Margaret is up early, walking east after leaving the little doughnut shop on Chicago avenue.
Hot coffee finds her lips sleepy and she all but dribbles it down her front. “Very lady like.” But there is some comfort in the slight burn. Coffee to her tastes best out of a styrofoam cup through a half moon torn in a plastic lid, the coffee stains bleeding into the rim.
Chicago Avenue, looking east from Hoyne street, is a jumbled study perspective with a lot of little signs from little businesses, complex but at six fifteen on Sunday morning as still as a photograph. Margaret decides it ought to be painted by a hyper‑realist. The term, hyper‑realist, makes her think of her father, alone in his hyper‑realist reality in Streator, from whom she has recently received several phone calls. “You might say I owe him a call back.”
The cold is unseasonable, even for late November and everyone decided to stay home in bed just a little later than normal. Except Margaret who hasn’t settled yet into a new apartment, doesn’t like her bed and doesn’t sleep much anyway. Plus she can project a romantic value onto the stark, empty streets especially a deserted, frozen Chicago Avenue. And she likes to be up and at it early.
The street has neon and painted signs and writing on windows in Spanish, Italian and Polish as well as one in cyrillic, either Ukranian or Russian. The variety delights Margaret. Alcala’s boot store which sits a couple of blocks east of Damen on the south side of the street, cultivates the image of just another neighborhood store but sells cowboy boots for what some of the older neighbors had put down on their houses. The area is undergoing transition, regentrification, with gutted buildings, new construction, loft condos, lousy with real estate agents, expensive european cars and the rest. This disturbs her. Margaret likes the cultural Babel, low rents, small inexpensive stores, the wacky unpretentious neighbors who hang out their laundry in the front yard and paint their houses crazy colors, feeling more at home here than at any time since she was very young.
Margaret likes a red pair of boots in Alcala’s window but they cost ninety nine dollars. She cannot afford them and comforts herself with a calculation of how often she would really wear them. “Or is that your voice in my head?”
Walking in the cold with cup of coffee evokes the years of intransigence “Your coinage” and hitch hiking, small towns, college towns, places now blurring and muddied in their similarity but also innumerable, a film, a cartoon of sequenced frames each only slightly different from the last. Transience, intransigence, a word to describe my behavior, a word I’d never heard before, a word dad wouldn’t use, nor even teachers at school. “You were smarter than anyone. You were so smart you must have known, regardless of the act you put on, that I wouldn’t come back until I stopped being afraid of you.”
Goldblatts, once a discount furniture store, about to be something else, sits at the corner of Ashland avenue, and where Margaret stands waiting to cross the street as a lone bus passes. The wind swirls in the intersection and she feels cold for the first time. She regrets that she chose to wear a dress, even with heavy tights and a slip. But her cloth coat is warm and her big black boots and knit gloves are, she decides, sufficient and she resists the notion of turning back.
Being cold but warm enough prompts more memories of traveling and it occurs to Margaret to admit she was lucky, maybe a miracle, that nothing bad happened when she was out on her own. “ I felt was safer than being home you.”
Looking north on Ashland on the clear morning she can see all the way down to where it intersects with Division and Milwaukee, near where she had seen Lester the day before. Margaret felt a little awkward seeing him at first, as did he, but the only lingering feeling that it left her with was, strangely, sexual. She hadn’t had sex since Lester and that was almost three months ago, and suddenly and strongly she missed it.
Lester had asked her to do some welding, fixing a gate or fence or something and if he was serious about it, the three hundred dollars would go a long way to keep the wolf at the door. She knows she needs another waitress job. Or what she really needs which is a full time real job. She hates the idea of cutting back on her hours in the work shop, and the hours available for welding, but it seems increasingly unlikely that she can go on like this.
“Nothing lasts forever, you said.” Transition, transience, “You got sick, you kept drinking. I got home, safe and strong, you left.”
The John Hancock tower loomed ahead, thrusting, routinely phallic into a brightening sky. In front of it, forty, fifty and sixty story buildings seemed puny, overreaching by the comparison. A small bodega displayed crazy frilly dresses for quincenera parties. Margaret decides one of these would look perfect with the boots from Alcala’s. This would be her reward as soon as she got another job.
