Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Chicagoland

Dates uncertain

Just a reminder that dates in this section may be off by as many as five or six, as I hadn't written down the date in my journal for some weeks, and sometimes didn't record an entry for a particular day. I made an attempt at pinning down key dates by precipitation, but it's tedious work.

August 23, 1997

I continued my trek turning gradually southeast on US 18, or perhaps it was 12. I cannot say for sure, because I didn't seem at all concerned about the routes anymore. Rolling woods and farmland, everything as green as you can stand, and good quality brew everywhere you went. Wisconsin is not going to blow anyone away with sweeping vistas, but it's a great place all the same.

I pulled into an outerburb with a huge carnival in progress, and in short order a family had assembled around me. The father was a bicycle shop owner and a seasoned tour veteran. They invited me to their house for the night, and of course I was amenable. It was a bit of a drive back to their home, and I have zero recollection of where it was, so I can't plot my progress anymore*. I believe I may have shed as many as 10 or 20 miles off my route this way, the first avoidable cheat so far.

We shared touring stories, but he did most of the talking (not that I could get a word in edgewise). Stories about extreme food consumption were common. When he and a friend had toured across the US in the 1960s, they routinely gorged on ice cream. At the end of the trip, he asked his friend why he didn't want to eat ice cream anymore. The friend said, "I don't even like ice cream, I just needed the calories!"

August 24, 1997

Over breakfast with the family, they gave me some good advice about safe routes.

In the morning I rode through miles and miles of sprawl. I noticed a sign that it was illegal to ride on one of the streets, finding out later that a bicyclist had been injured and sued the city. So they shut it down for bikers.

Finally I made the city proper, and was amazed. It was my first time in one of the nation's two big cities, and by big I mean dense (Houston doesn't really count).

I wound my way past monuments and buildings that I recognized. Evening was approaching and I was trying to collect on some money that a friend's parents were going to send me by Western Union for a computer I'd sold them. Without any other cash, I was not keen on trying to find a place to stay the night. Unfortunately, things were taking a while to get sorted out, and I wouldn't get the money until the next day.

The Western Union service guy really went out of his way to be helpful. He was an immigrant from Mexico and was perfectly level-headed and generous. And so when he found out that I wouldn't be able to afford a hotel in town that night without the money, he offered the use of a company vehicle from his second job as a place to spend the night. But I'd have to leave my bicycle at his job's storage area over night.

Yeah. That sounds nuts on so many levels. All I can say is, sometimes you get a good read on someone, you trust your gut, and it works out. It worked out, or perhaps it's more fitting to say, I didn't get unlucky. It wasn't a comfortable way to pass the night but it was better than sleeping on the streets in downtown Chicago.

I did have some interesting conversation with the WU service guy. He came here because he wanted to get far in the world and leave poverty behind. He worked three jobs. Here I was avoiding work and education altogether for a reason that I couldn't easily articulate, surviving on the largesse of kind people.

August 25, 1997 (note: incorrect date)

I know from memory that this day was a Saturday, and the 25th is a Monday, so that puts it back two days or forward five. Date sleuthing is low on my to-do list, unfortunately.

The next morning I retrieved my bike and picked up the money from Western Union. I was flush with cash (a whopping $150) and eager to spend it on something stupid. So at a nearby gym/sports facility, an employee offered to let me leave the bike there while I hit the town for a few hours.

I don't know how many times I've put myself in risky situations where trust was the only thing keeping me or my bike from disaster, but I was only ever disappointed once. After 9/11, this kind of thing simply could never happen at all.

I wandered the shops for a while, amid a dense press of people. In my memory, it's like a labyrinth, and I'm squeezing through packed bodies so that I can venture into shady storefronts. I grabbed lunch at a fast food place. But something wasn't right.

After retrieving my bike without issue, I went off to see more. At Navy Pier, my gut was unsettled and I thought perhaps a beer would set me right. It set me back, but it didn't set me right. Evening was coming on and I came to the realization that I probably had food poisoning.

