One Thursday not long ago, I found myself just off Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown, outside a grass-and-gravel lot full of semitrailers and shipping containers, looking down through a chainlink fence. Something on the ground had caught my eye. It was early, and the neighborhood was just getting cranked up. Trucks throbbing to life, bilge pumps kicking on, dishwater being thrown in the alleys. No matter to me: I was staring at a waving cat.
It was the plastic kind that Chinese restaurants put near their cash registers. A big one. Right there on the ground inside the fence. It was waving for me. Beckoning.
I tried to find a stick long enough to reach it. Nothing. No sticks in Chinatown. I was looking around, searching for wire or something, when I noticed an old Asian guy in a butcher’s smock jogging across the street toward me. I figured he wanted me to move along, maybe to stop lurking around his shipping containers or to quit skulking near his stoop. Whatever. He had every right.
“Are you OK?” he asked me gently when he arrived. “Did you lose something?”
I assured him I was fine. “I’m just waiting for someone,” I lied, kicking at the dirt.
He touched me on the arm. “I was worried about you,” he said. “I always get worried when I see someone looking down for a long time. I think: What have they lost? What have they found?” He smiled and shrugged. “Both can’t be good, I think.”
He had no idea about the waving cat. I certainly was not about to tell him. But that cat was the first thing I found by looking down in Chicago. In my mind, what you find in a city is always some measure of news. A waving cat had to be good news.
My parents used to tell me not to look up at the skyscrapers when visiting New York. Old-hat advice. They said it gave you away as a tourist. “And don’t look at your shoes, either,” my father told me as I was walking 34th Street with him. “You aren’t going to find a hundred-dollar bill. There’s nothing on the ground that someone hasn’t noticed already. When you look down, you could walk right into Mr. So-and-So and start all kinds of trouble.” I didn’t know what Mr. So-and-So did for a living, but it was good advice, I thought. This was the ’70s, and that was New York, so you kept your eyes level. I did that in every city I visited for the better part of three decades.
Then I came to Chicago. Chicago is an eyes-up city. You are compelled. The skyline, the towers, the planes crabbing into Midway, the walls of those office canyons, the lights of Wrigley, the blessed disk of the sun, the weather incoming. Even that silly Ferris wheel. Up. All of it. Up. It is a joy unlike any other, to stand by the lake and look up at the mass of the city with nothing but water at your back.
But sometimes you have to look down. Sometimes you have to move through a city by regarding only what’s just ahead of you, or below you. This is how you walk when you know a city, a neighborhood. When you have to think, rehearse, reflect, prepare. You look down.
See, my dad was wrong. Look down long enough, concentrate on what you are stepping over and around, you start to see that clues to people’s lives sometimes slip from a sheaf of papers, tumble from a purse, or get left behind in a rain. Yes, you have to stop and look. You have to bend down to consider what it is you have stumbled upon. The world unravels stories in the smallest wisps from a steam grate at the corner of context and insinuation. Looking down can show you a city just as well as looking up, maybe better.
I did it for the better part of a week recently—walked with my eyes down and a backpack over my shoulder. To see what I could find and what it would tell. I had my rules. I didn’t pick up garbage (arguable, I suppose), though I certainly could have, and probably should have. I didn’t pick up anything food-related. Nothing sharp. Nothing wet. I avoided vacant lots. I didn’t pick up menus. No advertisements. Except matchbooks. I wanted matchbooks.
Over five days, I found 146 items worth documenting. And not a single matchbook. But I did stumble upon three working cigarette lighters. Four broken cigarette lighters. Three working iPhone chargers. One USB cable that had been cut in half. One pair of headphones. Two stray keys. Nine business cards. Seven recognizable pieces of broken plastic toys. One active cell phone. A to-go box with 18 fried dumplings in it, still hot. A set of tempera paints. Fifteen pens. Two pencils. A detached hood from a designer raincoat. Three shopping lists. One list of party invitees. A beer coaster with a message scribbled on it. A dollar. A usable pair of Vise-Grips. And much more.
