I bought “Big Guy” the day my hair froze the first winter I lived in Chicago. Big Guy is a calf-length, black, down, Eddie Bauer coat. It zips up the front, has a hood that draws tightly around my face, and is good for weather down to -40°. Big Guy is thirty-seven years old this winter.
It was 1982 and my husband, kids, and I had moved here from Texas over the summer for me to attend graduate school. We lived on the top floor of a three-flat in Roger’s Park, in the middle of the block on Pratt Avenue, east of Sheridan Road. Our street dead-ended on Lake Michigan. My campus was downtown Chicago, and every morning I walked a block and a half to the bus stop on Sheridan Road and took the 147 Outer Drive Express to the city.
I don’t remember what hair styles were popular in Chicago in 1982, but I was a “Texas girl” and my naturally fine, straight hair had been permed into submission earlier that summer before moving north. Every morning I got the kids up and dressed, and while they ate breakfast, I took my shower. The remnants of my Texas girl perm made it fast and easy—step out of the shower, towel-dry, scrunch, and go.
The morning my hair froze was late fall and, although the weather was getting colder, I had yet to shop for a serious winter coat. That day the temperature had plummeted overnight and wind was whipping wildly off the lake. Suddenly, my hair felt like tiny twigs scratching my cheek. I touched it and was shocked. In the time it took me to walk to the bus stop and wait a few minutes for the bus, my hair had frozen solid.
Boarding the bus, I avoided eye-contact because I wasn’t sure if my hair looked as strange as it felt. I hurried down the aisle imagining I looked like Medusa. Finding a seat at the back of the bus, I gently touched my hair, afraid it might break. I blew on my hands and carefully cupped each individual strand until it thawed. Then I prayed it would all dry before I reached campus.
After school, I walked to the Marshall Fields department store in Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue. Having talked with other women experienced in Chicago weather, I already knew what I wanted—a long, black, down coat with a hood.
In the coat department I immediately found my coat. It wasn’t hanging from the circular rack, like the others. It was on a hanger, but laid over the top of a rack. I took it off the hanger and tried it on. It was exactly my size and exactly what I wanted. The only thing missing was a price tag.
“How much is this coat?” I asked the two saleswomen at the cashier’s desk. “I can’t find a tag.”
They examined the coat, and one pointed to the label. “This is an Eddie Bauer coat. We don’t sell Eddie Bauer.” They checked the pockets, looked at the lining. The coat was obviously brand new. “Someone must have left it here.” We looked around, but there were no other shoppers in the coat department. “Where did you find it?”
I showed them the rack, and, because it was on a hanger, the women concluded that it had been traded for another coat from the rack. This was long before security tags or computers. It would have been easy to make a switch and walk out of the store. “Sorry,” said one of the women, shrugging. “We don’t sell Eddie Bauer here.”
Still, I persisted. “But what if I want this coat? How much would it cost?”
The women looked at each other and seemed to come to a silent agreement. One went to the coat rack and looked through the other long, black, down coats examining the tags. “Sixty dollars,” she said.
I bought it on the spot. How could I not? It might be magical thinking, but I’ve always believed the coat was meant to be mine. Maybe I conjured it. Maybe something else was in force to put me there at the right place at just the right time. I’m sure no other coat I pulled from the rack would have lasted this long.
Big Guy has served me well over the years. All through graduate school and internship, whenever I took public transportation and found myself waiting at a bus stop or on an el platform in freezing weather, I was grateful for the comfort and warmth it provided. A scarf, down mittens, and tall insulated boots were all the additional equipment I needed to safely navigate Chicago’s ice, wind, and snow.
I named it “Big Guy,” because Southerners tend to name inanimate objects (and old habits die hard), and because it got the job done. Over the years I’ve accumulated lighter coats and jackets, and even a dressier down coat, but I still keep Big Guy for the worst weather. Because of my Eddie Bauer, I’m can take long walks to the lake mid-winter instead of being trapped inside. And it’s a great spare when my BFF Tanya visits from Arkansas.
