by Nicholas Ward
I’m on Van Buren in the Loop, trudging to the Blue Line from Lollapalooza, when the man approaches. Years later, I will imagine that he watched from afar, following me, seeking out what he must have thought was a kindred spirit.
“And how are you tonight?” he asks, sidling up on my left.
I raise an eyebrow but keep walking. “I’m. . .fine,” I say reluctantly. From Grant Park, I can still hear the sounds of the festival, fading as we walk. The El rumbles over our heads the way it always does in this city. The scene is like all those movies where Chicago looks perfect. But I’ve had an unsuccessful day and I’m a little drunk and a lot sweaty and my feet stink and I just wanna go home, to my couch and my roommates and a book. I’m not in the mood for chitchat with a stranger.
“Do you, uh, know where Berlin is?” he asks. I’m not sure how I know this, but I realize instantly that he’s referring to the all-inclusive, give-no-fucks, open-to-all-sexualities club on Belmont Avenue.
“Yeah, I know, Berlin,” I say. I’m working my first real job as a server, at a fine-dining restaurant in River North; I go pretty much anywhere with my co-workers, attempting to kick start my life in Chicago. I don’t think much of the question until later, when I wonder: why did he ask about Berlin? To discern my sexuality? To see if I was down?
The Harold Washington Library is across the street, the sun rippling over its red bricks, and I direct him to the Red Line, and from there to the club, quietly congratulating myself on passing the test of a true Chicagoan, giving someone directions.
But as I cross with the light, towards Dearborn, he’s still at my shoulder, keeping pace with me. “No,” I say, “you need to go that way, the station’s just over there.”
“Wait a minute,” he says and I stop, facing him for the first time. He’s a white guy, a little shorter than me, a tad older, balding with spectacles. I’m not sure what to do.
“May I help you?” I ask.
He takes a deep breath. “Don’t judge,” he says and then he poses a question that stops me in my tracks.
This all happened a decade ago, when I’d first moved to Chicago. I was twenty-four years old, head completely shaved, and I possessed a fantastically vague vision for the person I wanted to become: a gregarious intellectual artist who investigates the mysteries of the universe with like minded people, preferably over beers. But I didn’t know to achieve that. I didn’t connect with my co-workers, I hadn’t taken acting classes or been in a play, and meeting people was fucking hard. I should clarify that I wasn’t friendless. I’d moved here with my four closest companions from college, two couples that are still prominent in my life today. But after living together for a year in Chicago, after they all got engaged and began planning their lives, I realized that my friends and I were, shockingly, different people. We envisioned opposite lives for ourselves, held separate values sacred, immersed in the culture of the city along parallel avenues. That’s okay. It’s healthy to cultivate diverse networks of associates: people who are teachers or office workers, who own real estate and start families before they turn thirty, who believe in different Gods or Gods at all, who might actually (and I’m serious about this) lean Republican. But at the time, I was devastated to discover my friends didn’t want to share my sacred experiences with me.
“I’m not spending my weekend sweaty and gross and outside, no thank you,” said Betsy, camped out on the couch watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and painting her nails.
“Dude,” said Will, sweeping the floor of our kitchen, “I only get the weekend to spend time with Betsy.”
“I listen to country music,” said Matt, smoking cigarettes in our backyard with Stefanie.
“We don’t know any of those bands,” she added.
“You don’t know the Pixies?” I asked. “I play them all the time.”
“Nick,” Stefanie said, as gently as can be, “nobody in this apartment cares about the Pixies like you do.”
And so, if they didn’t want to connect with me over the music that I loved (my arrogance was astonishing), I’d have to find someone else.
If I could talk to my twenty-four year old self, there are so many things I would say. I would tell him that outdoor festivals, those vast and intricate cities of beer and port-o-potties and music stages where the bands receive little time to set-up or sound check, where the sounds float into the air rather than to the audience, where the festival-goers jockey for their own space on the grass, fortifying their land with blankets or lawn chairs or that one designated person who remains rooted to the same spot while everyone else gets refreshments, those weekends are the worst places to meet people, especially if you are by yourself. Furthermore, for most everybody else, music doesn’t investigate the mysteries of the universe, it just gives them something to talk about. You’d have better luck throwing yourself in Lake Michigan and hoping a Pixies’ fan rescues you.
