Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"Surprises" - Chicago, IL

I don’t know Chicago at all. It’s one of those ‘dark cities’ in my mind, you know somewhere up there in the Midwest, lots of snow drifts, wind and grey skies. I was heading there for the opening of FLYING at the Gene Siskel Film Center, but it was as good as going to Kansas as far as I was concerned (no offense to Kansas – but you know what I mean?). Meanwhile my colleague, Shelly was tearing her hair out because she couldn’t find me a hotel room. Apparently there was a vacuum cleaner convention that weekend – maybe not vacuum cleaners but you get my drift. She couldn’t find me one place to stay for four days in a row; I was going to have to move around at best. But worst – she couldn’t find anything for less than $400 a night! I couldn’t believe it – who would pay that much to stay in Chicago? Apparently — I learned – Chicago is a huge convention city and often is sold out like this.

Fox, Gillian Iltis, & John IltisPoor Shelly looked everywhere and even at the airport (Yuk!) but nothing. Then she began to search the burbs. I was preparing for a really painful stay, with a whole lot of driving and waiting around, when we decided to send out an email to our team in Chicago: our distributor, the head of the theater, and our publicist there, the wonderful John Iltis. One email after another came back suggesting hotels that Shelly had already tried. Doggedly Shelly kept making phone call after phone call, when suddenly there was an email from John: I think I can get you a free room at the Art Institute. And he did. Of course (having just a bit of a negative side), I started imagining a cell-like space with a tiny single bed braced to the floor and a bathroom down the hall. Something just like when I went to college. I was not in a position to refuse so I braced myself: I can handle this, it’s only a few nights and it’s free. But secretly, I was dreading the trip.

I arrived at the airport in Chicago already depressed. I had just left my boyfriend in New York. Our time in the City had only overlapped one day – him flying back from the Toronto Film Festival the night before and me flying out to Chicago that morning. He would be in New York a whole week while I was on the road in first Chicago and after LA and then – of course before I returned home — he was heading to Europe. This modern relationship was taking its toll on both of us. We had tried to squeeze the most out of our furlough and had ended up not sleeping much and me packing in the half hour before the cab showed up that morning.

Suffice it to say that as I stood at the revolving baggage pick up in Chicago – I was physically hurting. I had a headache, my back ached, and there was that hung over feeling, that was not from drinking. I found my suitcase, trudged outside, and was about to get in a taxi when I was asked if I wanted to share a cab at half price. I looked at the cab warily, this is not something I usually do, but the taxi had the right paint job and there were already people sitting in the car – and it was a good deal – so I agreed. I was about to get in the back seat, where there was already another passenger sitting, when the cabby – a squat man from Greece I would later learn — opened the front door and asked the man in the front seat — a White, balding, middle-aged corporate type with glasses – to sit in the back. He got out, smiled at me – with a look that said what the hell is going on here? He than held the door open as we changed seats and he moved into the back seat, where I got a look at the other inhabitant, a thirty something attractive Afro American woman, wearing a suit. I knew there was the convention, which had stolen my hotel room, so I figured that both people were going separately to the convention.

I hoped that I had made the right decision sharing a cab. I was in a bad mood already and it was definitely not a day for surprises as far as I was concerned. I was already irritated being squished into the front seat, trying to get out my sunglasses that were lost somewhere in the handbag cramped between my legs. As we took off onto the road, it was suddenly very hot and I was sweating profusely. I peeled off my long jacket and sweater. I was prepared for cold, maybe not snow drifts in September, but it was Chicago after all and I figured winter had already set in. However the day was glorious. It must have been somewhere in the 70’s.

From the back, the White business man sat forward and amicably asked the cabdriver:

“Been kind of cold here, I heard?”

The cabby shrugged his round shoulders and his face didn’t move. Polish, I thought from his accent. There was a dead silence in the cab. We all waited for the cabby to say something. The man in the backseat, obviously a kind of chipper personality, smiled, and pressed on again. I detected a southern twang.

“Yes – I heard it went down to 33 last night…”

The cabby looked thru the rearview mirror at him. Again nothing. Then suddenly, he said dryly: “I don’t check the temperature till it gets to 40 below.” No smile.

“Oh well…” The man grinned, stumped.

‘Where you coming from? The cabby barked.

“Tallahassee, Florida!” The man laughed.

“And you?” The cabby motioned with his head, at the woman in the back seat.

She was wearing designer glasses over a cute nose. She smiled and sat forward.
“From Utah. Salt Lake, Utah….” She said.

“When the day is as nice as this,” said the cabby. “I don’t ask questions.”

His face closed and there was another pause. Nothing else was coming. The businessman sat back. We drove on. I rolled down my window letting the glorious breeze pass over me as we drove towards the cityscape of Chicago, which looked a lot more interesting than I had expected.

