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TODAY

Sunday, September 22

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Airbags

Last weekend, I left Los Angeles and returned to Chicago. I had several tasks to accomplish, friends to see, drinks waiting unpurchased in other peoples' wallets. The largest effort would be devoted to taking my cats from a good friend's house and putting them on a Westbound airplane. The way I saw it, the removal of my cats to my new home in Los Angeles would be a sign that my time in Chicago had begun to fade away. Similar in how one can feel that their birthday is already over when the first gift-bearing guest arrives at the party.

At the LAX airport shuttle, several of us waited outside the parking lot attendant's hut. I looked in at a dark-skinned man who talked into a phone as the shuttered room flashed from dim to light with images from a television set. I have seen this all over LA -- car lots secured by people parked in front of televisions. I imagine that I'd want the same distraction if I were doing nothing more than sitting under the burning sun, guarding the faded cars.

The shuttle van pulled up. One man waiting in our group, short-cropped and thinning hair riding on top of a plump neck and build, recognized the driver. They shook hands as old friends, maybe coworkers, maybe just professional acquaintances, before the bags were flung inside and the van shot off toward the terminals. The guy with the crew cut talked at the driver as he sped through the twists of overpasses.

"So, how things been? I haven't been flying lately so I haven't seen you guys at all."

"Oh, very good. Mostly the same every day." The driver looked straight ahead, hunching in order to see the lanes he was hand-over-hand steering through. "Some days lots of business, some days not."

"That's how it goes!" said Crew Cut. In the back, I bumped legs with the other passengers; a younger guy with sunglasses held by a cord around his neck and a thick businessman in chinos and a green polo. "You ever work with Jamir anymore? What's he doing these days?"

"Jamir is fine, he is doing very well." Crew Cut nodded at the news. He tapped his hitched-up knees with his palms in a blank rhythm. The guy with the sunglasses cord chatted into his cell phone with an open smile and then called someone a bitch. "That's good to know -- I just don't get out here much these days, keeping me cooped up in the office," said Crew Cut. He went back to tapping his knees.

"Oh, nothing wrong with that. Much better to stay home sometimes." Terminals floated toward the van. Crew Cut left at the first stop. He shook the driver's hand vigorously. The driver smiled and got in, glancing at us three in the rearview mirror. The businessman shifted in his seat. The younger guy clucked once into his phone. "She's so fucking stupid, I know, she's all like that," he laughed, fingertip-tracing a circle on the window next to him.

~*~

The sound of the El, the chill of the night along Clark Avenue. The grease on the fish and chips at the Duke of Perth merged safely with a steady row of pints. Everything was unspectacular and comforting in its normalcy. Friends arrived to join us for drinks. This turned into a few more drinks. Not long after, the room began to spin clockwise. We all bundled up and headed out into the late evening. I collapsed into a couch at a friend's apartment and was sound asleep by the time the city began to yawn and stretch.

I raced around the next day, stopping only to take a number at the unemployment office. When I explained my dilemma of unreceived checks to the man at the counter, short, leather-skinned with a raspy voice, the response was more than candid.

"But the computer system told me to call this office in order to change my address in the system. Then it told me I wouldn't get any more checks until the office changed my address. That's the reason I haven't gotten any checks," I explained in confusing detail.

"Aww, right," he said. "Yeah, you have to change your address with us or the checks back up in the system." A few keystrokes confirmed what I had known for an entire anxious month.

"So I'd call in to ask you guys change my address and always get the voicemail system. I must have called twenty or thirty times." He looked at me over his glasses.

"Naw, never call in." He pointed a thumb over his shoulder at a group of people strewn around the separate office area. Some were typing at computers, others were slowly padding between desks with small stacks of photocopies. It was like a display in a museum, missing a small "Bureaucracy" plaque in the corner. "We never answer the phones here," he said. I felt confused, rejected somehow.

