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The Valet Parker's Lament

I knew I'd quit at some point. I was just waiting for a sign.

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Inside my running shoes I was making little fists with my toes, trying to bundle any remaining heat. One of them cracked. It might have shattered and come off completely; I was too numb to know for sure. I wanted to cry, but tears would have frozen instantly too.

During the long winter in Chicago, things barely move. Downtown the air burns cold as the wind tears through the skyscraping hallways, and people meander about like confused statues. Death deliver me from this cold, their faces plead, as they crash through the frigid air, wincing but maybe not oblivious to the beautiful absurdity of being outside in it.

I can't feel my feet at all after a six-hour shift in the stuff. Sitting on the Blue Line I rub my feet through their socks the whole ride home, swearing I'm not going to work the next day. But I'll be back. Standing on the corner. Hopping up and down for warmth, the restaurant's own Popsicle lawn jockey.

Weekends I park cars for a restaurant in Wicker Park. Most weeknights I'm on duty in River North. I probably shouldn't say where; let's just say it's a restaurant on Wells Street that attracts tourists who think they're being sophisticated and sophisticates who think they're being healthy, even though everyone orders the tempura.

I watched each breath dissolve like a sour daydream into the frozen sky as I squirmed around, waiting for a customer. Not a single car yet tonight. Monday. Usually I have at least one by now.

"If I don't get a car in the next hour, I'm fucking walking," I told myself out loud. I look for signs. Signs to show that I should leave this pitiful job, that I could leave this pitiful job at a moment's notice. I pulled a stack of numbered tickets from the pocket of my jacket. The number is stamped in triplicate on each of the ticket's perforated sections. The top portion, the largest, goes to the customer. It has the company's name on it along with all the legal crap about lost, damaged, and stolen vehicles. The second portion goes in the car's driver's-side window for rapid identification. I write the color and make of the car, as well as its location, on the last piece of numbered paper, then puncture it and put it on the client's key ring. This puncture and lace is hard as hell to complete with frozen digits. This is work.

In the spring, summer, and fall, the streets downtown belong to eager youth groups and hulking high school volleyball teams, business travelers and tourists with their heads stuck in paper soda jerk hats from Ed Debevic's. I sit in a plastic patio chair watching them, with a book or magazine across my lap and a stack of newspapers under my seat. I imagine some people might actually envy me, sitting there doing jack shit but reading. During the winter, tourists are scarce, and the few people I see, including the regulars at the methadone clinic up the block, wouldn't trade places with me for a thousand dollars, let alone the 40 or 50 I'm set to make.

It's fairly easy to tell who's headed for the clinic. It's not their dress so much as the hurried, nervous walk. If you see a business lady gaiting down the street in a cold sweat, chewing on her pen, chances are she's headed for the clinic. Almost all of them smoke, even the ones who are pregnant, and before they get there you can practically see their flayed nerves. I sometimes let them park in my loading zone, and they dash into the clinic, the kids left in the car looking quizzically at me from the backseat.

I was still feeling a bit rotten inside from this weekend's first annual valet Christmas party. Our employers wouldn't spring for a yuletide beer, so the party was at my apartment. It was my roommate's idea, but nothing could have prepared her for the sight of car jockeys getting dead drunk on tequila, beer, and Jell-O shots while trying to compose and play "The Valet March" on all the random instruments in our apartment (piano, trumpet, trombone, and guitar). There were three American-born valets, myself included, five from Romania, and one fellow from Belize, but that night we all drank like billionaire blonds on hundred-foot yachts. My liver may never rebound, but when asked how the party turned out, I have the luxury of replying, "a Romanian taxicab driver vomited in my bathroom sink."

On my way to work tonight, I stopped at Walgreens and bought a crappy radio for a couple of dollars. It hissed and argued with every turn of the knob, but eventually I coaxed it to stick on WBEZ. I listened to the news and turned south toward Ohio to look at the Sears Tower. It never looks very tall from here.

I thought of all the foggy days last year when I couldn't see the top and would get 9/11 jitters. A dump truck would crap its load onto the sidewalk a block or two away, and it would sound like an explosion. Then I would snap my neck around and look for the tower and see only sky. I'd always feel like an idiot when the low clouds would move some and those blinking antennae would still be there.

