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Sweet Home Chicago

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When the northbound 36 Broadway bus stopped at Addison, he stood outside the back door. He looked at the closed door. He looked toward the front end of the bus, where a short line of people were shuffling on. It must have seemed a long way off. He held up his dollar. The door did not open. He looked around. He hesitated once more, then pulled open the door and climbed on.

"Hey," the driver shouted. The man turned, dollar still held high. Passengers were coming down the aisle toward him. The driver yelled again, but his "hey" was mysterious. It gave the man nothing to do.

The forward movement of the bus pitched the man backward. He grabbed on and bounced into the aisle seat next to me. As I expected, he had an aroma of blended whiskey, as some people wear cheap perfume. He also had one permanently closed eye. It was the one next to me. The lid folded down from his eyebrow like an old cloth venetian blind.

The driver yelled again, but there was no force in it. The man still had his dollar out. No one said anything to him. After the next stop, the driver picked up his phone. The man studied his dollar. It might be useful, but not here. He put it in his pocket.

As the bus continued northward, I hoped there would not be any confrontation. I was newly returned to Chicago, staying in a hotel until my apartment was ready, riding the 36 Broadway on business--and as a compression chamber to prepare me to live again in my old neighborhood. When I'd left, it was Uptown. I had come back to "Sheridan Park."

My landlord had written me about all the changes and rehabbing between Montrose and Lawrence, Broadway and Clark. He credited Mayor Washington with a lot of the upswing. I was worried that at long last Uptown might be finally finished. In this city of tight ethnic pockets, socially and economically stratified, it had been a neighborhood for people like me, people who have no neighborhood.

The man looked a couple of times at my hands resting on my lap atop my coat. "You're calm, ain't you?" he asked.

I nodded. He said, "I'm so scared sometimes." He turned his head full around to see me. Then he stared forward, crossed his forearms, his hands cupped and helpless. He hunched over and almost cried quietly. "I get so scared, I . . ." He could not find the words. "I just get so scared." He was shaking. Then he stopped and leaned lightly against me.

Where Sheridan crosses Broadway at Montrose, by the huge parking lot in front of the Jewel at Pensacola Place, the bus driver spotted a couple of police cars and blew his horn until one switched on its blue Mars light and pulled in front of the bus.

The first cop on was a black woman. The driver told her someone had gotten on the back and had not paid. She wanted to know who. He said, "The guy back there in the blue jacket."

The policewoman said, "Show me." The driver got out of his seat and came down the aisle. He looked to be Asian, but he might have been Hispanic. After two years in Korea, I do not trust myself about these things.

Another cop followed the bus driver. She was probably Hispanic, but she could have been Asian. The driver pointed to the man. The lead cop said, "C'mon, babe, let's get out of the bus." He was on his feet and out the door. The second policewoman followed him. The first one said to the driver, "You give me a ticket on this." The driver nodded nervously and headed up front. The cop went out the back door.

Within minutes the one-eyed man was walking south on Broadway, though he hesitated a couple of times, like a bird flirting with return to the cage. People on the bus muttered that we should be moving, too, not blocked by some police car. The business end of my bus ride that day proved fruitless. I always make the attempt to get loans, insurance, and such things in my neighborhood. But I think the businesspeople in Uptown do not trust the people who live there.

The return bus trip was uneventful--until we came to the corner where Broadway crosses Sheridan near Clarendon. The driver threw on the emergency brake and came down the aisle. He was tall and thin and looked strong. Without shouting, he said forcefully toward the rear, "Get out. Get off. Now, move." After each terse phrase, his throat blocked off a curse or a nasty name.

The object of his scorn jumped up from the backseat, his trousers below his knees. He hastily tried to put on his hat, grab a book, and get his pants up. The driver herded him out without touching him.

Before the driver was back in his seat, the flasher had his pants up far enough to run after another bus, westbound on Sheridan. The few of us on the 36 Broadway were laughing. When the man missed that bus, he turned back toward ours, and the others, afraid of another confrontation, stopped laughing. I could not. It felt so good to be home.

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