There are just so many stories out there that are never heard. Millions of interesting people, and thousands of fascinating ones, living lives made anonymous by the fact that nobody ever bothered talking to them and asking them to reflect on where they are, how they got here, and where they see themselves going. Instead, the media dwells on the famous, the glamorous, the star-powered (temporary) marriages, the gorgeously empty people who have nothing worthwhile to say. Those whose sole purpose for opening up is to shill their latest movie.
I'd love to start a magazine called "Common Man: Celebrating Ordinary Life." It would be entirely devoted to interviewing everyday people, the kind who fly completely under the media's radar, asking them about their lives, their dreams, their fears, their quirks. Studs Terkel would be an obvious influence, though the magazine would be more freeform and less thematically-based than Terkel's books. The only drawback I see, other than the likely lack of marketability, is that my inward nature makes me more observer than interviewer. But maybe a project like this would draw me out of my shell. We'll see.
A Pillar Sags
He walked slowly and deliberately, stepping delicately as if trying to avoid pain. His hair was pure white from decades of deadlines and eleventh-hour negotiations, and his shoulders stooped from millions of minutes spent in a deskchair ill-fitted for his lanky frame. His digestive system balked from too many dinners of carryout, delivered directly to his desk to avert any interruption of the task at hand. His mind was dulled from too many nights spent viewing nothing more than the four white walls of his office.
By all of the standard measures of success, he was a man of great accomplishment. Power, prestige, influence, respect. Dozens of pliant underlings answering to his every whim. A salary far into six figures and a retirement account which was extremely robust even after the years-long bear market. A well-appointed five-bedroom in a leafy suburb, and a new German sedan every eighteen months. A sharp, attractive wife and accomplished children. Everything.
But something, something more had always eluded him. Perhaps eluded isn't the right word, as that would imply he had actively pursued that fleeting something. Which had not been the case. He had followed the time-worn path, and gotten everything--and more--that they said he should have. But all of it was still, somehow, indeterminately lacking. As he trudged once again to his office, he thought deeply of his life, and how it might have been so very different.
He stood in the basement of his suburban ranch home, in a subdivision of outwardly neat homes whose dark secret now lapped at his ankles. It started, as it always did, with a slight trickle through the failed seal of the sump hole cover, as the pump struggled to keep up. But the water filled the hole faster than it could be pumped back out again, leaving it no other place to go but his basement.
"Whose brilliant idea was it," he muttered not entirely to himself, "to put the sump hole in the basement?"
He pushed a wide broom, trying hopelessly to direct the water to the makeshift drain hole cut into the concrete floor. "Should have dug a sump pit in the backyard. That way if it overflowed the water would just go into the yard, which is where I'm pumping it right now anyway," he uttered as if cursing. "And they couldn't even be bothered to put in a decent floor drain."
The water rose, slowly and inexorably, inching up the edge of the makeshift wooden risers which were built by the previous owners and should have clued him in to the fact that the house had water problems, before they ever signed a contract. Everything plastic or otherwise impervious to water sat on the risers, with anything expendable being crammed into the small, elevated openings to the crawlspace.
Finally, when he saw that the water was no longer rising and he knew the pumps would do their work, he realized he had had enough. He dropped the broom with a splash and trudged barefoot up the unfinished wooden stairs, drying off his feet on the landing and returning to the kitchen.
"There's nothing more I can do," he said wearily. "Let's order dinner."
Driving to pick up dinner, he unconsciously avoided making the required left turn and continued to head west, past the stoplights and gas stations, past the fringes of suburbia and into the open farmland. He drove and drove until he became numb, and his mind clear. Clear of all his concerns, and even clear of the thought of his family waiting at home for their dinner. The stands of cornstalks on either side of the road formed an insulating corridor, propelling him onward and free of thought.
Two random turns lead him to a minor crossroads, a town barely worthy of the title. A small tavern, with a grain elevator across the road and a minor scattering of houses here and there. An insignificant blot on the landscape, a pile of peeling paint slowly receding back into the earth. Gravel crunched beneath his tires as he turned into the tavern's parking lot, a destination he wasn't able to explain. Through the screen door to the nearly empty darkness within, where he found himself staring absently into a lighted Pabst sign with a sweating bottle of Blue Ribbon before him, which was barely touched as he sat and sat.
