Chapter 38

“Fear is as fear does 
no one knows that better than— 
those who share the buzz.”

          “He said I could drop that stuff off, so when…”

         He’s in L.A., post-production all week, what can I tell you?”

          “Then maybe you can get it to him when he gets back?”

          Mister Everett’s very busy, but I’ll see what I can do…”

          “That would be fantabulous…have a great day…”

          A…fantabulous day to you, too.” CLICK.

          Where did that come from? Did I really drop a goddamn ‘fantabulous’ on her? I could just picture the young Cosmo groomed receptionist eye rolling into her speakerphone. She was already unapproachable enough when I crossed from the 45th floor elevator to the ad agency’s lobby to hand her my sealed manila envelope. Sighing, phone cradled on her bleu lumiere-mohaired shoulder, she’d set it atop an inbound stack of far more professional looking portfolio cases.

           With ample penalty box time between cabbing shifts and fares, I had library studied some bare-bones design aspects such as unity, balance and the 5:3 golden mean. I eased my mind off matters of inner turmoil by scribbling a few meager headlines and slogans, a little tyro copy, working up a number of spec advertisements for products like Pear’s soap, Schlage locks, Caterpillar tractors and Boraxo. Slow time taxi breaks in the nearest stoolie coffee shop found me penciling some display cursives, drop shadows and kerned type wraps—strictly amateur hour, but it was a lot more stimulating than clinical sociology research.

          Before long, a not entirely embarrassing folder of rough sketches and writing samples took shape. So I followed through with a nothing-to-lose phone call to that art director at the J. Walter agency; Dick Everett said to bring them on by. Which I was driven to do, wearing the only decent khakis, button down and V-neck I had packed, delivering the unmarked envelope to the 45th floor creative department in the black, sleekly derrick-like John Hancock Building.

          This receptionist made me out to be an express delivery boy anyway, treated me no better when I mentioned Everett’s invitation, then shooed me out of her awards-filled lobby, back toward the down-bound elevators. Not that I expected anything to come of this effort, but I did feel 3167’s double-parking ticket on Michigan Avenue at Delaware Place might be something of an odds-on bet. Nevertheless, this follow up call two days later left me fidgeting like an acute hemorrhoid case in my parents’ dining room chair.

          Days spent doodling some advertising samples left me hacking more from the afternoon rush into early nightfall. The ideas seemed to flow best when I began jogging again, a half-speed regimen left behind in Boulder—getting that blood flowing, pumping those endorphins, firing up the circuitry, making unforetold cerebral connections. No foothills in these parts, however, no trails tailing off into vivifying backcountry canyons and wilderness: The closest thing to breathing room greenery in Chicago Lawn was Father Jacques Marquette’s Park, 323 acres of open space commissioned by social reformers when the town was still young and keen on fostering, nurturing its immigrants city-wide.

          Formal gardens, playgrounds, sports fields, propagating nursery, an 18-hole golf course and shelter, providing educational and social services to the congested neighborhood: Made sense to me, all right, even dad had long seen it as a decent place to sulk and smoke on its long, thickly shaded benches, merely a block away from home.       Marquette Park

          I’d started short with the running routine, stretching at the park’s California Street entrance, by its imposing Darius and Girenas statue, a soaring marble, Deco-style patinaed tribute to the Lithuanian-American aviators who flew their Bellanca CH-300 plane over 6,400 miles across the Atlantic in 1933, only to crash and perish 650km shy of their Kaunus destination. But that Lituanica monument dated back to 1935, and Marquette Park had come and gone a long, long way since then.

          “Back it off there, fella…”

          “What’s up with…” I stopped flat at the sight of what appeared to be either an accidental drowning or brutal crime scene.

          “Police business, nothing going on here of your concern…”

          “Okay, sure…is that a…” A body was floating like some dead, displaced sturgeon in the murky algaed lagoon water face-down, looked to be an afroed late teenager in red and black DuSable High School threads.

