Visiting cities used to exhaust me utterly, until last spring when, as recorded here, I think, I gave New York a try with a goal of being drunk the entire time, and it worked out, and since then I’ve had no problem with cities at all. Little towns, like the one Manny lived in in Connecticut, they’re easy to digest, there’s a single coffee shop, and an ATM, and really not much else that I can remember. That town is mine, I might never go there again, but I’ll be there always, nothing will change in it without my knowledge, because nothing will change.
Chicago means these things to me: one of my favorite bands is Chicago. The Smashing Pumpkins came from there and I don’t really like the Smashing Pumpkins except for that one album. Upton Sinclair. Hemmingway and his story about the option to cross the lake to Canada as a means to avoid the draft. Isabel Archer. Characters in Gatsby. Capone. Michael Jordan.
Going to a new city is like watching minor surgical procedures under local anesthesia, it happens, it happens to you, and you don’t feel a thing. I overcame this in France by walking. I suppose spending the past month or so that I’ve been back mostly sleeping has atrophied my legs and feet and I just didn’t notice until I set out on Friday morning to see what this city was really about. I will say that United Express is a wonderful airline, I was thrilled with them. And then the El to reach Chicago from O’Hare was a depressing experience, very bumpy and slow, I was quite sure I’d have to get off and have a rest, but I made it okay.
I walked around trying to find someplace to eat, and happened upon the Juicy Wine Co. whose website makes it seem as if they actually serve food, but as far as I could tell all they had was wines and dried meats. Of course, I went because I thought it must be some exciting new creation, “Juicy Wine”–so I went in, and I think I was the only person who didn’t work there, and they all looked at me and I said, “so…what is it?”
[they give an answer]
“So…it’s not anything…novel?”
“Well, we’ve been here for two years, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of us.”
“I just got here today.”
“Oh. Well, you should go upstairs, people like the upstairs.”
And with everyone looking at me, waiting for me to order, I just, what a douche, ordered some tea, a black tea I’d never heard of before, with hints of chocolate, and the truth is I wanted so much they offered but I couldn’t afford any of it.
I’ve got to remember to get a DNA sample from my dog, I feel like she’s suddenly gained some perspective on time and mortality, the expression on her face is always horrifying now, as you can tell she can’t decide if she’s done enough with her life, if she was happy, if those two times she made love to another dog could have been better, probably, because she never loved him, wondering where the rest of her children have gone, has she run enough? does she regret the time she jumped through the car window? is she embarrassed about her son? as the cancer spreads through her body is she truly content with the course of her life? her near brush with fame as she took on the Westminster Kennel Club show, flown all over the country for special training as a champion, my sweet little dog, she doesn’t even smell so bad. Yes, my darling, I will clone you, I will clone you as soon as I have the money, and I’ll make a new clone of you every year so that each time one of you kicks the bucket I won’t even really notice, it’ll be wonderful, you’ll all have the same name and when I shout it all twenty of you will come running to say hello to me, you were my first best friend, and all eighty of you will be my last, don’t eat each other when i die.
So the following day I walked only ten miles–it felt like more–but that’s probably because I was wearing Italian leather dress boots. Some seven miles into the journey a man said “shoe shine” as I walked by, and I thought to myself, “asshole,” before walking another ten steps and the sudden recognition that maybe he wasn’t criticizing me, but was rather offering me something. I spun around and asked how much. He smiled and opened the door as he said $5, more expensive than at the airport, but…hell, he was in better shape than the old men who work at the airport.
“Are you married?” he asked.
“Have you been to Mexico?” he asked.
“Are you here for business?” he asked.
“Where did you get these shoes?” he asked. Ah, now, finally, a subject I enjoy.
“Ah, yes, you’d find shoes like these in France, in Spain, in Italy. And they cost you a lot?”
“No, not so much.”
“They’d cost over 200 if you bought them here. I know this because I’m also a shoemaker.”
“Do you see this style of shoe often?”
“Oh no, that’s why I asked where you got them. You don’t see these here.”
