Chiditarod, the urban Iditarod shopping cart race through Chicago, is one of those things I’d missed every year previous in Chicago (five times) and it makes no sense why. It involves art and creativity, it’s organized silliness, it takes place generally in my part of town, it goes to bars I’m familiar with, and it’s for a good cause (raising money and collecting food for the hungry). A quick look at my Flickr friends showed many had photographed it extensively in past years. Where was I?
I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to miss it this year (March 5), especially not after the guy I was seeing was going to be part of a team with friends from work. I knew it’d take up a lot of his time in February but I had a lot of my own things planned anyway and--and then I got broken up with at the start of February, during the week of the huge blizzard.
Oh. Well, I wouldn’t get to follow the team’s preparations closely but I could still cheer them on. A bit of awkwardness with one person wouldn’t keep me away. We’d resolve things by then, we’d be’d cool, mostly, right?
Here’s where I skip over a difficult month so as not to be a jerk communicating passive-aggressively via blog. Except to say there was less communication than I’d expected, and it’s not like people are going to tell you upfront how little. Going from little response to my sad-sounding messages to little or no response to happy ones...I puzzled over it. Still attracted and wanting to avoid me (if so, I cannot emphasize enough how this is an experience I’m not used to), or was I annoying and a burden to deal with? I’m not good at figuring these things out, but had enough awareness that even if it was possibility A, needling someone about getting in touch with me would precipitate possibility B. Anyway, I eventually decided to stop personal contact and restrict it to social/public media (there was no reason for unfriending). My last message was when Chicago’s Earwax Cafe, a 21-year-institution, was going to close and I figured texting a longtime Chicagoan was justifiable. No response (and the damn place reopened anyway) and I felt idiotic again. Okay. I’d see him at Chiditarod, a couple weeks from then, and then figure out what to do, but no attempts till then.
And then the day before the race, minutes before I needed to leave to meet up with photo friends Don and Rachel for an all-day photoshoot adventure (Don is who I met him through, four months earlier on his last visit to Chicago; they’d been friends for years), I skimmed my Twitter messages from overnight and learned...he’d just gotten a job in San Francisco and would move there...in a “couple weeks.”
I’d actually guessed this from a few clues online, especially a big cryptic announcement he was getting congratulations for the day before (I refused to break down and ask). I...I...was happy for him. Huge relief that this must have been part of the distance in the past month. This changed everything. I felt it expedited the process of friendship...but probably ruined the ideas for things we could do as friends--some abandoned buildings he’d never visited to photograph, and a few other things around Chicagoland. Or at least we wouldn't have time for much now. I left a congrats and photoshoot invite on his Facebook and it meant a ridiculous amount to me to get a smiley-face response from him again.
And yeah--I had to see him at Chiditarod, because I had no idea when I’d see him again otherwise. I was afraid to get my hopes up about what we’d do before he left, especially since I’d only known him for months and his family/friends/coworkers of years’ standing would want to see him. I distracted myself with an awesome day taking photos and getting ice cream with Don and Rachel, and broke my don’t-text-him ban late afternoon Friday.
The race would start at noon. Around 11 Saturday morning, CTA Bus Tracker, which I finally started using this year both on my smartphone and Mac, alerted me that I couldn’t possibly make it there by bus in time (using my day pass with a couple hours left). Biking there and biking all day it’d be. Really no way to get around and see it quickly otherwise. I didn’t have breakfast. I got to the assembly point, Hubbard & Wolcott, around 11:40 and walked around to shoot the teams lining up.
I ran into Erin and Nick, friends serving as bike marshals, and told them both the outline of my awkward situation. His team must have thankfully been in the crush of teams behind the fence in a lot (you needed participant ID to get in. they were getting pancakes!), so I didn’t see him. I didn’t want to bug him then and hoped he wasn’t dreading running into me. It certainly wasn’t a secret I was going, at least. Was I pathetic and stalker-ish or was I being a friend supporting him in both the race and the move?
So many teams, well over 100, the most ever. It didn’t get started till well after noon; spectators were getting chilly and a little cranky. And then, finally, they were off! I shot the starting line as a video because I couldn’t have possibly gotten photos fast enough. Rushing by were Devo, Blackhawks, “Slap Shot,” Windy City Rollers (the real ones), the Titanic, Muppets, a steam locomotive, “Back to the Future,” various pirates, zombies, and video game characters, unicorns, Borders bankruptcy (yup)..
(Not mine; another woman had ridden her vintage Schwinn to watch the race.)I knew what his costume would be and saw him run past a couple feet away. I think I called his name, then felt stupid. I’d started following one of his teammates (who I’d met, at a party) on Twitter the day before and worried how that looked, but his team was pretty active on Twitter during the race and I’d wished more teams did that; it was fun to follow along.