          “It’s nothing, I told you, just routine…so move it on along—now,” snapped the blue-helmeted Chicago cop, a rotund veteran on his countdown to submitting pension papers. “We got enough funny business going on around here without this…”

          “What’s so funny about…” I watched coroner staffers carried a gurney and body bag from their van parked on Mann Drive over to water’s edge, then hook fished the corpse out with a 12 foot pole, tagging and bagging it like a giant black bass. He had apparently been shot in the head, with multiple stab wounds through his jacket’s Panther logo.

          “Not funny, funny,” the patrolman tapped his nightstick impatiently, swinging it outward, as if to move me along. “Funny strange, haven’t seen the park this antsy since the whites slung bricks at King in ’66 on that open housing march, hitting him upside the head. Agh, but it’s just only the beginning of all that gang crap hereabouts, believe me. Neighborhood’s changing, what the hell we supposed to do about it?”

          I was well advised to oblige, leaving the scene that Chicago’s finest described as a gang trash dump from Englewood, likely by way of Ashland Avenue or Halsted Street, recalling the racially overcharged days of SCLC and SNCC. I picked up the pace on a narrow asphalt walking path between Mann Drive and the eastern ring of Marquette Park’s naturalistic lagoons, past bench loads of babushkaed and patchy greatcoated retirees and fenced-in playgrounds.

          Blood flooding my brain, up popped matters of a more personal bent: Was I a winner here, or was I a wuss? A thoughtful, sensitive man on the thorny, horny (crossroads) of a dilemma, or just a lost, mindless cad in a cab? What were you doing farting around with advertising doodles, where was the sociology in that? Such issues preoccupied me nearly all the way to a north-south avenue that basically split Marquette Park in two.

          Just this side of Kedzie I could once again see some sort of drilling on a playing field not far from the park district fieldhouse, the light of day revealing two-tone brown uniforms replete with dress caps, black leather straps and arm bands with insignias the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the engraved banisters in my Mannheim army billets—formerly a Wehrmacht kaserne. Yeah, I remembered reading something about these jokers last year in the Denver Post, but never made the connection to here in Chicago Lawn. Holy shit, didn’t they have some kind of beef with… Skokie?! Chills ran up my Broncos sweatshirt, down my CU shorts—it had never occurred to me to make that link before.

          I wanted to call Melissa, but how could I tell her that I had retreated down here to Anschluss south? Nope, didn’t even want to think about that, much less the resty bunch picketing up on Edens by the Skokie line—and who the hell did in that DuSable kid, for that matter? Instead, I peeled off, turning back on Mann Drive toward Francisco—high time to check on my mother anyway, higher time to hack away from it all.

sr dingbats

          “Sorry, but we have nothing for you…”

          “I’m just grateful you took my call.”

           Point is, it’s a start, but you could demo some more long-form capability—and maybe some broadcast. Like I said, a reel wouldn’t hurt.”

          “A reel…”

          This last part left me reeling, right there in the hotel lobby. After putting that Marquette Park rancor out of earshot, I had scored an Orange Crush at the corner convenience store and gas profiteer on California Street. Back at the home flat, mom was little better healthwise, while dad was tending to his archly Bunker mentality. So, penalty time served, I’d lit out for the Checker garage, landing 3192, a newer, less odorous taxicab that whisked me across town before the Dan Ryan could grind to a drive-time halt.

          North of the Ike, I fell into a healthy fare streak that flared for the next several days, yielding blue chip LaSalle Street parlays, sequential downtown-O’Hare turnarounds, Rush Street lushes who tipped like somebody else’s business. Blackhawks’ fans in full hockey war paint pounded my safety-shield glass with F-bombs to net the Stadium—out amid the ruins of 1960s’ Madison burning—before zebras dropped the opening puck.

          The after-hours scene was especially green, from River North over to Wells and Piper’s Alley. That North State Street to Old Town axis brought back so many Sixties sorties: to old folkie clubs like the Store, Quiet Knight, Mike Bloomfield’s Fickle Pickle, and the Gate of Horn. How we’d graduated to Mother Blues and the Butterfield Band at Big Johns—forget about the dinosaurs at Mister Kelley’s and Chez Paree. And yet I couldn’t help recalling where the even more spirited music action was happening about then, out where North wasn’t a State or Street, but a Beach.

