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Cruising

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It is a nightly performance, a curious sort of automobile ballet on the quaint wide boulevard that meanders through the north end of Lincoln Park. Every model car imaginable wanders, weaves, pauses, turns around, speeds up, slows down. The lone drivers are also of every sort imaginable--white, black, brown, Asian, young and old. They have one thing in common, though; they're all men.

The line of cars is watched by more lone men who've backed their vehicles into the perpendicular parking spaces painted onto the roadway. Through their windshields the occupants of the parked cars study the drivers of the parading cars intently, looking for a sign, a nod, a nervous smile, a stare held long past the point of politeness.

Then the driver of the parked car pulls into the line, following his chosen other, keeping a coy distance. The two cars play a game of cat and mouse, coming close and pulling away, doubling back, passing each other again and again, each driver seeking to certify the other's interest and desirability.

Surely this stretch of parkland, from Montrose to Foster, is one of the sex centers of the city. Nearer the lake and the Drive, in the unlighted parking lots on either side of the boulevard, teens writhe against each other in the back seats of cars, and stony-faced businessmen accept the ministrations of street hookers they've found on Broadway and Sheridan. For them the draw is darkness--not being seen. Here, on the well-lighted boulevard, seeing and being seen come first.

He looked to be in his late 20s. He had broad shoulders and curly black hair. He drove a shiny white Ford Escort SE with racy accoutrements. He was part of the dance.

He arrived on the boulevard at the stroke of midnight, backing into one of the parking spaces. Unlike the other parkers, he kept his headlights on. Perhaps this was his first foray here; perhaps he didn't know the folkways. How could the paraders see his face, catch his eye, when they were nearly blinded by his lights?

Maybe he was nervous. Like the man in the brown jacket who moments before had been parked just two spaces away, near the stone bridge. That man had done something that few of the paraders or parkers do: He got out of his car. He eschewed its protective anonymity to loiter near the bridge. There are two such bridges on this stretch of boulevard. They pass over pedestrian and jogging paths and connecting driveways between parking lots. Underneath they are perfect spots, dark and out of sight, for outdoor trysts.

The man in the brown jacket stood near the stone bridge until he heard footsteps on the gravel path underneath. His heart, presumably, raced in anticipation as he descended the grassy hill from above the bridge to below. He brought both hands to his fly, ready to display his calling card. His pace quickened as the footsteps became louder. Then, at the moment of discovery, his face was contorted with horror. The footsteps were those of a couple out strolling on a moonlit Saturday night.

The man in the brown jacket froze. To judge from the panic in his eyes, the couple was his boss and his wife, or his minister and his wife. Or a couple of reporters out taking names and snapping pictures. His face would be plastered on the front page of the Sunday Trib. His wife and children would boot him out of his comfortable Franklin Park home. He'd be fired and his bank account gutted. He'd be arrested and charged with sexual perversion. He'd be slapped in the state prison at Joliet, where inmates would dispense their peculiar justice by turning him into their sexual plaything.

He zipped up his pants, pivoted, ran back up the hill, jumped into his car, and gunned away, toward home in Franklin Park or wherever. Promising, one can only suppose, never to return to the boulevard by the beach.

Perhaps the young man in the white Escort thought of fleeing too. But if he did his fear was overcome by desire, drive, the urge to squirt, as Philip Roth once called it. After sitting with his lights on for better than 15 minutes without a nibble, he pulled out and joined the parade. He passed a tan-and-cream-colored Dodge van. The van's lights flashed on and off. The man in the Escort for some reason chose to ignore the signal. He drove on.

The car behind him returned the van's signal, though. A black Plymouth, it drove ahead some 100 yards then abruptly swung into a U-turn, slowing to a crawl in front of the van. The drivers exchanged glances. The Plymouth pulled next to the Dodge, and its driver got out and entered the van on the passenger side. After a few minutes, ten at most, the Plymouth driver emerged from the van and got back into his car. He smiled and waved at the van man and drove away in the same direction taken by the man in the brown jacket.

The Escort man continued to drive slowly along the boulevard, searching passing cars for an accommodating face. He caught an eye here and there, after which the two drivers would perform mirror-image U-turns, pass each other again, and repeat the process. Then one driver would turn around to follow the other for several hundred yards. It was like the weaving dance of bees, communicating to each other the location of some sweet flowers. Except the Escort man would not alight and savor his prize. Each time the other car would tire of his overslow dance. Eventually it would accelerate away, later to begin another dance with another car.

Pulling into one of the unlighted lots, the Escort escaped the glare of the boulevard's streetlights. Again he kept his headlights on, breaking another code here. His beam flooded the interior of a car, apparently unoccupied. Suddenly a girl's head popped up. With disdain on her face, she flashed the finger. Quickly the Escort's lights went out.

He found no takers in the lot, only a seemingly endless succession of steamy windows. Soon he returned to the boulevard parade. Again a run of unrequited dances. He passed a big old deuce-and-a-quarter that had been parked for almost an hour. Its driver, also weary of the wait, stretched and yawned.

The Escort man took this cue and pulled out of the parade at Montrose. He headed west until he reached the Kennedy Expressway. He entered the westbound lanes toward home. In Franklin Park or somewhere.

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