Facing 40 on the Streets of Chicago
How Nine Strangers I Met on my Bike Helped Me Face a Milestone Birthday
I never felt old until a gap-toothed carnie guessed that I was 40 at a state fair in Syracuse last summer. The SOB was only three months premature, but it stung nonetheless.
“I’m only 39!” I protested.
“Bet you’ve got a birthday coming up though, don’t you?” he asked, barely able to conceal his glee.
I did indeed have a birthday coming up. A big one. But I hadn’t given it much thought until I saw the number 40 on the scrap of paper he used to document his guess. In the weeks that followed, I spent some time thinking about where I am in life and worried that time was slipping away from me.
I have plenty to be thankful for- fairly good health despite a serious illness in my 30s, a loving wife and two great sons- but some of my long-term goals remain unfulfilled.
I read a feature in Vanity Fair called “The New Establishment” which profiled 50 youthful movers and shakers like 35-year old Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, and Marissa Mayer, the 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo and felt like a failure.
Hoping to gain some insights that might help me, or for that matter anyone staring down the barrel of an intimidating milestone birthday, I rode my bike from my home in Evanston down to Chicago’s Loop, 28 miles round-trip, on a bright, unseasonably warm Tuesday in October 2012, and approached anyone who appeared to be at least 50 and looked like they had time to kill. The plan was to ask people what advice they’d give their 40-year-old self.
My initial interactions reinforced the absurdity of my quest. At around 9:30 a.m., I got off my bike a couple miles south of my home and approached a man who appeared to be Indian or Pakistani, sitting on a bench near the intersection of Devon and Western, the heart of Chicago’s largest South Asian community. He looked to be in his 50s and was clean-shaven and neatly dressed.
“I’m a journalist working on a story about wisdom,” I said, feeling slightly ridiculous. “Do you have a few minutes to talk?”
“Sure,” he said, “but I need you to help me first.”
“What do you need?” I asked, assuming he would hit me up for a few dollars.
“The C.I.A. poisoned me with mercury,” he said, looking around furtively and then unfurling a sheaf of filthy, stained documents from an inside coat pocket. “I need you to help me remove the mercury from my stomach.”
I told the man to sit tight and reassured him I’d be right back.
“You won’t come back, will you?” he said, rather perceptively, as I pedaled off.
As I rolled past the curiously named House of 220 Volt appliances, sari shops, and a host of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, I worried that anyone hanging out on the streets with time to kill on a Tuesday morning might have a screw loose. A couple blocks east of the bench where the Mercury Man sat, I stopped to talk to a pair of middle-aged men wearing Taliban-style beards and flowing shalwar kameez robes.
“Are you CIA or FBI?” the older man asked, in response to my stock question.
I elaborated on the nature of my quest and the younger man said that they had no time to talk. East of Western Avenue, Devon Avenue is also named after Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of modern Pakistan, and the road was all torn up, with massive piles of rubble in the middle of the street.
The plan was to limit myself to subjects I met on the street because I felt that if I approached people who worked in shops or restaurants they might be less candid. But I parked my bike and ducked into a place called the Hyderabad House for a spot of tea and an opportunity to reassess my approach.
An assortment of South Asian men were passing time with cups of tea and newspapers, including The Chicago Dispatcher, a publication for the city’s taxi drivers, and an assortment of Pakistani broadsheets in Urdu. A bulletin board featured a message from someone called “Brother Zeenan” who was looking for a roommate to share a $400 apartment in the neighborhood. A sign above a big wooden box filled with donations for a charity in Hyderabad advertised a $5 mutton biryani special.
Over a cup of strong tea that had a grotesque milky film floating on top, I wrestled with the idea of giving up. I wanted to pack it in, but I couldn’t help but think of all the other times in my life when I’ve given up on something because it was difficult or inconvenient. Quitting has often been my easy way out. This was a peculiar mission, but I decided to keep going. I wasn’t going to return home until I’d learned something, anything that would make turning 40 tolerable. I had no idea what I was searching for but goddammit, I was going to learn something if it killed me.
