A Purpose-Driven Night (Part One)

Cold and Broke

Several months before my 31st birthday, I felt down for a few different reasons. I wasn’t worried about getting older; though for the first time in my life, I worried about getting colder.

I was spending my first Chicago winter in an uninsulated, under-heated, apartment. There was no thermometer in the place, so I didn’t have much of an indicator of the indoor temperature, other than the oft-frozen shampoo bottle on the edge of the bathtub.

That year, the winter weather had been going through an extended dreary phase. I hadn’t left Florida for this: the sky colored like drier lint, face-cutting winds, and bone-chilling “wintry mix” precipitation.

No, I long for prolonged, light, fluffy, snow. Perhaps followed by a day or two of blazing blue skies. These were the rose-colored (or snow-colored) memories of my childhood in New England of what winter was supposed to be like. The stuff of Christmas specials.

Several consecutive days (that became weeks) of cold and gray Chicago mornings, and afternoons, had made me weary.

The weather was a large factor in my dismal mood, but for the most part I was down because a recent freelance client (an ad agency) had not paid me for the month’s worth of work I’d done for them.

I was tired of talking to their accounts-payable staff, and tired of writing them reminder memos (that I sent in an envelope, with stamps I licked, that I walked to a tall blue mailbox….seems exhausting now).

I was tired of being broke.

I tried to think of things that made me happy. I had a copy of the Chicago Tribune on my lap, and a full pot of hot coffee. So much winning!

I read the paper and then tried to visualize my run later on. I didn’t have any client work that day, so I was happy that I’d be able to get my run in before it got dark. Since time wasn’t a concern, I could get a few extra miles in.

When I looked out the window, there was a hint of sun in the sky for the first time in many, many days. Bonus! The solar rays made me feel instantly better. I declared “I’m going to see a movie tonight!”

In my head, I tallied up the bills on the horizon and thought about how much money I had for a night out.

It wasn’t that much. Another reminder, that a month’s worth of freelance checks would come in pretty freakin’ handy right about now.

Staying positive, I thumbed ahead to the movie listings. I didn’t want to go all the way downtown, so I focused more proximate venues on the North side:

  1. The Music Box
  2. The Davis
  3. The Three Penny
  4. The Biograph

These were all older theaters, and all pretty small, with few screens. They didn’t have a huge selection. There were a few movies, I’d seen, and some that didn’t interest me at all.

I finally set my sights on “Unforgiven” at The Biograph. I hadn’t really been into Westerns since I was a kid, but this film had gotten some good reviews. And I loved The Biograph–where I always thought of a documentary version of John Dillinger’s death, while doing my best Rod Serling voice over in my head whenever I saw the Biograph’s marquee.

I thought ahead to after the movie: The Biograph was across the street from The Red Lion where I could go later for some fish & chips and a pint. Case closed, I would be seeing “Unforgiven” at the Biograph.

I also thought ahead to the trip home. The Ravenswood train (Brown Line) that stopped near my apartment didn’t go all the way to the Fullerton stop (near The Biograph) after midnight.

If I missed that deadline, I’d have a few choices:

  1. I could get on at Fullerton and get the Howard-Dan Ryan (“HoDar”…the Red line) north to Belmont where I’d have to wait again (in the cold) for the Brown line.
  2. I could find a bus route that would get me close to my apartment.
  3. I could take the red line to Lawrence and walk a mile (in the cold) down Lawrence.
  4. I could take a taxi.

I discarded option 4 immediately (that ad agency still owed me money, you know). I was leaning toward Option 3.

I departed for The Biograph from the Brown Line stop near my home and figured I’d make a “game-time”decision about my return trip based on the weather when I headed home.

Gordon, Burt and Me

On the trip down to The Biograph, I had a (really) vague recollection of a movie called ” ‘The’ Unforgiven.” I didn’t know anything about that other film other than the cast included Burt Lancaster, who was my favorite actor as a child.

Actually, as a child, I knew almost nothing about Burt Lancaster. Other than I’d seen him appear on Sesame Street a few times:

I recall that once that Gordon had explained to some of the Sesame Street kids that Burt Lancaster was a famous actor.

Lancaster seemed like a big deal. Though Gordon left me hanging because he didn’t describe any of Lancaster’s work. Still I had enough information engage in some name-dropping, which was important to seven-year-old me (and current me).

My lack of knowledge didn’t stop me from declaring that “Burt Lancaster is my favorite actor!” in a conversation at school the next day.

A few weeks later, I saw a promo for a late-night movie on one of the Boston television stations. I was very interested in old movies.

My brain lit up when I heard the voiceover say “Burt Lancaster stars in….”

“The Swimmer” which I learned in the promo was “…an underrated classic,”

I thought “I have to watch this movie! I have to!”

Then the announcer said “Sunday night after the 11 o’clock news.”

I thought “Awwww….school night…<groan> my mother won’t let me watch this movie….awwwww…”

(What happens to a dream deferred?)

Still, I was happy to be able to name a Burt Lancaster movie. He was my favorite actor after all. And The Swimmer; a movie that I hadn’t seen but I could describe as “an underrated classic” in conversations ranked on my personal list of great films.

