West Side Lullaby | Fiction | Chicago Reader

West Side Lullaby 

It's after midnight and the streets are nothing but empty cabs. We're driving in circles, jockeying for worthless positions, waiting for the smallest crumbs to fall.

Mine's a guy in a suit and tie who staggers out of a piano bar. If it wasn't for drunks we'd probably all be on welfare. Laughter drifts from the bar, imitation jazz. One door closes, another opens.

"Madison Street," he says and the smell hits. Cognac and expensive cigars, I decide, but he's struck out all the same.

"Long street," I say, cutting across empty lanes. I head down Clark Street. "Where you goin'?" Past a three-cab line in front of a blues club. A true-blue nothing night.

"I'll let you know when we get there." A trace of an accent, a bit of a drawl, way too much attitude.

"Gotta know where you're goin', pal."

He's a rugged-looking guy, 50 or 60 or a bit beyond, with thinning gray hair and a slender white scar that runs straight down from one eye. We lock eyes in the mirror, then a ten comes sailing over the back of my seat. "Humor me a little, OK?" The drawl's gone.

"Sure," I say as I tuck the bill away. "But how 'bout a hint?"

"Why don't we start at the beginning."

"Why not?" Straight out of The Wild Bunch. William Holden: Fifty thousand dollars cuts an awful lot of family ties.

Wacker to South Water to Michigan. He's probably going to a corporate apartment at Presidential Towers, or maybe to the Quality Inn. Either way, we're going the long way around. Fine by me. This is his last chance to play big shot. In the morning, he'll just be another clown with a hangover and empty pockets. W.C. Fields: Hey, bartender, did I spend a hundred dollar bill in here last night? Big smile. Why yes, sir, you did. Thank god, I thought I'd lost it.

"Madison Street," I say as I start through the Loop. We go under the elevated and over the river and past the train station, and he doesn't say a word as Presidential Towers and then the Quality Inn flash by.

"Where'd they all go?" he asks a few blocks later. "Christ, this used to be wall-to-wall winos. They'd be sittin' all up and down the sidewalk drinking cheap wine, passed out or dead. I mean, there wouldn't be one empty spot."

Those were the days, I think, and I remember that sickening smell, being trapped on a Madison Street bus on a hot summer afternoon trying not to breathe.

"Probably all dead," he says.

"More than likely," I agree. Dead and buried in potter's field, one on top of another in a long trench, cheap pine boxes, no marker, no mourners, the We Haul Anything Cartage Company instead of a hearse. Where have all the winos gone?

Now there's acres of fresh cement, fancy flower boxes in the median, condos in place of flop houses, restaurants and bars without a single drop of muscatel, then block after block of clean-as-a-whistle parking lots, leading up to that sports arena/space station/ shopping mall named after those hometown morons who tried to destroy "Rhapsody in Blue."

"Tore the old place down, looks like."

"Yep."

"Too bad," he says.

Yep again. I passed it a million times and never went inside. Too late now. Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita on Channel Nine.

The flower boxes and the new pavement play out just before Western Avenue. "How much farther?" I ask, and I hit the power door locks, the greatest advance in taxicab technology since the fast meter.

"I'm not really sure," the guy says as I start dodging potholes as big as bomb craters.

"The farther we go, the worse it's gonna get."

"What are you afraid of?"

"Somebody might want to take target practice."

He laughs. "Who?"

He's got a point. There's nobody on the street. Most of the buildings are gone. Moonscape and rubble, and junk dumped directly under NO DUMPING signs nailed to thriving stink trees. Trees of heaven, the cockroach of horticulture. It's the perfect tree for West Madison. It needs almost no nourishment. It's the gangbanger of the prairie.

We pass a burned-out record store and then a storefront church without a single window or door. The inside's a mess of windblown garbage, urban tumbleweeds. The watering troughs are missing. Frank Miller must be coming again. This time even Gary Cooper's run away.

A liquor store stands next to a storefront medical center. Both closed. Both with every window bricked up solid. Half pints and dirty needles. If the right one don't get you, the left one will. No grocery store in sight.

Everybody's gone but the dope dealers. They've got a line even on a quiet night. Everybody--black, white, and shades between--sitting patiently in their cars waiting for some not-quite-teenage kids to deliver that fantastic magic potion. One of the kids whistles and waves as we pass, pointing toward the end of the line.

