I just spent over an hour wandering through the freezing tundra known as Chicago in January (truthfully, just in the high 20s, but pretty nostril hardening to this Californian). I didn’t have a clear destination, wandering around random cities with no itinerary isn’t exactly anathema to me, but I had at least a thought in the back of my head that I needed to get food at some point. It was after two and I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. As I turned on Erie for no reason I had the idea – I should just find a Potbelly’s.
I’ve long held that it’s a favorite of mine. I get it nearly every time I’m in Chicago and there’s always a sense of excitement around seeing one in random places – Philadelphia! Omaha! New York! (side note: still not sure why we have none in California). As I checked the app on my phone for the nearest one (just a few blocks over, naturally) I was reminded of a thought by my friend Bill whom I happened to be texting with at that moment. He was a Chicago native and a longheld self-appointed knower of the best of everything, but especially things having to do with Chicago. One time when I was visiting him in Chicago I suggested getting Potbelly’s (apostrophe due to actual name being Potbelly Sandwich Works (I know there are already too many parentheticals in this story)), and his response was a rather tepid, “eh, it’s okay.”
So, I thought about that as I got my turkey sandwich and kale soup. And yeah, it was actually just kind of okay. And it didn’t taste any different than any other time that I had gotten a sandwich there. Was this really what I had put the jonny stamp of approval on? I thought back to the first time I had gotten Potbelly’s and things started to make a little more sense.
First, the backstory.
I met Mandy, as one meets almost anyone in their twenties, when she was hired on at the marketing firm that employed me. She was this high-strung, wisecracking, whirling dervish of a character. Glasses. Blonde, butch-cut hair that jutted in all directions. She was an account manager. I was a producer in the video department. She was a recovering alcoholic. I was a pretty proud drinker. She would go with us to every happy hour and would happily have an O’Douls and drive everyone home. Her eyes always seemed to be rolling when I said things. Her laugh was high and boisterous. Her smile came easy in a natural setting, but looked toothy and clenched in pictures.
As an account manager she was all over the place. Super organized, to an annoying degree, she kind of did the opposite of what you’re supposed to do making the clients and her co-workers always feel like she was on the other team. Still, she got shit done. We butted heads a lot, but were always able to be pals. I always needed that ride home.
Mandy was a mother type, always taking care of everyone around her, oftentimes when it was not asked for, exactly like a mom. She was an amazing cook and when we’d end up at her house while completely hammered she would always whip us up something to eat – most notably steamed green beans with a maple pecan glaze. She didn’t fuck around when it came to food. It was her dream to one day open up a catering business, which somehow made her frustrating tenure as an account manager more palatable. She was the best kind of alcoholic, never judging those that drank and never letting her not drinking get in the way of her social interaction. We could have an infuriating day at work and still go out for beers afterwards.
Eventually things shuffled around at work. For my own reasons, I took a step back on the management of the video group and went strictly into creative. She joined our department of three as the production manager – scheduling and budgeting, etc. We all gave ourselves nicknames: Captain Inappropriate (my friend Bryan, who is an entirely other character; Colonel Obvious, me, for some reason; and Major Freakout, Mandy, who had the occasional bought of hysteria).
We were a department for only a short while, maybe six months, and Mandy and I became closer. I remember helping her out with her online dating profile. We played tennis together after work, or she would humor me with what I considered playing tennis. She smoked me every time, but also did so in an attempt to teach me how to play better. And if I’m remembering this correctly, she smoked with us in the literal sense and I think was my intro into menthols (it’s like smoking but your breath doesn’t smell, I thought). Mandy was also interested in standup and I remember staying late one night so I could watch her and help her workshop some material. It was mostly about dating in LA, but she also included one of my favorite stories of hers – how she famously PA’d the Smashing Pumpkins video for 1979 only to drive off with the tapes on the roof of her car and lost it all, so they had to quickly put together the actual video everyone remembers (handheld footage of kids hanging out) that went on to win best alternative video at the MTV Video Music Awards (she wasn’t involved in that production, for what I assume are obvious reasons).
I’m getting to Potbelly’s.
Other things I think of when I think of Mandy – she was always borrowing my deodorant because I kept some in my office (as I slept there more than once when on deadlines), and more than once I walked into her office and she would break out laughing because she had just farted since no one was around.
I left work in this time period but kept in touch with Mandy every so often. She had begun dating a swell guy named Lafe and soon did the craziest thing anyone has ever done by making three dramatic life changes in a very small time frame. She got married, moved to Chicago, and started a new job in super quick succession. After a couple years of success in Chicago, she finally got pregnant. Hallelujah. If anyone was ever meant to be a mom it was Mandy. She adopted stray cats. She adopted my friends and I on Fridays after too many drinks. She had a huge heart and one that didn’t seem quite full enough without a kid. This was good news.
