If I’m facing east on the Brown Line (and not looking down at my phone), I see the green glass building on the north side of the river next to the Westin Hotel. The building used to be called Quaker Tower, due to the Quaker company occupying many floors and having a display in the main lobby. My father sold his travel company in 2001 – he had worked in that building since 1986.

In 7th grade, my class at Hubble Middle School (where John Belushi went to high school and is now a Mariano’s) took a field trip to downtown Chicago. I grew up in Wheaton, a western suburb with the most churches per square mile and a local video store next to a Dairy Queen. On this field trip, our class got to visit the Museum of Science and Industry and watch an IMAX presentation on volcanoes. I can’t remember much about that day, but I do remember someone throwing up in the IMAX theater and leaving my favorite yellow cardigan in the bathroom stall at the museum. I loved that cardigan.

We finished the field trip on a cruise down the Chicago River. When we passed the green glass building on the north side of the river just before Clark, my teacher told me to look up at the 4th floor windows. On white pieces of paper, spread out over multiple windows, my father had written, “Hi Dana and her class. Have fun today in the city!” If this is what celebrity feels like, trust me, I was riding high. I was genuinely surprised and filled with a sense of love that I still feel every time I look up at that building, lingering too long on the 4th floor windows as I try and make that banner appear again in my mind and in doing so bring back a small joy from my childhood.

Dad's

***
I didn’t have sex until I was 23. I mean, I had a few “in and out” moments with men and good old fashioned rounding of the naked bases, but not technical sex. After my blissful, creative, and safe 4 years at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York, I found myself in a studio apartment at the corner of Halsted and Cornelia, next to a now-defunct gay bar, The Manhole, known for its “backroom” and its pithy, sexual innuendo-laden marquee. “Looks like rain! Grab your raincoats, gentlemen!” My refrigerator opened out into my so-called living room, and my windows looked out onto a brick wall. It was a classic first city apartment, complete with a rat inside a bag of bread, IKEA, a dead neighbor…oh, and also where I found out I was pregnant.

He was Italian and a server/poet who drove me to work at my class action law firm in the Loop on the back of his motorcycle. I would straddle his bike in a skirt, purse dangling on my hip (sometimes I wore his helmet…sometimes I didn’t). DO NOT TELL MY MOTHER. He was a complicated man and a bit older than me – experienced in the world of drugs, drinking, women and living. So experienced that he convinced me that pulling out and not finishing inside of me was fool proof. Fool. Proof. That he had done it many times before with his previous girlfriend.

I had never been on the pill before. I used to lose my wallet once a week and almost never paid rent on time, so the pill was an extremely daunting task for me. I remember thinking “Watch. I bet I get pregnant my first time having sex.” Now I don’t have an actual timeline and to say I took the pill at the same time every day is, well, not true. But I do know that I got pregnant within my first month of having “fool proof” pulling out and laissez-faire pill taking sex.

I called my mother from the bathroom of my apartment as I stared at the plus sign on the stick – like I was in every movie or TV show ever made where a woman is wondering if she’s pregnant – sitting on the toilet, head in hand. My mother was a high school biology teacher for many years and incredibly scientific and rational. She would tell me about fruit flies and the sexual organs of flowers and plants, and on this day, she certainly didn’t hold back in telling me all about my embryo (or lack thereof). She described it as a small ball of tissue (I was about 5 weeks in) and said that these procedures take a few minutes and are done every day, all day long, by many women. I honestly don’t even remember if we ever talked about me actually going to term and giving birth, about adoption, or raising a child with the alcoholic poet. My mother simply listened to me and greeted me with a sense of calm, a list of facts, and a plan. She also never put my father on the phone. She later told me he was very upset and scared about his only daughter, his only child out “having fun in the city!”

I also called my good friend Suzi from outside on Halsted Street. By the time I spoke to Suzi, I had already taken three tests and was starting to feel lightheaded and clearly out of the denial phase. This was real and this was my life. I use that saying a lot now, as I get older: “This is my life,” as if trying to convince myself that it’s happening; that it’s not pretend. As someone who likes to reminisce about happier times and avoid situations of pain, this new sense of reality checking is difficult for me but helps me stay honest.

I didn’t get to talk to the poet face to face until later that night, and although he had given me a key to his apartment, had taken me camping, and seemed to generally like me, he couldn’t financially and emotionally care for a child, and neither could I.*
*Did I mention I lost my wallet every week?

Anytime I am on the LaSalle bus, there is almost a magnetic pull that happens as I pass the tinted windows and intercomed security building at LaSalle and Diversey. I’m never highly emotional or sentimental, but there’s always a pause and a glance in its general direction, as if out of respect. As if to always remember. My mind races, and I’m on that elevator down to the basement to sit with about 20 other women and some men, sitting across from the poet as he reads a magazine. I never liked reading magazines in waiting areas. My vitals are checked and I’m put under “twilight” anesthesia as the doctor does an ultrasound and then starts asking me about my acting career. When I used to serve, I remember hating that question, because no one had ever heard of Caffeine Theater and no, I didn’t know David Schwimmer. Even now, when taxi drivers ask if I like doing comedy or drama more, I promise you no conversation about my craft was ever as surreal as this one. Luckily for me, it only lasted a few minutes, the painful small talk and the pinching and pulling of the procedure. A few minutes, bloating, swollen breasts, $300 and many restless nights…and it’s over.