"Just like TV," my passenger says.

My headlights find a lone streetcar track. Boomtown to bust in less than a hundred years.

What a waste of time.

A couple of skanky hookers lounge in front of a low viaduct. Is this what he's looking for? One waves halfheartedly, as if she knows no one will ever again be interested. She flashes a toothless smile. "Safer to go swimming in a sewer." Did he just change his mind?

A squad car passes going in the opposite direction. Neither cop looks our way and I wonder if they'll pay any attention to the line of cars a few blocks ahead. I glance in the rearview. They turn off. We serve but don't observe.

Hardly any parked cars, most are burned out or stripped. You get enough money to buy a car, you drive it straight out of the neighborhood. The ghetto in my rearview mirror. Hello, north side. How do you like my radio?

So what the hell are we doing here? "You mind telling me what you're looking for?"

"Damned if I know," he drawls. "Last time I was here was 1964."

"You're shitting me."

"People start talking about where they were when John Kennedy got killed, I tell 'em I was sitting in a barbershop on the west side of Chicago getting my hair cut by a little I-talian guy name of Pasquale. Christ, I'll never forget, longest haircut in history."

"You're not gonna find any Italians out here tonight."

"No. I gotta admit it's worse than I thought. But boy, you should have seen it back then. It was really something."

We're in the center of the riot zone. There's nothing for blocks. But I can still detect the faint scent of charred wood decades after the last ember has died. I know it's just a trick of memory but all the same there's my father standing on the roof of the building he loved so much. We're watching the smoke from the riot drift over our heads. The same as in real life, nobody says a word.

"The late, great, west side."

I gesture at the landscape that survived.

I wonder if my father knew what was coming, that day on the roof. He'd actually sold a building in Lincoln Park to buy on the west side. Some joke, huh? But it had never, ever, been spoken of, and never would be now. Too late once again. Location. Location. Location.

"You might as well turn around," the guy finally decides. "How about the Marriott."

"Downtown?"

"The one on Michigan Avenue."

I start to make a U-turn. "Wait. Let's see what that light is." Up ahead, some neon glows. "Son of a bitch," he says as we get closer. MITCHELL'S, the neon says in red. An unlit Budweiser sign hangs over the door. "Stop," he says, and I oblige across from the bar. It's the only building left on the block. Must have damn near melted from the flames.

"I can't believe it's still here," he says softly, amazed.

"Bet there's a slightly different crowd."

"Same name."

"Too cheap to buy a new sign."

"Let's go in and have a few."

"Yeah, right."

He throws a 20 over the seat. "Stick that in your pocket and I'll buy the drinks."

He can't be serious. "They've got guns out here." I tuck the 20 away.

"Hell, they've got guns everywhere."

"Yeah, but here they'll kill you just for being white."

"Son, I've been all over the world and one thing I've learned, if you treat people with respect you usually don't have many problems."

Jesus, he is serious. "You married?"

He nods at the mirror. "Thirty-one years."

"How's your wife gonna feel, you get yourself killed in some ghetto bar?"

"I'll take my chances," he says.

"And I'll wait right here."

"One drink," he says.

"Not gonna happen." What do you call a ghetto cash station? Taxicab.

"Don't you ever get tired of being afraid?"

"Hey, fuck you, pal," I say. They're aren't five drivers in town would have even brought him out here.

"What's the worst could happen?"

"They kill us," I say. Seems simple enough.

"Everybody dies." So soft I almost see my own funeral. Nobody's there. Who'd miss me besides a kid I haven't seen in years? A snapshot: we're holding hands at Buckingham Fountain on a hot, windy day, laughing in the spray.

I coast a few feet to the next cross street, make a U-turn in the intersection. "I'm probably going to regret this," I say.

He sticks a big hand over the front seat. "Name's Floyd," he says, a big smile on his face. Is he that drunk or is he just really, really stupid? Look in the mirror. Fools such as I.

"Eddie," I say as we shake. "Make sure that door's locked."

I slip a canister of Mace into my pocket.

Floyd leads the way. It's been a long time since I've been on a West Madison sidewalk. Hey, mister, wanna buy a chance? If the boys could see me now.

