Monday, August 23, 2010

Gone Country

If nothing else, the eerie quiet tells me that I'm back in Chicago--the gentle whirring of cicadas and occasional beeping from the freightyard. I'd never have thought of Chicago as an especially quiet place, but after three and a half months of Berlin's 24-hour boisterousness, where crowds of drunken boys paraded past dawn down Revaler Strasse, where tehcno music was always thumping at least off in the distance, Chicago sounds like farmland.

Berlin gave me something of a raucous farewell, a nearly sleep-free weekend that I am not yet recovered from. Trying to stuff as much adventure as we could into a few short days, Yony and I ran all over town--visiting B-list attractions like Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island), where the Kaiser built a bunch of tacky pleasure-palaces and assembled an exotic menagerie of animals which straggles on to this day; examining the elusive German shopping mall; going to lesbian bars and exploring post-war wreckage. I had what I felt to be an archetypal Berlin experience, which I'll relate if only because it makes a ripping good story: Yony took me out to a bombed-out building near Ostkreuz, a roofless labyrinth so littered with soiled mattresses, broken bottles and nasty detritus as to be authentically spooky. We poked around for a while, messing around and taking photographs--
--but left abruptly when we noticed a burning tea-candle sitting on the floor, where there had been no such thing mere minutes before--it was too witchy even for hardened urbanites like us. We ended up returning to the neighborhood that night, for a party in a factory-turned-dance-club, and, emboldened by drink, decided to wander back over to the labyrinth. As we entered the premises, we began to hear a terrible, horror-movie rumbling emanating from the cellar. It sounded like some infernal machine, the evil churning of some secret laboratory--and a tea candle was still burning at the top of the stairs. Feeling very brave, I tiptoed down the steps into the dreaded cellar, where I found--it should have been obvious--an electro-noise generator show in full swing, complete with cash bar. Everyone seemed deliriously happy. My friend Al Burian, who has lived in Berlin intermittently since the early 90s and came out to the labyrinth with us, seemed particularly pleased by the surprise, the hidden party a part of a grand Berlin tradition that has become harder to hunt down over the years. I imagined the illicit partying that must have been widepsread as early as the mid-1940s, when horny youngsters, bored with the War, must have swing-danced and tippled in cellars much like this one. Even the music was a cut above techno--techno rhythms and textures so blown-out and manipulated as to become a totally abstract rhythmic pallette.

Early Sunday morning found the party-life cast in a totally different light. I'd gone to bed early and woken up at 5:30 for a job way out in Brandenburg herding goats. Almost any other city in the world would be quiet and peaceful at 6:00 on a Sunday morning--it's a famously tranquil hour. But in Berlin, the streets and trains were packed with dawn-revelers seemingly unfazed by the growing brightness of day, unapologetically drunk. The goats in question resided in a small, medieval village called Glowen, a herd some 30-strong owned by a colorful Berliner named Barbara who splits her time between the city, where she runs a wine shop and sells pot on the side, and this small farm where she could breathe deeply and tend to her beloved animals. The morning of my visit, the local livestock vet was coming out to take blood samples, administer deworming medication and castrate six of the young kids. We herded them into the barn and then, goats being particularly skittish creatures, had to catch them one by one--devilishly quick little buggers, they were--and drag them by the horns out into the yard for their date with the doctor. The castration was, as one might imagine, a bit of a nasty business. There's no real polite way of castrating an animal; I held the poor fuckers down while the vet, with a nightmarish pair of oversized medical pliers known as Burdizzo, crushed the blood vessels leading to the testes, which would cause them to shrivel up and eventually die. The goats, needless to say, weren't especially keen on this--in fact, they screamed absolute bloody murder, their eyes rolled back in their heads and they thrashed about in violent spasms of pain and horror. The vet, a greying East German who spoke little English, managed to keep an impressive sense of humor about him throughout, as I suppose anyone who's been castrating large animals for half a century must. I was amused, as my plane approached Chicago the next day, to find an item on the customs-declaration form asking whether I had come into contact with any livestock in the course of my travels. If only they knew, that only hours ago I'd been castrating goats, that my clothes were still flecked with fresh goats-blood! No, I marked, opting to make my trip through customs + immigration as streamlined as possible--no livestock whatsoever...

Goat-herder that I am, I don't so much mind Chicago's rural vibe. Unlike Berlin, which has been cultivating urbanites for nearly a millenium, Chicago is quite new as a city, and many Chicagoans are only a generation or two removed from the farm. The Great Migration in the 1950s was largely of rural, southern blacks; in more recent decades, huge numbers of agrarian and small-town Mexicans have settled here; geographically sprawling and relatively low-density, Chicagoans have always had space to stretch their legs, an affinity for beer-n-barbecue and a certain all-around bumpkinishness. People have always told me that I have an inexplicable twang for someone who grew up in the big city, and I long chalked this up to my taste for country music; but more fundamentally, I think, Chicago is country, a heavily-populated blip surrounded by vast prairie. Anyway, I'm glad, in many ways, to be back in my hometown, at summer's end at with a gloriously blank slate. Wave if you see me in the street, and if you have any large animals you need fixed feel free to give me a call.

1 comment :

  1. Hi Liam- I could not find your email so I hope you don't mind me reaching out here. We publish a daily online newspaper out of Chicago and would love to reprint your "Field Tripping" post under our Gage park section. Of coarse we will extend all credits. In the future, if you would ever like to submit any of your work for re-post please do!
    Please let me know,
    Kim Kipp
    Hispanically Speaking News