Cruising Archer, shooting gaps, toasting yellows, charging like an Apache; still winter in Chicago and I’m snorting steam like a caribou. Salt, grime, dirt soon cover me as I cycle down the wet streets heading to the lake. I ****** at Phoenix Park in Chinatown (sight of my ungracious fall) and trackstand in silent vigil over the forsaken manhole cover that brought me down. In a perverse dance, I release my monkey, hock one magic loogie and yell a yell stolen from Skeletor in Pedal, then surge into the future: 18th down to the revamped Pedway, over the train tracks and onto the path on the south side of Soldier Field. Winter keeps all the pretenders home which means I have the whole lakefront to myself except for the occasional anorexic running for her life. Mist covers everything and muffles the sounds of the city, buffering the onslaught. Heading into the north wind I’m a million miles away. Don’t even dodge the puddles of soft slush. It’s cold but I’m warm. Got Wiener Circle on my mind.
I’m always finding stuff in the street. My favorite was a half set of dentures (top) I spotted one day in the gutter. It was chilly then too and I had my long gloves on so I picked them up in put them in my jersey pocket. I brought them home and washed them and now they’re on my bookcase. I salute them before each ride, a reminder of human frailty. Right near Tower Records on Clark (new address, corner of Bankruptcy & Chapter 11. I hate Tower Records), I spot something brown and out of place. I stop to pick it up. Sure enough, a wallet with $107 in cash. I look quickly then close it, just in case someone is setting up some kind of trap. I’m slightly delirious from my good fortune. I say “Score” aloud and promise myself I’m keeping it this time. I start hearing voices. My conscience starts asserting itself, first from behind then right in my ear. I’m prepared to wrestle and start making bargains. I’ll keep it but I’ve got to sit here a 20 minutes to see if anyone comes back looking for it. Few minutes pass and everything seems normal. Cool, no one’s coming. Okay, okay, I’ll check again. I take out the wallet and have a deeper look, pretending like it’s mine. There is no identification at all, no credit cards, no drivers license, no nothing, just the cash (bunch of small bills) and that’s it. Looks like it’s going to be my day. Wait...in a hidden fold there’s a beat up Chicago Public Library Card with a name: Jason Ramos. My stomach sinks. By now my 20 minutes are up and all I want is to hop on my bike and bolt, I tell you, I’ve already got that money spent. But I can’t move. I’m sparring hard with the voices and I’m loosing. I reach for my cell phone call 411 and they put me through to the library. I tell them what has happened, give the name and number on the card and my cell phone number. “You satisfied?” I shout to myself. At least now I’ve done all I could and if no one calls I’m keeping the damn money. Gonna have some fun with it too. Tomorrow night is Black Drag Queen night at the Jackhammer, or maybe that new Talking Heads boxed set, maybe even pay down a little credit card debt: forget that. I bet my phone rang no more than 3 minutes later, tops. Guy introduces himself as Jorge Ramos, says, “you found my son’s wallet?” Couple of awkward exchanges as we negotiate it’s return. I tell him I’m on my bike and I’d be glad to bring it over. Jorge’s cautious but then realizes I called him so takes his trust one step further and gives me his address. He’s over near Damen and Montrose, which is near where I used to live. I tell him I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Soon as he said “son” the voices and arguing stopped for good.
The house was easy to find, I passed it 100 times when I would get take out from the Greeks down the street. Homemade Christmas were decorations still up in late February. The door opened as soon as I stepped on the porch, guess they saw me coming. Jorge answers the door and there’s an eager 12 year old boy behind him and a sweet faced girl, maybe a year younger third: six big brown wide eyes checkin me out. I hand over the wallet right away, see their expressions, feel their relief, smell the warm air of the house. He thanks me and asks me where I found it. I tell him, and Dad looks at son with a telling look. Jorge tells me Jason and his younger sister had been saving money for a couple months to by concert tickets (he said the name of the group, but I tell you I never heard it before and couldn’t even remember to repeat it), they were in line at the Ticketmaster inside Tower when Jason reached for his wallet and couldn’t find it. “I told him to be careful with that money.” I’ll bet that’s not all he told him. I had the distinct feeling that Dad just got done tearing Jason a new *******, yelling the whole way home, and Jason not hearing a single word. Dad’s anger meant nothing to him because all he could see was the heartbreak of his younger sister as she said, “you mean we don’t get to go.” He’s not a boy anymore, but not yet a man, is learning the hard lessons of responsibility and hasn’t learned to cry like an adult yet, so his emotion comes out in anger, but his Dad was more angry, so all he had was a broken heart that wouldn’t stop hurting with nothing he could do to fix it. Then the library called and the house got real quiet.
Dad opens the wallet and takes out a $20 and hands it over to me. “No, it’s alright,” I say waving him off with my open palm. “It’s from my money not Jason’s,” he says. I wouldn’t be able to sustain it, not when I’d go home and see a People’s Gas envelop or a Colorado Cyclist catalog in the mail, but at that instant, on that porch, seeing that family rescued by a guy on a bike, money meant nothing to me. I insisted the answer was no. “I want to do something...” Suddenly, I blurt out, “have you got a banana?” “Jason, see if there’s a banana.” “And would you mind filling my water bottle?,” I asked handing it over to him. Jason heads back to the kitchen and there’s 10 seconds of silence as we both realize we’ve taken care of business and there’s nothing left to say; strangers brought together and soon to part for ever. “You rode your bike all the way from Tower?” “Sure,” I say, “it’s really not that far.” “You a messenger or something?” “Na, I just like to ride.” “I got a bike in the garage,” he says, “don’t ride it too much anymore.” Jason shows up with a ****ty brown banana that I knew I’d accept but never eat. “Sorry,” he says, “it’s all we have.” Dad looks and smiles and you could tell it was going to be a family joke for a week or so: guy finds Jason’s wallet and all we give him is a rotten banana. I take the water bottle back and make a quick exit, not wanting to prolong excessive thank yous, they were eager to get back to their lives too.
I take my leave and see those damn neglected Christmas decorations obviously made by an innocent child, imagine Jason being so excited about a new Playstation and how now it’s ordinary and how Dad must have been fuming but is now chilled and is looking for the right words to say to his kids about doing good in the world and how it’s been a long cold depressing winter and how I’m emotionally vulnerable and I keep imagining that sweet little girl saying, “you mean we don’t get to go.” I make a quick turn into the alley, dismount and cover my eyes.
The garage door I’m standing near opens and it’s the Ramos family. I didn’t think about it, but sure enough, I was right behind their house. I had just enough time to pretend like I was adjusting something before they spotted me. “Heading back to Tower,” Jorge explains, “thanks again.” Car heads down the alley, makes a right onto Montrose and is gone.