          Snapping to, my meter spun like truck stop pumps, up and down teeming Lake Shore Drive. I was awed by the shimmering harbors and strands, the Playboy Building and Hancock towering skyline, as I delivered formal Lakefront liberals from the Gold Coast down Michigan Avenue to the opera house and symphony hall, noblesse oblige humbly mined.

          In all, I was on a strong winnowing streak despite myself, better able to be choosier when it came to streetcorner hailers, free to ignore the short haulers and shopping baggers, blow-off the bar brawlers and falling over drunks, and still fill some Moon-bound coffers. By tricks and turns, there was much more to like about this side of the Chicago River—not least the venerable Drake Hotel, where I was now placing this off-chance late afternoon call.  Drake Hotel

           Look, I’ll tell you what,” said art director Dick Everett, from his J. Walter office. I hear FBC is looking for some collateral help. Why don’t you work up a little more on the package goods side, stretch it out  a bit. Then give Ralph Desman a ring—he’s an ACD over there. Tell him I sent you his way, and that we’re even for that voice-over gal he handed me two weeks ago.”

          “How can I thank you,” I kowtowed into the payphone, banked between a low-talking systems engineer and Manhattan-wielding VP-Finance in the hotel’s plush, seafarer-themed lobby—which overlooked the snaking lakefront drive and crystalline Oak Street Beach.

         Just keep plugging away, meanwhile good luck in that hack job of yours.” CLICK.

          I skipped out across Walton Street to pull 3192 out of a loading zone, barely ticket-free, then steered into the Drake’s taxi line, aiming for an airport run from either the hotel or Playboy nee Palmolive Building across the way. In line ahead were some of the more enterprising hacks fronting for Hilton-grade hookers, dropping off the marks and johns, taking their tips in fat, perfumed envelopes, with the occasional carnal bonus.

          Instead, a half-hour wait and creep landed me two insulting sales reps slamming through my cab doors, late for the North Shore after a week of cold calls and mighty hot about it. Darkness was falling, with light rain at that, as we wove through slowing Lake Shore Drive, snarling waves to one side of four by four traffic lanes. A wall of soaring condo hi-rose to the other, looking down on a two-way ribbon of vehicle lights, shoreline and vast blanket of indigo water.                  Lake Shore Drive

          The plaintive fares directed me off to Lakeview at Diversey Harbor, cutting through Lincoln Park on Cannon Drive past the Alexander Hamilton and Von Goethe Monuments, unloading them at a pub near Diversey Parkway, greasing me with one buck ten, bickering over the meter and bitching out my curbside door to a windy, heavier rain.

          Then I turned on my little radio to drown them out, hitting of all tunes, ‘Diamonds and Rust’, Joan Baez calling Dylan a pathetic wimp, which haunted me Syd-wise to where it struck me that I was a total whipped-ass failure unless I somehow made good on our San Francisco dream.

          At that downer note, I doused my roof light and gunned over to Clark Street, wipers smearing the windshield like Karo on hotcakes—dodging jaywalkers scrambling against the rainfall. For a moment, I felt like side-tripping up past the old Rainbow Gardens Ballroom at Lawrence Avenue, recalling that magic Sunday night when it had become the Kinetic Playground, and the bill was debut national tours by Santana, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, one after another, for sawbuck or so.

          Rather, a bright little coffee shop on the corner of Arlington Place caught my eye, rain was coming down in sheets by now, and a parking spot opened up three slots away.

          Time was right to shut 3192 down for a stretch, get back to scribbling some ads, but package what? No denying I’d relapsed into an old Vienna beef red-hot habit since returning, and wasn’t that far from Wrigleyville at the moment, so Hamm’s Beer and spicy mustard came to mind: ‘A Bear of a Beer’, ‘Fire-Breathing Dogs’—useless hack drivel like that.