The city where the skyscraper was born still defined itself in terms of these overwrought steles, oblivious to their inefficiency, inappropriateness, lack of proportion. The very tall buildings made the silhouette of the city ragged and every bad architectural idea from the last seventy five years was represented on the horizon.
Only the tallest, Sears, Amoco, the First National Bank were visible through the spaces between the buildings on Chicago avenue by Hoyne and the doughnut shop but past Ashland the whole skyline surged closer and taller.
Margaret hates the architecture of the ego, of excess, of male obsession, rationally and intellectually, with sound arguments and strong convictions, but also as one scorned, who once loved the big monuments, architecture with the big A. This passion was shared with or grafted upon her by her parents but became a dead end because of her weakness in mathematics.
“You never said you were sorry and you never told anyone the truth. Intransigence my ass!”
“You made dad tell us how beautiful you were all the time, like it was some excuse for drinking, that you were once beautiful. You could have married anyone but you married dad because he reminded you of Gary Cooper.” The problem was, her father really was like Gary Cooper, or at least the characters he played, quiet, simple and stoic. Not exciting but steady and loving.”
Down Noble but not in sight was the breakfast restaurant that Margaret likes and hasn’t been to in a while. She remembers in particular a very late breakfast with Lester and Judy and Kenny and some others from the bar, when everyone was very hungover and tired and they all sat and drank coffee and bloody marys and giggled, laughing indiscriminately at good humor and bad, bridging the gap between the brunch and early dinner crowds.
It was a pity things with Lester had turned out badly. Or rather that he turned out so badly. Running into him yesterday confirmed that for all his charm, his plans were making him insincere and selfish.
Past Noble there were fewer businesses, the park and poolhouse on the north side of the street and somewhere, in one of the houses across the street from the park lived the famous congressman. There was a trendy and overpriced restaurant on the one corner; across the street from it was a store front that had been roughly converted to a residence. Noise from a spanish radio station leaked out from the seams of the whitewash plywood that covers the windows.
“Have to meet Helen later.” She reminded herself.
After the last building before the expressway, the dense overgrowth of weeds had frozen, still green and leaning over the fence onto the sidewalk. Margaret holds her arm in front of her face so the leaves don’t cut her. It knocks her hat off and she bends over, picks it up and puts it back on. She starts crossing over the expressway.
“You never explained anything.”
The Kennedy expressway was cut through the neighborhood some time 25 years ago but you can still see the way the neighborhood used to run. Cars hurry on their way from downtown to the airport or visa versa. There was very little traffic, just an occasional car or truck traveling as fast as it wanted.
Margaret stopped on the bridge.
Downtown looked close and exact on this clear Sunday morning. The metal, glass and stone of large buildings seemed in their element in the cold. The towers as they hugged to the curve of the river gave the skyline a better texture or depth than the grid like plot of the city would allow. There was much here to look at, with a semi‑trained eye, with a sculptor’s eye or a critical eye, the successes and failures, the glint of a window, aging brick and unfinished construction, tricks of depth and distance, ornamentation, context, texture, height and color, styles and architects.
Margaret forgets her disdain and names architects as a precocious child might: Sullivan, Wright, Root, Burnham, Van der Rohe, Gropius, no, no Gropius here, and the newer stuff, Goldberg, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Jahn.
“The only things you paid attention to were the parts of you in me.”
Margaret leans against the iron rail and examines it’s construction, a rod slipped through collars, the collars bolted to a concrete embankment. She finds it an ellegant, artful design. When she started walking, she thought she would end up at the river or the lake, to sit and listen to the quiet waves, the visceral primordial attraction of the water. But here is fine. She grasps the rail in her gloved hands and leans forward, to look below. The movement of the vehicles beneath her, while not as regular, are just as predictable as the waves. The skyline of the city is a pleasure in which she has not allowed herself to partake recently. The cold washes past her upturned face. There is quiet in all the generic sounds. The expressway is as good as a river to her, with the buildings as mountains for it to flow out of. On it she could sail back home or she could sail right out of town.
“From you. And in spite of you.”