Monday, December 28, 2009

On Morocco

A rather outrageous hour of the night/early morning, but I can't sleep and am thinking, for some reason, about Morocco. I visited Morocco in March of 2008 with my friend Dewayne; we tramped about the country for two and a half weeks or so, staying in $10 rooms or camping in municipal campgrounds, walking ourselves ragged and bickering more than I probably care to remember. Upon our return to the States I was tired and penniless, and fell rapidly into a deep depression. I never spent much time reflecting on my visit to Morocco, and I certainly never did much writing about it.

Which, I now realize, may be for the best. So much of the writing I've ever come across about Morocco has an exoticising, colonialist bent to it, sometimes subtle and sometimes not at all. I think of a particularly egregious example which I encountered the other day while flipping through the library's picture files on Morocco. "When we first saw the pale motleys of yellow sand and green meadow which marked the vague little coastline of Africa...I saw the white roofs of the little port of Tangiers sitting right there in the elbow of the land, on the water. This dream of white robed Africa on the blue afternoon Sea, wow, who dreamed it? Rimbaud! Magellan! Delacroix! Napoleon!"--this from Jack Kerouac's Desolation Angels. Never mind the astonishing clumsiness of the prose (what in the world is a pale motley?)--I find the idea that Morocco, a nation of millions with a long and vibrant history, is something merely "dreamed up" by white artists and colonialists patently offensive.

The germ of my own interest in Morocco originated, it's true, in the writing of the Beats, with whom I had a teenage literary fling. But I find that Beat Morocco has held up very poorly. Even Burroughs, who I still admire, remained seemingly oblivious and indifferent to Morocco's singular culture, despite having resided there for some four years. Preoccupied with drugs, boys and what would become Naked Lunch, he mostly hid in his squalid little hotel room, emerging only to score dope or haunt the English-speaking bars. When his son Billy Burroughs Jr.came to visit at the age of 16, he was not particularly enthralled by his father's pederastic bohemia--"a bunch of goddamn hashheads," Billy later described. Burroughs Sr.'s visiting friends would steal Billy's food, and proposition him sexually. "I was too young and found it difficult to get involved," he wrote of his time in Tangier. Burroughs senior responded, characterizing his son's dispassion thusly: "When I was sixteen years old, the idea of going to Tangier would have been the most romantic thing. I would have been entranced. Nirvana. I'd get to smoke hashish, see all these things"--ah, exotic Arabia!--"But he didn't seem to give a shit." He goes on, his tone increasingly hysterical, as if Billy had slept through the party to end all. "No enthusiasm whatsoever. I think it's typical of young people today. God, Tangier! Or even Paris!" Free from any real interaction with the country or its people, the Beats and their friends seemed to view Morocco primarily as a romantic scene-piece for their bohemian passion-plays.

One can't entirely blame them. A virtually lawless International Zone, Tangier would have been irresistible to the tortured American artistes of the 1950s--for outlandish pleasures, it certainly beat St. Louis, Missouri or Paterson, New Jersey. I don't know if times have changed or what; my three weeks in Morocco were intense and otherworldly, oftentimes beautiful, but not what I would probably describe as romantic. Beggar-children would swarm the cross-country buses, staring you sadly in the eyes until you forked over a few dirham. In a Casablanca food-stall we saw a 12 year-old kid get thrown to the ground and kicked in the ribs for trying to swipe an abandoned crust of bread. The slums, which stretched for miles, consisted of the most rudimentary sheds imaginable, but each seemed to possess a satellite dish--postmodern poverty that more baffled than enchanted.

My stepmother, who may or may not read this blog, has a particular fascination with Morocco. She's been able to visit the country only once, for a day, but has a whole library on it, featuring the complete works of Paul Bowles and similar tomes. I certainly don't fault her passion--as fantasies go, it's an entirely healthy one--but I wish that she could have another, lengthier visit, and get a sense of the place's complexities. The abstracted romanticizing of an impoverished country like Morocco makes me uncomfortable. I think of Crosby, Stills & Nash's insipid Marrakesh Express, or the running theme in Almost Famous, where California groupie Penny Lane is intent on escaping to Morocco, as if Morocco were one extended vacation. The country relies on tourist dollars, to be sure, but it's a far more complex place than all that. And yet, for all my three weeks spent backpacking around there, I was as much a white interloper as anyone else. I smoked my share of hash, and saw my share of sights. I even, mortified though I was, took photographs.

