The flight was exhausting. It was almost midnight. Usually I extend the effort to find a decent conversation, but I wasn’t in any sort of condition to talk to anybody, let alone a stranger. The events of a few hours before continued to run through my mind. It was my dad dropping me off at Denver International Airport. It was when I said I love you, that I was close to losing control. When my voice almost cracked, I was terrified that my deceit was exposed. When the tears almost entered my eyes, I was afraid that he would know, just like I knew, that it could be the last time he would ever hear those words from me. Or any words for that matter.
I’m glad for the window seat on the plane. Almost everyone was asleep, so no one saw as I tucked my head in the corner and silently wept.
I picked up four bags from the baggage claim. Everything I owned was stuffed into one military canvas duffel, one cheap blue walmart duffel, and a gigantic backpack. It was the third time in as many years that I had to pack up my entire new life and start from scratch.
I hailed a cab. It was past midnight. I asked him to take me to the train station. My train south didn’t leave for another seven hours, but I planned on getting my first few hours of rest that night on a hard wooden bench in the train station.
The cabbie, with a thick German accent, asked me which train station? I swore in my head, and told him I didn’t know. He hesitated. The last time I was at a train station in Chicago I was in sixth grade, and the only name I could remember from that trip was Penn Station. While I was at Penn Station, in New York, in the sixth grade, I happened to be reading Cat & Mouse by James Patterson, in which the infamous serial killer Gary Soneji kidnaps an infant in his escape from the hero detective, and disguises himself cleverly before slipping away on a departing train. There is even an ominous train right on the front cover. So the name stuck, and I had to tell the driver that I had no idea the name of the train station in Chicago. He apologized and informed me that it was his first day driving a cab in Chicago.
He TomTom’d the location, and asked if Union Station sounded familiar. I told him yes, and told him it was the station I thought was in D.C. I still might not have been wrong, as there is a Union station in Denver and L.A. We took off, and I watched all of the cash in my pocket slip away on the meter. We pulled up to the station just four dollars short of wiping me clean. I paid my driver after thanking him, and he took off.
That’s when I noticed the crowd huddled on the sidewalk outside the station. When I inquired as to what they were doing, they told me that the train station was closed, and they kicked everyone inside out into the cold. It was March, so the Chicago nights were still bitter, especially with the wind.
A man started shouting at me. He was a skinny black man, poorly dressed, a little dirty but not homeless dirty. He pegged me as Military right away, which wasn’t difficult considering the clean shave, haircut, and luggage. He introduced himself, and said his brother was in the army. He asked me if I was interested in finding a hotel room. He needed to split the cost of a hotel room, to get his old lady and baby out of the cold. All I cared about was that he had a car.
My new friend helped put my luggage in his trunk. I sat in the back while his girlfriend drove. She was also black, skinny, and poorly dressed. I asked if they new of any hotels in the area, like a Hilton or Holiday Inn. They said no, those places were way too expensive, and they knew a place called the Jefferson Hotel that was right around the corner from Union. Fair enough, I said.
The door they stopped in front of was in the middle of a block, and the only sign it had indicating it was a hotel was a small paper sign tapped to the glass on the front door.
The check in counter was enclosed with reinforced glass, maybe bullet proof I didn’t know. There was a plump woman behind the counter. I politely asked her if she had any rooms available. She said it was fifteen dollars a night.
She said that she can’t take a credit card, only cash.
I looked around, and saw a living room sized lobby filled with minorities (only, in this part of Chicago I was definitely the minority), most prematurely aged by heroine, or crack. This was obviously the perfect place to deal out of. I was the only white guy in the entire building, and probably the only one that wasn’t high, and that includes my newfangled companions. Obviously the four dollars in my pocket couldn’t cover even the worst hotel rooms, which I’m sure the Jefferson had to offer, so we left to find an ATM. I tried telling him that my card was frozen, that I couldn’t withdraw money, just make purchases. He tried telling me that it wouldn’t hurt to try.
