A young man in a long coat and short-brimmed fedora stood on the sunny sidewalk, looking around while writing on a folded sheet of paper he braced with a book. He caught me peering so I made up a lie about being interested in what he was reading.
With a broad smile, he walked up to me and lightning rattled facts on “The Power of Your Subconscious Mind,” the book in his hand. Over the next 40 seconds, he told me about unconscious reasoning, subliminal messages, the placebo effect, a British magician, the functions of the human brain and his own personal system he had developed to capitalize on all these features.
I caught a peek at his sheet of paper. It was filled with lines of font-like handwriting. The top line said “How will this make money?”
I made a polite excuse and moved on — I had a story to find.
It was Friday afternoon and I was due to post the 100th of the 1,001 Chicago Afternoons stories on Monday. Running my usual late, I had decided to hit the streets in search of some story, any story to tell.
I walked the half block to a bakery where I knew I could buy a cup of coffee. While I waited for a young hipstery type to check if there were any for-here mugs, a woman in an apron slowly walked out of the back carrying a log on a plate. She set the plate on a counter, then raised the camera that was hanging from her neck.
The log, a perfect chunk of wood from a mossy area of the forest floor, was made of chocolate cake. It was a traditional bûche de Noël, the woman told me. A Christmas yule log of pastry, dappled with mushrooms of meringue. The bakery is famous for its cakes designed to look like dragons, Tim Burton monsters, hamburgers, R2-D2s, Cats in Hats and other non-cake magic. The display window was filled with pitch-perfect cake replicas of the cast of the 1960s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” stop-motion Christmas special.
I grabbed my coffee and went to the seating area to fret over finding something interesting to write about.
I had an errand to run downtown so I walked Ashland past the cell phone place with the three-foot-tall, multicolored statue of Death to wait for the bus near the U-Haul store that also hosts ping pong tournaments. As the bus headed in the direction of the shop full of French cognac ads and the woman next to me with the purse made out of an old Janis Joplin LP texted, a group of teenagers got on board.
Two girls cooed over a boy of 14 or 15, teasing him and ruffling his afro. One of them sat in his lap to mess with him further.
“He’s such a man now because he’s had his first kiss,” the girl in his lap said to their gathered friends before turning to the bus as a whole. “Everybody! Rupert has had his first kiss! It was two weeks ago!”
I grumbled and looked out the window. How’s a guy supposed to come up with a story about touching universal themes with this loud crap going on?
It was dark by the time my errand was done, that 5 p.m. black that marks a Chicago winter. I was heading out to the suburbs to meet old friends for a night of poker and the affectionate bullshit reporters tell each other. I headed south past the seminary that only trains Polish immigrants and the cathedral with the pink statue of a human foot outside.
I walked past hotels and Starbucks and more goddamn Starbucks, past a hunched old man sitting on a bench outside Pizzeria Due eating a bag of frozen peas with a plastic spoon, past the Trib, past the Goat, past the docks that marked my first Chicago job.
I passed beggars and shoppers and fancy-pants commuters, walked over a bridge where a lone child’s glove decked in pink hearts waited on the wooden crosswalk. I walked past places I’ve fallen in love, past places I’ve fallen out of love, past the building where I interviewed a bullfighting divorce attorney.
I walked through this city of rich, of poor, of heaven and hell slammed together, a city that tucks itself in to dream at night of what it never was. This madcap playground. This comforting home. This swirl where three river branches meet to form a new calm chaos. I walked through this Chicago.
Now what in the hell am I supposed to write about?