And he shined them up shinier than when I bought them, so shiny that they look like Marine dress boots, so shiny that I can see my reflection in them. And then I continued on to the Art Institute to see their two paintings by Watteau, but they were closing, so I continued on to where I was heading…
i chose Clark Street because it looked most interesting, as if I might see the most on it, and it took me past Wrigley Field, whose name in my youth I was proud to know, and if I could have seen a game there, I would have, I’ve never been near a major-league stadium before. And, most importantly, the site of the Valentine’s Day massacre. The old buildings are torn down now, and it is only a parking lot, but…as I stood there and looked through the gates, it still doesn’t look like the surrounding area, there’s something darker about it, more run-down and horrific, my favorite place in the whole of the city I saw, buildings close together in ways physically impossible, a shroud of ignorance to the warmth and sunshine of the day, it was somehow delightful, somehow precisely what I wanted to see. As I continued walking I thought of how I swear I saw the garden of eden in a forest I was camping in as a boy, nobody else was around, but the image is so clear in my memory, I wonder if I was lying to myself then, and also now.
I’ve never seen so many cemeteries–like driving out of Brooklyn and just driving and driving for ages through that cemetery the highway traverses, everything about New York suddenly makes sense when you see that cemetery, everything about the world makes sense. In Chicago people die also. I would be on that schoolbus taking me to camp and the girl sitting next to me would say “if you breathe while we pass the cemetery ghosts will enter your body.” I don’t know why that’s such a scary thing to a child, to have a ghost enter your body, because I don’t know that I’d much mind it now, but, in any case, I would hold my breath, and even as I passed the cemeteries, hungry, and all these wonderful restaurants, I figured it might be a bad idea to eat in front of a cemetery. There are signs saying that out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the cemetery, there’s a sign saying out of respect for the dead you cannot allow your dog in the Vietnam War memorial. I went to a coffee shop and called Joe to see if he was in town, but he wasn’t, but we were talking when I guy sat down next to me and began talking rapidly about Chris Brown being sent to jail for committing only three felonies, what the fuck, if every time someone committed three felonies he was sent to jail, hell, everyone would be in jail, well, I don’t fucking care, what’s this word mean? Gouge? What’s that mean? Does that mean to hit? And I sit there with Joe yapping to me in one ear about what he’s going to do with the arts community of Cleveland, as their guru, and in the other eat this guy yapping about beating the shit out of his grandma and how, well, who fucking cares about Chris Brown because he’s my rival and if he’s in jail I can finally just take his place, good riddance, I’m a singer, hey, look, look man, this guy here, he’s an actor, he’s got a show, I’m an actor too, I’m a singer and a rapper and an actor and I had an audition for a TV show yesterday and the secretary in the lobby said I probably did well so I’m expecting them to give me a call anytime now, I’m feeling pretty good about all that. Joe’s conversation finished, and this guy keeps talking, telling me his life story, crack-addict mother, father in prison, what it’s like to be young, gifted, and black in America, hell, he’s been everywhere, he almost got strangled to death by Luther Vandross’s men because when they introduced him to the Temptations he was all like “so what? what are you gonna do for me?” And then he mentioned he was gay. And it all became clear. This guy wasn’t looking at me like a person, actually, he wasn’t looking at me like an ear, he was touching my arm because he was looking at me like a piece of meat. I don’t mind being hit on, okay, I’ve always minded being hit on in the past, and this time too, I hate being hit on, but that’s because the right person has never hit on me. There you have it. So now, I have this grand-matricidal guy who wants to stick his penis in me, and he’s cried twice, and he’s been talking to me for over an hour, I mean, Jesus, how many fucking lame stories can he possibly have if he’s only been alive for 22 years? And suddenly, thank the good lord, I get a business call about some freelance work I’ve been doing, actually, more like an advertisement calling to make sure I understand how to use their product and let me know about specials. I take the call and the guy runs out to smoke a cigarette with his friend, a big Native American who’s been trying to come in and keeps getting shooed out by my new friend. There’s no way to escape–he’s got me cornered in here, no back door, and he’s standing in front of the only exit. I get my scarf on and pack my bag. His scary friend comes in and demands “____wants your information.”
