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Thursday, July 18

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There I was, digging in the sand knowing Charlie wouldn't leave, knowing that Charlie, like me, whether he admitted it or not, must have felt at least a little cheated by life, and knowing that somehow he understood and was loyal to what I was doing.

Whatever that is.

I've been scraping and digging madly for almost� 15 chilly minutes in the gritty wet sand at the water's edge without finding what I've been looking for. But now I have to accept reality: it's dark, it's cold, and it's no fun poking around the lakeshore in the middle of November. And I'm not going to find any seashells.

"This sucks," I spit, brushing the sand from my fingertips. I turn back to the parking lot above.

"Find what you were looking for?" Charlie asks as I kick the wet sand from my shoes next to the open cab door.

"No," I sigh to the cab driver as I slide into the cab. "Let's go to Lakeview, Charlie."

"That home?" Charlie asks.

"That," I say, "is home."

Charlie puts the car into gear and we pull out of the parking lot, stones and gravel popping out from under the tires. Traffic on Chicago Avenue heading through Evanston is light. Headlights illuminate the bone-colored lattice of naked branches above, brick and stone estates nestled comfortably back from the road, and college students bundled up in synthetic fleece pullovers and leather jackets walking home for the night. "So what was it?" Charlie asks.

"What was what?" I counter.

"What you were looking for," Charlie replies. "What was it you were looking for?"

Initially, I have no interest answering this question. I'm feeling dejected and my inclination is to tell him to mind his own business. Then it occurs to me that when I asked him about his life a little while ago, he told me about his former wife and how she left him six years ago and went back to Kosovo with their unborn child. I owe it to him to answer the question, even if my answer is a trivial one. "I was looking for seashells," I say, somewhat humbled.

"Seashells?!" His response is a mixture of bemusement, irritation and incredulity. Like he can't believe that I made him drive all the way up here from the Loop -- in the middle of rush hour, no less -- to find seashells.

I admit, it is hard to believe.

"Seashells," I say. "Little nautilus shells� not the big ones. I mean, you don't get the big ones in Lake Michigan anyway. I was looking for the tiny ones. The shells so tiny you� you can't believe that you can find them so small� They usually wash up on the beach. Well, sometimes they wash up on the beach."

We've driven through downtown Evanston and are nearing Chicago city limits. "Why didn't you just ask me to take you to a store?" Charlie asks.

"Can you think of a store in Chicago that sells a seashell of any size? I can't think of one."

"You tried Boystown? Seems like the gays have got something of everything in Boystown."

Now how does this guy know about the shops in Boystown? Of course, he knows to trawl Halsted on Friday and Saturday nights. What cabbie worth his salt doesn't? But I never would've expected this guy to get out of his car and poke in and out of the shops in my neighborhood. Wonders never cease, I tell you. "You might be right," I concede. "But I doubt it. It doesn't matter anyway." I sigh heavily and press my face against the glass. "It wouldn't be the same, though," I say somewhat quietly, "Buying the shells. I'd have to find them on the beach."


Fig1. The lakeshore in November.

"Why is that? Missing summer already?"

"It's not that," I say. "I just� I wanted to find a decent shell. Just one. It occurred to me� Well, it's hard to explain. I just�"

We come to a stoplight and my eyes find Charlie's in the rear-view. He's waiting for my story.

"Well, about a year ago, I tried to convince my friends to wake up early on a Saturday, like seven in the morning, for a bike ride along the lake shore. This was a year ago in August -- when there was still plenty of summer left and the Cubs weren't quite done with the season yet. My friends were like, 'Seven? You've got to be kidding. Saturdays and Sundays are the only days I've got to sleep in. Why would I wake up early?'

