Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
Back in the Day When I Rode in Cars with Strangers
When I lived on Chicago's South Side, I didn't really hang out or talk with much of anybody, except for the occasional drunken stranger. Things were quiet much of the time, but I grabbed tiny adventures where I could find them.
Despite all the opportunities my surroundings might have offered me, most of these adventures occurred as a result of my efforts to escape the South Side and Chicago all together and to get back home to Green Bay for a weekend every so often.
These trips always entailed an eight-hour ride in the back of a Greyhound, and that was always exciting. You never knew what the hell you're going to see in the back of a Greyhound. At least back then you didn't. The real adventure, however, was usually found in my efforts to get from the South Side to the Greyhound Station in the Loop before my bus left.
I tried any number of methods to get to the bus station while I was there. I tried taking the El, I tried city buses, but in the end, I mostly settled on cabs. And I settled on cabs, I think, because they were the most dangerous, unpredictable and unreliable means of transport available to me. By hailing a cab to go to the bus station, I was all but guaranteeing myself some kind of harrowing adventure.
I had cab drivers who, upon hearing my promise of "a big tip" were able, somehow, to get me from the South Side to the bus station in 15 minutes flat (an impossible achievement). I had others spend entire trips explaining to me their theories concerning the Earth and the Moon ("Way I see it, the Earth isn't nearly as big as we've always been told it is And I mean on physical size...").
One of the most harrowing--and educational--trips to the bus station had nothing at all to do with the ride, the cab driver, or any such thing. The ride, in fact, was smooth, calm and pleasant. The driver never said a word, nor did I.
The day was sunny--a little too sunny for my taste. A little too warm and humid as well. But that was August in Chicago.
As the cab drew up in front of the bus station, I reached for my wallet--both to get money for the driver, as well as to get my bus ticket. I was usually cutting these things more closely than was wise, so I liked to have the ticket in hand before I even walked through the station doors. What's more, I'd spent enough time in that station to know that pulling your wallet out while in there, at any time, for whatever reason, was never, ever a good idea.
I peeled my wallet open, grabbed a bill for the driver, and then realized with that numbing smack of sinking horror that I had left my bus ticket back in my room.
Fuck! I thought so loudly that I was certain the cab driver could hear it. If he did, however, he didn't say a word. Just took the bill and drove away. What the hell was I going to do now? I didn't have the cash on me anymore to buy another ticket, let alone get back downtown.
I can deal with this, I thought. And at first it seemed simple. I didn't yet own a credit card, but I had a checkbook with me. (This was back in the days when people actually wrote checks for things). I went into the station and waited in the ticket line. When I got up to the window, I told the clerk where I wanted to go. He told me how much it would cost. I whipped out the checkbook and began filling it out.
"Oh, no, no, no," he said. I looked up, to see the aging, portly man waving his hands in front of him and shaking his head. That's never a good sign.
"What?" I asked. I was sweating heavily, despite the air conditioning.
"No checks," he said.
"Oh " I said, my shoulders slumping as I closed the checkbook. "See, I forgot my ticket. So what do you suggest I do?"
"You got a credit card?"
"You got the cash?"
I shook my head, feeling myself growing still warmer.
"I suggest you get the cash."
"Okay," I said, in a way that almost made it sound like a question.
"Next!" he shouted, looking over my shoulder.
I put the checkbook away, then wandered back towards the escalator that would take me back outside. I guess I missed that bus. But I knew they left hourly, so I wasn't in complete panic mode. Not yet. I could handle this. I hit the sidewalk and began walking.
Two blocks later, I saw what was clearly the answer to my prayers, and, being still quite naïve in the ways of the world, I pushed open the door and strolled up to the bulletproof Plexiglas window of a check cashing place.
I whipped out the checkbook again with all the confidence in the world, and again I began writing.
"What're you doing?" a muffled voice came through the thick glass.
"Writing a check," I answered, without looking up.
"No," the voice said.
"No? But this is a check cashing place, isn't it?"
"No personal checks."
"You're a check cashing place that won't cash checks?"
"Not personal checks, no."
"Oh." I closed the checkbook, which now contained two half-finished checks and put it back in my bag. "Ummm any place you'd suggest?"
"You could try a bank, I suppose."
I thanked the voice and headed out into the even warmer, more humid day again to look for a bank.
Before I found a bank, I stopped into three more check cashing places just to make sure that first one wasn't a freak of some kind. I even stopped in a pawn shop, forgetting that I had nothing on me worth pawning.
