poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

July 16, 2013

The Longest Day

Filed under: Chicago,Too Much Information — poemless @ 7:15 PM

“Let me know if you wanna grab a drink or seven this weekend.”

Who knows where the morning went. Suffocated in its sleep by oppressive temperatures and humidity or washed down the gutter by intermittent deluges that kept breaking the heat and putting it back together again. Like me with my life. Since I’d been off work, I’d taken my waking slow, filling the am hours with an easy journey into consciousness. I awoke at dawn, when a giant black cat sat on my pillow whispering all the ways he could kill me in my sleep until I arose to feed him. I made coffee in a French press. I read trendy lit magazines. I did yoga and ballet. I wrote. I re-wrote. I stood with the fridge open until overcome by lightheadedness. I forced something down my gullet. I showered around 2pm. A life of leisure? Perhaps… But I required from this world, in return for not hanging myself, a daily quota of leisure and sanity. I’d recently transitioned from being off work to being out of work, out of health insurance, out of money and out of luck. I was in no position to part with what quality of life I had left. Institutions seemed no more enamored with my existence than I with theirs, so why devote every hour of my precious day to garnering their approval? If they wanted a trial separation, I was happy to oblige. It was the same with institutions and men. I had expectations of being treated with a modicum of dignity and believed myself worth fighting for, but if they found me expendable, I wasn’t going to grovel. Only a dog can thrive in an environment where it has to beg.

My ability to maintain an attitude of graceful disaffection meant I still had pride left to insult when my bank card was hacked and my transit pass stolen, after having lost my income. The latter was replaced without ado. Such accommodation from a bureaucracy renown for its incompetence and casual hostility reinforced my belief that something was celestially out of alignment. It was the Summer Solstice. I’ve never been a pagan, but I can recognize a formidable opponent. I couldn’t get another human to return my calls; whatever was going on out there had the power to determine the rhythm of oceans and length of days. I decided to ride out the cosmic chaos until the universe figured out how to keep itself sane too. Until then, just leaving my apartment felt like choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if simply staying alive meant looking for trouble, I thought I may as well make it interesting trouble. Anyway, I had no caution left for throwing to the wind. And that’s why I’d accepted the offer of a drink, or seven.

The plan had been to meet up in Jefferson Park after I’d had my energy properly rearranged at an acupuncture clinic in Logan Square. But late afternoon thunderstorms and customer service reps at the bank kept me in till nearly 5pm. There was also a cat I was being paid to care for who had the good sense to live en route to the bar. Unlike the radical health collective. My friend was already on his to Fischman’s Liquors after a long day of his own. Now that I thought of it, I’d never met this person for drinks before. Friend? Acquaintance. He’d invited me out and offered to treat, presumably because my life was in pieces and I had no money, or no money I could actually access without a damn ATM card. Presumably. Why wouldn’t I presume that? This question became serious as I contemplated the contents of my closet. This is what people do when someone hits a rough patch – invite them for a bit of conversation and distraction, raise glasses and spirits. Perfectly normal. Except the last time a fellow arranged to meet me at a dive bar for moral support, a nude sketch of me ended up in a local literary magazine.

I looked out the window at the ominous sky, at my phone for a missed call from the bank, at the clock for confirmation of the late hour despite the high sun emerging from the clouds. I threw on a blouse and corduroys and sandals and a scarf. Underneath that, something more trouble appropriate. After all, you never know when you’ll be in a car accident. Or man accident. With my recent string of luck, I left my apartment prepared for both.

After a cat-sitting detour, I headed for the westbound Lawrence bus. Next to the bus stop, a drunk hobo had taken keen interest in a street sign that had fallen over, blocking the sidewalk. “Imagine if that had fallen over on you. Look at it, it would have killed you, and no one would even care, because this is the ghetto, they don’t give a fuck about us here. That could have fallen on you and killed you and no one would even fucking care,” he kept repeating. He probably thought I was being polite when I nodded my head in agreement and contemplated the street sign-as-guillotine phenomenon, or perhaps my eyes gave away the sincerity of my concern. I smoked nervously as I waited for the bus. Anything can kill you. At the same time, knowledge that I had evaded the murderous rage of this street-sign filled me with a sense of invincibility.

There’s nothing much more exhilarating than Lawrence Avenue on a steamy summer Friday night. The rain was gone, and the heat had been put back together. The east-west street flooded with the glow of sunset each evening, blinding those foolish enough resist the lure of the beautiful lakefront. The post-rain haze added another layer of texture to the already gritty atmosphere. On Lawrence on a summer Friday night, out west of Western, everyone is outside, everyone is from somewhere else, everyone is living their own interstitial lives, refusing to be sapped of vitality, invincible, electric. The street is lined with food stands, ice cream carts, people selling mangoes by the box out of the backs of trucks. The stores have names like “Sexy Girls of The Hollywood.” Young men cruise by in low-riders while teenage girls gather outside convenience stores, striking tough poses in bejeweled nails and severe hairstyles and Hello Kitty backpacks with their boyfriends’ names markered all over them. The same magic marker is used on the day-glow poster-board signs plastering shop windows. Small children run to keep up with serious grandmothers not much taller than they are. Men stop to tell passing women how beautiful they are. Buses and bikes and cars and pedestrians vie for each spare foot of space as they make their way down the avenue. I once saw a car stop at a red light, windows down, stereo cranked up and everyone on the sidewalk spontaneously broke out dancing to “All Night Long.” Just like in the music video.

At least that’s the Lawrence Avenue I knew. I could be foolish, but not foolish enough to stray too far from the lake for fear of being sucked back into the vast emptiness of the great plains, whose existence I’d escaped at the age of 18 and still feared as I looked west down the city avenues that grew flatter, emptier and more harshly lit by the summer sun as they reached the hazy horizon. I’m the kind of girl who can get claustrophobic in wide open spaces and places I can’t catch a cab or bus home from. Like a penguin who carries its egg nestled between its legs, protecting and transporting it, ensuring it is never left alone, the city gives me a sense of security. I am hesitant to jump into the frozen sea of suburbia.

But like those who braved the cruel conditions of the West in search of opportunity, I was buoyed by the possibility of adventure as the bus left the inner-city and entered the land that time forgot lining the city limits. The streets all turned to K’s, buildings from brown brick to blonde, signs from Spanish and Serbo-Croatian to Korean and Polish. Traffic gave way to small, fissured parking lots. The aesthetic out here was like a mausoleum to the American 1950’s. Safe. Boring. Overwhelmingly white and working class. People liked to call this the “real” Chicago. People with art school or journalism degrees who could only afford to slum it anyway, and why not with another species on the brink of extinction? Who was I to judge… Wasn’t I doing the same thing? Still, for the “real” Chicago, this place was growingi ncreasingly quieter as the weekend began. There were few people outside. Few places to even gather outside. What kind of city keeps its authenticity hidden behind the front doors of single family homes?