It's about to be a New Year, here in plain, midwestern Chicago. I may not post terribly often in January; I've resolved to take the month off drugs and alcohol, to exercise daily and try to shake the general indolence which has possessed me in these winter months--which means sitting in front of a computer screen as little as possible. I'll post the second part of my millenial retrospective when I get the chance; until then, a happy New Year to everyone, and best wishes for the human race!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

To the Rails!

Spent the evening watching Riding the Rails, a 2005 documentary about the quarter-million teenagers who took to freight trains in the Great Depression, the film's themes of hard times, hard work and hard traveling now reverberating into the night. There was a time in my teens--and beyond then, even--when what I longed for more than just about anything else was for another Great Depression to come along. Whether it was a book of Walker Evans photographs or the exuberant lilt in Jimmie Rogers' voice that did it, I developed almost a fetish for the Depression era. The people in the pictures had honest faces, even the poorest were so smartly dressed, and there always seemed to be at least a pot of beef stew boiling in the background. I found this peasant life infinitely more attractive than the hypercolor cyberdream which modern life had become.

My ignorance, in retrospect, seems striking. Not only my misreading of Depression-era struggle--the kids in Riding the Rails were perhaps, as they later recalled, hopping freights partly for the adventure of it, but quickly came to know real hunger, loneliness and suffering--but also my misconception of the modern age; times had changed, and economic hardship would not bestow noble virtue upon the nation any more than it would change out our ugly made-in-Taiwan sweatshirts for a rugged American tweed. This lesson did not really sink in until the fall of 2008, when the Economic Crisis came barreling along. Now that I have my very own modern-age Depression to observe--to say nothing of struggling through--I can begin to sense how profoundly different our world now is, and any pretensions as to the romanticism of economic collapse have been pretty well stripped away.

Suffice it to say, first of all, that teenagers are not flocking to the railyards en masse. I do have some friends who have worked as itinerant harvesters, working the beet harvest in Minnesota or the weed harvest in California, but these jobs were applied for months in advance, acquired through networking or good references. No, I think the modern work-for-food set has a different MO entirely, the down-on-their-luckers more likely to be found trolling the dregs of craigslist, working bizarre one-day gigs much more perplexing than picking peaches. I know because I'm one of them. To keep a roof above my head and food on the table, I sign up for "street teams," promoting shadow lobbyists or going to suburban shopping malls to pass out gift cards in the cold for $80 a day; I join market-research panels, evaluating products I'd never use; I hop aboard fly-by-night telemarketing operations, scamming money from clueless old people.

It's here that I've most recently landed, working a telephone bank deep in the bowels of the Harris Theater. On paper, I'm soliciting donations for a nonprofit arts organization, but in reality it's a shameless con game. To milk donations from the tightfisted theatergoers, we've concocted an utterly fantastical narrative, wherein the donations are spent bringing "disadvantaged children"--I can see them now, starving and sniveling in some cold back alley with nary a penny to their their names or a crumb to nibble on--to the theater for their very first encounter with High Art, that great ennobling feat of civilized man. "Aw shucks, mister, thanks for takin' me to that concert of baroque music," they squeak, a single tear of gratitude crawling down their grimy little cheeks. "I'm gonna get me a newspaper route, and work real hard, and save up some money to buy me a violin!" Our boss even referred to a theoretical patient at Children's Memorial Hospital--he's been in the cancer ward for almost a year, that brave li'l guy, and all he wants is to see a program of Steven Sondheim songs--as "Timmy"; I couldn't refrain from asking if this was the same Timmy who fell down the well last summer.

