Thursday, February 25, 2010

MEN ONLY

Posted By on 02.25.10 at 11:00 AM

men_only.jpg
Coming up to Damen Avenue Friday night after 1AM, driving west on Webster past the expressway underpass on the northern edge of Bucktown; two squat forms wave, then shuffle up to the taxi. Both men look to be in their late 40s: stout, compact, and bespectacled. The one without the thick black mustache asks for a Clark Street address in the Loop, so we hit the highway ramp and are off. The litany begins even before we merge into the downtown-bound traffic: "They don't like you, Bob, in fact they hate your guts."

He had a speech impediment that turned his Rs and Ls into Ws, making him sound a bit like Elmer Fudd.

"They can't stand you. Admit it, they don't even like you," he continued, while Bob suffered in weary silence. "It's because you're a troublemaker, Bob, why you have to be like that?"

Several variations on the theme followed, punctuated by emphatic gestures of pudgy hands, before Bob could stand it no more, asking in a gruff but quiet voice, "Why? Why don't they like me and they like you? I didn't do nothing to them."

His tormentor, snot running unrestrained from nose into mouth, had a ready answer, "They see you bossing me around, they don't like it. Why you always boss me around, Bob? They like me because I buy 'em drinks. They don't like you at all. They can't stand you, Bob. Admit it."

There was a practiced, almost ritualized rhythm to the list of grievances. The plaintive tone was more child's whine than adult's vent; they'd done this many times before and both knew their roles.

We pulled up to a MEN ONLY sign on Clark, starkly backlit in white, advertising a transients' hotel. It stood across the street from the Federal Corrections facility—an ominously sharp-angled concrete high rise with vertical slits for windows. A rummy ran screaming incoherently toward the staircase below that sign, as Bob's companion popped out of the cab and went inside. The Board of Trade is around the corner and in the daytime the seedy, forlorn feel of this block is disguised by the bustle of the throngs. At 1:30 AM there's no such buffer, the liquor store a few doors down providing the only beacon of activity.

Bob sat quietly waiting for his partner, who returned, panting, "He said they're at Midway." So it was back onto the freeway en route to the little airport on the southwest side.

The listing of Bob's faults resumed, and his only defense was to insert, "I take care of you" occasionally amid his partner's assertions. At the curb on the desolate arrivals level at Midway Bob got on his phone, reciting landmarks such as the airline names listed above the locked sliding doors to someone on the other end. "Is this a bus terminal?" he asked me. Their friends were apparently at the bus stop, so we circled back down to the lower level, Bob narrating the trek with vivid descriptions of all that passed before his eyes out the left rear window. Two scruffy types approached and made as if to get into the taxi. "Can you take us to Toyota Park?" one asked.

I begged off. Bob paid up, asking for a receipt and inspecting it carefully, then wandered away with his friends in search of further transport. Why were they going to a soccer stadium in the suburbs before the break of dawn? Was Bob really such a bad guy? These as well as many other queries would go unanswered. A cab ride allows but an obstructed glimpse into the lives of those conveyed and to ask more would be to ask too much . . .

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