Years ago in Chicago, Illinois, my U.S. stomping ground for over a decade, I was out on a summer night with my longtime friend Neelam. We had gone to a few of the Windy City’s many posh lounge bars and she was driving me home around 4 am.
Sidebar: The nickname Windy City came from « windy » politicians in the late 1800s who blew people over with their pitch to make Chicago site of the 1893 World’s Fair. That year celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World in 1492. The local politicians were successful and to this day, they have an infamous reputation (worst case Rod Blagojevich, best case Barack Obama). More than 200 buildings were temporarily constructed for the fair – two of which still stand today: the Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) and World’s Congress Auxiliary Building (today’s Art Institute of Chicago).
Besides politicians and museums, Chicago is known for its architecture (hello, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), restaurants (e.g., Alinea, Next), chefs (Grant Achatz and the late Charlie Trotter to name a few), blues music, sports (Bulls, Bears and Cubs), street festivals, Lake Michigan beaches, Anish Kapoor sculpture “The Bean” and for better or for worse, cops.
As for Neelam, she had a reputation for her book smarts topping her street smarts. Case in point, she got pulled over by a policewoman minutes before arriving at my door. The officer shined a big flashlight in Neelam’s wide eyes.
« Ma’am, did you see that curb you just ran over? »
« Yes, » said Neelam sheepishly. She thought no one had noticed but me who was startled awake by the impact.
In fact, Neelam should not have been driving — not because she was drunk, because she was tired and couldn’t see very well in the dark. Oh, and for a few other reasons as well …
«Do you know you have an expired license plate and no city sticker? » the officer implored.
« Yes, I’m planning to take care of those things at the Secretary of State next week, » gulped Neelam, a law school student at the time.
« Finally, you were speeding in a pedestrian zone, » the officer weighed in. «With four offenses, I need you to come into the police station. Follow me. »
On a Saturday night in Chicago, the police pound was the last place we wanted to be, especially for sunrise. My inclination was to ditch Neelam to go home to sleep but my freaked-out friend needed moral support … and as it turns out, human bail.
When we got to the police station, we were greeted by an affable police chief with a thick moustache. He eyed us with surprise.
« It wasn’t me, » I laughed, trying to diffuse tension.
« Ang-e-la! » Neelam exclaimed, turning into « Squeelam » with her high-pitched tone.
« Well, who do we have here? » the police chief laughed. The female officer answered with a list of Neelam’s offenses.
« In this case, you must pay a bail of $200 or spend the night here, » the chief said. Neelam’s eyes showed panic as she looked into a nearby jail cell holding some scruffy drunks.
« I will pay the bail, but I don’t have $200 on me, » she said. « Where is the closest ATM machine? »
Ha, as if Neelam was allowed to leave the police station. She had just been escorted there by an officer and she thought she could come and go on good faith?
« Sorry, I can’t let you leave without leaving something of value behind, » the chief said. « I need to know you will return. »
Neelam nervously looked at her small purse with little more than $10 and a lipstick in it. Then she sized me up and her eyes lit up.
« Can I leave her? » Neelam had the audacity to ask.
« Yeah, she’ll do, » the chief said, confident that Neelam wouldn’t leave me in jail in her place. She left to get money.
During what seemed like an eternity, the chief flirtatiously told me how to hot-wire a car along with other tricks of the trade. I made the best of the situation by cracking jokes and keeping the chief entertained to ensure he would let Neelam go easily. I was surely the most light-hearted jailbird he ever had. I stood at the reception desk cursing Neelam inside for leaving me as collateral.
Finally, she returned with $200 in cash to buy back our freedom.
« You have a very good friend, » the chief said to Neelam. « Drive her and yourself home carefully and get your license plate issues fixed as soon as possible! »
What a Saturday night … between Neelam’s and the police chief’s hot air, they gave new meaning to the Windy City.