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!

1 comment :

  1. i tried to post here before. i think i might have done it wrong. just to kind of sum up what i'd said. this is really good. and captures how a lot of people felt. is there anymore to it elsewhere? i've looked the blog up and down.