CHICAGO’S LABOR DAY WEEKEND, 2002
The southbound elevated train squealed to a metallic stop on the trestles above Morse Avenue, and its doors slid open. On the street below, a slim figure slouching in the recessed doorway of the Wig Shop squinted intently through her wraparound shades at the train platform spanning the overpass. The commuter cars looked full, but only two women got off and started down the stairs to street level. The woman in the doorway swore, sending expletives like a stream of spit toward the sidewalk. Three trains had come by already, and she hadn’t seen an easy mark yet. Not with today being Sunday and tomorrow the Labor Day holiday. Mostly young folks heading downtown for the Jazz Fest in Grant Park—
or coming back. The northbound would arrive soon, disgorging a handful of teenagers in baggy pants returning after a long day along Chicago’s lakefront, noses burnt and ears plugged into their music. Maybe a few haggard parents who were smart enough to leave early with strollers, backpacks, and whiny preschoolers. If only it was a workday! A bunch of skirts and suits would be coming home, tired, not so alert, twenties and fifties in their purses and wallets. Once they separated and headed onto the side streets of the Rogers Park neighborhood toward the brick apartment-buildings-turned-condos or the old two-story homes jammed between, hitting on a mark was usually just a matter of smooth timing.
But she couldn’t wait till Tuesday. She needed some cash now. The ten blue Valium pills she’d washed down with a glass of vodka that morning hadn’t suffocated the depression that was pulling her down, down into a bottomless black hole, threatening to swallow her, body and soul.
She had to get some smack. Soon.
The southbound pulled out overhead as the two ex-passengers spilled from the doors of the Morse Avenue station on street level. The figure in the doorway straightened, eyeing the pair. The first was a young woman, tall, nicely dressed in a white tailored pantsuit, straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail, a black handbag slung over her shoulder. And an older woman, her dark hair wound into a bun, wearing a navy skirt, red blazer, and sensible shoes with low heels. Their faces seemed long and flat, foreign. Asian. The watcher pulled back into the doorway as the pair crossed the street and passed right in front of her.
“Don’t worry about your traveler’s checks, Mama-san. See that
drug store? It’s got an ATM. I’ll get some cash.” The younger one took her companion’s elbow as though to hurry her along, but the older woman shook off her hand, rattling off strange words that seemed to come out her nose, nasal and sharp.
A tight smile pulled at the corners of the mouth in the door-way, all that could be seen of a face masked with the wraparound shades and a red bandana tied tight around her head and knotted at the nape of her neck. She’d heard enough. ATM. She’d seen enough. Two skirts at odds with each other, distracted.
She waited a few seconds until the two women passed. Then, clutching the stiff paper bag with its long, hard object stuffed beneath her faded jean jacket, she stepped out onto the sidewalk behind them. Watch ya feet, girl . . . don’t bump inta no nickel feeders. . . be cool . . .don’ call no ’tention to yo’sef.
The two dark-haired women turned into the parking lot of the
Osco Drug Store and disappeared inside. The woman in the jean jacket, skimpy tank top, and tight jeans leaned her backside against the corner of the store and fished out a nearly flat pack of cigarettes. She had to clutch the hidden paper bag with her elbow in order to light the cigarette with both hands. The long, flat object inside the bag made her feel confident. She wouldn’t have to use it—just scare them. No problem.
The cigarette had burned only halfway when the pair came out of the store, but the woman flipped it into the street. So what if it was her last cigarette. She’d get some smack and a whole carton. Ha. Come right back here to this store and buy a carton straight up.
Or die. Didn’t really matter.
She knew she couldn’t keep this up—hooked on four habits. She’d tried to kick the heroin, signed up for that methadone program at the hospital. But all she’d done was pick up another habit. Most days she did all four—a handful of Valium washed down with vodka, a trip to the hospital for a slug of methadone, then back out in the ’hood to roll some sucker for money to pay for a bag of smack.
But none of it was keeping her from sliding deeper and deeper into that big black hole. It was going to come down on her one of these days. Maybe today.
She let the pair get several yards down the sidewalk before pushing off from the store wall to follow. But she’d only taken a few steps when a loud voice behind her yelled, “Hoshi! Hoshi Takahashi! Wait up!” The mark—the young, tall one—turned and looked straight past her, a smile lighting up her long face.
The watcher swore under her breath. She couldn’t stop now; she had to keep walking, right past the two women, who had now both turned back toward the running feet and yelling voice behind her. Why had she thrown the cigarette pack away? She needed something, some excuse to stop, to keep an eye on her mark.
Desperation bubbled up in her throat. This had to work. Or it would go down—badly.
Her shoe. She’d retie the brand-new Nikes she’d lifted right under the nose of that stupid clerk at Foot Locker. She bent, untied one shoe, pulled it off, and shook out an imaginary piece of grit, rubbing the bottom of her bare foot and tipping her head slightly so she could keep the trio in her line of vision. Best thing about wraparound shades—you could watch people, and they didn’t know you were looking.
A black woman, small boned, beaming, had joined the two Asian women, and the tall one was introducing the newcomer to the older woman. “You Hoshi’s mama?” said the newcomer, pumping the woman’s hand. The older woman smiled tightly, pulled her hand away, and nodded politely. Now they were walking again, right toward the woman bent over her shoe.
“Ain’t this the bomb?” the newcomer crowed as the trio drew near, absently skirted the bent figure, and then passed on. “Yada Yada goin’ to be blessed outta their socks to meet your mama. You just get off the southbound? I just rode up on the northbound, had to stand the whole way—on a Sunday evenin’ too!” She laughed, a crown of tight coppery curls bouncing on top of her head. “Well, that’s what happens on holiday weekends. So glad I ran into
somebody from Yada Yada; don’t have to walk by myself . . .”
The woman behind them straightened and swore again under her breath. Taking on three wasn’t going to be so easy. The two foreigners—they’d give it up like melted butter. But this new one looked street-smart.
It was too late to wait for another mark. She knew they had money on them.
Two or three—didn’t matter. It was do or die.
An excerpt taken from The Yada Yada Prayer Group Gets Down (Integrity, 2004) written by Neta Jackson.