Friday, March 28, 2003

The Cruelest Month

To my mind, Tuesday is the worst day of the week.

On Monday, your body is still recovering from whatever flavor of debauchery you chose to overindulge in Friday night,
Saturday and Sunday; hence, your body never really wakes up to the fact that it's back at work, doing the usual bump-and-grind. By Tuesday, though, body and mind have not only recovered enough from the weekend to realize that the weekend has, in fact, ended, but that the next weekend is little more than a speck on the horizon, no more than a pinpoint of light at the end of an seemingly interminable tunnel.

I feel the same way about April. For the first quarter of the year, a slight hangover from the holidays, in concert with the numbness of winter, prevails. By April, though, the holidays have worn off, there's enough of a hint of warmth in the air to fool you into thinking that winter is finally, completely, entirely over (ha), and the passage of time becomes alarmingly apparent: "What the fuck do you mean it's fucking April al-fucking-ready?"

April is a lot of things--most of them bad.

It's when one day warms up to 70, only to drop to 40 the next day (as it did the morning of the day I'm writing this). It's when when the trees begin to bud and the green grass tries to force its way through the brown (and as dry as this past winter was, there's plenty of brown to go around). It's when what's left of the "too, too sallied" mounds snow at the edges of parking lots have melted, leaving the residue of dark gray behind as a reminder of the least pleasant memories of months--not days or merely weeks, but months--now past.

April is the month that my own personal childhood cat--a medium-sized gray girl forever known as "Gray Cat" because she was certified by a competent veteranarian as a male and named "Smokey Junior" (after Smokey, a handsome Russian Blue and the finest rat catcher I've ever known, though I wish he hadn't been so proficient because he loved bringing, er, "trophies" home to show his appreciation and affection for us) until she went into heat and the testicles the vet thought she'd seen turned out to be tiny twin mirages--finally had to be put to sleep.

Gray Cat lived to be 20--an amazing span of time for a feline, to be sure, spanning from elementary school through college and into my so-called "adult" life. And most of that 20 years was spent in remarkably good health, except for a bout with a burst blood vessel in her left ear, which looked more like a potato chip than an ear for her remaining years.

But seven years ago (was it really that long ago? Damn...) in the middle of April, she started having trouble walking, then started staggering, know where this is going, don't you? Gray Cat lived with Mom after I moved out of the house (since Mom and my brother were home more than I was and could take better care of her), and one April day Mom called me at work to say that she'd made "the appointment" with the vet--Gray Cat had tipped over over in the litter pan and couldn't stand back up again. The time had come.

As "work" at that point was a evil publishing company in one of Chicago's northern suburbs, getting to Mom's in time to go with Gray Cat seemed an impossibility shy of a sudden genetic mutation that would cause arms to fall off and allow wings to grow in their place.

But then, a coworker volunteered to drive me down to Mom's (said coworker had endured a similar situation with her beloved dog and felt I should be there for he old girl) and our department head, a pet owner herself, gave her blessing.

I made it.

When I came into the living room, Gray Cat rose with effort and tried to cross the couch to come to me one last time. I caught her before she fell, held her against my chest and whispered over and over that it was all right, everything was all right. I held her the whole way to the vet, through the procedure (tearfully apologizing to her the whole time for having to do what had to be done) and all the way back to Mom's house, where she was laid to rest in the backyard and had a yellow rose bush planted over the spot--a yellow rose bush that blooms every spring, sometimes even in April.

(Side note: Yes, she should have had a more formal, more fitting name than "Gray Cat," but I freely admit to having no talent whatsoever for naming pets: our first family dog, a female black lab, was, I'm told, named "Hey, You!" because I continually yelled this at the poor animal and each time I did, she came to me. So the name stuck. Poor old pup. Good thing Lottie and Ms. Christopher were already named when they came to me.)

April is when baseball season begins in earnest. And when the pain begins in Chicago.

April is when Christ was crucified. (Okay, he came back from the dead a couple of days later, but still...)

And this April will be the first full month of the current war in Iraq. And yes, I think it'll last through the month, making April more literally cruel than usual, and it may last for many months to come.

I don't suppose we could just skip April altogether and head straight into May, could we?

Monday, March 24, 2003


Usually, it takes till Sunday night for the dread of returning to work on Monday to lean its weight on me. But as I walked out of the office Friday at five, that dread lay across my shoulders like a 20-pound cat, claws dug in, strain registering from the base of the skull to the small of the back. I could've used a backrub. I could've used a drink. I couldn't have the former, and I didn't want the latter. So I went out in search of a book instead.

