Fading Ad: People's Gas Company
Here's another fading ad, one that's hiding and seems somewhat shy. I saw this from atop the same parking garage where I photographed the A.C. McClurg ad; it's the old Peoples Gas Company building at 122 S. Michigan. The ad is on the back on the building, facing west, and is mostly obscured by the taller, modern tower at the left side of the photo. Due to its height and the closeness of that modern tower, I doubt that this ad is fully visible from anywhere other than inside the tower.
Fading Ad: A.C. McClurg & Co.
I was quite pleased to suddenly discover this fading ad during my afternoon walk last Friday. I was strolling west on Adams, approaching Wabash, and happened to glance up, above the El tracks, where I saw the ad high up on a building at 218 S. Wabash. Because of where the ad is situated (facing a narrow gap over a small four-story building, next to which was a tall parking garage) the exact spot where I happened to be at that moment is essentially the only point where the ad can be seen from the street. I rode the elevator to the top level of the garage, walked past the cars and to the edge, where I was able to take this shot.
The ad is for A.C. McClurg & Company (you can see all but the "A.C." and the "Mc"), once one of the most prominent publishers in Chicago; McClurg most notably published Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books as well as The Dial, one of the most prominent literary journals of its day. McClurg also operated a major book store which eventually morphed into the legendary Kroch's & Brentano's. In an interesting twist, this photo actually includes a second ad: in the upper left corner you can see an ad for Lyon & Healy, which I have previously documented.
Parking garages are a great place to photograph from, or just to take in unique views. Most of what we see downtown is either from street level or from high up in tall buildings. But garages provide an interesting middle ground: five to ten stories high, with the uncovered top level providing an open, panoramic view. Especially on the streets along the El tracks (Wabash, Van Buren, Wells, Lake) where redevelopment has come slower than the more marquee streets of the Loop, garages provide a rare glimpse of scruffier and (to me) more charming older buildings. And since they're open to the public, garages are easily accessible without having to navigate through security.
"...looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after..."
Strong passage from William Maxwell's short story "Haller's Second Home" (collected in All the Days and Nights):
He didn't really mind being continually pushed and shoved, herded from place to place, and sworn at. After all, it was the Army. It was not a school picnic. What he couldn't stand, as the day wore on, was the misery that he saw everywhere he looked. A great many of the men were younger than he was, and they became so worn out finally that they lost all hope and leaned against the wall in twos and threes, with the tears streaming down their faces. Eventually, he worked himself into such a fury that he began to shake all over, and a tough Irish sergeant came up to him and put both arms around him and said, "Wait a minute, buddy. You're all right. Take it easy, why don't you?" in the kindest voice Francis had ever heard in his life.
But the strangest thing was the continual pairing off, all day long - on the train, at the induction center, at camp, where, long after midnight, you found yourself still instinctively looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after. Somebody you'd never laid eyes on before that day became, for two hours, closer than any friend you'd ever had. When you were separated, your whole concern was for him - for what might be happening to him. While you had one person to look after, among the crowd, you were not totally lost yourself. When the two of you were separated for good, you looked around and there was someone in obvious desperation, and so the whole thing happened all over again.
Maxwell continually shifts the perspective in these stories, from one character to the next, which sometimes prevents the story from fully connecting with me. But when he narrows the focus, like this short passage with Francis Whitehead, the result is impeccable and totally resonant.
Stuctured Reading: African-American Classics
My latest Structured Reading (Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy, James Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son and Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God) is easily the most rewarding and meaningful one I've had yet, because the three books and especially the writers are so tightly connected. Of the latter, it's particularly telling to note that Baldwin disliked Wright's landmark novel Native Son, and Wright openly disdained Their Eyes Were Watching God. And it's probably safe to say that Hurston had few kind words for Wright.
Black Boy is Wright's vivid account of his childhood and teenaged years in the American South during the 1910s and 1920s, before he finally departed for the relative freedom of Chicago in 1927. For me, the biggest shock here isn't the racism (both virulent and subtle) that Wright faced every day of his younger life - such an experience surely was common amongst African-Americans in that place and time - but the fact that Wright ever became a writer at all. His family clearly placed little value on education, and Wright seems to have had no encouragement as either a reader or writer (other than one white person in Memphis who lent him his library card; blacks weren't allowed to check books out of the public library at the time). Reading Wright's long litany of racial insults and predicaments, it's easy to see where the relentless anger that stoked Native Son and Wright's other works came from.
