Les Misanthropes Take Manhattan

I came in like a wrecking ball… I was slumped in the backseat with my luggage, singing along to the faint emissions of the radio as the cab climbed the Queensboro Bridge out of Manhattan en route to La Guardia. I fantasized of a million wrecking balls destroying the city behind me so I would never be able to return. Not even in my memories. I fought back tears and tried to distract myself with the changing scenery. It was late in the evening when we escaped the steel behemoth sliced through with blazing sun, crossed the East River and descended into street level shade. Queens was gritty and gaudy and pulsing with life. While I was ready to be leaving New York, I was struck with regret that only on my journey home was I privy to a glimpse into its unpolished soul. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He meant driving into Manhattan of course. Leaving it was another thing entirely, especially if one were fleeing a claustrophobic hotel room all wrong-headed on pricey cocktails and danger. You, you wre-eh-eck me.

 

It could have been the Triborough Bridge.

 

I grew up in a small Midwestern town living vicariously through 1970’s & 80’s children’s books set in New York City. Books about school kids who take buses and subways by themselves or who spend nights in museums. But each time I visit I am always a bit sad that it does not inspire in me a marvelous reverie. The New York City of my reality has never lived up to the New York City of my imagination, of my expectations. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies is the problem. Mind you, I don’t dislike New York. Quite the opposite. It feels too comfortable to provoke exhilaration. Too familiar to be disorienting. Too everything to be anything terribly unique. Possibly something in me is broken. Perhaps it is perfectly logical, my disappointment. I accept without debate that this city is the penultimate specimen of human existence, a microcosm of our “condition,” that the entire rest of the world could break off and fall into space forever and still anyone could get a pretty accurate understanding of Homo sapiens from New York City. Certainly my ambivalence is justified. The working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia.

 

We sat in Central Park atop a stone bench with a frozen pond to our backs, watching people watch tumblers and buskers and each other. Someone under a bridge was singing an aria, a homeless woman or a ghost, I wasn’t sure. I told him I wasn’t sure why I was here. In New York. I suggested he was fundamentally unhappy, impossible to satisfy. He spoke of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, of the cheerful optimist who accepts life as it is and of the misanthrope who believes things could be better. That, in fact, the unhappy man is an idealist, whereas the happy man is a cynic. There we were, a couple of misanthropes out for an afternoon of recreational people watching. The story of Molière’s protagonist made me feel better about being sad in New York, but I still didn’t know why I was there. We got up, and he gathered a snowball. I panicked and implored him not to. But rather than hurling it at me, he turned around and threw it into the pond with a splash. “Thin ice,” he confirmed, smiling widely, eyes too aglitter. I surveyed the hole in the pond. It really was. Continue reading

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Dive Bar, Chicago

– If you ever want someone to talk to, let me know.
– My mother taught me not to talk to strangers.

– Can I still take you up on your offer to chat?
– I have a fare in Albany Park at 10:30, but can meet for a drink now.
– (Now?! A drink right now? Where?) Ok. Where? I mean, I don’t go to many bars. You’re the cab driver; aren’t you supposed to know all the good bars?
– Do you know Ricochet’s?

 

I know Ricochet’s. The way you know that one seemingly abandoned house in an otherwise family-friendly neighborhood. The one that’s not had a paint job or been mowed in anyone’s memory, but emits a vibe that tells you it is inhabited. You know it because of everything you don’t know about it.

 

There is a stretch of Lincoln Ave. in Chicago that makes me keep paying too much rent. It is lined with trees, pedestrians and cultural hubs including a regional library, a park complete with art nouveau gazebo, a venerated music school and a movie theatre, with independent bookstores, coffee shops, vintage clothing, record and toy stores, superb restaurants, bars… And the European apothecary, delicatessen and bench-lined plaza helps it maintain an old world feel even as kitchy boutiques and chain operations begin to creep in. It is a lovely street for a lovely stroll, some lovely shopping and a lovely meal. It is all very lovely.

 

Except Ricochet’s. This shady bar on a shady corner in the middle of it all has that vibe that will keep saying, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” long after political reformers make good on promises of transparency. While the door is always open, it’s too dark to see what’s going on in there, and the wafting scent of beer stale at 2pm makes you veer a bit closer to the curb as you walk past. There are always people there. You don’t know what kind of people are drinking there at this hour, but they are not like you. While yuppies with toddlers meander and socialize up and down the sidewalk, people come and go from Ricochet’s alone and with purpose, as if maybe picking up keys. Seems like the kind of place you go only if you know the bartender well enough he’d have your spare keys.