I knew that I’d see it eventually.


“Unforgiven” was ….uh…OK, I guess. I just don’t remember much about it other than a few scenes.

I liked the actors, in : Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris…. but, as mentioned earlier, I wasn’t (and still not) all that into Westerns.

There was of particular interest (in “what would you do”? way). In the scene, an outlaw and his biographer, were surrounded by a local sheriff and his posse. Later in the scene (at 1:35 below) the outlaw’s biographer reaches into his bag (for books) and the posse aims their weapons at him, then you can hear the “click” of guns being cocked.

A closeup reveals the biographer’s look of fear, then the camera cuts to to his pant leg where you see, and hear, a liquid trickling down his leg.

The “Duck” of Death (Scene from “The Unforgiven”)

I immediately wondered how I might react in a situation like that.

Would I pee my pants?

At The Red Lion

After the movie, I walked across the street to The Red Lion Pub.

There were just a few people sitting, chatting, laughing, at the bar, and none at the tables that I could see. I took a seat on a bar stool and pored over the menu. The bartender (Colin, the co-owner) paused his conversation about films to acknowledge me and take my drink and food order, then deftly resumed the chattering.

They mentioned several films that I hadn’t seen, and performers about whom I wasn’t familiar, but I chimed in when I could make a contribution.

Somebody asked me what I’d been doing that evening. I answered that I’d just seen Unforgiven. Of course, somebody in this panel of experts, brought up the Burt Lancaster movie (THE Unforgiven) as well as his other work.

After a few moments, I asked Colin, “Have you ever seen ‘The Swimmer’?”

His eyes widened and he gave glowing reviews of the film’s plot and Lancaster’s performance. When I told him that I’d never seen it, he gave my marching orders:”You have to see that film before you die.”

Yes, I’d have to see that film before I die. I suddenly felt a sense of purpose. I was immediately energized as I was when I saw the sun in the morning, after a long absence.

I would see The Swimmer before I died. In order to do that, I had to stay alive.

Less than an hour later, I had a gun pointed at me.


You’ve probably guessed that I didn’t die that night. Though you’re in agonizing suspense about these things:

  • Did I see The Swimmer?
  • Did I ever get the money the freelance client owed me?
  • Most importantly, did I pee my pants?

(All of these questions will be answered. Maybe not today, but soon.)

On The Red Line

I left the Red Lion with pep in my step, because of my renewed sense of purpose: I would see The Swimmer.

My “game time” decision was to to take the Red Line to the Lawerence stop and walk home from there. It was cold enough that I didn’t want to wait for a train or bus transfer. If I was going to brave the elements, I wanted to be moving.

Google Map from  Chicago's  Lawrence stop to Ravenswood area.
Lawrence Avenue (Source: Google Maps)

The Last Mile

The Lawrence stop on the Red Lines was roughly a mile from my home. Though the chill wind and darkness made it seem longer. Still, I felt great and was glad to be off the train, out for a walk, en route home.

As I walked past Clark Street, I saw a young man standing in an apartment doorway with his back to the street, I thought he was waiting for a bus, trying to stay warm by blocking the wind.

He glanced at my over his shoulder at me.

“What’s up?” I asked. I got no response, other than a glare.

I continued walking and a few seconds later I heard a loud, somewhat echoed, shout, “Hey you! Yeah you, ugly motherfucker! I’m talking to you! Get in there!”

I turned around and realized it was the same man who was huddled in the doorway. 

Same White Sox jacket, same round face, same matted black hair.

I’m not always the most-observant person in the world, and I’ve never had a particularly good short-term memory (though my long-term memory is so good it might freak you out a little).

I spent a nanosecond marveling at my unsual observation success, and rare short-term recall. This was a distraction from the object in the man’s hand.

After this moment of self-praise my thoughts turned to “Oh shit. A gun. He’s got a gun. A fucking, fucking gun.”

How could I have noticed the White Sox jacket, the face, the hair, but not the “heater” in his hands?

I guessed that the ‘there’ he wanted me to get in, was the small alley I was standing in front of. I slowly backed in. He followed.

I was standing next to a small dumpster, on wheels. I had no idea why I was in the alley with a ‘heater’ pointed at me, but had an unpleasant thought when I realized that my body would fit in that dumpster.

My thought: avoid being left in that dumpster and eventually see “The Swimmer.”

My next thought: Will I pee my pants?

“Do You Want to Die?”

His face was contorted in anger, and I suspect, fear. He didn’t seem very good at this job.

I am a bit of freak of nature in that I tend to get worked up when doing rather simple things (like copying/pasting text on computers), though I have the ability to summon deep calm in adverse, or threatening circumstances.

I assessed the situation as best I could, distracted by asking myself “will I pee my pants?”

My guess at that point was, “No.” Though, the crime was still young. Plenty of time to lose my shit (both figuratively and literally).

When he yelled “Do you want to die, motherfucker?!?” I felt a rush of arrogance like I did when I was teenager and somebody tough-talked me.

