list. I started out in the kitchen, locating some garbage bags in the cupboard below the sink and just started filling it with crap from the living room. I am usually really anal about separating trash from recyclables as well, but I really needed to set down in front of the computer and figure out what I was going to do for shelter, work, and etcetera once I was in New York, which was only a day away.
It did not take long, maybe twenty minutes, to uncover a couch, coffee table, computer deck and even a floor. What it is with guys and cleanliness, or lack thereof in this case? Even if there were a million and a half scientific experiments done on the subject, I do not think that anyone will ever know.
Getting back to the subject at hand now, as soon as the living room was transformed back into a living room once again and I had snooped around the guy’s apartment, finding said Dungeons and Dragons costume so carefully preserved in paper and plastic, I made myself a nice cup of tea and made myself comfortable in front of the computer and immediately started looking over the rooms/shared ads on Craigslist. Just as soon as I was able to calm my nerves from the long, stressful drive down to Chicago, thinking about the many uncertainties that awaited me in New York and the fact that I had just cleaned an apartment, I really started to get stressed out again when the only rooms available within my budget seemed to be with perverts or someone who expected to be able to live a sane life whilst sharing a room not much larger than the size of a refrigerator box. In addition to not having a huge rent budget, not wanting to live with a man whose requirements for a roommate was that the candidate be female and not mind him walking around naked in her high heeled shoes, I had no idea as to where each neighborhood was located. Was Carroll Gardens anywhere near Washington Heights? Did I know where Delancey and Essex were? Are there less crime and gangs and things of the sort that a Midwestern girl would soil her drawers over in Harlem or Astoria? How was I supposed to get to Staten Island if I did not have a boat? I had no idea. It was like walking blindfolded through a garden of cacti. I had no clue as to where to look, but at that point, I did not even care, I was so desperate to have some sort of stability waiting for me when I arrived.
For whatever reason, I decided to look through the rideshare ads on the Chicago Craigslist. The truck we were driving could only fit three people, but quite uncomfortably (one would have to ride with the gear shifter between their legs), unless there was a person out there who wanted to bundle up in blankets and scarves and ride in the bed of the truck and hope to Hell that we did not get into any accidents. Hey, you never know. People wanted to have roommates who would not mind sharing a king sized bed; someone might not mind a free ride to New York in the covered bed of a truck in the middle of winter. Still, I looked, just in case there was another desperate soul out there trying to arrive at any point on the northeastern seaboard.
There were plenty of people looking to get a ride to the west coast, or to Minnesota. A couple of people were already looking for passengers to take to New York. About a half an hour, and five or six pages of ads later, I came across one that sounded, well, see for yourself. It read:
“Looking for a ride to New York City or as close as I can get. Want to leave as soon as possible. Can’t give you any money, but I can play the spoons. Give a girl a chance, eh?”
How could I not have been intrigued? I quickly called the number that was listed and asked for Jean. I did not even think for a moment that Neil would object. In fact, I knew he would be all for helping a hitchhiker cover a few miles especially if it was a female rambler. I also did not care that she could donate give any money for gas or anything, but the fact that she chose to include information about her ability to play the spoons was what made me want to call. Think about it. Who the Hell actually knows how to play the spoons? Old hillbillies in the smoky, back woods of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a person with a lot of time on their hands. If she was an old hillbilly, or even just someone with a lot of time on her hands, it would certainly be better having someone there than being stuck in the truck with Neil all by my lonesome.
“This is Jean.”
“Hey, my name is M.J. I saw your ad on Craigslist.”
“The one where you are looking for a ride to New York City. You have another one on there as well?”
“Oh great! I was really hoping that New York would be the first response. I just need to get the fuck out of Chicago, so I posted an ad for a ride to New York and another one for a ride to San Francisco. I figured if anyone responded to my ads, I would go with the first available ride. It really did not make a difference to me, I mean, I really like both places.”
Who was this chick? I liked her already! “Well, if you want a ride to New York, my brother and I are driving. We are leaving Chicago tomorrow whenever he wakes up.”
“Sweet! Where in Chicago are you?” Now there was a good question. I had no fucking clue. I had no reason to know. Neil had done all of the driving yesterday and I had fallen asleep just before we got into Illinois.