James Baldwin seems to have had a somewhat more advantaged upbringing; though while growing up he was likely as poor as Wright (and lived in a similarly oppressive household), the Harlem of his childhood and its fledgling black middle class likely sheltered him to some degree from the blatant racism that Wright faced. In contrast to Wright's gritty and vivid memoir, the essays in Notes of a Native Son (other than the stellar title piece, about his father's death) have a detached, intellectual tone in which Baldwin discusses race in such vague, abstract terms that the impact of his message is severely blunted. Most tellingly, while Baldwin obviously disliked Wright's Native Son, his meandering piece "Many Thousands Gone" never really explicitly explains why. Baldwin was a passionate observer who had plenty to say about society, but his failure to be specific kept his message from fully coming across.
The best of the three books, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a stirring, triumphant novel that tells the story of Janie, an African-American woman in rural Florida during the 1920s. Janie endures two suffocating marriages before meeting Tea Cake, an exuberant vagabond who proves to be her soulmate, and who exposes her to a joyous, carefree life that was probably as liberated as a woman like her could have experienced. Her story is far from idealistic - her life is nowhere near perfect, not even while with Tea Cake - but as she slowly realizes the possibilities of life, which she dreamed of from an early age yet never quite believed she would be able to experience herself, the reader is drawn along in the wake of her quiet triumph.
Yet despite the considerable power of Hurston's novel, Wright dismissed it, saying "The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." Wright didn't think the book was symbolic or political enough, which to me is the book's strength: it's a personal story that delivers its message through characterization and story, while Wright openly believed that a fiction writer should begin with an overriding sociopolitical theme and tell a story that delivers that theme, even if the characters end up being two-dimensional symbols. I was greatly disppointed by Native Son when I re-read it a few years ago, partly for its implausibility (Wright never let inconvenient plot details get in the way of his big theme) but mostly because I never felt like Bigger Thomas was a genuine, flesh-and-blood human being, but was instead a mere symbol through which Wright projected his political beliefs. In contrast, Hurston's Janie felt totally real, flawed but vibrantly alive. And I dispute Wright's claim that Their Eyes Were Watching God had no message or theme; though the novel wasn't a discursive, ideological discussion of the African-American's role in society (which Wright was so fond of), it said plenty about female liberation and potential while also telling a compelling, touching story of a memorable life.
"...the pristine glory of this wallpaper..."
In The Boarding-House, William Trevor marvelously describes the monochromatic and faded interior of the titular dwelling, through the eyes of one of its boarders.
A brown wallpaper covered the wall by the staircase. The pattern it bore was one of large oval leaves that once had been depicted in a more subtle variety of shades: purples and dark greens, reds and russets. It was a late-night habit of Mr. Studdy's to lift one of the three Watts reproductions and display for his personal pleasure the pristine glory of this wallpaper, and to make to himself the point about the effect of light on cheaply reproduced color. "A scandal," opined Mr. Studdy more than once, nodding sagely.
After just one chapter I've already been introduced to most of the boarders and staff of the house, all of whom seem appealingly idiosyncratic and/or neurotic. I'm looking forward to immersing myself in their strange little world.
A late start for Irish March
It wasn't until this past weekend that I suddenly realized I had forgotten all about my annual Irish March reading. I was so absorbed in my latest Structured Reading series (Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston) that I let half the month slip away without delving into anything by Irish writers. My shelves at home are fairly skimpy in terms of unread Irish works (Eugene O'Neill was of Irish ancestry but American by birth, and Long Day's Journey Into Night is set in Connecticut; Frank McCourt's 'Tis is mostly set in New York City), so unless I find something good at a used book store soon, this year's Irish March will involve William Trevor's early novel The Boarding House, and the lesser-read works of Jonathan Swift (The Tale of a Tub, "A Modest Proposal", etc.) that are included in the edition of Gulliver's Travels that I've owned since high school.
"Stand in for Shane."
Nigel Bird, from his short story "Dirty Old Town":
It was like my birthday in reverse. They gave plenty and I ended up with less than I started with. For the time being, I’d lost the sight of one eye, one front tooth and a button from my favourite jacket. I didn’t mind - it was about time I got myself a few new clothes and the missing tooth just made me look interesting.