It's amusing to wonder how the hell all this concrete and marble and tar got here. I picture marshy grasslands beneath my feet and a clear view of a sandy-beachless, much cleaner Lake Michigan. Deer eating grass. Beavers and shit. Indians creep through the marsh and are killed by white dudes in fur caps after trading them skins. Canoes rifle by, then stagecoaches on bumpy dirt roads appear. Lots and lots of construction, half of which turns to blackened rubble in a fire. Then there is more construction than ever, and cars show up. Then mobsters and bullets. Then more and more cars. The cars get bigger and bigger and then all of a sudden, Hondas. Then more little cars than big cars. Then SUVs and little cars. And then SUV after SUV after SUV after SU fucking V. SUVs going ba-a-a, baa-a-a, B-A-A-A-A-A. I picture myself standing in the middle of a vast river of SUVs. They all want to hit me, but they miraculously break around me and my stupid windbreaker.

This fantasy occupied about three minutes. I turned around and saw a sporty silver Mercedes waiting in the loading zone. I recognized this one. A Chicago Bear drives it. He calls me "the easy reader" because he always sees me reading. A friend of mine who valet parked in San Francisco got to chauffeur Tom Waits's car all the time. He said it always smelled like wet dog. All I seem to pull in in the way of celebrities are Bears, Bulls, and Cubs I've never heard of. And jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis one time. His Buick smelled fresh and clean. Anyway, as the Bear's door opened, I could feel the bass at the end of the block. I jogged over to the car. He got out and saw me opening the passenger door for his girlfriend.

"How you doing?" I asked him.

"Pretty good, man. What're you reading tonight?" he said, getting out.

"Autobiography," I pulled the book out of my pocket and held it up for him to see. "Lenny Bruce."

"Huh, all right," he laughed. "We won't be long." He looked back at me. "Dustin Hoffman in the movie, right?"

"Yeah. Lenny."

He handed me a 20. Likes the rock star parking. It's $20 up front to have your car sit in the loading zone, and usually rock stars don't like you to tear them tickets either. They like to look known. The transaction is off the books, so eight extra dollars for me, and he's known. As I scooted his car closer to the curb I could see him inside, watching through the window to make sure I didn't scuff his rims.

The restaurant's manager was standing behind him watching too. "No change" is her well-worn greeting for me. She refuses to give me change for my customers who seconds before were her customers. The owners of the valet company won't leave me change for our clientele, so every time someone hands me a bill I can't break I have to sprint to the corner store two blocks away. They won't make change either, so I buy coffee while the customer waits.

This is still better than working in an office, I reminded myself. Looking at my tattered windbreaker and decaying metal sign, I couldn't help but wonder if working in an office was ever this degrading. It certainly felt just as pointless, but at least under the soul-sucking fluorescent lights I had my own swivel chair. To most people here, I'm half a rung above the guy who spits on a windshield at a stoplight and smears it around with a dirty newspaper. My work yields nothing. I just plug cars here and there for a couple of hours and then run back to unplug them, trying to remember which radio station I changed the stereo from when I got in. Was the stereo even on? Did I turn on the seat warmer?

Walking over to my wooden key box I could feel my dignity trapped inside it, squirming like a caterpillar under a blowtorch. My boss made it--the key box--out of scrap wood and mismatched screws, and I wanted to kick it to kindling. I opened it up. Taunting rows of voracious hooks screwed into the plywood stared back at me. It was empty.

I must have sent out 150 resumes in the two years I've lived here. To date I've gotten in return one rejection letter, one dead-end callback, and 148 counts of silence. So far I've been blaming the economy and my journalism degree from a state college, both satisfactory culprits. This job required no resume. Just one phone call.

"Hey, man, can you drive stick, man?" a loud eastern European man asked me when he returned my call.

"Yeah."

"Good. Look, man, it's an easy job. But I'm not going to lie to you, man, the money's not very good."

"All right," I said. He sounded like he'd learned to speak English strictly by watching De Niro movies.

"How long do you think you want to work?"

"Honestly, until I find a better job."

"Just don't be late, man. Ever."

"OK. Man."

