18 February 2011

Springtime in the near-nothing

We've had some true spring days here this past week, and after a long bout of flu I have only now been well enough to leave the house and enjoy them. The sky this evening just past dusk was an extraordinary intense bright blue, a shade I'd never seen before – I was about to say, in Chicago, but it may in fact honestly be left unqualified. Afterward, the sky was vibrant black, a relief after months of weird orange and purplish tones caught in the low snowclouds.

It's become a reflex, I've realized, to append a “for Chicago” to the end of most expressions of delight. A wonderful sunset, for Chicago. A really good sledding hill, for Chicago. “In Chicago, one becomes a connoisseur of the near-nothing,” wrote Saul Bellow (Humboldt's Gift), and, having moved here directly after four years among the enormous landscapes and cloudscapes and brilliant heavenly bodies of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the surrounding Southwest, this seemed immediately true to me. (Bellow and his cohort were more concerned, I think, with the perceived cultural flatness of the tackily new city, but for a modern rube like me, this is surely the most “culturally advanced” place I have lived.) Even neighboring Michigan, where I was born and which, we have been told, is a rusting wasteland everyone is trying to escape, is far more beautiful than northern Illinois.

Insofar as Chicago is impressive, it is so on a textural rather than a monumental level. It is a sprawling mass of details. Its exciting current is produced by rather small changes in charge as one moves from place to place. This suits the cast of mind of someone like myself, always saying “yes, but not quite” and “some, not all” and “well, maybe,” who has thought of the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China and considered how exhausting it would be to have to pass these things each day. But sometimes it puzzles me a little that I am still happy here, as I also like adventure, or at least think I do; before ending up here I had an idea that I might move from city to city as in fact I've moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. Instead, I have traveled much in Chicago.

A guest speaker in one of my classes the other week was urging us to consider moving to find work upon graduation, and I folded my arms against the idea, although she was probably right. I have all these things here now – a girlfriend, friends, a band, a citizenship of this place. How impoverishing for the connoisseur to be denied the substance of her connaissance. Certainly I'm willing to admit that many other places may turn out to be as rich in yielding the tiny bits of knowledge I pore over jealously. But this is like saying, after shattering someone's collection of rare jazz 78s, that he might profitably turn to breeding show pigeons instead. It may be true, but it is hardly any consolation. 

Public Noises

Above all other train lines, the Green Line to Pulaski is in my experience the most filled with the doomed and the desperate. Every time I ride it is packed shoulder to shoulder with varying states of crisis.

Being poor, or irreparably damaged, or both, is always very urgent business, much of which must be conducted in public. The air inside the cars is loud and heavy with cell phone conversations, often not quite one-sided, since many of these talkers have the volume set so high that one can understand at least the interlocutor's mood: frequently just as repetitive and raging, but sometimes reticent, sometimes putting forth the calm, impermeable realities at hand with initial patience which drains away slowly or quickly.

Sometimes you think a new angry conversation has been dialed up from behind or beside you, only to realize that the person sighing violently and saying “God damn” or muttering “enough, already” is just responding to another's rudeness. You are on the same side of the battle but resent the complainer's choice of weapon, resent the added noise.

On two trips today alone – from downtown to Oak Park for a job interview (I'm getting those now, in quantity) and back – I have been confronted in this way with amputated toes, broken teeth, disputes over the custody of dogs and children and, at greatest length, a middle-aged  and violently ugly man sitting across from me methodically dialing every number he seemed to know and barking into it, “TELL THAT BITCH SHE BETTER PICK UP HER DAMN PHONE.” He rarely offered any elaboration, except at one point when he instructed someone to go to the woman's house and regain possession of his shit.

(A week or two ago on the Harlem bus I sat near a man conducting a much more civil-sounding conversation, which did not begin to filter into my awareness until it became apparent that he was trying to talk a girl into appearing in some form of pornography: “No, no, I mean, unless you were planning to maybe run for office some day, or really break into mainstream movies, there's no way it's gonna matter. We had one girl, she's in law school now.” It seemed unlikely that the girl realized that he was laying out his business plan from the bench of a public bus in the suburbs.)

Even less malevolent conversations can be poisonous, if there are enough of them. You may change trains or disembark and then see sickness everywhere -- passing judgment on all the faces whose features disorientation seems to have permanently displaced by a few crucial millimeters -- and feel as though you are the last civilized being in the city or the universe. 