After a few minutes, I heard soft whispering sounds coming from the back. My antenna felt a tickle of something. I discretely turned my head to the side to get a glimpse of the backseat where the two ‘strangers’ were cuddling and kissing seductively.

But wait a second! My mind was racing over the previous events: Why had he been sitting in the front seat and she in the back? I was not your average life observer – I was a professional — and somehow I had not seen that these two people were together. I immediately began to try to construct what was going on. I kept trying to see wedding bands – but their hands were hidden from sight. I immediately thought – affair – married people don’t behave like that and neither do boyfriend and girlfriend.

My trip suddenly had purpose. My body suddenly didn’t hurt any more. This was what I lived for — a good story. How could I find out their narrative without seeming too curious? I turned to face the back:

“So are you two here on business?” I said lightly, trying not to stare.

They both laughed. No answer.

“You must be here for the convention?” I pressed on

“What convention?” The man asked.

Ok – they didn’t know about it, but maybe they were here for another type of work? Perhaps they worked in separate branches of the same company in different States, met a few years ago at some national meeting, and that’s how it began….

“I don’t remember….I think it’s a shoe convention…?” I laughed. “All the hotels were booked. I couldn’t get a hotel…I am staying at the university….” This admission was embarrassing somehow and I wish I could take it back, but it was too late. I felt vaguely aware that they might think I am not important enough to speak to, that I was just a student.

“No we’re not here for shoes,” The woman smiled

“So what business did you come for?” I was pushing; I wanted to confirm the story I was making up for them in my head.

“We’re not here for business…” She said and they both laughed now.

“Oh,” I said.

“So, why are you here?” The woman asked me.

“I have a film opening in the city…” I was hopeful. I wanted to impress. Perhaps the film would raise their opinion of me in their minds and lead to their talking more.

“What’s it about…?” She asked.

This was it; I would get her now, I hoped. I raced to search my mind to describe a very complicated film simply, but make it sound exciting, which is always daunting for me. “It’s a documentary… about women…around the world….”

“Oh,” she said flatly and sat back in her seat, silent.

Ugh! How boring my film sounded! It was one of those moments I wished I could evaporate into thin air.

Anyhow they clearly weren’t interested in me. They began to cuddle and whisper again. I turned my head around and my eyes back to the road, not wanting to seem to pry. We drove on in silence for many minutes. Then I changed tactics.

“So how did you two meet?” I asked turning back to face their huddled bodies.

She laughed, “Now that is too long of a story…”

He looked at her, “Go on and tell the women.”

She said, “No you tell it.”

”No,” he shook his head, “You’re right, it is too long.”

Shit! I think.

“But you guys are from different cities… He’s from Florida and you’re from Utah….” I pry.

She said: “Who said I am from Utah?

“But he has a southern accent” I say. “And you don’t.”

“That’s what people say. “ She says and they laugh again. “I was born in Boston….”

This was not working. For one of the rare times in my life, my people skills were failing. I was not going to know their story. And I thought, maybe I am wrong; maybe they have a different story. As we drove up to their hotel (a very beautiful high-rise in a fancy part of town) I was filled with envy.

“How did you manage to find such a nice hotel?” I was trying not to drool.

“I don’t know…?’ The man said, “I didn’t book it.”

“Yes…” she said, her voice trailing off. Again she was not going to tell me how she had found this nice room when I was not able to do so.

For a moment — I saw myself through their eyes. A disheveled dark, dirty haired woman wearing a winter coat, pale with no make-up, asking a lot of questions. In comparison with her – this beautiful, intelligent looking black woman, now getting out of the taxi, wearing a nice suite, gold jewelry — and I noticed suddenly - very big breasts. The man was now also standing outside the cab, a non-descript middle-aged white man, in a plain, man-tailored shirt rolled to the cuffs, and dark slacks. He was paying the cab driver.

She was so much more beautiful than him — I now saw. I imagined them having sex – I was sure they had fun but what did she see in this balding man? I had so many questions I wanted to ask them both – but more her. What had driven her to take this risk?

My mind flitted over the various possibilities again – perhaps it was an affair and they both had marriage partners back home that they hadn’t told, or perhaps they were girlfriend and boyfriend for real, or perhaps she was a high priced hooker – like the ones I’d read about but never met. But no matter what it was, for one of the rare times in my life, I was not going to know.

I was left sitting in the cab, feeling my impoverished artist state. We were the same age after all – but clearly they had life figured out better than me. They were corporate types and these were the perks. At that moment, it was clear to both them — and I — just which one of us had won the game of life. The man turned to smile and wave at me as he took hold of the woman’s hand. I waved back from the cab window. The cabby got back in, and I watched as they walked into their gleaming, high-rise hotel with a bellboy pulling their bags behind them. Yes, I had to admit my envy, not just of their weekend residence, but of the pleasure they were about to have. As we drove off, the vision of my prison-like student resident in some horrible part of town loomed in my mind.