A few days later I was shown how to tear the numbered tickets, given a well-worn windbreaker and an equally rank polo shirt, then left by myself to work a wedding reception at an art gallery. The wedding party tipped me out separately and that, added to the $35 the company gave me, had me feeling pretty optimistic. A friend who used to valet park in Denver said he was always busy and usually left each night with a couple hundred dollars in his pocket and pints of free beer in his belly. He told me about after-hours parties where people would leave tabs of ecstasy, lines of coke, and smoldering joints behind in their vehicles as tips. Ever since that first night, however, I've been averaging about ten to fifteen cars a night, and I usually top out at about $100. No one has ever tried to get me high.

Taking a seat on the stoop, I palmed my eyes. Then a grumbling sound ripped into my consciousness, and when my eyes refocused, the most absurd SUV I'd ever seen was trying to squeeze into my loading zone. It was the kind that turns into a pickup. Taxicab yellow. Its front doors opened simultaneously, and through a thick fog of pot smoke, two business-casual alpha males emerged. Giggling. A Broadway spectacle that shamed Miss Saigon's Howitzer.

"Can you keep it close, bro?" the driver asked me.

"I'll see what I can do."

After a climb up and into the cab, I took the boat through the alley basically just to see if it would fit. On the console between the two seats a big jelly jar full of weed wobbled and threatened to fall as I wrangled the son of a bitch around a Dumpster. It looked like the kind of jelly jar a grandmother might use. A grandmother with severe glaucoma and a very sympathetic doctor. I thought about taking some. Can't really call a cop if someone steals your pot. I'd never taken anything out of a car before. Sometimes I borrow quarters to feed the meters, but I always get more and refill the change holders. I left the jar alone and pulled into one of the many downtown loading zones that are kosher for parking after six.

Heading back to the restaurant, I pulled out my copy of How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and sat back down on the stoop. I like this book. I like how Bruce tries to shine the light in people's eyes, make them see the hypocrisy. I think the valet industry could use its own sociopolitical comic someone to talk all of these sheep out of buying the biggest SUVs they can find and then tipping like shit on their way out. It would be great, the valet comic could work double duty, parking all the cars, reeling off his bit, and getting back out in front in time to bring them all back and give the drivers shameful glares.

My shift isn't up until ten. Or maybe eleven if people come late and sit. It must have been about seven. I started keeping time by the revolutions of this strange little man who kept rounding the block and then hanging out in front of the methadone clinic for 3.5 minutes before starting the cycle over again. He was just under five feet tall with long, thinning hair. He was muttering to himself, and each time he passed I pretended to be reading so I didn't have to get into the conversation with him.

"Where do you park the cars?" I heard someone ask.

There was a green Lexus in the loading zone. The man hanging out the driver's window looked like Tom Selleck's dork brother.

"On the street," I told him.

"You don't have a lot?" he asked.

"Not so much." There was a tiny lot behind the restaurant, but the delivery guys monopolized it.

"Isn't that illegal?" He leaned a little farther out.

"A little bit."

"You guys are supposed to have lots. You're not going to put this in a loading zone and get me towed, are you?"

"Why would I do that?" I asked him, standing up.

"Well," he informed me, "I saw on the news, said you guys were parking cars in tow zones."

"You guys?" I remember seeing the teaser for the piece he was talking about.

"Valets," he blurted.

"See that spot over there in front of the doctor's office?" I said, pointing across the street. "In between the two tow zones?"

"The loading zone?"

"Only until six. Why don't you just take that?" He looked back at me stunned. For free? I could hear him thinking.

I sat back down and watched him lurch across two lanes and into the spot. The little man rounded the corner again and was heading straight for me. I reached for my book but it was too late, our eyes had met. He was coming. I leaned against the building and tried to look sleepy.

"Whicha one dyuh want?" he asked, getting right up in my face.

"Excuse me?" I asked, but he'd moved on. His stare was brief yet poignant. What in the hell was he talking about?

"Are you sure it's safe there?" Nerd Selleck asked, strolling toward the sidewalk.

"From tickets and tow trucks," I said.

"Thanks, boss," he said, handing me two dollars. Two dollars for nothing isn't bad. With valet parking costing seven or eight, two dollars is a fairly good tip. Three dollars shows class, one means you're a cheapskate. A five-dollar trip is like a yeti sighting.

"Don't go telling your friends about it," I hollered as he walked past me and into the restaurant.

It's not always impossible to find street parking. None of the restaurants where I work have much in the way of parking lots, so I juggle the cars between loading zones and meters. It can be tough, but the traffic cops are pretty scarce down here at night. Except for Wednesdays when this stubby, barrel-chested Napoleon makes the rounds with his book. He parks his big gold Ford Expedition in a tow zone while he scribbles out tickets at $50 a pop.

