Sometimes, morning arrives when you least expect it. Looking out the wallet-sized window of the small motel cabin, there was some light in the sky which meant I had slept eight or nine hours. Stomach was empty and complaining, bladder was full and complaining, and as I switched the light on my eyes were constricting and complaining. “Hey, body parts, quit your bitching, I’ll take care of things one at a time. Why all these complaints? Yesterday was a great day and today will be another. OK, bladder first.”
After reconstructing myself, I decided to walk across the highway for coffee and pancakes. Still not really daylight, but soon. The café was open and I sat down. Black coffee please and an order of dollar size. Older woman said they didn’t do dollar sized, they did three dollar sized. Both of us smiling, and she said we’ll make some small ones for you. I asked “petty well cooked, please?” No problem. When she had a moment, I asked if she knew much about Chicago. She answered that she and her husband went to Springfield more often. Chicago was too hectic for them. Finished my little breakfast, worked on a second cup of coffee. Lit up a smoke. Chicago was about one hundred miles away (three hours max). Maybe the first thing I would do, when I neared the city, would be to stop in a public library or in a bookstore. Those people have so much information. Two or three library hours as a starter for my exploration might be a good move. Paid the bill, said thanks and goodbyes and walked back across Route 66.
Consulted the atlas for a fix on where I was aimed. Before Chicago was Joliet, a good-sized town of 65,000 and a familiar name. They would have a public library for sure. Time to get in the shower and get squeaky clean and wash my hair and beard with shampoo from my Princess. Since there was only me, holding onto the diagonal ends of the hand towel, I was able to wash my back. I missed having company in the shower. Everyone should have a friend in the shower. Drying myself, I noticed my hair and beard were somewhat exuberant (how’s that for a euphemism). I wanted to present myself at least as a well-trimmed person to distance myself somewhat from the shaggier elements of society, too often terribly misjudged and mistreated by police and belligerent members of our society. There were many changes brewing in this nation of ours. Some had been violent and others, in the future, would also be violent. For the duration of this journey I wished to be an observer only. Having well-trimmed hair might just be the differentiating factor.
No big rush as I cleaned out and reloaded my jacket pockets, repacked the clothing bag, then went out to the scooter to reload the trunk and tie everything together. From the sun, I would guess it to be 8:00 or 8:30 AM, which would get me to Chicago’s center before noon. Just a rough estimate. Not important. Might as well get going. The faithful scooter named Tony Lambretta gave me the blue smoke incense blessing and we eased back onto Route 66, heading northeast again. Ten miles of farmland later, we were passing through a town called Odell, elevation: 700 feet above sea level. An additional ten miles took us through Dwight, at 650 feet, at least that’s what highway signs said. Why had I assumed we were a thousand feet higher? Assumptions being wrong much of the time, I missed another guess by assuming the land would be hilly, not be quite so level or flat. Some ten or fifteen miles north of Dwight, we passed through what looked like a coal mining area. Just north of that the Kankakee River was crossed by a bridge. At this point the river flowed north and west and emptied into the Illinois River somewhere west of here. So this landscape was getting more interesting just as we approached Joliet. Now getting into the urban scene, I needed a restroom break to empty my bladder and some coffee to refill it. Looking for a café, I found instead a barbershop, with a small sign saying ‘open’ in neon and additional lettering saying ‘ladies’ and ‘gents’. Hell yes, let’s do it. My hair had been washed just a few hours before, and I had not yet had a chance to perspire much, if at all.
Parking in front, I locked the scooter to a phone booth which had ventilation holes in its frame. Walking in, I called, “Good morning” to whomever was at the back of the shop. A “Good Morning” came back to me. A blonde woman, maybe mid-to late thirties appeared from behind a partition. “How can I help you?” “Oh, I need a hair trim, a beard trim, a nose trim and an ear trim and maybe an eyebrow trim.” She laughed at that. Walking to the front window, she asked how I had gotten there? She hadn’t heard me. Did someone drive me there? No, no, and then I pointed to the scooter, saying that was how I got there. “Ah, a motorcycle, no, that’s a motor scooter. Is that American?” I said no it was Italian, made in Milan. “Oh,” she said, “… in that movie Italian Holiday, like that?” Nodding yes, I said, “Yes, Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, yes, just like that” (and both the movie Princess and my Princess Stella flashed in my mind). She took a little folded apron, shook it out, gestured to the barber’s chair, and said “Please sit down.” I asked if I could use a restroom first since I’d been on the road for a few hours. Sure. After that, I sat in the chair as she tied the apron around my neck.