"But I left a lot of messages." He laughed in a single dry bark. "Doesn't matter. Here, you got a pen? Lemme give you the special number, write this down. This line is direct to the woman that's executive director, she normally answers her phone if she's in." A few minutes later, I left with the repeated assurance that some check of some sort would meet me in California. "Takes a few days, but it'll get there, kid. Next in line, please, sir."

The cool grey sky distributed rain evenly throughout the day, as I entered banks, left the storage facility with some of my stowed belongings. I tried to appreciate the lousy weather while I had it.

~*~

The few short days slipped past. More drinks were found in bars, cabs felt like old dorm rooms to me. Everything seemed back in its right place, mostly. I got a call from my ex-girlfriend, but it slipped into voicemail while I argued with a man in a bank about an overdraft. I saw the cats at my friend Christeen's house. They barely recognized me. Shady made fast for the area beneath the couch. Peep blinked indifferently, even when I picked him up. I'd heard of cats having short memories but this felt like total amnesia. Christeen praised the cats for their friendliness. She told me a story about a friend who had fallen in love with Shady and had actually suggested, "Maybe if the owner doesn't come back to pick him up, you'll get to keep him!" I suddenly felt like pulling my kids out of daycare. I laughed modestly. "No, they're coming back to LA. With me," I said, chuckling less cordially. "Ain't that right, guys?" The cat that wasn't hiding ignored me.

~*~

After more drinking and misplaced sleep, I left, bundled up with all my things and cats for Midway on Sunday night. Two of my closest friends drove me out to Midway and, after a lot of hugging and 'good to see you, man', I headed into the terminal. I entered with one rolling suitcase, two cats in two awkward carriers, one backpack, one shoulder bag and one travel bag full of toiletries. I felt like a fur trader, adorned with pelts. I rolled through the flexible barriers and finally arrived at the check-in gate.

"You can't take two cats in the cabin." I blinked as this was being repeated for the fourth time. "But I booked the tickets over the phone -- why would I book the tickets if it weren't possible to fly with two cats up front with me?" I protested in a hoarse voice that I coughed away. The person working behind the counter surrendered a manager, who repeated the same again, with more finality. I only could repeat again and again that the airline had booked the tickets and that someone on the phone somewhere had assured me that this would be all right. I looked at Peep's carrier apologetically.

"Can I check one of the cats?"

"Let me see your papers, sir." I handed over my vet certification. "These papers do not specify that your cat can fly in 20 degree temperatures. You're going to have to go get this authorized and then you can fly with them. I'm sorry." Long pause, people waiting behind impatiently, cats mewling sadly. "I can -- if you like -- I can rebook your ticket at no additional cost."

"Sure. Um. I guess. There's nothing else you can do," I half-asked. A few minutes later, I had a hand-written ticket in my pocket as I stepped aside, dragging my pets and possessions. I pulled out my cell phone and called to get my friend's perspective and a ride home. That's what I should have done. Instead, I searched my pockets in vain, coming to the slow realization that I'd left my cell phone somewhere back at my friend's house.

I was broke, hungover, trapped in an airport far from home with two sad animals. And I was being rejected by the city I thought I had left. I remembered an Eastern proverb that, in the past, seemed to raise the spirits a little. Every adventure begins with a single mistake. I mumbled it a few times as I slid the cat carriers with my feet and shuffled my bags toward the bank of pay phones at the far end of the room.

~*~

As I passed back through downtown Chicago, the Muslim cab driver announced that he hoped my screaming cats weren't going to piss all over everything. I shook my head. I was ready to cry. Not as hard as I would later in my own car, in the dark parking lot back at LAX, with the unfettered cats roaming around the car like shellshocked raccoons. I would grip the steering wheel, I would cry so hard on the phone with Karen that my eyes would be bloodshot for hours. My nose would run and my shoulders would shake as the searing whines, like torn paper, rained down from above. The sound of airplanes peeling the maps away, exposing everyone underneath. I was still so far from all this as the taxi bumped woodenly along Lake Shore Drive with a low familiar hum, the silent lights of Clark Street gradually swinging into view.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

Ask The Librarian will return next week.

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