Last Valentine's Day it got shithouse-in-a-hurricane ugly. I had 11 cars double-parked in front, stretching from Ohio to Ontario. The cops drove by a few times and didn't say anything, but one car's battery died while the young lovers were inside because its hazards were on and I hadn't moved it since they arrived. Not an easy jump start, with traffic and my other clients jam-ming up the road. I thought that night was the sign to spank all the rest of them, but that was almost a year ago.

The valets at the restaurant across the street work as a team. They have their own massive parking lot and crisp yellow jackets. They have a heated booth and two-way radios. Dicks.

I kind of like working alone, but working alone here sucks. The methadone clinic shuts down at seven, and after that I'm by myself, reading and stressing out about cars pulling up after 8:30.

I prefer my weekend job in Wicker Park, where people say stuff like "He's like the Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee of the sea." The guy who said it, Santana, stops by regularly to keep me company. He farms a pretty impressive Afro in the summer-time, but on the glacial Saturday evening in question it was stuffed under a dirty watch cap. Talking to Santana took my mind off the cold. He was describing Jacques Cousteau in a conversation about weather, and the importance of the ocean's temperature in relation to it. Suddenly, Santana spotted this guy I always called Pinero--because of his resemblance to the poet. Pinero owed him some money.

"I'll be back, Jacob." He offered his chapped paw and I shook it.

"All right, Santana," I said. At least he got the first letter right.

A Mercedes sedan pulled up. It was old and curvy. Maroon with tan interior. I opened the passenger door and a well-dressed middle-aged woman got out. She looked exhausted and in need of pills and gin, not tilapia. Her husband was smoking as he stepped out of the car. I went over to hand him a ticket.

"Hello," I said.

He didn't look at me. He took the ticket and all but walked through me. I got in. The car was cozy, but it stank like an ashtray. I turned on the radio as I pulled out of the loading zone and started reprogramming his presets. He needed all the college stations and some hip-hop ones too. I took a ride to warm up a little, feeling an inexplicable calm creep over me as I meandered around the neighborhood, finally rounding Ashland back onto Division.

Then, through the windshield, I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I can remember. The clouds, billowing and filling with orange light, looked like something to curl up and sleep in for a decade. Everything was muted and glowing: the theater, the Payless, the subway entrance, the Nelson Algren fountain, the mango cart. That might have been a sign.

I spotted Pinero and Santana haggling on the corner. Their breath was like an angry fog all around them. Santana looked pissed. His eyes were bugged out and his head was cocked to the side. He was taking Pinero's excuse as seriously as his better judgment would allow. Pinero looked greasy even in subzero weather and I could tell he was drunk. Santana seemed sober and it must have sucked having to get the shaft from an intoxicated Pinero when all he wanted was a buzz himself. I wondered what was in store for them after they finished their debate. But I already knew the answer. Lurking.

Santana lurked. Pinero lurked. All of these wandering men and women, with sad eyes, half-smoked cigarettes behind their ears, and endless batches of largely pointless stories to spill out through beery breath, lurked.

There were Sasha brand vodka parties held nightly in the lot behind the restaurant where I worked, and two or three lurkers ended up sleeping there in alley beds by night's end. All the lurkers spun circles around the neighborhood on an all-night, booze-injected carousel. I spent countless hours watching people ignore the lurkers and hurry past, even when asked the time.

I pulled the Mercedes into a spot across the street from the restaurant and, out of any customer's view, decided to hang in the car for a few more minutes. I turned to the Zone and heard Bono sucking his own dick. A few decimal points away was Dave Matthews softening up a few sorority hearts. It was kind of cute. Santana walked across the street in front of me and waved. As I waved back it dawned on me: I was a lurker too.

I had to get out of this car. It smelled like steamed trash.

In the Mercedes's tinted window I looked like some fried street guy. I was wearing my company windbreaker over a down coat and a sweatshirt. I had on fingerless gloves, and I hadn't shaved in a week, my spotty, half-bearded face a frazzled tribute to apathy.

I had a job and a rented apartment, but it didn't seem to matter--I lurked. And my customers knew it.

Even the car jockeys downtown with the tuxedo tops and slicked hair get the leper treatment.

