Last Stop: Chicago (Again)

Rain pounds the sidewalks. I duck into a pizza place on the corner of North Winchester Avenue. Across from me sits a scruffy kid, thumbing through a paperback about African Gray parrots (the same birds that decorate his sweatshirt). I lean back in a booth and dig out my Moleskine. In the past few months, the pages have swollen twice their original size.

As I scribble, I notice someone gawking at me: a boy with a trucker hat and a bandanna looped around his neck like a bank robber. Tattoos swirl down his pasty biceps (I spot a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe carved in his skin.) He hunches in the corner, talking to a clump of people about an "ex-friend."

"He was drinking all day," says Poe Junior. "I was like, 'Can't you come out for an hour?' I mean, I was only in town for the weekend. I'm so over it, man."

Seems like I've heard this conversation another city...weeks ago. I can't remember anymore.

Poe Junior storms out. He jumps on his bike (fixed gear, of course...the handlebars strapped together with tape) and pedals into traffic.

I think about all the stories taking place around me. Stories with no ending...

During this trip, my PR team booked several events on a single day. The events took place in different suburbs (in different directions!) I was staying in Wicker Park, at a sweet little spot called The Ruby Room (like chilling in your own secret apartment above a Zen-like spa!) I woke before the sun and hopped in my cab. It took about an hour to reach Joilet (pronounced like the Shakespearean heroine, not "Jo-Lee-Hey," as I'd been mumbling with a French accent).

I wandered through the halls, lost as usual. As I passed the auditorium, I heard muffled voices. ("Maybe they have another speaker?" I wondered.) No worries. I always arrive early. I finally found the main office and an English teacher lead me back to the auditorium.

"They've been waiting," she told me.

Wait a second. I checked email on my cell phone. "It says I start at nine?"

"," the teacher said.

Somehow...something got mixed up.

I asked, "How much time do I have?"

"Fifteen minutes," she told me.

I glanced at the stage, which swarmed with metal chairs and music stands. The teacher told me to project my slides on the burgundy curtain because they couldn't lower the screen, due to the stuff on the stage. It took a few minutes to set up my laptop (luckily I'd brought my VGA display adapter). As I sped through my presentation at light speed, I noticed Kathleen from Anderson's Bookshop, looking just as confused as me.

The students asked a couple questions ("How much money do you make? Have you met Oprah yet? What's your book about?") and then, they marched out.

"Sorry I missed everything," Kathleen said, as I sat cross-legged on the stage, signing books for the library.

"I missed everything, too," I told her.

"Wasn't it supposed to start at nine?" she asked.

The teachers ushered us outside. They kept talking about a "vampire book club," and the upcoming prom. A skater boy with a chain belt wandered past us, looking lost.

"Where are you supposed to be?" the teacher asked him.

He gawked at a crumpled sheet of paper. "Uh..."

She snatched the paper away. "Go to Attendance," she said, sighing. "See," she said, turning to me. "That's why we're working on our literacy program."

Kathleen drove me back to the bookstore in Downers Grove, where I caught the lunch hour train and rode back into the city. Next stop: Evergreen Park Library.

I spent the afternoon teaching a creative writing workshop for teens. When I finally had a chance to rest, I chatted with Gigi, the teen librarian, and she took me on a tour. I'd never seen a library with its own fireplace...all the bookshelves arranged at right angles, so you never feel lost. A gleaming display case featured a collection of mermaid toys.

"I started collecting anything Little Mermaid when I was a year old," said a handwritten note. "We have Ariel in every room of our house, on my walls, in the kitchen, the bathroom, and covering my bed."

Back downstairs, I spoke to a group of families with special needs kids. They asked a lot of tough questions, and I talked about the experiences that gave birth to my book. After the presentation, I chatted with the librarians as I waited for my cab. They cracked jokes about the characters who hang out all day in the computer lounge (like the woman who "talks to outer space" through the internet).

I hopped in a cab and sped back into the city. I closed my eyes, half-sleeping as we bumped over potholes. My boyfriend was waiting in Millennium Park. He wanted to swing by the Holiday Club, a Sinatra-style, old-school watering hole.

In our free time, we nibbled goodies at spots like Earwax (once a record store, now a veggie joint), and Avec, (local chef hangout), and combed the boutiques of Bucktown, where I snagged this Midwest t-shirt, courtesy of Campfire Goods.

At the Theater On The Lake, we saw, "As Told By The Vivian Girls," based on the stories and collage paintings of Henry Darger. Instead of simply watching the performance, we interacted as characters in Darger's fantasy world, in which several stories take place simultaneously in different rooms. The audience must wear paper masks and wander through the hallways and staircases in the sprawling theater, exploring multiple narratives, much like the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that I devoured as a kid.

The performance was designed by Dog and Pony Theatre Company who managed to translate Darger's 15000 page novel, "Realms of the Unreal," into a ninety-minute glimpse inside an alternate reality.

I left the theater in a daze...the same dreamy fog that lingers after reading a favorite book. After all, I don't read books to "watch" a story. I read books to "become" the story.

We had become the story.