The floor and my laptop meet in a crushing embrace a few weeks ago, so I’ve been pulling old stuff off of it. It’s Thursday, and I thought, “what the hell, I’ll do a #ThrowbackThursday post. This piece is from 2008.
The kids talk to me before I talk to them.
“Her name is Jazz,” says the one in a faded purple shirt, right after the white puppy trots after me. She’s got a bandana around her neck and a brown spot over her left eye, and when she hears her name, her forehead wrinkles into a story of puppy love and recognition.
The boy who speaks her name is slouched against an old building in Uptown, the one right around the corner from the Lawrence ‘L’ stop. Without shoes, his feet are cut and dirty, blackened like tar on the bottom. I saw them as I came around the corner onto Broadway, noticing the sign before the sprawl of legs and cardboard cushions.
“Hungry, Hungry Hobos,” crawls across the back of a notebook, black sharpie on creased yellow paper.
I pause, look at it, but without cash or snacks, I walk on. What can I do?
“She just loves people,” the boy adds as I walk away, and that’s all it takes for me to turn around.
Matt tells me his story as I sit, folding my legs underneath me. He’s a carpenter, he and his woman split a while back, and he misses his tools, god how he misses coming home from work and working the rough grain of knotty wood into the curved lines of chairs and other art.
At 25, Matt is the oldest of the group, but he has the boyish good looks of Huck Finn, a real-life story in front of me. Hair curled and messy from a week on the road, he is cute, but looks so young, especially when pairing the curls with the rolled up jean bottoms and bare feet.
I talk with Matt about his travels, warming the sidewalk opposite the Green Mill, and for a couple of hours, I watch the world pass by with these dirty children of the road.
They are going to California, going to work in “the fields” and take part in the grand pot harvest that approaches.
“We’re going to make 20 bucks an hour, make some money, man,” says the other boy around a mouthful of bottle.
At 22, Chris has already been out to California for the harvest once before, and this adventure isn’t the first one taking him cross-country on the free ticket found in the back of a freight train.
“I don’t have any work lined up, not yet,” he tells me, pulling thoughtfully on the cigarette his girlfriend rolled moments before. “But I’ve been out there in the past, and I hope to get some carpentry work too, get in with the locals, you know.”
Jillian nods her head at this idea, nubby brown pigtails bouncing in agreement. She has been silent, plucking absently at a ukulele, but once she joins the conversation, her quick chirp clips along with youthful enthusiasm.
“Have you been out there before?” she asks me, eager to hear my take on it. “I hear it’s supposed to be really great.”
I tell her that I haven’t, but yes, I, too, have heard good things. At 20, Jill is the youngest member on this adventure, and I can see why she’s drawn to Chris.
He wears his scruff in a way that becomes him: a shadow of the road spreading across his face whether he intends it to or not. He’s tall and lanky, and as she leans into him, his arms wrap around her, white and bare against the gray fabric of her sweater. I know exactly how she feels, a short little girl taken care of by her tall hippie boy, but I can’t say that I really miss that feeling. Not tonight, not anymore.
But it’s more than this outward physical thing that draws her to him. This too, I know. It’s his life.
Chris has lived. He’s hopped trains before, he’s harvested illegal crops and stories with others in Cali, and because he is all the things that a career in dental hygiene is not, she is enamored and brought to life by this.
I can see it in her face as she calls a friend on her phone and squeals out the story of the day in Chicago. She is young and in love, and I remember what that feels like, at 20. I remember how my own tall lanky boy made me feel back then, and I remember my most recent “Chris.” I like Jill because her sense of adventure runs deep, and I imagine that’s what Chris likes about her too. He’s teaching her about the world, his world, and she’s eager to hear it all.
When I tell her about my recent trip to Thailand, her eyes open as wide as her mouth, perfect circles of awe and excitement, and I hope that she is as eager to embrace calamity as she sounds, should it befall her on this trip. She has considered at least one possibility—that any of them could be arrested— but she is most afraid of what will happen if the cops take Chris away from her. They almost did that at Union Station today, but when I ask her if they’ve discussed a strategy for that, I see disbelief and fear color her face more than the streetlight illumination from above.
“God, what would I do? We haven’t even talked about it, no.”
She stares down at Jazz for a minute, and then snuggles into Chris’ side, feeling the emptiness of a life on the road without her man.
What would she do?
I would like to think she’d figure it out, maybe late, but better then than never. That’s what I did.
Up until Monday, I had planned on going to California, too. Not so much to take part in the harvest, exactly, but to be part of that culture of people who pass the seasons waiting for it like my family waits for the first spring-time sprout of life to color the fields.
