I felt kind of cheesy being back in the Chicago area after having been given a big sendoff party to hail my departure to Philadelphia just nine months before. Once back in town, I headed downtown to find the apartment I’d be sharing with a friend on Menomonee Street in Old Town. That little avenue is only a half-block running from Clark Street to Wells, where the running store Vertel’s Chicago sits. If I’d had half a brain, I might have gone straight there and asked for a job. Somehow it did not occur to me that working in the running industry would have been a good fit. Sure, retail money wasn’t that great, but it would have been something to get started in Chicago, and make connections in the running world. Sometimes the practical answers to life’s problems are staring you right in the face, yet you look right past them.
That first night in Chicago I was emotionally exhausted. So much change had taken place in the previous month, I sat around the bedroom that evening after going for a run in Lincoln Park. We were subletting the apartment from my friend’s girlfriend, who was off in Greece getting tanned from head to toe while riding around the Mediterranean naked most of the time. I did not yet know her yet, as they’d begun dating the winter before, while I was out in Philly. I had a beer and tried to settle my mind. The afternoon light grew dim as the sun sank behind the neighborhood building, and I dozed off on the bed.
Lab Rats and Wild welcomes
My roommate’s schedule was manic. He worked part-time at a downtown hospital while doing post-graduate research work testing the exercise physiology of lab rats. That meant he often didn’t arrive home until late some nights. That happened to be the schedule the day I moved in. I was sound asleep when he arrived home only to be awakened at midnight by the sound of him flopping a large pizza box on the bed next to me as he called out, “Let’s eat!”
I was so groggy my response was instinctive. “No, I’m too tired.” He proceeded to smash his face into the pizza, take a big bite and say, “Well I’m eating.” I burst out laughing, and that’s how we kicked off our life in Chicago together.
The next day, I received a welcome back to Chicago from my former track and cross country coach, Trent Richards. After a marriage breakup with his first wife two years before, he was living with a sweet belle named Marielle in a tall condo building on Michigan Avenue. I visited his apartment and we took a trip up to the roof overlooking the city. I have a native fear of heights, so I stayed away from the edge of the roof. Yet in typical fashion, daredevil that he was, Trent walked over to lean out and look down at the sidewalk below. “Great view, huh?” he asked. I reached over to touch something to give myself a sense of being grounded.
His advice that day sort of set the stage for my time back in Chicago. “You don’t really want to work for someone, do you? You should go out on your own.”
During our first run together in Chicago, my roommate and I trotted over to North Avenue Beach only to find that the wind off Lake Michigian was so stiff the sand blowing off the beach stung our bare legs. We turned inland and looped around Lincoln Park on a gorgeous, if windy, late-May day. The last wave of migrating warblers sang in the trees. We ran past the zoo. I’d been there once before, but the rest of Lincoln Park was new territory for me. I realized that I knew almost nothing about the city, its landscape, parks, or its streets. I was a stranger in a strange land. It was wonderful.
My first few days in town I went for daily runs along the lakefront. The rest of the day was spent typing happily away on my IBM Selectric. I was working on my novel Admissions. With the windows ajar in summer, a fine layer of grit covered my work each morning. I learned to cover the machine overnight to keep it from clogging up with fine soot from the roofing projects taking place nearby.
That was the smell of the city to me those first few weeks. Roofing tar and bus exhaust. I’d wake up to the sound of workmen hauling equipment around, then get dressed for a run and come back to write for the day.
In the meantime, Trent Richards hired me to do the graphic design on a brochure for his new company One-On-One Fitness. I got busy writing and designing it for him. Part of me hoped his company serving corporate fitness clients would grow enough for me to join him.
Somewhere over the rainbow
The month of June went by fast. Now that I had a better feel for the city, it was time to move my stuff back from Paoli to Chicago. I took a plane to Harrisburg where my brother picked me up from the airport, and stayed the night with him before heading over to my little apartment where I’d rented a U-Haul truck for the move back west.
On the way back from the airport with my brother, a huge rainstorm passed over us. When the sun broke through from the west, a massive double rainbow appeared over the road ahead. My brother and I gazed at it in wonder. We pulled the car over to take a better look. Both rainbow arches were clear and full. We cried a bit because our brotherly adventure of living close together was coming to an end.
The next day, he drove over with me to Paoli and helped haul furniture down three flights of stairs. We loaded up the U-Haul until it was almost too full to close the door. “Damn, that’s lucky,” my brother said, as we slid the lock mechanism into place. Then we hugged and he drove away, back to Willow Street where he lived. Our Paoli Days were over.
There was one last item of business to attend at my apartment. The landlord came upstairs to do the inspection and decide about the security deposit. In my head, it felt like an insecurity deposit. I knew so little about taking care of a house I hopefully assumed I’d be getting the security deposit or $500 back. It didn’t turn out that way. The landlord looked around the house and noticed that the tray below the stove was thick with grease. The entire oven needed cleaning. He also noted that the base of the shower wall was molding and about to shed tile. That really ticked him off. “You should have told me about this,” he snarled.
“I didn’t notice it,” I replied. That didn’t help matters any. “We’re keeping your money,” he told me. “This whole place is a mess.”
I was angry about that decision, but couldn’t do anything about it. So even though we’d gotten along great, even shared a dinner to two together over time, it wasn’t a pleasant goodbye between us in the end. I climbed into the U-Haul, started it up, and roared away from the temporary life I’d live. And good riddance.
I’d worked for U-Haul in a summer job during college. But I’d never driven a stick-shift truck, only manual transmission cars. It wasn’t too hard to handle by that time. With the back door locked in place to keep my stuff from flying all over the highway, I headed out of Paoli and drove onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west.
At twenty-four years old, I drove right past my youthful Lancaster memories and headed toward the turnpike tunnels of western Pennsylvania. During a long climb up one of the mountain grades, I felt the engine in the U-Haul flutter and then stall out completely. The momentum at fifty miles an hour carried me a short way, but I quickly had to apply the brakes to keep from rolling backward. I shifted down into first, pushed the clutch with my brake foot and prayed that the truck would start up again. It lurched backward. I tried again, and this time the truck roared to life. “Damn,” I said out loud.
Out in Ohio I grew tired from the day’s packing and driving effort and decided to stop to spend the night outside Toledo. The hotel sat far out on a cornfield plain. I made sure the truck was locked before going out for a run in the summer heat. It was the Fourth of July. Dinner was a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken and some beer. I sat on a big rock next to the hotel sign as the sun went down. Then fireworks burst forth in the sky over several nearby towns.
The next day I drove to St. Charles, emptied my belongings into my parent’s garage for temporary safekeeping, and dropped off the U-Haul truck at the rental place where I’d worked a few summers before. Soon my friend and I would be moving to another Chicago apartment. We’d found a place to live at 1764 N. Clark in Chicago, right next door to his girlfriend’s house.
We moved into the second floor flat in late summer. I rented yet another U-Haul, reloaded all my stuff from my parent’s garage, and moved it all downtown. I’d had my fair share of moving experiences by then.
We carried our collective furniture piece by piece into our new place. The queen bed I owned got jammed in the doorway and would not budge. For an hour we tried to jam it through. Exhausted and frustrated, we decided to go out to dinner and get drinks, then return. Fueled by alcohol, we gave the bed a massive shove and it flew out of the door jam into the hallway corridor. That was it. We were ready for life in Chicago.