I reached the outskirts of Chicago only stopping for short naps at near-empty rest areas. The countryside was unrelenting, late-winter dreadful. Underneath what had become droning 8-tracks, the road sang a song with tires and passing trucks.
Gray skies carried a threat of snow. I stayed ahead of the white stuff save for a sudden squall outside of Rapid City. The machine gun snow brought traffic to a halt. Cars and trucks encrusted with a wet driven snow were husks of white with little black spots where exhaust cut through the snow. I read Giants in the Earth during the stoppage and fell asleep. The blast of a State Trooper’s car horn woke me. I was catty-parked on the soggy grass median with sparse traffic sloshing by, the snow had vanished. I shot an idiot-grin to the stone-face and weaseled back onto the road.
Just inside the Illinois line I gassed at a state roadside plaza. I phoned my sister in LA from an over-the-highway McDonalds. The benefactor had not answered my calls for a couple of days. My sister told me that the benefactor had been pinched by the SFPD for running an unlicensed business. Strange, I thought, we had spent hours in line for licenses at City Hall.
I watched lines of vehicles wending east and west disappearing under the floor. I did my best to calm her with my small arsenal of inanities. “I’m sure it’s nothing. He’ll be out soon. Don’t worry.”
Damn! I had wanted to see if I could replenish my dwindling cash supply with another loan. I thought the benefactor knew the Process franchisee in Chicago; maybe I could do a few runs for that guy and earn some jack. I didn’t have enough to get to DC. My next bright idea: find some temp work, sleep in the car.
I drove into the Southside. I had heard rumors of an Irish wing of the family living in Chicago. I figured they would have lived on the same streets where once stumbled my childhood hero, Studs Lonigan, who in my imagination just might be from that lost wing.
My plan led me to the bleak offices of the Barton Temporary Services.
A young woman sat at a desk with a phalanx of scruffians on a wood bench to her left. Since it was midmorning I imagined the ragtag lot to have been the ones left behind, waiting on sick calls.
She waved a pen between index fingers like a tightrope over Niagara Falls. No greeting, just a frank look that took in my wrinkled road clothes. A nameplate read: Maureen O’Riordan.
“I’m looking for some work.”
“Really?” She was enjoying my discomfort. From the boys on the slab dull eyes followed the exchange like Spring lambs watching a motorcycle race.
“What do I have to do?”
“Fill this out.” Saucy. Efficient. Soft reddish brown curls. Wide teasing eyes in a round face. The lambs shifted, a spot opened at the end of the bench.
I scratched information with one of those cruel half-pencils. The bench listened in as she handled the phone: “Not there? Yes, they had directions. Do you want two more? No, you won’t have to pay, it’s past the cutoff. Two?” You could hear the irritation in the squawking end of the receiver. She let him rail a little then brought them back to business. The bench got roomier with each call.
She laughed, she was reading my application. “Writer? That’s your skill?”
“I can do whatever you got, but if there is something?”
“We send people out to clean up construction sites. What did you expect? This is a day labor office.”
“Well, you never know. Crazier things have happened.” I looked deep into her gray/blue eyes. There was a flicker of something. “But, as I said, I’m versatile.”
“I’m sure,” she said. “You do have a car, I see. That helps. Have you painted?”
“No, just a little writing.”
She flashed up from the sheet with bemused annoyance, “very funny. House painting, my brother has a some contracts. He might need someone. Nothing permanent, right?”
“I’m a rover.”
“Can’t promise you anything. I’ll talk to him tonight. This, of course, is not through the firm here. It’s cash on the side.”
“Mr. Walters, you didn’t list a phone.”
“I’m new here in town.”
“I’ll see my brother tonight. Why don’t you call me later.” She gave me a folded piece of paper. “But don't call before 9:00.”
I secured a room at a place called The Ambassador Arms Hotel. I paid the requisite week in advance, nearly all of my funds. The desk guy was that same desk guy at all these hotels – bored, story-worn, and in a hurry to get back to the crossword. "You bought a hotel? I got an uncle who lives with Grandma, could use a job…" A place where you could count on a dismal room, sun-worn shutters that snapped back to the top if you don't handle them just so, sheets and blankets scented with muscatel and unfiltered cigarettes, dressers with sagging drawers, toilet and sink barely running - everything crusted with decades of unspeakable stains. The great American flophouse.
The standard beetle-brow at the desk did not let me down. The room was perfectly awful. Still, it beat sleeping in the car in a big strange city. I went to put my bag in the closet then thought better of it - no telling what lay behind the scuffed door.
I rinsed some clothes in the bathroom sink. I hung the clothes over a sagging shower curtain rod. A crinkled yellowed plastic curtain was bunched against the spotted wall. I splashed myself at the sink - fuck the shower, no way was I going to caught naked in this shit hole.
In the “lobby” there was a set of resident goons on a plastic sofa mooning at a barking TV on a high shelf. I stepped around them to enter the cooling Chicago night. The songs had it right - that wind coming off that like blew ice right through my thin clothes. I gratefully grabbed a counter seat at a steamy Greek diner. Greasy Gus slid me a molten cheeseburger on a chipped green plate. Came with a well-traveled pickle slice and a pile of, yes, chips. “No Pepsi, please. Just water.” I hurt the Greek’s feelings with that one, so I had him bring me a mug of coffee - just for show. An oil slick floated on top of the black liquid and moved languidly to the vibrations of the city.
The pay phone at the Greek’s reeked of used perfume. A row of pear-shapes sat at the counter blowing smoke and stirring chalky coffee their wares displayed like hams in a German butcher shop. The quarter slipped from my burger-slick fingers and clunked down the slot.
“Who?” she said with dancing eyes.
Twenty minutes later I rocked to a stop and parked among cement chunks under a teetering El line.
At her apartment house the back door was propped, like she said.
The Ambassador Arms is a great place to leave your shit, but you don’t want to sleep there.
photos: #1 Android Vignette Demo - cover of Etude Magazine June 1933
#2 James T. Farrell swiped from Google Images