“My information. Right. Do you have a pen?” And I write down a fake name and number. When I leave my new friend takes my hand and won’t let it go, he hands me a piece of paper with endless ways to contact him, tells me to call anytime. “Well, I’ll be in town for two weeks, so you call me too” I tell him. He says, I should probably let you go, but he still doesn’t drop my hand, and he asks if he can come see me perform tonight. “I wish you could, but we’re sold out tonight.”
“Can’t I just…you know, drop by?”
“There’s fire regulations, and the doorman won’t let you in, there’s already too many people, you know, fire regulations, we’ll get in trouble.”
“When can I see you?”
I’d be a thousand miles away by then. He dropped my hand and I scampered off and turned the first corner and then hurried down alley after alley, searching closely for any signs of black people…terrified of blacks because…one wants to make love to me. I tell my brother this and he begins listing rules for when you’re allowed to shoot somebody legally, and how it’s against the law to fire warning shots. You say “leave me alone I have a gun.” you pull it out. and if he still doesn’t turn his back, you kill him. “i’ve been trained to put two shots to the chest and one to the head before he even hits the ground…that’s also illegal outside the military. when you fire, you do so for one reason: to thwart an attack. once the danger has passed, any injury you inflict is entirely illegal.” a few blocks down i got back onto Clark and continued my wonderful journey through the heart of Chicago!
As I crossed over to the ‘miraculous mile’ or whatever they call it, I grew cold, my feet hurt, and I realized I could separate myself from the pain, I could stand up straight, walk normally, and despite the pain, actually my socks were bloody in multiple places when I changed them later on, I could be apart from it because it didn’t frighten me, but this feeling of dread came over me, a vast feeling of aloneness, that hasn’t quite subsided yet, I feel as if I’m standing over the abyss that is time and waiting for it to close, or shake, or smoke, or something, anything, and rather, I’m just getting older as I wait. I walked the rest of the way. I spent most of the weekend panicky because a stomach flu was going around and I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s a message from god, and if so, what’s the message? And everyone probably thinks I’ve lost my marbles, which I have, but…well, I was on edge, Chicago, on edge.
Here, I’ll end on a positive note. Everyone was really friendly. That’s how the midwest is, friendly, which I find creepy, I’m so used to coldness. Actually, the only person who was unfriendly was still only unfriendly in a friendly-sarcastic way. It went like this, at 1am as I checked out from CVS and, since they didn’t give me a bag, I was in the process of taking one for myself, and the checkout guy said.
“Oh, you wanted a bag.”
“I thought maybe you wanted to save the environment.”
“At first I did, but then I remembered I have quite a long way home.”
“You have a long way home. Right. That makes sense. A long way home. So you want a bag. Yeah, okay.”
Otherwise, everyone was friendly. In fact, the guy sitting across the aisle from me on the plane home wouldn’t shut the hell up. He’d wait for me to blink my eyes open or reach for a gummy bear or something and begin asking me inane questions to which I’d provide vapid answers and try to shut my eyes again. And then while we were out for dinner last night the guy sitting next to us begged us to let him tell his story, because he’d just now been released from jail and was getting some dinner and his girlfriend wouldn’t even come home from the arcade to see him, and he had to tell his whole boring story. And even after his story was finished and we’d all agreed it was a wonderful story he should call the newspapers with, and then turned back around, he insisted on telling us more. What I mean is that everyone is friendly, in the whole world, the whole goddamn world is friendly, and there’s a great big cloud over my head, and I check my face for wrinkles, I love showering.
Chicago is a nice city, and I wouldn’t mind living there. But there’s something about the coast that makes me feel more comfortable, as if when the apocalypse comes I’ll be able to escape the wrath of god quicker if only because the ocean’s an hour away and i could always swim to france if satan gave me magic powers!