"I tried to explain. I tried to explain that I'd been getting up every Saturday at seven and riding my bike through the city, to different places -- coffee shops, bookstores, parks, the lakeshore... you know, all over -- for the last two summers, and that there was just something about the city that early. It was aglow, but still asleep. It was pulsing and private and� mine. Those bike rides, in a way, were kind of like getting a chance to just stare at someone you love while they're sleeping next to you. They're beautiful, somehow, while they slumber, and that radiant beauty is this private thing that they're sharing with you and you alone, only they don't even know they're doing it so it's even more special and sacred. I was seeing the city in the same kind of way on these trips. It wasn't getting in the way of itself. It wasn't as noxious or noisome as it can get in the daytime or evening. It was just quiet, beautiful, uncomplicated, and mine.

"My attitude was that my Saturday morning rides gave me this private moment with the city -- some alone-time to really take it all in, and in some of the best conditions. The light at seven, eight in the morning is just so soft, so perfect. It fills everything; the shadows it casts are so gentle. The air is cool so you don't break much of a sweat. The world is yours and you're alert enough to watch it just start to wake up. I don't know. I guess I loved those rides. I thought the whole thing was really beautiful; an intense personal experience that I was having again and again and again -- by myself. I wanted to share that with my friends. I thought they'd like it.

"They didn't want to wake up. So they didn't wake up, and my trip with them never materialized.

"Of course, I was feeling pretty bummed even planning it because, despite my best efforts, I knew the end result. I'd been planning it for two weeks. I wanted to show them my favorite parts. The best of the best, you know. Their levels of interest were weak from the start� I should have known better. I think they were just agreeing to it to get me off their backs. My voicemail was loaded when I got home from work that Friday: 'Sorry -- we're partying tonight. Probably won't be alert enough tomorrow to do the bike thing. Some other time maybe.'

"I woke up and did it anyway, by myself. I was pretty pissed at my friends, and spent a lot of time just pedaling, pedaling and thinking about what lazy jerks they were, about how they had no idea what they were missing out on and that if they would've just given it a try, they'd have seen what I was talking about� Like Green Eggs and Ham."

"Green eggs and ham?" Charlie asks, sounding a bit disgusted. "What are you talking about? Are the eggs green?"

"Yeah. And the ham, too."

"That sounds terrible."

"I suppose it does," I say. I let Charlie wretch over it a few seconds longer, and then I snicker, "It's a kids' book, Charlie. A total classic. It's about these two foxes, and one of them is called Sam I Am. Sam is kind of an Average Joe and he's trying to, uh, persuade the other dapper, more sophisticated fox to try new things -- in this case, a nice hot plate of green eggs and ham. But the other fox -- I can't remember his name� maybe he didn't even have a name� Well, the other fox won't have anything to do with it. Sam I Am offers him green eggs and ham in all sorts of different situations that Sam graciously thinks might make them seem more palatable to the uptight fox."

"Sounds stupid."

"It's a kids' book, man, it's not War and Peace. The point of the book, on top of teaching pre-K kids to read and having some wicked cool pictures to look at, was that it encouraged kids to try new experiences. I'm sure the guy who wrote it hoped that this was a lesson they'd take with them into adulthood."

"Does this other� dapper fox� does he try them?"

"Yeah, actually, he does. Sam's persistence got the best of him -- the dapper fox tries it out of utter exasperation. And, as it turns out, he really dug the stuff."

"I can't believe it."

"It's a book, man. You don't have to believe everything you read. But the point," I say, getting back to my story, "is that the other fox finally gave in and tried something new and he got something vital out of the experience. His perceptions were realigned, you know? His sense of value was changed. My friends weren't trying anything new. Sleep and the status quo were more important to them, despite previous complaints they'd made to the effect that they weren't doing anything stimulating with their lives. That was what was bothering me. Jesus, hadn't they slept enough in their lives? Hadn't they had enough of just going through the motions?

"But whatever.

"So, before I know it, I've pedaled way north, pounding up Clark, past Andersonville and into Rogers Park, and then back down Sheridan. There was nobody out -- the bums were still asleep on park benches and in bus shelters and the suburbanites were still more than a few hours from making the trek into town. The Lincoln Park frat boys and trixies weren't awake yet, still sleeping off the booze. Traffic was light for the most part -- perfect for bike riding. I mean, basically, at that hour, you just had a few folks out doing basic jobs, you know -- the gotta-make-the-donuts types. But all I'm thinking about is how stupid my friends are. I'm not relaxing, not enjoying the ride, not thinking about the scenery or the quiet. And then, I'm heading south down Broadway and getting really sick of the tight quarters between me, the moving cars, and the parked cars.

