I went to Chicago last week to visit my friend Josh. Here’s my friend Josh and me.
Josh was in a band I liked very much. The first time I saw them was just before my Freshman year of college officially began, at a function called “Weeks of Welcome,” which was predictably aimed at making undergraduates feel at home in Iowa City. I went specifically to see this band, but when I got to the small stage that had been set up in the middle of the pedestrian mall, I was immediately leery, because I saw Josh fiddling with his guitar tuners. Burnished, blonde, and Norse, hair spiked in a hail-shattered geodesic dome that resembled in some ways golden sugar crystals sprouting from the top of his head. This was, after all, the geekiest geek rock band in the history of geek rock, and I wasn’t expecting them to be, well, so hot. They were all hot. But Josh was hotter than the others. He was conspicuously good-looking. The kind of guy you don’t trust because he’s so good-looking, you’re sure it has corroded his insides. The kind of guy on whom god spent so much time polishing the surface, it can’t possibly be concealing any depth. The kind of guy whom you expect to disappear when he turns sideways. The closest corollary to this kind of person is an artificially whitened, habitually unbrushed tooth, rotting away on the inside like a sunbaked corpse stuffed with compost, but sun-glinting and valuable and wonderful to see.
So it really pissed me off when, later on, it turned out Josh outscores me by good margins on standardized tests. Fuck you, Josh.
Anyway, Josh invited me to Chicago to see the band Explosions in the Sky. I don’t do very well on solo road-trips, being fueled as I am by abject diffidence. I like to think of myself as one of those dogs that can find its way home from anywhere in the world, except I’m that dog if it was dead. But this trip, as trips go, was fairly seamless. I didn’t miss any exits; I made some muscular moves on I-55, passing mattress trucks and beaters with effortless dips and dives; I turned onto Lakeshore and trailed a Porsche to my exit without even taking any paint off his bumper; and, best of all, I found a parking spot a hundred feet from my terminal destination in which a blind, deaf, and thrombotic soul musician with no feet or theoretical knowledge of physics whatsoever could have parallel parked an Airbus. I was living pretty large.
After hanging out with Josh for a couple of days – really, days and nights draped in a heavy-hanging taffeta shawl of courtship and flattery – it was time for me to go home. I became anxious, because I knew I couldn’t duplicate the success of my inbound journey. But, I did. I flowed through Chicago’s arterial avenues like a toxin that the city was trying to excrete from itself. The entire state of Illinois slingshotted me through it like a friendly host eager to get rid of me so he can have sex with his girlfriend.
Then I got to Davenport. Fucking Davenport. I had fourteen dollars on me, and I needed to get gas. And I saw a blue sign that said there was gas, and then I saw another blue sign that said there was a Hardee’s, too. So I pulled off the interstate into a gas station – the same gas station I always happen to pull into when I’m coming back from Davenport – and I put my credit card into the pump, put the nozzle into my car, and lifted that thing you have to lift to get the fuel flowing. And it flowed, oh how it flowed, and the soothsayer in me could feel fourteen dollars worth of Hardee’s food sliding down my throat almost pornographically. That’s when I heard what I at first took to be an immigrant speaking in Pidgin. I couldn’t follow the first couple of sentences, and only managed to parse what sounded like “Kai giffew dahs famma gaskan.” I turned around and smiled at the guy, a bloodshot black guy in dirty clothes, smiling an incredibly ingratiating smile at me. I realized at once that not being able to understand him and asking him to repeat what he had said could easily be construed as racist, or if not racist, at least an indication of the insularity of my existence and my inability to identify with persons of minority heritage. Now, I fancy myself a progressive liberal, even in some ways a Marxist-leaning, theoretically informed politico, so this was not really an option. To save face, even if it was just the face that the mirror sees, I had to play along. So I smiled and nodded right back at him, “sure sure, how’s it going man, how are you.” He said, “Cayoo gee a rye?” “Sure sure, aces my man, hop in the car and I’ll take you where you need to go.”
It should be noted here that mine is a family of suckers. We’re marks, johns, and every other biblical name for a patsy. We get took. We’re all-day suckers, as the man said. Even if we get suspicious, we’re so afraid of confrontation that we’ll just go along, cutting our losses, until we’re obviously in danger, and then we’ll mostly just cry and beg until we see an opening to cut and run.
Incidentally, when I was a little boy, a man approached my dad at a gas station and asked him if he could have a few dollars, he’d run out of gas up the road. My dad told him he had no money. The man pressed, but my dad insisted. When he got back in the car, I asked my dad why he lied to the man, and my dad told me, “Sometimes people try to get you to give them money when they don’t need it for the reasons they say.”
This tableau popped into my head the moment the man closed the door to my car. The smell of St. Ides, weed, Newports, and motor oil wafted over to me in a wave.
“So you’re going to be able to tell me how to get back here, right?”
Being in the car, his speech became instantly more eloquent, his syntax less broken, his vowels less liquid. Or maybe my urban-diction cipher just needed a few minutes to get itself going. “Yeah, man.”
He directed me, and I found myself growing a bit uneasy at the sheer amount of turns necessarily to get this guy to where he needed to be. The houses became flatfronts. The flatfronts became apartment buildings. The apartment buildings became prefab rowhouses. We passed an unmarked Crown Victoria, a covert cop car with lights on the dashboard and a weary, shorn-headed officer giving me and my passenger a quizzical look as we rolled slowly by in our 2006 Honda Civic.
I had been listening to the Silver Jews and, of course, I turned it down when he got in the car. There’s something about trying to ingratiate yourself to a thug and listening to indie honkey-tonk that just doesn’t gel well. But I probably should have had something playing, because for the duration of the ride he kept trying to make small talk in between “left here” and “right there,” a tortuous web that, in the end, could well have evened out to a single left turn and four or five spins around the block. “Where you from?” “What you do?” “What you doing tonight?” “Man, I’m having a crazy day. My girl and shit. We all fighting.” “I gotta get to my gas can.” “Man, I wish I could get you back for this.”
Finally, he told me to pull over in front of an apartment building. Standing in the door was a rather large, rather shirtless man with cornrows. Just standing there. Just staring at me. I put the car in park and sat, expecting or praying for a thanks and a swift departure. I got the thanks. Then he said the sentence he’d said before that I hadn’t quite understood. “Kai giffew dahs famma gaskan,” which I only then managed to parse. “Can I get a few dollars for my gas can?” He’d weaved together this embarrassingly thin web of bullshit about being in a fight with his girl, and needing to get his gas can, to get back to the gas station, to get to his car, where his girl was, with whom he was fighting, so he could fill the car with gas and drive his girl home. Of course, sucker-dope that I am, I played it off like it was understood. I pulled out my wallet, plucked out the four singles, and handed them over.
“Yo, man, I really preciate this, but you got like five more? I gotta get to my gas can.”
“Hey, man, all I got is a ten, and I gotta eat.”
“Why don’t I give you back this four, and you give me the ten?”
He handed me the four. I handed him the ten. He got out and cut through some alleys. I saw him, still walking, quickly and with his head down, after I had tracked back three right turns and two lefts. I drove home fucking furious, all the while thinking, "fuck you man, four dollars will get you thirty miles. I should have said that. I really should have said that."
I went to Chicago last week to visit my friend Josh. Here’s my friend Josh and me.