The evening of January 1st, 2015 found me on the Amtrak Wolverine bound for Chicago – that somber city – where I lived and worked for the four years following my college graduation. I stayed with my old friend from Norris Housestaff and well beyond – we’ll call him Hammurabi. I’ll start by saying that Hammurabi could not have been a more generous and gracious host. He picked me up from Union Station on Thursday night, and for the next four days he opened his home to me, drove me countless miles around the city, offered me everything he had, screened me his latest film-in-progress, stood me meals and drinks, and generally made me feel welcome and comfortable. I only hope that when the time comes I can summon the same spirit of giving, patience and selflessness as a host, guide and friend.
On Thursday night, myself, Hammurabi and his roommate – we’ll call him Philbert – attempted to go dancing at club Neo in Lincoln Park. Alas, the establishment was closed for New Year’s Day. In the throes of dance fever, we drove all around the city. In all the by-rush of familiar streets and neighborhoods, I realized the weight of my time in Chicago. I lived there for four years man! 1400 or so days and nights that I bused and el-trained and walked all over that place. I had friends and was a friend, I had jobs and was a mediocre employee, I had apartments and romances and adventures and was a resident and a lover and a young intrepid all across those venerable gridded blocks. Memories came flooding back, but not as nostalgia per se. They felt slightly distant, as though they had happened in a chapter now closed, one having little to do with me now. I wondered if I had spun my wheels in the Chi. Did my face look tired and strained for moment, like McMurphy’s? I hope not, because although my career had not been the best, Chicago itself, and the people I knew there, had been good to me.
But this time around the city felt incredibly, ominously large. I have only lived in Providence for about seven months, but I have already adjusted to its size. I have come to expect the run-ins with acquaintances, to find out about the friends in common, to see the familiar faces at bars, restaurants, events, and walking down the street. Chicago by contrast seemed almost threatening in its enormity. What safety mechanism would keep one from becoming swallowed up by all that bustle? How does one beat back anonymity and feel any sense of eminence or community in such an outsized milieu?
In the end we ended up at the Skylark, arguing about 12 Years a Slave – the merits of that film itself, as well as those of Amistad, but also genre and the state of the slave narrative in Hollywood. Philbert did not hold McQueen’s work in the same esteem that Hammurabi and I did, and we disagreed, but it was a lively and engrossing discussion nonetheless.
On Friday Hammurabi and I got out and about. The early destination was Garfield Park Conservatory, which Hammurabi had recommended a long time ago when we were still Chicago chums. I never made it before I moved away, so I was quick to suggest we check it out together. First we stopped at Flying Saucer for a late breakfast. Just a hip sort of diner with good food and reasonable prices, one pinprick in the constellation of likely the hundreds spangled along Lake Michigan. Again I realized the size of the city, and how many nooks and corners I had left unexplored in my time there.
Garfield Park Conservatory itself was excellent, although two of the best areas were closed for repairs – a long healing from the June 30, 2011 hailstorm that devastated the glass roofs of the interconnected Conservatory structure. We could gaze across the Palm House reflecting pool into the Fern Room, and peek through a glass pane at a few high cactus tops in the Desert House, but the rooms were off limits. Nonetheless there was a wonderful feeling to the place.
The Palm House was humid and colorful, and the other sections had their respective charms. The aroma of flora was pervasive and good. There were colors and textures a-plenty, and coming in from the desaturated waste-land of Chicago in winter, the conservatory was the source of a very positive mood swing. It was as if a museum and an arboretum had procreated in order to provide a special sanctum, one of those holdovers of altruistic vision and public consideration that are the true pillars upon which great cities stand.
High off the pollens of Garfield Park, we made for the Lincoln Park Conservatory, which is situated next to the zoo. No, not Wrigleyville – the actual Lincoln Park Zoo. We were defeated soundly by Lincoln Park however, as we could not find parking within blocks of the Conservatory. We drove by the apostrophe-less RJ Grunts multiple times, and realized what we were up against. We remembered why we had always lived west and south of the North Shore yuppie epicenter. Too many phonies! …in this area.
We made instead for Bridgeport, to visit Palmisano Park and Stearns Quarry. Palmisano Park is built around a large hill with prairie features and a generous summit. In my Plainfield commuting days, I used to drive past the hill on my way back to the city via I-55. It always looked large, and sometimes vaguely holy, with pilgrims young and old mounting its slopes, or in play or in reverie at the rounded top. I was surprised to find that the hill was much smaller and easier to climb than I imagined. There were some large rocks up there, and an art installation comprising a circle of white Buddha heads, some of them graffiti-ed.
The quarry turned out to be the most interesting feature. There is a fishing pond at the excavation site, with a metal walkway leading down to a large platform. The water was largely frozen over, with thick ice near the shore. Hammurabi and I ventured out on the ice – not too far – and in our idle fooling made a great discovery. Rocks thrown onto the surface of the frozen pond made a strange metallic birdcall sound, some springed reverberation that seemed more mechanical or electronic than organic. It came to me like a promotional hip hop headline – “Quarry Ice makes crazy noise.” We entertained ourselves by throwing pebbles and stones across the pond, eventually heading up to an overlook to find bigger stones and enlist gravity in making greater physical and sonic impact.
Afterward we went to Maria’s and had rare, unique beers (I had a Dogfish Head 120-Minute IPA, and Hammurabi had Marz’s soy sauce barrel and shiitake mushroom-aged Takeshi Umami Stout), plus a delicious pot pie from the Pleasant House Bakery. Often the delight is in the low-key places, the ones perhaps sniffed out by the nightlife magazines and dimply on the radar of the masses of live-in tourists, but still far enough out of the way to remain true to their character and mission.