Upon reaching Milwaukee Avenue, the bus did not stop, but veered into a depot, as if even the hardened employees of the Chicago Transportation Authority were unwilling to go any further. As I exited, I half expected the driver to shake my hand, thank me for the company and wish me luck on the next leg of my trip. I picked up my rucksack and headed on foot to Fischman’s. It hadn’t rained for a few hours, but the air was as wet as ever. The sun blazed as it neared 9pm.

A dive bar on a sultry evening feels like a womb. The buffer of darkness, the lazy churn of ceiling fans, the muted tones in which patrons sprinkled along the counter make half-attempts to socialize, the way the world outside stays outside when you step in. I quite like such easy establishments. Even more, I like the kind of fellow who asks me to meet him at such a clandestine locale. Tonight it was a political staffer, a longtime acquaintance. I scanned the room as my eyes adjusted to the light. He sat opposite the door in shirtsleeves, forehead in hand and nose in a book on constitutional clauses, nursing a snifter of something the same color as the wood paneling. A real Josh Lyman type who probably would have been just as at home in DC as in the Chicago hinterlands. But he’d taken a job with one of the “rebel” Aldermen who was part of an emerging bloc of reformers openly challenging the Mayor. The old Machine was effectively dead, but the current leadership’s bank account held just as much power as the old Party organization. Only instead of ripping up private airport landing strips, they were ripping up public schools. In a ward populated with city workers, it was now politically viable to oppose a mayor who was openly hostile to anything public or anyone who had to actually work for a living. Chicago politics had always been interesting, but there was a growing sense that it could also be participatory, dynamic. It was an exciting time, at least out here in the “real” Chicago. He’d also studied theater and named his cat after Gertrude Stein. A girl like me could do worse than spending a Friday night with a fellow like that in a place like this.

He stood up and gave me a bracing hug, and I slunk into a wobbly bar stool. Dive bars stock up on beer and whiskey, neither of which I know how to drink seven of, but Ricochet’s kept some not too shabby box wine on the back bar, and the Rainbo a bottle of red table wine under the counter for when boys like that drag girls like me in. Fischman’s had no wine. Apparently it’s uncommon for girls like me to get dragged here. The constitutional scholar tried to impress me with a sample of a local gin. We both agreed that we’d never been big gin drinkers, but that our tastes had matured with age and we could appreciate the botanicals now. “The botanicals,” we smugly agreed, as we took a sniff and then a sip. We agreed it still tasted like medicine. Botanical medicine.

“Do you have vodka here?” I inquired hesitantly of the barman.
“It’s a bar. Do you know a bar that doesn’t?” he got socratic with me. Well, no I didn’t, but I was confident the universe of possibilities transcended my personal knowledge. Did he know anyone almosted killed by a street sign?
“What kind?”
“All the kinds. What you you want?” I listed off three different kinds before the bartender confessed to having only one.
“Do you know how to make a martini?” I asked. The bartender looked at my friend as if to ask if he wanted him to kill me. “I’d like a vodka martini straight up dry with olives,” I rattled off. “Can you make that?” My friend laughed. “What?” I shot him a defensive look.
“No, I like it. You know what you want.”
The bartender gingerly, with real fear on his face now, sat a champagne coupe on the counter. I shook my head. Those were for people unemployed by choice or living under Prohibition. “Or, I can go down to the basement and get a martini glass. Would you like that?”
“Do you think you could?”

This is why I am afraid of being sucked into the bizarre world that lies outside densely populated urban areas: routine human expectations suddenly become exhibit A and poof, you’re convicted of High Maintenance Personality crimes. But once the martini actually appeared before me, I had no more complaints. I even felt bad for insinuating the bartender could not make one when the truth was he was just short of supplies. Pioneer life…

“I should warn you, there are only three subjects I enjoy talking about,” my acquaintance leaned in and confided as we headed out for our first cigarette.

We spent the evening steeped in effortless, friendly discussions of sex, religion and politics, as well as condo law, theater school, benzos, motorcycles, urban husbandry, psychoanalysis and feline epilepsy. I was having a swimmingly fabulous time and not simply because I had my head in a martini glass. He was buying. “Unless that makes you uncomfortable.” It had been the caveat, not the offer, that made me uncomfortable. We stayed long enough to watch the clientele change from blue-collar men stalling before heading home after work to young hipsters taking advantage of low rent libations, and back to the “real Chicago” guys who either never made it home or waited until their wives were asleep to make their escape. From day drinkers to connoisseurs to last hurrahs. I’d happily agreed to a second martini and was unready to go home when it came time for a third. Around 1:30am I emerged from the girl’s room to find my companion in a James Dean pose in front of the jukebox. The Violent Femmes were playing, and a fresh martini sat on the counter in front of my seat. I had left home expecting trouble and here it was.

The lights came on, I asked the bartender not to let the rest of my drink go to waste and we tumbled outside where we smoked our last cigarettes. My friend pointed to a bench by the Milwaukee bus stop that had been installed to face inward, toward the building behind it. “It’s brilliant,” I proclaimed. I imagined a whole city of people literally turning their backs on social expectations. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see the bus arrive, it doesn’t matter if you miss it, the world will continue to turn in exactly the same way. I thought maybe it was supposed to be art. Or a terrible mistake the ward lacked funds to rectify. He explained that it had been his boss’s idea, to encourage people to socialize. “See?” He sat, no, leaned, on the sloped ledge of the building facing the bus bench. We silently faced each other on opposite sides of the deserted sidewalk in a deserted part of town at a deserted hour of night, as if preparing for a duel or something equally as dangerous. They’d only get away with this out here, I thought, just like they’d only get away with lethal street signs in the ghetto. No one fucking cares about this bench. It’s the tragedy of freedom.

