Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chicago Sucked

In May of 2000, I took a last minute road trip to Chicago.  It did not go well.

"Oh yeah, this just keeps gettin' better and better."
--Rick O'Connell (Brendan Frasier), The Mummy, 1999

That's what I was saying by my last night there. Yep, the Windy City sucked donkey butt. In fact, it started out bad before I was even in my car. I didn't have a hotel room until ten minutes before I left home. Granted, I shouldn't complain, because I neither made the reservation nor paid for the room, but I really was stressed and nervous anyway.

"Behave yourselves while I'm gone!"
I drove to Chicago for an audition. There was a full-page ad in a local newspaper about auditions for the Royal Carribean Cruiselines for professional singers, dancers, and male acrobats (yes, male acrobats). This was primarily for their newest ship, The Explorer, which was supposedly the most technically advanced to date. But they were also casting for their other ten or twelve ships, all of which put on full-blown musical and theatre productions.  I had been fired from a job almost a month earlier, so I thought, Hey, I'm unemployed and have nowhere to be! Let's go to Chicago!!"  I packed a bag, kissed the cats goodbye, and was on my way.

I was half an hour into the trip when I realized that I had left the clothes I wanted to wear to my audition hanging in my closet. I hadn't packed them in my bag because I didn't want them to wrinkle. Shit. So I drove another half hour back to my apartment, wasting one full hour of drive time, to grab those clothes, and by the time I left again I hit rush hour traffic leaving town.  I think I should have realized then that the Universe was telling me not to go.
Oh well. I'm stubborn.

So I drove.
And drove and drove and drove and drove. Speeding the whole way, in typical Leonard fashion.
I'd never driven to Chicago before, so I had clutched in one hand the directions I got from  (This is 2000, people.  GPS systems are nigh unheard of.) 255 miles of pure interstate.

I took a couple of wrong turns once into Chicago, because I didn't write down whether to go north or south or east or west on a couple of exits, et cetera. However, I did write down the mileage of each length of road, so if I went over that and wasn't at my next turn, I turned around.  Apparently the trip odometer in the car does serve a purpose!

Finally, I made it to my hotel, and in pretty good time, all things considered. I checked in, got my key, went out to my car to haul all my crap (one duffel bag, one purse, two hangers of clothes, a jacket, and sheet music) upstairs to my room. I got there, and the key wouldn't open the door. I tried several times, and no go. So I picked up one duffel bag, one purse, two hangers of clothes, one jacket, and two books of sheet music again, went downstairs to the lobby.

Only, I couldn't find the lobby.

The hotel I was staying in was set up in a circle with a courtyard and terrace in the middle. I wandered around that whole damn thing (carrying one duffel bag, one purse, two hangers of clothes, one jacket, and two books of sheet music) until I found the lobby again. (Apparently all I had needed to do was go the other direction, and the lobby was all of fifteen feet from my room.)

I got to the front desk and told the kid at the counter, who looked like he was all of 12, rather indignantly that my key didn't work. He said, "Did you leave it in the door, and then turn the handle?"
"Umm, no."
"Why don't you try that?"
And then he looked at me funny as I had come from the opposite direction of my room, and I kind of mumbled, "I got lost on the way here."

Once more I headed to my room with one duffel bag, one purse, two hangers of clothes, one jacket, dance shoes, and two books of sheet music in tow. The key still didn't work.  I even "left it in the door and then turned the handle" like he had said, but nothing.  After two or three more attempts and much swearing, I dropped my shit in front of the door, and went back to the lobby (the right way, this time).
Again I said, "The key won't work."
"Did you --"
"YES, I put it in the lock and then turned the handle.  Multiple times.  It still didn't work."
So the kid grabs the other keys and follows me back upstairs.

And the door opened smoothly and silently for him on the first try. He must have thought I was moron, the little punk. Oh hell, even I thought I was a moron.

I got inside and discovered that I didn't have a room; I had a suite. I didn't have a bathtub; I had a whirlpool.  I think those two factors were the only saving grace of this entire trip.
So I unpacked my duffel bag, purse, hangers of clothes, jacket, dance shoes, and  sheet music and swam in the tub before going to bed.

I managed to get to sleep in the giant bed, even though I was very nervous for the audition the next morning.  My first professional audition.  What the hell was I doing??  But I slept.  And while I slept, my body decided to tell me exactly what it thought of this spontaneous road trip.

