Chicago II: The Good Deed

My list of most satisfying sensations includes flossing after eating corn-on-the-cob; scratching mosquito bites; peeing after a long car ride on which excessive amounts of water and iced tea have been consumed; receiving dog kisses from clean Wheaten terriers; removing a dry contact lens; sneezing after several false alarms; successfully plucking a piece of stubborn eyebrow stubble; and watching mean people trip.

But truly, there are few feelings better than seeing the impact of a good deed you’ve done.

On Sunday, our last day in Chicago, Keith and I partook of the noon-ish meal at a diner-esque venue called Tempo and then threw away money on a so-called Gangster Tour. The Gangster Tour consisted of a 90-minute school bus ride narrated by a scrappy college kid in a cheap zoot suit. He instructed us to duck every time we heard (plastic) gunfire, handed out equally plastic roses to all the “dolls” on the tour, and had obviously trained at the Rodney Dangerfield Mail Order School of Comedy.

"Temporary lay-offs ... GOOD TIMES!" Cabrini Green facade
Cabrini Green: "Temporary lay-offs ... GOOD TIMES!"

The tour made just two actual stops. The first was Holy Name Cathedral, near which Earl “Hymee” Weiss, a Capone rival, was gunned down in 1926. That wasn’t his real name, in case you care, and he was Polish, not Jewish. The second was Cabrini Green,  icon of American public housing gone bad and the setting of Good Times. Cabrini Green wasn’t even built until 1942, long after Al Capone had gone crazy from syphilis, so I’m not sure what its remnants had to do with him. We did, however, do a very brief hi-bye of the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park, where Public Enemy No. 1, aka John Dillinger, had been shot in 1934. That was somewhat cool. As was the cupcake we had from MORE on the way back.

That evening, we dined at the famed romantic fondue restaurant Geja’s. From Geja’s, we took a cab to Navy Pier. As we were getting out of the cab, Keith grabbed what he thought was my wallet from the back seat. It wasn’t. The cab pulled away very quickly so we weren’t able to return said wallet to the driver, who might have known which previous passenger had left it. Luckily, a policeman was walking the beat nearby. Unluckily, he advised us against giving him the wallet, as he’d have to send it to Central Processing where it would most likely just get sucked into a vortex and never see daylight again.

Thank you, officer. That’s very comforting.

We attempted to find the owner through the obvious channels with no luck — he had a pretty common name and there was no listing for him at the address on his ID card.  We considered the various options we had for getting it back to him, none of which were entirely viable.

I was sure that the journalist-stalker in me could track this guy down. There had to be something in the wallet that would tell us how to find him. I deduced that he had recently collected unemployment benefits (folded claim); worked in the food services industry or really liked roughage (handwritten list of salad types and the most appropriate dressings for them); was Catholic (tiny prayer card featuring the Virgin Mary); had relatives somewhere (photos of a couple and a little girl); knew a district attorney in Sacramento (business card); and didn’t drive (no license — just the government ID card).

Naturally I concocted the saddest possible story for this phantom wallet owner. He’d had really bad luck with jobs, which took its toll on his marriage. The woman in the picture is his ex-wife, Joanie, who left him, and the little girl, now an angry teen, is his daughter (Jessica or Lisa). The photos are old, but he holds on to them as a reminder of better times. He hasn’t seen his daughter in years and she’s a Goth now. His apartment is actually one room in an old, dark, depressing building, and he rents it from an elderly Croatian woman who wears housecoats and carries a broom around. His seeks comfort in prayer.

I was getting teary just thinking about it. He’d probably called Joanie and begged her to let him stay on her couch, but she’d said no because her new boyfriend, Mack, wasn’t cool with it. Oy.

The next morning we asked the woman at the front desk if the hotel had a Lost and Found. They did, but like the police officer, she didn’t recommend leaving the wallet there, as it might end up in any number of places other than the hands of the owner. We were trying to do a good deed, but there was no viable way to actually do it. We truly had no idea what to do with the wallet besides carry it back to New York with us, put it in the mail and hope it arrived safely.

But there was one last — albeit highly unlikely — possibility.  I’d noticed a pay stub from a corporate office in California.  One of the logos on it belonged to an eatery called “The Grill.” Which happened to be the name of the eatery in our hotel’s lobby.  I stopped in and asked the manager if there was anyone on staff with the name of the man whose wallet we’d found. THERE WAS, AND YES, HE’D LOST A WALLET THE NIGHT BEFORE!