We turned on Michigan Avenue and drove through what they call their ‘Miracle Mile’ – blocks of high end chain stores in all their glorious excess. The streets were teaming with shoppers and tourists and the architecture shone in the beautiful Indian summer light. We crossed the river, which snakes through the city and the cab pulled over.

“This is it,” he said.

“This?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said unsmiling.

I got out, thinking, Ok, great location. I went inside and immediately discovered that my name was not at the security desk. I took a deep breath, not really surprised, already thinking how I could turn around and fly back to New York to spend the weekend with my boyfriend in bed, like the couple I had just left. It wasn’t too late! I was sent up to the back office, where the woman at the desk also hadn’t heard of me. I sighed. She picked up the phone and called her boss – Oh, she said, oh, and my name was suddenly found. I was given a key — 2602. High, I thought – I hate high, my ears pop. I am a low to the ground kind of person. If it’s awful I can still go home, I promised myself. The couple had inspired me.

View from PenthouseI went back to security, showed them my key and was allowed to go to the elevator, a dismal affair lined with padded quilts used when people are moving in furniture. It was the time of year when students were coming back. Of course, four other students squeezed in the tiny elevator with me on the way up – so it took some twenty minutes before I emerged on the 26th floor. The hallway was dark and covered with scuffmarks; it looked like it hadn’t been painted in several years. I was dreading opening the door to my room, but I slid the key in and entered. Before me was a huge penthouse apartment with a terrace overlooking the river: Two bedrooms, a full kitchen with dining room and a living room and two baths. For a moment I thought they’d made a mistake, but then I realized they probably saved this place for visiting professors and special people. Thanks to John Iltus, I was suddenly in the special people category! And as small as it may sound – I though of my driving companions and laughed. I bet they wished they had a penthouse apartment like this! Hah – Sometimes artist win out! I imagine the couple in a simple hotel room – and, yes, this was so much better!

I took a nap to calm my nerves. Despite the beautiful place I was still anxious and longing for home and my boyfriend. When I woke up I got ready to go over to the Siskel Film Center for FLYING’s opening night where there would be a reception and a question and answer session after the film. The theater was only a few blocks away, so I road down the elevator, said goodbye to the security guard, and stepped onto the now night street lit up by streetlights. There were loads of people passing by and the night was still warm. A block away I walked by the river, banked on both sides by tall skyscrapers reflecting their lights in the water. Chugging up and down the river lane were ferryboats filled with diners and tourists. Everything gleamed bright like jewels in the September Chicago night. I was taken off guard by the beauty of this city that I had never known before.

Fox during Q&A at the Gene SiskelThe theater itself was gorgeous, laid out in very modern style with a bar that served drinks as well as popcorn. There was a chatter of excitement as the house filled up and the lights went down. The projection was state of the art. But nothing caught me off balance more than the quality of attention from the audience when I walked back into the room at the end of the first screening that evening. When the lights came up, nobody got up from their seats, nobody seemed to breath. We just stood there staring at each other for several seconds. Then I smiled and everyone burst out laughing. I started answering questions and something really strange happened: the questions kept coming one after another – and nobody moved – after 15 minutes, after 20 minutes, after 30 minutes. The entire audience just sat there discussing the film and the issues of gender.

And you know what they wanted to know most about: my love stories. They asked questions about my affair with a married man; they asked questions about it being a interracial relationship; they asked questions about Patrick. They wanted to know – as I had wanted to know about the man and woman in the car – how and why I had come to break the traditional conventions of female sexuality. And I was left with that age old feeling – that always hits you beside the head no matter how much you know it – how similar we all are as human beings. Every person wants to know about love and sex; everyone wants to know a secret; everyone likes a good story. I was also reminded of how I had made a decision to come out of the closet with my life as a woman. I had decided to talk about my affair with a married man, my sex life, and my decision not to be monogamous during that period of my life. But not everyone was ready for that level of honesty. Not everyone wanted to live without secrets. Not everyone could.

Finally, about 50 minutes later I had to end the talk, because the theater was waiting to serve a wine and cheese reception. So finally, we all filed out to the lobby and again, everyone stayed to talk to each other and to me for another hour. I was moved and touched by the quality of dialogue and engagement. FLYING always generates a lot of discussion, but this audience was extraordinary. The next days continued again in the same manner, one screening after another, the longest and deepest questions and answer sessions I have heard so far. I met new people and had new conversations. I wandered the city and discovered its beauty – a beauty I had never before considered. Chicago made me re-evaluate my pre-conceptions. And I kept thinking back to the man and woman in their hotel room, hoping for the best and fearing for the worst. You just never know what is going to happen or what surprises life has in store for you or what secrets are hidden everywhere, right under your nose.

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