I woke up at 7:30 that morning to the left half of my face completely swollen.  While I was sleeping one upper wisdom tooth (one of two that I still had at the time) decided this would be the perfect time "erupt," to cut through my gums, not to mention the flesh of my cheek.  I could barely creak open my jaw to brush my teeth. How on earth would I be able to open my mouth to sing?!  Well fuck.

But I didn't drive all this way for nothin'.  I got dressed (in the clothes that I had to make a return trip for), tossed my music and dance shoes into my bag, ran downstairs to steal a pancake from the free buffet breakfast, and left.

I drove in rush hour Chicago traffic, another sheet of paper clutched desperately in one hand with directions to the Lou Conte Dance Studio. On the way to the studio, there was a tollway that I was not aware was on my route:  40 cents for a car.

I had no change.  MapQuest had said nothing about tollbooths, phantom or not.

And these aren't small tollbooths with people inside. They're big city tollways, automated where you just throw in your "exact change." Panicking and starting to hyperventilate, I pulled up to the gate thingie, and there was a man at the gate thingie next to me, apparently working there, I guess?  I waved him over and said, "Excuse me? I don't have any change."
He kind of blinked at me. "You don't have any change?"  And for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, a person stared at me like a moron.
"No, I'm sorry. I'm....I'm....from out of town," I stuttered.  "I have a dollar. I don't need any change back, but I didn't know..."

He smiled and unlocked the gate and let me pass through anyway, not even taking my wrinkled dollar bill. I breathed a sigh of relief.  I was also grateful I put on make-up that morning for the audition and was looking sufficiently "cute."  Sexist or not, sometimes it pays to be a girl.

I found the studio, and a parking lot nearby. Turns out I couldn't park in that lot -- thanks a lot, Fannie May chocolates! -- so I went back to my car and found a spot on the street.  I still had no change for the meter, so I hoped I wouldn't get a ticket and went inside.

Before our individual auditions, the people in charge talked a lot about the "types" they were looking for and even showed us some clips from other cruise ship productions.  And right then and there, I changed my audition songs.  They weren't looking for pretty sopranos who sang pretty songs.  The clips of the production numbers were from things like Chicago and Cabaret.  They wanted sex and grit.  So instead of singing something from The Music Man, I made the executive decision to open with "Dance Ten, Looks Three" from A Chorus Line.

Choosing songs is always a gamble.  If they like what they hear, they ask you to sing again.  So do you open with your best number and then hope?  Or do you hope they ask you to sing again, and then end with your best number so that's the last thing in their heads?  I opted for the first.  My new song wasn't marked, though, and I did not have a writing utensil on me.  So I did the next best thing.  I marked my chosen sixteen measures with what I did have:  brown eyebrow pencil.  Brown eyebrow pencil, by the way, does not erase, so it's still on those pages now, fourteen years later.

My last minute changes worked to my benefit; they asked me to sing a second song.  So I sang my "pretty," non-sexy song.  Overall, I thought it went well.  Oh yeah, except for the fact that they said, "Thank you, Leonard, for coming today."  That's audition-speak for "You're not what we want and we don't care how far you came for us to turn you down."  They did not ask me to stay for the dance audition.  So all that for ten minutes of nothin'.  Oh well.

    But you see if it wasn't for bad luck,
    Trying to tell you son if it wasn't for bad luck, now now
    Oh, oh, I wouldn't have no luck at all
    --Ray Charles, "If It Wasn't for Bad Luck"
I headed back to the hotel, my ego bruised.   I had to stop halfway there at a gas station so I could get change for the tollway.  I didn't think what little luck I had would keep going. I also had to slam on my brakes once, thanks to a car in front of me, and thereby spilling the Pepsi I had purchased at that gas station (in order to get change for the tollway) all over my car. I got back to the hotel, and dug around my bag for my room key. Couldn't find it. I could have sworn I put it in my bag that morning, but it must have been in my room. So I went to the front desk, and the same twelve-year-old guy from the night before was there, and he said, "Checking out?"
And I said, "No, I'm staying another night."
And he said, "No, you're not. The reservation was only for one night."
And I said, "No, the reservation was to be for TWO nights."