A mess since my return to the states from Thailand, three months ago, I had been unhappy in Chicago, ill-at-ease among the skyscrapers and dull sheen of life in the US. Thailand had been too much, too much fun, too much happiness, too much… everything, and life in Chicago had been boring and flat, a watercolor wash of grey day after grey day.
So when I hooked up with a friend in California and he suggested I move out there, first I thought “no, what a terrible idea.” And then as the weeks passed each other with the slow monotony of spring in the Midwest, it sounded better and better, almost perfect. Not because I anticipated any sort of real life out there, but because it wasn’t Chicago, which wasn’t Thailand.
I looked at apartments here, evaded the real world and sought refuge from it in my books and my writing. The night before I found the perfect artists’ loft building, my friend assured me yes, if I went to California, everything would work out. For a few days I even believed it, and then, after posting my few possessions on Craigslist, the reality of the situation came to pass, taking with it the charm and illusion of sandy shores and a life of stoned simplicity in the sun. I put a deposit on a new studio apartment and vowed to work on my craft among the other poor, dirty and disillusioned writers, painters and musicianssharing the building. But my body ached for something else. Something different.
What is it about going West that reaches for the American spirit like stalks to the sky? How was this story started, and who perpetuates it to this day, that the American Dream lives in the West? These kids grew up together, friends in Baltimore, East Coast elites gone organic, escaping the hum of existence by hopping trains and sleeping on sidewalks. I wanted to do that once, around the same time I thought living like a broke writer would move me to be the next Nin or Hemingway.
How very ‘beat’ I’d be, I cleverly thought to myself, imagining all of the scenes from a Ginsberg or Kerouac epic in my own bedroom. How very perfect for the storyteller in me, all of those bodies and lives and sorrows crashing against the stable shoreline of my being. It would be the life to end all lives, the adventure and chaos of a life lived to its fullest that I’ve always sought.
And then as quickly and randomly as the idea of attempting a life in California was proposed, the allure of it rubbed off like some dollar-store trinket gone brassy in the setting sun. The dream, or the illusion of the dream imagined by someone else, someone I’m not, fell from the sky.
By 1 am Jill, was fighting sleep, and I could see a fight in her shoulders, if the crew didn’t get to going where ever it was that they could sleep safely until morning.
“If my doorman isn’t around, you can stay at my place,” I offered, sparking a flame in Jill’s eyes and a glance upward from Matt, who was buried in his journal, Sharpie in hand. Chris smiled, busy chatting with the homeless and probably schizophrenic man laughing crazily at our feet.
“But with Jazz, the lobby has to be completely empty or else it won’t work,” I continued, hoping the man would go away before we headed to my place. The idea of showers and food had garnered their attention, and I felt bad for bringing it up, knowing that the doorman was probably around.
“I’ll go home and check, then call you if it’ll work.”
My block came up quickly, lit up and alive, even at 1 am. The neighborhood has gentrified, and instead of my own neighborhood schizophrenic, it is my maintenance man, his wife and their baby, I run into at this late hour. We wave, cross paths, and I enter the lobby.
How different our lives are, all of them. That small family of three, neat and tidy at 1 am; me, sweaty and dirty in running gear and puppy tracks offering my home to another family of sorts. Am I crazier than the man laughing outside?
I think of the kids I’ve just met as I pack crackers and fruit and granola bars into a plastic bag. I can’t get them in, not tonight, but if I make it back there before they seek shelter, maybe I can feed them. Maybe I can take care of them in the only way I can at this hour.
My train rattles along the track, past Argyle, past Berwyn, back into Bryn Mawr. I get off slowly, letting the drunks stagger warm, boozy circles around me. The night has cooled down, and I wonder where the hobos will sleep tonight, how far their train will take them tomorrow. I wonder if Chris will get caught and separated from his “mamma,” and what Jill will do if he does.
“I didn’t get much sleep last night,” Jill says as we part ways. “So I’ve got to get some tonight. Sleeping on the train is hard, and with Jazz, if I have to hold her… my arms…oh, it’s just so hard.”
I nod my head in agreement, imagining that it is indeed, a challenge. But what do I know of hopping trains and holding sleeping puppies and chasing someone across the country because “that’s what you do for love”?
What do I know of trains and harvests and feet as black as the midnight tar on the street outside?
What I know is Chicago, and my own sense of adventure, my own heart and the things that I love: words and stories, not people, or at least, not just one person. I know the way the right ones seem to find me—words and humans — and that stories make whole my life in a way that the living of it never does.
What I know is that in another lifetime, I might have hopped a train and rattled off to California to chase some dream and some adventure. But not now. Not tonight. Not anymore.
Instead, I will return to my apartment, sit on my couch, legs once again folded and firm beneath me, and capture the essence of this night, to live on forever in my words.