Maybe it's better for customers to pretend we're invisible. Being let into people's cars is like being let into their bedroom or medicine cabinet. They leave all sorts of shit lying around in full view. Maybe subconsciously they don't want to look into the eyes of someone who is about to be exposed to what slobs they are, or see what antidepressants they're on, or hear what shitty music they buy. Just a theory.

One night I decided to perform an experiment: to greet customers as Vlad the valet. My windbreaker has one of those collars that look like a turtleneck when you zip them all the way up. Collar up: "Good evening, how are you?"--accent in full swing. As the same customers would leave, I'd unzip and revert to me: "Thanks, take care." I figured that at least one person would notice the switch. No one did.

Before it disappeared this summer, there was a giant bull perched atop a ghostly battery shop at Division and Paulina, tossing a bored gaze southeast. I spent many, many months with that hollow, plastic bull. He looked eerily alive, and never looked all that pissed off, even in the driving rain or the harsh, nettling sleet. The summer sun didn't fuck with his Buddha-like disposition and neither did the insane cold of clear winter nights. The bull was my idol.

He stood over a worn, stickered, graffitied pay phone that was the cornerstone of the neighborhood drug traffic. The lurkers hovered around that thing all night. Making calls, waiting for a callback, and trotting over to the alley for a pickup. I called my girlfriend from that phone, never worried that a lurker will freak out on me for tying up the line. After all, I was one of them. Plus the bull had my back.

I turned away from the bull to inspect the restaurant. I noticed a woman in a baggy sweatshirt, acid-washed jeans, and high-tops waiting for the bus as I walked back to the front of the restaurant.

"Hey," she waved. I just stared back. "Can I ask you something?" she said, scurrying over to me.

"Sure," I said.

"Do I look like a prostitute to you?" she asked me, standing a little pigeon-toed.

"No," I said. "Not really." With her groupie outfit and frantic demeanor, she looked more like she'd wandered off the Springer set.

"Really? I don't?" She seemed hurt by this.

"Not especially."

"Well, good," she said, taking a satisfied pull off of her cigarette. "I am one, though."

"Really."

"These cops just keep fucking with me. Keep on stopping me. I mean, I don't think I look like a hooker, but they keep stopping me." A hefty drag on her evaporating butt. "I can't get arrested again."

She lit a fresh cigarette with the dying embers of the old one, and as we talked I tried to imagine a prostitute's life, like how often did she wash her hands, or gargle?

She told me about her husband/pimp who was drinking at a nearby bar. She had just come out of the liquor store/bar two doors east, said that a couple of drinks helped to loosen her up before work. She needed to go west but had to take the bus instead of the train for fear her pimp/husband might see her and get bent out of shape over her not being hard at work.

They'd been married ten years. I don't know how many years he'd been her pimp. He wasn't rough, just bitched a lot, she said. But she had been beaten up plenty.

"See?" she said and pulled her lower lip out to reveal a row of broken, tarred-up, jagged stumps. "I got jumped at the el station. They kicked my teeth out." She also pointed to a cigarette burn scar near her left eye. "Fucking assholes."

She smoked some more and talked about jail and a teenage prostitute she met there who was addicted to heroin and had a rotted-out hole in her cheek.

"Sweet girl," she said. "If I get busted again, they'll put me under house arrest. I can't handle that shit." I suggested she move to Las Vegas, where she'd be warmer and the cops wouldn't fuck with her as much.

"I'm trying to, but my husband just drinks all of our money away."

"Well, how much do you make a night?" I asked.

"Depends."

"Well how much is, uh, how much do, you know..."

"I ain't no five-dollar whore," she spat. "I know I'm not the prettiest girl working, but I take care of myself. I make 'em wear rubbers even when I'm just blowin' 'em. I'm a clean bitch."

"I wasn't trying to suggest anything."

She smiled. "I know, sweetie." Big drag on cigarette. "I'm still pretty though, right?"

I've got this habit. Whenever I talk to a lurker--you know, just lurker to lurker--I spend half of the conversation trying to picture the person as a kid. I was trying to see her at five years old. What made her laugh then? What were her parents up to? Did she have any pets? Now her face looked twisted, broken, and smeared, and she seemed about one tequila sunrise away from a total meltdown, but she was somebody's little tree-climber once.

"Yeah," I told her. "I think so."