He checked his paperwork and said, "No, only one night."
So I swore a bit and I glared at him, and he gave me the extra key (I never did find the first key, by the way), and I went upstairs -- hot, sweaty, hungry, disappointed, and thoroughly pissed off.

I called my friend who had kindly arranged this hotel room. He then called the online company through which he made the reservation. They insisted that it was only made for one night, and that was that.

Now I could have feasibly left then and there. It was only about 12:30 in the afternoon; I could have driven home. But I was tired, upset, hot, sweaty, hungry, and dammit I wanted to swim in that tub again! So I gave in, and told the front desk to charge the second night to my credit card.  Hotel suites with whirlpools for tubs are NOT cheap, my friends.  Just FYI.

I soaked in the tub to ease my muscles and my half-swollen face and my fragile ego.  I napped.  I got up in time for the hotel's free "happy hour" thingie. I dressed up, put on some make-up (again), and decided I was going to have a good time tonight.  I would pretend it was a vacation or something. There was an Italian restaurant across the street that looked good, plus they advertised a piano bar. So I thought I'd go there for dinner, have some drinks, and soothe my ego by singing a few songs with the pianist.  Fourteen years ago, I had no qualms about randomly singing in public.

I grabbed my purse, headed for the door, went to grab my car keys -- and they weren't there. No car keys.  I dug around in my purse to make sure they weren't lying on the bottom beneath everything else.  I looked in my duffel bag, around bras and underwear and various shoes. I gave the room a once-over.  No keys.  Finally I went downstairs, looked in my car (locked, as always), and there they were, lying on the front seat. Shit.

That's right about when I said, "Oh yeah, this trip just keeps gettin' better and better."  Now I was going to have to pay to have my car unlocked, in addition to paying for the second  night at the hotel.

The Italian Restaurant was across the street from the hotel, so I decided I would walk.  I would call AAA in the morning because I really didn't want to deal with it right hten.

I had a nice dinner, albeit alone. The waiters, all with thick accents, doted on me and shamelessly tried to flirt while I enjoyed my salad and lasagna and bread and wine. And there was a table across from me with what appeared to be a gentleman, his wife, and son. And this guy (probably 38 or 40, dressed in a nice suit) kept looking at me! Like unabashedly staring at me.
And I thought, Shame on you! Oggling me while out with your wife and child.  Oh well.

I finished my lasagna  and went to the bar. Only to be "accosted" by more older men in nice suits   Remember how I said sometimes it pays to be a girl?  This was not one of those times.  The pianist was very nice, though, and let me do a few numbers.  And now, fourteen years later, while I can picture that bar and restaurant, I cannot, for the life of me, remember what I had the balls to sing.

Unfortunately, sitting a seat away from me was a drunk Welsh man who would not shut up. Between his accent and the fact that he was three sheets to the wind, I couldn't understand a word he said.
There was another businessman a table over, watching the Knicks games, as he apparently had money riding on it. And finally, a bartender from Lithuania named Kestas who was more than happy to bum me a cigarette.

After an hour or so, the drunk Welsh guy finally left. The three other people in the bar and I were all incredibly grateful. Apparently he's been there before, and I'm not the only person he was annoying.
Plus, this now gave the second businessman a chance to talk to me and say things like, "You're kidding! You've never been to New York?? Surely as pretty as you are you have a nice boyfriend who takes you places."
"No, I'm single."
"Single?? A pretty girl like you? How come?"
"I'm pretty, but slightly psychotic."
That shut him up for a bit.

But only for a bit:  "Wish you lived in Chicago. I come here every week for business. I could take you to New York and show you around.  San Francisco? Yeah, I bought a condo there, but only stay there two weekends out of the month. Do you need a place to stay in San Francisco?"

I managed to close down the bar (at 11 p.m., party animal). And I went back to the hotel, alone, rather tipsy myself, and passed out in that giant bed.  I woke up with a terrible hangover, called AAA, packed, and checked out at the front desk.  The twelve-year-old desk clerk was, thankfully, not there.

AAA, miraculously, was on time.  They got my car opened, and I was on my way.  I was headed home -- home to my kitties, computer, and closet full of shoes. It's not a terribly long drive, about five hours (or four and a half if you drive like me). You'd think my trials and tribulations would be over, right?