We crossed the street, and I waited outside the all night convenience store while my friend replenished our cigarette supply. He re-emerged, cigarettes in shirt pocket, leaned against the neon-lit storefront. “What’s a girl like you doing in place like this?”
“Standing on a street corner in the middle of the night? A girl’s gotta make a living.”
“This isn’t the street corner. That’s the street corner,” he pointed to the sign a few feet away.
“I’d make a terrible prostitute…” I was only half-joking. I literally did not know where mynext meal was coming from.
“There, there. I think you’d make a fine prostitute.” He led us up Milwaukee Avenue.
“Wait. Where are we going? The bus stop is back there.” I pointed toward Lawrence. “And where are you going?”
“Home. That bus won’t come for another half hour at least.” That bus drove past. I looked at him, incredulous. “Where do you even live?” He used to live in my neighborhood, out east, in civilization, before a marriage and a divorce had created multiple dislocations.
“Now there won’t be another bus for a half hour.” He gave his address as Northwest Highway and a street I recognized as the last one before the city’s hardscrabble west side gave over to a posh suburb. In fact I only knew of it because when staying with friends in said posh suburb it was the street we were instructed, repeatedly, to avoid. Posh and nervous, that is.
“I don’t believe you. I take the Lawrence bus home all the time later than this. There is a ‘Northwest Highway?’” I’d never heard of a Northwest Highway, and I’d lived here a long time. Sounded made up to me. Like a cartoon name.
“It goes all the way out to Yellowstone National Park!” he elaborated with bourbon-infused exuberance.
“How am I getting home?” National parks are great for bears. I probably could have devoured a man alive in the mood I was in, but I was not an actual bear.
“You have three options. You can wait another half hour for the bus. … Or you can come home with me,” he explained as we casually walked toward a cab. The second option was the only moment of the evening I have no memory of.
“What would you prefer?” I threw the ball back in his court and he ran off with it. We got in the cab and headed toward the Northwest Highway.

A gentleman, he gave me a tour of his new apartment, introduced me to the epileptic cat, lent me his most comfortable t-shirt and an assembly-required toothbrush from a hotel in Romania. And he went to sleep on the couch. I stood brushing my teeth in a state of shock. I knew he was a fan of Beckett, but this was really a bit much.

I attempted to wake him, unsuccessfully, and proceeded to consider myself kidnapped. Of course. I became determined to go home, but I had no idea where I was and no money for a cab even if I could hunt down a piece of mail in the dark from which to secure an address. I smoked cigarettes on the back porch. I texted insomniacs and residents of the West Coast without response. Was he really the kind of fellow who would just go and kidnap a girl? Not at all. And yet up until that evening I’d been going through life blindly believing street signs were not homicidal maniacs. Obviously recent events shed doubt on my being a successful judge of character. I sat on the couch and explained to him why kidnapping a girl, even a girl in a rough patch, was no way to behave. It must have been one hell of a boring speech – he slept right through it. I stared out the window as the humid fog which hung under streetlights evolved into a soft drizzle, bored out of my wits. And claustrophobic. I didn’t sleep, not understanding why I couldn’t do that alone in my own bed. I waited until a sensible hour to begin hostilely, physically demanding coffee. I had to specify that I was demanding he make the coffee. I only know a French press. He arose, made some and returned to sleep.

As I sipped the coffee, I felt a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. I sat the mug on the bedside table and hung my head over the side of the bed. The epileptic cat was on the floor below. She desperately attempted to play with a stuffed toy I lamely dragged along the floor. She kept falling over. It was all the benzos she was on. She frantically buzzed my hand , pawed at the toy, then looked at me as if struck by a horrible memory, and fell over. She repeated this behavior until I was forced to look away, heartbroken. The room was spinning. I thought that if I could just focus on an object, preferably not one about to have a seizure, I would be ok. I rested my heavy eyes on the coffee mug, which I’d assumed to be from Starbucks: white with a green image inside a green circle, with print in green lettering above and below. I rested my head on the pillow and the words on the coffee mug came into focus:

YARBROUGH MORTUARY SERVICES

Oh.
Fuck.
I’m not just kidnapped, I’m dead already. My god, the Puritans who warn others about my libertine lifestyle choices were right. I scoffed that their conservative ways, and lo, I went to a bar, got drunk, went home with a man and now I am dead. Just like in a 1950’s detective drama. And no one cared. Just like the hobo had warned.

I lept up in a panic, suppressing the urge to vomit. I knew if I could get home I would be alive again. I threw on last night’s clothes, pausing to appreciate with regret my choice of lingerie, used the rough bristled Romanian toothbrush and woke up my friend? acquaintance? kidnapper? demanding to go home. He sat up, looked at his phone, looked at me and said there would be a bus at the end of the street in twenty minutes. The fact that he wore those boxer shorts well may have saved his life.
“A bus. And where does this bus go, precisely?” To Yellowstone National Park probably, I thought. I shook my head and gave him the same look the bartender got when he pulled out his champagne coupe. Buses were for people going home on a Friday night not a Saturday morning.
“Or, we could go get my car and drive you home. Would you like that?”
“Do you think we could?”

The journey to the car left back at his office required getting on the Northwest Highway bus, which I was convinced was going to transport me to Yellowstone National Park. In all honesty, I prefer a proper kidnapping over camping any day. The only thing worse than not sleeping in one’s own bed is being eaten by bears while not sleeping in one’s own bed. Annoyed by my declining the offer of bus fare, he asked if he’d said or done anything upsetting last night.
“You said all the signs were in Mexican. … Uhm, did I?” I asked, hoping to glean some insight into my abduction.
“No, no, you were perfectly charming.”
“Oh.” I scowled out the window. If I’d had telekinetic powers, the whole bus would have burst into flames.

We got off, somewhere, and walked down Milwaukee Avenue back toward Fischman’s, where the door was open and people were already inside. My stomach churned like the ceiling fans. A few doors down, we hopped in his car and headed east up Lawrence. The sun had dispersed the morning’s rain clouds, and the air was as heavy as ever. Strip malls and flat beige warehouses gave way to vibrant shops and restaurants, which gave way to chain stores, new construction and European cafes. Blinding sun to smog then to tree-lined streets. By the time I made it home it was already noon. I thanked him for the hangover and my release and darted into my apartment, free, tragic. The Begemot cat screamed at me for breakfast, then whispered a derogatory name for women who don’t come home at night as I walked past him into the bathroom. I showered around 2pm.

I knew perfectly well where the morning went. It was the night’s whereabouts that remained unaccounted for.

August 15, 2011

The Soviet Arts Experience in Chicago.

Filed under: Chicago,Culture: Russia — poemless @ 1:30 PM

If you have the misfortune to be following me on neither Twitter (because you know a time-suck when you see one) nor Facebook (because I’ve unfriended you), you will have missed my recent proclamation:

I am not Russian.

I’ll give you a moment to digest the news and gather yourselves.

Ready? OK.