"See," she said, smiling. "Thanks, honey." The bus was pulling up. She went through her cigarette replacement motion and then turned back to me. "Say, what time do you finish here?" she asked.

"Oh," I stammered, "no thanks."

"OK," she said, still leading.

She smoked half of her cigarette with a single eye-crossing drag, stomped out the rest with her worn Reebok, and got on the bus. I had a lump in my throat. I took this as a sign. But I didn't quit.

I didn't really expect to see her again, but I did, months later. In a downtown subway station, with her pimp. Her husband. He had his arm around her and his head was leaning in on top of hers. It might have looked sweet if I hadn't known the score.

It reminded me of a party I went to once in this neighborhood. My friend was DJing and he invited me. It was in a sterile three-flat filled with people in their mid-20s, like me, but they all had expensive clothes and haircuts. The women were dancing to stupid 80s music and the men were crowding the back patio smoking their turd cigars. I went out there looking for fresh air, disappointed on that count but there was a pretty great view of the skyline. I felt uncomfortable, but everyone looked familiar. I knew I'd probably seen a few of them walking their twin pugs around the neighborhood, but there was something else. I know there are a lot of restaurants and bars in town, and everyone knows everyone else because everyone's worked somewhere where somebody or somebody's sister/roommate/lover/brother worked.

"Hello," said this girl standing next to me against the railing. She was smoking a cigar with very little grace or dignity.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Do you live here?" she asked.

"Me? Hell no."

"You look so familiar," she said. Not in a hitting-on-me way, but more in a why-are-you-here-again manner. "Where do you work?"

Fuck. I looked around again. None of these people worked in restaurants.

At one time or another I'd parked most of their cars. The more intently I looked at some of them, the more I imagined I could even vaguely remember what they drove and how they tipped.

There I was, a prole chameleon drinking top-shelf hooch with people I'd never expected to see again.

"I work in advanced automotive placement."

"Huh. What's that like?" She must not have been listening.

"A boundless source of inspiration and amusement," I answered. "Boundless."

My reverie of parties past was broken as the restaurant's head chef, John, tapped my shoulder to get my attention.

"What's up?" he asked.

"Nothing much," I said. "Slow Saturday." That was OK with me. The night before I'd worked a double, filling in for someone at Slick's Lounge after the restaurant closed.

Stout and bearded, John frequently stands out front of the restaurant in his chef's coat and pants with his arms folded and legs akimbo like a samurai.

"How was the club last night?" he asked.

"Fuck. A Friday night at the club. I didn't leave until about six this morning. It was anarchy. Cars would just pull up in globs, demanding parking on the spot."

"Were you by yourself?" he asked.

"Yeah. I made almost $400 though."

"Damn," he said, folding his arms and nodding up and down.

"Yeah. At one point this guy pulled up in an old maroon minivan. The driver's door was open and he was hanging out yelling, 'Where the fuck the valet at?' All while his car was still rolling." I demonstrated his posture and arm waving for John.

"That's pretty tough," he said.

"I thought so. He wanted all the cars in his entourage parked up front, but I had no more spots. He had this gigantic pile of crisp bills in his hand, and every time I told him no he just added another 20 to the pile in my hand. They wouldn't let him in though. There's a dress code and he was wearing a sweat suit."

I remembered the way he limped toward the bouncers waving his stack of 20s and hollering, how much it gonna cost me to get up in this motherfucker? "He's kind of my hero."

"I think he's mine now too," John said, smiling. "What do you have tonight, anything good?"

"A couple of Mercedeses, some BMWs, the usual."

"It's a routine."

"Yup." I reflected, then said, "Why doesn't anyone ever valet park a Subaru Brat?"

"Shit, the Brat?"

"Remember the Brat? If I ever get one, that's the day I retire." That would be the sign.

"As well you should."

"Such a strange, ugly relic. The sporty little pickup with the backward seats in the bed. Looks like a mini El Camino. I'll drive off with it and never come back."

"As well you should," John said again, rubbing his hands together.

"Nobody who valets has enough class to drive a Brat. They all want their sport utility hand jobs."

"Remember the 80s?" he asked me. "Driving a big truck meant something different then. Like when Commando came out, and every, you know, guy needed a Chevy Blazer."

"Schwarzenegger has a fleet of Hummers. Maybe that's why they're so fucking popular?" I offered.

"Hey, everybody wants to be an action hero."

