Chicago Portrait no. 49: Cool, Baby, Cool

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There is a door man at my apartment complex who personifies Chillaxing; not even “chill” the adjective or “chilling” the present-tense verb, or “to chill” the unconjugated verb. This dude is the concept and process of Chillaxing itself, rendered flesh, possibly mortal, possibly not.

His Chillaxity will suck you in and freeze you, but oh, what a lovely way to burn. It feels good to slip into this motherfucker’s ice bath, let me tell you, I slide down that chalet almost every evening and careen like a Jamaican bobsled team to my eager relaxed-as-fuq demise. I can’t explain how he does it. It’s not like he’s trying to entice me. He just does.

He’s probably about forty-two (though, since black doesn’t crack, he might be seventy), with twists in his hair, perpetual sunglasses, and two thick silver rings on the index and middle finger of each hand. He wears a vest and a crisp blue button up when he’s working. The cut and style of his clothes is almost embarrassingly retro. He reminds me of the counselors I used to work with at the Jail: laid-back, middle-aged black guys who love smooth jazz and Christ and fashion that went out of style in the 1970′s but still, somehow, works, through sheer force of Chillaxity.

When he’s not working, Mr. Chillaxity is dressed like fucking Crocodile Dundee. It makes no sense. I saw him on his bike two miles away from the apartment and he was wearing all olive drab, every article of clothing loose and water-friendly, plus a dark grey Boonie Hat with a long orange strap that went around his neck and into his exposed chest hair. He was wearing less dressy sunglasses than the ones he usually dons, indoors at the front desk of The Edison.

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That’s the name of our building now. The Edison. Pricey buildings have names and the apartment’s new owners want to make this bitch pricey so they have given it a name. There are raffles and prizes advertised on a janky poster board and new, more expensive furniture in the lobby. There was a Keurig in the lobby as well, but somebody got sick of buying the pods, so it’s gone.

The staff of The Edison are trying too hard and you can see the straining in the corner of their eyes and in all their slipshod work. The people in the rental office I mean. Not this guy at the front desk. Owners come, owners go, it doesn’t matter who cuts his check. This motherfucker is Chillaxing. He likes to go fishing on his off days, and the swamp attire proclaims this.

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When he saw me, I was hauling ass across the campus of Loyola University Chicago with an oversized black Vera Bradley bag my grandmother gave me filled with snacks from the Aldi and my big 17 inch laptop. I was hauling ass and carrying a wide heavy load, and that makes my legs hitch and my heels catch on the pavement. One leg of mine is longer than the other and I can “hide it well” as a boyfriend once told me (classic negging, I never knew I had a problem until he complimented me on it), but when I am tired or loaded down it shows.

Anyway, mister Chillaxing came up behind me on his bike and let out his signature phrase, which is “Cool baby, Cool” and he gave me his signature gesture, which is an A-Okay circle made of his index finger and thumb. And I was stunned to see him, then surprised to see him in swamp gear instead of his dress clothes, then happy to return his cool-baby-cool gesture the instant I recognized who it was.

“Funny running into you here!” I said with a smile. I didn’t ask some nonsense like “What are you doing here?” I hate when people say that upon meeting an acquaintance out of context. This man is a whole person with cousins and hobbies and apparently two totally discordant wardrobes. I know better than to be surprised to see him somewhere besides his desk at The Edison.

“Thought that was you,” he said, his voice all ice on gravel (perhaps spread on a frosty yard in central Ohio in late November before Thanksgiving, while the first snow comes down). “I would recognize that walk anywhere.”

And I smiled and GIGGLED and waved him off as he biked up the street to the to go fish with his cousins. I wasn’t mad. His comment wasn’t lascivious, though when I retold the story to my boyfriend later I made it sound lascivious on accident.

I was just trying to sound cool. Chillaxing. But I came across pervvy. Like that time in third grade when Samantha Lewis asked me for one of my Cosmic Brownies and I handed it to her with a napkin, WINKED, and said “Hey babe, you can uh, keep the napkin” LIKE I THOUGHT I WAS ELVIS OR SOMESHIT. And everyone at that lunch table in elementary school reeled in disgust and mocked me relentlessly. Whenever I am trying for cool or suave I come across like a sweaty-fingered drag king Elvis and it sucks.

But Mister Chillaxing did not mean to compliment my strange gait like he was pervvy drag king Elvis. No no. He wasn’t making fun of the hitch in my walk or the unevenness of my legs either. He just knew how I moved through space. He had seen it from his desk at The Edison a thousand times probably. Figure two or three times per day for almost three years. Yeah. He knows my walk.

He also knows that I LOVE his finger-circle-cool-baby-cool thing. TO PIECES. When I enter The Edison, sweaty and bedraggled, my boobs heaving into my underwire, my feet aching in the arches from standing all day in dollar store shoes, Mr. Chillaxing throws me that hand-circle and goes “Hey [something unintelligible, he’s too cool to project] what’s happening what’s happening,” and I say, “NOT MUCH HOW BOUT YOU” in a voice that is the personification of panicking (active, present tense panicking, not the concept, but the ongoing process of panicking) and he throws me the hand circle again and nods from behind his sunglasses and says “Cool, baby, cool.”