As some of you may know, our fine city of Chicago is currently playing host to a 16-month long festival of Soviet arts. I was born in neither Russia nor Chicago, but harbor a deep appreciation for both places and devote much of this blog to their various charms and neuroses, some charms and neuroses which have over time become my own. So I would be remiss if I were not to acknowledge a Soviet arts festival being held in Chicago. Being held at my place of employment even. I had planned to actually, you know, see some of the current or upcoming exhibits before writing about them, because anyone can google and you’re all here seeking my infinite wisdom. Unfortunately my wisdom is rather finite in the realm of time-management; I am a chronic procrastinator and may very well not even make it to an Art Institute show until its last day. Or at all. Not much help writing a review of anything after the fact is there? Well, one can’t exactly have an informed opinion about something one’s not even seen (and that goes for having an informed opinion about Midnight in Paris if you walked out after the first few minutes, ahem…) So no wisdom, no reviews. Just some good ol’ пиар.

THE SOVIET ARTS EXPERIENCE

“An unprecedented collaboration showcasing works by artists of the Soviet Union
In one of the largest collaborative artistic efforts across Chicago, twenty-six of the city’s prominent arts institutions will join together in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to present The Soviet Arts Experience, a 16-month-long showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union.

From the poignant string quartets and symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich to stunning, hand-painted WWII propaganda posters, and from the grand orchestral and ballet music of Sergei Prokofiev to the political satire of Evgeny Shvarts, The Soviet Arts Experience will take patrons behind the Iron Curtain to explore its essence through the creative work of its visual artists, choreographers, composers, and dramatists.

The Soviet Arts Experience is spearheaded by the University of Chicago Presents (UCP), the University’s professional presenting organization. The Soviet Arts Experience sponsors include The University of Chicago, The University of Chicago Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, Illinois Arts Council, and The Women’s Board of the University of Chicago.”

Yes, druz’ia, the institution that gave the world Milton Friedman is now celebrating Soviet propaganda. In case you were on the look out for that fourth horseman. Anyway, here’s a short list of some of the current goings on:

I. UofC SCRC: “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary: Children’s books and graphic art.”


Image from Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

“Two of the most striking manifestations of Soviet image culture were the children’s book and the poster. Both of these media testify to the alliance between experimental aesthetics and radical socialist ideology that held tenuously from the 1917 revolutions to the mid-1930s and defined the look of Soviet civilization. The children’s books and posters featured in “Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” allow us to relate this new image culture to the formation of new social and cultural identities under the watchful eye of a powerful and oppressive state. They cover a crucial period, from the beginning of Stalin’s Great Breakthrough in 1928 to the re-construction and re-grouping that followed the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called World War II. As these works show vividly, there was no ideologically neutral space in the rich and vibrant world of the Soviet imagination. By the same token, though, there was no zone of Soviet life free of the image.

“Adventures in the Soviet Imaginary” is drawn entirely from the collections of the University of Chicago Library. The Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at the University of Chicago houses a large collection of over 400 Soviet children’s books published between 1927 and 1948, with the majority dated 1930-1935. This collection, the provenance of which is not known, is supplemented by a small but fascinating group of Soviet children’s books from 1930-1931 acquired by the Library as part of the R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company Training Department Library, where they were used in the company’s distinguished apprentice program for printers.”

That’s right. Bit of a matter that, not knowing the provenance… Never mind, it is a collection which, if not exactly rare in subject, is certainly so in volume and context. Do take a bit of time to click through the web exhibit. It’s terribly informative and downright overwhelming in its sheer number of visual materials scanned for your perusal. Some have asked, and no, I did not have a direct role in organizing this exhibit. Most of the pieces were acquired well before my arrival. And to be honest, it is not a particularly engaging topic for me. I did not even enjoy American children’s books as an American child. Not to mention that repetition is an asset when it comes to brainwashing little children, but not so much when it comes to what you have to look at for 8 hours a day. I do get a kick of the outright propagandist and defiantly optimistic style of early Soviet aesthetics, as well as the historical creepiness factor. But as a Russian professor of mine once noted, when it comes to theory based art, the theory is usually more interesting than the art. Last night as I sat looking through a friend’s collection of old Melodiia children’s records from the 1970’s I was, though enamoured both of their artifactual value and of this person’s existence in my life, not moved to listen to them or anything. … But I did learn of Russian Pinnochio, Buratino.

If you are in the area, you can check out the exhibit of Soviet Children’s books in our super snazzy new exhibition space! from August 22 – December 30, 2011 at the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

If you are on campus to check out the Soviet children’s books exhibit, the Smart Museum of Art will also be presenting several exhibits as part of the Soviet Arts Experience showcase:

II. Smart Museum: “Process and Artistry in the Soviet Vanguard.”

“This intimate exhibition offers a rare glimpse at the experimental creative processes that generated iconic Soviet propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s. Featuring works by Gustav Klucis and Valentina Kulagina, it traces classic compositions from preparatory drawings and collage studies to approved designs to posters and other mass-produced print material.”

III. Smart Mueum: “Vision and Communism.”


Viktor Koretsky. Ne Boltai Collection. Image from Smart Museum of Art.

“In captivating images of survival and suffering, the postwar artist and designer Viktor Koretsky (1909–1998) articulated a Communist vision of the world utterly unlike that of conventional propaganda.

Designed to create an emotional connection between Soviet citizens and others around the globe, Koretsky’s posters heralded the multiculturalism of Benetton and MTV, while offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism. Vision and Communism offers a striking new interpretation of visual communication in the U.S.S.R. and beyond.”

You know me, I am all about offering a dynamic alternative to the West’s sleek consumerism… I do recommend these shows simply because they are at a small, free, intimate, unpretentious little museum that doubles as a nice place for coffee or lunch while on campus. I believe “accessible” is the word.

The shows run respectively from August 30, 2011 – January 22, 2012 and September 29, 2011 – January 22, 2012 at the Smart Museum of Art.

Smart Museum of Art.

Perhaps the most anticipated exhibition of the Soviet Arts Experience is now taking place at the Art Institute of Chicago. On the one hand, you’ll not have to hike all the way down to Hyde freaking Park to see it. On the other hand, you will have to pay to do so (with a few exceptions but I’m so not going into the convoluted admissions policies and passes of the Art Institute here.) On the other, it’s probably worth it. And you should have that third hand looked at…

IV. Art Institute: “Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941–1945.”


A. Rachevskii. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

“Seventy years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a group of artists and writers in Moscow joined forces under the auspices of the TASS News Agency to help reassure and rouse the Soviet citizenry by producing large-scale posters—TASS Windows. Despite the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin, creativity flourished among these diverse artists and writers as they attempted to find purpose while working in and for a totalitarian state. Producing a poster design for nearly every day of the war with a labor-intensive technical virtuosity previously unheard of in poster production, these artists committed themselves to the defense of the motherland. In collaboration with the Ne boltai! Collection of 20th-century propaganda, Windows on the War marks the first time these enormous handmade posters have been displayed in the United States since World War II, bringing to the fore many Soviet artists little known in this country.”

