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To Women 

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I was on my way home from the Jazz Fest, the music, the crowd, the night still smoking in my head. It didn't matter that summer was almost over; the evening seemed beyond insult. I was sitting on a bench at Clark and Belden waiting for the bus when a woman's voice abruptly dissolved my thoughts.

"Hey, you got a car?"

The voice was behind me, cold and demanding. I was embarrassed by the first words that surfaced in my head: would I be on this fucking bench if I had a car? I turned around, expecting a bag lady or a freak, but what confronted me was a tall, thin presence with long, carefully braided black hair. She was shabbily dressed in a way, but you could have set her down on Michigan Avenue and her appearance might have passed the test without a second glance. Her face had that weather-beaten look that tells you not to bother trying to guess her age or her story, but it was a beautiful face, except for the dark purple circles under her eyes.

I told her no, and she turned her glare on another guy who'd just sat down.

"You got a car?"

"Yeah, right in here," he laughed, pointing to a brown paper bag in his lap.

The woman didn't flinch, but stared at the guy, who nonchalantly pulled out a beer and cracked it open.

"Got any money?"

"No."

There was a thick wall in his voice that told her she was getting nowhere. She looked in my direction again and repeated the question--same words, same tone, mechanical and furious. I reached in my pocket and gave her a fistful of change. She looked from the coins to my eyes, obviously displeased with my below-par contribution. Then, without a word, she walked to the corner and held out her thumb.

No way, I thought, would anybody pick her up. But only two minutes later a guy in a brown beater, with an empty baby chair in the backseat, pulled over and opened the door. After a brief exchange, she was gone.

Down the bench I heard the guy laughing--mostly to himself, but deliberately loud enough to draw my attention.

"Women have it made," he said in a jovial, offhand way, and shook his head.

It didn't seem to occur to him that his statement was contradicted by the entire event that had preceded it.

"Don't you think so?" he asked.

"No."

"Look, how fast do you think either me or you would've gotten a ride?"

"What does that have to do with her having it made?"

"Because any woman can use her body to get whatever or wherever she wants."

I looked away, resolved not to continue, but the guy was insistent.

"Hey, I mean it!"

"No doubt."

"You don't think so?"

"I think," I said, enunciating my words slowly, "that that's the stupidest fucking statement I've ever heard in my life."

That, I figured, would end it, Chicago-style: insult the guy, maybe get insulted back, and sit in heated silence until the bus came. He laughed.

"Hey, don't be mad. You don't have to agree with me. What's your name?"

When I didn't answer, he told me his name was George and held out his hand. For some reason, I shook it. I also really looked at him for the first time. He was big, blond haired, and deeply tanned, with a wide, open face that was taken up mostly by his eyes and teeth. There was something genuinely good-natured about him; maybe it was just goofiness.

"I never realized any of this until a few years ago," he continued. "Do you know who Constance Money is?"

I confessed that I didn't.

"She's a porn-movie actress, and I used to be her bodyguard on the west coast. You wouldn't believe the stuff that went on. Guys would do anything to hit on her. Send her stuff, do stuff. I mean anything. Look at this."

He reached into his wallet and, after a long search, pulled out a color picture of a young woman in a red bikini surrounded by men who were all looking at her in a glazed, drooling state. Sure enough, right behind the woman was George, looking a bit younger and more fit, looking vigilant and a little anxious.

"That's Constance?" I asked.

"No, that's just a friend at the Naked Kingdom photo session."

I felt a little dizzy. "Looks like awful work," I said.

"You wouldn't believe the stuff that goes on," he repeated.

I didn't want to know. I handed the picture back.

"I mean this is how it is," he rambled on. "Everywhere. Women control things with their bodies. They don't need to be in power, 'cause they already got the power. And all this Ms. magazine bullshit is just a smoke screen."

There was a pause.

"So what do you think now?" he wanted to know.

I shook my head.

George got up as the 36 bus pulled over. "You're going to be surprised one day," he warned me. As the bus door opened he reached into his bag, pulled out a beer, and handed it to me.

"Look, no hard feelings, OK?"

"No hard feelings," I answered.

He boarded and took a seat at the window in front of me while the bus idled at the light.

"Later," he called out, giving me the thumbs-up sign.

"Later," I called back.

He held up his beer in a mock gesture of a toast. "To women," he proclaimed.

"To women," I echoed.

"Whatever they are," he said. As the bus pulled away, he laughed and gave me a small private salute.

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