I Like to Stand in Traffic
by Todd Dills
I am a stupid man! The product, I am certain, of reading too many books. I like to stand in traffic-it makes me feel good. There is wind; there is noise; people throw things at me. They usually miss, and in many (if not most) cases the things they throw are things I can use. Such as: stuffed reindeer toys, teddy-bears, empty plastic bottles, though once on the Boulevard between my house and the freeway someone in a burgundy Reliant K flung an empty Bud bottle and hit me square in the nose. A glass bottle. I fell unconscious, facedown, my body center over the double yellow line that separates the lanes of traffic there. My nose bled in a pool in which I woke, maybe ten minutes later, cars still screaming by all around me. Over the course of the next day, my nose tripled in size. Though such are, of course, the risks one takes.
I've stood there, in the Boulevard (but not since the above incident), in the breakdown lane of New York's George Washington Bridge's upper level. I've stood in the traffic on that Bridge's lower level, likewise during rush-hour in front of a Waffle House on Cherry Road, Rock Hill, SC 29732-enraged homebounders screeching tires, chickentruck juggernauts hissing air brakes and pulling their flatulent horns before barreling on. My favorite spot (my most significant accomplishment it may be said) is the midnight 'express' segment of the Kennedy Expressway, Chicago, actually between the express lane and the main lanes would be more accurate, for the precious few times lately I stand there it is normally atop the 4ft concrete divider between the two.
My father was a stupid man. He was a Chicago nightcrew roadworker; he was also a compulsive thief. When he died he left a closet full of boxed bright-orange vests, the kind he would wear on the job, each with a varying number of attached, reflective strips of fabric. I found the boxes while cleaning out his apartment, two days after his funeral. I opened the door to the small hall closet; they came crashing, knocked me to the floor. When I rose, flinging the multitude of boxes by violently sweeping my arms out and rising with all the power I could muster, I discovered attached to one of the boxes a little yellow sticky-note. 'Jimmy' (i.e. me), this note read. 'You may find in these boxes the very scourge of your existence! On the other hand, you may find its salvation!--or you might even find nothing at all ! just a bunch of orange vests!'
Stupid men are given to exclamation, to be sure!
Ultimately, I chose to take the stolen property in the boxes, all near-2000 of these orange vests, and proceed in detaching all of the reflective strips until I had enough fabric to cover my body entirely. I quit my restaurant job, sublet my apartment to a reasonably dependable friend, and relocated my mattress, a number of sewing needles and a large quantity of thread to a little dark hole of a basement, rent-free, which I'd located while perusing my neighborhood's alleyways one evening. Piecing together the oblong strips of the reflective fabric, I brought into being during the next month a full patchwork bodysuit, having purloined (in the style of the old man my father himself) a zipper from a jacket at the Gap outlet store up the road from my apartment and working said zipper into the design--a thing you could step into, zip up the front from just below the navel and full to the throat. I superglued, then, some of the remaining strips of fabric to a yellow construction worker's helmet I found hanging on a chainlink fence post at a construction site downtown. Having completed the outfit, I donned it. I found, wearing it in my dank little hole, that the scant light from the little bulb I'd rigged to the ceiling had the effect, being reflected off of the myriad strips of fabric, of filling the entirety of the space with an eery, slightly silvery glow. Casting shadows, this glow, darker than those cast by the bulb itself. I attracted onlookers--while I lay there evenings supine on my mattress--who would peer into the small basement windows hung up on the back wall. The glow shone out onto the alley. It penetrated even the grime of those windows! I caught the alley-onlookers' faces caught, in turn, in the glow. They smiled. They gawked. They even sounded. They threw little pebbles. The clicking woke me up at night.
After a few nights of the alley-onlookers' peering eyes, I decided to go out into the night wearing the suit and helmet. I went. The bright headlights, reflected as they were off of my bodysuit, eventuated in three wrecks between my basement hole and the Expressway alone. I walked calmly through the 3AM traffic at the Expressway bridge over the Boulevard, stood atop the 4ft concrete divider, cars slowing as they approached my shimmering figure. One man tossed me a donut. An Hispanic woman in a Buick Regal shouted 'Viva [something or other]!' and flung me a Crucifix necklace fashioned from white pipe-cleaners and black yarn. A fanciful fluff-piece was written the following day by a certain journalist at the Chicago Tribune about the 2nd coming of Christ on the Kennedy Expressway-under cover of raucous Chicago night-as heralding the small, temporary triumph of the city's Mayor in a war being waged with the state's Governor over an airport-traffic crisis.
Sound! Wind! In my hunger for these, my consequent anger over them-being pre-empted by the trumpetblast and hurricane expulsions of hack journalists!--I performed a stand downtown the following afternoon in street clothes, out in the street in front of the Tribune Towers, to absolutely no recognition. Nothing was thrown, nothing was yelled. It's amazing to me ! how people can one minute fawn over ! and then at the next instant simply refuse to see ! a Stupid Man standing the middle of the street!