"I wasn't comfortable in such close quarters and I saw the sign saying that the start of the lakeshore path was just a block away. It was still early by my watch. The lakeshore path pretty much heads in the direction of my apartment. I felt like I should be riding for longer, but� I made the turn anyway with the intention of just getting free of traffic for a little while and maybe getting back home in about 20, maybe 30 minutes. Then, I thought, I could just nap off the disappointment once I got home and had showered. When I got off and wound past a couple of high-rises, I found a place I'd never been to in all of my rides."

"Hollywood Beach?"

"Yes. I found Hollywood Beach."

"You've never been there before?"

"You know Charlie, it is odd but with all of my riding around, even on the lakeshore path, I never reached Hollywood Beach." What I don't say is that I'm kind of ashamed that I didn't even know about it, what with it being a gay landmark and all.

"So I'm looking at this beach that is utterly vacant, not even a life guard is out at this hour, and, more importantly, the water is so calm it's unbelievable. I'd never seen a body of water that calm, that still. It wasn't even glassy it was so smooth. It was something else� it was like vapor -- it was sweating with the hazy blue of the sky in it. The only ripples cast in it were from the gulls waddling on the water's edge, their little stilt legs nicking the surface. I wasn't dressed for swimming, and I had my portable CD player, a couple of CDs, house keys, cash, and stuff in my bag which I'd have to leave unattended if I went swimming. I didn't want these things to get stolen� I didn't have a towel� And it already it was showing signs of being on the milder side, temperature-wise. Much of the city was still in shadow. It wasn't like I was going to be dry anytime soon if I did swim, it'd be chilly once I was finished, but�

"But then I thought, 'Man, look around you: it's perfect. You have the world, an entire beach to yourself. Stop worrying about your issues and just go bathe in the lake, enjoy yourself and take time to appreciate this moment. Make no excuses.'"

We've just left Evanston and are now back in Chicago city limits. Charlie asks, "Boss, where in Lakeview?"

"Addison and Halsted," I say.

"That's a nice area."

"It's a parking lot, Charlie. A police station and a gas station. An old burned out Checkers. But I like it. It's close to the Cubs, close to the train."

"Been there long?"

"I'm in my second year there." The rowhouses, grey stones and store fronts of the city's North Side began to rise around us.

"So what does your story have to do with shells?" Charlie asks.

"Well Charlie, it goes like this: I stripped down to my shorts and just walked into the water. I can't tell you how utterly clear this lake water was. I've never seen Lake Michigan so clear. You could make out each little shimmering grain of sand that stacked up to form the hard rippled ridges packed underfoot. It was stunning, quiet, calm -- each of my steps softly lapping into the water, rivules trickling down my legs and dribbling quickly into the lake as I raised the next leg out of the water and cast it forward in the next step.

"As soon as I was several feet away from my pile of stuff beside the lifeguard stand, the seagulls swarmed it like it was some new treasure. I thought they were funny as hell, poking through everything and just making nuisances of themselves by doing nothing more than they ordinarily would. While they dug through my stuff, I kept walking out. The water was surprisingly warm, like bath water, and this particular cove was really shallower than I had expected. I was a good 10, maybe 15 yards from the beach before the water had come up to my knees.

"I threw some water up into my face, then plunged my head into the lake to soak it. After that, I basically kept walking toward what I thought, kind of hoped, would be the deeper part of the cove -- or at least have a swimmable depth. But, really, the water never came up above my waist -- I reached a point where I decided I was out far enough -- too far, in fact, to successfully chase after anybody who might nab my stuff, so� I just kind of sat down there, in the water, immersed myself up to my neck. I just sat, looking back at the beach and down toward the city, outlined mostly in grays in the haze, and I just� cleared my head.


