18 September 2013

Borderlands: In the Far North Air

A storm's been lazily roaming the sky all evening, dropping rain any which way as it becomes too heavy. Just now, though, came a crack as loud as any I've heard in my life, the kind that sends sound rolling away a long time down the curved edges of the earth. Now rain drives up to the building to stay. Neighbors' voices click on around the courtyard.

Earlier I took my dinner at the Ethiopian coffee shop across the street, and when I came out a man was standing in the bus shelter, playing jazz trumpet out into that moment's downpour. It was a too-perfect opening credit sequence to some film noir, and the strip snapped shortly as the player began to righteously rail against some enemy, real or imagined. (There may, after all, have been some heckler out there in the shadows, obscured from me by the rain.) Still, he started up again.

In Rogers Park we often get a little music with our weather. Some confluence of factors turns these blocks into a sort of magic-realist realm—the old hippies, the new students, the park and lake. A few weeks ago Heather and the dog and I went out into the water on a still hot night. The moon was a piece of gleaming alien currency casting a pink path across the deep; I followed drifting over sandbar after sandbar as in a dream one dips between lesser and higher states of consciousness and control.

In my childhood I invented precisely one ghost story. It was simple in its outlines, was exquisitely sad, and allowed me to show off my singing voice quite well, I thought. A girl whose name I recall as Marigold lived in a house on the shore. She woke up early one morning to the sounds of beautiful singing that, had she been a real girl, she would have found annoyingly derivative of the music in The Little Mermaid. The house was large and weathered and white; the girl rose from her bed, closed the screen door softly behind her, and went across the sand seeking its source. She reached the ocean's lapping edge, but the song was still out there somewhere ahead. With eyes alert and placid brow, she began to wade in as the song kept sounding. And she followed and followed, never to be seen again.

I was not interested at the time in Marigold's salvation, but two decades later as I resurfaced as far from shore as I could walk (I don't swim well), I found that a suitable hero had appeared on the scene. He had climbed the lifeguard's white wooden watchtower and was playing a ukelele. He didn't seem to be attached to any of the few small groups on the sand; he was simply there for our safety, luring us back to the human shore with scrappy bits of song.

Another night a young man with an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest stomped and sang through the park all alone; the dog crouched and tucked her tail as if fear had jumped onto her back directly from a dark branch. And just after our move here, in daylight, a group of people in African dress sang and drummed in a wide semicircle, apparently just practicing in the bright air. More regularly, there are the Hare Krishnas, parading and chanting and shaking things; almost despite myself I like the sound, and return the smiles of the soft-eyed young women who often lead them. (They had a large festival a month or two ago and as we walked through the park an occasional emissary would come up and ask whether we'd like to join in some chanting, as if they were offering us a newspaper or a sample of a new kind of gum.) And the coffee shop on the corner holds an open mic night every week. The music is sometimes exciting, even if I suspect I'd roll my eyes at the words; I sometimes think of attending out of nostalgia, for I myself, oddly, hosted an open mic on the patio of an Ethiopian restaurant as a teenager.

If you are inclined to look on your life cinematically, this is a landscape that all but demands regular epiphanies. Yet this summer I've felt quieted and slowed, oppressed by a sort of humidity that only sometimes coincides with the weather. Largely the effect of uninteresting life complications and a heavy workload, I suppose. But maybe the vibrations of all these odd moments are finally synching up and, with the gusty early dark we're getting now, are starting to shake things loose. 

I felt that way, certainly, on Thursday night, pushing toward home from the southwest where I'd met Peter and struck up a plan to put our band back together after a dormant summer. Some minutes into my ride the clouds broke and cold rain flooded the streets, drawing astonished laughter out of me and then drowning it in the deluge. 

Eventually I turned onto Bryn Mawr and saw another cyclist ahead of me; he must, however, have actively decided to go out in the storm, because he was clad in one of those cheap, clear plastic ponchos. We were the only ones out in that quiet northwest corner of the city, and as I trailed him through the dark he was transformed every fifty feet or so by streetlights. As they caught his poncho, he he was turned briefly into a wild bag of lightning, billowing down the road. The plastic crackled in the wind as the rain began to fade. As long as our respective routes allowed I modulated my pace to follow him, a beacon of obscure but hopeful import.