Jesse Millner: The Bus Driver's Book of the Dead

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  MEMOIR by Jesse Millner
Polish Wedding  Devolution  Aliens Among Us  Eddie Jones  Dave   Tom MarionStarved Rock State Park  The Alcoholic Point of View  
My Lost Season  Listening for God  I Remember a Pet Peeve  Hair Salon Panic Attack!  
Please Don't Bury Me in that Cold, Cold Ground

My Lost Season: Chicago, October, 1984

It scares me a little that I can remember so vividly the scene at Ray’s: a cold pitcher of Old Style in front of me, color TVs shouting from either end of the bar, an el train shaking the tavern walls every few minutes; but most clearly I remember how dark it was inside. After all, this was before Wrigleyville went yuppie so there was no track lighting or ferns, no rich kids with loosened ties. There was only the barking of angry drunks, the smell of spilt beer and the melancholy scene of the Cubs walking off the field in the ninth inning as the happy crowd swarmed over the winning Padres.

After that horrible loss, I drank my way home down Addison Street, pausing for several Old Styles at the Cubbie Bear Lounge. Then I turned north on Clark, shifting to shots of bourbon at the Piano Man, where Detroit Junior belted out Sweet Home Chicago to a crowd that could have cared less about good music, a crowd so drunk and pissed off that even the golden boy second baseman, Ryne Sandburg, was dissed by the masses.

That early fall afternoon on the north side of Chicago, the sky was a limitless blue and the air was warm with Indian summer, that teasing time before the cold arrives. The first hint of yellow lit the few Dutch elms not killed by blight, or chopped down by city workers and ground into mulch to prevent the spread of disease.

In November they would mark the elm in my front yard with an orange X, and then the following week remove it from the scene, leaving an ugly blankness before my living room window, so that whenever I looked out into the world, my view wasn’t softened by leaves or branches, not mediated by the natural. Instead I looked right into traffic whizzing east and west as each day for months I relived the Cubs losing to the Padres, remembering the hope that followed Leon Durham’s three-run shot into the left field bleachers, the optimism from knowing Rick Sutcliffe would surely hold that lead, but he didn’t and that world collapsed, and the image I would most hold on to was catcher Jody Davis bent over crying in the dugout at Jack Murphy stadium as Steve Garvey jumped high in the air.

For the first time, booze couldn’t remove the pain. Long-time announcer Jack Brickhouse once said that the Cubs weren’t having a bad season, they were having a bad century, and there I was, caught up in their losing. Which was merely a reflection of my own mounting losses: wife gone, charter bus driving job almost gone, early mornings dimmed by hangover.

I drank for another season. Went to Wrigley Field and had a sixteen ounce beer per inning, so that when Harry Carey sang “Take me out the ballgame” in the seventh, I was almost out myself, the brick walls and green-ivied outfield spinning before my eyes until the whole world became an hallucination and even the concrete beneath my feet could not steady me. Luckily, I was on foot in those days, my car abandoned on La Salle Street after a tie rod broke: I was driving north on La Salle, going home from work, the whole business district behind me, the Board of Trade building with its Cubist statue of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of wheat, staring at my rear bumper as the rod snapped and the Pinto made an abrupt ninety-degree turn into oncoming traffic. No one collided with me, and I flew into a u-turn and bounced off the curb facing south. And I’m not making up the fact that I took off my orange and blue polyester bus driver’s tie and re-connected the broken pieces of tie rod and attempted to drive the car again, only to hit the curb and knock off the hubcap. So, I removed the license plates and took the el home, which is why I walked home from Wrigley that last season, making the rounds at the Cubby Bear, the final stop being Frank’s Place on Wayne Street, a mere block from my house. And the farther you got from Wrigley, the cheaper the beer, and Frank’s was sleazy, and as I picture the long bar with the pool table in the back, it bothers me how completely I see it again, and I can even remember the overweight waitress and her tattooed biker lover who became my best friends in that lost time long after the ninth inning was over and the defeat flag hung from the mast over the bleachers in center field, just as defeat hung over my brain, my spirit humming with loss.