She started with “You’re not uncomfortable with a woman barber, are you?” Me: “Listen, both my parents are beauticians, back in Connecticut, and a good part of their business is haircutting. So there’s no problem at all.” I stuck my right hand up in the air and told her my name and asked hers. Her name was Edith. And we shook hands. Without thinking, I mentioned the wonderful librarian in Memphis was named Edith. Memphis? You came all the way from Memphis on that scooter? I said no, it was crazier than that … I had come all the way from Southern Arizona on that. Of course, saying that got us into a lively discussion of my trip. So she was snipping and combing as we talked. Mustache and ear fur was taken care of, and I asked her not to shave the back of my neck, which became uncomfortable with the helmet. I was facing an aquarium, maybe forty-gallons, which had black mollies and black angel fish. There was a white ceramic structure in the water, surrounded by medium blue stones … very simple, eye pleasing. Asking if she had assembled that aquarium, I said it was elegant, and beautifully designed. She said thank you and not everybody around there appreciated its simplicity. People seemed to want to put more stuff in there. She asked if I had ever had an aquarium. No, not really, I had a big goldfish for a while, but I had to get rid of it because it ate too much. And, as that goldfish grew, I had to keep buying new and bigger bowls, and then I had to buy a bigger leash if I was going to take it out for its daily walk. Not only that, but the neighbors started complaining about the noise. She was trying to do my nose hairs and she had started laughing, really laughing at my stupid little routine. I put my hand a few inches in front of my face and said maybe we should wait for the nose hairs. That’s when she really cracked up. I maintained a concerned look on my face. She excused herself. A minute later, I heard the toilet flush. She was still laughing as she returned and wiping her eyes. She asked me to please be quiet while she finished the last minute of my hairdo. And she finished off the nose hairs and we were done. She said my hair was in good shape, was clean, and smelled so good. I asked how much I owed her. She ignored me and asked if I wanted some coffee. That would be perfect … just black, please.
We sat behind the partition and sipped our coffee. She asked where I was headed, I told her that I wanted to see Chicago and knew very little about it and if it required one day or three days it would be fine. She asked about my parents’ beauty shop. I asked about her shop. I was curious. This was a Saturday morning and there weren’t many customers. She said since her husband had been killed last year, this shop would be closed soon, at the end of the summer. She had been discouraging customers for a year, but the lease that both she and her husband had signed required that it stay open for business. And they were making her stick to the terms of the lease. Every Saturday, around noontime, three old men, sometimes a fourth, came in together to get their haircuts and as soon as she finished with them, she closed the shop for the weekend until Tuesday noon. They used to have a booming business, five chairs busy all the time, but she really wasn’t interested in it and was just ‘serving out her time’ until the end of August. She was trying to arrange for a hairstyling salon in a high dollar neighborhood. Abruptly, she asked what I was doing that evening. I told her I thought I’d go see something in Chicago … I didn’t know what … and then look for a place to camp out and also find a coin operated laundry. I was out of clean clothing. Time to do maintenance.
“Will you be my date tonight?” The question surprised me. She said, “I want to go to a small party tonight and it would be so good to have an escort for a couple of reasons. Many of the people there would be involved in some manner with the beauty shop or barber shop business. There were two guys she wanted to talk with, maybe for just ten minutes, regarding the possible new salon. There were two other guys who just would not leave her alone at previous meetings. She needed someone to act as a bodyguard or as a diversion or as a dissuasion. I told her I’d be honored, but my clothing was really unsuitable for such a gathering and since this was all I had, it wouldn’t reflect well on her. She smiled and said “but you have a great haircut. And I can fix you up with some good clothing. You’re the same size as my brother, I bet. Will you do it? And don’t worry about Chicago. We’ll work that out. More coffee?” I pushed my cup toward her and said, “Please.” It seemed that I would be partying tonight. We sipped our coffee a while longer. She said she still had to do the old guys’ haircuts. They would be here soon. For them, this was an important social event each week. I could wait there or elsewhere. It would take about two hours. I asked if there was a public library or a bookstore nearby. She took my hand, led me to the front window, pointed north, and said go that way for just one block, take a left and go three or possibly four blocks and on my left, there would be a library branch.