The teams scattered off onto the streets and sidewalks. I’d been told to bike side streets, but where to go? It was probably a couple hours till anyone hit the endpoint. Well, it was cold; I’d make a rare visit to Atomix coffee at Damen and Chicago.
After I parked my bike and went to check my money at Dominick’s, the Muppet team passed by, the first team I’d seen since the start. They got honked at and I had my first of several chances to explain Chiditarod to curious drivers. Nasty wind blew a picture from their cart down the block into a puddle and I rescued it for them.
I spent the good part of an hour at Atomix nursing a coffee and a refill (all I could get with my cash, so still no breakfast), warming my extremities and reading an urban planning book. I figured I should hit some checkpoints. Not understanding how the checkpoint system worked or what route teams would take went in my favor of not wanting to be stalker-y. I’d just hit as many as I felt like, briefly, then. If the weather had been nice I’d gladly have visited them all.
I should have gotten food. I had time, I had money, I’d already been biking a lot. This is where I point out I haven’t had an eating disorder but there’ve been a lot of times when I don’t feel like eating this year, even if I can and even if I should. A lot of late-day “breakfasts” even if I wake up in the early morning. I just get stubborn and lazy. I hate talking about things like they’re “symptoms” and I hate worrying that I sound like the symptoms are anyone’s fault. (They aren’t.) I had the hunch I’d be biking around for hours in winter weather, caffeinated, hungry, and nervous. This is why I didn’t get drinks; I had to put limits on the discomfort.
I could have headed west to Darkroom but went east to Five Star, a bar I’d never been in, instead. I stopped at Walgreens to get a beverage and cash back to use whenever I got around to eating. At Five Star a red Chiditarod flag was in front--along with a shopping cart fixed up to cook bacon. Teams parked their carts in the adjacent lot for a funeral home.
It was warm and cheerful inside and I gawked at teams in skimpy outfits (I admired their commitment) and ran into Erin and Nick. We talked about the proliferation of Angry Birds-themed teams (4, really?) and Black Swan and White Swan teams and Charlie Sheen references but the lack of other possible timely themes (was there really no Rahm Emanuel?). I had my first of several restroom visits where I’d run into someone in an old-timey costume.
This may have been the worst of the weather that afternoon, windy and sleety and low visibility if you have to wear glasses while biking. But it really wasn’t that bad compared to thinking about what the race participants were going through. I got to Phyllis’ on Division, a long-ago haunt from my days of attending open mic nights. I’d maybe seen it in daylight once. Plenty of participants were there or in the beer garden. Hey...this was starting to seem like an excuse for hipsters to drink all day.
At Inner Town, a corner bar on a side street, I locked my bike and got compliments from a tipsy participant. I used to visit Inner Town a lot both with a guy I’d dated and with school friends, but it’d been a while. For once it wasn’t brutally crowded; I considered a drink but felt sad sitting there alone. I moved on.
Up to Wicker Park’s main drag, parking my bike across the street from the Titanic, now in front of the Flatiron building. Not many participants in the Flat Iron bar checkpoint, but someone there did a New Year’s countdown (?) and singing.
And now it’d been one coffeeshop, five bars, and no food. Filter coffeeshop, then. I’d been there on a date with him and that was bumming me out a little but they had the food I wanted, so. Packed but I found a sofa spot, got a cafe au lait and tofu reuben (breakfast! at 4 pm), and stayed a little longer than I meant charging my phone via an outlet on the floor, alert to prevent anyone tripping.
Off down Milwaukee and down Ashland to Cobra Lounge. I locked my bike with both locks and prepared to take photos outside a while...because it took me minutes to realize this wasn’t the end point, that was Bottom Lounge a few blocks away. Ooops. I didn’t go inside, figured I’d better move on since it was almost five and almost the official end time.
(They're putting a pair of women's underwear on him.)
The unicorn team got to Bottom Lounge just as I did. I parked and watched teams check in at the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation truck, and pose for photos, and leave their carts in the lot. I stepped back out and saw his team checking in at the truck. I had a brief moment where I thought I would fall down dead of nervousness, breathed, and went to say hi.