And then like a DISLODGED GHOST HAUNTING THE EARTH I throw that same gesture back at him. And oh God is it a white, sad display of camaraderie. Sometimes I even mimic his words. “Cool baby, cool,” I say, softly, like a child in the 1800s dying of pleurisy. But he doesn’t mind. He LOVES it. He doesn’t laugh at my awkwardness. He just repeats the hand gesture and says it AGAIN. “Cool baby, cool.”

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And then I…mimic the gesture and mimic his words yet AGAIN and keep walking through the lobby to the elevator (or if someone is already standing by the elevator, to the stairs, because misanthropy is the only thing that will make this bitch exercise). And he will keep echoing me and I will keep echoing him, and the hand circles might turn into peace signs and sometimes it falls apart and he starts just saying “Ahhh hhaaha, alright, hahaha, yeahh” but he keeps gesturing, and he keeps talking in a low, gravel-ice-sidewalk voice, and I keep repeating, “Cool, cool, cool baby,” and doing the hand gesture at him, unceasingly, and if I did not disappear around the corner or into the elevator I am SURE we would keep saying “Cool baby cool” and giving each other hand gestures until one of us DIED.

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And he sure wouldn’t fucking care. He’s mister Chillaxing! He has found his place in life (or at least his proper mindset) and he has a comfy office chair and a desk and a radio set to The Quiet Storm and his twists frame his face perfectly and he has not one, but two full wardrobes of similar-looking outfits, and he chats people up without saying much of anything and he is SO COOL, so effortlessly awesome. Why go anywhere? He has already arrived. Cool, baby, cool!

I bet he has a daughter who is embarrassed by him but LOVES HIM, who has really high SELF-ESTEEM and a boyfriend who is soft-spoken but absolutely SHREDDED, and maybe they will give him boatloads of cool, cool grand kids who crawl out of her uterus with shades on. On Christmas Morning. Because they will all be quadruplets and they will all be the next coming of Jesus. That’s how cool this guy is. That’s how effortless and blessed his existence is.

I am a firm believer that workaholism is a capitalist pox, and it permeates all our lives with unnecessary stress and self-loathing. Okay, I know plenty of communist countries worked people to the bone too, but right now I’m talking about the American Flavor of workaholism and the havoc it wreaks. We all feel this guilty need to justify our existences, to earn our right to live, and we will never actually get to that magical sweet spot of achievement and success and self-love that might actually scratch our existential itch, nor will we ever be able to relax without a haunting shoulder-angel of shame. So we work and work and never let ourselves Chillax.

We work too fast, too often, for too long, doing a lot of unnecessary shit. We do this to keep up with the other people we wish that we were, or to prove that we deserve the life we did not ask for, or to escape the torturous life we did not ask for. We isolate ourselves from those we love and from simple pleasures and boring necessities like the maintenance of our bodies or our houses so that we can keep churning out creative work, or making money, or getting things checked off a list.

And most of us don’t have any choice in the matter because we are economically boxed in. But even those of us who have the privilege of being artists keep working too often, too hard, for too long, making more content™ than could ever be watched or read by anyone, just to prove we are real, that we have earned our privilege, that we are still someone of value even if we don’t have to murder a hog out back in order to feed a family of 11 mewling infants.

And it’s all garbage. It makes me so sick. It makes everyone sick, whether by sleep deprivation, social isolation, burnout, or actual illness. If we could all just do less, and do it slower and more carefully, we’d all fuck up less, and be happier, and live longer, and savor those few, better works of art that each of us had the time to lovingly make. And a lot fewer people would have sketch comedy shows. And that would be good probably. And all I’m saying is, it would be a radical act if everyone strived to be just a little bit more like Mr. Chillaxing.

My best creative work is a collaboration that happens at night in the dark in bed with my boyfriend. NO I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT SEX, COME ON.

Our work in that department is derivative at best. I’m talking about the titters and giggles and in-jokes that bubble up from the quietest moments, when neither one of us has any obligation to produce or anything to prove. When I can make him laugh as he holds me in the darkness I feel like I have actually, really, made my own place on this earth. Not that I’ve earned it. Nobody can earn themselves a life. But I feel like I’ve finally been part of something of value.

I live so that we can get caught, together, in a story or a joke that has legs, and goes places, and leaves us laughing or yelling at the walls, our bellies tight and well-used, our minds pleasantly exhausted as we go off to sleep. It is best if we write nothing down, and it goes nowhere, and we forget whose idea started the goof. It’s best if he never turns it into a play, and I never make it into a sketch. It is the art. That moment.

Our best art is a love that no one gets to see; It’s a conversation that makes no sense and that nobody dominates. It’s a stream of relaxed, comfortable “Cool baby, cool”s that keep going, volleyed back and forth between two happy people, that seems like it’s never going to stop. When we’re performing for each other, we are at our most cool. In the space between us a new entity is formed. It is the human personification of loveliness.

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