Looking at the big winter storm unfolding this morning in Northern Michigan brought back memories of living in Chicago for three months in the winter of 2007. It was so cold there that all the schools closed, because the buses wouldn’t start. It was so cold that breath froze on face scarves, and thighs quickly became chunks of ice. It was so incredibly cold that the streets were full of abandoned cars unable to handle such devastating temperatures. They’d just gasped, and died.
City officials warned everyone to stay home, if possible.
I was there to cook and clean for my exhausted oldest daughter, who was doing her medical residency at the University of Chicago Hospital. She had never had time to eat properly or grocery shop, or wash her clothes, or iron- any normal task- and finally became desperate enough to ring me to ask for help. I rode the train to her modest apartment the next day.
She would come home after 15 hours of non-stop doctoring and collapse into bed after downing a few bites of something nourishing. This insane existence would end June 31, when, at a stroke, she’d have a much more reasonable life, for the rest of her life.
I could tell you terrifying stories, but will content myself with just one tiny bit of advice. If you find yourself a patient in a teaching hospital, ask one question of the physicians treating you. “How long has it been, doctor, since you slept a reasonable amount of time- say six hours?”
Most especially, ask the residents. You’ll be shocked.
Anyway, I would walk for miles through Chicago’s huge downtown when apartment chores were done. The cold didn’t bother me. I wore three layers under my thick sweater, then donned two down coats, two scarves, a knit cap and down hood, long underwear under my cargo pants, and thick socks, fur boots and mittens. I was a short, snug, round green and blue polar bear who found the whole experience exhilarating.
Joe and I moved to Traverse City in 1990 because we love all the seasons; Chicago, part of the Midwest experience, can certainly demonstrate the worst parts of them. Fearsome, icy winds frequently drop the temperature to -20 degrees and lower, but I walked everywhere anyway, or hopped buses to downtown, and explored the length of Michigan Avenue, perhaps five miles, to check out the wonderful 19th century architecture, and admire the magnificent library façade. Once in a while I’d pop into a church to thaw, or a coffee shop to sip a hot brew, or, just as often, a mug of hot water. Cheerful attendants seemed amused by that request.
One day I rounded a corner and literally bumped into a street person just before entering one of those shops; the woman was walking toward the same door with bulging bags full of essentials dangling from her arms. More stout bags hung from a large, tired backpack. She looked me up and down, and then laughed a rich, mostly toothless belly laugh. “You as round as you is tall, girl; How can you see wit all dem caps an’ scarves?”
I grinned, liking her immediately. Together we strolled inside, where I bought us two lattes. She sipped her drink thoughtfully, comfortable with silence. Finally, she turned and, in response to my question about how she coped with this terrible cold, said; “Library’s warm. Early is best. Don’t nobody notice my sort.”
Another pause. “Why you out?”
I took my time, blowing on the coffee, and then grinned. “Why not?”
She laughed again, showing a few dark teeth. The reply pleased her. We sat there, watching hunched people hurry past the window, and shared a fat cookie. She told me she’d just been to a concert “over at the bus stop. Frien’ plays a hot clarinet. I gets mellowed out...”
Music. Oh boy! My passion! We exchanged blues and jazz favorites, and mourned Billy Holiday, and Louis Armstrong… She kept banging my padded arm to emphasize points.
I admired her beautiful headscarf, which had bass fiddles all over it, portrayed in burnished brown colors that complimented her dark coffee skin. “Dis here’s a gift — it jus’ blew by,” she grinned. “Dem’s de best sort.”
Soon it was time to move on; we two layered bundles ambled out and parted after exchanging grins. She disappeared without looking back. I felt much better, as I hadn’t chatted with a soul in ages. (Jen was always too tired to do much more than eat, stumble into her PJs and collapse into a deep sleep.)
That homeless lady’s name was Irma. She was 56 years old.
She’d lived in the city’s center, on the edge, for 22 years.