#231: The Lady in the Locker

October 18th, 2013

I never found out if she was living in the storage space.

I saw the storage space again today, viewed from an ‘L’ stop I rarely go to. I saw it through the gray of a Chicago fall, wet and cold like a dog’s nose.

When 2009 started, I was out of work and staying with friends on the Indiana side of the border. All my possessions save a suitcase full of clothes and a brick of a laptop were in a Rogers Park storage space by the Howard stop.

It was and remains a crappy neighborhood, the first place I had ever been where someone demanded money if I wanted to jump start my car. I chose to wait in the rain.

The storage space itself was down a series of long, white hallways with fluorescent lighting picking up every bit of grime on the walls and every scuff mark the wooden carts left on the floor. Save the intermittent load bearer, the walls were the corrugated aluminum of storage lockers.

It was a nice place once the glass sliding door locked Rogers Park out.

I got to a “hello” level with a few of the other renters. One woman had rented two units and broke down the wall between them. She used it as a makeshift showplace for the imported African folk art she sold. She gave me a tour once.

But the person I thought about as I stood on the Howard platform that dog nose Thursday was the lady in the locker. I thought about her and how badly I botched that.

When I would visit my things and poke through my old comic books, she would be around the corner, sitting in a folding chair and reading. When my situation persisted and I had to make the humiliating trip for spring clothes, she would be around the corner, sitting in a folding chair and reading.

Any time I would come by, it seemed, she would be around the corner, sitting in a folding chair and reading. I started to tell friends I thought she was living there.

She was about 40 and slightly heavyset. She was black, with her hair now natural but bearing the damage of years of chemicals. I never saw her smile.

She and I got to a nod level, then I tried a few hellos. She would look at me, say hello and return to her reading.

Emboldened by this success and with the then-proterozoic 1,001 Chicago Afternoons project in mind, I approached her one day. I was casual and conversational, smiley and polite. I said hello. She gave me a look and said hello back. I plied her with charm to get her talking.

She did, good god. She talked to me.

And I ruined it all by interrupting her with something stupid and rude.

“Are you living here?” I asked with excitement on my breath.

She glared at me. Glared. She said “You’re getting too…”

And that’s it. I don’t remember the word she said.

It was something oddly formal, like “inquisitive.” Or maybe it was more to the point, like “intrusive.” But I stumbled off an apology and backed around the corner never to speak to her again.

Not only had I not gotten her story, I had even bungled the story of not getting her story. I didn’t remember the one conversation we did have.

I thought of this as I looked down on my old storage space from the Howard stop on a wet, cold Thursday afternoon. I felt shame at that moment. Hot, stinging shame nearly five years later.

There are billions of stories I’ll never get and only 1,001 I will. No point dwelling. No point running hypotheticals about each tale I failed to snag. Put her out of my thoughts. Focus on all the stories I did manage to tell. That’s what I should do.

Standing on the platform, waiting in the wind, I wondered if the lady in the locker was still there.

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