And Then I Fell Out the Window

Life, examined and punted around

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The Northside Girls

“You know what’s the best shade? Cruella.”

She is talking about lipstick and her name is Ariel, though the way she pronounces it, it’s probably spelled Arielle. Second syllable emphasis. And it fits her. She is too real to be real, in the way a contemporary novel is real. She is carefully constructed, in her large sweater and tight shirt. She can twist her long dyed blonde hair into a bun on the side of her neck and it stays put as if by magic as she talks about how “school fucking sucks.”

“What are you talking about?” Another smoker outside the Fox Head asks.

“Nothing. Girl stuff.” Peach says, and then she is putting lipstick on her male friend, a fortysomething Asian who arrived by surprising her with a light for her cigarette. “No, don’t pucker!”

Peach and Arielle are laughing under the smoke cloud and the street light. Peach talks about the neighborhood drunk who got hit by a car. “He’s totally sweet, though. And so interesting to talk to.”

These are my Northside girls. They share pitchers of beer and know the homeless regulars at the Fox Head and George’s by name, and they go out for cigarettes and chat to people they met other times out there on the bench. They wear eccentric jewelry rescued from antique shop shelves or thrift store piles. They are anachronisms from mismatched time periods, in red shades of lipstick, in fox furs, in cameo jewelry. In the light of day it would seem twee or pretentious, but next to the pitcher of beer, in the Fox Head on a weeknight, they are comforting, and they belong. They blend into the old woodwork, the collection of mantle clocks behind the bar, the tables scratched with initials and doodles and scratches from a collection of bargoers. They are as much a part of this place as the jukebox playing Hank Williams followed by Joy Division in the corner by the pool table. I feel like a visitor here, but they are fixtures. They are the Northside girls.

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The Ped Mall on a Sunday in July

Heat hits, and then a welcome breeze blows through the corridors of buildings and rustles the trees, and sun and shadows dapple the brick walk. Do you want a bench in the sun or in the shade?

The benches on Washington are reserved for the homeless and the stoners who might be homeless or might just like being barefoot and unwashed, but it’s hard to differentiate, all of them unkempt and black-toothed and probably older than they look. Some hold cardboard signs, some just sit back and smoke or sleep or chat.

I see John, a man in a baseball cap with no home, unless the Foxhead Tavern counts. I ask him what he’s up to today and he smiles and says “not fuck all.” He doesn’t hold up signs asking for money, just walks around or sits on benches and watches things, which is what I’m doing.

In the ped mall crossroads, water shoots up in arcs, and swimsuited toddlers race through the water, screaming and laughing. The fountain, the playground with the springy synthetic turf, the public library, all of it is right there. The center of the world. Paradise for summer children. 

A homeless man has set up a gigantic black air mattress right on the brick walkway, off to the side. 

A grunge teen couple sits by the hostas and watches a lone pigeon, fat from lack of competition. 

But seriously, why is he setting up a king-sized air mattress in the ped mall?

Tattoos and long unkempt hair increase exponentially as you near the Tobacco Bowl. Everyone’s tattoo has a story and even if that’s the tenth woman I’ve seen with a large, sprawling tree on her back, she has ten different reasons for getting it that are hers and hers alone. Teens wear hoodies despite the heat, carry skateboards and travel in packs. Their conversations are the most important in the world and they want everyone to hear them.

Bongos beat, teens loiter. The high-rise construction is progressing, but today is Sunday so the machines sit idle. 

I get excited when I see a table labeled “Free Literature” until I see they’re all Jesus books. I smile anyway and when they offer I say I have too many books in my backpack already, which is true. I decline a flyer, even though the man is stretching out with all of his arm length to give one to me.

There are two public pianos in the ped mall, and sometimes I stop to plink out “Coin-Operated Boy” or some little riff, but usually I watch the kids, feet dangling off the wooden bench, hesitantly poking keys with encouragement from their parents. There are so many keys and some echo a long time, some don’t work at all, and the keys are as uneven as that man’s teeth, the one with the white hair down to his mid-back who has tattoos so faded I can’t even make out what they’re supposed to be.

As I walk toward Dubuque St. I start to see more and more “Help From Above” pamphlets fluttering along the brick sidewalk.

Man and woman cross arms over each other and man kisses her shoulder very softly in the shade.

My copy of Lonesome Dove is falling apart and my backpack gets heavier and I have no idea whether I’m admired or sneered at or unnoticed, but I wonder these things today because I am alone and watching everyone else. If I was with a friend I would be too distracted to care.

But then I wouldn’t get to be the observer, and sometimes that is not such a lonely role to be in.