The dogs at Chicago’s Belly Shack are the best. In the bare, post-industrial setting of this diner beneath the rumbling tracks of the L, you can get a Belly Dog loaded with egg noodles and pickled green papaya. Add a little mustard and a side of Togarashi fries and you’ve got the makings of a beautiful episode of indigestion. Which I got. And which propelled me into a local 7-11 for some Tums on my way to the funky independent bookstore in Wicker Park.
I was waiting on a plane to land at midnight, bringing my college student daughter from Dallas, just like my plane had brought me in from back East. Inveterate explorer that I am, I couldn’t let a few spare hours keep me from the tastes and tales of the city. In stark contrast to the quiet riches of my small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Chicago is a vacuum sucking in the stimuli of the world and displaying them with the curator’s art for a Friday night feast.
It was the rugby teams that sucked us in to town. My daughter spent a semester in New Zealand and their national rugby squad was meeting the Irish in a match at Soldier’s Field. The next day we were high in the upper decks, so steep that handholds would have been helpful in the steps. But the weather was warm, the lake was blue-green, and the crowd in good spirits.
Rachel is my co-conspirator in adventure. She knows that what lies around the next corner is likely to be vital and so why not careen in its direction? There’s always a story to tell in the unexpected.
As when a cold, wet sensation assaults you late in the first half. Rachel jumped forward. I swiveled in my seat to see the man behind me holding two cups, one of which held beer that he had been attempting to pour into the other only a second before.
“I am so sorry,” he said with genuine contrition. “I don’t know what happened.”
“I know what happened,” I growled. “You poured beer down my back!”
I wiped the seat and turned back to the field. Was it anger I was feeling? Discomfort at now being condemned to wearing a beer-soaked shirt the rest of the afternoon? Humiliation? An awkward silence set in.
My mind raced back thirty years to a baseball stadium in Texas. My wife and I were in the upper decks watching a game with friends. I went for nachos and returned with two flimsy trays of stale chips and neon orange goo. As I made my way through the row I glanced ahead to see my wife gesturing to me wildly. I looked down to watch as a generous dollop of the so-called cheese fell from the tray I was holding onto the back of an unsuspecting man in a white shirt. And he was my third victim. Unawares, I had completed the extremely difficult triple play…and none of them had noticed.
I sat down and watched the evidence of my shame growing as three streaks of orange descended their backs. Behind us fans began to notice and yelled, “Shout it out!” and “Put your arm around your boyfriend!” The whole of the section became cheerleaders for my further embarrassment. So I finally leaned forward and fessed up. They handled it remarkably well. Much better than I was now handling this episode.
At halftime I stood and turned to talk to the man behind me. Before I could get out a word, he was apologizing again. “I’m really sorry, man. Can I buy you a hot dog or a beer?”
I turned philosophical. “No, it’s alright. I was just remembering that I did something very similar to three guys who were sitting in front of me at a baseball game one time. So I figure this is just karma.”
“Oh, I feel really bad for you then,” the man’s friend said. “That means there are two more guys out there waiting to give you payback!”
So there may be. But I won’t live in dread of what comes next. I’ll give thanks for the journey that keeps us small and makes us large. And I’ll stay close to my fellow travelers, despite what beer may come.
Alex Joyner is a writer and pastor on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. His most recent book is A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel & Palestine [Englewood Review, 2014].
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