I piled up the stuff in my backpack and then in the back seat of my truck. I took photos of where I came across each item. I kept a list, took notes. I wanted the items recorded. I wanted them to feel evidentiary. Sometimes I would walk for hours without finding much of anything. I’d catch myself looking up, window-shopping without thinking about it, staring at nice cars, weird guys on expensive bikes, or women in sleeveless dresses. A city is designed to keep your eyes level, to engage with things to covet. In those times, I had to remind myself to look down.
A lot of what I’d spotted turned out to be trash. You’d be surprised how much the plastic label of a bottle of Dasani looks like an American Express card when it’s been compressed by time and foot traffic into the decaying corpse of a squirrel. And yes, that was a real thing. So were the dead birds, inexplicable mud, half-eaten burgers, vomit, melted ice cream confections, rotting veggie wraps, even the occasional maggot. I saw four rats in four days (not a bad ratio, in my mind). When you look down at your city, there’s a certain amount of ugliness you have to look past.
Let me tell you where I found certain things.
In Wrigleyville: a spatula, missing its handle, propped in an alleyway where someone had obviously been grilling the night before.
On Lake Shore Drive: that Vise-Grip, six inches long; a flash drive for a home security system; an eyeglass lens.
In Chinatown: an unopened bag of drinking straws.
In the middle of the crosswalk at Damen and Shakespeare in Bucktown: a shopping list on a blue Post-it note.
- teriyaki sauce
- m. fitch
- my butter
On 63rd Street Beach: a three-quarter-inch roll of used black electrical tape; a pirated Hot Hip Hop/R&B Jamz 2017 Vol. 1 mix CD; a suction cup.
Some finds made perfect sense simply for where they were found. It was in the alley outside a bar near Printers Row that I came across the beer coaster, the one with a message on it: “Keith Price Wake Up.” A stern note from a woman, written late at night? A warning? Wake up, fool, before I leave you. Maybe Keith saw it. Maybe not. Either way, it was lost in the vast blur of the city by the next day.
I found a golf ball in the grass near the Chicago Yacht Club off Lake Shore Drive. Sheesh. A shiny new Callaway, a gleam of light nested in the dense greensward. At 8:45 in the morning. Someone had been practicing. Since I have already spent too many hours in my life looking for golf balls—days, weeks even—I figured I was due. So I pocketed it. Nice ball, too.
I found a neat little pile of business cards on a garden wall in Millennium Park. Someone had been cleaning out their wallet over coffee. One was for a pizza place in Amsterdam. Another for a film company in San Francisco, with a phone number scrawled on the back. Also, two parking receipts. And a plastic key fob for the Fitzwilliam Casino & Card Club, which turned out to be in Dublin. I called.
“Yes, that’s good for entrance,” a woman with a British accent told me. “If you’re the fellow, that is.”
“The fellow in question,” she said. “The owner of the fob.”
“I couldn’t use it?”
“Well,” she said, then paused. “I don’t know why you would. You’d want your own membership.”
I was bent on getting things back to their owners at this point. I stupidly offered to mail the fob to Dublin, which I knew was like returning a keycard to some Super 8 in Kansas. It would be useless. The world had already recoded itself.
“You’re in Chicago, aren’t you, love?” the woman in Dublin said to me. “Aren’t you just rammed with casinos over there?”
She had a point. That evening, I went to the Horseshoe, not to gamble but to look down, to scan the ground at my feet. I found two cigarettes lying crisscrossed in the elevator lobby of the parking garage. It looked purposeful, like an X on a pirate map, so I left them. The casino floor, prowled by the luckless minions of a Tuesday afternoon, offered less than you might think. Mostly thumb-pinched cocktail napkins and unfinished highballs. And these generally disappeared quickly. Nothing is left on the casino floor for very long.
I found a large green marble in Humboldt Park.
A multicolored plastic Hawaiian lei in Pilsen.
A brass hair clip in University Village.
In Logan Square, I found a trove of underinflated balloon figures splayed out on the ground in Senior Citizens Memorial Playlot Park, like someone had quickly abandoned a birthday party. I took the only balloon dumbbell.
As I left the park, balloon dumbbell in hand, I saw that someone had left a cell phone on a little slate wall near the entrance. Oh boy. This was the gold standard. I had found an item with value, built-in consequence.