          When I could bladder no more coffee refills, no more nearby table talk about ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’ versus ‘Fernwood 2-Night’, and back of napkin ideas dried up with a jittery counter-top spill, I covered my head with a tabloid Sun-Times and darted for the cab. The plan was to deadhead all the way down Clark Street toward the Checker garage—no drunks, no ski masks, no Dr. H.H. Holmes or gruesome Gacy types, fare-wise—go off duty, but that only lasted as far as the Old Town Triangle. This early spring rainstorm was intensifying, and a power trio of snappily dressed gents had sprinted over from Wells Street in drenched pursuit of a taxi, not so much hailing one as hurling themselves my way.

          “Chicago, driver,” said one of the three, peering in through 3192’s opened rear door, as they all stood shaking off the raindrops, then ducking one by one into the cab.

          “Chicago? Where,” I asked over my shoulder.

          “U.C.,” said the smaller of two tweed figures, shuddering in the cold and damp.

          “See what?” I asked, wiping clear a fogging windshield with a little cab gab, then flipping my flag.

          “The university, Sherlock,” the first added, popping his head through the shield’s small sliding window. “Hyde Park, take the lake side…”

          “Oh, gotcha, I’m kind of used to thinking C.U.,” I managed a smile into my rear view mirror as I left turned onto North Avenue, the fare settling into the Checker’s roomy, wallboard-stiff back seat.

          Nothing more was said through the plexiglass, although the passengers muffled comments to one another—a snicker or so salted in—between the two, that is, since the third man, more in gray, wide peak lapelled three-piece mode, had yet to utter a word. This wasn’t my idea of a fare worth stopping for, but at least we were headed in the right direction for the Checker garage.

          Far as I could see, they appeared to be in their late 20s, self-assured and selectively polyester groomed, in an Ivy League cognate sort of way. From there, I took my cue, piped down, eyes on the North Avenue traffic ahead, back over to Lake Shore Drive, then rounding Streeterville past Lake Point condo towers and Navy Pier.

           I followed a stream of contrailing southbound tail lights, changing lanes here and there, but otherwise steadying the Superba’s gas pedal on manual cruise control past Chicago Harbor. I tapped its dashboard with my fingertips to the clicking of the meter and slapping of windshield wipers, setting my mind free like I was back on Interstate 80.

          How the downtown skyline had grown in two short years; could Buckingham Fountain be that carved granite/marble regal and colorful? The Grant Park of ’68 Democratic Convention disturbances sat largely dark and quiet now, the whole world no longer watching. Blue police helmets and nightsticks, Yippies, Bobby Seale, Kunstler, Weinglass and Hoffman gone the way of Laugh-In and Hair. I floored it toward the floodlit Field Natural History Museum straight on, 1930’s era Shedd Aquarium no less dazzling to its left.

          Further out tree-trimmed Solidarity Drive, extending well into Lake Michigan itself, an accompanying Adler Planetarium and Northerly Island could barely be seen in the driving rain. Barely more visible was the civil aviation battened down along Meigs Field tarmacs and Burnham Harbor. No denying, the Windy City’s downtown lakefront was gorgeous and majestic, even on a dreary, Hizzoner-less night like this. But as the rain pounded, Drive traffic thinned some and my back seat riders more animatedly debated spiraling inflation, graph-busting interest rates and what Milton Friedman would do about them, I drifted off along the ink black Lakefront Trail.

          Oblivious to the festering housing projects eyes right, my mind revisited that morose post-Garfunkel album, ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ Paul Simon moaning on about doing it for her love. Crumbling Prairie District tenements blocks set me to rather reflecting on Melissa, like running lights shimmering over the lake waters, and what we were going to do about the two of us, or three, as the case may have been.

          I could feel the crooner’s ‘Night Game’ dislocation and ennui well past the death-trap cellblocks of Robert Taylor Homes into Drexel and Kenwood, paralleling historic Prairie Avenue, rallying to the still fresh and fleeting freedom of Interstate 70 upon singing ‘Gone at Last’ under my windshield frosting breath. The very notion of stalling and settling here this way sent me shuddering into ‘50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’. No, that was too crazy, given how Moon was so good, so kind, treating me so much better than other humans did. If only I could have figured out what exactly was ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’.