I thought about charging him. There had been moment of denial when I first spotted the “heater”  in his hand.

Now, that I acknowledged it was a gun (a .22 pistol, I think), I still thought about charging him.

I thought through some scenarios pretty quickly. If I were to be aggressive toward him I might get shot. Even if I didn’t die, or suffer a debilitating injury, I figured that getting shot would hurt like a bitch.

I didn’t want have a hurts-like-a-bitch wound in the middle of a cold, dark alley.

Did He Say ‘Money’ or ‘Wallet?’

In retrospect, I’m somewhat surprised that I had the presence of mind to take steps to reduce my chances of suffering a mortal wound.

A sense of purpose is a powerful motivator.

I intentionally, and slowly, rotated my body to my left such that there was not a direct path the from the gun barrel to my heart.

I also turned my head a bit in that direction, too.

I didn’t know much about the anatomy of the skull and brain, but I have “artificial parts” in my body, one of them in my head.

I had no data, to suggest that my shunt, a small, flimsy piece of plastic and a few specks of metal, would deflect a bullet, but it seemed worth a try to try tilt the odds a tiny bit in my favor.

He growled again., “Give me all your money, motherfucker!”

I parsed his request for a few moments. (maybe I was too calm). He clearly said “money” not “wallet.”

This was good news because then I wouldn’t have to ponder the merits of handing over cash vs. cash and cards vs the whole wallet. For him to run off with my credit cards, driver’s license, etc. would have made the situation messier for both us.

I suppressed a smile, as I reached for my wallet. Then he yelled “Hurry up, Motherfucker!”

Man, this motherfucker shit was getting tedious.

I opened it up the wallet and pulled out the cash, and noticed the ATM receipt mixed in with the two twenties and a few singles. I started to fish out the receipt, then thought better of it. I left it with the currency.

The key reason in leaving the receipt among the case: I didn’t want to delay this process any further while this angry young man was pointing a “heater” at me.

A secondary consideration, was that if this man was later apprehended, my ATM receipt might be helpful evidence. He was going to get my cash and my First Chicago bank receipt.

A Third Way

In world that fixates on binary choices, there is much made of the “fight or flight” scenarios when people encounter stressful or dangerous situations. Thankfully, the world is more nuanced than that.

Moments before, I had chosen not to fight, now I was pondering flight as an option.

I’m not fast by any means, but at that point in my life, I could literally run for hours. This man didn’t look like he could run very far at all. I briefly thought of fleeing while he was distracted by my handing over the money.

What stopped me was recollection of the people I’ve known– of large circumference, and with very little stamina–that were fast as shit in a short sprint. I knew that girth was not necessarily a indicator of speed, or lack thereof.

This kid in the White Sox jacket, pointing the “heater” at me didn’t seem like he was a gifted sprinter, though I made conscious decision not to run. Because he was certainly fast enough to shoot me in the back.

A spinal injury, or bleeding out in the alley on a cold night was at the sort of aggravation that I didn’t need.

Because I had a purpose.

So….No fight. No flight. I’m handing over my cash along with my ATM receipt. And eventually, I would see The Swimmer (Purpose!).

Parting Words and Reflection

He took my money, and mutter-swore something at me then yelled “Get the fuck out of here!”

I was glad that I was not a motherfucker any longer. Though I was a little put off by the lack of specifics. Was I allowed to run away or did I have to back away slowly? Did it matter if I continued in the direction I was already moving, or was I supposed to pick an alternative route?

Exercising caution to not make the proverbial “one wrong move” I slowly backed out of the alley, to the sidewalk on Lawerence.

He took off. I heard his running footsteps in the alley, growing more and more faint. When I could no longer hear them, I headed West on Lawrence at a quickening pace.

Then running across the Ashland intersection until I was under the glow of parking lot lights of a gas station.

I stared at the pay phone and pondered calling the police, though briefly recalled the last few moments, specifically my responses to the gunman.

Had my actions saved my life?

There was no bullet fired, so I’ve no way of knowing if my positioning of my heart, relative to the “heater” would have spared my life, or whether the (I think) .22 bullet would have been deflected by the my shunt (the POS plastic and cheap metal).

Though I did give myself some credit for my demeanor, my heightened observation skills, and some of my decisions.

Perhaps, I prevented him from pulling the trigger.

I don’t recall having had such a heightened level clarity ever in my entire life. Perhaps that is because a purpose–to see The Swimmer before I die.

Cinmatic Poster of Burt Lancaster in "The Swimmer"

A prerequisite was not dying.

Colin at the bar of The Red Lion, Burt Lancaster, and of course, Gordon from Sesame Street all some deserve credit for inspiring me to cheat death that night.

I felt as though I owed it to them all to fulfill my new purpose: to watch a scantily-clad Burt Lancaster parade around in damp briefs for 90 minutes.

I explained my situation to the clerk inside the store, who gave me money for the outside pay phone. When the dispatcher came on the phone, I gave my name, location and began describing the crime.

I smiled upon the realization that my pants were dry.

(To Be Continued)



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