Jeff Phillips: I Go By Radio

At quarter of four in the morning I arrived at the Grand Red Line stop. My work shirt was untucked and halfway unbuttoned. I could feel the bags under my eyes spread their dead weight back into my brain, snuffing the day’s remaining electrical charge. I had just worked a moonlight cruise, taking boarding photos of passengers that liquored themselves up in advance. I had already worked the brunch cruise, the afternoon cocktail cruise, and the dinner cruise, but was asked to stay late to cover for a callout. I walked from Navy Pier to the train because by the time I finished draining the effluent from the photo printer and rinsing the machine’s rollers, the buses stopped shuttling for the night. My feet ached from a day hustling tubs of souvenir photos up and down the clusterfuck that is the pier, pounding cheap dress shoes on pavement, further inflaming my arches with the mile plus walk to get to a line of transit.

I wasn’t my most patient self when I saw a cross pollination of crowds – service industry workers and wasted tourists – already waiting at the platform. Some of those on the bone-weary end of the spectrum had taken to sitting against the wall when the benches were at capacity. A move that seemed brave given the odor akin to someone having peed on hot coals in a sauna. The fabric saturating humidity and dim overhead lighting gave me flashbacks of a poorly ventilated men’s locker room at the Y. Loudspeaker announcements came on in intervals: “The trains are being delayed. Northbound service will resume shortly. We regret this inconvenience.”

“How long have you all been waiting?” I asked a guy with a banquet waiter shirt draper over his shoulder, who showed his frustration through a couple of accentuated exhales.

“For like a fuggin’ half hour.”

“Someone on the Southside is running around on the tracks,” another guy in nurse’s scrubs added.

This was before smartphones were common. The early adopters of the Blackberry and Palm Pilots wouldn’t be taking the train at this hour. Flip phones weren’t getting service anyway. The only way to check on the status was by asking the turnstile attendant, who only gave a shrug from his already slouched position inside his booth. His response to my inquiry made me feel I was out of line for wanting to get a move on, which made me spin further with a sense of stir crazy and exasperation. Back down on the platform, I looked along the stretch of track to see if there were any pinpoints of light inching closer, but only found darkness. I wanted to smash something. I opted for punching an aluminum sign on a pillar, one with a big letter G to indicate the stop we were at. The skin of my knuckles burned from the blow, but I would’ve endured a deepening of the throb to release some more of the spooling irritation. Before I could give it another good slug, someone called over to me, “Radio? Is that you?”

I turned to find a familiar face sitting against the wall. He had a big smile, like this whole time spent in a muggy, unending limbo, was time passed in a relaxing lounge.

“You look like you’re ready to pop your cork, Radio!”

“I am popping my cork.”

He laughed. This was his old friend being typical Radio. Except I wasn’t his old friend. He called me Radio because that was the name I had given him a couple of weeks ago. We met unintentionally when he leached onto two girls I was with at the Twisted Spoke on Clark, back when it was around and Whiskey Wednesdays were a draw. Like flies, our pull was the illuminated brown liquid sloshing in the bottles set back on the shelving behind the bar; it had the aesthetic of an ancient mosaic if you squinted your eyes. I had stepped out to get some cigarettes, and when I came back, the girl I was interested in at the time, and her friend, were visibly annoyed by this close talking, pockmarked, gangly guy in a tank top goading them to tell him their drinks of choice, so he could buy their next round. “If you don’t tell me, it’s gonna be Old Style, haha. I wanna get you something more stylish than Old Style, haha.” Not only could he not take a hint, he was too foolish to see that they were were sucking down the last of a glass of whiskey and coke, a blatant clue as to a possible next drink.

When I rejoined them, my squeeze turned to me, “Gawd, get him away from us, this guy is crazy!”

“Did he do anything weird to you?”

“He’s been the biggest pest of all time! And his breath smells like sour beer and onions. He’s a spitter and doesn’t shut up.”

I was relieved there wasn’t cause to have to fight him, but there was still some chivalry I needed to rise to. “I got this. Here,” I opened the pack of Parliament Lights, handed her two. She and her friend went outside to spark them alongside the decor of rusted motorcycles laid to rest in an open concrete sarcophagus – potting soil in lieu a blanket. I intercepted their unwelcome suitor before he could follow them.

