After much encouragement from the management, I scheduled some days off. Let me open this statement up: I am taking some days off and I am not sick, no one died, I am not moving, nor is it a holiday. As you might be able to discern from that extrapolation, this is not common. I wish it was. While I am grateful for my day job, it does it’s share of soul-killing without giving me much more money than can meet my basic needs. I could expand another translation here, but two colons in my opening paragraph will land me a mental slap from at least one of my four readers. Perhaps two. But I make no concessions away from the blurty 2-3 word sentences and the, well, already common comma-kaze nature of my writing. Surely, you’re used to that by now. I mean really.
Anyway, the first day off…there was no plan. I cannot really afford to leave town. Sure it would only cost $25 to get to Milwaukee, but then I would be in Milwaukee in the middle of January. I’m not that fond of the place. I decided to be all touristy in my own city. So I set out this morning to ride the El (I normally take the bus) and walk around Jewelers’ Row and down State Street, maybe hit the big Library. Waiting on the train platform between a guy in a PSU jacket and one in a Pitt jacket (both just as out-of-place as I am here, both exhaling homesickness germs) was not a good start. So I took a different train and let the other possible Western Pennsylvanians slide away. I began to feel a little guilty for not just sitting somewhere and writing. I nearly went home.
You see, Chicago is huge. Really huge. Big. A kind of absolute fucking hugiosity that you can’t fully perceive until you’re leaving or plunging right through the middle of it at high speeds. And I live here, little old me from a town of 600! That is weird. I shouldn’t be here. Shooting between the high-rises and back and forth across the river on a rickety train brings that simultaneous fear/wonder right back, pronto.
All of this stuff is *there* and available every day, but I don’t do it. Don’t go downtown. Don’t ride the train. I get where I need to be and don’t look up much in between unless I’m on the bike (much like Milwaukee, I am only seasonally fond of the bike). This city, this big enormous working city of great big enormous padded shoulders can be too much for me. Getting across it is too much of a fight. So I default to a few neighborhoods like the sedate one where I live (families in mostly wood-frame houses with little yards up against bars and venues), or the odious one where I work (rich yoga moms blocking the way with double-wide strollers and saying things like ‘post-delivery mommyjob’.) There is a third neighborhood I frequent, way down on the south side near The Carpenter’s shop that, so help me god, reminds me of home, but it is miles away from everywhere else I need to be.
Today, seeing the heart of it all gleaming and sharp, Chicago was huge in a good way again. Downtown rolled out like a moving map, some steel and stone version of a giant circulatory system. It hummed. It shook. It was cold and bright and full of opportunity, and I needed to be reminded of that. Reminded of that way it looked to me when I first came here in, what? 1994? 1995? I moved in as the Bulls were winning yet another Super Basket of Basketball or something and the city was exploding. It was punishingly hot for the season and if people had anything explosive, they were out in the street lighting fire to it. The kid that drove us in, though he’d planned to live with us, dropped us off and split within the hour. I was stuck sorta living with my sorta boyfriend. I was sorta pissed about it. I asked sorta boy to show me where to get the free weekly and tell me how to get to the places advertising jobs. He told me that I was ‘as urbane as a potato farmer’ and that I ‘shouldn’t stare at people.’ In my defense, I was only staring because we were standing in a tap room at the time. If you’ve ever seen the crowd in a Chicago tap room in the morning, you’ll understand why I was gobsmacked.
I spent the days bus and train hopping then walking— loose and lost in a city alongside a German kid whose English was worse than my German and whose sense of direction was beyond terrible. He had deep pockets-full of 5 Pfennig coins that were useless to exchange against our money at the time, but they worked as a 50 cent token at CTA stations. I took the German backstage at a Legendary Pink Dots show and he called Mr Ka-Spel ‘Mr. Bowie’. I never took him anywhere else except Taquerias. Big fan of both the oompah and the burrito, but kind of a dud as a friend/co-explorer. I was busy moving between Autonomous Zones and Skyscrapers anyway. I lived in a Puerto Rican gangmember retirement home and worked for some creepy Greek mobsters. I sweated and cried, got drunk, laughed, and sorta broke up with sorta boy. Got a job at a dyke bar, picketed the Democratic Convention, went gambling with French and Vietnamese cabbies, defended Family Planning locations, taught Anarchists how to make soap and herbal meds, saw about a zillion bands and became fully convinced that Chicago was the strangest, most wonderful place I’d ever been in the US. It might still be. It’s just that I lose sight of it in the true sense of ‘not seeing the forest for the trees.’
Nothing was won today, so there were no happy little riots in the streets, It was just a cold Monday. But Chicago was still there in all of her noisy glory. I took all of the stairs (I am still puffing from it!) to the 7th floor of Harold Washington and looked out over all of the fiction shelves, imagining where my books will go. What? I am totally allowed to do that, and it’s super easy to imagine when you’re lightheaded from the climb. A+ Highly recommended! Looked out past the big metal owls designed by the people who were the first to ever fire me from a job. I took an unnecessarily circuitous El route, twice through the neighborhood that evokes stories from Jesus’ Son in my incomplete memory. Went into a super-fancy shoe store and bought boots. Walked far too long in the cold (not wearing the new boots, alas). Also ate a proper, if veggie hotdog on the street– I love these people, but they really need to accept sauerkraut.
I did nothing big. Just a lot of small things that I don’t normally have time for, that I needed to, or else I was going to continue feeling miserable here– all the love gone between myself and this place. Like I was stuck. This is still a wonderful place, but the challenge is to not let it lull me into one small corner of itself. That’s when I get stuck. Or at least feel stuck. I may still need to leave Chicago, but I no longer feel like I really need to GTFO. I tossed some coins (yes- one was a 5 pfennig piece ) and a little scrap of poetry into the river on LaSalle & Wacker. We’ve come to an understanding for the nonce. Chicago and I are good for another stretch. She doesn’t give a crap if I stare at the men in the tap room at 8 AM. They are there drinking Old Style to be stared at.
“A bus came. I climbed aboard and sat on the plastic seat while the things of our city turned in the windows like the images in a slot machine…” this and the title of this post are from one of the stories in Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son”. If my memory were better, I’d be able to tell you which one.