That night, head fuming with discontent, I walked out into the Expressway lanes and stood stock-center in the middle of the five. A golden Mercedes-Benz E320 caught me in its headlights, swerved and crashed into the very 4ft barrier atop which I'd stood the previous evening. Its gas tank exploded and sent golden-yellow flames high into the night sky. Caught in the blare of light, the headlights, I burned with the heat of my own light. Air brakes hissed, cars wailed outrageous and gaudy beeps, the world came to halt in front of and around me. I lifted my arms high, lateral of my body, and stood there, a glowing Christ of reflective roadworker fabric-strips amid the stentorian honking and catcalls, a few loud, crying pleas of amazement.
I was promptly arrested by an Irish cop, whose first appraisal of me was a violent wrenching of his arm, hand diving into his breastpocket and producing his mirrored sunglasses. Then he perched at the edge of the road in those sunglasses and swung his arm in circles, pinwheeling one arm, then the other, in what purported to be an attempt to clear the traffic, after the clearing of the Mercedes' explosion. He entrusted me to the care of his buddies, three men of similarly stiff demeanors who thought it would be funny if they kept me out here while they assisted the other, clearing the late-nite jam. He and other cops improvised traffic duty and, with violent pinwheels of futility, attempted to get the road cleared. Handcuffed, thrown into the back of one on the cars, its rotating lights remaining on-which of course didn't help the traffic one bit-I took the time to think my way out of this.
My father had been a small, stupid man. Being more or less his exact replica, I have unbelieveably tiny hands. Though this sad fact (hygienically, I mean, in the way of beauty [God they're ugly!]) has been quite advantageous to me (cf., for instance, the sewing together of those tiny oblong strips of reflective fabric. So tiny! Like you wouldn't even believe it if you were to see them. Really small ! my hands, like a dainty old lady's! They look like the fleshy ends of a sea-monster's tentacles, coupled as they are with my reasonably butcher-sized stumparms and fatwrists). In short, I got out of those handcuffs with the dexterity of a lored gunslinger, pulling my hands forward from their locked position at my back, centering them under my bottom and pulling upward with my shoulders and chest until the absurd little fleshy things broke free!
I picked my helmet from the front seat of the cruiser. I donned it. I stood right up and out of the back of the car, the compressed mob of traffic responding with a chorus of honks and catcalls. I whistled and waved and even let out a whoop of my own. An Hispanic man driving an old Plymouth Fury let fly his Cubs cap like a frisbee through the Plymouth's open passenger-side window. "Viva Chicago!" I yelled, catching the cap and stuffing it in an armpit, the swooping headlights of a road tractor catching on my form, apprising my lanky Irish policeman of this escape, to which he responded with an amazing string of epithets that began with the words, "Well I'll be a faggot in a wastebasket...". I turned to him, thrust a glowing arm and open sea-monster tentacle-end of a hand out for a shake, tipped the brim of my helmet with the other. He stared at my hand, went on further about how small they were! Good Jesus Almighty! Look at that hand! When he made like he would shackle them again, I grasped more firmly the brim of my helmet and brought it full around like a baseball bat, whacking him right across the ear. He crumpled into a blue pile. I tossed the helmet into the traffic, shoved the Cubs cap on my head and bounded in a slide across the hood of his cruiser, Dukestyle, and ran. His buddies forgot about the traffic problem and bobbed their flashlights, pumping their knees after me. I perched atop the bridge's barrier wall, glanced down into the Boulevard's slight traffic below. They came on. A cheer arose from the traffic mob at my escape. I lifted two fingers in salute, with one final backward glance, the shine of my reflective bodysuit blinding the boys in the multiplied glow of their own brandished flashlights. Their arms flew to their eyes!--they fell back in horror upon themselves. I dove into the back of a Blue pickup barreling down the Boulevard, breaking four fingers in the process, but escaping nonetheless. The driver was an anti-government militant in town from Wyoming who bristled empathically at my story, sped at my direction to my hole like a mob chased himself. I splinted my numb fingers with two 4" x 4" slabs of cardboard. Woke up early the next morning and bought a paper. The lead line read: "GLOWING MIDGET CHASED DOWN BY COPS LAST NIGHT!" and the article went on to describe the proceedings in vivid detail. Someone had snapped a picture of me in my bodysuit, a brilliant white form against the mostly black of the loop sky, Sears Tower in the blurry twinkle of an outline over my right shoulder.
I stuck to the confines of my basement for the week following. When I do not stand in traffic I become restless! My fingers did not heal properly. My heart ached to be out there! I cursed my father routinely for his legacy while cowering in a corner shaking like a two-days-sober alcoholic. DT's, my father would have said. I had them. But it is no matter. Inevitably, water boils down to near-invisible chemical residues; such, here, has been the case. So now I take to the less-traversed areas, venture further into the bombed-out west side, its shuffling wrecks of autos banging by me with more Sound and Wind certainly than your downtown cabbies, your Boulevard BMWs, Mercs. I've taken a strong liking to the corner of Pulaski and Diversey, Chicago. And to whoever it was there that threw me a pack of cigarettes at 6PM, approximately, on Saturday, 7 June 2001, I thank you, kindly.
About the author:
Todd Dills lives and writes in Chicago, though he hails from climes much warmer, where the winds are mostly Southerly. He likewise edits THE2NDHAND, a broadside and web magazine for new writing.