Qualitatively, if not quantitatively, my work feels on a par with the Great Depression farmers who, in an effort to keep prices stable, destroyed their crops while people starved. It's keeping the economy moving along, in a very superficial sense--money, at least, is changing hands--but more fundamentally it's futile, counterproductive; we lowly telemarketers are not providing any real service, we're certainly not bettering humankind, we're merely low cogs in the money-exchanging apparatus. There's one kid I work with that cracks me up endlessly. He's supposedly a guitar-playing college graduate from Kansas, but in his appearance and behavior he reminds me of nothing so much as the rail-riding wastrels of the 1930s. He stumbles in late, in dingy and wrinkled business-casual attire and proceeds to stare dumbly at the wall for the duration of our 4-hour shift, as if he were teleported here from a dust-bowl cotton patch and doesn't know the first thing to do with all these button-telephones and fancy papers. He goes out for a zillion cigarette breaks, sometimes disappearing for hours on end. The funniest thing is that no one seems to notice his long absences or comatose behavior, not even the boss whose desk is mere feet from his. The boss is struggling with serious medical problems, without the benefit of health insurance, and is busy being grateful that she has a job; she can hardly be bothered by the comings and goings of her ragtag minimum-wage-earners.

This is the Great Depression of 2009, not nearly as picturesque or maudlin as the dust bowl but just as poignant and pathetic, in its own way. The apparatus has changed greatly, but the spirit has perhaps not; at the end of the day, we're all just trying to keep food on the table. In the midst of a craigslist-fueled day-labor binge circa 2008, I noted in my journal that "the difference between moderism and postmodernism is the difference between working in an auto-parts factory and passing out samples for a yogurt company". As has become increasingly clear, the days of auto-parts factories are very much numbered; one can't help but wonder whether the world of yogurt promotions faces eventual extinction as well--discontinued, as the population explodes and real human issues bubble to the surface, in favor of more vital and pressing business. Should the apparatus fail completely, as it often seems liable to, I'm more than ready to grab a shovel and start digging in the dirt, performing actual labor in an unfabricated landscape. If this is what economic collapse ultimately leads to, then I still, as I did a decade ago, embrace it.

One last thought on the subject. Watching the film I was struck by one thing that hasn't changed considerably, and that's the trains themselves. Crisscrossing the country in greater numbers than ever, freight trains offer the same thrills, perils and outlaw adventures as in our grandparents' days; the same cold nights, the same majestic vistas, the same hunger and thirst and sense of grandeur. If teenagers haven't flocked to the railyards en masse, it's to their own detriment. I'd hate to see a whole generation of good young people go to waste, chained in dark rooms to their telemarketing jobs, or browsing craigslist for a buck. There's still a whole world out there, begging for fresh eyes and a sense of adventure. To the rails, young people!

Friday, December 11, 2009

21st Street Gazette

Ah, winter has descended on 21st Street. In great, gusty gales the sloppy, slushy snow sweeps down upon us, enveloping one and all its icy embrace. Through the cruel tundra you spy a lone, hooded figure trudging desperately ahead--it's me, heading to the liqour store for my nightly ration of strong spirits. The street is otherwise deserted; everyone is in hiding, cowering in their warm little nests, growing thick layers of fat that that will protect them from the cold.

