Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Night After Puzzle Night

   I went for a night run earlier this evening. I don't do that often. I usually run early in the afternoon. But today was a hot and muggy day, and I just didn't feel like going out. But then the sun went down, and a small storm came through and cooled things off a bit.

   I took off a little after 9:00. It had just rained. It was a brief  but heavy summer rain, complete with thunder and lightning and strong winds and tornado warnings. But the heart of the storm had moved on by the time I left my apartment. All that was left was an occasional sprinkling of warm rain and a few straggling gusts of wind.

   I turned north when I left my place, and I was soon out of my neighborhood (Pilsen), and running through the UIC campus. I passed a couple of other runners on the campus. But other than that the streets were relatively free of pedestrians, which is a welcome contrast to the congestion of my mid-day runs.

   As I ran through Greektown, I glanced into a bar that I sometimes stop in late at night when I don't have sense enough to go home. There is a good spot for gyros next door, and they'll bring your food over to the bar for you. That late night gyro, the cheap beer, and the animated conversation that inevitably takes place with George the bartender is sometimes just too strong of a pull for me to resist. But tonight I just glanced through the window as I ran by. George was in there. Leaning back against the shelves of booze. Arms folded  on top of his big belly.

   I turned east on Adams and headed toward the Loop. As I passed over the expressway, I looked down to see every lane jam packed with cars sitting at a dead standstill. I have to admit that I took a smug satisfaction at their immobility and I picked up my pace, happy for the freedom of movement that I was enjoying.

   I zigzagged through the streets underneath the darkened office buildings. There is very little residential property in that section of downtown, and even fewer late night businesses, so these streets were mostly empty and quiet as well. I did pass one woman. She was walking alone, and had I given that any thought, I would have been careful to make my presence known, with a cough or a few loud steps perhaps, before running past her. But I didn't think of it until I was right behind her, and as I ran by, she jumped and clutched her arms to her chest. I felt a little bad for scaring her like that. I knew that I'd just broken a form of runner's etiquette, but as a daytime runner it was just something that I didn't think of.

   Once I crossed the south branch of the Chicago River, I turned north again. I passed through the theater district and crossed Wacker Drive so that I could run along the wide sidewalks that line the main branch (Would it be called the trunk?) of the river. I followed that down to Michigan Ave. The streets and sidewalks were a bit more crowded in that area, as the skies cleared and the tourists came out of their hotels.

   I reached Millennium Park and decided to cut through there and make my way to the lake. As I entered the park, I once again saw a woman walking alone. This time I realized right away that I should give her a sign that I was there well before I passed her. But due to some inexplicable impulse, I didn't go with the standard cough or the loud steps. I just started whistling a tune. It worked, in the sense that she heard me and she turned to look at me well before I reached her. But the sight of a lone runner coming fast and whistling must have seemed odd. And so instead of startling her, I think I caused her to be genuinely afraid. She just stopped in her tracks and stared at me as I ran by her.

   Leaving her behind, I crossed through the park, made my way across Lake Shore Drive, and turned south onto the lakefront path. The harbor there is about ten or twelve blocks long, and at this time of year it is full of boats. But with a few exceptions, the boats were mostly vacant at that hour. The only signs of life, were a few solitary lights and one radio that was tuned to a baseball game. I wondered what might be happening on those few boats. Was somebody sitting on the water by themselves, maybe having a cold beer and listening to the game? And were the more quiet boats home to couples that might be enjoying a romantic evening? Or was somebody just doing some needed maintenance at an odd hour?

   When I reached the middle of the harbor, my thoughts about the boats, and the possible nature of the people on them, vanished. At that midway point, the boats give way to the wide mouth of the man-made inlet, which opens into the vast black void of Lake Michigan. I caught myself slowing down as I looked out into that dark space. It's a strange thing to stumble upon while running through such a large city. Of course I already knew that the lake was there. It had been my conscious destination for the last couple of miles. But somehow it was still a bit of a surprise.

   I kept running, and soon the boats reappeared, and my view of the lake was once again obstructed. But now I could smell the lake, and not just the sea scented air that is always present near the water. The storm had stirred up the smells from the bottom. Smells of damp earth and even waste, that managed to be not unpleasant.

   With that smell in my head, I reached the museum campus and turned west. I know that I ran up Roosevelt and back through UIC, but my mind had drifted away from my immediate surroundings at that point and I honestly can't remember much of what I passed. My thoughts wandered through the past and into the future. Through my life as well as the lives of others.

   And then I was almost home. I passed under the 16th street viaduct that separates UIC from Pilsen, and as is often the case, I snapped back into the present at that location. My mind often wanders when I run, but the moment that I pass under those tracks, I always seem to be jarred awake.

  I stopped to walk the last block home. About 40 yards ahead of me, a drunken man turned at the sound of my footsteps and aimed one of his two beer cans at me and fired an imaginary shot. He squinted at me afterward, as if surprised that I hadn't fallen. And then he turned back around and stumbled into the park, as I reached the steps to my building, opened the door, and climbed the stairs.

   Tomorrow I'll go back to work.

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