Racing the Pigeons
Glancing up from a literary journal, I was struck by the sight of a large flock of pigeons racing alongside the train, seemingly in escort. I had never known wild pigeons to fly in such large numbers, and as they fought their way bravely against the wind up the railyard, I found myself silently cheering them on. Scattered pigeons here and there fought for the lead, inevitably falling back and replaced by other strivers, but one dark gray and determined bird strongly held the forefront, enjoying no drafting from other birds and yet staying far ahead.
I sat mesmerized, in wonderment. Sensing the approaching expressway overpass, which I knew would disperse the flock, I stared transfixed, knowing the sight would soon be gone. As it was: the overpass forced them to scatter, a few venturing over the teeming lanes but most turning back. I was glad, even so briefly, to have shared the moment with them.
One Life Becomes Two
I left the deafening bar, exiting onto Wells Street into a warm and welcoming drizzle. I realized that I had, finally, had enough of this. Endless standing, shouting meaningless pleasantries inches from a companion's ear, music too loud to converse normally, and drinking mechanically for want of anything better to do.
That stroll up Wells in the rain, towards a spot more favorable for taxis, was in retrospect rather cinematic. Seen from overhead, my drenched reflecting could easily have passed for a lovelorn John Cusack. But while he would have been desperately longing for some specific, dark-eyed waif, my longing was more general. For something calmer, someone to talk quietly to and do low-key everyday things. For the serenity of domesticity. Not the clamor of superficial, fake sociability. Someone real. I found her not long after.
The Indulgences of Prohibition
"Of course what you kids dont realize," said Hildebrand, "is that the difficulty under prohibition is keeping sober."
--John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer
For Moran, for Valenti, for Schroeder, for every saloonkeeper of every ethnic stripe it was business as usual. In fact, better than usual. Now there were no liquor taxes, no rules on hours of business, no prohibition against female customers. Timid publicans fearful of violating the law, and those whose uneasy religious consciences had relied heavily on drinking's legality to justify staying open, promptly shut their doors, thus boosting demand for the bolder and less conscience-stricken owners.
The only new costs involved were the menial wages of the door sentry, and the weekly "donation" to the local beat cop. And even the latter was an improvement, as it streamlined the previously scattershot system of donations to various enforcement officers. As long as one kept a low enough profile to escape the Feds' attention, Prohibition proved to be good business.
Nick certainly enjoyed the new arrangements. A light tap on a basement door, a secret word whispered to the tired pair of eyes which peered warily through the narrow slot, entry to a smoky yet dankly comfortable cellar, and access to the finest spirits the outfit could provide. And, most importantly, respite from both his wife and his boss, neither of whom enjoyed similar access.
Florid-faced, backslapping, laughing uproariously at the slightest attempt at wit. Booming, boisterous, empty. Eight or ten people whose only thing in common is the forced familiarity of a commuter train. They tell themselves, over and over again, that they have found friendship, camaraderie, connection. Although the train is fairly full, their raucous half of the car is one-fourth empty, and not without reason.
"We're going out for a few if you'd like to join us," one says to two others on the platform after climbing down from the train. Apparently the two tallboys of the past hour aren't enough to fill up a hollow soul.
Federal Street between Van Buren and Jackson is an urban canyon. Narrow, shadowed and cool, and a nice reprieve from the blasting morning sun. Walking past the Monadnock Building, I peer through its broad windows into the end of the 19th Century: Frank's Barber Shop, whose only concession to modernity is a female stylist, and Cavanaugh's, an old-fashioned bar in which Hinky Dink Kenna wouldn't look out of place. Then it's into the 20th Century with a swing through the doors of Intelligentsia Coffee (this week's delightful discovery) where I got a large to go, the third punch on my free drink card and a brief listening to "Driver 8" by R.E.M., over the loudspeaker.
This stroll up Federal was good karma, and a breaking of a recent string of minor debacles.
John Dos Passos
In Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, the character John Oglethorpe unleashes the following rant at a lowly newspaper reporter:
"I read and keep silent. I am one of the silent watchers. I know that every sentence, every word, every picayune punctuation that appears in the public press is perused and revised and deleted in the interests of advertisers and bondholders. The fountain of national life is poisoned at the source."
