He walked about 10 feet behind me, smoking and muttering. Coat over hooded sweatshirt and a black, flat-brimmed baseball cap. It was late. I was alone. I stepped closer to the street and slowed down so he would pass.
“You messing with me, bro?” he said as he hustled past me, taking angry puffs of his cigarette. It wasn’t until he repeated the phrase that I noticed it wasn’t to me. He was talking to himself.
I noticed him slip a ball-peen hammer up his sleeve.
I slowed down even more.
He mumbled and growled, jerked his head around to see who was watching. One hand whipped the cig in and out of his mouth, the other toyed with the hammer he was failing to conceal.
He turned down a darkened side street past a small corner car dealership with a gate around it. With one swift motion, he whipped the hammer out of his sleeve and struck the metal pole on the corner of the gate. He made a brief, sharp noise like a howling dog as he did it.
The pole rang down the lonely street.
Earlier, I had been riding the bus.
“Enrique was high as hell,” the teen boy said to his friend. “I was just late.”
He was mad, telling the story. He was mad because he hadn’t been high, just got a ride to school late from the wrong person. He and the other people in Enrique’s car stumbled into school, late and reeking of Enrique’s weed, but hadn’t taken a single puff.
The security guard was called. Administration worked in. They had to convince the teachers they hadn’t been smoking while Enrique just sat there, laughing and chugging Skittles.
“I kept telling him, ‘Don’t be so obvious, man,’” the boy said, sulking into his backpack.
Earlier, I had been laptopping at a Starbucks with two men behind me talking in glowing, fetishistic terms about startup culture.
They bandied terms like “UX” (which is bullshit for “user experience”) and “monetizing” (which is bullshit for “making money off”). It was a dual of two toppers, each having to have the last word, each having to have each syllable drip more experience than the other man’s.
Each was casual polished, with short-cropped hair that they still gelled for some reason. They wore only the best of clothes designed to be expensively informal and digital startup ready.
I can’t replicate their dialogue. All I seem to remember is a cavalcade of buzzwords and several sentences in a row that used the word “app” over and over.
“App app app monetizing” is all I seem to recall.
Earlier still, I had been interviewing lawyers. Fancy ones.
It was for a slate of freelance stories, each one taking me to a new luxury building in downtown Chicago. I had spent the week riding up elevators that made your ears pop, checking in with wary-eyed security guards who would call upstairs or ask if I knew the suite number to check that I wasn’t a con man trying to break into a skyscraper for purposes.
One of the offices I went to that day was in a converted brownstone on Dearborn. Poised just north of the YMCA where street people in wheelchairs cluster and just south of the stately Newberry Library, the brownstone was one of the most glorious buildings I have ever been inside.
A two-story library lined with leather-bound legal tomes. Art-laden walls. Offices with huge windows to bask in a sunlight that seemed to shine just for them and the “well-known Chicago socialites, business professionals, professional athletes, entrepreneurs” whose divorces they handled.
I must stress – for the sakes of both accuracy and my freelance career – the lawyers were lovely, likable, hardworking people.
But I can’t believe they live in this world.
I hadn’t yet met Enrique’s pissed friend or the UX monetizing toppers. I hadn’t yet swung my way down the socioeconomic ladder from the socialites’ advocates to the crazed smoker with a ball-peen.
Implausibly, impossibly, these people all exist in the same universe, on the same planet, in the same century. To put this cast in the same day in the same three-mile stretch of one American city seems fiction even as I write it.
But that’s what happened. That’s what happens every day as we flutter around this town. If we don’t always notice, it’s because we spend most of our lives sticking to our own kind, whatever that might be. A day that crosses so many boundaries is odd, should be cherished, even if it’s terrifying.
In one day, I went into the most glorious office of my life and felt my stomach seize at the ringing of the hammer-chimed pole.