Somebody pooped in the pool.
Not an auspicious beginning to my eighth Artist’s Date.
I committed to joining the Chicago Park District pools at my morning Weight Watchers meeting. After my friend Tom informed me there is an indoor pool at Welles Park – a less than 10-minute walk from my house. After my friend Scotty revealed my animal spirit guides to me – salmon on my left, otter on my right – and said, “You gotta go swimming, girl.”
I was always a water baby. Growing up my brother and I would ride our bikes to the lake or swim club – cutoff shorts over our swimsuits, towels around our necks. We’d spend the entire day immersed in water and ride home, gripping our handlebars with fingers like prunes. Like the prunes I see on my Artist’s Date, instead of pool water. But I’m ahead of myself.
I pack a bag. Towel. Flip flops. Lock. Goggles that leave suction rings around my eyes every time I swim – making me look like a raccoon. Bathing suit. Too big. More suited for lying in the sun than swimming. It has red and blue stripes across the torso. White polka dots cup the breasts, and a gold ring sits between them. When I was a kid my mother told me I couldn’t wear horizontal stripes. “Not flattering,” she said. But I love it.
I slip $40 in my pocket – the cost for a three-month pool membership – and walk over for 12:15 adult lap swim.
Walking in I hear the desk clerk leaving an outgoing message. “The pool is closed until 5 p.m. due to unforeseen circumstances.”
Think Caddyshack. The candy bar floating in the pool.
I join anyway and wonder about Plan B.
I want to walk. I want to be outside. The sun is shining and it is February.
I head down Lawrence Avenue toward Kedzie Street – toward the Lebanese restaurants and shops. Coming here, or to Devon Avenue – Little India with a splash of Pakistani – I feel like I’ve gone away.
I think about my friend Teresa and her one-time transition man – “Vancouver Guy.” I’m not sure I ever knew his real name. It might have been Kevin. He was tall, with a sweet face and a mess of curls. Extremely tolerant of my tagging along, as Teresa and I were a bit of an unspoken package deal.
He would often talk about driving on surface roads instead of freeways so he could watch women walk. He saw this as appreciating women as opposed to being gross and leering. Teresa and I secretly agreed it was kind of hot and charming.
I am not watching anyone walking. Instead I notice all that I miss from the car.
The tailor my friend Karen mentioned, at the corner of Lawrence and Western. According to her he is Jamaican and says “Yah man….I can do that,” a lot. I have a closet full of too-big clothes in need of tailoring. Now I know where he is, when before I couldn’t quite envision it.
I cut down a side street and the city quiets immediately. I cross a bridge over the Chicago River and take photographs of the boats below, waiting for spring.
I see Bloom yoga studio, which I’ve heard of but could never place in my head. A coffee shop I never noticed. I walk through Ravenswood Manor, admiring the large Prairie-style homes and feel like I’m somewhere else. Not so far away. Just not here. Perhaps Evanston or Oak Park.
I turn on to Kedzie Street and peer into store windows stacked with hookahs and tea sets, but I cannot figure out where to enter. All I see are bodegas.
I walk in. There are bags of lentils and couscous. Tins of sliced tuna. Pickled turnips. Halva. A ground sesame sweet with the consistency of chalk. It is an acquired taste. And I love it. Growing up in Detroit – the city with the largest Lebanese population outside of the Middle East – it was a staple on sweet tables at every fancy Bar and Bat Mitzvah party. A huge solid drum of it set on a glass stand.
I think of my mother eating it from the package in the back seat of our car. My ex-husband is astonished she doesn’t wait until we get home to put it on a plate. But she cannot wait. I can’t either. And she breaks off a piece and hands it to me in the driver’s seat.
I pick up the traditional Halva. The pistachio. The chocolate. I put each back. I cannot bring it into the house. It is crack to me.
I walk past watermellon seeds with lemon. Dry whole lemon. A jar called “honeynut” which appears to be pistachios, walnuts and almonds suspended in honey. It looks amazing. I don’t think I should bring this home either.
Past a meat counter. Large cannisters of oil. Bags of dried apricots and prunes – called sljive. Like slivovitz – the prune brandy only my cousin Wendy and I could stomach.
There is a second room where shelves are crammed with cheap bowls and drinking glasses. Tiny ornate cups and pots for making Turkish coffee. There are stacks of Islamic prayer clocks and boxes reading “Classic Mirror: To the Utmost Beautiful Facial Appearances.”
I walk into a second store specializing in hookahs. It has the same array of Arabic foods, with a smattering of Mexican and traditional American staples. The same cheap plates and bowls.
I stand at the tea selection for far too long, pondering whether or not I need a $2 box of anise tea. I bring the box to the counter where the shopkeeper is sitting on a milk crate watching television. His son and grandson eye me suspiciously.
I realize all the women I see are wearing hajib (head covering). I feel like an interloper. I hand the old man $2, tuck the tea in my bag and high tail it across the street to Nazareth Sweets.
I’ve been here just once before. Years ago with my friend Angel and my ex-husband. It’s a typical Lebanese bakery. Glass cases filled with different variations on a theme – phyllo dough, honey, nuts. Last time I met the owner, Khalil, who would tear off a piece of each item I inquired about. “Taste it,” he’d say. “But don’t share.”
We left stuffed, carrying a tin-foil tray of goodies for later – when we would do it all over again.
Khalil is not here today. Instead, there is a girl with heavy eyebrows behind the counter, speaking Arabic to customers on their way out.
She fills a mini tin with about half a dozen sweets. More than I will eat. It costs $2.80. It doesn’t matter. I just want the experience of this place. And a Turkish coffee, but the bakery only has a water bubbler with Styrofoam cups.
I cross the street to Semiramis – one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago. It is empty. Too late for lunch. Too early for dinner.
I am relieved. I have some crazy American hang up about “just ordering coffee” – even though it common and acceptable in all other parts of the world.
I order a Turkish coffee, pick up a Vanity Fair from the waiting area and sit down.
I pour over gorgeous ads for Prada and read about Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. About Jane Roe. How she became a pro-life activist – which I knew. And was a lesbian – which I didn’t know. And perhaps most interesting, that she never got the abortion.
My coffee arrives and I pour the sweet cardamom-infused muddiness from the copper pot into the tiny enamel cup. It is really, really great coffee. And really, really great writing.
An hour later I leave, putting down $4 for the $3 coffee.
Walking home I notice a storefront crammed with about 30 push-carts. The kind short Puerto Rican men push in Humboldt Park in summertime, hawking fruit ice bars. Just sitting inside. Waiting for spring. Like the boats on the river. Like all of Chicago.
Surface-street eye candy.