That night we went to the Arrogant Frog to meet some old friends for drinks. I had put out an open call by email to a fair-sized list of names. What can I say? I became nervous before the first people arrived. It had been at least 16 months since I had seen the vast majority of them. To some of them I had left suddenly on an ill-defined mission, while I had blabbed at length to others about my ephemeral reasoning and at-best vague plans for a “sabbatical.”
Well the nerves were for naught. Things went well, and people seemed happy to see me. I was happy to see them. No one interrogated me, and I did not feel judged or ostracized at any time. The bar was almost empty besides our party, so there was room to sprawl and no wait for drinks. I chatted, caught up with people and generally enjoyed the occasion.
However there is one observation I must make, and that is that most of my Chicago friends are on a distinctly different path from the one I am attempting to walk. To put it crudely, it seemed that they are looking for spouses, houses and dogs. That is, settling down. I meanwhile, am looking seriously at a life of austerity, uncertainty, and creative striving. I was once a yuppie alongside these responsible, educated people, and had money and security, but the lifestyle was a terrible fit for me. I had to make a hard break with that life before it broke me. In the months prior to saying “So Long Stinkjob!” I unfairly projected a lot of my misgivings about the corporation-subsidized life on these friends of mine. But now, having liberated myself, I felt ambiguous feelings toward them – I could and would not judge the life choices of those who had been so kind to me – for everyone makes their own choices, as I finally had to courage to make my own – and yet, I could not identify with them on matters of job and career, of marriage and family, of workday gripes and unpursued personal stirrings.
The next night Hammurabi and I went for a walk in Pilsen. It was cold, but we had been languishing on the couch and wanted to stir our blood with fresh air. Hammurabi is a tremendous listener, and allowed me to work out many of my own feelings by his patience and attention. I like to think that his suffering my ramblings wasn’t a totally altruistic exercise for him – I feel that we are working through many of the same difficult ideas and choices as we attempt to live lives that we can be proud of. Still, he let me go on and on, and I felt truly comfortable and able to share, and also able to explain how things had impacted me, even if it took a few tries.
A thread ran through my words, and through everything I felt on my visit, the primary aspect of which was that I led a very circumscribed life in Chicago. Apart from about five months of (anxiety-relieving) unemployment in 2011, I was working forty-hours-a-week the entire time. The weekday curriculum was rise-eat-commute-work-lunch-work-commute-dinner-shower-freetime-bed. The freetime in this cycle was a mere 2-3 hours, sometimes depleted by grocery shopping, laundry, social engagement and the like. Between friendships and relationships, my weekends were often planned for me or shared, which was a blessing and a curse. I almost never felt lonely on the weekends, but I also became bitterly defensive about my hobby time, often to the detriment of my relationships.
Throughout it all, I was never was able to take care of administrative, automotive or health business without annoyingly wrangling the time off work by some corporately acceptable means. Most painfully, I almost never had the opportunity to soak the weekday sun, to call a friend and make plans to meet for a leisurely lunch or early dinner before the yuppies had at it. This workaday routine was natural for some, but I hated it.
My life in Rhode Island has been Very different. During the initial nine-month sabbatical, the whole day would stretch before me, and in the spirit of freedom and solitude, I readily busied myself with my own projects. In Providence, my work engagements are sparse and do not follow regular weekday hours (this may change). Many are the days appearing as blank canvases, waiting for the strokes of my brush. Without routine, I am forced to make choices and use my time productively, if not wisely. After all, if it comes to the point where I am merely frittering away time and money, I might as well go back to the office and shore up my finances. But it has not come to that, so I am a free agent, untethered, but also unsupported, and I can feel it making me into a different person.
And that is the second strand of the thread: that I was a different person in Chicago then, and that I am something of a new person now. Conformer became FormerConformer, just like that. As Conformer, my primary state was frustration. I was vaguely excited by the city and its myriad sights, sounds, tastes, textures and social opportunities, but I lacked a calling, a voice, a reason to be. If I lived in Chicago now, my objectives would be completely different. I would make my own hours and strive to monetize my heart’s work. I would seek the company and community of my contemporaries – the struggling writers and creative strivers, people like Hammurabi, who work hard at their vision, piling on then chipping away, fully engaged in the long project of revealing their own soul’s elegant shape.
Other things happened in Chicago. I played basketball in a fancy high-rise. I met with a former romantic partner and we caught up over coffee and tea. I played a game of Seven Wonders and foolishly overspent on my military. Hammurabi and I watched the entire seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm (which is hilarious, for the record). Hammurabi and I sang “Head Over Heels” to a crowded karaoke bar in Avondale, then walked down the block to dance to New Wave music. It was a full weekend.
Hammurabi kindly dropped me off at Union Station on Monday morning, and I prepared to head back to Ann Arbor for a last night before heading back east. I was eager to get home; what seemed like a New Year’s impulse at club Habana had blossomed unexpectedly – revealing an epiphany of intimacy, understanding and trust that usually takes weeks, if not months to develop. I was excited to see this young lady again, bittersweetly, before we traveled back to our provisional lives on opposite coasts – she to California and I to Providence and my weird FormerConformer life.
As the Amtrak Wolverine slogged across the snowy hellscapes of northwestern Indiana, I thanked myself once again for steering myself out of the rut whose ultimate construction may well have entombed me within a shell of false contentment – into a chamber of mood disorders and quiet desperation. Instead my life has become somewhat weird and unpredictable, fresh and at times surreal. Though the last ≈17 months have been somewhat disastrous financially, I’ve still got yuppiecash in the coffers, and more importantly, I feel strongly that I am on the right track, working toward becoming a realized person, one who is not afraid, who strives on, with curiosity, purpose, skill and pride.