Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Having spent the entirety of my conscious life in Northeastern Wisconsin, I was nothing close to streetwise by the time I'd reached 18. I'd read a lot of books, though, and seen a lot of movies, and listened to a bunch of records. Enough to know that streetwise was what I wanted to be.
Among other things, I figured that moving to Chicago would provide me with the perfect opportunity to begin my long, slow descent towards that goal.
It was a Friday night in August, as I remember-a warm night-and I was hanging around outside the Greyhound station. Back then, Chicago's central bus terminal was situated smack-dab in the middle of the Loop. I think it's long since moved, but back then, it was a real action spot, and I spent a lot of time there-primarily because I was in the habit of taking a lot of buses to a lot of strange towns.
It was at that bus station where I had my first honestly dangerous encounters with full-blown crazies, where I witnessed my first drug deals and muggings, where I learned to keep glancing over my shoulder whenever I stepped into the bathroom. I liked that bus station. I liked it a helluva lot more than Hyde Park, where I was living at the time. You never knew what was going to happen there.
Most of the action, I found, though, didn't take place inside the terminal itself, but rather right outside-upstairs on the sidewalk, in the shadows just beyond the bubble of light thrown by the electric marquee.
The main entrance was on a busy street. Cabs were always lined up for half a block, dropping people off and picking others up. There were bright lights everywhere, there were always people around, but you turn any corner, and suddenly you were in a no man's land. You didn't always need to turn the corner to find adventure, though. It usually came looking for you after awhile.
"Hey, buddy-you lookin' for a cab? 'Cause I got one right down the block here "
Eight year old twins bumming smokes, elderly transvestite hookers. It was good-hearted stab at what Times Square used to be. I'm guessing that area's probably met the same fate as Times Square by now, too-just like Hennepin Block H in Minneapolis.
Anyway, that's all by way of introduction. Like I was saying, it was a warm Friday night in August, and I was hanging around under the marquee. My bus didn't leave for another hour, and I was just having a smoke. Back then, I was not only allowed to smoke in the terminal-I was allowed to smoke on the buses as well. (It was a golden era, in its way.) I preferred smoking outside, under the marquee, if it was warm enough. It gave me a chance to see what was happening, to watch the show. It was a necessary part of my education.
I heard a voice next to me ask, "You waitin' for a bus?"
"Yeah," I said. A lot of people stop to chat when you're standing out there, so I wasn't surprised by this. I turned to look at the man, but couldn't see him very well. I was standing at the edges of the light, and he was standing in the darkness, just beyond. He was a husky fellow, though, from what I could tell, only slightly taller than I was, with a round head. Maybe a beard, too, I couldn't be sure. In the reflected light, his eyes were yellow.
"Long trip?" he asked.
"Yeah, probably." Actually, I was looking at a ten-hour trip to Minneapolis.
I looked down at the cigarette I was holding, and shrugged. "Naah, I got plenty,' I told him. "But thanks."
"Not what I'm talkin' about." He sighed, understanding now that his first read was right, and he really was dealing with a dumb yokel. "I mean, you want a couple joints? Make the trip easier?"
"Oh," I said. "Sure."
"Come with me."
He turned and began walking down the street, and I tagged along beside him. It took me a long time to break the habit of following strangers who told me to follow them, or getting into the cars of strangers who offered me rides. Bad habit.
A block and a half later, neither one of us having said much, he pointed at a flight of steps which led down off the sidewalk. It was very dark. "Down here," he said.
At this point-and only at this point-I'm starting to think that maybe I'm getting in over my head a little bit here. Hell, I didn't even want the pot. I'd tried it before, and it didn't do that much for me. I was trying to transform myself into something I wasn't at the time, though-and in order to do that, I'd have to place myself in a few situations like this one. I followed him down the stairs. The walls were rough brick, almost as if the stairs had been dug into the building as an afterthought.
Ten steps straight down, then three more to the right, we found ourselves in a dimly lit doorway. I could see through the windows in the door that it was a bar, though there'd been no sign on the sidewalk to indicate as much. The salesman made no effort to go inside, though. He stood in the doorway, and I stood on the bottom step, leaning against the wall.
"Twenty bucks for three sticks," he said.
"Okay." For the first time, under the single 40-watt bulb, I could see his face, sort of. I would've guessed he was in his mid-forties, but he could've been younger. His eyes were still yellow. He indeed had a beard, but his hair was shaved very close. He wore a ragged blue shirt rolled up at the sleeves. He seemed, for some reason, more nervous than I did. I was beginning to notice how heavily the odor of sweat was coming off him.