My guts churned and the gas become intolerable. Riding became impossible. Soon I was wandering through Chicago at night, in quite a bit of pain. I didn't know where to go, and didn't recognize anything except for a YMCA sign in the distance. They were offering rooms for rent.

The YMCA that I played soccer at as a kid, and learned to swim at? The Village People YMCA?

Walking my bike in gingerly, it was apparent that this was a boarding house dating to the organization's early roots. The attendant looked at me. In a city where he'd probably seen everything, he clearly had not seen my like before. He told me the price but his delivery suggested it was not a good idea. I took the hint, for once, and set back out on the streets.

I strolled past a mix of city businesses and multistory residences. Rain had started up and I was soon wet to the core, walking my rig and leaning on it as gas pain and nausea made every step a crippling feat. I saw an Italian restaurant at street level and walked in, my bike precariously perched outside.

"Excuse me sir. I have food poisoning. May I use your restroom?"

The man straight up said, "Yes, it's right over there."

I barely made it in time. If you've had food poisoning before, you know the drill.

Gathering my wits and leaving behind my dignity, I cleaned up as best I could—even borrowing a mop—and left.

Yet things got worse. Now enervated and struggling to even walk, I finally sat down at a high rise apartment front door, like a true homeless guy, with my bags and my bicycle. The rain had slowed, but still periodically pelted me and I just sat there. I tried the door. Locked. A man walked into the apartment lobby and said something friendly and clever. I don't remember the line. I didn't respond and he went inside.

I struggled to gather my energy but was beginning to chill and shake. I pulled out the emergency blanket from my pack. If you've never seen one of these things before, they're reflective waterproof mylar, sort of like a cross between aluminum foil and nylon. I wrapped myself. It warmed me immediately and kept out the rain and cutting wind, but now the transformation to homeless dude was complete.

Incredibly, a guy across the street sees me, and approaches me. "Hey man. You got any money for me?"

I exploded. It is beyond my ability to recreate the tirade that poured out from my mouth as my last reserve of energy was diverted into outrage.

"So you don't got any money for me." He paused, as if I would change my answer. Then he walked off.

In the deepest recess of my brain a basic signal fired: GET OUT

And so I stumbled up, put my hands on my bike and began to walk. The mylar sheet went flying off in a gust of wind. I walked until I felt I couldn't move any more at all, and stumbled into an expensive hotel. I set my bike aside, and asked if I could sit down for a minute.

The clerk of this incredibly elegant hotel was taken by surprise, and he said, "O-kay."

I sat and wobbled a bit. He kept his eye on me. As I began to pass out, he came to me and said, "I'm sorry sir, I can't let you sleep here."

"Can I rent a room?" I asked desperately.

He shook his head. "You can't afford it here. Let me call you a hotel nearby." And he got on the phone.

The distance to the other hotel was about three blocks, but it was the longest walk I've ever made. In the lobby, while the clerk handed me the keys to the room, I felt disaster loom once again.

"Do you have a restroom nearby?" I slurred. No doubt he thought I was under the influence.

"There's a restroom in your room, sir."

"No, I mean, right now."

"There's a restroom in your room—"

"I am going to throw up."

He immediately produced keys and pointed to a door, but as soon as he handed them to me, it happened.

He angrily made me clean up. For the second time that night, I was pushing a mop, like a zombie. A security guard escorted me to my room; they made me take the freight elevator. On the way up, I stuporously tried to explain that I had food poisoning, and was not drunk or on drugs. He just glared.

In the room, I turned on the faucet. Nothing came out. No bath, no shower. I emptied a water bottle, then collapsed on the bed.

August 26, 1997

I woke feeling well, but discovered I was moving in slow motion and could barely walk. I gathered my gear, throwing some of it away. If you've had food poisoning, you know why. My other gear was still wet, so I press-dried it between towels. Then I headed out.

It was a pretty day, cool from the rains before. Storms had wracked the city, and power was out in places. I walked along a park towards the north, with no destination in mind. It was not especially torturous, but I simply had no energy.

