I always woke up to the El. It ran all night, every half hour or so. I’d wake up, but then roll back to sleep. Then at some hour, usually too early, when the sun was starting to think about coming up but no one else was, then it would wake me up for good. I’d lay there in bed wishing I could go back to sleep one more time. It was like a snooze button. It would go off every ten minutes, every eight minutes, and I’d think, “Oh, I’ll sleep until the next one.” And then I couldn’t. I always loved trains growing up but I started to hate those L trains, just like the snooze button.
Kate slept through it. I guessed we showed our roots, right there. Kate the suburban girl, and me who grew up where it was so quiet a squirrel on the roof, or a single meadowlark might wake you up.
I always made the coffee. At school I had got to liking it thick, so you knew it was going to keep you awake. Not the thin browned water a lot of people make here. You get particular about the coffee when you have to stay up too late to study, or you’re getting woken up before you want to be up. It was still summer, still too warm, even up in our third-story apartment where the breeze sometimes seemed to blow in off the lake, even though the lake seemed a world away across miles of city blocks. I’d get a cup and put cream in it and go out on the balcony. The pigeons would scatter. We tried so many things to keep them off our balcony. Nothing worked. I’ll bet Kate is still fighting with them. We even bought a plastic owl from a hardware store. We were in a hardware store buying nails and picture-hangers and I saw this fake owl sitting up on a shelf and I asked the guy, “What’s with this weird owl?” And he said, “Oh, they keep the pigeons away from your house.” So I bought it. I guess people from the country are as dumb as people in Chicago like to think. Maybe it made the pigeons nervous for about five minutes but by at least the next evening they had made themselves at home again. We had a towel out on a shelf and after I scared those damned birds away I always had to wipe down the chairs before I could sit down and drink my coffee. I’d sit there, probably still in a bad mood from being woken up so early, and glare at that owl. Maybe if he had done a better job the morning would be better.
My dad always said that proof that poor people were undeserving of food stamps and other assistance was that there was plenty of food in every city, there for the taking, if people were smart enough and savvy enough to get it. He meant pigeons. I guess his grandfather had shot some a time or two while out hunting and he said they weren’t so bad to eat. He said poor people shouldn’t be so picky to have fancy store-bought food given to them. They should hunt up the pigeons that were everywhere and cook them. I could imagine wanting to shoot pigeons but not eat them.
Not so much in Minneapolis, but in Chicago, when I’d tell people I was from North Dakota, they’d give me this sympathetic look, as if they felt some kind of pain I didn’t have. The recruiter at the company said, “If I have to drive that far, I always fly instead. I always want to kill myself by the time I’m halfway across.” I wasn’t sure who should be pitying who. You couldn’t hear the tittering of birds in trees or the long calls as they swooped out over the fields. The steady buzz of crickets. Just horns echoing along the streets down below. You couldn’t watch the sun come up over the land. Just blocks and blocks of dirty brick buildings, with cracked windows and old wooden doors with peeling paint from years of little care. On those mornings, I used to think that I’d rather fly over Chicago, like a pigeon. And hope my dad wasn’t there to shoot me down. Like he so often seemed to be.