Keep Those Receipts – Chicago, Illinois

Keep Those Receipts
Chicago, Illinois

The inevitable paper trail, a businesswoman’s friend, can also be a constant source of aggravation. Stacks of paper on the desk, in drawers, in purses, tucked in the most inconceivable places! But it is necessary. So, when I traveled to Chicago recently for a two-day writers’ conference, my accountant was very specific about keeping track of things.

“Keep every scrap of paper you come into contact with,” he said. “And remember, your mileage – you can deduct that as well. And anything you buy that is related to your work.”

Every scrap? Inwardly, I cringed. I’m not what anyone would call organized. Keeping track of receipts was going to overload my poor brain. If he’d asked me for every gum wrapper I’d ever opened, I probably could find and stack them in rows by color, size and chewability. For some reason, receipts elude me.

I smiled, nodded my head reassuringly and made a mental note to take along a separate envelope for the inevitable mountain of receipts. Then I got online, and purchased Amtrak train tickets.

The morning we left, I got online and checked the weather. Chicago was warm. No jackets! A grin on my face, I threw my trusty Michigan State sweatshirt into my carry on, just in case, and I re-hung my jacket on the hook by the back door.

Three writer friends were supposed to attend the conference as well, but a half hour before I left for the train station, the phone rang and premonition sunk in. One of us would be staying home. Sure enough, Lisa’s baby had a temperature of 101 degrees. Making a quick call, we canceled the second room. (Normally the hotel manager said they do not allow guests to cancel within twenty-four hours of arrival, but they admitted they always made allowances for sick children.) So, though we felt sorry for Lisa, things were still looking up.

I picked up Vanessa and we met Jodi at the station. We parked and climbed aboard the train with no additional hitches. As the train moved away from Ann Arbor, the first hint of a paper trail problem reared its ugly head. I’d forgotten to write down the mileage to and from the station. I’d also forgotten to bring an envelope for the receipts. Not to worry. I opened my trusty carry-on, found a notebook and scribbled. It felt good to know I was on top of things, and I vowed to continue that way for the remainder of the trip.

Along with the notebook, I stored all thoughts of work. To me Chicago conjures various visions. Work is not one of them, but shopping is and we’d planned to spend that afternoon doing just that. About two hours into the train ride, we decided to check out the food car. Lunch presented another problem – it left a receipt on my tray. Hmmm, paper trail? Not sure if this was an expense I should be reimbursed for or not, but to be on the safe side, I shoved the receipt inside my wallet. That was number two on my paper trail. I have to say it felt good to be on top of things.

As we neared Chicago, excitement bubbled. We were anxious for our vacation to begin. The fact that it was freezing with the hint of rain blew the Michigander theory out of the water. Michigan isn’t the only state where weather changes every five minutes. Hello, Illinois!

We took turns wearing what became known as the “tourist” sweatshirt the remainder of our stay. As it turned out, it doubled as our shopping outfit and evening-wear, as well as lingerie. Looking every bit like tourists, we flagged down a taxi. Our destination – downtown. We had no specific address, so we’re sure the driver took us to the farthest point he could find, the part where construction was well underway on every street. We watched with wide eyes as the meter continued ticking. Though no one said it aloud, we all wondered if that cabbie knew a faster route. The fifteen-minute trip gobbled up a precious bit of our valuable time, and money.

We learned an important lesson. Seems if you give a cabbie twenty dollars for a fifteen dollar fare, he will keep the change. That’s just a fact. The taxi driver also doesn’t care about paper trails. I didn’t get a chance to ask, that’s how I knew. He’d already zipped forward to collect another bunch of tourists who probably weren’t sure they were already downtown and wanted to find it. He was friendly, but busy. He had his own paper trail to worry about.

In the interim of shopping for batteries for my brand new digital camera, we rode the escalator to a food court in a high-rise shopping mall where approximately fifteen different restaurants vied for our attention. When I finally got to the head of the line, the Chinese broccoli and beef that I wanted was gone. I’m a picky eater and attempted to order a specific meal. Near to impossible when you’re in a buffet line and those holding the ladles on the other side of the counter don’t speak a word of English. Flustered, I ended up with some kind of chicken concoction I didn’t want, forgot my receipt, and lost my silverware as I meandered between tables searching for my friends.

I got some wonderful shots of downtown Chicago, though. There was a beautiful little church across the road. I aimed, focused and pushed the button just as a yellow cab sailed past. Hmmm. Try that again. I ended up with several pictures of the church with cabs sailing by at breakneck speed. Changing tactics, I attempted to get a photo of the skyscrapers and passers-by. Not a problem. Cabs whizzed past, and even added to the photo. What’s a picture of Chicago without a cab or two in it?

The conference was in Elk Grove Village, some twenty-two miles into the suburbs. Our next adventure was to board the Metro commuter train for another receipt. But since I’d bought the snacks we’d shared earlier, Jodi picked up the tab for the train. So, no receipt. The Metro was several blocks away and the ticket master said it was smarter for us to walk, rather than take a cab. As if the Michigan sweatshirt wasn’t enough to give us away as tourists, walking down the street with our suitcases in tow was like using a bullhorn. Before we reached the station, two well-manicured gentlemen walked up from the side, one moved to the front and with some quick talking, figured out we were going to the Metro. The other quietly slipped behind us. As if a gust of colder wind had hit us, we felt their presence in a negative way.