Fig2. Hollywood Beach, a bit more crowded.

"When the first lifeguard arrived, farther down the beach, I got kind of self-conscious. I'd been out there, sitting in the water in stillness, occasionally milling about and, hell, even being kind of childish and doing things like standing on my head and tumbling and splashing loudly, trying to crab-walk half-submerged, yelling as loud as I could underwater and other stuff� Well, I'd been out there for a little more than a half-hour. The seagulls had long since lost interest in my stuff. The lifeguard in the distance gave me a weird look and I just got this sense that my time to enjoy the place to myself was almost over. So, I stood up and slowly made my way back in the direction of the shore.

"Now, about 10 or so yards from the shore line, where the water was just below my knees, I caught sight of something silvery and shiny, flickering through the rippled water, embedded in the sand. I thought it was a pop-top and probably uttered some curse against litterbugs. I reached down to pull it up and it wasn't a pop-top at all -- it was a tiny half clamshell, maybe no longer than a dime. I know it doesn't seem like much to most people, but it was quite a find for me at the time. There had to be more.

"Sure enough, there were other clam shells. I found one large enough that I could collect the smaller ones in it. I just kept plucking little broken or chipped or even occasionally whole clamshells, one after another, from the sandy lake bottom.

"It was when I saw the first nautilus, though, its little conical body listing into a submerged mini-dune, that everything changed. Suddenly, the clamshells weren't so cool anymore. I unloaded the crappy broken and chipped ones, scattered them in the water behind me, and saved just the four best. I turned my attentions to ruffling gently the sandy ridges and steadily, surely, revealed nautilus after nautilus -- mostly cream colored and thin and needlelike. I liberated as many as I could and then made my way back to my stuff on the beach. While drying the shells and my feet with my socks, I noticed that the shells weren't just in the water -- they were all along the water's edge, poking out of the sand.

"I went home just� mind-blown. I took a shower and then washed the shells, rinsed all of the sand out of their tiny little bodies. I was elated. It was like� I'd� My world, somehow, had changed -- just a tiny part of it. I called everyone I knew. I told my friends the whole story that day. 'That's nice,' they said. 'You missed this,' I pleaded, 'it was extraordinary.' Of course, they didn't get it. I didn't mind, though. It was� bigger than them -- than me, even."

"You really didn't have any idea, did you Boss?" He asks, handing me the MasterCard slip as I step out of the cab.

"About what?" I ask.

"Where you wanted to go." There is a pause. Charlie explains: "When you got in the cab. I ask, 'Where to?' and you say, 'I have no idea.' Let me tell you, Boss, I really didn't know what I was gonna be in for. But, man, you were all right. It was a real nice ride."

"Yeah. It was," considering the $47 tab, not including the twenty I left him as a tip. I step outside of the door, looking up and down my street, up to my apartment window, and then lean back into the cab. "Yeah, you were right Charlie. I really didn't have any idea where I wanted to go. Thanks for the ride."

"Did you find what you were looking for, Boss?"

"You know Charlie�" The breath from my sigh froze hard in the air and rose for just a little ways before vanishing. I look up and see my cat pacing in the darkened bay windows of my apartment, look down the street to the rows of parked cars, illuminated porch-lights from the two- and three-story flat houses and courtyard apartment buildings� the home cooked meals, the love and secrets and fights of all of these isolated little lives. "I'm not sure. I can't put it into words quite yet, but I think I managed to get something out of it. Hey, thanks for giving me a break on the meter."

Charlie's gesture is one of those aw-it-was-nothing grimaces. "It was nice meeting you, Boss," he says. "Don't do anything crazy."

I shut the taxi door and waive him off. He drives away as I wrangle the jangling key ring from my pocket. Brakes shrilly squeak at the stop a block away, then Charlie disappears into the anonymity of Chicago traffic. I realize unlocking the gate to my courtyard that I never told him my name.


About the Author(s)

Brandon Heckman writes in Madison, Wisconsin, where he dreams of his former life in Chicago. You can find him at

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