          “Take the 57th Street cut-off, driver,” shouted the passenger directly behind me, interrupting their non-stop geopolitical dissection of GDP deficits and Import-Export Bank trade imbalances through the Straussian Chicago School’s maroon-colored eyes.

          “Cross the park?” I asked, refocusing to survey South Lake Shore exit signs.

          “Affirmative, over to the U of C campus…step on it,” said his colleague, still not a peep out of the obscure figure hugging the right rear door.

          “Gotcha, ditch the scenic route,” I smiled into the mirror, minding the digital spin of my meter.

          Where once stood the vibrant White City of 1893 World Columbian Exposition fame, now sprawled the landscaped but shaggy beauty of Jackson Park. And crowning the south lakefront band of Rainbow City gems was that fair’s Palace of Fine Arts, which became the Museum of Science and Industry during Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933. Tonight, S&I glowed like thermonuclear Versailles despite the rainfall—that marvy tactile playground of trains, planes, coal mines and horseless carriages. We looped around East 57th Drive and Cornell Avenue, across Stony Island Avenue into Hyde Park proper as could be.          Museum of Science and Industry

          Even after all the ensuing  years, the UC campus remained an academic mystery to me, as did the august university itself. Here was no run of the treadmill institution, Chicago wasn’t land grant, it was Rockefeller grant, full of Nobel Laureates and other resident geniuses, quietly, almost mysteriously set apart from the city at large, much less indigenous public school half-wits like me—an academic island renowned and celebrated by intelligentsia worldwide.

          But at least Northwestern had football and DePaul hoops to distinguish them in Sunday sports sections; all the Maroons had going with their gridiron was that fissiony business being reacted under the grandstand. Refuting the postulation that preseason pigskin rankings outclassed Mensa sheepskin benchmarks and key socioeconomic indicators.

          “Keep going, over to 58th and Woodlawn,” the fares directed me. They were now dissecting runaway monetary policy and the profligate IMF.

          “That’s right, drop us at biz…”

          “There we go,” I pulled up to stately old Chicago’s modern steel and glass all-business school, pointing to a double-digit meter. “You fellows all together?”

          “No, this leg’s just the two of us,” they handed me a ten, the third passenger a fiver. “We’re splitting the cab with this gentleman…just keep the difference, friend. Driver, a receipt please, we’re expensing…”

          “Yeah, uh, sure…” I filled out a receipt, handing it back through the sliding plexi window.

          “Right…driver, I’m stayin’ on,” the quiet guy finally spoke, leaning forward into the window.

          “Where…to?” I faltered, noting that he was smooth, light-skinned black man, short-cropped Afro, beard salon trimmed.

          “Just keep going out Woodlawn. Catch Cottage Grove up to 60th Street, then cut over to King Drive, hang a left at Prairie.”

          “O-kayyy,” I re-tripped the meter, studying this rider, anxiety setting in with the prospect of leaving the relative civility of Hyde Park, wombish home to presidents past and Hopeful future, to the meaner Chicago streets beyond the Chicago School. This was exactly the sort of fare I was looking to avoid, what made hacking one of the most stressful, perilous occupations in this workaday world. I couldn’t have felt more vulnerable had I been fare trolling the Robert Taylor Homes. “You all knew each other or…”

          “Let’s just say we were good-time buddies from way back,” the passenger grinned, facing closely forward to the shield window. “All the way back to about two hours ago.”

          “Pretty funny, ” I said flatly, gunning through a yellow light at MLK Drive, drilling through my mind on quick sliding the plexiglass over my shoulder in one slam of my palm. “Say, this is heading into Englewood, isn’t it?”

          “Bingo, friend…any problem…”

          “Uh, no…not that I know of…” Then why did I flash on Bobby Seal and H. Rap Brown, their ‘hate whitey’ Black Liberation—James Cone’s ‘Black Theology & Black Power’,

          “Good day for cabbing, rain and everything?”

          “Uh, not all that hot…” My heart began racing once we reached Prairie Avenue, and I busily wiped the fogging windshield with the sleeve of my old fleece jacket.