Pedaling east on Devon past a motley collection of Pakistani restaurants, a pawn shop, auto repair businesses and a place called the Baghdad Barber Shop, I was rebuffed by three senior citizens in separate incidents: an elderly Chinese man walking with a cane, a Mexican man in a cowboy hat and a Russian woman who carried a purse the size of Saskatchewan. Each said they spoke no English. According to census data, 35% of Chicagoans speak a language other than English at home, but if you poll random senior citizens walking the streets on a workday, the figure might be higher.
I stopped an older South Asian man with a kind face who said his name was Ali Kapabia, but he insisted that he wasn’t fit to offer wisdom.
“I’m an uneducated man,” he said, apologetically. “I never went to college. You should ask someone else because I don’t really know much at all.”
But with a little coaxing, Kapabia, a 71-year old divorced retiree who lives in a retirement home, agreed to talk.
“I should have gone to college,” he said. “I came to the U.S when I was about your age from Pakistan. I had no degree, and I got a job as a manager at a gas station. I did everything manually and I never learned anything.”
After years at the gas station, he moved to Atlanta to open a candy store. Business was “up and down” so he eventually found his way back to Chicago.
“If you understand technology and have a degree, no one can beat you,” Ali said. “If you have no degree, you’ll be washing windows your whole life.”
Emboldened by my encounter with Ali, I approached a tall, stocky middle-aged African-American man wearing dark sunglasses standing in front of Dino’s Bar and Grill, a hole-in-the-wall tavern at the corner of Devon and Clark that has karaoke and $2 beer specials. After he asked me how much time I needed, I assumed our conversation would be brief, perfunctory and awkward, but after a little small talk, we were off and running like old friends.
Leonard Powe is 53 and lives on Chicago’s South Side. He told me that he got mixed up with drugs as a young man and had a lot of friends and family members who were “in the ground or incarcerated.”
“But the man upstairs wouldn’t allow me to complete that journey,” he said.
A forklift driver at Republic Steel, Powe was laid off in 1992 and worked only sporadically, mostly at odd jobs, until last year when he found a job as a security guard in a nursing home down the street from where we were chatting.
“I have more time to think about life than you’ll ever know,” he said.
I expected him to tell me that he would have done things differently if given a chance to counsel his 40-year-old self, but Powe said he had no regrets.
“Where I stand talking to you here right now, if I walked off this earth today, I would be a happy man,” he said.
Powe said that too many people don’t appreciate their parents until they’re gone and admitted that when his mother died in 2009, he didn’t have enough money to buy a headstone for her grave.
“In two and a half weeks I’m going to visit her grave to pay tribute to her,” he said. “Money’s still tight. It’s taken me three years to save up for the headstone but I’m ready to do it now.”
Before he left for his shift, Powe outlined what he’d tell his 40-year-old self, speaking deliberately, almost dramatically, like an actor on stage projecting to his audience.
“Be patient. Love your mom. Love yourself. And know where you are at all times because you never know what’s hidden behind a door or a corner.”
I coasted through Loyola University’s campus, and made my way onto Chicago’s 18-mile long lakefront bike path, which starts adjacent to Kathy Osterman Beach. There were only a few people out and about, some were walking dogs, others were having a smoke or killing time with a newspaper. Visiting Chicago’s lakefront out-of-season can be as melancholy as arriving at a carnival just in time to watch them wheel away the rides.
A half-mile down the path, I got off the bike and introduced myself to a pair of seniors who were out for a walk with their grandchildren. Emma Solovychik, 72, a retired scientist, and her husband Mendel, 73, who was an engineer, emigrated to Chicago from the Volga River city of Samara in 1995 to be close to their son, a doctor who lives in the Edgewater neighborhood.
They conferred for some time in Russian before Emma delivered their wisdom consensus.
“Live close to your family,” she said, standing underneath a big tree on a bluff above the beach. “That is the most important thing. We take care of my son’s children and we talk to him on the phone 3 or 4 times every day.”
The wind picked up and the gusts made me feel as though I was spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere as hardcore cyclists in neon outfits plastered with logos like Formula One cars blew past me like bullet trains blasting through the Japanese countryside. It seemed like a metaphor for my quest. I’d heard some interesting stories and made a few friends, but wasn’t sure if anything I’d heard was going to help me or anyone else make it past a milestone birthday.
