The man was wearing a suit and driving an American car. Inside, there was a haze of cigarette smoke. He was leaning over the passenger’s side, his outstretched arm rolling down the window as he talked across the front seat.
“Howya doin’?” he asked, nervous and a bit rough. He gave the words a kind of working-class mastication.
I looked over, then around, not sure who he was talking to. I was sitting in my own car, a Volkswagen Rabbit, enjoying the foggy view of downtown from Montrose Harbor.
The man’s car had quietly slid into the parking space next to me. On the other side of my Rabbit, an elderly woman was having a Burger King lunch in her rusty Buick. Here and there, cars were angled into the spaces circling the empty harbor. Pieces of rubbish occasionally skipped by the scenery; the mood was serene as we all took in the view and mulled our own thoughts.
It took me a moment to realize the man had said anything. His voice was a slow-motion roar over the water’s lapping at the rocks nearby. It was mid-afternoon and cool; my right leg was outstretched and my black-and-white checkered tennis shoe rested up on the dashboard. My window was down, allowing a lake breeze in for free. I had Andreas Vollenweider on the stereo.
“You talking to me?” I asked, a little startled at the man’s greeting, inadvertently, and prophetically, lifting a line from Taxi Driver.
The man laughed, less nervous. He reached up to his tie. “Howya doin’?” he repeated, smiling broadly this time.
I looked in my rearview mirror and saw nothing. My side mirror revealed the length and expense of the man’s dark car, and the improbability of his being an undercover policeman.
“You busy?” he asked, still smiling. His eyebrows arched up in insinuation.
I decided to be cool. “Get lost,” I said, rolling shut my window and dismissing him with a wave of my hand. I cranked up my music and became intent on the skyline.
In my peripheral vision, I watched his long dark vehicle jerk out of the space next to me. Something about the spasm of the gears said he wasn’t happy, but his nervousness had returned in full force.
I sat back, a little amazed. I’d been going to Montrose Harbor for years. It was, in a way, my place, where I go to be by myself and stare off at the city’s broad shoulders. In the summer, the harbor is a busy place; kids leap about and the aroma of marijuana wafts across the parking lot. But fall and winter bring out only quiet, introspective people who acknowledge each other with a nod, if that. We don’t leave our cars; we don’t play loud music; we don’t party in the daytime.
The man, I concluded, was lost. There are never, ever, hookers at Montrose Harbor in mid-afternoon. Besides, I told myself as I inspected my face in the rearview mirror, I don’t look like a hooker. It’s not just the sweatshirt, jeans, and generally disheveled artsy look, but I wear glasses–what hooker wears glasses?
I was just settling back when another car pulled up, this one big and American as well, but driven by a man whose gray hair matched the color of his car. He was wearing a Polo shirt. The man rear-ended the car into the parking space, which brought us face to face. He smiled at me from behind smoky glass. I turned away, but couldn’t help but hear the whirring of his window coming down.
“Hey . . .” he called out.
I looked up to see a man in his early sixties, handsome and middle-class, waving doughy little fingers at me.
“Are you working?” he asked; he wasn’t in the least bit nervous. My jaw dropped. “We can just . . .”
But I didn’t let him finish, turning my ignition and pulling out angrily. I turned down the little hill from the viewpoint, past the boats and onto Montrose Avenue. As I looked behind me, I noticed the big car was on my tail.
“This is ridiculous!” I exclaimed, burying my brakes and quickly pulling into a big empty parking lot where I could turn around. I had popped Vollenweider out of the tape deck in favor of a classics station discharging Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.”
The big gray car lumbered into the lot after me, its driver waving one arm out the window. I thundered past him in my VW, back onto Montrose Avenue and away. But he didn’t give up; with both ends of his car bouncing as he shifted gears, the man turned up the avenue and continued after me. I could see in my rearview mirror he was laughing and waving out the window.
A minute ago I had been angry and disgusted, but now it was escalating into something else: fear. I was clearly breaking the speed limit as I turned a corner, then another. I spotted a squad car ahead of me, but when I looked for the gray car, it was gone.
I haven’t been to the harbor since.