I pulled idle chit chat out of my ass. I don’t recall our topics of conversation, but I recall sitting with him at a table, the decoy of being a buddy. At one point he asked me for my name. He reeked of a potential to be clingy, oozed with a desperation to partner up, either by romancing a chick, or bonding with a bro, ready to grasp at any accidental eye contact as an invitation. Telling him my real name seemed like a risk; the last remnants of logic, before the night’s continued intake of whiskey dissolved it, urged me to provide an alias. A trailer for a new movie with Cuba Gooding Jr. trickled around the back of my mind. “I go by Radio,” I said.

“Radio? That’s your name? That’s so fucking cool!”

I didn’t ask for his name. Or maybe I did but his incessant chatter pushed it out of my short term memory.

Another shot or two would drown out the encompassing scent of beer mat air fresheners. We threw back more whiskey, his speech slurred, and I was feeling good. I was riding the high of being sneaky, of accomplishing a diversion. The girl I was with was now off to the side, out of this guy’s sight line. As she talked to her friend, she occasionally flashed me a smile, ran her hand through her long, dishwater blonde hair, shrugging and shaking her head as if we were in on something ridiculous together. I thought I could be getting points at the time, but had also been trying to decipher if I was already in the friendzone. I was doing the work of a solid big brother, and that was okay. I was making her evening more pleasant, and in the same stroke, I could justify that I was offering up camaraderie to a misfit, even if my intention was a form of non-confrontational defense.

When he went to the bathroom, we snuck out, and the encounter with that guy slipped into the murky formation of memory resultant of drunk sleep.

As he recognized me down in the subway, it took me a few moments for my own recognition to place how I knew him, but when I did, I was overwhelmed by a new burden. I didn’t have the energy to stay in character, to improvise the illusion of a good dude named Radio.

A name tag with my real name was pinned above my breast pocket, I realized this just in time as I approached him. I pulled off my work shirt and held the clump of fabric in my fist.

We exchanged pleasantries. Then he started asking me about where I worked, and the knee jerk instinct to protect my identity bubbled up again. “I just work at the pier.” I still felt like that was too much information. He of course pressed further, and I clammed up.

“It was great catching up with you, but I really gotta get home, have an early shift tomorrow, so I think I’m gonna try to catch the bus. There’s no sign of this train coming anytime soon.”

“Turnaround shift, damn. You might as well sleep at work, haha!”

“I might as well, you’re right. You’re right. I gotta go.” I waved good bye and turned away to walk back up to the street. Behind me I could hear his feet scrape some gravel as he rose up and said “I’ll take the bus with you, Radio.”

He followed me. We waited for the Clark bus in silence. I could feel him smiling beside me. I kept hearing some slight smacking sound from his lips, like he was about to say something. I saw a cab cruise up the street, its light was on to advertise vacancy. I wanted to avoid spending half my night’s earnings on fare, but I was stewing in the unsettling position of posing as Radio for the duration of a bus ride to Lakeview. I tried to buck up, to summon the courage to find some enjoyment in this odd experience, but as the cab drifted closer, I darted to the curb, hailed it, got in, and closed the door quickly. “Belmont and Wilton, please.” I didn’t look to see if that guy was going to try to get in too. The cab started pulling away – it didn’t feel fast enough. I kept expecting to hear the door handle jiggle, but when we turned the corner a block ahead I knew I was free of him. Still, I couldn’t shake a guilty feeling that was lurking as we sped up Lake Shore Drive. I felt as though I was the protagonist in a movie, abandoning an animal because circumstances somehow made their friendship seem impossible.

The sodium lights and early clues that dawn was on its way from across Lake Michigan stirred some lucidity. I tried to remember what was so annoying about him that night at the bar. Sure, he was lecherous toward a girl I liked, he was smelly. But sitting with him, chatting, it was clear that he was someone who was open to getting to know another person. And if there wasn’t a girl I was anxious to get back to, would sharing more drinks with him be so bothersome? I couldn’t tell if it was him, so much as who I was when I was Radio, a being engineered to hold another at arm’s length, that I ultimately wanted to get away from; and if this Radio, was, in the end, only a mask made in my own image.

I Go By Radio

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