I veered off the lakefront bike path to get some lunch and was rebuffed by a series of women on my way to a place that specializes in Korean tacos. A well dressed woman who was on her way to a doctor’s appointment said she’d talk to me but wouldn’t tell me her name, which disqualified her in my book; a Polish woman waived me off, claiming she couldn’t speak English; and an idle Russian woman sitting on a park bench said she was too busy to talk to me.
After my feast, I rode back to the bike path and met Dr. Michael Levy, 78, a Lincoln Park resident who was out for a walk.
“What do you want?” he snapped, as I flagged him down.
Despite the abrupt greeting he agreed to talk, and as we walked together, he said that he was happy he’d chosen to work as a physician for a non-profit, rather than chasing bigger paychecks. He claimed that he had no regrets, but when I asked him if he had done it his way, like Frank Sinatra, his response caught me off guard.
“I didn’t do it my way,” he said, a little brusquely. “I had obligations and I fulfilled those.”
There was a hint of disappointment or regret in his tone, as though he’d had some dream that he’d never had a chance to pursue but when I asked him to elaborate, he said, “I don’t know. People have to figure things out for themselves.”
Down at North Avenue Beach, where in the summer Chicagoans preen in the sun, three more middle-aged women rebuffed me, one, wearing a sun visor and cotton housedress, simply held up her hand in front of her face and shook her head without saying a word.
I had made a point of dressing nicely and I was only approaching people who looked bored. I smiled and tried to appear as nonthreatening as possible but many people wanted nothing to do with me.
South of North Avenue Beach where the path widens considerably in the chilly shadow of North Michigan Avenue’s apartment buildings, offices and hotels, I met Ray Lahan, a 69-year old hippy who said that he was a retired postal mail fraud investigator.
“I know I don’t look like it,” he said, flicking a pile of his long gray hair over his shoulder. “I wore my hair short for 30 years but now that I’m retired I can do what I want.”
Mahan told me he wouldn’t change a single thing about his life and insisted that he wouldn’t second-guess any of the decisions he’d made.
“I have no ungrateful kids, no nagging wife and I get to do exactly what I want to do every day,” he said.
Mahan, who has an apartment in the Loop but travels seven months out of the year, said that thanks to his frugality he’d managed to retire young but had never really settled down.
“I’ve been from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to 1,000 miles up the Amazon, down the Nile to Aswan, and all over the South Pacific,” he said. “I knew I wanted to travel since I was 18 and it’s hard to do that with a wife and kids.”
On my way back north, I met Lori Richardson, a 52-year-old attorney and professor who divides her time between L.A. and Chicago’s Gold Coast. She looked too young for my project, and I had to awkwardly ask her how old she was.
“Marry late,” she advised, eager to offer her life’s wisdom. “Make your decision about whether you want to have children early on. And move on if what you’re doing isn’t fun any more.”
A half mile up the bike path, just beyond Fullerton Avenue, where scores of busy looking people scurry about like rats in a cage, I broke my rule of stopping only approachable looking people, flagging down a gray-haired woman with striking blue eyes who was taking a walk with iPod ear buds in her ears. I don’t know why I stopped her out of all the busy looking people rushing past me, but she took off her headphones and suggested we take a seat at a bench with a sublime view of the city’s skyline.
Carol Griffith, a 61-year old nurse who lives in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood, laughed out loud when I asked her what advice she’d give her 40-year-old self.
“Oh, I’d have a lot to tell myself,” she said. “Where should I start?”
At 40, Griffith was an “angry” woman, trying to move on with life as a single mom of two teenage daughters after a bitter divorce. She had been married to a wealthy man but decided that she didn’t want alimony because she preferred to live within her own means. As a nurse, she’s spent her life caring for sick people, but her perspective on health care changed after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
She beat it, but then in June 2012 she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer despite the fact that she’s never smoked. She’d been through six rounds of chemotherapy, but on this day was stoked that she could walk a few blocks longer than usual. Despite her grim prognosis, Griffith said she was thankful because her illness had given her the opportunity to slow down and reflect.
“I look around in Chicago and watch people rushing around like crazy,” she said. “And I used to be the same way. Everyone’s looking at their phones and not noticing what’s going on around them. People bump into you. You have to slow down and learn to put things in perspective.”