I reckon I’d make the perfect front man for the Popes should Shane MacGowan pop his clogs. We’ve been laying bets on him dying before Christmas every year since ’86, and we’re still losing money. I could do it. Stand in for Shane. I know all of the songs and can’t hold a tune. What more could they possibly want?
This passage gave me a good laugh this morning, especially after having listened to the Pogues yesterday on St. Patrick's Day. Nigel is a fellow Kuboa author (this story is from his debut collection, also called Dirty Old Town) and I've had the collection on my phone since last year, but hadn't read it yet. I forgot my regular book at home today and wanted to read something on the train that was more substantial than surfing the Internet, and I came across Nigel's book in my library. Good reading so far.
Fading Ad: Brunswick
This building at 623 S. Wabash Avenue in Chicago was the headquarters of Brunswick Corporation (previously the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company) from 1913 to 1964. That distinctive logo should be familiar to anyone who's ever shot pool on a Brunswick table or bowled in a Brunswick alley. Brunswick is still in business, though it moved to the suburbs years ago. Interestingly enough, before Brunswick this building housed a showroom of the Studebaker automobile company, and the opposite (north) side of the building also has a Studebaker ad which must be over a hundred years old. Unfortunately I had to shoot that ad facing south, toward the bright sun, and the lettering of the ad was totally washed out. (You can just make out the ad in this shot from Google Street View.) It's rare for one building here in Chicago to have two fading ads, let alone ads for two iconic companies.
Fading Ad: Hollywood Tuxedo Rental
I just love this fantastic faded ad from the Chicago Lawn neighborhood, photographed by Marian Saska. But the photo was taken in 1972 and, unforunately, the ad is now long gone. Still, nice to see it preserved for posterity. As for the ad content itself, I know they were trying to emphasize the tuxedo, but it's kind of unsettling to see the woman rendered so faintly, only in outline.
"Anybody that didn't know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the silence was the sleep of swords." - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
What I'm writing
I wish I could report that I've been diligently working on Junker during the past few months, and will soon have a finished first draft, but that's not at all the case. I've barely touched the manuscript this year (I'm stuck at about 15,000 words), and though the story still occupies my mind from time to time, the actual writing of it is on hold for now.
Fortunately, I've still been writing regularly, thanks to two resolutions I set for myself for 2014. First, every week I'm writing a new 1-2 page (400-800 word) story, on whatever subject comes to mind. Or actually, due to their brevity and the need to start a new piece each week, it would be more accurate to call them sketches or introductory pieces, with only a few of them so far being complete, self-contained stories. Several of the stories were riffs on various books I've been reading (Budd Schulberg, Knut Hamsun, William Maxwell), and two are even potential introductory chapters for book-length concepts I've been kicking around. I'm giving myself the first and last weeks of the year off, so this project will give me fifty pieces of raw material to further hone into finished stories or even books.
And lest I end this year with just fifty pieces that may or may not ever be finished (the latter being more likely, given my work habits), my other project is a serialized story, in which each installment is written by hand (with no editing) on a postcard, and mailed to a writer friend of mine. I have no idea where the story is going, but with any luck I'll come to some sort of resolution by the end of the year. I wrote the first installment in January and the second in February, and though I had hoped to write a new one every few weeks, it's looking like monthly installments are more realistic. Having a reader waiting to read my next installment has really been effective motivation to keep writing.
So, while nothing is happening with the novel, at least I've still been writing on a regular basis. With any luck these exercises will keep me limber and sharp if and when the novel ever comes back to me.
Wolf in White Van
Yes, another John Darnielle post...Darnielle's lyrics have always been very literary, and several years ago he published his first work of fiction, a novella for Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (which I have not yet read, but intend to grab the first time I see it in person). Now he's about to further solidify his writer credentials with his debut novel Wolf in White Van, which is coming out in October. Really, really looking forward to this.
Cartier-Bresson in Chicago
Excellent: I didn't know that the great Henri Cartier-Bresson was ever in Chicago, let alone that he photographed memorable images here, like this one. I'm heartened to see he was as enamored with the abstract geometry of the El tracks as countless other, lesser photographers (myself included) have been since the system's inception. And I admire the juxtaposition between the hard rigidity of the tracks and the soft and slightly pained humanity of the boy's face.