I retire to a La-Z-Boy type chair next to a few other women, some just waking up and some drinking orange juice like me. A nurse asks my blood type. I say, “I think I’m AB, I’m not sure.”

I really hope someone checked on that.

I was given some pain medication and released back onto LaSalle Street. Back in 2003, there were a lot more protesters and picketers outside this building with their handmade signs and religious pamphlets. I remember thinking, “When I get out there, I’m going to say something profound to them. I’m going to let them know I’m proud of my freedom of choice!” But on this day, there was no one outside. Just me and my childless body, the poet, and the 3 PM sun.

After the poet dropped me off at home (he had to work that night), a friend from the class action law firm came over and stayed the night with me. I attended her wedding a few years ago, but we drifted apart as people do. She now lives with her family in South Carolina. I don’t know when or if I will ever see her again, but her name was Jody and she stayed with me the night I had an abortion. In my little studio apartment in Boystown, complete with heating pads, soup, and bubble baths.

I wasn’t alone.

***

I love when all the letters are lit up. I feel a sense of peace as if all is right in the world. It’s a rare sight when crossing over Ontario Street on the Brown Line, just past the curve after the Mart, both D’s lighting up the night sky, tempting tourists and high school kids with the promise of old-timey sass and chili cheese dogs. I sometimes wonder how my 35 year old metabolism and shaky lower back would fare now. The hours of dancing on counters, drinking Oreo shakes during my shift like water, and a meatloaf plate at 10 AM seem unreal. Only in my 20s could I have done that job AND act at the same time; I’d show up to the theater smelling like patty melts and hoarse from yelling at children, sorority girls, suburban moms, and people from Indiana.

Since I grew up in the Western suburbs, about 45 minutes outside the city, the excitement of getting to go to Ed Debevic’s as a child was ever present, especially since one of the owners lived in my neighborhood. I had long dreamed of one day getting to work at the 1950s themed diner in full housewife attire, hair in curlers, and a robe. I would delight families and children with my amazing ability to not only bring them food but make them scream with delight and wonder at my hilarious comedic timing and acting skills as I danced on the counter and spoke in a Southern dialect. I would be discovered by a local casting agent as I hula hooped on the counter and made quirky, whip-smart banter as I took his order, no need to write anything down – I was THAT good.

I got to serve Ana Gasteyer, appeared on the children’s version of Check, Please!, got two $100 tips, and had some of the best years of my life with incredibly creative, hilarious, and kind people…but in reality, working at Ed’s was more like pulling back the Wizard’s curtain: a water-stained, cockroach-infested, and fruit-fly-covered curtain. For me, Ed’s is the greatest metaphor for my loss of innocence. Like learning there was no tooth fairy, I learned those ribs were micro-waved. I learned those 5 dances were the ones they had been doing for years. I learned that people sometimes don’t know what this place is about and take things incredibly personal. I learned that when two people are on a date, always make fun of the dude, cause the girl will find it funny and this will get you a bigger tip. I learned that large groups of school children will throw things and call you fat and even make fun of your wide nose that you’ve hated since second grade. I learned that I COULD NOT work at that fancy seafood restaurant with wine lists and daily specials after working at Ed’s because most people don’t like you calling their kids nerds. I learned that some people pay you more to insult specific members of their family. I learned that even when you trust a table and their child looks over 21 and they make fun banter with you, make sure you card them because sometimes people are just fat jerks.

But I loved Ed’s, and I’m still friends with so many people who worked there to spend any time writing about that fateful day in 2006 when I was let go after 4 years. Let go a week after my father walked out on my mother in Scottsdale, AZ and asked for a divorce (edit: after 36 years of marriage), beginning her already blossoming descent into years of depression, substance abuse, and physical and emotional pain…but that’s for another blog post. Something to look forward to!!

Instead, I love the memory of sitting on an airplane next to my nana, heading to see my mom in Scottsdale. “I have something to tell you. I lost my serving job this weekend. It’s a long, sad, and complicated story, but unfortunately, it happened.” She paused, scotch on the rocks in hand and said, “That’s wonderful.”

Ed’s is a chocolate malt ring on the tree that is me. The uniform of my life has more stains now than it did back then, but Ed’s is still one of my favorite buttons.

Wow, now who’s the nerd.

Comments

  1. Dee says:

    I love you.

  2. Erin Erin says:

    you are my hero.

  3. stacie says:

    Naked, raw, gorgeous.

  4. Mandy says:

    You’re one amazing lady. Thank you for your honesty. XOXO

  5. Anna B. says:

    thank you for painting such a vivid picture of the city and creating a vibrant portrait of you in the telling.

  6. Joanie says:

    beautiful, brave, and honest. Thank you for telling your story.

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