I looked around. Twice. Then picked up the phone, which was unlocked. There were six names in the directory: BeeBee, Gigi, DeeDee, Fifi, Meshayshay, and Me. I waited about five minutes, looked at two texts, felt creepy, then decided that Me in the directory must be the owner of the phone. I punched the number.
A woman answered. “Hey, baby.”
“Hi,” I said. “I found your phone.”
There was a pause. “Who this?”
“I found your phone,” I said. “I’m just trying to return it to you.”
“Where’d you find it?” She sighed loudly.
“In the park,” I said.
“Now listen. This is my phone,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I can just leave it here in the park …”
“I’m speaking into my own damn phone,” she said. “You ain’t got my phone, motherfucker!”
“This number said ‘Me,’ ” I stammered.
“No, you. It said ‘Me.’ M-E. I thought it was the home phone. M-E. Wait, are those your initials?”
“Oh, you’re on Kiki’s phone. You got my friend Kiki’s phone.”
She told me where to find Kiki. “She calls me Mimi, or just Me for short,” she explained. “Which makes no sense ’cause my name is Debra.” She then apologized for yelling. “That’s why I don’t ever touch nobody’s cell phone,” she said.
“I found it,” I explained.
“You don’t ever want to find a cell phone. You don’t even pick them up.” She took a long drink of something. “You got some bad luck now.”
Bad luck or no, I pressed on. In an afternoon rainstorm, I found a vial of insulin on the south end of Bronzeville. It was an unopened prescription. I called the pharmacy and asked if there was any way I could get it back to its owner. “The only thing I would do is toss that box away,” the man on the other end said. “I know him. He lives in the neighborhood. I’ll call the old fool.”
Look around a city, and by that I mean look down in a city, and you’re going to see a lot of socks. Tube socks. Gold Toes. Hospital socks. Control-top pantyhose. Usually just singles, but you do come across the occasional pair. And while, in certain doomsday scenarios, a sock might be a good way to carry small necessities in a sudden exodus, the sheer number I found was astonishing. I can definitively say that I found at least 27 different socks across the city, from Boystown to Little Village. And I left them where they were.
Except for two. A pair of baby socks I found near Soldier Field. They were on a sidewalk in a park, where babies were being conveyor-belted around in strollers. The socks had clearly fallen out. They were clean, brightly colored like a flag, and they smelled like baby. Those were the socks I actually wanted. It’s rare to find something cared for, lovingly prepared, on the sidewalk.
I found a cell phone charger on North Halsted, in the gutter next to the passenger-side door of a Lexus. As I was untangling it, a young guy walking his dog said, “Just put it on the windshield.”
It sounded like a command. But then I realized he was giving me advice. “I find a lot of chargers, and cell phones, when I’m walking here,” he said. “That’s where people lose them, just as they’re getting out of their car. On the way to get cocktails.”
His dog sniffed the cord. Then snorted. I looped the cord up and left it under the wiper. The young guy murmured his assent. “Rich people don’t drop very much,” he said. “But if you find something really good, keep it.”
If you want to find something good on the ground in Chicago, walk under an overpass. People do live there. And they leave things to be picked up later. Like notes. They set up little shrines that no one else notices. Under an overpass in Chinatown, I saw the word “luv” formed from chicken bones. Under the L tracks at Clinton and Lake, I found a bag full of magazines—including GQ and a UK edition of Elle—and a stack of six pennies, all heads-up. I left them because I figured some guy somewhere was counting on the bag of magazines still being there, and maybe the pennies, too.
One afternoon I was walking east along Belmont when I ducked in an overpass and came out on the side where traffic was exiting Lake Shore Drive. There on the ground lay a set of tempera paints in extraordinary condition. And just behind a bush was a cardboard sign:
- HELP GOD
This was clearly one of those places where people live, survive, and ask for help from those sitting in freshly leased Audis at the stoplight. I liked the sign’s phrasing, how it could be read more than one way. I grabbed it and the paints and walked back to my truck.
At the corner of Belmont and Sheridan, I stood waiting for the light to change, holding that panhandler’s sign under my arm like I’d made a good buy at an estate auction. Next to me, there was an old guy with a library cart full of small clay Chinese figurines that he was delivering nearby. They looked like the Terracotta Warriors.