She said that she understood now, but not at 40, that you have to savor every moment in life. And you can’t micromanage your children; you have to let them make their own mistakes. Griffith’s 31-year-old daughter was pregnant and she said she hoped that she’d live long enough to see her become a mother.
When I asked her to elaborate on what else she’d tell her 40-year-old self, Griffith said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Simplify and don’t collect things. And slow down.”
“Things tend to work out,” she said. “We’re a very resilient species; we just have to believe in ourselves a little bit more.”
Carol said that she was due to return to her next round of chemotherapy the following week and though I didn’t want to seem creepy, her story and her willingness to share it with a stranger touched me and I wanted to stay in touch. We exchanged contact information and as I pedaled north along the path back towards my home, I felt choked up but also oddly exhilarated.
There was something hopeful, something wonderful about Carol, but at that moment I wasn’t ready to digest what it was. I was riding slowly up the bike path, noticing the beauty in how the clouds were dangling nearly on top of each other like clumsy dance partners, the way the leaves fluttered in the breeze, the way everyone hurried by, lost in their iPhones, oblivious to the world as Carol said.
I retraced my route, noticing little details that I’d missed on the way downtown when I was preoccupied with finding sources of wisdom- like a statue erected to honor Daisaku Ikeda, a visitor from Japan who witnessed an act of racial discrimination against a young child in the park and felt moved to do something about it. I had walked or cycled past it hundreds of times but had never stopped to find out what it was.
I rode nearly all the way home, mulling the advice I’d heard from Carol and Ray and the others I’d met, and didn’t stop until I saw a kind faced African-American woman waiting to cross Ridge Avenue in the West Rogers Park neighborhood, just south of my home. Her name was Betty Jones and I joined her as she walked to her night shift job at the Warren Park Health & Living Center. Jones, 61, told me that she cares for mentally retarded adults and, while she enjoys her job, she wished that she’d gone to college and studied to become a nurse rather than dropping out of high school at 15 after she got pregnant.
“I should have furthered my education instead of putting my own self on the back burner for my children,” she said, more matter-of-fact than bitter.
Jones said that she had her second child at 17, married a different man at 22 and was divorced by 24. She had no real childhood but made something of her life by getting her GED and landing a job as a social worker. It wasn’t lucrative but she liked the way the people she cared for missed her when she was gone and how loving they were.
“The society doesn’t recognize these people, they just want to shut them away where they won’t be seen,” she said. “People find excuses not to come visit their children in these places. But they’re human beings! They know what’s goin’ on and they’re more loving and compassionate than we are.”
I parted company with Betty in front of her workplace and as I turned back north to go home, my thoughts turned back to Carol and something she told me.
“I love beautiful days like this one,” she said. “Because now I appreciate every minute. People are moving so fast, they don’t appreciate it. Right now I have this beautiful day and that’s all I need.”
I picked up my pace, riding faster than I had on my single speed bike all day because I wanted to get home and shower my wife and two little boys with hugs and kisses. I had told my wife that I didn’t want to celebrate or acknowledge my birthday in any way, but I couldn’t wait to tell her that I’d changed my mind.
Carol and the others I’d met helped me realize something very simple, but also very important. Birthdays, especially milestone birthdays, are an occasion to celebrate, not dread. A birthday is a reminder that you’ve survived another year. It’s a time to be thankful for what you already have, not an excuse to brood over what you’re still hoping for.
A year after I met Carol, a close relative was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and I reached out to Carol to see how she was doing. She offered to talk to my relative, to be there for us- even though I was just a stranger she met on the bike path. Here is what she wrote:
“I am doing fine. In fact, after 18 months and 21 rounds of chemo, my condition is stable and I am on ‘a chemo holiday.’ It is a very intimate, lonely, precious, scary process when you have to face your own immortality.”
I checked in with Carol again last week and she reported that thanks in part to a smart diet, meditation, yoga and the power of positive thinking, she continues to do well more than two years after her cancer diagnosis.
“I try to stay busy with my very large, supportive family, my granddaughter and a new one on the way,” she wrote. “Life is good!”