But that does not mean all is stagnant on proud 21st Street. No, even in the deadest of winter my street is a hotbed of commerce and activity. The Textile Discount Outlet, for instance, which dominates the south side of the block, has seen bustling business:
And it's no surprise--in these cold times, people need all the textiles they can get. They wrap themselves in veritable mountains of textiles. The Textile Discount Outlet is a treasured specimen of Old Chicago, now considered a highly endangered species. Everyone who works there has an accent of some kind, be it Maxwell Street Jewish, Bridgeport Irish or inexplicably French, and there’s virtually nothing in the building in the way of modern technology—just vast canyons of rolled-up satin and chiffon. It’s run in much the way our great-grandfathers might have run a fabric warehouse. My roommate April tried to apply for a job there—when she told them she lived across the street the boss asked in his ancient Southside accent, sniffing an air of modernity about her, What, you live in the commune?
Speaking of ancient, I came across this photograph recently, perched atop the soda cooler at El Valle liquors:
This is the corner of 21st and Leavitt, some time in the first half of the 1900s, and I’m delighted to note that there’s a streetcar line running right down 21st Street. This was the first I’d ever heard of it, and some cursory internet research has yielded nothing to back it up, but here is solid photographic evidence. The idea of a streetcar running down my block is indescribably appealing. In summer months I’d hop aboard, clutching my sweaty 5 cent fare, and ride on out to the Secret Beach! The photograph also illustrates that under the pothole-addled asphalt of 21st Street there lies a charming expanse of cobblestone. Calling all neighbors! Let’s rip up 21st Street and restore it to its former glory!
In other news, more white people continue to flock to 21st Street. Though the white mecca at 21st and Damen, the bizarre and overpriced Café Aorta, went out of business several months ago, a new venture at 21st and Western promises to accommodate Caucasian tastes—the soon-to-open Casa Café nods to the area Latinos in its offerings of tamales and guisados, but displays its true colors in advertising 100% natural juices. I’m no longer surprised when a white acquaintance tells me they’re moving to 21st Street. Just these last few weeks we’ve seen a flurry of white activity on my block. A seemingly wealthy but well-intentioned young white woman is now living at the corner of 21st and Hoyne, and has offered up her swank storefront home—the “Turning Fork Supper Club”— as a venue for the occasional film screening or acoustic show. One can’t fault her for her impeccable taste and generosity—she serves concertgoers hors d’ouvres of sage-toasted almonds, and complimentary mulled wine—but one can wonder how many hungry immigrants might comfortably live in her palatial abode.
In a similar vein, I offer this building:
Which is located several addresses to the west of me. It’s more compelling than it might appear from the outside. I spent several years scratching my head over this building. Taped to the front doors I’d see flyers for upcoming events—healing drum circles, and esoteric potlucks. Foolishly, I never pursued the matter—I lazily wrote the residents off as pseudo-spiritualists, New Age twats with whom I’d rather not associate. It turns out—and I should have known this all along—that the building was the home of the Chicago Cannabis Growers Association. That a world-class weed farm had taken root mere steps from my home without my ever knowing it is utterly astonishing to me. The years I’ve wasted!
The landlord, apparently, didn’t “agree with what they were doing” and eventually gave the cannabis crew the boot. In a bidding war which included my former house- and bandmates in Cool Memories, the right to rent this zillion square-foot palace for a paltry $1400/month fell to a redheaded art-school student named Miranda. She recently gave me a tour of the building, and it filled me with seething jealousy: three spacious floors full of architectural oddities, rooftop access, a master bedroom with video-equipped intercom and a sprawling backyard—the sort of building where one could have thunderous rock shows, host a cinematheque, hold séances, create a vast lending library, building a roller-skating rink, live in the lap of luxury and do just about anything short of growing cannabis. Miranda and her roommates don’t seem to have any such grand ideas. When pressed about her plans for the space, she offered, vaguely, that she hoped to do some “art stuff” on the ground floor. Indeed, if the gringos have their way, west Pilsen will soon be a regular Soho, a year-round art opening crowded with weird young women and sallow boys, their storefronts-cum-galleries featuring the latest in inscrutable fabric art—the Textile Discount Outlet, at least, will thrive, and there will be free wine on Fridays.
Signs of the times:
The venerable junk shop across from El Valle seems to have finally closed, after interminable months of dire “Going Out of Business” warnings. In was as if the junk shop operated in some alternate temporal reality, where time passed as slow as molasses. Their going out of business sale reached a comedic climax this November, when they put up a big sign proclaiming Final Days: 14 Days Left, Everything $1.00. There were 14 days left for about three weeks—then, suddenly, there were only 10 days left. Then, eventually the sale price dropped to 25 cents. Monday is the Last Day!, the sign read:
It’s been a very dramatic coda for a store which seemed to stock nothing besides soiled lampshades, board games no one would ever want to play, and a box full of sticky old pornographic magazines. Besides my fluorescent crocheted blanket, the only thing I ever wanted to buy from S.Z. Sales was a strobe light, which they refused to sell me—an odd echo of a short story I wrote years ago.
Much as junk shops may give way to art galleries, though, 21st Street is still a hardscrabble enough place. “Shade” reminded me of this when he wrote his name on our front door the other day:
I was a little flattered, actually—I took it as a cheeky way of saying hello to the neighbors. I don’t much know my neighbors here on 21st Street, even after three years of residence. There’s Norberto and his wife, and their spectacularly alcoholic son Junior; there’s Nidia, whose son Ray committed suicide this fall; there’s Waldo, the chubby boy down the block, and the family that runs Late Liquors, where they charge something like a 25% sales tax. I can’t pretend that the dynamic between Latinos and whites in Pilsen is much more than an uneasy peace. The culture gap sometimes seems more like a chasm.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Escape from the Aughts, pt. 1

