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Night in the Underworld


   This is a short story about a guy simply known as Red, who tried to make the best of a bad situation once he had lost his job in the banking industry after sixteen years of service. He'd also broken up with his girlfriend of three years a few months prior to being laid off, and he tried to find other employment in his field before his severance package ran out. However, Red found a lifeline in driving for Uber and made good money doing so. He would eventually be tested and would have to make the choice to either continue driving for Uber or to quit. Night in the Underworld dives into the world of sex, drugs and murder on a rainy May night in Chicago.

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    There had been a steady May rainfall since the early afternoon on Friday, and the streets were beginning to flood. Rush hour traffic on Sibley Boulevard in Dolton, Illinois was at a virtual standstill, as the visibility was near zero, because the shower had morphed into a torrential rainfall. I had to swerve away from what looked like a small pond on the right-hand side of the street, in order to avoid potentially flooding my engine while on my way to the Walgreens on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Sibley Boulevard. The plan was to buy two Arizona green teas because they had the two-for-a-dollar special going on, and I needed to stay hydrated for the duration of the evening. I also wanted to grab a burger from the Rally’s that was a few blocks west of the Walgreens, after I filled up my gas tank at the Food-4-Less grocery store.

    My name is Red—I had been the only caramel-complected dude on my block with hair as reddish-brown as mine was back in the day, so the name stuck to me like glue. I had started driving for Uber in the Chicagoland area four months after my unemployment benefits and severance money ran out in a year’s time, as I’d had no luck find a job earning the money that I was accustomed to making in the banking industry. However, being single had allowed me to be frugal and stretch out the money as long as humanly possible.

    The job layoff had also been a blessing in disguise, even though I couldn’t fully recognize it at first glance. My last day of employment at this check processing firm in the West Loop was December 10, 2013, and I was on my way to work after being on vacation for a week. I had used the last of my days because I couldn’t carry them over into the next year, and that burned-out feeling I had a week prior was gone. There was nothing out of the ordinary happening on this particular day at first, as I made my way to Interstate 94—a two-minute ride from my apartment in Calumet City, Illinois. Traffic flowed steadily to downtown Chicago until I got to the Kennedy-Eisenhower split, so I exited the expressway at 22nd Street and Canalport Avenue to avoid the traffic buildup. I then drove northeast on Canalport Avenue to Canal Street, and I rode Canal Street all the way to the Apparel Center where I worked for over sixteen years as a sorter operator of my department for a financial services firm.

    I routinely circled the perimeter, looking for free parking, and found a spot next to Jewel-Osco grocery store that was three blocks from the job. I remembered it being cloudy and briskly cool while I hastened toward the dock area of the building. The usual suspects were on break taking smokes, and I customarily greeted the security guard before heading to the elevator. There was usually a long wait for the freight elevator to come down to the basement—but not on that day. It came right down a few seconds after I pressed the button.

    There was something strange in the air at that moment, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on it. I rode the elevator alone up to the eighth floor and looked at my watch. It read 2:36 p.m. Damn, I was late again by six minutes, I thought. Being late was a bad habit that I’d developed over the last year—I had a good attendance record, but punctuality wasn’t my strong suit. I had been going through the motions for years because I’d reached a point where I was unfulfilled at work and saw no future in staying with the company.

    I got off the elevator and walked past the women’s bathroom to my left toward my area to swipe in, and there was dead silence. We had been in the process of moving the entire department to the other side of the building on the eighth floor before I went on vacation, and the move was completed once I had gotten back. All the computers, supplies, and coworkers’ personal belongings were gone, and all that remained within the area were the empty desks and cabinets, the empty racks where the checks were stored, and the obsolete DP-1850 check sorters that were shut down completely a month ago. My job had been phased out, and my company was moving in another direction. However, I had been training on the newer, slower check processing machines that were equipped to handle a much smaller volume of transactions and felt somewhat secure that my job was safe for the time being.