          I nearly blurted that all my trip money was in a floorboard safe I couldn’t open, but bit my tongue, figuring he likely was already hip to that whole taxicab deal. It was all I could do to downplay my shift’s take, and cram cigar box tips deeply into my jeans pockets, trying to get a read on whether he was merely penny-ante or acutely pathological.

          Prairie at 60th Street turned out to be as dark and decrepit as a South Side ’hood could be, many of its remaining houses and apartments rotting and boarded up, behind broken picket fences, steel-gated doors, between weedy leveled lots of long stalled redevelopment. The fare poked his long-nailed index finger through the shield window, pointing me over across from a still lived-in two-flat brick tenement mid block, CTA Englewood Line elevated tracks rumbling through was passed for its back yard.

          The stretch was otherwise deserted in this relentless rain, which left me kicking myself for not shutting that partition window and locking up when Hyde Park was still in 3192’s headlights. That’s when I checked my rearview mirror, spotting a shiny chrome pistol the passenger had pulled from his suit vest pocket.

          Was this a cut and run, or even worse, a gun and run? Gang or bang? Colored pride or prejudice, or turf colors flying? Should I stay and pay or slam and scram? Was I gonna jump ship or end up in that Marquette Park lagoon?! Adrenaline was pressure pumping, and I gripped the Superba’s steering wheel like the helm of a sinking schooner, poised to duck and roll my way out the driver’s door.

          “Mind if I smoke?” he asked, cocking his Derringer-shaped cigarette lighter, pulling its trigger to fire up the Benson & Hedges 100 now pressed between his lips. “Been a long day for me, too, bro, was sunny when I left here this morning.”

          “Like they say, smoke ’em if you got ’em,” I sighed in relief, willing to suck up the tar and nicotine, hoping his pistol of a lighter wasn’t a dual purpose device.

          “But it’s been a good one for me, too,” he drew heavily on his cigarette, blowing rings around my shield window, motioning me toward a weathered yellow and black Buick Riviera, parked under the block’s lone working street lamp. “Like the man says, when it rains, it snows…”

          “Who needs that, right?” I pictured the salty plows and Chicago Lawn’s tactical, territorial furniture, making uneasy conversation.

          But those images were quickly eclipsed by recent news accounts on cabbies getting robbed and roughed up repeatedly in ’hoods like this all over the South and West Sides. As in gravely cracked skulls and sliced organs over little more than gratuitous pocket change outside a Cabrini-Green ghetto in the sky, its packin’ public housing thugs and crooked vertical cop patrols banging on their wire-screened balconies like locked-down lifers in a Stateville cellblock. Vinyl topped Riviera: really, had to be a pimp or coke mobile on the skids—I flicker scanned about for any banger accomplices lurking in the shadows.

          “Lotsa folk, yessiree,” he smiled, cancer stick bobbing in the corner of his mouth as he pocketed the lighter, instead pulling a silver money clip and thick roll out of his jacket liner pocket, peeling off a couple more bills. “Me, I’m in redevelopment my own self —this block’s one of my assignment projects. But got a little side action, understand? Couple more nights like this, and I’ll be trading in the Riv there, exploitin’ me a new Lincoln ride—diamond in the back, sunroof top, diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean—can you dig it? Yessir, blow Englewood altogether. Where you live, man?”

          “Who, me? Uh, I’m just…visiting,” I said hesitantly, reaching for the twenty and five he dished through the sliding plexi window, anxious to make change when he gestured for me to keep it with a soul brotherly clasp of hands.

          I clumsily held back a smoky cough, exhale gladhanding like a honky shoeshine boy—weighing the odds that I might be de facto dodging a bullet. “Hey, you sure? I mean, talk about a gentleman and a scholar. Can’t thank you enough…”

          “No sweat, man,” the fare winked, over the clanky roar of a seven-car northbound L train, slipping out the right rear cab door into an easing rain.“That’s mighty white of you…”

Care for more?

Chapter 39. Extremists hold their ground, 
necessitating a meeting of other minds, 
and leap of smarter, secular faith…