Oh, it gets better:

“In 1997, 26 tightly wrapped brown paper parcels were discovered deep in a storage area for the Department of Prints and Drawings. Their presence was a mystery, their contents a puzzle. [Whew - SCRC wasn't alone...] As conservators and curators carefully worked to open the envelopes, they were surprised and intrigued to find that they contained 50-year-old monumental posters created by TASS, the Soviet Union’s news agency. The idea for a major exhibition began to take shape.

Impressively large—between five and ten feet tall—and striking in the vibrancy and texture of the stencil medium—some demanded 60 to 70 different stencils and color divisions—these posters were originally sent abroad, including to the Art Institute, to serve as international cultural “ambassadors” and to rally allied and neutral nations to the endeavors of the Soviet Union, a partner of the United States and Great Britain in the fight against Nazi Germany. In Windows on the War, the posters will be presented both as unique historical objects and as works of art that demonstrate how the preeminent artists of the day used unconventional technical and aesthetic means to contribute to the fight against the Nazis, marking a major chapter in the history of design and propaganda.

For most of the 20th century, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union hovered between uneasy alliance and outright hostility. The period addressed by this exhibition—the years 1941–45—represents a fleeting moment when the nations were joined in a purposeful bond, a coalition attested to repeatedly in the posters of the TASS studio. This spirit of cooperation was short-lived, however; as early as 1945, an “iron curtain” began to descend between East and West, the seeds of which had been stealthily germinating throughout the war years. By the end of 1946, it was clear that the wartime alliance against Fascism would be supplanted by old allegiances and enemies in a budding “cold” war. Likewise, images of camaraderie from the World War II era were quickly buried, and iconographies of fear and suspicion, with their roots in the prewar decades, reemerged.

While the focus of Windows on the War is primarily on the 157 posters on display, viewers will also find their rich historical and cultural context revealed through photographs and documentary material illuminating the visual culture of US–USSR relations before and during the war.”

Some examples:


Artist Unknown. Private collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.


Vladimir Ivanovich Ladiagin, Osip Iakovlevich Kolychev. Gift of the USSR Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.


After the Kukryniksy. Ne boltai! Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

In fact, of the many themes featured in this exhibit, the most immediately compelling for me, who is not so very into war paraphernalia, are the illustrated reminders, as simplistic and hyperbolic as Cold War or current propaganda, of the common goal of the US and Russia during World War II. Never one threatened by romanticism or naivete, the cynical, complicated and pragmatic relationship between our countries for that brief period was at least an admission of interdependence. Our two “evil empires” have indeed shown the ability to support one another despite our mutual tendencies to be arrogant, stubborn and prisoners of our own ideology. I know my crusade to make these two nations understand and appreciate one another makes some people positively nauseous. That it takes something like Nazis to force us to try makes me positively nauseous…

Windows on the War: Themes.
Windows on the War: Artists.
Windows on the War: Writers.

The exhibition of Soviet TASS Posters runs from July 31–October 23, 2011 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Art Institute of Chicago.

If you are in or near Chicago and enjoy reading this blog, I do recommend checking out at least one of these events. And do not not go out of spite because you felt you were deliberately mislead into believing I am Russian and therefore you bought me drinks or said something nice to me but it turns out I am just Irish and French and Cherokee and god knows what else (just between us, I think there may be some Chukchi in there) so fuck you, poemless. Don’t be like that. Go see some bad art and great propaganda and get a history lesson and support our local cultural institutions and give a shit about something before you die.

If you are in Russia, you must think I am just thoroughly incomprehensible and obsessive. Can’t imagine why anyone would mistake me for, you know…

Peace out, friends.

Let’s not wait for Nazis next time, ok?


Artist Unknown. Cellini Collection. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

July 26, 2011

Dive bar, Chicago

Filed under: Chicago — poemless @ 9:09 PM

Written while sick & neither drinking, smoking nor cavorting with hipsters. But written while writing, so hope prevails.

- If you ever want someone to talk to, let me know.
– My mother taught me not to talk to strangers.

– Can I still take you up on your offer to chat?
– I have a fare in Albany Park at 10:30, but can meet for a drink now.
– (Now?! A drink right now? Where?) Ok. Where? I mean, I don’t go to many bars. You’re the cab driver; aren’t you supposed to know all the good bars?
– Do you know Ricochet’s?

I know Ricochet’s. The way you know that one seemingly abandoned house in an otherwise family-friendly neighborhood. The one that’s not had a paint job or been mowed in anyone’s memory, but emits a vibe that tells you it is inhabited. You know it because of everything you don’t know about it.

There is a stretch of Lincoln Ave. in Chicago that makes me keep paying too much rent. It is lined with trees, pedestrians and cultural hubs including a regional library, a park complete with art nouveau gazebo, a venerated music school and a movie theatre, with independent bookstores, coffee shops, vintage clothing, record and toy stores, superb restaurants, bars… And the European apothecary, delicatessen and bench-lined plaza helps it maintain an old world feel even as kitchy boutiques and chain operations begin to creep in. It is a lovely street for a lovely stroll, some lovely shopping and a lovely meal. It is all very lovely.

Except Ricochet’s. This shady bar on a shady corner in the middle of it all has that vibe that will keep saying, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” long after political reformers make good on promises of transparency. While the door is always open, it’s too dark to see what’s going on in there, and the wafting scent of beer stale at 2pm makes you veer a bit closer to the curb as you walk past. There are always people there. You don’t know what kind of people are drinking there at this hour, but they are not like you. While yuppies with toddlers meander and socialize up and down the sidewalk, people come and go from Ricochet’s alone and with purpose, as if maybe picking up keys. Seems like the kind of place you go only if you know the bartender well enough he’d have your spare keys.

In the back of the small, narrow room, past the bar, the dart boards, the bathrooms and the side door is a little round table with a little lamp with a fringe lampshade. And two tall round barstools. The music is awesome: Stones, Bowie, Doors, Velvet Underground… “Stones or Beatles?” “Oh Stones, no brainer.” Now I don’t care that I am drinking boxed wine. I drink wine. Ricochet’s does not serve wine from bottles. They only serve boxed wine. It is quiet in the back. The company is good. I drink the boxed wine and point laughingly to an aged frat boy in a baseball cap dancing blissfully near the bathrooms. “The thing is, he probably has more education than I do.” “We can laugh at him, but he’s probably happier than we are too.” We are not happy people, we agree, grinning and laughing and having a great time.

