As you come onto Chicago Avenue, you feel that hunger pang and you know it's a call for just one thing: one of those sauerkraut, pickle, chopped onion, mustard, catsup, hot peppers, green-goop layered hot dogs at Mr. J's. Forget the fancy stuff; the old-fashioned at $1 is good enough.
Mr. J's is one of those little corner places that boasts hamburgers and "dawgs." It promises no frills and you expect none as you walk into the shop at Pearson and State streets. Inside you're greeted by a fake brick box topped by a fake fogged skylight framed by a couple of hanging plants. You notice them and wonder if they're real.
On the far side, a handful of employees are scurrying behind a high counter. There are framed signs for everything possible on a hamburger or hot dog, including the Dagwood Special (unlike the comic version, with a veritable deli slapped inside multiple pieces of Wonder Bread, this just features two burger patties in a stuffed double-decker bun). Nothing tops $3 and all the lettering is in primary colors and black.
You then notice the incongruous collection of photographs to the side of the counter--some are framed, some just taped to the wall. They picture Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Lieutenant Governor Neil Hartigan, and Channel Two weekend news anchor Mike Parker. Throughout the store there are also framed lithographs of scenes of ancient Greece--a couple of Temples of Theseus here, a Temple of Corinth there, even a Temple of Minerva.
You give your spartan order to one of the red-shirted Greeks behind the counter, and in seconds he produces a "dawg" swimming in all of the trimmings. It's a buck even, and you take a wad of napkins and settle in at the long counter facing State Street. There's no wall here at all; the whole expanse before you--a mere foot and a half in front of your nose--is all glass.
You take a bite that squares off all the sauerkraut from one end. Rainbow gel squirts from the other and you struggle for a napkin to avert disaster. As you look up from your lap, there's a black man's face right across the window from you.
"Gimme a quarter, goddamn it!" A woman's voice explodes next to him. "Jesus Christ, what do I have to do for a quarter?"
The woman is white, poor, and inebriated. From the pocket of her red sweat jacket packs of cigarettes protrude, as well as used tissues and a small change purse. She's angry and her lips are pursed, but there's a blurry, slow-motion air about her.
"You don't need no quarter," the man says. When he opens his mouth, it's littered with jagged, yellow teeth. His beard is gray splattered and he's wearing a green and red wool cap, though the temperature's mild and the sun is golden today. He has two sweaters on.
You try to look past the squabble, through the traffic on State Street, and across to Loyola University's law school. There's a gathering of tall white boys on the other side of the street. They're wearing polo shirts and shorts with creases, laughing and nodding. Lining their side of the street are a Honda Prelude, a BMW, and a Montero. On your side, where the black man paces and fumes, there are an Escort, a Buick Skyhawk, and a Yugo.
"Whatcha need a quarter for, that's what I want to know," he says to her, his whole body leaning into the question.
As he talks, the traffic in front of your window keeps moving: a man in a white painter's uniform, sprinkled with colors and carrying a bucket; a white couple with matching black-and-metal glasses; an entourage of Asian kids led by a white woman in a business suit.
"I gotta make a phone call," the woman says. Her jeans are stained, she's got a bruise on her face and a mop of red hair down to her shoulders. She's got an itchy arm, and she scratches and scratches. "C'mon, you can't just leave me . . . you can't just leave me."
"I was never with you to leave you!" he shouts back, insulted, performing. He looks to you, across the glass, for approval. They're both middle-aged, maybe in their fifties and this is not Love Connection. He's carrying a shopping bag filled to the brim. A beat-up sweater sleeve is drooping over the side of it.
Your hot dog's a mess. There's a trim, young black man in a suit sitting a few stools from you. On the counter in front of him is a ball of rumpled-up napkins. His hands are folded and he's watching the argument. He looks your way for a moment and arches his eyebrow. "Tsk, tsk," he says.
"You don't even know what number you want," the man outside says. "You just want to argue with the operator. Not on my quarter you don't."
The woman kicks at the air and the man's eyes open wide. Through the glass you can see all around them the traffic keeps moving.
The cafe at Pearson's Restaurant across from the university is claiming a customer or two and at Beck's Books the current is steady.
The man in the suit looks at his watch. "I feel trapped in here," he finally says. His hair shines.
"I think it's OK," you tell him.
"I'm not walking out there," he says. "No sir. I'm not gonna get trapped in that shit."
"Can I ask you a question, you arrogant son of a bitch?" It's the woman, waddling across the screen in front of you. But this isn't TV and you can't change the channel.
She positions herself squarely in front of the man with the shopping bag. She moves her lips in a soundless lingua franca, nods and waits, her eyes brimming with tears. The man puts his hand to his face. She wraps her arms around herself, scratches. He drapes his arm across her shoulders, and the two of them turn the corner, silent.
"Now it's OK," says the man in the suit, slapping a briefcase against his thigh and looking both ways as he exits.
The junkies are nowhere in sight. The man in the suit crosses your screen and you follow him out of the picture. Then you turn around, and order another dawg.