The first, tense decade of our new millennium is coming to a rapid close, and in weeks to come the media landscape is sure to be crowded with Top 10 lists and authoritative retrospectives. Time Magazine has already jumped into the ring with its cover story on the “Decade from Hell”, proclaiming the era that never even earned a proper name (the Aughts is charmingly old-fashioned, but never quite caught on) our most demoralizing to date. I’ll refrain from such sweeping proclamations, but thought I’d offer my own humble, early-entry retrospective—2000-2009 as I experienced it. It’s a wonder I’m still alive, I’ll say that much!

As an exercise in autobiography, this will be necessarily self-indulgent; you’ll either bear with me or you won’t, I don’t have much say in the matter. That said, there may be some commonalities to be found herein. Though not all of us spent the early 2000s getting drunk and wandering the streets as I did, I imagine most of us at least felt pangs of rootlessness and alienation. Whether or not we’ve learned anything along the way is very much open to debate. I’m posting the first, lengthy installment now, and will follow up shortly with the second part of the decade. May the ‘teens bring peace and prosperity to us all!


I don’t exactly remember ringing in the new millennium—it may well have been the New Year’s Eve that I passed out on the floor of the subway, and awoke to a parade of snarling commuters. The trains were running; the mainframe had not crashed, life on Earth would proceed.

I was a 20 year-old miscreant. Having dropped out of college, I basked in prolonged adolescence. I looked, and dressed, like a teen extra from Over the Edge—jean jackets, headbands, a single fingerless glove. My friend Peter and I would bring snowballs to the roof of the downtown Evanston parking garage, in the middle of summer, and throw them at the shoppers below; not that we were exactly carefree, but the burdens of adult life had not yet begun to pile up so mercilessly. I made a fake college ID, and found a liquor store in Rogers Park that would sell to me, endless bottles of Cisco and Boone’s Farm, the sweetness of which I can still taste on my lips.

I moved into my first real apartment, a two-bedroom roach motel a half-block from the lake which I shared with as many as five roommates—we imagined it to be a punkhouse, filling it with stolen and dumpstered loot, adopting a pet raccoon, smoking pot and leaving a trail of garbage in our wake. I was hopelessly sentimental, having already read too many books, and many ends of many nights found me crying on the back porch, crying over the overwhelming sadness and tenderness of it all, crying sweet tears the flavor of Boone’s Farm.

Meanwhile, world affairs were beginning to really heat up. It was an election year, if you’ll recall, the first time I’d vote. It was neck-and-neck between a God-fearing Texas cowboy and a stoic, Harvard-bred environmentalist –but wait, what’s this! Out of left field came a starry-eyed dreamer named Ralph Nader, who was lean and hungry and anti-corporation; I attended his rally at the UIC Pavilion, where Michael Moore spoke, and Eddie Vedder sang, and Studs Terkel received a standing ovation when he hobbled out onto the stage and began: “I’m 88 years old, and I still take the bus.” I was one of Nader’s proud 2.74 percent.

My friends and I made the front page of the Tribune for our repeated vandalism of the soon-to-open neighborhood Starbucks—there was a significant cash reward on our heads. I was terribly proud, though chagrined that the article didn’t detail our impassioned exploits—I’d gone so far as to shit in a paper bag, which I lobbed through the shattered plate-glass door.

Ah, but the world was young. I was frequently miserable, as youth are wont to be. I had my first real love affair. I worked for two whole months at the White Hen pantry, where, while working the meat slicer one morning, a piece of roast beef landed in my eye. I somehow felt I was meant for greater things.


Beware, the terrible pride and conceit of a 21 year-old punk brat! Not that I was the most insufferable 21 year-old ever to walk the earth, but with what inflated self-importance I comported myself! My drinking jags came to seem heroic, my every artistic and literary effort a triumph of spirit—I felt, in short, like hot shit. My friend Gen and I were presumptuous enough to publish a “book”, entitled Muckbound—an incoherent pile of punked-out pontificating literally held together by duct tape. We bought a $500 minivan, decorated it somewhat inexplicably with stencils of the late symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, and took off on a “book tour” up and down the eastern seaboard. Between spare-changing for beer in New York, washing windows for gas money in South Carolina and eating several consecutive soup-kitchen Thanksgiving dinners in Savannah, Georgia, the tour was an extended exercise in desperation—we didn’t, needless to say, sell very many books.