I arrive early, at noon when the park opens, and realize I’m one of the first attendees. I’m not good at fashionably late. I’m actually really uncool. I drink some beer, eat a hot dog, watch bands by myself and graze around until three p.m.
I spot a group of eight, six girls and two boys, lounging under a grove of trees by the rose garden south of Buckingham Fountain, stretched out on the grass. The clock is ticking on the day, if I’m to accomplish anything it has to happen now. I linger along the periphery of their camp. I don’t know how to begin. “Would you like to investigate the mysteries of the universe with me?” might be a little too heavy.
“Hi,” I say, affecting a persona like I’m about to tell them the specials at my restaurant. “I’m here by myself, you wanna hang out?”
A white girl in a green dress raises her sun glasses and takes me in. I’m wearing a white shirt already drenched in sweat, cargo shorts, and white socks up to my knees. I want to assure her that I’m not trying to pick her up, that I like girls but I’m here to meet people generally but even still if we connected and then made out later that’d be cool too.
“Yeah,” she says. “I don’t really think so.”
I try a group of bros in backwards baseball caps. I like sports almost as much as I like music, maybe I can connect with them. They wave me along too.
The third time is a charm. “Yeah, sure,” a guy with floppy blond hair in a large amorphous crew of hipsters says, “have a seat.”
We make introductions and talk about the festival, who we’ve seen, who we’re excited to see. But after those pleasantries, I have no inroads. They all seem to know each other really well; they have quirks and idiosyncrasies and a group rhythm I don’t understand. I could float in their orbit all afternoon, but we’re never going to be friends. Not really. I don’t know what I was thinking, why I thought I could build a lifetime of connection in a single afternoon.
I watch the Pixies by myself, on a hill over-looking the crowd, the mass of bodies swaying, August sun setting against the Field Museum. It’s stunning, a sea of people, but I can’t share this moment with anyone. I haven’t met a single person.
Until this slightly shorter, slightly older, balding man approaches on my way to the train.
“May I help you?” I ask. We’re standing at the corner of State and Van Buren, the library at my back, sun ripping over its red bricks.
He takes a deep breath. “Don’t judge,” he says, “but if someone were to offer you $40 to lick and suck your feet for fifteen minutes, what would you say?”
I stop fidgeting and stare at him.
“I would say no,” I say. I don’t wanna get my feet sucked by this guy, that’s gross, and my feet are gross, and I don’t care what he likes to do or who he likes to do it with but no, ew, not me, move along.
“Come on,” he says, “it’s only a couple of minutes. My place is right around the corner. We don’t even have to go in. We can just stay in the hallway. I’ll give you the money upfront.”
I take a step back, slowly, putting my hand out in front of me like I need to preserve our distance. The guy looks tired. His eyes sag a little behind his glasses, sweat sparkles off his forehead, shoulders stooped. How long has he been talking to people on the street? How many times has he been denied? Does he feel like the world doesn’t understand him, like it never will? It occurs to me that we might be mirror images of each other, two lonely men looking for the same thing.
He takes a deep breath again; it looks like he’s about to cry. “Forty dollars for fifteen minutes,” he says. “All you have to do is stand there. Please.”
I open my mouth to respond and, in that instant, time crystallizes, and I feel everything so acutely: the El train flashing sparks over our heads, the day’s beer gurgling in my belly, the sweat trickling down the crevices of my skin. Let the world judge his advances as weird or “other”, I don’t care. This is my chance, to share an experience with someone, to boldly throw myself into a new adventure.
“I. . .can’t,” I say. “I’m sorry.” He’s making a transaction, not a connection. I take a few steps backward, turn on my heels, and then I’m gone, bounding towards the Blue Line, sprinting for the train as it reaches the station, towards my roommates and our couch and home.
Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Great Lakes Review, Post Road Magazine, Hobart, Eunoia Review, HYPERtext Magazine, and Newcity. This essay was originally performed for 2nd Story, a Chicago-based storytelling collective with whom he is a company member. He lives in Chicago with Fati, the poet, and Amadeus, the cat.