But then came bad news. She had been having a lot of pain and it wasn’t going away. The bigger she got the more pain she was in, and the options limited when you’re sharing organs. About five months into her pregnancy the culprit was discovered: she had colon cancer. Stage four. Ideally, she could’ve started aggressive chemotherapy right away, but not an option when you’re pregnant, and the baby was never anything but Mandy’s top priority. She held on as long as she could, but ended up giving birth at about twenty-six weeks. Baby Holly went in the NICU, and Mandy moved to the cancer ward.
A couple months later I was in Chicago and was heading to her house for a visit. Holly had finally come home after eight weeks in intensive care. Mandy warned me it was crazy and that she wasn’t feeling great either, but I wanted to see her. She asked me to bring lunch and suggested I stop by Potbelly’s on the way (there it is).
That’s my memory of that sandwich. Hanging out in Mandy’s house, holding two-month old Holly, with two weeks still to go before her due date. It was crazy. Mandy told me her diagnosis, she had been given two years, but she was going to fight it and I was still naïve enough to believe that she could as we both sat there crying in her living room.
She died eleven months later.
Coincidentally, the day she died I was helping a friend with a benefit for her sister who also had cancer. I was able to connect with mutual friends of Mandy and I that I hadn’t seen in years and we got to tell stories in an environment that made it ever more important to help (side note: fuck cancer).
I went to Chicago for the funeral the following week. It was my friends Erik, Jean, Cindy and I flying out there, renting a car and then driving to the small town where the funeral was held. It was April, but still cold and gloomy. Obviously, there was a sadness that permeated the trip, but there was a lot of laughter and fun too. After the church ceremony (something that felt off to me since Mandy and I had many a conversation about religion and our collective lack of faith, although we never talked about it with death staring her in the face), we went back to her Mom’s house and it was filled with family and friends, people that captured Mandy at different parts of her life – as a kid, college, her time in Chicago. The four of us were the representatives of her time in Chicago. I told the stories above, about the deodorant, and her farting and how she was actually the first woman I had ever met that admitted she did that, and something about her dating that I can’t seem to remember right now.
The craziest moment that weekend was after spreading her ashes. We were in a white field where Mandy used to run around looking for chickens as a kid. I think it was chickens at least. Her mom had a Ziploc bag of her ashes and a shot glass that she dipped in to toss the ashes around the field. Erik, Cindy, Jean and I were having a side conversation about how we all felt Mandy around us in different ways since she passed. For me, it was at the cancer benefit and how I felt the news forced me to talk and engage with people that I wasn’t sure I would have the chance to. For Cindy, she had a random stray show up a day or two after the news and Mandy and Cindy both shared an affinity for cats. Erik kind of scoffed at the way we were projecting, and I can’t say I completely disagreed with him. The subject changed as we trudged through the snow and someone wondered if Mandy would’ve approved of the shot glass since she was an alcoholic. I said she never cared about those things before and, if anything, would’ve at least appreciated the irony (as long as we’re using the Alanis definition of irony). Erik then mentioned something completely random and batshit crazy.
“I’ve never seen it snow,” he said.
“That stuff you’re walking in, that’s snow,” I said, in my usual perfectly witty and not at all annoying way.
“No, I’ve seen snow, skiing and all. But I’ve lived in California my whole life, I’ve never actually seen snow falling from the sky. I hope it snows. Do you think it’ll snow?”
“I’m not a weatherman,” I said, still not annoying. “But I’m pretty sure you need clouds or something and the sky is pretty clear.”
We gave Erik a lot of shit for this empty hole in his life and trudged back towards the house. By the time we made it into her Mom’s driveway it had started snowing. Not terribly heavy, but solid, true snow just started falling from the sky. In April. I don’t believe in god, but I believe there was something up with that snowfall. I don’t want to put labels on it, let’s just say it was magic. And as jaded and literal-minded as I am, I still make room that there was magic out there that day in the snow.
These are the thoughts that came running back into my head as I trotted through downtown Chicago looking for a Potbelly’s, and as I sat in the uncomfortable booth chowing down my turkey sandwich. Okay, so maybe I appreciate it for different reasons but every time I eat there it does make me think of Mandy, her sacrifice for baby Holly (who has never been anything but fine since she left the hospital), her laugh, how much fun we used to have, and how it snowed in April just because we asked it to.
And if you can still control the weather, Mandy, I wouldn’t mind a heatwave.