Back to the coffee for a final sip. I gathered my helmet, said “Two hours. Ciao.” As I was unlocking the scooter, the older guys pulled up in two cars.
In the library, there was an immediate problem. There were slightly more than one million things I wanted to read about. At best, I could only recall five, but more immediately, it would be best to learn more about Chicago and then try to cover other topics. Instead of my usual trance-like stroll through the shelves and displays, I asked the librarian at the main desk where I could learn the most about Chicago in an hour and a half. Librarians are the greatest. She suggested I divide my time between the special display they had at the other side of the main room and the newspaper section for today’s activities. That seemed a good approach. The newspaper thing first, the special display next, and then I formed a rough, tentative list of things to pursue in the big city. Time up. Back to the barbershop and the handsome blonde woman named Edith. Parked the scooter, but didn’t lock it up. She was finishing the last of the three gents as I walked in. The three looked at me without saying anything, but with big question marks on their faces when Edith said, “This is Rosano, my cousin from Arizona.” They all said hello, and I said, “Hello, gentlemen.” And they started out the door. When the door closed, I asked what those guys are going to do when you close your doors. It seemed a little sad. Edith said, “I hope they find a good place.” Shutting off the lights and the neon sign, she said “Ready?” I said I didn’t know … what are we doing?” She said “You’re going to follow me to my house, about six miles from here.” I responded, “That’s OK with me, but I can’t go over 40, so take it easy, OK?” She said “Is that all … 40? … OK, easy it is.” And it was.
Putt-putting into the driveway of what I assumed to be her house, a double-wide garage door (one of two) opened slowly. This was an upper middle income area, very upper. I stayed out on the concrete apron, but when she got out of her car, she indicated I should pull into the garage, which to me looked about the size of an average football stadium. I shut the scooter down, put it on its kickstand, and was taking off my helmet when she came over to me, rubbed my hair where the helmet had rested on it and said, “You can camp here tonight if you’d like. And I do have a washer and dryer, except there are no coin slots. Is that OK?” And I said, “Shucks! And here am I, at the Taj Mahal with a pocketful of change.” She laughed at me and said, “First, get all the clothing you need to wash and we’ll get that started. Then we’ll have some lunch. I’ve got too much food. You can stay in my brother’s room, he’s in Paraguay or Uruguay, I forget which, doing some work with the local people down there on the tundra.” I said, “Pampa, the prairies down there are called the Pampas.” Getting my clothing bag, I followed her into the house, she led me down the hall and indicated a room. She went into the closet, pulled out a pair of pants, a belt, and a shirt, saying try these on and get your laundry together, and would I like a beer with lunch. I said that sounded so good, but only if I didn’t have to drive anywhere soon. And could I ask one favor? Sure. I know this makes me sound like some sort of ungrateful wimp, but can I not have any onions in the lunch. Sorry, but I just can’t stand them. Anything else is OK. The man says no onions … no problem.
So I changed into the clothes, which fit pretty well, and emptied the pockets of my jacket, my camping pants, my regular pants, my shirts, my tee shirts. Every piece of clothing I had went into the pile on top of my clothing bag. It wasn’t a very big pile, but it was everything. Carried the whole business to the hallway and put it on the floor. Then I sought out the kitchen and found Edith putting lunch on a little table. She said we’d get the laundry going and then sit down and eat. And we did. She poured our beers into glasses and made a toast to a good party this evening. And I toasted a beautiful evening to a beautiful lady. As she smiled she did actually become beautiful.
