The Poetry Garage

Publish Date: January 12, 2019

Traffic snarled at Dearborn and Madison. Ten minutes before Margie could squeeze her scrappy 2002 Honda into the backlogged buses, bullying cabs, and ubiquitous Ubers. Driving into the city was never worth the hassle, even when she needed a car. Tonight, she had a maybe date with Larry. Maybe, because he often cancelled at the last minute. Maybe, because it might not be a date. They’d been friends and work colleagues for over 25 years at Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago (recently rebranded, expensively, stupidly, LAF). Still, she was hopeful about what the evening might bring: she’d dust busted the car seats this morning to get rid of dog hair and she was wearing her flowy blue outfit from Second Time Around. 

She’d booked her parking spot with one of those new apps: Spacegrabber? Spotmonster? Sixteen dollars all day. A real deal because Loop retail was closer to forty bucks. Yasmina, a new attorney, fresh out of UChicago (which hadn’t yet been rebranded that when Margie attended), had downloaded the app on Margie’s phone, then insisted on adding another one named Venmo—"for, you know, like charging a friend after you buy them a latte.” Didn’t that defeat the whole point? Would Larry “Venmo” her for dinner tonight? 

Cyclists pedaled furiously past her car window. Divvy was the latest plague to hit the city. As with iPhones and sleeve tattoos, the blue bikes appeared overnight, infecting everyone under thirty, then slowly spreading to the older generation. Margie was tatt-free, planned to die that way, but she’d surrendered to Apple, bought a used iPhone 6S, last month. “I miss the flip-phone,” Larry had said, when he entered his info into her contacts. Unnecessarily, because Margie knew all his numbers by heart: home, office, cell. Address and email, too. Larry was the first person she’d met at LAF. She’d just finished a clerkship in Detroit; he’d arrived fresh from a Kibbutz where he’d picked dates 2 

for a year post law school. When they were baby attorneys together in different neighborhood offices, they talked on the phone for hours every day, had dinner at least once a week. She hadn’t found him attractive; he was tall and tan and tended to bump into things. But now, with his thinning hair and unkempt beard, his ever-stained ties, well, she could imagine growing old with him, maybe moving to Cape Cod? 

A pedestrian banged hard on the hood of her car. Cheap suit, briefcase, comb-over, no doubt headed for the 9:30 call at the Daley Center. He flashed his thick middle finger at her, disappeared behind a bus. Self-righteous jerk. He was the one jay-walking. Margie laid on her horn, loud and long, like a driver in a New Yorker traffic cartoon. 

Hadn’t Larry first won the caption contest on a cartoon like that? He submitted an entry every week, spending hours finding the perfect line, even when he was overwhelmed with cases. He’d email her his ideas, but she was terrible at picking winners. Terrible at telling jokes, too, apparently. Larry once said, “No one can flub a punchline like you.” But he also said that she was the best damn brief writer in the agency. “Precise and compelling.” That from his first evaluation of her work, when he became Housing Project Director, her direct supervisor, and she was bumped up to Senior Attorney, a title without a pay raise. He’d won the caption contest eight times in the last few years; twice the number of trials Margie had won in the past quarter century. 

The red light at Wells changed two more times before she got through, turned into the garage, and spiraled up to level five. W.H. Auden’s floor, because yes, this was The Poetry Garage and yes, she’d picked it for that reason, and yes, she wrote poetry in her spare time. She imagined retiring to a beach house with Larry. With her dogs, too. She’d sit with a mug of coffee, watch the waves, write nature poems, while he sat on the can, coming up with winning captions. 3 

Waiting for the elevator, she looked at Auden’s photo—young, horse-faced, slicked hair, big-ears. The words printed under his image: If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me. Why not Stop all the clocks, the poem made famous by Four Weddings and a Funeral? She’d seen that rom-com twice, foppish Hugh Grant and the admittedly awful Andie MacDowell. She saw it the first time with Larry at Webster Place. His nostrils had flared throughout the movie. “Sentimental crap,” he said afterwards, so she’d had watch it again on her own a week later to cry freely. Larry and she did better with books than movies. Better with restaurants than books. Though she was a little dubious about the Vietnamese place he’d suggested for tonight. She suspected Larry had been turned on to it by one of the pretty young lawyers he supervised. They got to you, the twenty-somethings, putting new tastes in your mouth, new apps on your phone. 

The elevator down: Frost, Whitman, Eliot. Emily Dickinson on street level. Was she the only female poet the floor-namer could come up with? If that were a full-time gig, paying decent money, Margie would love to name garages and then label their floors. She’d start with The Book Garage, each level titled for a favorite novel. Maybe one for movies . . . Chicago movies . . . Would there be enough? Blues Brothers. Adventures in Babysitting. Home Alone. At 53, Margie felt she was approaching irrelevance. She’d never be a floor in The Law Garage. She’d never won so much as a newsletter mention for her (admittedly minor) victories at LAF. And now she worked alongside iPhone X’ers, tech-savvy, Divvy-riders. They knew how to do things with computers that seemed liked sorcery. She’d fought the office manager for two years before giving up WordPerfect; she still missed the old key codes, hated the wireless mouse. 

Yasmina stood outside Margie’s office, misery drowning her fine features. Overwhelmed by their caseloads, new attorneys often lined up outside Margie’s door to ask questions: Is medicinal 4 

marijuana use cause for eviction? What about a therapy dog? Oral research was how legal aid lawyers managed to assist sixty clients a month. 

Margie held up her and like a stop sign. “Give me a minute, please.” 

She got five seconds. 

“Remember the family in that crappy building in Pilsen? Well, the landlord changed the locks on their apartment last night, so the dad, Jorge, broke a window to get in. Now the cops are there and the landlord’s threatening to call ICE and Jorge’s terrified he’ll be arrested . . .” 

Margie’s computer whirred to life. “I’m sending you my file on illegal lockouts. Fill out a petition--start adding names, summarize the events up to now. Attach the judge’s order from last week. Be sure to include the kids’ ages—the baby. I’ll head over there.” 

“Now? Are you driving? I can download the Waze app for you . . .” 

“No need. My car’s happy where it is. I can catch a cab, then Venmo Larry later for the fare.” 

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