Floyd smiles with memories. "Used to be a used car lot here." He gestures toward a patch of weeds. "Whitey's," Floyd says. "Had a thing about Fords."

"Pitched for the Yankees," I say.

He reaches the door and finds it locked. "Shit." He shakes the door then peers through a small diamond-shaped window. "People in there," he says, and he starts to knock. Amber bar light glows through hazy Plexiglass.

"Closing time," I say. I head back for the cab thinking: forget about ever seeing that 20 again.

"Open up," Floyd shouts, and he knocks harder.

"Jesus, take it easy." You could get killed pounding on doors in this part of town. A buzzer sounds. Floyd pushes the door open.

It's just a small neighborhood place, could be anywhere in town. The lights are low, assorted beer signs, some brands long out of business. There's a bar along the far wall, a curve by the front. The stools are mismatched. Some have backs but most don't. They're covered in red or black vinyl, patched with matching tape. A row of three-sided booths is covered in red. A jukebox stands silent against the back wall, tiny Italian lights flashing to some unheard beat.

Three guys sitting around the curve watch our entrance. They're all black, of course. The oldest is probably pushing 70. He's wearing a beret and tiny octagon-shaped glasses. Right on rye bread. Burn, baby, burn.

The other two are decades younger. They're both wearing CTA bus driver uniforms but neither drives the Happy Bus. The TV's above their head, some old movie with the sound down low.

The bartender is a kid in his 20s. He's tall and thin, with a tiny beard, bushy eyebrows, and longish curly hair. He looks like an old-time bartender: rolled sleeves, a black vest, white apron. He's got the reach on everyone in the room.

The only other customer is a small guy sitting all alone at the far end of the bar. He's staring into his drink and from the looks of it, that's all the company he'll ever need.

The bartender drums his fingers on the bar as we approach. He looks to his right. He looks to his left.

"Evening," Floyd says.

"Boss'll be right down," the bartender says. And I hear footsteps coming down a staircase somewhere behind me.

"Don't need any boss," Floyd says. "Just some Tennessee whiskey." He moves a couple of stools out of the way and stakes out a position in the center of the bar. "Call yours," he says.

"Beer," I decide. One beer. The bartender doesn't move.

A door opens behind him. "Fellows, fellows," a short black guy steps out. "What seems to be the problem?" He's got a healthy potbelly and a shiny bald head. He's tucking in the tails of his shirt.

"No problem," Floyd says. "Just stopped for a drink."

"A drink? Sure. Anything at all. Not too often we get the pleasure of serving the department. What'll it be?"

Floyd shakes his head. "We're not with any department."

The boss looks to the bartender. The bartender shrugs. One of the bus drivers slips off his stool and looks out the front window. "Sky Blue Cab," he announces.

"I used to drink in here years ago," Floyd explains. "Just passing through town, thought I'd stop by."

The boss begins to laugh. "Oh, goddamn," he says, funniest thing he's heard all week. "Get these boys a drink." He waves at the bartender and shouts, "Service!" He can't stop laughing. The bus drivers and the old-timer join in the cheer.

Floyd glances my way. I shake my head. This wasn't my idea.

"You had that big Chrysler, didn't you?"

Floyd moves closer, peers across the bar. "Do I know you?"

"Oh, that was some beautiful car," the boss says and then he speaks to the bar at large. "Beautiful New Yorker, two-tone, white and lavender. Name's Mitchell," he says extending his hand. "This is my place."

"You're not the Mitchell I remember," Floyd says as they shake. "I know that much."

"Oh, hell no." Mitchell explodes in laughter. "I was just some kid working in the car wash. But the day I saw that For Sale sign under my own name, I knew this place was meant for me."

"Goddamn," Floyd suddenly remembers. "You worked at the gas station."

"That's right," Mitchell says, and he smiles back. "This was some beautiful neighborhood, way back when."

"The best," Floyd says. "Do you remember..."

And just like that, they're off to the races.

I sip my beer as one story follows another, then get up and take a look out the front window. The cab's fine. I walk to the back and slip a buck in the jukebox. Bobby Timmons, Ahmad Jamal, Clarence Carter. Best dollar I've spent in a while, I decide, and I put another nickel in. Sam Cooke, Hartman and Coltrane, Ramsey Lewis.