But looming largest over 2001 were the violent explosions of September 11, which would refuse to stop reverberating for years and years to come. Naïve contrarian that I was, I failed to comprehend either the human scope of the attacks or the further atrocities which were sure to follow in the wake of that momentous morning; instead I felt a sort of childish glee that at least something was happening— that my countrymen, shaken to the core, might finally rise from their consumerist stupor and do something interesting for once; that it might serve as a sort of national coming of age, a chance to put aside our adolescent playthings and find true peace, love and understanding, or whatever—actually, I haven’t the faintest idea what was going through my head, but I did sense that public life in America would never be the same, for better or worse. I remember listening to Bush’s address on the night of September 11—it came on as I was shopping at the Mexican grocery near my house, and I wandered the aisles in a daze, my shopping cart empty.


As the world plunged once again into a state of perpetual warfare, I hunkered down in my room and recorded my first album, Refusing to Get Dressed, a gushing collection of maudlin country-folk songs, my youthful torments laid bare in the proto-emo style of Bright Eyes or the Mountain Goats—embarrassing stuff, in retrospect, but a fellow has to pass his time somehow, and getting a job was certainly not an option.

Like many friends I’ve had before and since, I was quick to blame the city for my own crushing malaise, stone and steel being poor housing for a human soul; I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a town about which I knew nothing but which I liked the sound of. My first night in town, Thanksgiving again, I drank wine coolers and passed out reading the Bible in a dingy motel room, which pretty much set the tenor for my next few weeks. It was my time in the wilderness, my belated walkabout. Renting a two-room apartment on Iron Street, I furnished it in monkish, bohemian fashion, using my oversized suitcase as a writing table and reading by candlelight until the electricity was finally turned on. I picked up a graveyard shift at the cafeteria-style Frontier Restaurant, where, ill-slept and monstrously lonely, I searched desperately for redemption; I’d stumble home at dawn, clutching a six-pack of malt liquor, and work on my epic poem, The Order of the Paper Hats, in which teenage fast-food employees poured down from the hills and waged a holy war against modern life.


Restless, I moved on to San Francisco, settling into my friend’s makeshift room in the back of a punk record store. My tenure there was eye-opening; the punks I’d known thus far had been mere hobbyists, but the Mission Records punks were grizzled lifers. I was borderline homeless, spending nights in the park when I couldn’t get into the record store. I spent my days at a drop-in art center called Hospitality House, where, surrounded by the actual homeless, I churned out little watercolor paintings of professional boxers and fast-food employees; these I’d sell on the street, for ten or five or two dollars, whatever I could get my hands on, enough for dinner and some drinks, or drugs. I wandered the streets looking and feeling increasingly ragged, blowing endlessly on a crappy harmonica, slipping down some sort of rabbit hole.

I joined an ad-hoc group called Punks Against War, one of the few political organizations ever to hold its planning meetings at a 24-hour donut shop. Iraq had not yet officially begun, but despite the massive anti-war marches (some 200,000 people in San Francisco alone) it was looking more and more inevitable, and PAW began focusing on what to do not if but when the invasion began—we’d occupy a three-story abandoned building on a prominent stretch of Market Street, turning it into a sort of war resisters’ clubhouse, a little island of autonomy in the swelling ocean of repression and violence. In the days leading up to the invasion, the action of the streets grew increasingly gnarly—you’d see riot cops on horseback, swinging their batons around like fascist cowherds. On March 18, I skipped town with some friends heading to Chicago; on March 19 I listened helplessly to the radio from a truckstop in Nebraska as the war orders came down, and on March 20 I was back home. That night, 20,000 Chicagoans swarmed Lake Shore Drive in protest. I escaped just before the mass arrests began. It was my little sister’s birthday. She was turning 13.