I’d have never come here with friends. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 11 years and have never come here with friends. Even my unhappy dive bar aficionado drinking companion is giggling with shame. “Next time I’ll take you some place a little more classy, ok?”

- Weird night. Wanted to hear a friendly voice. How are you?
– Weird night myself. It’s good to hear from you. I still owe you a drink.
– What does your week look like?
– I am boycotting the 4th of July.
– There is a place by me called the Skylark.

After one hour and one virgin el line excursion, I arrive in part of Chicago I’ve never set eyes on before. A concrete cancer seems to have decimated any living plant or animal for miles. Every building looks like an abandoned warehouse, even the ones that aren’t. I walk across a rusty bridge over the river, or sanitary canal, I don’t know, lined with what could be a proper junk yard if someone put some effort into it. No shade for miles. I am early. I find a bench to sit on around the corner from a gas station, but everything about it screams, “Do not sit here!” There’s no one really walking down the sidewalk. I wonder if this is what F. Scott’s Valley of Ashes looked like. Across the street is a sign, “Skylark.” I look around for another. Maybe this is just the original, the sign is here for historical value, but where I am going is like down the street or something? Well, ok, it is classier than Ricochet’s, but so are many middle school bathrooms. The nondescript building is on the west side, facing west, with no skyscrapers, lake breeze or population density to shield me from the blazing July evening sun. I head toward the bar feeling like I am about to be cast in an indie movie no one would remember why they placed in their Netflix queue. Maybe Steve Buscemi would be there.

Inside it is roomy, dark and empty; so dark you can see dust particles in the air in the sliver of light that appears when the door opens from time to time. I settle into a booth and decide to get some peirogi. Outside, Americans are in backyards and alleys eating hotdogs and producing amateur pyrotechnics displays in celebration of our glorious nation. Inside, we’re getting tipsy and celebrating our own independence. “I just want to be able to go to bars and have drinks with pretty girls.” “I just wanted to be Dorothy Parker when I grew up.”

Late at night we sped home through the west side streets, hundreds of small fireworks displays in every direction, me half expecting Myrtle Wilson to run out in front of the cab, he warning me not to get involved with him.

- Why don’t I show you the Rainbo before we go to the play?
– Ok.

I’d never heard of the Rainbo. Why should I have? I wasn’t playing coy when I said I don’t really go to bars. I drink at friends’ houses, wine, from bottles. Maybe if there is a cookout, I’ll bring supplies for Cape Cods. I don’t cook. I also live, work and play near the lake. I came from rural Illinois and have a phobia about straying too far back into its bowels. Slippery slope. One day I’m in West Town, the next I could be in Peoria. And why would I ever need to go to Ukrainian Village? If I wanted to see Ukrainian villagers, I could go to, you know, Ukraine. Right?

I’d never heard of this Rainbo madness until I was handed a postcard advertising an upcoming art show there. After that I began to hear a lot about the Rainbo. Some people talk about their children. Some people talk about their bar. Of course I had to go. Based on the track record of my partner in dive bar crime, I had pretty low expectations of it being “a little more classy” than an outhouse. In fact, I secretly hoped it was in a condemned building, where serial killers and postal workers hung out, accessible only by the alley. With no bathrooms. And everything was served in Dixie cups. And everyone had to stand.

Rainbo is actually kinda lovely. If you get there early, you don’t have to stand. There are nice red leather circular booths and a newly reupholstered red leather couch. You can get in through the front door, drinks are served in glassware, wine comes from a bottle (a bottle: only one choice of red), and while too dark to inspire confidence in the hygiene of others (not ruling this out as responsible for my current illness either), there are bathrooms.

I’m told hipsters congregate here. On one occasion, a group of hipster younglings from LA in the booth next to us offered to buy a round. What nice young hipsters. Such good manners. But mostly I am there too early to witness true hipster atrocities firsthand. Early in the evening, there is the man managing the bar and a few bartenders, maybe the owner and the owner’s dog, a guy who runs a breakfast joint and Tim Kinsella slipping in and out of the back door. The other night there were some youthful fellows in the newspaper business discussing the recent floods. All very above board, IMO. No serial killers, postal workers, annoying hipsters. The only crime I’ve seen committed, be it against the law or our refined sensibilities, was when the cab driver stole the breakfast man’s cigarettes.

The bar is dank yet classy, lined with art high upon the walls and in display cases, and featuring a small but elegant stage with black velvet curtains and an ornate ivory border. There is a mounted deer head. I grew up with a mounted deer head in the home; I’m neither disturbed nor impressed by some ironic deer head. A vodka & soda and a glass of wine will set you back $8. Together. It’s a good place to be poor, beautiful and drinking. “I used to think, and maybe still do, that the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir was the ideal arrangement. Living apart and all that jazz.” “And her affair with Nelson Algren.” They say he used to take her here.

It is a good thing I’ll drink that boxed wine. It is my only defense against accusations of pretension now that I’ve off and compared myself to Simone de Beauvoir.

Wait.

So that’s why hipsters go to dive bars.

Poor hipsters and their bad rap. I can think of far worse pastimes than adoring brilliant writers while drinking cheap booze in dive bars in Chicago.

July 14, 2011

Montrose Point. A Walking Tour.

Filed under: Chicago — poemless @ 5:38 PM
Tags: , ,

A genre popular in the 19th Century. I’m bringing it back.

Late one June morning I rolled out of bed in the black tank that is my second skin, pulled on some thrift-store jeans and Merrills (me! in hiking shoes!), brushed my teeth, put on black eyeshadow and sunglasses, got a to-go cappuccino and headed to Montrose Point. And it occurred to me then that regardless how depressed, suicidal, forlorn, panicked, ill or otherwise stricken I feel, I can always manage to get to Montrose Point for a stroll, or walk, or hike or just to lie in the sun and read and write and watch.

Recently, one of my Russian readers asked if I live here. I do. “I wanna see zees beek beeldings, your beek beeldings,” a friend visiting from Paris once insisted. Yes, we have big, big buildings. But Chicago, though notorious for segregating its citizens, has managed to integrate its Industrial Revolution decay and grime with oases of nature and tranquility, to balance the yang of its tall structures and hard edges with the yin of verdant parks and a lapping waterfront. Our skyline of concrete and steel edifice is dramatically underlined by what is possibly the best front yard on the planet, “forever open, clear and free”. By law. For what “law” means in Chicago. Which isn’t much. Which makes its continued existence all the more incredible.