Still, I was called to duty when a chipper old man approached and wanted to know my story. He was an Irish bar owner and he invited me to his bar. He said, "Just tell 'em I sent you and to give you a beer on the house."

I had not yet heard of the famous warmth of Chicago bars but even now walking into a bar and saying the owner owes me a free beer sounds like a great way to get laughed at. "Thanks for the hospitality, man, but I think I'm going to find a laundromat and then get out of town. I'm a mess."

I did find a laundromat, and while I sat there nursing my health back, who should I meet but a nurse. She started the conversation and was taken by my story. "At this point I just need clean clothes and a shower."

She was a little older than me, and quite attractive. "Come back to my place and take a shower. Here." She handed me some money and I wrote down the address, just in case. She warned me she had to let her husband know first. Uh-oh. I've been down this road before…

I followed her back. She asked me to wait by my bike. After a few minutes, she came to the door, a little flustered.

"He's not happy about it, but you can use the shower. He wants to make sure you don't have a gun."

I laughed, genuinely. "Well I am from Texas!"

He wasn't in the house when I came in, and I realized she had been on the phone. As I emerged from the bathroom after a life-giving shower, I saw that her husband and several of his friends were there. They were not welcoming. I nodded to his wife, said my heartfelt thanks, and rolled out. I can only imagine what transpired after I left.

On the way out, I passed west through a latin part of town at a slow, steady clip. "Unisex" haircuts advertised on every other window; I amused myself with visions of everyone walking around with identical 60s style haircuts. Telephone numbers were listed Euro-style with the prefix "TEL:". Posters had that bleached look. Obviously I was in a critical mood.

I felt like I had been riding forever through the city and suburbs. I stopped at a corner store to buy some food that may have not been properly refrigerated owing to the power outage. Because what I clearly needed was more risk.

I made it to the outer suburbs. As darkness settled over the quiet place, I snuck onto a school porch and lay on the bare concrete, in case I needed to bolt. My strength was partly returned but something else was still off.

August 27, 1997

I rode south through endless suburbs. Every town had the mayor's name in big print on welcome signage, as if to say "I am the city council."

I dealt with some issues from the food poisoning, and for a while I was hitting every single gas station bathroom. I got a motel room where I finally got myself squared away with appropriate meds. Finally, I was back to normal. I'd burned through most of the money I'd just gotten. At least I had it at the right time. Things could have been so much worse, in so many ways.

Guess I should have eaten at Pizza Hut instead…

August 28, 1997

I had met another touring cyclist in Chicago who, also a young inexperienced man like myself, had ridden right through Gary, Indiana without advance warning, and had to deal with some territorial residents.

Chicago Heights had a reputation as the town with a police chief that murdered his wife, and other dispersions from nearby residents. I kept telling myself, "Those red lights are green for you if they need to be." I had a few people call out to me, but they were just curious and amused, and asking the same old questions. Soon my nerves settled.

I made Indiana on US 30. I would be staying on it for a while. I rolled into a random town, hearing the roaring sounds of a speedway nearby.

At a convenience store while talking to my parents, they told me it was the 28th of August. That is the only date that I have in the entire second half of my journal, and I have not been able to reconcile it. So either they told me wrong, I remembered it wrong, or I was experiencing Corn Palace Temporal Fatigue. So much for an alibi! Fortunately, they'll never find the bodies.

After the phone call, I met a lady who offered her place to stay. She was carrying a baby with her.

On arrival, the arrangement was not hygienic, but it would not be easy to extract myself. So I slept on a bedbug-infested couch while a baby cried all night long. I kept one eye open and was hurting for sleep.

I was unforgiving about the experience in my journal, but on consideration the baby was probably also being bitten by bedbugs, not to mention the mother. She was trapped in poverty and just trying to get by.

* For years I had a wall map of the trip, and could tell you in fine detail where I was every night, how much money I had in my pocket, what I had for dinner, who I talked to, and so on. Traveling in the open air activates deep memory.

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