I saw it next to my computer. A phone number I didn’t recognize. It was on a scrap of paper I didn’t recognize either. I had no idea when I wrote it down. Maybe someone else wrote it down. I stared at it. It beckoned.
So I called the phone number. A voice spoke: “Go to the corner of Halsted and Division. There will be a phone booth. Wait there for a call. Don’t tell anyone.”
So I did. I took the bus. I hopped on the #8 Halsted, and when I got to Division the corner was jammed with people, all craning their necks to get a look at the sole phone booth. There was sort of a line, but it staggered here and there, and people jumped in front of other people to be closer to the phone booth. Plus people were yelling at each other, cursing, pushing. The whole corner had come alive, like an insect with twelve heads and a hundred legs, squirming like it had been stepped on.
“Are you in line?” I asked a lady who appeared to be in front of me.
“We’re not supposed to talk,” she snapped. “Then it won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
She stood there, pushing away anyone who tried to cut in line. Her arms were folded. She wore a stern look, a look that scared me with its sense of righteousness and discipline. A man got out of the phone booth. He had a discouraged look on his face and clutched a piece of paper. He walked away slowly as another took his place in the booth.
“It’s a test,” she hissed. “To see if we can follow instructions.”
“Oh,” I said. I wondered how she knew that.
“Did you call that phone number you found scribbled down and couldn’t figure out where it came from?” I asked.
She gave me another angry glare. A second man emerged from the phone booth, looking wan and pale and disappointed. Like the one before him, he slowly walked down Halsted Street, found a bar, and went inside.
I expected the lady to reply with something, but she stood there, fuming. She was clutching a piece of paper.
Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and faced a man about my age, with a scrap of paper. The scrap of paper had the same phone number on it that my scrap of paper had. I began to think I should have brought it. “Is this the line?” he asked.
I wanted to answer but remembered what the voice said. “Do not tell anyone.” Was this guy ‘anyone’? Was I? Did I count? Did the lady count? I put my fingers to my lips in the universal sign for keeping the mouth shut.
The man got offended. “Are you telling me to shut up?” he asked. “You want to put up your dukes?”
I shook my head from left to right, then right to left, the universal sign for ‘no.’
“Damn right,” he said. “Scared, aren’t you?”
I shook my head up and down, down and up, the universal sign for well, you know.
The sun reached its zenith. Halsted got hotter. People argued, fought, yammered in line. Some gave up and went home. Finally, the lady in front of me went in the phone booth, closed the door, and I heard the phone ring. She said one word, and then she hung up.
“Asshole,” she said to me as she walked down Halsted Street, and went in the bar the first man went in. Now it was my turn.
I entered the phone booth. It was claustrophobic and hot. I didn’t know what to expect. I had no piece of paper with me. I was emotionally naked. I was waiting for something, desperate, curious, eager to find out what the phone call might be about, hoping not to be discouraged. The phone rang.
“Did you talk to anyone?” the voice asked.
I decided to lie. “No,” I said.
“Not to anyone in line?” the voice persisted.
“No,” I repeated.
“OK, here’s the deal, asshole. Hang up, walk down Halsted Street and pretend to look discouraged. You’ll find a bar. Walk in and order a light beer. Don’t talk to anyone except the bartender. You’ve made it this far, friend. Don’t screw it up.”
I walked out of the phone booth, kicked the sidewalk like it was my worst enemy and slowly headed to the bar, which was now so full that the crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk. A sign outside the bar said:
Light Beer — $50
Everyone was quietly buying drinks. There was an air of expectation, but the subdued, quiet kind of expectation you sometimes see when people have to work extra hard to convince themselves that something is legit when it’s not. Julius Caesar once said, “Men will believe what they wish to be true.” Great insight, but look what happened to old Julius. I recognized the people here as folks who had preceded me in line. I worked my way to the bar, elbowing in front of people blocking my path, pardoning myself and secretly applauding my good luck in being unlike them.
“What’ll you have, asshole?” the bartender asked.
With a greeting like that, I knew I had it made. I was so overjoyed; I threw down my light beer and ordered another. It was only $60.
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I like it. Makes me want a beer.