I live north of downtown in a neighborhood west enough to be safe and quiet but east enough to be relevant. Between me and the lake lies a quintessentially dangerous and colorful inner-city neighborhood known for its crime, mental patients, drugs, deteriorating Jazz-age facades, an openly gay alderman and the invention of poetry reading as contact sport. Between Uptown and the lake lies a talon-shaped slice of heaven.

Montrose Beach:

My trek often begins at the northwest base of the park where the beach shoulders Lake Shore Drive and, in the warmer months, involves traipsing through the shallow water, petting other people’s dogs, tripping over other people’s children, and fantasizing of stealing away in a kayak all the way out to the Atlantic ocean. In the colder months, I just sit and let the wind smack sense into me. After the blizzard this year, the beach was lined with massive freak sand-ice glaciers; it looked lunar. A strange day…

Wikipedia: Montrose Beach

Montrose beach is Chicago’s largest beach. It is located in Uptown.[12] It also houses the most parking of any beach in Chicago. It is one of few beaches patrons may launch non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and catamarans into Lake Michigan. It also has one of only two dog beaches in the Chicago Park District, making it a popular beach for dog lovers. In the fenced off dog-friendly section at the north end of the beach leashless dogs are permitted once on the sand. Montrose beach hosts the Junior Guard regional championships, the annual Beach Soccer Festival, and numerous runs and walks for various charities. The beach house on the south-end of the beach was designed by E.V. Buchsbaum, it was modeled after the North Avenue Beach House, and looks like a lake steamer. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, the east wing of the beach house burned in a fire, which was not rebuilt.[13] The beach house was recently remodeled with a 3,000 square foot patio deck, it will house only the third full service restaurant, named “The Dock at Montrose Beach”, at a Chicago beach after Oak Street Beachstro and North Avenue’s Castaways. It is part of the Park District’s plan to add “more upscale concessions to the lakefront”.[14] Due to budget constraints Chicago eliminated the traditional July 3 fireworks in Grant Park, instead opting for a down-scaled fireworks displays in three different locations in Chicago on the 4th of July, the north side display will now be held at Montrose Beach every year.[15]

That’s not true. Rahm cancelled the fireworks this year. All of them. He’s the Grinch who stole fireworks. I love fireworks. They remind me of my mother who died tragically of cancer, because she loved fireworks. I never did, but now they remind me of her. And Rahm has taken that away from me. My dead mother is waiting in hell to thank you personally, Mayor Emanuel.

Conventionally the beaches nearest downtown, Oak Street and North Avenue beaches, have been considered the sun and sand destination points for residents who actually seek out that kind of thing. The rest of us yahoos who are honest with ourselves about where we live, which is not Miami or LA, just go to the neighborhood beach, largely out of a sense of obligation. “Shame not to take advantage of this weather; we get so few nice days like this…” But according to a recent poll, my neighborhood beach is the best one in Chicago. They’ve cleaned up the trash, added pretty blue chaise lounges with umbrellas, a patio bar/restaurant, pretty blue recycling containers, pretty security and lifeguards. Even the kayak rentals and volleyball courts that have always been there no longer look so post-apocalyptic. There is also a popular section just for dogs. Pretty dogs. On my latest pilgrimage to Montrose beach (previously called Wilson Ave. beach when it was covered with used syringes and invasive zebra mussel shells, and while it actually remains located nearest Wilson Ave., Montrose, the name of the street on the opposite side of the park, is, well, prettier…) I half expected to spy the cast of Baywatch running in slow motion across the shore. Somehow neighborhood yahoos have quickly adapted to their new beachfront. High-tops and Doritos bags have been exchanged for sarongs and Nalgene bottles. I’m afraid to ask what they did with the poor people, or when Rahm will begin charging admission. Or cancelling summer.

Dunes:

As the beach extends out toward the lake proper, away from the buzz of the city, there is a protected dunes area. I love the dunes because they remind me of Cape Cod. Except it is really just one dune, a small dune. But it a legitimate dune. I think. It seems very out of place, fragile and desperate and terribly lonely, all roped off. From here on out, there is a lot of protected nature area. Yahoos, return to the beach. That volleyball game won’t play itself. Nature lovers, bird watchers and those of you whose souls have not been complete destroyed by city life and political corruption, proceed.

Past the dune, you may venture left out to a pier where the proles who made it past the natural beauty of the dune without suffering a broken heart go to fish. For what? What can you eat that comes from this lake? Maybe they throw everything back in. I’ve never understood that. People say it is relaxing to fish. When I think, “relaxing,” I don’t think “locking a giant metal hook into some innocent creature’s face, yanking it out of its habitat, watching it gasp for air and bleed, then releasing it back into the sea without a complimentary Xanax for its shock.” But I am “overly sentimental.”

Lakefront Promenade:

I made that up. I don’t actually know what it’s called. Anyway, if you are wise, walking east from the beachfront you will steer right and stroll, run, bike or stalk people along the new concrete esplanade that lines a good part of the lakefront. If you do this, the view directly ahead will play tricks with your mind, and you will forget that you are in the landlocked American Midwest. It’s worth the hike out there for that alone. You can’t see to the other side of the lake. It’s a Great Lake. You know how when you are being taught meditation they tell you to clear your mind and think of nothing, but you can’t? Here you can do that. The tableau changes as frequently and dramatically as the Chicago weather. Some days there are no waves; some days they crash violently against the lakefront path, threatening to carry passersby out to sea. Some days the lake is navy blue and the clouds and sailboats and gulls are chalk white. Some days it looks positively Caribbean. Early in the mornings diamonds dance on the water’s the surface while the sky is pale and harsh, blinding commuters who already resent having their eyes open at this hour anyway. At dawn, you can watch the sun rise from the lake as if the city were birthing some neon deity from its watery womb. I’m always struck by how well-defined the sun is and how swiftly the planet is rotating at sunrise. But my favorite time is when the air is cool and the water a silver-sage color, separated from a dark periwinkle sky by bright sea green horizon. Everything is thrown into intense focus, like a Monet on acid. Winter months turn it the scene into a grainy black and white photograph. Only the blind could be bored here.

Continuing along the walkway south, around the outer edge of the park, the dramatic skyline appears. I have lived here for over a decade and every single time I round that bend and see that city, I stop for a second to take it all in. Serious tourists ooh and awe and take pictures while locals nod and smile at each other, acknowledging our shared good fortune. There is really nothing quite like it.