We’d found a wallet two miles from the hotel and it happened to belong to someone who worked IN the hotel. Of all the hotels in the entire city. Uncanny, no?

I gave the wallet to the manager, who insisted that we wait until the wallet owner could thank us himself. A few minutes later, a waiter learned his wallet had not fallen into evil paws after all. He literally choked up as he expressed his gratitude profusely and relayed the details of the wallet’s loss (it wasn’t like him to lose things; he’d been distracted because this was his first week on the new job, he’d thought the wallet was in his pocket when he got out of the cab, and so on).  He offered us money and semi-hugged me. I remain convinced that I had his story down pat, but either way, this seemed to put a smile on his face.

And I have to say that as much fun as I had on our trip to Chicago, knowing we’d brought such relief to this stranger was the best part by far.

Chicago II: The Good Deed

Chicago I: The Pink and the Brown


For as long as I can remember, the city of Chicago has fascinated me.  I’m not sure why, but it probably has something to do with John Hughes, Bob Newhart, Ferris Bueller, Airplane and deep dish pizza.  I have been there eight times since the summer of 2001, including three trips in the dead of winter, none of which bothered me (though I did have to make a pit stop at Lori’s Shoes, aka “The Sole of Chicago”, for an extra pair of wool socks once). Chicago is the only place I’ve been in the world that looks and feels exactly the way I imagined it would – and the only place that feels as much like a city as New York. I love the architecture, I love the food, I love the shopping, I love the history, and I love the people. Sure, they’re a little less svelte than the average New Yorker, but still. They’re friendly and they still think brunettes are a novelty.  I suspect that in a past or alternate life, I lived in a sprawling penthouse apartment in the Gold Coast and wore clothes purchased at Sugar Magnolia to my job as a crackerjack copywriter at Leo Burnett.

The view down from the 103rd floor
The view down from the 103rd floor

But in my current life, I reside in a less-than-sprawling 1 BR in over-priced Manhattan, and the city whose name means “smelly wild onion” in Potawatomi is still a plane ride away. So Keith and I decided to spend Labor Day weekend there, inspired by the newly opened “Ledge”at the newly renamed Willis Tower (better known as the Sears Tower). “The Ledge” is actually three 10×10 glass-walled, glass-bottomed boxes that jut several feet from the 103rd floor skydeck. “They” claim it can hold five tons of human weight, which is good, because that’s about how much pizza we ate at Giordano’s shortly before making the pilgrimage.

After Giordano’s and the trip up to the 103rd floor, we were both feeling a smidge bloated.  The only remedy I had with me was the chewable form of Pepto Bismol – bright pink tablets that taste like cherry-flavored chalk but are weirdly kind of good. I’d never actually taken Pepto before, if you can believe it. It just wasn’t my go-to drug of choice for stomach ailments. But, the chewable form was easily portable and complied with NTSB regulations, so I kept a pack in my bag  just in case.

The following morning, Keith rose early, as he usually does, and went for a run along Lake Michigan.  I did not rise early, as I usually do not, and I did not go for a run along Lake Michigan. I did, however, wake up with a strange rubbery taste in my mouth. I didn’t panic at first, although I thought it was odd, as I did not recall having eaten anything made of rubber. Nor did I think of rubber as the kind of thing that “repeated on you,” as Jan and Lew would say.

During the denial phase of my extended wake-up process, I decided that my rubber breath was most likely a delayed reaction to the industrial strength tooth glue the dentist had used a few days back whilst installing a porcelain overlay on a badly broken pre-molar.  (That’s another story – it involves an olive that was supposed to be pit-less.)  Nothing to worry about. 

Until I went into the bathroom and saw my tongue, that is. It was … wait for it … dark brown. [Insert Law & Order “dun dun” sound effect]

Ew! OMFG! Ew! What the hell is that?!!! 

My knowledge of freak diseases is quite impressive for someone who never went to medical school or appeared on the FOX drama House. But in all my years of practice I had encountered nothing whose symptoms were dark brown tongue and tire taste.

I cannot convey to you the terror that came over me.  What kind of rare, unimaginable condition had I contracted on the subway en route to work? What weird virus had been lurking on the baggage claim at O’Hare? Was this a sign that my internal organs were disintegrating and causing some enzymatic by-product to travel up my throat? Should I prepare to puke out my gallbladder? Should I call 911?

Frick on a discolored stick.

I did the only thing I could think to do. I rang Lew.