I've been reading a lot lately. Partly because of a wealth of free time, partly because of the need for distraction--from work, from dental woes, from the world in general. I've stopped reading the daily papers--more to save money than to avoid the bad writing and 50-point-type headlines and disquieting news within--and started reading books instead. Good books. Books like The Devil in the White City, which, oddly enough, is not the story of a friend's move to Minneapolis, but the parallel stories of two men from the mists of Chicago history: Daniel Burnham, architect and driving force behind the Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, druggist, swindler and serial killer responsible for the murders of numerous young women who came to the city for the excitement of the World's Fair. An excellent read, a compelling narrative, a vivid picture of a past time both wonderful and horrible.

From there, I detoured into classic crime fiction--Raymond Chandler, to be specific. Born in Chicago, raised in England. Didn't publish his first story until he was 45; didn't publish his first novel, The Big Sleep, until he was 51. Gives me hope for myself, even if I can never hope to string together darkly beautiful, richly lyrical, witty and menacing, rough and tender words the way Chandler did. I'd spent the past couple weeks slowly enjoying The High Window, and now I wanted more. So I walked to an outlet of a local chain of bookstores, only to find not a single copy of a single one of Chandler's relatively small career output. Now the cat of my shoulders weighed thirty-five pounds and was becoming extremely tiresome, even as a metaphor.

So I walked back, one slow foot before the other, to Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile of song and story, to Virgin Megamondoreallyreallybigstore, which, in addition to a vast selection of vastly overpriced CDs and DVS, has a respectable selection of books of all flavors. And this night, as it happens, they had a complete run of Chandler novels and short story collections. So I scooped up the novels I didn't already have, paid for them in cash so as not to dig my credit hole any deeper than my dental work has already dug it, and left the story a wallet more light, but also with shoulders ever so slightly less tight.

From there, I headed south on Michigan Avenue in a familiar ritual toward the Loop, where I'd catch the Brown Line at a point where seats were still a possibility, and snake my way north toward home. But as I crossed the bridge over the river, it was obvious that this wasn't a normal night. Not in the least.

There were cops on the other end of the Michigan Avenue bridge. A lot of cops. Maybe a couple dozen, all clustered on the northwest corner of Michigan and Wacker. More cops than I'd seen outside of the confines of a police station or a convenience store. Even in those familiar ernvironments, though, you don't usually see them armored for possible combat the way they were Friday night. Shatterproof visors. Flack jackets. Nightsticks the size of Louisville Sluggers. The works.

They didn't look worked up or tense or aggitated in the least. But I knew what their presence meant: there were war protesters somewhere nearby. The night before, there had been many, many war protesters downtown, and things had gotten out of hand. No violence or damage to property or any such thing, but the throng had flowed forth from the Loop through to Lakeshore Drive, where traffic was halted in both directions. For a couple of hours. At the height of rush hour. Hardly business as usual. Hardly what the expensive suits that run this city like to see. Bad for business. Embarrassing. Unacceptable.

So Friday night, downtown was lousy with cops in riot gear. I danced around the congregation at Michigan and Wacker and went on my way. I can't call my way "merry." My shoulders were tightening right back up. The cat was back.

It wasn't until I was on the train that I noticed fellow passengers craning their necks to look up streets and between buildings, back toward Wacker Drive. There, under the bright yellow street lights, was a solid wall of humanity, surrounded by what appeared to be a thick tangle of lights. When the train made the turn north and passed over Wacker, we all saw up close what we'd known from a distance: there was a long line of war protesters moving west in the eastbound lanes of the drive, the tangle of lights beside them the reflections of the street lights off the helmets of the tight line of police holding the protesters in check.

Some of the protesters no doubt opposed any war, anytime, anywhere. Others no doubt opposed this particular war, lamenting that our current President Bush hadn't "made the case" for starting a new war when the previous "war on terrorism" hadn't been finished yet (or was this war part of that war?). Still others directed their voices at the president himself, accusing him of attempting to settle an old score left over from his father's administration. One man--a tall, beefy guy with a thick brown mustache and a broad, if tight-lipped, smile--flashed a peace sign at the passing train. A few passengers flashed the same sign back

As the train passed over the river and made the turn past the Merchandise Mart, I tried to turn my attention away from the scene now behind me and back to the book in my lap. But The High Window wasn't much of a distraction that night, through no fault of anyone's, least of all Raymond Chandler.

I got off at my stop, walked home quickly, scratched my cap at my lack of mail (had the post office stopped delivering to my building again?) and took the stairs two at a time (that's normal for me--a side effect of having legs half a mile long). Lottie and Ms. Christopher greeted me at the back door.

I'd love to flatter myself with the conceit that they did this out of affection or devotion or lack of human contact, but that's just not the case: the MaxCat Lite in the bowl had gotten old (and had, in truth, hardly been touched), and the Girlish Girls sought fresh kibble. I accomodated them with a couple scoops of Iams dry, threw my mock bomber jacket on the couch and flipped on the TV, just in time to catch the tail end of an NBC report on the war, complete with the images of uprising clouds of fire arising from Baghdad, surrounding that curiously phallic-looking building all the networks showed the first night of the war with a sudden, volitile grove of mushroom clouds, Tom Brokaw's attempts to be smooth and soothing making me miss Walter Cronkite that much more.