He caught me staring, and I nodded to him. Smiled. Then he calmly reached in his pocket and held out a five-dollar bill to me. He had read the sign and wanted to help.
“Oh, no, no,” I said.
“It’s OK,” he said. “Take it.”
He pressed the fiver into my palm. Then the light changed. He started forward. “You didn’t ask,” he said. “I understand.”
“It’s OK,” I said, following him into the crosswalk. I held out the money. But I didn’t know how to explain. Had I found the sign, or had I actually stolen it? How could I offer up my dopey anthropological curiosity in the face of his genuine generosity?
More things I found: A piece of Brie, a full quarter wedge, which I did not touch, on Clark Street in the Loop.
A little broken saint figurine on Randolph Street, near the Kennedy.
A list of 11 names, lying on a street in Boystown. Invitees to a party. Or stops on a delivery route. I could not say. Hard to read. All but one of the names were crossed out. The one name? The first one on the list: Tom Switzer. So the list was lost just prior to Tom Switzer receiving his invite, or his folio, or his congratulatory bottle of prosecco. I walked around with that list, stopping in every grocery or restaurant, thinking for just a moment that I could make things right for Tom Switzer. And for the list maker, too, who apparently thought of Tom Switzer first. I explained this to a bartender, and he looked at me like I was dim. “Maybe those are for subpoenas,” he said. “Maybe this guy Switzer doesn’t want to be found.”
I admitted that this was a possibility.
“I find things in here all the time,” the bartender added. “I just put them in a box and forget them.”
“What do you do with it after that?”
He shrugged. “I put it in the dumpster first of the year. Unless somebody asks.”
I must have raised my eyebrows, because he got a little testy. “What’d you expect? Do you think everything that gets lost is going to find its way home? People leave stuff behind.”
I was on the north side of Washington Park, wandering into a field littered with plastic bottles, when two shirtless black kids approached. One jogged right up to me. He was maybe 17 and had a tiger tattoo on the right side of his chest. He looked at me, then at the ground at my feet. “Did you lose your keys?” he asked.
“No, I’m just looking.”
The other one came up on us then. He was older than I had thought, maybe 25. His right arm was a cascade of three-letter tattoos. One of them said “ART.” Another said “RIP.”
“What’s he looking for?”
“Just looking,” the younger one said.
I explained what I was doing then. They seemed to get it.
“There’s some toys here,” the older one said. “I saw some yesterday.”
Suddenly they were looking, too, kicking around the grass.
“I find shit all the time,” the younger one said.
“You found lottery tickets,” the other said.
After a few minutes, the older one declared, “Them toys are gone.”
“You can’t expect toys to last,” I said.
“Here you go!” the younger one suddenly shouted, pointing down in the grass. “Right here.”
He was pointing to what appeared to be the bottom half of a plastic animal.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s the shit,” the older one said. “They’re Japanese toys.”
“Man, that shit is straight-up Pikachu!” the younger one said.
It looked like the bottom half of a penguin, embossed with little hearts.
I knelt down and picked it up, and a clear liquid oozed forward into my hand. Having been slimed, I dropped the toy.
Both of them started laughing. The younger one covered his mouth. “It’s full of skeet!” he said.
I reached down and picked it up again, using two fingers. “Man, you crazy,” the older one said.
It was soap, I told them. I could smell it. “If you say so,” the younger one said.
I thanked them for the help.
“That’s what you wanted to find?” the older one asked.
I looked at the half penguin pinched between my thumb and index finger. “It’s just what I did find,” I said.
They seemed good with that explanation. Or maybe they had grown bored with me. Just like that, the two of them walked away, their eyes level with the city.
I hadn’t gone looking for anything in particular. I didn’t really expect to find anything I could use, though I was not averse to the possibility.
Now I have a box full of stuff from my four and a half days of looking down.
Sometimes I arrange it in my own little shrine. I guess it’s all mine now that I’ve brought it home.
People leave stuff behind. That’s a fact.
Like me. When I went back for that waving cat? Gone. Some jerk had just come along and picked it up.