“Lew! I have a strange medical question,” I said, not wanting to worry him but quite sure he was going to tell me I needed a biohazard suit to protect the city of Chicago from whatever I had.

Such a question is not unusual. I pose strange medical questions to Lew on a regular basis, and nine times out of 10, his answer is either “stress” or “pulled muscle.” I could be bleeding to death on the side of a deserted road from a gunshot wound and Lew would tell me it was just a pulled muscle.

But in this case, he was truly stumped.

“A brown tongue?” He was silent for a few seconds. I waited for him to tell me it was a pulled muscle. But he couldn’t. Because he knew what I knew. That I obviously had a rare filovirus/protazoa/bacteria/fungus/prion morph usually found only in male wild gazelles in the  jungles of Nambia.

It may look pretty and pink now ...
It may look all pink and pretty now ...

I thought it might be worthwhile to mention the Pepto ingestion, on the off chance that had something to do with BTRT (Brown Tongue Rubber Taste) syndrome.

Get this: IT DID!

Evidently, the bismuth and the salicylate in Pepto can separate after ingestion, combine with the sulfur found in spit, and create something called bismuth sulfide. Delish!

After a few minutes of over-zealous tongue brushing, I was able to restore most of my tongue’s original color. The rest — which couldn’t be reached via toothbrush without a major gag — faded as the day went on, as did the yummy rubber taste. But wow. Note to self: travel with Zantac and Mylanta from now on.

Chicago I: The Pink and the Brown

I Remember Bartleby

I’ve long believed I was at least part idiot savant. I excel at useless difficult tasks like completing the New York Times crossword and rapid haiku composition. I can name all the U.S. presidents in order and match up 99.9 percent of area codes to their corresponding cities. Yet simple things like tip calculation, Boggle games and the reality television phenomenon leave me stymied. But no matter how sure of my idiot savant-hood I may be, there are times at which I am absolutely astounded by my own mental density.

Earlier this week I received a letter from a collection agency, telling me I owed the New York Times almost $70 for the subscription I had at my old apartment. (Note: the fact that I’m able to demolish the crossword puzzle within said publication is merely a coincidence in this story). Now, I don’t make a habit of avoiding bill payment until collection agencies come calling. But in this case, an aggravating combination of lost passwords, ridiculously labyrinthine customer service at the New York Times, early onset Alzheimer’s and an insane workload left me with an outstanding balance.

I rang the agency’s phone number, which, I couldn’t help but notice, had a 216 area code and thus, a location somewhere in Cleveland. The following outgoing message met my ears:

You have reached the small balance department at Company X.  Please leave your name, a phone number where you can be reached during business hours and the reference number provided at the top of the letter you received. This message is from a dead collector.”

Holy crap. This message was from a dead collector. Was I responsible?! Had someone lost his or her life because I neglected to pay for two months of newspaper delivery?! Did that message mean another Company X employee, already putting in 12-hour days at the depressing Cleveland office, been forced to take on the outstanding files of his late co-worker? Could that person also be on the verge of suicide or death because of my negligance? The thought was horrifying.  Furthermore, for some reason, the whole thing reminded me of  the great Herman Melville character “Bartleby the Scrivener,” an enigmatic man who “preferred not” and who had, it was implied out after he passed away, suffered some sort of a mental breakdown after working in the Dead Letter Office.

I visited the Company X web site and sent an email to the general inbox.  I explained very warmly and honestly why I’d let the bill slip through the cracks. I apologized and expressed my condolences on the loss of a staff member. Perhaps a very plain, lonely customer service representative had pined for the dead collector from afar. Perhaps she’d sensed some interest and, at the time of his death, been expecting and desperately hoping for an after-work drink invitation — a trip to Appleby’s or the Olive Garden. Perhaps the dead collector lived with his elderly mother in an old Victorian house. Perhaps he wore short-sleeved polyester suits. Perhaps he was the type of man who drank Coke every morning instead of coffee and who wore all-white sneakers.


The email didn’t assuage my guilt, so I found an alternate phone number for the company — also a 216 — and dialed it. I was transferred to several people before finally reaching someone in Small Balances.  I began to speak what I’d written in the email. I paused every few sentences in case the representative wanted to thank me for my words of support at such a painful juncture.  And then, it hit me.  I could practically hear Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, along with Jim Carey’s in Dumb and Dumber and of course, Forest Gump himself, making fun of me in a superior manner.

Big fat DUH!

There was no dead collector. There was, however, a DEBT collector.

I Remember Bartleby