An hour or so into my drive there was this black BMW in the lane to my left. I had some truck going slowly in front of me, and this BMW needed to either speed up so I could get behind him, or slow down so I could pass him. I was starting to get pissed off, so I looked over at this car, and the guy's got his window rolled down and he's shouting at me!  And he's honking and everything!

We're doing 75 mph into the wind, so I couldn't hear a word he said. But he starts motioning for me to follow him and pull over.

I'm trying to figure out what's going on.  Do I have a flat tire?  Is my trunk open?  Did something fall out of my car??

So we turn off at the next exit, and I get out of my car, and he gets out of his shiny black BMW.
He says, "I saw you last night. At the restaurant."

Jesus friggin' Christ! I shit you not, it's the same guy from the Italian restaurant who kept staring at me while out with his family.

Me, stunned:  "Yeah, I was there."
"Wow, what are the odds? It must be fate!"
"Yeah, must be..."   sadistic bitch that she is.
"I saw you having dinner alone, and I wanted to talked to you, but I didn't want to be rude, y'know," he says.
Doesn't seem to be stopping you now.
Then he just blurts out, "You're gorgeous!!"
"Umm, thanks?"

He kept talking, wanting to know where I was going, why I couldn't stay in Chicago another night.
Turns out he was divorced and his son was having trouble in school, so he and the boy's mother went out to discuss things, or so he claims.  I lost interest in his story almost the moment he started speaking.  I have other things on my mind, like how to escape.

"What do you mean you can't stay in Chicago??" he asks.  "Why not?"
"Because I'm going home."  I'm look around at this exit where we've pulled over.  There's not another car or soul in sight, not even a building or a gas station.  My mind is trying to calculate how fast I can get back into my car and end this nightmare.

"Well, when do you have to be back?"
"Oh, in three hours."  Big fat lie.
"So you can't have a beer with me?"
"Gosh, you smell great!"  king of the non-sequitor says.
Thanks, I remembered to shower today, ya pervert.

Then he looks at my car, which is a bit beat up because two weeks earlier my mother backed into it.  While it was parked.
But that's another story.
And there are CD's and snacks and soda cans all scattered about -- y'know, all the roadtripping basics, and he says, "You look like you need some money."

Who fucking says that?

"Goin' around in a broken down car..." he trails off.
"Oh my poor car," I laugh nervously.  "It'll be fixed soon," which was not a lie, for once.

But that money comment, while not entirely incorrect, irked me to no end. What does he think I am?  A prostitute??
But before I can contemplate the implied insult any longer, he says this:  "So ya wanna kiss a little bit?"
What?!?  "No thanks."
"Not even a little kiss?"
"No thank you," I say even firmer.
"Why not?"
"Oh, I never kiss on the first drive-by."  Sorry, I get flippant when I'm nervous!  Alright, fine, I'm flippant all the time.

"You're going to let a handsome, young guy like me just get away?"
Young my ass! my inner monologue snickers.  The rest of my brain is trying to figure out how I can quickly ditch this guy and get back into the safety of my sad, broken down car.
The best I can come up with is "Yeah, but if you have an e-mail address, maybe I'll mail you." E-mail's safe, right?  No commitment there.
"Yeah, e-mail me. I go to [your city] all the time for business. I can take you out to dinner."
"Yeah, sure."  Lies, lies, lies, all lies!

He scribbles something on a piece of paper.  I take it and practically jump back into my car.  I'm sure my tires were squealing as I drove like a bat out of hell to get back onto the highway and away from Mr. Creepy Pants.

From then on, the drive was pretty uneventful. But the whole trip was just bizarre and strange and bad and weird. So much so, that I haven't been to Chicago since.

Only now do I realize how much potential that last situation had to go terribly terribly wrong. I could have been molested, raped, maimed, killed, kidnapped, any number of horrible things. I'm so lucky that none of that happened. Only now am I far enough away that I can laugh about the whole thing.  Well, sometimes I laugh.  And sometimes I just drink and think about how young and stupid I was.

After this road trip, I also decided that I don't care if my car's on fucking fire!  I'm not stopping or pulling over for anyone who isn't a cop in a marked car.

Also, I kept his e-mail address.  It was an AOL account.  Even in 2000 that was laughable.  I do believe I used it to sign him up for lots and lots and lots of free porn.

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