 

In the back of the small, narrow room, past the bar, the dart boards, the bathrooms and the side door is a little round table with a little lamp with a fringe lampshade. And two tall round barstools. The music is awesome: Stones, Bowie, Doors, Velvet Underground… “Stones or Beatles?” “Oh Stones, no brainer.” Now I don’t care that I am drinking boxed wine. I drink wine. Ricochet’s does not serve wine from bottles. They only serve boxed wine. It is quiet in the back. The company is good. I drink the boxed wine and point laughingly to an aged frat boy in a baseball cap dancing blissfully near the bathrooms. “The thing is, he probably has more education than I do.” “We can laugh at him, but he’s probably happier than we are too.” We are not happy people, we agree, grinning and laughing and having a great time.

 

I’d have never come here with friends. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 11 years and have never come here with friends. Even my unhappy dive bar aficionado drinking companion is giggling with shame. “Next time I’ll take you some place a little more classy, ok?” Continue reading

The Cab Ride

I don’t take cabs.

 

I can perhaps count on both hands how many times I have taken a cab in the decade plus I have lived in Chicago. Sprained ankle. Nice dinner with his parents visiting from out of town. Running very late in a brutal downpour. Waiting for the bus for a half hour in dangerous sub-zero temperatures. Sleep-deprived splurges on the last leg home of long journeys elsewhere…

 

When I was little I would watch movies set in Manhattan and dream of growing up and hailing cabs that would whisk me through bustling city canyons, without me thinking twice about budgets or traffic. These fierce yellow birds would swerve off their courses, swoop by, pick me up, take me to the very important place I was headed, drop me off, and continue on their crazed yet intensely purposeful mission to pick up and drop off the beautiful and remarkable people of the world. Like worker bees buzzing about currying human nectar. Without the nature and country crap.

 

I don’t even know how to hail a cab with any grace.

 

I own a CTA pass. I walk. I walk a lot. Even if I had all the money in the universe, I’d walk. I live in a city where I’ll never see everything anyway and there is so much to see. A person can’t properly look at anything from the backseat of a car. Looking takes time. And I’m surrounded by people and places and things demanding that I look. That I stop. That I feel and smell and hear and experience. In a cab, one looks at the meter, the time, the light that isn’t turning green; one feels their thighs stick to the grimy vinyl seat; one hears cryptic orders barked over a radio or a driver’s depressing cellphone conversation with his wife; one smells exhaust – both of the car and that of its driver’s existence. If memory is so closely linked to scent, how can you have any good memories from the back of a smelly cab? Frankly it all seems too stressful and hardly worth it. Getting into cab is an admission of defeat in my universe. Not only have I failed to find a more aesthetically gratifying way to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, I’ve also given someone else the responsibility for my safe arrival. And paid handsomely. Continue reading

The Longest Day

“Let me know if you wanna grab a drink or seven this weekend.”

Who knows where the morning went. Suffocated in its sleep by oppressive temperatures and humidity or washed down the gutter by intermittent deluges that kept breaking the heat and putting it back together again. Like me with my life. Since I’d been off work, I’d taken my waking slow, filling the am hours with an easy journey into consciousness. I awoke at dawn, when a giant black cat sat on my pillow whispering all the ways he could kill me in my sleep until I arose to feed him. I made coffee in a French press. I read trendy lit magazines. I did yoga and ballet. I wrote. I re-wrote. I stood with the fridge open until overcome by lightheadedness. I forced something down my gullet. I showered around 2pm. A life of leisure? Perhaps… But I required from this world, in return for not hanging myself, a daily quota of leisure and sanity. I’d recently transitioned from being off work to being out of work, out of health insurance, out of money and out of luck. I was in no position to part with what quality of life I had left. Institutions seemed no more enamored with my existence than I with theirs, so why devote every hour of my precious day to garnering their approval? If they wanted a trial separation, I was happy to oblige. It was the same with institutions and men. I had expectations of being treated with a modicum of dignity and believed myself worth fighting for, but if they found me expendable, I wasn’t going to grovel. Only a dog can thrive in an environment where it has to beg.

My ability to maintain an attitude of graceful disaffection meant I still had pride left to insult when my bank card was hacked and my transit pass stolen, after having lost my income. The latter was replaced without ado. Such accommodation from a bureaucracy renown for its incompetence and casual hostility reinforced my belief that something was celestially out of alignment. It was the Summer Solstice. I’ve never been a pagan, but I can recognize a formidable opponent. I couldn’t get another human to return my calls; whatever was going on out there had the power to determine the rhythm of oceans and length of days. I decided to ride out the cosmic chaos until the universe figured out how to keep itself sane too. Until then, just leaving my apartment felt like choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But if simply staying alive meant looking for trouble, I thought I may as well make it interesting trouble. Anyway, I had no caution left for throwing to the wind. And that’s why I’d accepted the offer of a drink, or seven. Continue reading