"People just buy the image of what driving one makes you. Adventurous, rugged, stylish. They end up looking like total dicks. Especially the Cadillac Escalade, Land Rover, Range Rover, Chevrolet Avalanche, Ford Expedition, Hummer posse. Those fuckers are so big."

"Oh, man, they're obscene."

"We were working this party once and a bunch of the Bears showed up. And a couple of them had these Denalis with custom rims on them so big and wide that when we'd try to take them from Lincoln onto Diversey, you know, 45 degrees, the tires started grinding against the chassis. No shit."

"That's totally sensible, now, isn't it?" John said, rubbing his beard.

"Absolutely," I said, feeling my splotchy facial hair with my fingertips.

"OK, man, it's fucking cold out here," John said, puffing air into his cupped hands. "I'm going back to work."

"Yeah, get to work!" I joked.

"You got the corner covered, right?"

"Word."

John headed back into the restaurant, leaving me alone on the corner. I thrust my frozen fingers into the flimsy pockets of my windbreaker and bowed to the bull.

For some reason, I thought of a fight that took place across the street the past summer. A couple of the more colorful lurkers got into an argument. One was probably 400 pounds. The other was about seven feet tall. I'd seen him before. A huge Polish giant who, that night, was wearing a bejeweled sombrero. They started fistfighting. It looked like the brawl was taking place inside a jar of molasses, they moved that slowly. A couple of cartoon characters, the stork in his sombrero and the walrus in a ratty down coat, each trying his best to connect with the other. Eventually the fat man fell to a dawdling right hook, straight onto his back. The sombrero started taunting him drunkenly, then hovered over him and blasted ropes of snot out of each nostril onto the fallen man's face. It seemed a bit unjust. And the thing was, this whole brawl went down right in the middle of the patio at the pizza joint opposite my restaurant. People watched it and munched on their slices like it was television. Standard Wicker Park fare.

I remember looking to the bull, silently pleading with him like I was shooting telepathy out of my retinas. Hoping he'd leap from the garage's roof and gore the guy a bit. And then maybe take out some of the patio furniture before calming down and returning to the roof. That would have been a motherfucking sign.

Nothing happened.

Kind of like a Monday. There are only two good nights a week. Friday and Saturday you jog back and forth between key box and cars, so even in the winter your blood's pumping. The slow weeknights are a rare brand of humiliating torture. Standing there for hours, for nothing really. So the restaurant can look refined. Fuck a Monday.

I got up and stretched. Four more days of purgatorial filler before I'd be back on Division Street making a more respectable lot. I could see the Bear inside, clearing his tab, so I hopped in his car and started it up for him. After pulling it away from the curb a couple of feet, I got out, leaving the driver's-side door open, then stood back to admire my work.

"Damn, man," the Bear said, coming out and seeing his car, "you got my shit running for me and everything."

"Yeah, man. That's the sole artistry of a valet," I offered, scratching my head.

"My man," he chuckled. "Hey, you need tickets to a game or anything, you let me know." He stuck out his hand and I gave it a firm shake. Then he pulled me in close and clapped my back, hard. I reciprocated, clap for clap, as best I could. His girlfriend smiled sweetly at us in our brief embrace. A real moment. My first thug hug and I got mine from a Chicago Bear. She got in and I closed the door gingerly behind her. My homeboy nodded and then was on his way.

It was no Subaru Brat, but it felt like a sign. Time to leave. I would hold my head high and return to the land of the living. No more lurking in doorways, sipping bad coffee and listening to junk radios, waiting on strangers and their overpriced, eight-cylinder metaphors for who they want to be. No more having enough spare time to come up with silly shit like "overpriced, eight-cylinder metaphors." I will be free.

I worked for a wire service once. I think they have an office in Chicago. Maybe I could get a swivel chair. My own cubicle. Company coffee mug. I breathed in the possibilities for my future and held them.

I have a magnificent vision of a Subaru Brat pulling into my loading zone one brisk spring evening, just before sunset. The driver gets out and he looks like a miniature version of Sam Elliott. We exchange no words, and I don't hand him a ticket. He gives me a stoic, knowing look and moseys into the restaurant. I hop into the Brat and charge off into the sunset, letting my windbreaker fly out the window as I speed away, trying to figure out what to do next in a world so full of soul-degrading possibilities and so little time to try them all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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