The Peacock Network decided, for whatever reason, that it would be inappropriate to run a "reality" show dedicated to finding America's most talented kid and a fresh episode of Ed, so they plugged in a rerun of one of their many "Law & Order" shows instead. Rather than sit there and watch Vincent D'Onorfrio casually munch the scenary, I channel-flipped for something more innocent. I landed on a low-power UHF station that shows a mix of vintage sitcoms and dramas during the day, music videos overnight and ethnic-oriented viewing in between. Friday at eight, they were running a Polish children's program called Dobranocka, on which a fortyish woman in a peasant dress on a set decorated with characters from Winnie the Poo--pictures and stickers and stuffed animals--read a few pages from a Poo story.

The program was short--just under ten minutes--and I understood very little of what she said; Mom speaks Polish more or less fluently, but has shared only a few words of the language with me and has flatly refused to teach me any of the really good curse words. But at the end of the program, the nice lady smiled, slid her right hand into a teddy bear puppet in her lap, and waved at the camera with both the puppet's hands and with her free left hand.

"Dooooobraaaaanoooooc!" said the smiling Polish lady in the peasant dress, waving at the children presumably turning in after hearing their story for the night. Dobranoc (pronounced "do-BRA-notz") is the Polish word for "Good night." That much Polish I know.

But it wasn't a "good night," through no fault at all of the smiling Polish storyteller lady on Dobranocka. Nor was the night before a "good night." Nor was the night after. Nor was tonight. Nor will any night be a "good night" until the fighting and the dying and the "special reports" are over.

I can only hope that's very soon.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Just Killing Time

I know my feet are still there. I can see them from all the way up here--ridiculous boats launching out of the ends of improbably long, skinny legs. Tonight they wear faux bowling shoes, the right of which has a gouge in it left over from a New Year's Eve party spent shuttling up and down steep concrete steps between a crowded, frosty basement where bands were to play and a dark, muddy rectangle of yard where a crowd five deep surrounds a defenseless keg and the chain-link fence is lined with drunken young men taking a group whiz.

I know my feet are still there. I can see them from way up here. I just can't feel them.

My own fault, really. I could have gone straight home from work, surfing the serpentine Brown Line past projects soon to be razed and stations soon to be rehabbed to my stop, then walked the few blocks to the apartment formerly known as "La Casa del Terror," now just called "that place where I sometimes sleep." Could have stopped by my local Pallid Poultry for a gallon of skim milk, a pint of Ben & Jerry's Mint Chocolate Cookie and a gander at the recently hired cute alternachick behind the counter. Could have been warm by now.

But no. Hardly ever go straight home anymore. Too quiet there. Too much time to do nothing but think. Usually wander around downtown shops to kill time, occupy mind. Sometimes Borders. Sometimes Virgin Megastore. Tonight, I went local. Laurie's Planet of Sound. Cool little record shop in Lincoln Square, with an eclectic music selection, from Dido to Dennis Wilson to the Damned. Also sells DVDs (that copy of Can't Stop the Music still calls to me) and obscure videos (the idea of watching Jackie Gleason take LSD in Skidoo appeals to me; the idea of watching Carol Channing seduce Frankie Avalon does not). Tonight, I hit their used video section, buy a couple cheap horror films: The Valley of Gwangi (a Ray Harryhausen-animated T-Rex stomps Mexico) and Island of Terror (Peter Cushing vs. tentacled creatures that suck your bones out). The collection grows. Spreads. Makes the time at home less quiet.

Could also just walk home from here rather than waiting for the notoriously slow Montrose bus. Done it before. Not that far. "Just a good stretch of the legs," as both John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara say in The Quiet Man. (Mmmmm...Maureen O'Hara...) Instead, I stare east. Then straight ahead, playing the game of counting the number of drivers talking on cell phones. (Once saw a driver on a cell phone nearly run down a pedestrian on a cell phone at this very corner.) Then down. The feet are still there. Then back east again. And wait. Wait. Wait some more.

Do buses still run on this street? Did CTA cancel the route and forget to take down the signs? The five other travelers, all packed into the bus shelter, all craning their respective necks east as if taking turns, appear to be thinking the same thing. What. The. Fuck.

A bright yellow moving light cuts the darkness. Finally. A bus is coming. Slowly. Struggling up Montrose against late rush-hour gridlock. And, Pavlovian predictable, I can suddenly feel my feet again. Not the best thing. They hurt now. Like they've been pounded with bricks. Or cartoonishly large mallets. Ow. Ow. Ow.

And still the yellow light grows brighter. Closer. An inch at a time. Closer. To me. To them. To home.