While I was at the airport a few days prior, flying into Colorado, I tried emptying my bank account through an ATM, just because I needed to deal in cash, and there isn’t an actual Bank of America anywhere near Ft. Collins. The attempt triggered a security measure (they assumed the card was stolen) and the card was locked. It was a debit card, so with my pin I could make purchases, but any cash withdrawal, included “cash back” at walmart. Later I was thankful that it was the bank watching out for me, and not the military cutting me off. Civilians are and always will be much easier to deal with.
Sure enough, even at a Bank of America ATM, I couldn’t get cash out. So we stopped at a 24 hr grocery store. I received wicked stares as I walked through the store with my friend. I needed a Gatorade, and he needed snacks for his baby. For his daughter, that I hadn’t seen yet.
I asked him where she was. He hesitated, and said with his mother, with her nanny. He was lying. I was tired, so I didn’t care. It was one thirty in the morning.
Apparently snacks for his baby meant Sunny D and Ice Cream bars. Get his baby out of the cold, while feeding her ice cream. I guess it made sense to him. It occurred to me that I had at least $2,000 worth of stuff in my bags, and that if they were smart they would run off with it. But no, I had money, cash, the good kind, and I was their meal ticket. They wouldn’t ditch me as long as I had the money that they wanted. Though once the credit turned into cash I knew they could try and mug me for it. But I was Military, six feet tall, who knows how dangerous. Plus I was a nice guy. Even in their coked out minds they understood that money was much more likely to find it’s way to them if they just helped me out.
The trick worked at this small grocery store in Chicago, and I was able to secure $60 in cash. I asked them to just take me to the Holiday Inn. Are you sure? Yes, I said. I am very, very sure.
The car wouldn’t start. The woman started shouting, because she knew that she shouldn’t have turned the car off. She knew it wouldn’t start again. They popped the hood. Their battery cables were loose so I held it on while she started the engine. The engines roar masked my sigh of relief.
As we drove around the maze of one way streets, we passed a corner cafe. I counted at least seven squad cars, and two ambulances. There were policemen like ants covering up and down the block, with little pen lights, peering into alleyways, canvasing, searching for something. Or someone. They were trying to interview a screaming woman in a white apron. I saw her eyes shut tight and her mouth in a grimace, like a smart alec child acting goofy for a photo, except her face was covered in tears that even at the distance I saw reflect the flashing blue and red lights. I saw a body under a white sheet being pushed by two paramedics. My first instincts told me that it was a robbery gone wrong. Or a robbery gone right from the criminal’s point of view. The way the cops were looking around the area, I was sure he escaped. We didn’t stick around to find out much more than that.
I remember everything so vividly, because the sight hit me with a dose of reality, and I knew that I wasn’t invincible. I was incredibly vulnerable in an incredibly dangerous situation. I knew that I could die.
They dropped me off at the Holiday Inn, even helped me carry my bags in. The door man was very worried that my friends would be joining me. He didn’t have to say anything, but I saw the uncomfortable look in his face. He was unwilling to touch the unclean. I had been around worse, maybe even done worse, been in worse places than my companions. For one night, he was my brother, and she my sister. Which was appropriate, because it was the first night in my entire life that I didn’t have a family. Or so I believed at the time.
I gave my new family fifty dollars, leaving me with fourteen. They asked for more, but I told them that I still had to eat. Their daughter I never saw; I believe she exists somewhere, but I am almost without a doubt that the only person who saw any of my money was the nearest crack dealer.
They settled me in a room for eighty-four dollars, with their express conditions (no check out). The room was five stories up, had a single bed and a large shower. Before stripping off my clothes and passing out on the king-sized bed I made sure I knew the direction in which I needed to walk in the morning. By the time I closed my eyes it was a little past two, and I had less than four hours to sleep before checking out. Before exhaustion overwhelmed me, I heard two consecutive gunshots outside my window.