Remarkably, this was written in 1925. Some things never change.
A neighborhood, humbled and worn. Dozens of frame houses, once tidy but now haggard, press together with mere inches of privacy separating them. Back porches are filled with clutter, accumulations in the process of being either stored or discarded. The streets are littered with aluminum cans, empty boxes, random paper. Industrial buildings and a truck lot stand directly across the street, a far cry from the park view most might prefer, and freight trains rumble just overhead, outside the back door. The curbs are lined with ten-year-old parked cars, bumper to bumper; no room or budget for detached garages here.
An older couple squeezes sideways between two parked cars in the middle of the block, and crosses the street with barely a glance in either direction for traffic. Despite all the parked cars, there is little traffic to be concerned with. The only nearby traffic is the endless whirl of commuters on the elevated expressway just to the north, people travelling from green suburbs to downtown glass towers with little thought of what lies between.
Jeff Buckley was an intriguing talent, and an ultimately tragic story. He died suddenly in 1997, drowning in the Mississippi River in Memphis after having released only one full-length album, Grace. It's hard for me to do justice to his music with my own words, so I suggest you check out the website which is lovingly maintained in his memory. Most significant is the media center, Peyote Radio Theatre, which enables you to stream entire albums as well as videos and miscellany. I'm currently mesmerized by Buckley's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," from Grace.
And lest you think I've simply gone off on a musical tangent, the protagonist of the short story I'm currently working on is an enigmatic, Buckley-esque figure. Listening to "Hallelujah" is giving me quite a bit of literary inspiration.
Bike Messengering, Pt. 2
Travis Culley's book never really answered my "contradiction" question. Salon.com's Maria Russo encapsulates this shortcoming very succintly:
"Is he an anarchist free spirit, a thorn in the side of suburban, car-dependent America, or is he just another exploited cog in the corporate machine? It's an inevitable tension that Culley halfheartedly acknowledges but can't bring himself to embrace; what could have been a productive paradox in his book instead remains a nagging contradiction."
Still, the bike-related passages are quite exhilarating. I wish Culley had focused more on them, instead of his anti-automobile diatribe.
Cartier-Bresson and Inspiration
I heard a fascinating story on NPR this morning about the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. I am struck most by his earliest inspiration, Martin Mankacsi's Black Boys Ashore Lake Tanganyika. Bresson said that the photograph "...made me suddenly realize that photography could reach eternity through the moment," which lead him to purchase his first Leica, thus launching his career. It's interesting to note the little things in life which inspire us towards greater things.
Suddenly Worth It
The audience laughed, and for that moment all was forgotten. The writer stood in the wings, not watching the play so much as absorbing it. His creation, everything he had toiled for, the work of art that had consumed his entire being, became--during that brief applause--all that mattered. The actors moving to and fro, the scenery, the crowd sitting spellbound just beyond the stagelights, and the mood in the air kept him transfixed. Nothing else but this moment mattered to him now. Not the years of writing and re-writing, the poverty, the thankless jobs taken to pay the rent which took away too many precious hours, or the endless logistical gymnastics involved in staging a play. Nor did it matter how long the play might run, or how extreme was the indifference of the masses.
This was his crescendo, the validation of everything he stood for. The rest would work itself out, somehow.
Another recent archive entry. I'll get back into the swing of things soon.
Union Station, Joliet
A middle-aged man, bundled to the chin, shuffles along with a newspaper clutched to his chest like his first-born child. His staccato steps resound through the echoing corridor.
A lonely payphone rings and rings, and yet no one ever answers.
Riverside Plaza, Chicago
The pigeons alight suddenly, rising to hover in a confused cloud above the pedestrians and the halted traffic, returning just as inexplicably to their roosts on the bridgetender's house, the sidewalk, and the railings.
A lone cigarette smolders in a sidewalk ashtray, just recently discarded by a smoker no longer near.
Steam glides scatteredly across the river's surface, for even as frigid as the water is, the air above is fractionally more so. The steam wavers to and fro, as aimlessly as schoolchildren at noon recess.