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Fear of Falling

(Photo: You never know where life will take you. Credit: Looper.)

Walking out my front door and into the remains of a bank robbery this evening brought to mind the absurdity of life. Never knowing where it’ll take you, it’s always best to be prepared for any eventuality. This eventuality brought six police cars, two paddy wagons, and an undercover police taxi to the foot of Marina City to arrest a pathetic-looking homeless man who had just robbed the Chase Bank beneath the House of Blues Hotel. Tried to rob, anyway.

Bystanders told me he made it to the sidewalk, though from the look of him, I doubt he made it out of the bank. Given that most Chicago bank robbers make it at least to their getaway cars, I wondered how well this man had thought his plan through.

It’s the same thought I had last Friday, when the tornado sirens went off in downtown Chicago for the first time in 47 years. Despite the looming black sky rolling in from the west, Devyn was set on a trip to Office Depot. He’d make it there before it closed or die trying.

Which had the potential to happen, as I pointed out while we argued over the definition of “Tornado Warning”. It didn’t help matters that Devyn was at home in his low-rise Loop condo, while I, on the other end of the phone line, had a window seat to the approaching squall line from three-hundred and fifty feet in the air.

I won the argument. Not because Channel 7 said there might be a funnel cloud approaching the Loop. Not because the Weather Channel’s website gave a time, ten minutes away, for its potential arrival. But because in mid-sentence, the loudest siren I’ve ever heard in my life began to wail.

I believe Devyn’s next words were something to the effect of, “I think I’ll stay home, then.”

As you can imagine, New Yorkers like me don’t have much experience with tornado sirens. Apparently, neither do downtown Chicagoans. As I and dozens of my neighbors stood on our high-rise balconies and peered variously at the horizon and at each other for some sense of what to do, we knew standing on a concrete ledge glued to the side of a tower probably wasn’t the best place to ride out the storm.

But when you’re, say, 40 stories up in a building without much of a basement when the tornado sirens start to wail, really. At that point, what does it matter?

I told Devyn I loved him and hung up. Something said to head for an interior stairwell, once I could catch Camoes and thrust him headfirst into his carrier. Computer, carrier, backup. Phone, cell phone, wallet. Moving like. Chicken with. Head cut off. Everything important dragged into the bathroom, awaiting orders for the troop movement into hallway, then stairwell.

And then I gave up, accepted fate, and went back to the balcony. I saw the tallest, darkest clouds I’ve ever seen in my life envelop the Loop before a wall of water and wind devoured my view. And then the sirens stopped and it was over. All sound, little fury, no funnel, thank God.

The sky began to clear while I checked my pants for signs of damp. Devyn called back and told me he was finally headed out the door. Just so I wouldn’t worry.

I wish I’d been as prepared for my fate as my Korean friend, (I don’t frigging look like Margaret Cho) Rozella, the moment when she felt the parachute cords flop back onto her head. On her first ever–and now maybe final–tandem freefall, she felt her jump partner wriggling behind her, cutting away at something, working desperately.

The first moments of falling hadn’t been so bad. Just like a roller coaster for a few seconds, until you really get going. Then the wind pressure kicks in and it’s not like you’re moving at all, anymore. You watch the horizon. Gaze at clouds. Peek at the ground. View the parachutes of your Eugene college buddies who pressured you into this jump against your better wishes open, open, open, open, one after another. Wonder why the hell you’re still falling.

“Well, that explains it.”

As Intercontinental Ballistic ‘Zella hurtled back towards Oregon, a strange calm descended on her. “This is it,” she thought, “I’m dead. God has a sense of humor, and it’s a dark one.”

The humor wasn’t lost on her pals from the first jump who’d already made it back to terra firma. Looking up in unison at the potentially doomed pair, they shared a single thought: “Damn! Wouldn’t it be funny if that was Rozella? She didn’t even wanna be up there.”

While her jump partner struggled to free them of the failed ‘chute, Rozella let the calm overwhelm her. She thought of her parents. She giggled with God at the irony of her death. She reviewed the things she hadn’t yet done. Have a baby. Live in Europe. Get the cleaning back from-

OW! OW! GOD DAMN WHAT THE FUCK! An emergency ‘chute opening a few hundred feet above the ground leaves deep-tissue bruising under arms, on thighs, for weeks after.

Rozella handled it well, though. She’d been in the cross hairs of that dark sense of humor before. She knew God was playing. A test, to keep one’s head in a crisis. She passed. Best of all, her friends, in tears and in shock, and apologetic as anything for making her jump, were putty in her hand for the rest of the semester.

As she hobbled away from the landing site, she could hear another instructor ask her jump partner under his breath:

“What the hell happened to you up there?”

“…I have NO idea.”

* * *

It’s absurd to me to think that a blog I began barely a year ago to help me figure out my life has become something of a local newsmaker. I write what I see, and think, and feel about my downtown Chicago neighborhood because I deeply believe that downtown living still gets short shrift in this metropolis of leafy streets and backyard barbecues. I’m gratified my edgy take on my neighborhood and my life has resonance for some.

But I’m still trying to figure out whether I’m the writer that my friends keep telling me they see me becoming, or just another big-mouthed New Yorker. Those among you who just mouthed, “You’re both,” are the ones to whom I’ll probably owe steaks in the future.

Opportunities have arisen for me because of this blog that I never expected to happen. They keep happening. I have absolutely zero idea how to take it all in, but, what the heck, I’ll go with the flow. I’m nothing if not a media whore. But read my words or not, I’ll still be madly in love with downtown Chicago.

So to those groupies among you, and you know who you are, no flashbulbs, please. Hurts the eyes. I prefer a show of support in wine–a Portuguese vinho verde if you’ve got it. It helps keeps the performance anxiety at bay.

I promise not to over-imbibe, though. That just dulls the senses. And I don’t want to end up like Rozella’s jump partner.

Wherever my words take me, I want to be prepared for the ride.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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21 replies

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  6. I didn’t see them, no. But in this week’s Time Out Chicago (TOC #84), there’s a photo of one of the funnel clouds passing over Humboldt Park. And now having seen it, I’m sure happy I didn’t see it the day of, considering that it probably passed nearly over my head. And if there’s one thing you can say for us former New Yorkers, we don’t much like going flying without an airplane.

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  8. So you didn’t see the funnel clouds? I did.

    I was on a northbound Ravenswood (I refuse to use the colors, probably because they stuck us with brown). We were between Sedgwick and Armitage. Being from the southwest suburbs (tornados go there to snack) I figured we were too close to the heat island that is downtown for those suckers to become full blown tornados. But it was interesting to watch. I have no idea what I would have done if I was wrong and one of them actually touched down.

  9. Yeah, I heard that tornado warning siren too, and didn’t know what it was. I was lying on my sofa, half watching the evening news and half dozing off… I’d heard that there was a tornado warning for Cook County but I was too sleepy to really pay attention. When the siren went off, it was partially drowned out by the TV, so I just thought it was an emergency vehicle or something, but even in my groggy state, I could tell it sounded “different”… then just two minutes later, Jerry Taft during his weather report said people from the North Side had phoned the TV station, alarmed due to having heard the warning siren go off. It was almost surreal.

    I live on the 13th floor of a highrise (in my case, not downtown, but further north up in Lakeview), and it’s a good thing no severe weather hit where I live, because I was too sleepy and lazy to take any action, like get off my duff and seek shelter in my building’s basement or something. I was totally out of it.

    Is it just me, or have we been having an awful lot of rain lately?

  10. You have just described my worst nightmares: standing on a balcony in a high rise (storm or no storm), and falling, falling, falling. I’m glad both had happy endings! 🙂

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