If the audacity of Great Lakes and skyscrapers doesn’t do it for you, bust out the bug spray and head into the…

Migratory Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary and Protected Nature Area:

Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (“The Magic Hedge”)

Located in Lincoln Park, Montrose Point is a 15-acre bird sanctuary that attracts tens of thousands of migratory birds of more than 300 different species. They stop here for rest, food and shelter. East of the bathhouse is “The Magic Hedge”, a 150 yard stretch of shrubs and several trees, so-called because it attracts a curiously high number of migratory birds. Important migrants include most species of Warblers seen in the Chicago area, Thrushes, Sparrows, Purple Martins, Woodpeckers and many others. Nesters include Common Yellowthroats, Catbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Mourning Doves, and Brown Thrashers.

While Mayor Daley played mini-monarch replicating the highly designed public gardens of France in the medians of downtown streets, the protected nature area at Montrose Point offers no such homage to civilized aesthetics. It is a riot of wildflowers and what look like weeds but are probably Very Important Nearly Extinct Weeds that used to thrive in the swamp that was Chicago before we came and beelt zees beeg beeldings. Birds. Butterflies. Trees. You’re not impressed. This is the same flora and fauna found by the railroadtracks on the edge of the town you came from. Where kids went missing. You know? The place about which your mother would demand, “What do you want to go there for? What’s there? You know that’s where the Davies kid went missing? I better never catch you there mister!” but you went there anyway to smoke pot and because the mall made you want to kill yourself.

Seems like a lot of kids could go missing in this protected nature area, with its ill-defined trails and looming important weeds and shadowy undergrowth. But they don’t. In the city, we do not fear the anarchy of nature, we do not live in constant need of proving ourselves civilized. We are surrounded by concrete and iron and openly crazy people offering to sell us Vicodin and themselves. If you want to kill a kid, there are plenty of neighborhoods where you can do that right out in the light of day. Birds and butterflies and wildflowers and shrubs seem pretty damn harmless here. Unless you have allergies, in which case it’s a deathtrap.

Montrose Harbor:

Whether you meander along the magnificent waterfront or hike through the undergrowth in search of the “magical hedge,” you will eventually arrive at Montrose Harbor. This is when you realize you have been walking for an hour and you are at the halfway point. There is no shortcut home, only to walk all the way back around the inner harbor in the opposite direction and back through the park. There should be a shortcut, but then sailboats could not get in and out, and then it would not be a harbor, and you came to see a harbor, so you are screwed.

Chicago Park District Harbors

The Chicago Park District’s 9 lakefront harbors stretch from Lincoln Park in the northern part of the city to Jackson Park in the south. With accommodations for more than 5,000 boats, the Chicago Park District Harbors constitute the nation’s largest municipal harbor system and feature state-of-the-art floating docks, moorings, star docks, fuel facilities and other amenities for Chicago boaters and their guests.

The nation’s largest municipal harbor system? In Illinois? Who knew…? Sometimes Chicago just makes shit like that up because deep inside we will never be New York or San Francisco. Even deeper inside, however, we’ve no desire to be. We want to just be us, but for everyone to love our city as much as we do because it actually is the greatest city in America.

I grew up along the Mississippi in Mark Twain land. There were boats, but they were flat and ugly rusty barges and garish casinos lazing along the banks like sucker fish, inhaling what was left of humanity after bad genes and a bad economy had chewed it up and spat it out. The first time I went to Cape Cod I was enchanted by the sea-faring vessels that gleamed white against the blue sea, and the white sea birds that swooped around between the rocking waves and the lilting boats, and the people lounging aboard them, also in blue and white, their deck-shoes unironic, their tanned flesh not borne of labor, their faces expressing the confidence of people who have reasonable expectations of happiness and no fear of a god watching their every move, which might force them to be fake kind to complete strangers who are probably assholes like themselves for all they know. It was so relaxing! And the gentle cling and clang of the boat masts created an angelic chorus that said, god or no, this is heaven. You’re obviously lost.

So Montrose Harbor reminds me a little of that.

Well, the boats and the water part. The regulars here, however, probably do fear God or at least some higher authority since they’re mostly from Catholic or Communist nations, and reasonable expectations of happiness have been replaced with reasonable expectations of basic human rights and meals. They are kind to complete strangers because they are rootless and must rely on the reach of their branches instead. The inner harbor is a miniature United Nations, with everyone in national dress, semi-circle formation, many in headphones. The former Eastern Bloc slash Soviet Union is wildly overrepresented (so they should be happy about that at least.) Some are still doing the Adidas track suit and bored pregnant supermodelesque girlfriend at their side thing too. Former residents of Mexico, Puerto Rico and other neighbors to our south are also major players at this conference. Men bring their little boys to fish, but once puberty arrives they are more likely to cast their bait among the roving gangs of of their coy and slightly dressed female peers. Elderly Russian couples speedwalk past it all. They aren’t fishing. Did they come to America to fish in a city harbor? I don’t think so. Look at their nice walking shoes. Do they look like they need to fish in a city harbor? No. He has an iPhone, which, as he’s with the wife, seems to serve as an “avoid communication” device. She doesn’t notice he’s not listening. It doesn’t matter. At least they are not reduced to fishing in the city harbor. There are always German tourists. Always. I have no explanation for this. And frequently a spoiled French toddler is busy tormenting waterfowl. I don’t know if it is his mother or nanny who implores him to stop in a voice meant more for scornful onlookers than the child. There are old Chinese ladies who sleep on a blanket under a shade tree. There are native Chicagoans with their beer bellies, sunburns, too frequent laughs and stances that makes you wonder if they didn’t just grow right up out of this concrete path, like man trees. There are yuppies and hippies and dog walkers and gay couples and homeless and young lovers and winos and city workers on break and you think, oh hell, Chicago is perfectly capable of democracy.

When people complain about City Hall, I want to tell them to shut up and go to Montrose Harbor. You should not be thinking about “forever open, clear and free” only when writing angry letters to your representatives.

After hearing my ode to the Montrose Point, a friend suggested that I am a nature person. No. I don’t like bugs and dirt and sunshine. I don’t like exercise. I don’t like tourism. I don’t like an “active lifestyle.” I can buy flowers at the grocery. I don’t even like other people without being given a good reason why I should. I do love that lake. I’d go crazy if I didn’t live near a large body of water. Crazier. And a little cardio and fresh air never killed anyone. But mostly, I am just filled with wonder that such a place can exist among men. It honors what is best in us and in the world. It’s precious. It doesn’t entirely restore my faith in humanity, but it gets me through the rest of the day, starting with the long walk back home.

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