My heart beat faster as I turned to look the second man in the face. He smiled and nodded his head, his eyes dropping to Jodi’s laptop. “How ’bout you all let me help you carry them heavy bags,” the first man said with much politeness. Still, something about his offer to carry Jodi’s laptop didn’t sit right. We declined his offer but he escorted us the entire way, asking several more times if he could carry one of “them heavy bags.” As my friends ducked into the station and I turned to thank the two gentlemen, I was the only one who saw their outstretched hands. They’d had my number all along. And now they also had some of my hard-earned bills, as well.

The commuter was similar to a school bus ride. A lot of the people knew one another, and the conductor was very friendly. At this point, it was obvious we were lost, but everyone pitched in to get us pointed in the right direction. One woman even flagged down a cab for us when we got off at her stop. Everything was slower paced in the suburbs. We were impressed, even the cabbie drove the speed limit.

The conference was good. We met a lot of other writers and enjoyed the shared information and networking. There were more receipts for the hotel, the meals and purchased supplies. Receipts found their way into various pockets in my purse and suitcase.

All too soon, it was time to head back to Chicago. Luckily, we’d asked the night before when the trains ran on Sunday morning. There was only one train that morning, much earlier than we would have liked, but I shudder to think what a slow twenty-two-mile cab ride back to town would have cost us. Rather than wait for an hour at the station, we hauled our luggage into a nearby restaurant and had the best meal since our arrival.

The front desk worker, a young Lebanese gentleman, apparently attended the local university and couldn’t resist giving me several friendly jabs regarding my Michigan State sweatshirt. But aside from that, the morning started out on a high note, despite the rain which continued and by the time we reentered the city, some streets were beginning to flood. We picked our way through the puddles and muddy water and got to the Amtrak station with plenty of time to wander around. We checked our bags into a locker and wandered the station like true tourists.

We found a huge display of ten-by-twelve foot encased pictures of firefighters and policemen who had been on site at the September 11th tragedy in New York, and lingered to pay our respects. Reading firsthand what they went though was daunting. The part that got to me the most was the gleam of unshed tears in their eyes.

Inside the station, we were given another reality check – the homeless. One lady was pushing a huge suitcase in a wheelchair, wearing every piece of clothing she owned. She pushed the wheelchair about twenty feet, then stopped and turned around and walked back the way she had come. A moment later she’d appear again lugging another large suitcase to the first stopping point, then return for a third one. She continued this process all the way through the station.

As she neared our cafe table, we decided to leave the rest of our pizza on the table for her. Sure enough, when she passed, she picked it up. That felt good. She also cleared the table and threw the trash into the garbage pail. I watched in silence as the bag with my daily receipts fluttered into the trash along with the rest of our garbage. I could have fished it out, but that didn’t seem right.

From there it was a quick stop in the bathroom to wash up. As usual, there was a line. I patiently waited my turn, then quickly stepped into the next open stall. To my chagrin, this particular toilet seemed lower to the ground than the standard toilet, and there were no sanitary seat covers. If your mother taught you anything, it was not to sit down on a public toilet. It was ridiculous to think my weak knees were going to hold me in squatting mode for more than two seconds, so I made the famous X on the toilet seat with two long lines of clean toilet paper.

Maneuvering carefully in the compact compartment, I managed okay. Knowing the reluctancy of said knees to hoist my entire self back to a standing position, I rose slowly, six inches at a time, my knees creaking out the tune to Dueling Banjos. To my further dismay, there were no paper towels. But since necessity is the mother of invention, I dipped my wet hands between my thighs and dried them the old-fashioned way on my jeans. A few chuckles in the long line behind me let me know others had found my solution agreeable. I turned, smiled and walked out.

During our forty-five minutes before we boarded for our return trip, I saved an elderly woman who had mistakenly thought the down escalator was the up escalator and had fallen, losing her glasses. Unbeknownst to me, Vanessa had quickly saved my luggage which I promptly discarded in favor of saving the old woman. Apparently there were those on hand who were interested in my abandoned suitcase. We also befriended a young college student, who was headed to the same track on her way back to Eastern Michigan University in Michigan and appeared as lost as we were. Under our wings, she made it to the correct station. At that point, she took us under her wings and helped us drag our suitcases and gift bags to the correct line.

Having found our destination, I stopped, exhausted from dodging people and listening to my complaining knees. It had grown increasingly warm in the station as it filled and my lower back had begun to itch. Thinking my allergies were rearing their ugly heads, I began whining.

“Guys, I need to sit down. I think I’m breaking out or something.” Jodi moved around behind me and gasped, her hand covering her mouth.

“Oh, Helen, what is that?” she asked, her eyes sympathetic.

“What?” Don’t let there be a cockroach on me! But I’d been told cockroaches were smallish and hard, and my hands connected with something soft and fluttery. Tugging at the material in astonishment, my friends doubling over with laughter, I discovered the larger portion of the public restroom X in my hand.

“Oh, God,” I said, remembering the chuckles from the bathroom. “Geez-Louise, you’d think somebody would have said something!” They shrugged innocently and I knew they weren’t to blame. I’d volunteered to take up the rear. Jodi smiled and patted me on the back, and Vanessa grinned as I wadded up the two-and-a-half foot length toilet paper and shoved it into my pocket with the rest of the day’s receipts. Before long we were laughing so hard tears were rolling down our cheeks.

Talk about your paper trail!