I'm halfway through my second beer when one of the bus drivers carries his drink over. "How long you been pushing a hack?" he asks.

"Long enough to know better." My stock reply.

"Drove for Yellow for eight years, until I got wise." He points to his bus driver's badge.

"A thinking fellow drives a Yellow." I remember an old advertising slogan.

"Shh-it," he says. "Not the ones I been seeing. Name's Ron."

"Eddie," I say.

Ron lowers his voice. "How much you get, bring this old boy out here?"

"Thirty so far and the meter's still running."

He shows me all his teeth. "That's nice," he says. "I took a guy down to Peoria one day, waited for him to drop an envelope and came right back. Seven hours, 400 dollars."

"I never get those," I say sadly.

"Another time I ran a whole load of people up to Wisconsin in the middle of a blizzard, couldn't see the goddamn road half the time. Nobody out but some trucks and me. I came back with close to 600 but it took me damn near two days."

"Nice."

"I sort of question your judgment, walking in here."

I nod my head. "I question it myself."

"I figure that's a piece in your pocket," he whispers.

I shrug. Might be.

"I keep a .32 in the transfer pouch," he whispers. "Someday one of these punks is gonna make me use it and I'll be back at Yellow."

The bartender turns down the lights and slips a jacket on. "See you tomorrow, Mitch," he says as he heads for the door.

"Is it that late already?" Mitchell looks up. He starts to say something to the fleeing bartender, then changes his mind. "Oh, why not?" he says. "Who's ready?"

Everybody is. I switch to bourbon. "On the house," Mitchell says and he takes the same bottle down to the far end of the bar and pours into the glass sitting in front of the small man.

"You're gonna drink yourself to death, Red," he says. "Then where am I gonna be?"

Red doesn't answer. He continues to stare into his drink.

We're swapping cab stories when Ron holds a finger to his lips. "She was just a slip of a thing," Floyd is telling Mitchell. "Red hair and tiny little freckles. She had this way of walking, swear to god, I'd know it was her a mile away."

"Wish I could help you out," Mitchell says. "But I don't remember any Brenda. Hell, I was only in this place twice before I bought it. Day I saw the For Sale sign, and the day me and old man Mitchell signed the papers. I never missed a payment."

"Knew it had to be a woman," Ron whispers.

At 4 AM, Mitchell shuts the party down. "Sorry, boys, I hate to do it, but I've got to open in the morning."

Everyone else staggers out, then Mitchell walks us to the door. "You ever back in town," he tells Floyd, "stop by."

"I'll bring the family." Floyd goes along with the gag.

"That'd be something," Mitchell says. He follows us outside and gestures at the wasteland around us. "I used to talk about having a reunion for all the old-timers. I guess it's just as well."

"If you ever hear from Brenda," Floyd says.

Mitchell shakes his head. "I gotta give you credit for trying." He waves and walks back inside.

A moment later there's a loud clatter as a black metal door begins to descend. Within seconds, the entire storefront disappears behind it. We stagger out to the cab.

"Want me to drive?"

Floyd offers.

"I'm fine," I say. Finer than Floyd by a long shot.

"Be a son of a bitch," Floyd whispers as he slides into the back seat. "You left the meter running."

"Wasn't my idea to go inside." I crank the starter.

"Eddie, my boy," he mumbles, "I do believe I've been taken

for a ride."

Floyd's asleep before I hit the highway. He wakes up still muttering. The meter's just shy of $60 and I get three crisp 20s. "Worth every penny," he says, dropping the bills over the seat one at a time. "You're a hell of a man, Eddie." He works his way out of the cab. "Hell of a man."

I tuck the money away then start up Rush Street, the only cab in sight. It's that one hour when the city almost sleeps. There's always someone looking for a cab. But it won't be Brenda. Not tonight or any night. She's just a whiskey-soaked pipe dream, a slip of a memory, as elusive as any old west-side dream.

I slam the Not for Hire sign down, switch the top light off, and make the turn for home. Mitchell was right, I decide, you had to give Floyd credit for trying. In a few hours, he'd wake with a hangover, empty pockets, and a dream as dead as the worst block of Madison Street. I almost feel bad taking his money.

Underline almost.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Maine.

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