I thought it was one of those smokeless ashtrays they hang on the outsides of bars, but caught myself before I burned some apartment dweller’s mail.
Knathan, as I call him, saw the whole thing.
“I used to be good about that, looking for places to throw them away,” he said. “Then I set a garbage can on fire outside of a Blockbuster.”
Knathan and I were walking up Damen looking for a place to eat lunch. I was smoking, as I do when I’m around him.
The weather had taken a warm turn that would turn into rain later that afternoon and into the Alpine tundra the next morning. We had taken a shot at grabbing lunch at the always-packed taco-and-whiskey joint just south of the Bucktown/Wicker Park six corners, only to find no line but a busted kitchen instead.
I threw the butt in the street.
“Like smoking or full-on fire?” I asked as we continued north.
“Full-on fire,” he said.
We’ve known each other since we were 12 and both found Social Studies tedious. We would shoot pool and drink beer in Jeff Shelton’s rec room all through high school. The three of us took a cross-country road trip one summer after Jeff and I went off to college. We camped by a crystal-clear lake in the Rocky Mountains one night on that trip, playing with our cooking fire and basically being 18 and immortal.
Now Knathan and I have lunch when we’re both off work and remember to check with each other. I haven’t seen Jeff in years.
“I’m going to a Blockbuster and I’m smoking, so I toss the butt in a garbage can. I go in, it’s fine. I come out, it’s on fire,” Knathan said, gesturing with his hands to indicate flames, I guess.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“You know me. What do you think I did?”
We were roommates three times in our 20s, the third after I showed up at his apartment at 3 a.m. after a fight with the woman I had been living with. I had let myself in with my copy of his key and woke him up by knocking on his bedroom door. I said it was me and that I needed a place to live.
He called through the door that there were spare blankets in the hall closet.
So the question Nathan — that’s his real name in case you hadn’t guessed — asked was an easy one. What would this unfazeable man do after accidentally lighting a trash can on fire outside a Blockbuster?
“Said ‘Huh,’ then walked away?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, pausing to look around for a place where we could eat. “There were enough people freaking out about it.”
We went on to lunch.