Then you may remember, for instance, the time coming home so late at night, the last traces of a little too much alcohol helping to weigh down your eyelids, when you found yourself utterly unable to determine how to reach the other, necessary side of the train platform. You wandered up and down the empty Thompson Center escalators in a fuzzy panic, descended to street level, looked around, and still were baffled; you ended up taking a longer route home. It may have been months later when you finally returned to the station and realized that you need have only looked up: a perfectly normal footbridge arches over the tracks.

It is not so hard to imagine this kind of confusion becoming permanent. One thing you hear in this bleak chatter is the kind of schedule it is often necessary to keep when you are poor. You may need to travel two hours each way to reach the single, minimum-wage, full-time job you could find a few months after your unemployment ran out. You may need to awake each day at 4 AM. This may cause you to fall asleep on your way home and miss your stop by miles, costing you more time. If you are ill, or have difficulty moving, travel will be that much more tortuously slow.

If you are a woman, you probably will add all this to the time and effort of transporting your children; when you are not with them, you probably will be on your cell phone with the unreliable web of other persons and institutions that share in their care.

Anyone has had to catch a 6 AM flight without having slept beforehand, or a panic attack in a public place, or a particularly enveloping head cold, one of these thorough burglars of lucidity. There is no reason why such a state could not keep perpetuating itself, especially under conditions of enforced exhaustion. In the wrong circumstances life could certainly become an unending bad dream, in which you are constantly exposed in public, made to conform to standards and fulfill responsibilities that are unfamiliar or had been totally forgotten. This could be a reality from which you would not be able to see out, though everyone could watch you writhe and call out in the throes of your dreaming, everyone could glare your way and say: “Enough, already.”

When I transfer to the Brown Line all is quieter. Here too an older black man with a cane is declaiming the history of his medical problems, near-death experiences, and subsequent recovery through Christ, but he has found a flesh-and-blood listener, a younger white man. The listener is polite and responsive. He is trying to do it right, to engage honestly although he would not have chosen this conversation. He is, I'm almost certain, a young liberal with the luxury of enough space and clarity in his life to accommodate problems that are not his own and conversations that are not acts of dire self-preservation. I recognize him, though I would not do quite so well, I think. Us types. What're we gonna do with ourselves and the world. I suspect we take it on as a kind of social service, to sit and listen, a service which is not entirely unrecompensed; we may feel a shameful impulse to tell our friends about it later, inviting them to marvel at our goodheartedness. But the kindness is at least partly genuine, the sense of duty somewhat realer.

The storyteller leaves the train. I've changed seats and without turning I can't see the listener, who remains. But he does not sigh in relief or exchange a knowing chuckle with anyone else who has been listening less gracefully, as I've seen others do, as I might do myself if I were the type to voluntarily make any public gesture. That's good, I think, observing the space around him. That's a start. 

07 February 2011

As it turns out

This is the last week I'm allowing myself to find a job that I reasonably may like; next Monday I will begin throwing myself at anything that pays okay and won't kill me. It's hard to believe it's been three weeks since I left work.

How dispiritingly easy it is to do nothing. I have the idea upon looking out over any such expanse of luxuriantly ungoverned time that I will be able to do everything all at once. Then I step in and find that here I am, leaving my slow clumsy footprints all over this clean lovely time, not getting much done. It's embarrassing.

The problem I guess is temperamental. When time pressures are released, decisions become far more arbitrary, and I have always greeted arbitrary decisions with apprehension. It seems that if one does anything it ought to be something grand and important but it is hard to think what will really be best, what will really measure up. And neurochemically I am an imperfect specimen -- that doesn't help.

So now already it is dark and I have spent the hours dithering, ill at ease with my leisure. Shall I start to learn some Bach on the guitar. Shall I finally listen to Neil Young. Shall I finally wash the dishes. I sit on a chair in the kitchen for several minutes while the mind offers up irrelevancies: I could eat a tangerine. All day I do little bits of things: read a few documents for class, write almost a verse of a new song, order some poetry online, buy groceries (a vibrant jumble in the grocery basket) which refuse when laid out on the kitchen table to assemble themselves into an appetizing meal. A collection of not-quite-useless fragments in the dustpan at the end of the day. 

Reading the internet too much, certainly. The feeling that I spend too much time with things that are only about other things, and not the things themselves. The insidious ease of criticism.

(I mean, I just like conversations, partly. If I spend time with the thing itself who will I talk to about it. It's just me, in the house or the world or a crowd of people I probably don't like. You read criticism and it's already taken care of.)

It's getting better, but the sun's still going down too early for someone who gets up at nine or ten. Looking out the window I think of the days until spring will become at least a realistic expectation. A vision of all that heavy time stretching out along the snow, compacting it.

(You think it has melted considerably, until you try to clear it away -- as it turns out you're barely strong enough to lift the shovel.)