“You know what? I have no idea where I am.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“No,” I laughed, and sighed, “I wish I was though, but no. Unfortunately I am not that lucky.” I felt like I needed something, a little shot of whisky even, to help me calm my nerves, and not feel so anxious. I know what you are thinking. It was probably not a good idea to turn to chemicals like booze or what not to relax, but whatever, you are only young once, right?
“Why do you not know where you are?”
“Oh, sorry, I am not from Chicago. I have no idea where anything is in this town.”
“Where are you from?” she inquired.
“Uh, Minnesota, actually. The Twin Cities.”
“Cool. Me too. I used to live off of Grand Avenue and Dale in St. Paul.”
“Of course! I know exactly where that is! Small world, huh?”
“I’d say. Are you and your brother staying in a hotel tonight?”
“Oh, no. Neil, my brother, knows a couple of guys from college who live down here, so we are staying with them tonight. They are all out at a bar now, otherwise I would ask them were in God’s name we are.”
“I see. Well, I would like to meet you before tomorrow, just so you can change your mind about taking me if you wanted.”
“Okay. I have no idea when they are getting back her, and I do not know if they have a cell phone.”
“Can you see any street names from where you are?” she asked. Damn, this gal was like a freaking detective.
“Good thinking. One second, lemme look,” I said as I hopped off of the overstuffed sofa and bounded across the hardwood floor to the huge wall of windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling facing the street. I had to scratch a good, think layer of ice from the window pane to be able to see anything.
There is nothing like chipping and scratching away at a section of ice on a window pane. The little shavings of frost that could serve as mini sno-cones, how quickly the tips of your fingers get or trying to see how big of a piece you could remove from the pane without having it break. Next to sitting in the hot tub while it is snowing out, scratching ice from windows is my favorite indoor activity in the winter.
“I can see a corner from here,” I strained to see what the signs said, “Uh, it looks like Crystal and, shit I can’t see that far. Crystal and Rockwood? Dockwell? I dunno. Does that help at all?”
“Is it Crystal and Rockwell?”
“Could be,” I squinted my eyes, thinking that if I pinched them almost closed that I would somehow see the sign more clearly, “Yeah, I think that is what it says. Does that sound familiar to you?”
“Yeah, it does. You are just down near Humboldt Park. Actually, I am pretty close to there right now. Would you like to meet me somewhere in a little while?”
“I would, but I do not have any keys to the apartment. If you want to, you are more than welcome to come over here.”
“Yeah, that will work. Just one second, let me get a piece of paper and a pen so I can write down the address.”
“I think I am the most useless twat there is in this town,” I laughed.
“Why is that?”
“Because I do not actually know what the address is. All I know is that the building is in the middle of the block, and I am on the second floor.”
“Well, you tell me how we should do this, because I think it is important that we meet before you decide to cart my ass anywhere.”
“I agree with you, “I said racking my brains for an idea of what to do, “How about you make your way over to the area where I am, and in the mean time I’ll find some tape and put a big X on the window with it.”
“And shine a light on the X so I can see it from the street.”
“Did you watch The X-Files a lot when you were a child?”
“Yes!” I broke out laughing, “Every Friday night. My mom called it her weekly date with David Duchovney.”
“That is so funny. I used to watch it every Friday night too, on channel twenty-nine.”
“Oh my word! That’s right!” It was pretty funny talking about The X-Files with a complete stranger who grew up in the same town as me. I would, over the next two years, have more than one occasion such as this. In fact, without giving away too much of what happened to me, this one afternoon while working at a bakery in Greenwich Village I was talking to a co-worker about his second job. He told me he worked with a girl with whom I had been in Girl Scouts with when I was younger. That just goes to show that you should behave yourself wherever you go because you never know who you will end up knowing.
“Okay, I am about fifteen minutes away. Is your brother around, so I can meet him too?”
“No, he went out to the bar with his friends.”
“That is right. Is he going to mind that I am bumming a ride off of you guys?”
“No, actually. He said earlier today that if we did see any hitchhikers on the way out that we would pick them up, so no, he won’t mind at all.”
“Cool. Well, I will see you in about fifteen minutes. If I am not there in twenty, call this number again. It is my cell phone.”
“Alright, we’ll see ya!”