Emboldened by my pseudo-homeless stint in San Francisco, I took up residence under a bridge. It was not nearly as grim as you might think; the Bridgehouse, as it was known, had several thousand square feet of space, electricity and unique views of the Chicago River. A bridge control building in decades past, it had long been a secret hideout for graffiti artists and teenage punks, but was virtually inaccessible to unwanted intruders—to gain entry, one had to slide down a hill, tiptoe precariously around a barbed-wire fence and scramble up a series of steel girders. Outfitting the little loft area with blankets, books, a writing desk and a radio, I lived a lonely but rent-free life, eating out of the grocery store dumpster and enacting bizarre rituals in the Bridgehouse’s main room when the boredom grew overwhelming. I even managed to find employment, working the concession stand at Lakeview’s 1920s movie palace, the Music Box Theater. As autumn progressed and the Bridgehouse grew cold, I’d return home from work and roll myself up in an old oriental carpet, drinking wine to stay warm until sleep came.


Were the bombs really still falling? Or had we moved on already to the next stage of the War, the looting and pillaging, the pitting of brother against brother? And had election season already come again so soon? And who was this John Kerry? He reminded me, in both his appearance and his mannerisms, of a spent cigar-butt. The protesting had slowed to a trickle, I know that much—even as the war escalated, as the Fallujahs and Abu Ghraibs stubbornly multiplied. People could hardly be expected to spend all their time marching in the street, after all.

As for me, I persisted in my bohemian ways, into my 24th year. I went traveling again, to Santa Cruz, to Portland. In Portland I set up residence in an old, abandoned passenger-train car, out in the industrial flats. I bought some emergency lamps, and tacked up a poster of the Milky Way—now this was swank living, and when night came there was no one around to bother me at all. Coyotes would howl, but they didn’t seem to mean any harm. Yes, but the solitude was crushing. I spent my afternoons at Powell’s Bookstore, trying in vain to decipher the texts of Guy Debord and his Situationist coterie, and my nights scanning the AM radio for signs of life. They seemed few and far between.

Back in Chicago, I reclaimed the Bridgehouse, moving in along with several friends. We were a real bunch of cave-rats—catacomb-dwellers—emerging, blinking, into the bright sun only when we needed food, or strong drink. This lasted for several glorious weeks until the Bridgehouse was raided by bridge authorities. We moped around the city looking for places to sleep, followed everywhere by swarms of angry mosquitoes. Matt and I moved, for a time, into our artist friend Paul’s studio above an abandoned Bollywood movie theater in Rogers Park. The building’s management had an office on the ground floor—how they managed to ignore the mayhem transpiring above them is beyond me. Bands played night and day; there was a pirate radio station running out of the unused projection room; we befriended an illegal immigrant named Ernesto who was squatting a broom-closet down the hall, and the three of us would spend balmy evenings out on the fire escape, smoking pot and keeping tabs on the thriving prostitution ring which operated on the opposite corner. We slept in a storage room, or on the roof.

I had perpetual ants in my pants, in those days, so soon I was off to Manassas, Virginia, where my friends Becky and Andrew lived in an old log cabin overlooking a pristine little lake. How carefree we were! Mornings I slipped into the water, scrubbing off the city grime that had long been caking on my skin. Afternoons we spent painting, or reading, or napping on the veranda, and when night fell we drank and caroused. Andrew and I decided one day we’d embark on a canoe trip to the ocean. Following Lake Jackson down to the Occoquan River, past Bull Run to the Potomac and out to the Chesapeake Bay, we’d get to the ocean within days—and who knew, maybe we’d press on to France. Loading up the boat with cigarettes and booze and flashlights, we felt like true pioneers, the whole lush expanse of the Chesapeake watershed ours for the taking.

We never, in truth, made it to the ocean; a long portage around the Occoquan dam delayed us significantly, as did a three-day rest on the long-abandoned Chopawamsic Island, where in 1896 would-be aviator Samuel Langley conducted his first nearly-successful manned flights, and which John Lennon purportedly considered purchasing for his home:
What lovely, dog-day adventuring! As far as I was concerned, the rest of the world could just as well rot away, content as I was in that little boat.

At length it was time to return again to Chicago, that broad-shouldered beast of a city which I could never quite escape. Try as I might, I couldn’t just canoe off the edge of the world—I had family and friends waiting for me, and debts and obligations. The millennium’s virgin decade was nearing its halfway mark—what fresh perils and daring escapades lay ahead? Tune in for tomorrow's installment!