Although slow in arriving this year, winter weather has now hit Chicago with a vengeance. At this moment, it’s 11° and 24° is today’s predicted high. Right now the wind-chill makes it feel like -5°. Two days of snow hides patches of treacherous black ice awaiting a careless step. But it’s all good—I’ve already pulled Big Guy out of the closet. After thirty-seven years, it’s a little worn for wear, but Big Guy still gets the job done.
January 25, 2020 @ 10:07 AM
Beautiful story Sheila…
January 26, 2020 @ 8:01 PM
Thank you so much, Susan!
January 25, 2020 @ 12:01 PM
Refreshes my memories of those bone chilling winter days in Chicago. I too lived in Rogers Park for a time and stood on the el platform praying for the next train to come. “Mecca” continues to be read in this small southern town. It has made the rounds of all of our book clubs and enjoyed by all. Hoping for a next book.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:04 PM
Oh, Mimi! Thank you so much for your kind words. So you KNOW the importance of having a “Big Guy” in Chicago! And thank you for the news about East of Mecca. Please remind me where you live in Texas. I’m working on another novel, but it’ll be awhile. Thanks for the encouragement.
January 25, 2020 @ 12:28 PM
The topcoat I bought in Chicago in 2005 still lives in my Texas closet. I have worn it maybe twice since coming home – we rarely have weather worthy of true Chicago outerwear. I am glad to know it’s there in case I need it.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:05 PM
Thank you so much, David! Yep, the weather here is definitely different than what I remember in Texas, but I love Chicago so much it’s worth it.
January 25, 2020 @ 1:29 PM
You and Big Guy stay warm, my friend! Always love your writing….even when the subject is more difficult. Hope you are doing well?
January 26, 2020 @ 8:07 PM
Thank you so much, Dianne! I always love connecting with you. And yes, thank you, I am doing well! I hope you are, also.
January 25, 2020 @ 2:05 PM
I, too, am awaiting another book about your amazing life! I could use a “Big Guy” when our Texas winters drop below 40 degrees. I never seem to get warm.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:09 PM
Thank you so much, Nelda! I’m working on another novel, in the meantime I plan to write more essays. Stay warm in those Texas winters! Houses and clothing just aren’t made for the cold down there.
January 25, 2020 @ 2:42 PM
Sheila, I love that you named your coat ‘Big Guy!’ And that he’s still going strong.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:10 PM
Thank you so much, Maureen! So nice to hear from you. I hope you’re well.
January 25, 2020 @ 10:01 PM
Great story Sheila. May big guy keep on truckin.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:11 PM
Thanks so much, Joanna! I plan to keep Big Guy around for the duration.
January 26, 2020 @ 5:58 PM
I loved your story about “Big Guy” and have a big sleeping bag of a coat myself that I bought 14 years ago before going to Russia to bring home one of our sons. It has served me well and is my official dog walking coat now. Being Irish myself, I love your Irish name and feel like we must have crossed paths at some point in our lives since I lived in Evanston for 27 years and am now in my childhood home (which my Dad built) in Wilmette. Thanks for the lovely story on this cold, gray winter day.
January 26, 2020 @ 8:13 PM
Thank you so much, Meg! You certainly know the value of a dependable coat. I agree, we must have crossed paths! Where exactly did you live in Evanston?
January 26, 2020 @ 8:07 PM
I bet those saleswomen pocketed your $60! Ah, Chicago!
January 26, 2020 @ 8:17 PM
Hey Nancy! I’ve had that same thought, myself! xo
January 27, 2020 @ 12:49 PM
Great story, the freezing hair, the coat orphaned and quickly adopted like a rescued pet, the name–love your story-telling, Sheila. May you write many more stories.
March 22, 2020 @ 1:05 PM
Sorry for the late reply! I just saw this. Thank you so much, Sylvie, for your beautiful comments. I hope you’re doing well. Please check in and let me know.
January 30, 2020 @ 4:39 AM
I am not a fan of big cities but Chicago is one that I enjoy. Love your story.
March 22, 2020 @ 1:06 PM
Sorry for the late reply, I just saw your comment. I’m glad you loved my story AND Chicago! One we’re past the plague, if you’re ever going to be here, let me know and maybe we can meet for coffee or a drink!