The winter is now our reality. The long commute, the grey slush and trudge through unplowed streets. The digging out of cars with ice picks, spaces claimed with lawn chairs like flags on the moon. Forty-five minutes on a two-story L platform, as the wind whips and the heating lamp overhead is recently broke. Summer is so long ago these grey days, it seems it never existed.
This is the burden of Chicago. The great paradox: we have a president-elect and a governor to evict. A city that works and neighborhoods where work is harder to come by. Food deserts and top chefs, Gold Coasts and Lawndales, we are Division Streets and Austin, viaducts and train line segregation, Rogers and Hyde Park bizarres, the flattest of Plaines with the tallest of buildings, we are the center of the country and the most overlooked, the summer and the winter; we live fully in the breadth of the possible.
I met Jack on the Brown line. He hopped on at Lake Street, boisterous in Army-Navy Surplus, a XXL army green coat with a hunter's orange lining. His coat is open and his big belly jiggles as he sits in the seat directly in front of me. He seems like a drunk Santa an hour or two after shift, but Jack says tomorrow is his birthday and it's been three years since his last drink and his last ex-wife, and tonight he's heading home from an A.A. meeting. His body big enough for train seats built for two.
Jack says his favorite Christmas movie is Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a made-for-TV special that premiered in 1964. It tells the story of Rudolph who is looking for a place where he belongs and finds the island of misfit toys; a toy solider with a leg missing, the wind-up drummer whose off-beat and missing a stick. Jack says he could be king of this island.
He'll exit at Belmont and transfer to the red line toward Uptown where he rents a room for a $150 a month with other sober people he says, who stay to themselves and who sometimes share a meal. He's talking non-stop as he rises on silver sticks at Fullerton; he says he's working on a screenplay about an alcoholic who creates a talk radio show and is trying to put his life back together as he tries to help others with their lives on the call in, and it kinda goes back and forth between the people and this guy like a mirror he says, right before the doors open at Belmont. Now i gave you my one bright idea, he says back to me, still sitting in my Brown Line seat as he readies to walk off the train. You're not gonna steal it are ya? Jack smiles like a drunk Santa as the black plastic binds the doors, and separates us between steel and glass. He stares at me and yells, what the hell, it's yours! Turning and walking across the wooden platform, to wait for the Red, Howard light charging north-bound.
And to me this is Chicago; the unbelievable poetry and tragedy and comedy. And should we believe Jack or Barack or Blagojevich or any crazy man talking on a train? Santa, himself, was touched up by Coke in a Chicago Ad Agency. These are happy holidays and tough times, and we will stay working and grinding in this immense hustle, telling gigantic tales to anyone who listens, trying to piece together our fractured lives and find our place among the misfits.