Just down the street from a storefront just marked “BEER,” no one was interested in the best margaritas in Wrigleyville.
The windows and doors had been thrown open to let the spring warm patrons who would hopefully come in to watch the Cubs lose badly on the many, many TVs stationed around the bar.
It wasn’t working. I was alone with my Victoria.
The bartender, a short, muscular Hispanic man with a military cut and a tight black T-shirt, was telling me how no one was cheering the game. I was listening because when I asked for “A bag of chips or something,” he went over to the restaurant section and brought me warmed tortillas with a red salsa I just wanted to drink.
“Sometimes you can hear people cheering on TV and cheering from outside,” he said, gesturing at the screen.
Some radio announcers gave a lackluster “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“Not this game,” the bartender said.
People would wander by, occasionally peek through the opened windows to check the score. Men and women in Cubbie blue, mostly. The women were blonde, mostly. The men were tall, mostly.
I did recognize one of the wanderers. He was a short, dreadlocked man who had tried to bum money off me when I was walking under the ‘L’ tracks before finding the bar. I disliked him because he called me “Boss-Man,” which I’m pretty sure was an attempt to play off white guilt.
He also asked for “a couple of bucks” instead of change and he wore a blue button-up shirt with a white collar like an investment banker in a movie.
I just don’t give money to anyone dressed nicer than me.
The bartender started a story as the man walked off.
“This guy came by, he was talking to these women through the windows. He started to bother the customers,” the bartender said.
“I mean, they were beautiful. I would like to have a conversation with them. But when you’re bothering the customers, it’s a whole ‘nother thing. I go out there and tell him to get out of there. But he won’t go. And then he shoves me.”
The bartender glared out the open window, then turned back to me.
“So I punched him.”
2. Old Town
He had a red and black doo-rag split down the middle like Harley Quinn. He had an all-black track suit. He smoked the roach of a cigarette in thick, flamboyant drags.
He asked me for money.
I checked my pockets.
“I’m just checking,” I cautioned.
On a warm spring night by one of the seedier gates of Old Town, where the crowds off the Red Line Clark/Jackson stop have to make their way through a tunnel of drug deals to get past the Division construction. Past this streak of all-night fast food, cell phone stores and questionable financial service storefronts of neon, there’s LaSalle traffic, Planned Parenthood and a walk through an instantly gentrified slip of bars before getting to the bus stop where a man with bright colors split like a comic book character asks for money.
I checked my pockets. The man was nice. I forget what he said, but I liked his patter. Something about it seemed more pleasant than the usual panhandle sell.
I didn’t have change, so I offered a dollar. It was dark and no bus had come past in quite a while. I took the bill and reached over to him, it nearly brushing his fingers.
At the last moment, he held a hand up and refused the money.
“Can you buy me something to eat instead?” he said.
3. Noble Square
The man in plaid took the plastic bottle he had been drinking from and whipped it across Milwaukee like he was skipping a stone. He watched it skid across the road, listened to the long, strict scraaaaaape as it skidded skidded skidded and finally hit the curb on the other side with a small clear bounce.
He made a “nailed it” gesture with his fist and continued his stumble down the road.
He wore plaid. He wore many plaids. He had cut the sleeves off the large, tan flannel so you could see the snugger red flannel sleeves underneath. His baseball cap and the shorts that stopped above his knees were bright red, but extending from under them were tan flannel pajama pants pulled tight by the socks and shoes they were tucked into.
He was drunk and homeless, stumbling past the stores and bars of the stretch of Milwaukee between Ashland and the highway.
A group of buxom 20-somethings with Lennon glasses and peace sign necklaces filed out of a restaurant and headed single file down the sidewalk, cutting ahead of me.
In a row we walked, the patchwork man of many plaids, four slutty hippies and me. We neared the packed outdoor patio of the bar where ’60s night raged.
“He shoved me first, right? And these two officers, they were walking across the street. They were getting pizza and they see that. So they come running over and I’m like, ‘Officers, he touched me first.’ And they’re like, ‘We know. We saw. We were just coming over to help.’”
The bartender chuckled.
“He went down like ‘Aah!’” he said, miming a man putting his hands straight up and falling backward.
The bartender rolled his eyes as he “fell.”
“The cops are like, ‘What do you want to do with him?’ And I don’t want to press charges, I don’t want nothing to happen to him. I just want him out of here. So they took him a few blocks away and let him go.
“And now the guy keeps coming back around,” he said, nodding at the window.
I looked out the open windows onto the Cub-garbed drunks and flashing lights of Clark Street.
“What guy?” I asked.
“The black guy!” he said.
“The guy with the shirt?” I asked, quickly tugging my own collar for emphasis.
The bartender nodded.
“He asked me for a couple of bucks,” I said.
The bartender shrugged.
“I just don’t give money to anyone dressed nicer than me,” I said, shaking my head and taking another warmed chip.
2. Old Town
“Look, I’m just going to get one of these cabs and go,” I said. “Just take the dollar.”
“We can just go down there and get me something. I’m hungry. I’ll wait outside.”
“I’m just going to get one of these cabs and go,” I said as two cabs that had been waiting at a light passed by me.
“We can just go down there, you get me something to eat. I’m hungry.”
“Just take the money,” I said.
He stopped and looked down at the bill I was holding out to him.
“If I do, can I have a couple more. I’m hungry”
“Sure,” I said, opening my wallet. “I’ve got to get one of these cabs though.”
I was now holding two dollars to the man. He looked at them, then back up at me.
“If we could just go down there and get-”
“It’s not the money — it’s the time,” I said. “I’ve got to get one of these cabs and go home.”
“I’m hungry,” he said. “I know you don’t believe me-”
“No, I believe you,” I cut in, annoyed as I eyed another cab go by. “I wouldn’t have given you $2 if I didn’t believe you.”
He stopped and looked at me. I looked back at him. Emboldened a little (and maybe that white guilt from earlier), I repeated, adding a bit.
“I believe you,” I said. “You asked me to buy you food.”
He stood a little sideways, at that standoff angle people do when eyeing someone suspicious.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the money, then holding out his hand for me to shake.
3. Noble Square
Nothing happened. The man in plaid stumbled by the den of sprawling young drunks in ’60s gear. We lost the girls to the bar. I realized I was catching up to the man, so I slowed down, eventually turning down a street I didn’t want to just so I didn’t get near him. He scared me a bit.
I left the man in plaid stumbling under the hazy amber of a streetlight as he headed toward a highway he would never take.
Something true just happened on Chicago’s North Side.