Spare Change

I’ve hit it again.

Several summers ago I met Kathy and Linda in Chicago before we drove to The Winter Palace in Indiana (my condo). After a day of excursions in the heat and humidity we looked for a restaurant near the hotel.

Every interesting place either had a long wait or was closing. It was only 8:30, the herd grazes early there. In frustration we ended up at a dive across the street.

It was a place that tried to do everything–pizza, steak house, California cuisine–but did none well. I could barely stomach the jello-flavored gimlet at the Rock Bottom.

I’d forgotten about it until I happened by on my trip a few weeks ago. I knew better than to patronize it again. Spiritually, I was already there.

Because I’m broke I haven’t been home in two years. Twice I’ve purchased tickets only to cancel at the last minute forfeiting the fare. I realized too late I didn’t have money to cover the travel costs.

I was determined to go this time, even if by the skin of my teeth. To get the best airfare I left the day before my Social Security was to be deposited. I had $25 to live on for 24 hours. When I woke up the next morning in Chicago I paniced. I had $1, my balance online was zero. It was a time zone issue, by 9:00 a.m. I was solvent again.

I’d cashed in miles for a room that night at an airport Four Points. It had all the charm of the cinder blocks it was built with. There was a spirited discussion at check-in over running my card for “incidentals.” I said there would be none. The clerk was adamant until the charge did not go through. I had to sign a release accepting responsibility for charges I would be blocked from charging.

The Four Points would not have been my first choice in better times. I love good hotels and have stayed at The Grand in Berlin, The Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg, The Imperial and The Bristol in Vienna. London’s Park Lane would give me free upgrades and complimentary French 75’s in the lobby.

I was on a private island in the Maldives at the Soneva Fushi. And in Paris I stayed a few times at the Prince de Galles and once down the block at the Georges Cinq (or, as one pretentious queen called it, the George Vee.)

Down Soneva Fushi way.

In Chicago I’ve frequented the Conrad Hilton where Queen Lilibet visited in the 1950’s and been a guest at The Palmer House many times. Although its rooms are ordinary, it’s worth it for the spectacular lobby.

In route home each Christmas I stopped over at the Continental on North Michigan. After a frozen shopping spree I’d put on the complimentary robe and have a chicken pot pie in my room. At the Westin River North I had a fling with the lotto guy who called numbers on the local TV station. Lucky me.

My last glam stay in the city was when Ian Schrager first opened Public. It was the old Ambassadors East where I once rolled with Rodney.

The first ever was at the YMCA on a fifth grade class trip. In the days leading up to that outing I was excited beyond belief. Mother tried to reel me in but did encourage me to try something new since I was going somewhere I’d never been.

So at dinner in a cafeteria-style steak house, a forerunner to the Rock Bottom. I ordered my meat very rare. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant, I was 11. The joys of a steak saignant were not yet appreciated. Eating blood disgusted me.

Back home Mother asked me what I’d tried. I told her about the steak.  She responded, “well you didn’t have to go that far.”

Attendng my first Indiana same sex wedding.

Before I slept this trip, I went downtown to walk through the Loop. With my $25 I bought subway tickets, a bottle of cremant bourgogne and some cheese. I had $4 left so I thought of taking a slice of pizza back with me.

I was in line behind a woman and a young boy, obviously tourists. Under a 70’s helmet hairdo her thoughts raced from the thrill of being in the Windy City. She bubbled with questions for the servers. “Now the mashed potatoes, are they mashed?” Occasionally she’d glance at me to crack a joke or apologize for taking so long. I politely smiled.

During her endless banter I learned quite a bit: this was her first trip to Chicago; she was with her 10 year old grandson; the cab driver recommended the place; and, her husband couldn’t have the peppers. I did deadly eye rolls in my mind then remembered my first time and exhibited infinite patience.

We were the only customers there but it took 10 minutes to get to the register. I was shocked when she told the cashier she was paying for me too. Strangers don’t do that in the big city. I protested like I had the money of Bill Gates (while wondering if I had the give of a 6th Street bag lady). I thanked her genuinely then took the train back to the Four Points.

I believe the Lord never gives us more spare change than we can handle but this is ridiculous. I need a job. And just because I constantly reference the Joads doesn’t mean I’m willing to pick fruit. Although I might.

Entertaining the kids for a few minutes, traumatizing them for a lifetime.

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