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Charlie's Vespa



I got all shook up by that Tribune series about people Moving Out of Chicago--all those boldfaced quotes from people who say things like "The Schools Stink" or "You Can't Live in a Nice House" or "Garbage and Rats! Crime and Noise!" Gee, I thought, will I be the last one here? Will I be responsible for turning off the light?

Then I got to thinking we should celebrate some of the people who've left Chicago. And consider people and things we'd like to get rid of in the coming year: School board member and atrocious grammarian Sharon Grant. Junkies at the door in May demanding money for snow they'll shovel in December. Annoying paperwork (school applications for four-year-olds: yo folks, this is the 90s! Boil it down). Rodents that die behind the pantry wall. I say, Outa here! To the moon, Alice!

I'm celebrating the loss of Charlie, a thin white balding man headed toward 40 and California. He showed up at our door one evening over Labor Day weekend. Usually we're in Canada, swimming and fishing and sailing and drinking too much. But we didn't go this year: we had a new baby and we were too tired to go on vacation. This is a dangerous state of affairs for any household and really, for a while, there should have been a Mere Lunatique warning posted on the front door. But back to Charlie. The doorbell rang, the dog barked, and like any Pavlovian creature, I answered it.

Do you have a garage? Charlie asks.

I do. (Usually the next question is: Do you have any space to rent? I don't, and you'll soon see why.)

Do you have a Vespa?

Yes! (Figuring that it was being stolen.)

It's mine, Charlie says.

Excuse me?

I left it here ten years ago, with the former owner of your building.

So where have you been all these years, Charlie? In a coma?

No, he'd been living a couple blocks away, over on Fremont. But now he was leaving for California, and he wanted his motor scooter. (I imagined this guy traipsing all over Old Town collecting his shit: "I left my skis here 15 years ago." Ding dong. "Do you have my guitar?")

Now this motor scooter is as useful and dear to me as my wedding dress, which also happens to be white, draped in plastic, and using up space. The difference is my dress doesn't leak oil and will never cause grave bodily harm to someone who takes it out for a spin. The scooter is more dear, and sometimes useful, to my husband, Harry. He's taken it out on at least one beer run (you can fit a lot of beer in a sidecar). Otherwise he cleans it off and starts it up a few times a year, drives it around the block (yes, you can pop wheelies even with a sidecar), and keeps it around so that when any of our brothers visit they have this guy thing to do out in the garage. The scooter is a toy. A large found toy that I never had any intention of getting rid of--or licensing for that matter. (Do I want to be the agent of my own unhappiness? If it stays unlicensed, it can't go far. If it can't go far, no one gets hurt.)

I tell Charlie pleasantly that we consider the Vespa ours, since it's lived here for the eight years we have, and that we don't intend to give it up. Charlie says he's got the title. Well, I say, then you owe us eight years' worth of rent for the garage space--at $75 per month.

Why didn't you try to find me, he asks. (Note to Charlie: see President Clinton's speech on individual responsibility.) Luckily one of my kids starts to howl so I excuse myself and tell Charlie to call. We're listed in the book, always have been.

When Harry returns and hears about the purported Vespa owner, he asks a truly salient question: "How big is he? I'll kick his butt." But when Charlie calls, Harry merely replies politely that he's not interested in giving up the Vespa. Charlie asks us to pay him for the Vespa. Harry doesn't want to pay for something he already owns. Charlie suggests we sell the Vespa and split the profits. Harry is open to this idea for some reason--he's tired, we're all tired, we need a year's worth of sleep--but then there's me, the mere lunatique. Somebody owes me eight years' worth of storage.

This goes on for most of a week: Charlie doesn't really want the Vespa--he's leaving for California, he wants money. We want him to stop calling.

Friday arrives and I'm so tired my body hurts. By nine o'clock I've got both kids asleep and one hand just about to grasp a long-awaited cocktail. But then the doorbell rings. The dog barks. And of course I open the door, though not so much like a trained dog as a rabid dog, like a dog who's just put her pups to bed and whose greatest fear is that they will return.

It's Charlie! And two people in suits! Charlie's waving a piece of paper around like a death sentence, and one of the suited ones accuses us of gerrymandering the scooter. Well! Where are the usage police when you need them? Speaking of police, Charlie had brought them, too.

I say it's abandoned, he says it's stolen. (From where?) Officer Inmyface brandishes the title and commands me to open up the garage and release the vehicle. But somewhere in the back of my overtired brain I recall seventh-grade social studies, home is your castle, unreasonable searches, and whatnot. This is not a police state, so I say no. I start to head back into my castle and Officer Misinformed tells me I can't: that he'll arrest me for something or other if I go inside.

The officers don't know what to do next so they call for a detective. ("Rapes, burglaries, murders," he says. "Never a motor scooter.") The atmosphere is calmed, the tone elevated, by the detective's presence: what if the item left behind had been a ladder? (Funny, there was a ladder left behind by the former owner. He'd offered to have the abandoned--his words--scooter towed away. Also a unicycle with a flat tire, a pile of bricks, a ten-foot length of white marble, and a shovel.) What if it had been a piano? What if the item had been left only a few months? One year instead of eight? (Here lie your tax dollars hard at work: three cops settling the problem of Charlie's irresponsibly stowed possessions.)

Privately the detective asks us about the scooter. He hears about the leaking oil--the gaskets are shot!--that we never take it more than a few blocks. Take the money if he offers, he says, go on a vacation. (Where? Will you plan it for me?)

Under the watchful eye of the kind detective, Charlie forked over a sizable sum and Harry turned over the beloved Vespa. Charlie pushed it down the alley--he probably left his keys at yet another house. I hope he had to push it a long way: maybe all the way to California.

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