What struck me most about the man was his forehead. Or, more specifically, the wrinkles in his forehead. That's what I kept staring at. There were four lines. They were heavy and deep and slashed across his brow like deep cuts. What I remember thinking at the time was that it looked almost as if he were wearing a mask, or that the skin on his head was just a little too big for his skull, and it was getting bunched up there between his hairline and his eyes.
"Gimme the $20," he said. He spoke quickly, his eyes darting. I began reaching for my wallet before I stopped myself.
"Where are they?" I asked.
"I gotta go get them," he shot back. "Now gimme the $20."
"Oh, I don't know about that," I said, in a voice which, even back then I'm sure, sounded like Eeyore.
"It'll just take a second," he said. Suddenly he seemed much more nervous that I did.
Now, this was a strange situation in which to find myself. It was almost as if we had switched places. I was the one with the money-yet at the same time, he was much larger than I was. He could've so easily conked me on the head, taken the whole damned wallet and run away. I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it. He would've had all my cash, my ID, my credit card and my bus ticket. I'd've been struck. I didn't even have a quarter to call anybody. And who would I call, anyway?
But he wasn't doing that. He was only asking for $20. There were no threats involved, no weapons. Maybe it was a set up? Probably, I began thinking, but not quickly enough.
I began thinking a lot of things standing there in that doorway at the bottom of the stairsbut none of them quickly or clearly enough to do me any good.
"Nah, y'know," I said, "I'm not so sure about this anymore. I give you the money, then you go away, and I'm expected to wait for you to come back in a few minutes? No." I shook my head. "I don't think that's gonna work."
"C'mere," he said. "I'll tell you what I'll do." He reached into his shirt pocket and removed a small foil packet. At first I thought it was a piece of gum, or maybe the remnants of a candy bar, wrapped up in foil and stashed away for later. I was wrong.
He peeled open one half of the package to reveal the white granules inside.
"It's coke," he said.
"Uh-huh." I stared dubiously at the powder.
"I mean it. Go ahead and taste it."
I leaned my head down towards the foil, then lifted it again. I wasn't worried about the coke; I was worried about how may other people had tried it before I did. I also didn't care too much for the fact that this had been riding around essentially under this fellow's armpit for lord knows how long.
"Taste it, man."
"Y'know," I said, "I'll trust you on this one."
"Fine," he said, re-wrapping the foil. Then he held it out to me. "Here. Take it."
I looked at him.
"You hold this. Give me the $20, and I'll go get the sticks. When I get back, you give it back to me."
I thought about this briefly. It seemed, I had to admit, almost fair enough. "Okay," I said.
I retrieved my wallet again, and slid out a @20, trying to prevent him from seeing what else I had in there. There wasn't much, to be honest-a couple bucks and my bus ticket, but he didn't need to know that.
In a quick move I'd seen in a dozen movies, I handed him the folded bill and he slipped me the foil packet in one almost-smooth gesture. I slipped the coke into my pocket, and he was gone.
"I'll just be at the bar," I said after him, but he was already out of earshot.
I looked at my watch. I had about 45 minutes until my bus left. I pushed the bar door open, and went inside.
It was a much bigger place than I would've guessed. A dozen wooden tables were spread out around the room. It was airy and open and had a black and white checkerboard floor. Apart from the bartender, there were only two other people there, and they were sitting at a table in a back corner.
I stepped to the bar and ordered a beer. When he brought it to me, I carried to a table just inside the door. I'd be able to keep a lookout that way, I figured. Then I waited, and nursed the beer.
Ten minutes passed, and I began to get nervous. My leg began to bounce a little.
I don't know that there was ever really a point where I expected him to come back. I think I would've been disappointed if he had. Way I saw it, I was out $20, but I had a pocketful of coke. Coke, granted, that I had no use for, any more than I had any real use for three joints. It didn't matter. I had no doubt that the "cocaine" in my pocket was little more than baking soda cut with baby laxative. Things could be worse. I wasn't bleeding, and I still had some money in my pocket.
Ten minutes before my bus left, I stood and strolled out of the bar, up the steps and back to the terminal, having been burned that way for the first and last time.
(Footnote: I would later divide the coke between two friends, both of whom informed me that it was, indeed, the real thing, but of extremely poor quality.)