Part 2: People on Rooftops.
We move so quickly sometimes, it feels like we never stop. Those of us who don’t have “real jobs.” Those of us who don’t sit at computers or have business cards. We still wear sneakers to work and keep our headphones loud on the train. We still add water to our soap bottles so we can make them last and then make rent and then make it through another month. And somehow we make it. I’m off at Clark and LaSalle—that’s where I said I’d be. Rushing down the dirty stairs ahead of a guy in a suit who’s holding two briefcases because I have to move what I’ve got before my shift. I see my friend and we shake on it and chat a little and it’s done. I’ve got an extra fifty and she’s got a little upper. I’m not hard, though, just a girl with a script for more amphetamine salts than I can use. My watch says I’ve got four minutes before I have be clocked in and my feet say I’ve got six blocks of pavement to cover so I’m back on it.
Just in time (according to my watch) I make it to my restaurant. It’s not mine, but I work there and I love it because everything moves quickly and I don’t have to think, just react, which I’m good at doing. I’m on my feet rushing from the kitchen to the floor to the kitchen to the floor and back with my ears full of clanging pots, sizzling oil, clinking glasses, and people’s voices. My co-worker and I are hamming on the line and we’ve still got our spirits up. Three more hours. Every day is a race here. Every lap hard, but every finish satisfying. Pardon the expression. But there’s nothing like closing at the end of the night when everything’s put away and the lights are off and the stillness takes over.
But right now it’s a hornet nest. My manager looks like she stuck her finger in an electrical socket, the cooks are throwing things to each other, there’s a line out the door, and it must be a hundred degrees inside. But we keep smiling. And chatting. And looking like we’ve got it together. At least we think we do. I don’t know what the diners think, but as long as it translates into a few extra dollars in our pockets at the end of the night we don’t care. It’s all about that hustle and getting the last people out the door at 10 PM.
But one guy is just sitting there and won’t leave. He came in with another guy, but the other guy left and this dude won’t leave. He’s kind of pretty so I don’t mind too too much, but my coworker is mad and wants to go home because he has a girlfriend or a dog or a television show or something. Could be all three. He tells me to go over and tell the guy it’s last call or whatever because he might still tip if you do it.
Fine, and a heavy sigh. He wasn’t my table, and I shouldn’t be the one to do this, but my coworker is right. I am good at it. I’m saying something like Hi there, our kitchen is closing in five minutes so if you’d like to order anything else… and he’s just grinning, sort of. It’s a lopsided grin and it looks nice on him.
11:30 we’re on the fire escape one building over, the one across the street that’s more like an alley than a street. We climbed up on the dumpster and scaled the staircase till we were as high as we could get. Now we’re sitting there looking at the rooftops and the smoke stacks and the empty downtown streets. The city is so vacant this time of night. No businessmen. No tourists. Just cabs and wanderers. He says ‘wanderer’ isn’t a word, and I’m not even sure why I said it. I’m not even sure if I said it. At this point he’s got to be reading my thoughts which is horrible and awful because I never know what might happen. I’m trying not to look at him. He’s got gray shoes on, and I like them. They’re not too hip, and I like them.
‘Wanderer’ is a word, though, but I let it go because I like the way he says things. They sound like certainty. They sound like light. Light. The light from the high rises or the cars or something hits the angles on his face, and he looks like that guy in that band who spells his name with more letters than necessary. He’s not looking at me now, just out there across the alley. And me too, I’m looking across the alley. There’s nothing to see, but I think we’re seeing the same things.
I’m getting that feeling where I can’t stay in one place so now I’m fidgeting and standing and saying we should go higher. There’s always higher. We’re climbing on a ledge not meant for climbing and stopping on a balcony not meant for stopping. Someone’s window is open so I reach in and pick a flower from a solitary houseplant. It’s sort of orange, like it wanted to be orange but could only be yellow, and I give it to this boy and he puts it behind his ear and we’re up over the ledge where we can finally feel the wind brush our cheeks and mess our hair.
We’re on the roof, and there’s music coming from somewhere, the kind of music that soaks into your skin and coats your nerves and makes them shiver and sweat all at once. It’s all over me now, clinging to my arms and face and lips and getting caught in my hair. I forget about him. I forget about them. It’s just me and my city right now. If real is a feeling, this is it.
Coming home now, through the tunnel, and I remember my phone. My sister texted me. She texted me before I even left work, which was hours ago, and I forgot to respond. I can’t believe I forgot to respond. She’s so far away now and so busy all the time, and I think of her sometimes when I’m feeling good. She’s younger than I am, but stronger and better at being in the world I think. She exists in my head like a top that spins and spins and won’t stop with neon colors like orange and pink and green with little flecks of silver when the light catches it the right way. And I forgot to text her back.
But then I see it: hundreds of yards of unwound video tape spread through the underground. Shiny black strips coiling and uncoiling amid the cobwebs and graffiti-soaked walls. Thousands upon thousands of images that will never be seen. Thousands upon thousands of stories that no one will ever know. And it’s beautiful. It’s probably a dumb art-school kid’s abandoned film project, but it’s beautiful.