As we began to eat, she said, “Rosano, that’s what I should call you, right?” I nodded yes. “Rosano, you’re really a nice guy and I know that already because of four different things. Want to hear why I know?” I said sure, I couldn’t wait, and … could I record this? She said, “One, you made me laugh harder than I have since before my husband died, almost fourteen months ago, and you did it while you were making fun of yourself. Two, when I asked if you would be my date tonight, you didn’t think of your own plans, you were concerned with how it would look for me, with your camping clothes and that sort of thing. Three, you asked about the old men and what would happen to them. And four, when you were going to leave the shop for those two hours, you asked directions to where? To the library or to a bookstore. Not to a bar or pub, but to a library, of all places. That’s a good guy there. I know. You’re made of good stuff. How old are you, Rosano? I’m guessing 25 or 26 years.” I laughed, “You’re too high … I’m almost twenty-one.” Looking a little surprised, she asked “How almost?” “Tomorrow, and that’s as almost as you can get, isn’t it?”
We continued lunching and talking and finally I asked how her husband had been killed, but if she would rather not talk about it that was fine. No, she would tell me briefly. Her husband enjoyed drag races and stock car races. Down in Kentucky, at a stock car race, a small crash occurred. A wheel with some front end parts flew into the crowd and her husband was killed instantly and several other people were injured. That was it. Both she and her husband had gone through barber and beautician training and had been in business for about five years. They had planned to start having children, two or three they hoped. First thing they did to prepare was to get life insurance policies on both of them to protect the kids. His policy plus the race track insurance settlement had set her up very well financially. And there were no kids. So that was it simply. I offered her my condolences and said it had to be truly traumatic. Her response was “I was not as devastated as I thought I should be. It was just something that happened.” She said my wash had finished and she would get everything into the dryer. I carried dishes over to the sink, had the table cleared and wiped off before she was done loading the dryer. I was putting our few dishes into the dish washer. She said while the dryer was working we could go out on the veranda to just sit around and talk. The day was beautiful and the veranda was screened in. Did I want another beer? No thanks, one beer is pretty much my limit. Maybe later.
We talked on various topics … her possible new hair salon (this would not be a little shop), her big five bedroom house, my scooter trip, my library visit (she was curious about that), and what might I want to see of Chicago. The Museum of Science and Industry was at the top of the list. Next might be the Art Institute or at least see a modern art gallery or two. I heard Old Town, near St. Michael’s church was a pretty good area to capture the ‘feel’ of Chicago. I‘d like to visit Little Italy, wherever that was, just to buy some great cookies. Then, maybe just do some ‘noodling’. Edith said, “Describe ‘noodling’ for me. And I did. I asked if there was anything really special about Lake Shore Drive because several people, in different conversations with me, had referred to it.
“You gave up most of your day for me and the party tonight. So tomorrow, if you’re willing, we’ll do some of your Chicago things, but not on the scooter, in the Buick. Is that OK with you?” I said, “Sounds absolutely great! I could use a little vacation from being so absolutely self-reliant. Edith, you know you don’t have to do that. Just having a nice place to sleep for a night, oh, and laundry, too, is reward enough for me. You have the mind of a businessperson and that’s excellent. I enjoy smart people and hope the party tonight works out well for you. And don’t worry about your two annoyers. They won’t trouble you. But of course, you have to somehow point them out to me.” She laughed gently and said, “We’ll work that out.” She said, “We still have a couple of hours before we have to get dressed for the party. Is there anything you’d like to do?” I said that just talking with her was nice because I certainly talked to myself enough as I was driving. It would always be good to get a different view of things. If there was something she needed to do, I’d just sit quietly and read one of my books and behave myself. Laughing, she said, “You’re really funny sometimes, Rosano.” I said, “And that brings up the old question … funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?” Big grin on her face, “I don’t know you well enough, but I suspect you could qualify on both counts. I’ve got a couple of little chores to do and I’ll be back in ten minutes or so.”
