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High Tea With Lee Godie



On my way downtown I asked Barbara downstairs if she'd like to accompany me. I forgot her Sundays are devoted to watching football, but she gave me $100 of her overtime pay to buy her a painting in case I ran into Lee Godie. As I hadn't seen Lee in almost three months, my hopes weren't high, but it gave my afternoon more purpose.

I stopped at Walgreens on Michigan Avenue and bought a bag of silver, green, and red foil-wrapped kisses, to break one of the $50 bills. The December day was overcast, but almost balmy. I walked down to the Randolph Street bridge where Lee sometimes sits with her paintings, but she was not there. I walked back north on the west side of Michigan watching for her, but no Lee. Then I spotted her across the street in a window niche at Bally's. I went and stood in the doorway where I had a good view of her profile. She was fast asleep with a pink knit hat pulled down to her nose. She was wearing a ratty fur coat over a cloth coat, pinned together at the neck with big safety pins. A big black bag was by her side, and behind her a roll of canvas paintings. An elderly lady with a very expensive mink, waiting for the bus, asked me the time.

By now the weather had turned windy. Every once in a while Lee would stir and settle in a different position. I didn't want to wake her so I decided to keep vigil from across the street in Bloomingdale's warm lobby. I counted 87 fur coats, amazed at how many men were wearing full-length furs. Fifty minutes later Lee stood up, stomped about, and gathered her possessions. I approached her, hoping she would be in a good mood. I knew I had two strikes against me since it was Sunday; I was wearing slacks, which she disapproved of on Sundays, and if she was not in the mood to sell, she'd say she never sold on "the Lord's Day." I knew better than to remind her of the paintings I'd purchased from her on Sundays. A bus approached, stopped, and when it resumed its journey, I could see no pink knit hat anywhere. I looked up and down, but there was no pink head. She had vanished. I dashed across the street and into the Westin Hotel.

There in the wide corridor leading to the lobby was Lee. She was as surprised to see me as I was to find her. She was very cordial, almost affectionate, which surprised me, as I could see she was very cold. She asked if I'd cycled from Evanston, and I told her no, today was a bit chilly for that. There were a few people in the lobby bar having coffee, and on the other side, people drinking at the Gold Lion Bar. By the entrance were two policemen, deep in a friendly conversation.

Lee's face was devoid of any makeup. The last few times I'd seen her, she had huge red rouge balls on her cheeks. Today her socks were mismatched, and her hands and fingernails were very dirty. Her paintings were tied with a gray scarf and I asked if I could see them. She was very accommodating and showed me a painting of a woman with a flapper hairdo. The other was typical of Lee's women, with long full hair reaching to the shoulders, a black forehead band, big wide eyes with spiderlike eyelashes. An open, stare-you-down expression. All around the figure Merry Christmas was written with great flourishes. I counted 18 times. I was smitten. Lee had rolled the painting so that the nose was somewhat creased and soiled. "Oh, it has a broken nose," I said.

After some discussion we settled on $40, and I suggested that we walk down to McDonald's and get something warm to drink. People were looking at us, and I felt our minutes in the lobby were numbered. Lee pointed to the gray covered chairs in the lobby bar and said, "Those chairs are very comfortable." Then she lowered her voice, tilting her pink head toward mine. "I'll tell you what we can do--you go to the ladies' room and get some hot water, I have some tea bags."

I saw a tall styrofoam cup by the unattended service area and took it to the restroom. The hot water was almost boiling and I filled the cup and started back, thinking I wouldn't be surprised if Lee had ditched me. Sure enough, she was gone. Then I saw she had settled herself into a chair. She rummaged in her black bag and produced three tea bags. Somewhere she'd found a china cup and saucer. I poured the hot water in the cup and fixed her tea. She acted very much the lady, waiting for the tea to cool down. She urged me to fix myself tea in the foam cup. I told her I'd just had lots of coffee with lunch, and she drank the almost three cups of tea the water made. As she thawed she became more talkative. When I admired her leather bag she told me she kept it so nice by going over it with clear nail polish. Something reminded her of a schoolteacher telling her how Columbus discovered America. It had been such a long trip that some of the sailors starved to death and had to be thrown over the side of the ship. But when they finally arrived here, they had a Thanksgiving dinner.

She told me to sit very still and smile and she would draw me. She wanted me to smile very wide and show my teeth. After a few minutes she gave up. "This doesn't look like you, my hands are too cold."

She reminded me again to pinch my nose, because the Chicago winds make your nostrils spread. She has a man friend she can hardly recognize anymore, because his nose "has spread all across his face." At night you can even put a clothespin on your nose. Then she showed me some exercises to enlarge the eyes. She says she has some photographs of herself before and after, and that her eyes are much larger in the after pictures. It's best to do these outside. You look at one tall building, then sweep your eyes, without moving your head, as far as you can, to another tall building. I promised her I'd do it.

I said I'd better go, as it was getting late. "No," said Lee, "don't go yet; let's sit and chat, you have time." I asked if she was staying at the same hotel where she stayed last winter. "No, they kicked me out, but do you know where the Wacker Hotel is? I think I'll stay there tonight." I suggested we take a cab there and I would ride with her. She didn't answer, instead she sat up. "Oh, let me leave a couple coins." She took two dimes from her pocket and carefully put them under the saucer. "It's getting late, you should go home, I'll be all right."

I patted her dirty hand and told her to take care, and how much I liked her painting. "Do you really like it? Even with a broken nose?"

I offered her the festive kisses, which she declined, then I gave her my gloves telling her I had several pairs at home. She was almost angry. "I don't need gloves! Look!" She pulled her dirty sweater sleeves out of her coat and showed me how she made gloves out of them. "Now, go--and have a Merry Christmas."

Outside the bare trees were twinkling with tiny bulbs in the frosty twilight. A policeman sat atop a horse. The horse was wearing a red pointed hat with white trim. As I waited for the light to change, I stepped back to see if Lee was still inside. She saw me, and her fur-clad arm arched a farewell.

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