As I sat on the barstool and admired the alcoholic plenty manifest before me, a libation for every drunk season, and best of all, below the bar, kegs of beer ready to be splashed into 75-cent drafts, as I sat there I remembered Ceres, the goddess without a face, her head an abstraction of empty angles. When they built the Board of Trade in 1929 and crowned it with the goddess, she was meant to look down forever, but in the ‘50s, construction resumed downtown; first came the Prudential Building and then many others would surpass the goddess as they reached toward the heavens. Now Ceres is obscured by skeletal steel and concrete unless your car breaks down on La Salle and you’re looking south pondering the misery of your own life and you see a woman without a face, who in ancient times was adored by farmers who sacrificed to her each spring in hopes of a great harvest. My harvest was bitter in those days, another season watching losers in the most beautiful ballpark in the world, where by fall of 1985, I had reached the end.

There was no visit to the playoffs that year to temporarily revive me, and my collapse that October took me to the emergency room at Illinois Masonic, where a smiling nurse pumped my stomach, freeing it of Xanax and bourbon, and even in my lost state, I could see she was no Ceres. Her face was fully human, and she smiled to comfort me as the plastic tube slipped down my windpipe, as I looked into her green eyes from the depths I had descended to, as I listened to her voice whisper that things would be fine.

In April of ‘86, I saw my first sober game at Wrigley. I remember walking up the runway toward my seat behind the first base dugout and how dark the passage was leading toward the grandstand, and how at the moment I emerged from the tunnel, everything exploded in spring light. I sat in my cold seat, the temperature in the 50s, wind blowing in from right field and the frigid lake beyond. I cupped a hot coffee in my hands, looked at the outfield where the red brick was bare and the ivy still brown from winter. I could not know then that the Cubs would lose to the Cardinals that day, and slide into another ugly season. And I could not know then that the following week the IRS would garnish my wages and my landlady would ask me to move so she could remodel my apartment and rent it to wealthy yuppies.

I could not know then that the first woman I would date in sobriety would have a canopied waterbed with a mirror overhead and would not know what the Civil War was. I could not know then that I would rent a cheap basement apartment in Rogers Park, twenty yards from the lake. I could not know then that the winter of ’87 would bring record-high lake levels and that ice would coat the shoreline and tremendous white waves would batter the street I lived on. I could not know then that throughout the heart of that cold winter, I would run north on Sheridan Road and learn how to not fall on the ice-glazed streets and sidewalks. I could not know then how beautiful the lake would become with its almost icebergs drifting in the white freeze that extended a mile offshore. I could not know then that a homeless man who insisted he was Jesus would walk that mile out on the ice and be forcibly rescued by a Coast Guard helicopter.

And so here I am, nearly twenty years beyond my last drunk, thinking about the Cubs and their latest August swoon, remembering those days when I had truly fallen, and had no hope for resurrection. I think I will end this with a tribute to the homeless man who thought he was Jesus, and in tribute to the deity, did walk on the waters of Lake Michigan. How wonderful the view must have been: to the south the shoreline of the north side stretching past Lincoln Park to the Gold Coast, where he must have seen the Hancock Building rising toward the cold sky. But more beautiful must have been the miles of unfrozen turquoise water unbroken for the sixty miles to Michigan. And I think the real Jesus would have loved the homeless man in that moment of complete stillness where he looked east and saw the dark roiling waters at the edge of the horizon. Do you know what I’m talking about here? Have you ever looked east as far as you can over some vast expanse of water and seen how the lake or ocean darkens at the farthest edge of your seeing? Have you ever wondered about the magic of that place where the sky finally meets the sea?

I imagine him looking east toward Michigan, the northeast wind burning his face, pushing the deep water into waves that lifted the ice beneath his feet before lowering him again. I imagine him peaceful in his blue cocoon, but then he’d hear the whacking blades, see the faces looking down toward him as they prepared to save him by yanking his body skyward. Yes, the Chicago Tribune noted that a Coast Guardsman “assisted” the man into a lowered basket. And probably wrapped him in warm blankets, gave him hot coffee, and revived his body. But I wonder if my rescued Jesus was torn from the brink of resurrection, if somehow in the last moment he saw a heavenly city rising from the uneven waters, if indeed, he became holy as he looked toward the celestial. I wonder if angels flew towards him, ready to wrap him in feathered bodies woven from starlight, ready to take him in to the sweet fire of eternal life. But the angels, being immortal, were unconcerned with time, didn’t move fast enough to embrace the tattered savior. The helicopter was faster.


© 2010, Jesse Millner

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