    I subsequently scanned the entire office and couldn’t find a single living soul, so I left the area to go to the other side where everyone else appeared to be. That was when I was met halfway down the hall by one of the first-shift bosses, and she requested that I follow her to one of the conference rooms in the vacant office. I sensed at that moment my services were no longer needed. The head of the department and a human resource administrator were waiting for me once we arrived in the conference room. The first-shift boss left, and the three of us had a closed-door meeting. I was then told that my services were terminated, the company was moving in another direction with the changing of technology within the firm, and that I had a severance package coming. They also said there was assistance available in finding another job, courtesy of the company, and they wished me good luck in my future endeavors.

    The meeting had lasted ten, maybe fifteen, minutes or so—but who was counting? I shook both gentlemen’s hands, gave the human resource guy my ID, and left the building without a personal escort. I’d witnessed dozens of former employees whisked out of the office as if they were common criminals threatening to shoot up the building because they had been fired, but I was able to leave with an ounce of dignity for having clocked in sixteen years of service. Or maybe they let me leave on my own accord because everyone else was safe and secure on the other side of the floor. Nevertheless, I didn’t give it anymore thought after I made my descent to the first-floor lobby on the elevator.

    My last day was just how I had envisioned it—no tears, no goodbyes from coworkers, and no regrets. I’m sure I was the talk of the office for a day at least, and I even got a text from my team leader wishing me well. I’m a loner who would shun any spotlight or fanfare, so my departure was the perfect ending to a solid but unspectacular career at my former place of employment.

    I sauntered back to my car trying to digest what had just taken place. I wasn’t angry, worried, or sad—surprisingly, I felt relieved and free. The thought of never having to darken the doorstep of my former employer gave me a sense of peace that I never experienced in my forty years of life at the time. I thought I could now apply for the jobs that offered the salary comparable to the lifestyle I wanted to live, because my severance package and unemployment benefits would allow me several months to be selective in my job search and put my degree in business administration to use. I left the downtown area and got on the southbound Dan Ryan Expressway. “Welcome to the first day of the rest of my life” was what I thought at that time.

    Fast-forward slightly over five years later, and I was essentially my own boss in a sense while driving for Uber, because I can pick my own hours and days of the week when I worked. I had a great rating from my riders at 4.89 out of a possible five stars, and I took a great amount of pride in getting my passengers from point A to point B in a safe and timely fashion.

    My first experience with Uber was surprisingly normal—well, almost normal. My goal was to start in the south suburbs where I lived and work my way downtown where the money was. Being a newbie at the time, I didn’t have a full understanding of how the process worked, but I knew I could figure it out as I go.

    The Dan Ryan Expressway had light traffic going northbound, and I headed to the Loop and didn’t receive a fare until I reached 87th Street. Wow, my first fare, and I was excited and nervous at the same time. My phone chimed and flashed simultaneously as the Uber app indicator posted the address of a woman located on 83rd and Holland Road. What? The distance was only a half mile away, but I was unfamiliar with Holland Road. How could I not know where this street was being raised on the south side of Chicago? I had the option of accepting or rejecting the pickup, but I decided to accept it even though I didn’t know exactly where to go.

    I drove to Vincennes Avenue, where Simeon High School was, and the app kept redirecting me to the point of total confusion. My first fare was now sure to be a disaster, and the passenger was probably going to curse me out and give me a bad rating. I eventually figured out that Holland Road was where the new Walmart and Lowe’s were located, and to my surprise, the lady was nice and understanding when I finally arrived at her pickup—a hair salon in the strip mall. She lived a few blocks away, and the conversation was pleasant. My first rating was five-star in spite of me getting lost. Thank God for that.

    Finally, I was able to park in the Walgreens lot after it took me nearly ten minutes to drive a half-mile in rush hour traffic under hazardous conditions. I waited until the rain lessened in intensity before I went inside of the store to get my tea.

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