The #22 Clark (April 4, 2011)

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A little over a week ago, I stepped out the front door to meet a girlfriend for brunch. It was an unusually warm early Spring afternoon in Chicago, 60 degrees and sunny – the perfect day for baseball.

I had chosen to take the #22 Clark bus south to meet my friend at our chosen destination, a Scottish pub in the City’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Clark bus is one of those lines that seems to extend forever and goes through so many of Chicago’s key neighborhoods. Start riding at the northernmost extreme, and by the time you reach downtown, you’ll have passed through the trendy LGBT neighborhood of Andersonville, taken a gander at historic Wrigley Field, whizzed past the Chicago History Museum and landed in the thick of it all in Chicago’s Loop.

I boarded the bus at 11:45 AM, just in time to catch the beginnings of a crowd headed over to the Friendly Confines for Game 3 of the Cubs’ home opening series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubbies are an institution in the Windy City, one of the National League’s original teams founded in 1876. Yet 135 years later, there’s still something so magical about those early season games: the predictably uneven April weather which can have you reaching for your winter coat or a pair of shorts with equal likelihood, the unblemished statistics of the Lovable Losers, a time when you can still believe this might finally be the Cubs year.

On this afternoon, shortly after I took my seat on the crowded bus, a man boarded with his adorable two year-old son. Father and child, decked out in their Chicago Cubs finery, were en route to the boy’s first baseball game. At any time, I would have been struck with this child’s preternatural cuteness: dark red hair, fair complexion, precocious yet clumsy walking ability and the hugest smile I have seen in awhile. His vocabulary, rather limited at this stage of toddler life, was big enough to convey the child’s most important thoughts, alternating between “Are we there yet?” and “baseball!” I am nearly 33 years old, and I could relate.

The boy’s father was nearly as excited as his son. The thrill of being able to share a beloved experience with his offspring, introducing the uninitiated into the magical world of balls and strikes, the beauty of whiling away an afternoon with peanuts and crackerjack, the man’s joy was palpable through the crowded bodies and smell of exhaust. And though this scene was one of honesty, delight and love, it kicked me right in the gut.

I am about to be divorced – for the second time. My two failed attempts at matrimony produced no children, a scenario for which I am usually grateful. I have made the conscious decision to leave my womb barren and given my track record with “forever,” I am grateful that I have not subjected another generation to my personal instability. 99.9% of the time, I am at peace in a world in which I am beholden to nobody as I struggle to find my place.

But oh how that 0.01% can hurt, as it did last week. As I smiled at the boy and his father, passing the short ride to Wrigley in innocent, excited conversation, a small voice inside my head began to grow louder and more demanding. “Who will remember you when you’re gone? What have you taught anybody? And for God’s sake, why is it so damned hard for you to hold onto love?”

How can it be that something a majority of the world does, like settle down with someone and have a couple of kids, is so thoroughly beyond me? It is my habit to ask rhetorical questions for which there are clearly no answers.

A minute or so after my silent foray into existentialism, I felt awful for making a beautiful moment between a father and son about me. The writer’s pitfall I guess. Nothing really happens unless it relates to the self, right? Then I realized, as I continued listening to their happy chatter, that my aim was one of a social scientist, as if by eavesdropping on the easy conversation of the fulfilled, I could figure out the formula. I might be able to crack the code of “normalcy,” absorb it by osmosis or something, and leave the bus somehow more whole, more open to giving and receiving love than I had boarded it.

But before my work was done, the charming duo reached their destination. The boy excitedly bid everyone aboard the bus adieu and within moments, the two were lost amongst a sea of peanut sellers, ticket scalpers and throngs of baseball fans waiting to endure enhanced security checks. There is no inconvenience too great for the happy tailgater.

The father and son’s absence was immediately felt aboard the bus. The elderly woman who had been beaming at the two, and asking questions about the boy’s development for the last several miles, returned to her newspaper with a serious mien. The bus driver, amiable and upbeat moments ago, retreated behind his bulletproof shield, eyes once again focused on the road. And as I headed toward my final destination, a carefree brunch with a friend who had nothing real to gain or lose by my presence, I realized I may have come as close to a secure sense of belonging as I will ever get.

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