Finally, an hour and a half after I started my search, I stopped in a bank. By this time, I looked a mess. My shirt was soaked and untucked. My hair was plastered to my head. I had a wild-eyed look on my face. I smelled bad. As I stood in line, I wiped desperately at my forehead and my upper lip.
When I at last reached a teller, I had no hope whatsoever left in my heart.
"I don't suppose I could cash a personal check here, can I? I have all the ID you could want."
She was a young woman with a kind face. "Do you have an account with us?" she asked.
"Well " I started, my mind racing. Then it stopped. "Well, no, to be honest--"
"Then I'm afraid we can't."
There was something in her voice that made it sound like she sympathized, so before I could stop myself, I related the events of the afternoon in rapid-fire detail, and she seemed to listen. When I was finished, she admitted that she was sorry, but there was still nothing she could do--and moreover, she had no ideas for me.
"Oh," I said,. "Thanks anyway." I tried to force a weak smile. She'd at least been nice about it.
I walked over to a wall near the doors and leaned there a moment, taking advantage of the air-conditioning before I had to go back outside.
"Excuse me," a voice said, "but I couldn't help but overhear your problem."
I turned to find myself looking at a sharply dressed, if slightly pudgy and balding, middle-aged man.
"I'm a manager here," he said, "and I think I can help you out."
Instead of leading me to an office, however, he led me outside to where his car was parked. He stepped around to the driver's side and opened the door. "Get in," he said.
Like I said, I was still very naive in the ways of the world and was still in the habit of freely accepting rides with strangers. Over the years, I don't know how many rides I've accepted with complete strangers. A bunch, though. Many of these rides were in Chicago, and many of them, looking back in it, were probably really bad ideas.
(That last ride I accepted from a stranger was on the night of the big blizzard in 1997. Came out of nowhere, that black sedan did, and I hopped right in.)
I was sweaty, confused, desperate, just wanting to get a goddamn check cashed so I could get on a bus to Green Bay. I opened the car door and climbed into the front seat.
"Ummm, where are we going?" I asked, as this erstwhile "bank manager" put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.
"Not far," he said. "By the way, my name's Michael."
"Jim," I said, since I was always really bad at coming up with fake names off the top of my head. I wasn't yet having visions of empty alleyways or dirty hotel rooms. I was just bewildered.
"Going to Wisconsin, huh?" he said.
"Yeah. Green Bay to see my folks."
"I'm from Kenosha originally," he offered. "We Wisconsin boys have to help each other out."
"Yeah," I said. "Thanks." To be honest, no Wisconsin boys seemed all that eager to help me out while I was living there, and I found it a little odd that one would want to help me out now. There was truth in what he said, but I would only come to learn it later, after moving around the country a bit.
"Here we are," he said. We'd only driven a few blocks, and now he was pulling up in front of an old, red-brick building. The yellow sign outside said "Western Union." I had no idea they still existed anymore.
"You call your folks and have them wire you the money."
"I can do that?"
"Sure--I'll come with you."
I had no idea why this man was being friendly to me, apart from the fact that he was from Wisconsin. But after the way the day had gone so far, I was willing to accept it.
My memory gets real fuzzy at this point. I don't remember being inside the Western Union office at all. Next thing I know, Michael the Banker from Kenosha was dropping me off in front of the bus station again. I shook his band and thanked him for all his help, stepped out of the car, and once again ventured into the world of Greyhound.
At the bottom of the escalator, a security guard stopped me.
"Is your name Jim?" he asked. I froze. This was all getting a little too weird.
"Yeah ?" I answered eventually.
"Come with me," he said. He turned and began walking, and I followed. What the hell was I going to do at that point? Bolt? I wondered briefly how long he'd been standing at the bottom of that escalator asking every short, skinny, sweaty white kid who came by if his name was Jim.
He led me past the bathrooms and down a short corridor, where he knocked on the station manager's door before opening it.
"Is that Jim?" asked a wide, smiling man of about 50.
"I have something for you here." I still had no idea what was going on around me, who these people were, or why they knew my name. The man pulled open a desk drawer and slid out a bus ticket. "Your dad just called, and wired this over," he said. "We talked for a good long time. He's a good man, your father."
"Yes, he is." I said, accepting the ticket and shaking the manager's hand.
Half an hour later, five hours after that first cab had dropped me off in front of the station, I was finally sitting on a Greyhound headed north, having lost about ten pounds in sweat alone, and also having learned a little bit, I thought, about the mysteries of human nature.