When she returned, she started with “Rosano, I’m sure we can’t do everything on your list tomorrow and …” I started to interrupt her, but she put her index finger across her lips and continued … “and I’d like to do that whole list with you if you think you can put up with me. It’ll take two days and either way, I’m not sure if there really is a Little Italy anymore in Chicago. Taylor Street is as close as we get, I think. We’ll check it out. Not like New York or San Francisco, though.” I said I’d be delighted to have two days with her as tour guide, it would be a genuine honor and that I enjoyed her company. And if there was no longer a Little Italy, I’ll bet we could find a good Italian bakery. To find one of those is a worthy pursuit.
She said, “Let’s go get your outfit for tonight lined up.” In her brother’s room, she went into his closet , pulled out one item after another, including shoes and socks. Then she said “You’re naked under there, right?” I said yes. Back into the closet, she came out with some jockey shorts and a tee shirt. “Here, put these on and then we’ll try everything else.” In just a few minutes, my outfit was complete. Shoes were a little big, but not too bad. She said “Just wear two pairs of socks. Now Rosano, I have a question for you and don’t be insulted … do you mind if I wear high heels? I’m already a bit taller than you, and if you would feel uncomfortable being with a taller woman, I don’t have to wear them.” I said, “Taller is better for you, especially if you want to talk some business. I don’t have a problem being a shrimp. Not only that, but your hair is beautiful, can you pile it on top of your head somehow? That would be better yet, a regal look, and sure to get some strong admiration from the crowd.” She looked at me, gave me a quick, strong hug and said, “You’re unbelievable! OK, if you want to shower, go ahead while I fix a small supper for us. After that, we’ll get ready and then we’ll go. What would you like to drink with supper?” Coffee, if possible. Black, please.
Showered, got partially dressed, then sat with Edith for a finger food supper. Supper done, I again cleaned up table and dishes while she went off and composed herself for the evening’s appearance. I finished dressing in her brother’s clothes. Everything fit well, except for around my neck, mine being considerably larger than her brother’s, but I was OK, and slipping on a light jacket, was surprised at my appearance in the mirror. With the neatly trimmed beard, there was a touch of controlled menace to my look, and that would serve me well for the evening’s task. Returned to the kitchen to finish my coffee, now gone cold, but no problem. Not very long after, Edith presented herself to me. She did look tall. “Wow!” I said, as I got up from the table, “You look stunning. Do a little pirouette if you would, please.” And she did. “Very, very, nice,” I said. “I will be proud to be your gentleman for the evening. You look radiant … splendid.” And she did. “Would you like me to carry anything for you in my jacket?” Just the car keys. I suggested we sit in the living room for a minute or two, get our signals arranged, and discuss her plan of action for the evening. She asked if I would be drinking. I said I would have one wimpy bourbon and ginger, then keep refilling with ginger ale. I just wasn’t into drinking, especially if driving was involved. She said she didn’t want to stay there too long. That was great. We can go anytime. Out to the car. Would she like me to drive? No, she was OK driving.
The party was a happy gathering of people at a hotel. Edith and I were together for starters. After she pointed out the two culprits, we split up for a time. After an hour or so, we moved together again, with me following her lead, circulated a bit and finally said a few Goodbyes. I shook a few hands, and we were on our way back to her house. We had been at the party less than two hours. In the car, with no one listening, she said, “Rosano, you were quietly magnificent tonight. It was so good having you there with me, and being able to talk to my two good guys undisturbed, which worked out considerably better than expected, and the two nitwits didn’t even come close to me the entire evening after introductions. How the hell did you arrange that?” I just laughed, and said, “I just did my job. Don’t worry about it. They won’t bother you anymore.”
Arriving at the house, and into the garage, she was almost giddy, and making us walk arm in arm for those few steps from the car to the house, she kept saying, “C’mon, Rosano, tell me, tell me what happened, what did you do?” I just avoided her questions and thought it funny that she was so persistent. Finally she said. “Rosano, it’s almost your birthday, your twenty-first birthday. What do you want to do next?”
“My twenty-first birthday. Hmmmm. Please don’t be offended. Here’s what I would like to do. I would like to get in the shower and wash your back. Then, if you’re willing, I would like you to wash mine.”
Unsmiling, she looked at me, then she said, “If you think I would fall for a trick like that, just forget it … how about a nice bathtub instead?”