How I’m Spending my Summer

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My wife told me to lead with the woman peeing. So I will. It was 5:30 last Sunday morning and I watched a woman pee herself. She announced she was doing it. Mumbling something about fascists, she said she hated that the bathrooms were locked and then she pissed herself, through her underwear, and her mini-skirt, her heels dangling from her left hand. I know all of this not because I was watching (I was doing my level best not to watch) but because she announced everything as it was happening. “I’m peeing,” she bellowed, her spangled tank top throwing reflections everywhere. “I’m peeing right through my underwear!”

This is becoming a normal occurrence at my new job.

I got a job this summer. It’s one of those low-pay low-expectations kind of things. You show up on time, people are amazed at your reliability. Showing up on time is harder than you might think. The job starts at 4:45 am on Saturdays and 5:00 on Sundays.

I haven’t told you what the job is yet. I started with the hours because really the hours define the job. Especially in my house. My wife is not happy about the job because of the hours. She says our summer is being ruined by the hours the job requires and that the money that it brings in could easily be supplied by a more reasonable job.

But I like the job. I like the weird hours. I like walking to the parking lot where the company van is stashed. I like the bruised predawn sky. I like the quiet. Chicago is so rarely quiet. I like sipping coffee in the parking lot waiting for the guy with the keys to the van to show up. I like the little blush of superiority I feel because I’m the first one who arrives.

What I do is this: I set up a Hydration Station on North Avenue on the Lakefront running path, sometimes I’m at the Diversey station, but usually I’m at North Avenue. I fill waxed paper cups half-full with water or Gatorade and hand them to the people training for the Chicago Marathon. The marathon happens on October 7th so the summer is all about acclimating your body to miles and miles of abuse. The weekend is when people have their long days. Ten to fourteen to twenty miles. The place I work for is a running store and these Hydration Stations are all about being good corporate citizens in the Chicago running community.

I am fascinated by runners. And I think there are parallels between training for a marathon and writing a book. I have some theories about ritualized abuse and how it plays out in marathons and in long writing projects. I believe that these Americans pray at the temple of their own bodies and the only way to build this temple is to destroy it.

Or at least I thought that what I’d find working this job, but what I’m really finding out is how many drunk people are at the North Avenue beach at 5 am. Certain bars in Chicago stay open until 4 am and so it seems a lot of people, when they’re kicked out of the bar, figure a dip in Lake Michigan is the perfect way to button up their night.

Oh, drunk people! You talk too loudly, your complicated outfits have been abused by the evening and are sliding off of you, you yell at each other and then you vomit and the person who you were yelling at pats your back and brings you a cup of gatorade from my stand. Drunk people! You abuse your bodies like heroes do. You’ve stuffed yourself up with so much goodness that it erupts out of you onto the sandy sidewalk of North Avenue, which I’ll turn my hose on when you leave, the detritus of your good time sluicing through the grates.

If these aspirational marathon runners who I tend to, the ones out pounding the pavement every Saturday and Sunday morning, are the novel writers – every day pounding out the required mileage hoping all the discipline will all make sense at some finish line far off in the future, then you drunk people are the poets. Full of squalor and poison, trying to stuff a lifetime into one night. By the durability of your passion you claim my morning to be part of your night.

I’m the non-fiction writer, the kind who calls working a crappy minimum wage job to be “research”, and who stands between the two other genres, taking notes.

We stand together, me in my Hydration Station Team Leader t-shirt and running shorts/a woman with her gelled hair askew/a shirtless rail-thin man deep into his twentieth mile and we watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan, like some beady albino rabbit-eye that turns the sky blood-orange.

“I swear to god any hangover is worth this,” the poet in the mini-skirt and spangly top says. Her spangly top reflects the sun-rise in a million fractured images. The novelist notes the color of the sky and the grit of the sand against the sidewalk before plugging away at his designated mileage. I write down what she says then get back to my underpaying job.

This sandy sidewalk is where the genres converge and how can any sensible person not agree with her?