15 January 2011

in which my life becomes a lifetime movie {part 1}

I lied to Mohammed.

He was my cab driver in the early evening on a winter Sunday, and I was going from the North Side to Ogilvie Transportation Center, where a train would take me out of the city and back to the suburbs.

I'd just had one of those particularly charmed city afternoons. Coffee with a good friend: a double espresso at Julius Meinl, the cafe that replicates the European cafe experience so precisely that just seeing the elongated sugar packet and picking up the demi-tasse spoon makes my heart twinge for France.

Jessie and I sat by a big, practically floor-to-ceiling window in these deep, burnt orange arm chairs with a small round table in between us, enjoying the winter sunshine. When the sun shines in the Midwest in the winter, it's that much brighter because you've gotten used to gray days. But then there's a sunny—and usually crystal cold—day, and it's brighter also because the sun is reflecting off all that snow.

As she and I talked about books and people we knew and holiday plans, a homeless man stood outside the window holding up a Christmas tree. Where he got the tree I will never know. Was he trying to sell it? Perhaps, but as I told Jessie about Gone with the Windsors, this book I'd just started that fictionalizes the story of King Edward and Mrs. Simpson, the homeless man lost interest in the tree.

He let it fall against the building and then began imitating me. I'm a somewhat imitable {and yet also inimitable} person, I will admit, when I'm talking. There's lots of swirling of hands and expanding of eyes and raising of eyebrows. And when talking about how the King of England abdicated for an American divorcee, I got especially swirling and expanding and raising.

Jessie kept giving sidelong glances to the man outside the window, but I kept going, not wanting to look at him for fear of smiling. I didn't want to smile too broadly, in that way that shows too much gum and my Midwestern upbringing, for fear that when we left the cafe, he'd be standing there, hand out, wanting some money for making me laugh.

Not that I don't want to help the homeless {I do believe there's a call in the Bible to that, something about giving to the poor}. But when I encounter the actual homeless, I have a large flare-up of guilt: I'm reminded that I like helping them by sending checks to charities.

Face to face with someone holding their hand out, I panic and internally question if the money I give them will really go to feed their starving children or help them pay bus fare. Then I internally chastise myself for not serving the poor with a willing, trusting heart.

You can see why I didn't want to make eye contact with the man outside Julius Meinl {and why even now, I'm berating myself for that}. As Jessie and I left, walking past him on our way to the movie theater, he gave a wave and a “Merry Christmas, ladies!”


We were on our way to the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview, an old movie house that still has a real organ player and a curtain across the screen that gets drawn back when he's done playing the prelude.

Every Christmas, they do a double feature of It's a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, and Jessie and I have gone almost every year we've lived in Chicago—just to the White Christmas part because, I'm sorry to say, as much as I enjoy Christmas, I don't think I can sit through 5 hours of Christmas movies, even if Santa does come out in between the shows to lead a carol sing-along. The sing-along always ends with a re-written version of “White Christmas”: “I'm dreaming of a Chicago Christmas / When Berghoff's served a meal with care...”

The Music Box Christmas show is one of the things I do to make sure I'm in the Christmas spirit. {Should you want to plan ahead for next year, you can read the other things I do here.} And every year, it works.

With hundreds of other people and Bing Crosby on screen, I get to sing to “Count Your Blessings” and “Snow!” before stepping back out into a snowy Chicago, all a-twinkle with lights and with just a certain holiday glow that makes you think you've stepped back in time. To when women wore hats everywhere and White Christmas had just come out.

This year, Jessie and I had to leave a little early so that I could get to the 6:40 train. We marched out just at the scene when the General, surprised by all the men who have come to the Inn to honor him, gets a little teary when they march in to, “We'll follow the old man wherever he wants to go / Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.”

As we went up the aisle, I pretended that all the people were clapping for us. I briefly considered saluting but instead, once we were outside, I hugged Jessie goodbye and jumped in a cab.

That's when the lying to Mohammed the Cab Driver began.

{And you can read all about it in part 2.}

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