Since I’d seen him last (not that all the following are things we’d have discussed, just making a point about the passage of time) there’d been the blizzard. The Super Bowl (a great time to finally make my first visit to otherwise-packed restaurant Kuma’s Corner, as it turned out), the Grammys, the Oscars. Chicago’s election. Borders bankruptcy (hey, I loved hanging out at Borders) closing most stores here. The Wisconsin uprising (and Ohio and Indiana), and of course protests in the Middle East. I’d been to Iowa once and Ohio twice, I’d been to the Chicago Auto Show (my first event at McCormick Place!), I’d had another hard drive replaced, I’d had my first time almost getting jury duty for a criminal trial, I’d made steps to see a therapist for the first time in years. And he’d gotten a new job and would be moving across the country.
He was smoking, which I think he’d only restarted recently. He had friends and teammates around and now I kick myself for not saying hi. We talked about how the race had gone and I realized I hadn’t understood all about how it works. I’d read a little on the Chiditarod website for spectators but should have read the part for participants. There were 12 checkpoints, counting the finish line, but teams only had to hit 6. (I’d made it to 7.) And they had to spend at least 20 minutes at each checkpoint (all the standing around drinking made more sense). I also didn’t know a lot about the culture of sabotage and bribery in the race--so much to learn! His team had been to some of the same bars as me, but fortunately at completely different times. Every checkpoint they'd tweeted was far from me at that moment.
(I'd heard the Loch Ness cart was good, but missed seeing it in action.)
We went inside. The lower level was completely filled with Chiditarod folk; I was used to going there for Blackhawks-related events. (Turns out the Bobby Orr pinball machine is always there.) After a couple minutes I went to talk to him again. I asked if I could hug him in congratulations for the job and did. It felt good, it really did. Maybe this encounter was a brush-off and I didn’t realize it (“talk later”) but I believed him when he said he’d had two hours of sleep and was worried about getting the cart back. I hugged and said congrats again (I meant for the race but added for the job, again). I thought I wouldn’t see him more at the event (I was right) but I stayed for awards.
I went to tear up, briefly, in a stairwell and headed upstairs for the music and party. Bought a tallboy (the Chiditarod special, in tubs) and sipped it staring out the window at the L. I ate a tangerine that’d been in my bag all day (with seeds, that was a mess). I didn’t see anyone else I knew. On one of my trips downstairs a costumed man asked if his tie looked tied right. Close to six I tuned in WGN radio intermittently to hear the preview of the Blackhawks-Maple Leafs game (in Toronto, so an early start). I shut it off for the Chiditarod awards. The Muppets were the Best in Show (two teams, actually, co-winners).
I came downstairs and the Blackhawks had already scored two goals against Toronto, during the awards. Wow. I stared at the screen and a guy at the bar beckoned to me. It was the man with the tie, and a friend. They said their team placed third in fundraising. The friend noticed my thrift-store coat and said there’s a custom (somewhere) of giving women fur coats for their 30th birthday, though he knew it was fake fur, and wanted me to think he thought I’m under 30. Tie guy showed me a handwritten acrostic poem for “CHIDITAROD.” The C-word was not “Chicago.”
Tie guy offered drinks, then gave me a tallboy so I quickly finished my first and started it. Then there were shots. Whatever it was was good. Then there was a bit of another shot. I had to bike home. I wasn’t feeling super-social. But why not make up for a day of not drinking? Tie guy said several times I reminded him of someone he knew who studied engineering. Did I go to RPI? No. Did I want to hang out with them somewhere else? Ehhh... Drinking with strangers has little effect on my “morals” but it does put me at risk of blurting out that I’m famous on the Internet. (I know, not really.) I managed not to but I did tell the friend my screenname. Tie guy patted me on the head before he moved on.
I sat on a bench watching the Blackhawks a little more, assessing my condition to go home. Yeah, good enough. Went outside and a shopping cart was now parked at the same pole as my bike.
I’m kind of a lightweight and here I was biking home in winter on icing-over streets in the dark after drinks with strangers while emotional. And I was listening to the Hawks game (but with one earbud! and I biked mostly on the sidewalk!). I was unsurprised to find myself crying a lot of the way. At least I was on near-empty streets.
Home to watch the end of Hawks-Leafs on TV (Chicago won). I would have given up seeing the entire game to hang out with people, but anyone I knew had left. Damn, I wished I’d hung out more with those guys. Distraction. It was only about 8 pm but I was in for the night. I had a good cry, or several, that night, my mood ricocheting between insecurity, sadness, relief, and joy.
(And that’s where I leave it so as not to go the extra-terrible step of blogging an unresolved situation up to the present. I had fun. They raised lots of money. I actually posted photos quickly to Flickr and they got a good response and I got some on Chicagoist, and a Windy City Roller contacted me about a shot with them because they’d forgotten to take their own, and I finally started a YouTube channel to post the starting line video that was too long for Flickr. And I’d love to participate next year, at least as a volunteer.)