Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Move, Part Three: Green Windows

I'm accustomed to living above it all.

I don't mean that in terms of wealth--I'm not independently wealthy, nor am I ever likely to be--or in my attitude toward my friends, family, coworkers or people I pass on the street--I wouldn't have them treat me with disregard or contempt, so it would be hypocritical to treat them so.

No, I mean that, in terms of the physical proximity of my living space to the street below, I haven't been anywhere near ground level for quite some time.

As previously noted, La Casa del Terror was a three-story walkup. Before that, I lived in my parents' house in the second-story apartment. Before that, we lived in a three-story walkup with a panoramic view of downtown Chicago. (I've long lamented that I wasn't into photography then--the shots I could have taken!) And before that, we lived in an apartment on the second floor of the same building.

My point? I haven't lived in a first-floor apartment since I was in elementary school. So this new place is...different for me.

First of all, I can't exactly prance around in my underwear, now can I? Not that I did much of that before--I mean, who would really want to see that? Hell, I don't want to see that. But people walking past my windows can see whatever I'm doing unless the blinds are down, and who wants to live with the blinds down all the time?

There are compensating factors, though. My bedroom--which I actually use for sleep, rather than for storage like I did in La Casa--faces away from the street rather than toward it, so it's quieter and doesn't have streetlights or headlights shining into it. Also, it's a lot easier to see and hear what's going on at street level. So when the guy who lives up the street gets drunk/high/whatever and starts spewing racial epithets at the top of his besotted lungs, I can make out every word (instead of just the offensive ones).

It's not just me, though--this is a whole different deal for the cats, too.

Both Ms. Christopher and Olivia reacted poorly to the move itself. After I'd gotten out all of the big stuff (couches, dressers, that evil heavy chest), I decided to move the Girlish Girls. I put Christopher in the cat carrier--actually a tall, orange, reclosable milk crate--and tucked Olivia into my left arm. (If she had tried to wiggle free or tear me up, I'd have just taken her back, moved Christopher over and brought the crate back for a second trip.) I walked over to the new place, turned them both loose and watched as they walked gingerly over the hardwood floors, crying and inspecting and crying and jumping on window sills and crying and clawing at the furniture and crying and looking at me with a mix of confusion and contempt and did I mention the crying?

It took them a couple of days to calm down, but calm down they did. They now love sitting in the windows, watching the world pass by. Olivia loves the windows in the bedroom and kitchen, which look out onto the bushes alongside the next-door-neighbor's house--which make those back windows look green from the inside--where sparrows like to gather in the afternoon. She talks back to them, her jaw quivering and her tail switching back and forth and back again, but the sparrows, rather wisely, stay away.

(While I was moving in, I ran across an opossum trundling along the fence. Since I saw it ass-first, I thought it was a giant rat--an oddity in my hood, even if they're common in Mom's. I tried to wait politely while it made its way to wherever, but I finally lost patience and walked right past it, popped open the back door to my building and carried in whatever; the opossum hadn't yet reached me when I went in.)

The move has also made both cats more affectionate. Christopher has her moments as a lap cat, especially after her sister, Lottie, had to be put to sleep, but now she's taken to hopping up in my lap regularly, as well as coming into the bedroom when I lay down for the evening and tucking herself under one of my arms for a few minutes of attention, then off to some dark, soft corner of the new apartment for the rest of her night's sleep. And Olivia, never a cuddle kitty unless scared (thunder, fireworks, etc.), now curls up on the couch next to me, purring quietly while I stroke her shiny, smooth fur.

Maybe the cats are concerned that I'll uproot us yet again and haul all their familiar stuff to yet another unfamiliar place. Or, maybe, they've realized that this is home, they are safe, I am there to feed and take care of them, and they don't have to sleep in the same room with me (or each other) if they don't want to.

Maybe they've settled. Maybe I have, too.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Move, Part Two: Ghosts Never Die

A long time ago--seems like another lifetime now--I wrote a short story about a young woman who came back to her hometown, Chicago, for the holiday season and experienced the usual arguments and angst that usually accompany such events (in most fiction, movies an sitcoms, at least, if not in what passes for reality these days).

At the time, the story, entitled "Ghosts Never Die" (because they're already deadÑhey, it sounded clever and profound then) seemed like it would be a pretty good starting point for a novel that, of course, never got written. (I've only written one novel, and that was back in high school. No, you can't read it; given my sloppy handwriting, then and now, neither can I.)

In the novel-that-was-only-in-my-head, the protagonist, Kelly Waterhouse, is, at one point, walking with an old friend across their childhood playground at night as Kelly laments that past events in her life won't leave her alone. The friend replies, "Look up and tell me what you see." Kelly does so, but all she can see are what few stars are visible through the pollution and streetlight haze that hang over the city like the glass dome of a snowglobe that hasn't been dusted in ages. "No," her friend explains. "Those are the ghosts of how those stars looked a hundred years ago, more or less. One of those babies could go supernova this exact moment, but we wouldn't find about it for another century or so."

"Your point?" Kelly asks.

"The past is all around you. Over your head. Under your feet. In your hair. Everywhere. It's never going to just go away. You have a choice of dealing with it, or letting it deal with you."

I thought about this idea as I hauled boxes and bags and crates from my old apartment to my new one. It's been said that disturbing a grave can raise the vengeful spirits of the dead. I assume the concept applies to the upheaval inherent in a move as well. In the process of packing and unpacking, you find things you didn't even know you had, artifacts of past phases of life, mementos of those no longer in your life, reminders of happier or sadder times.

Here are just a few of the things I ran across while moving:

A GE portable radio that I don't remember owning (it's much nicer than one I'd buy for myself).

A small, square pillow Mom made for me from an old black coat when I was ten.

A large teddy bear I rescued from the foundation of a building that had been demolished.

A plaid metal lunchbox given to me for my birthday by Red Secretary.

Unfiled photos of Lottie.

Bits of stone excavated from the remains of Riverview Park.

A poster for the movie version of Tank Girl.

The laminated holy card from my father's wake.

A terra cotta leopard.

A framed AIDSwalk poster.

My collection of Lorri Jackson poetry. (Has she really been dead almost 16 years? Damn. Time flies, whether you're having fun or not.)

One Wiener Whistle.

Two decks of tarot cards.

Three life-size plastic skulls.

A gunmetal-colored picture frame that used to hold the picture of a woman I loved, sitting on a couch with three other friends I no longer hear from.

The small, lighted, plastic pine tree that my grandmother put in her living room window every Christmas--the same tree that will sit in my living room window this Christmas.

An Eliza Dushku action figure I bought in Dallas.

The same copy of Ulysses that everybody seems to have, but no one has actually read.

My first camera--a boxy little Kodak that takes film that's no longer manufactured.

A pair of sunglasses that look like something out of The Blues Brothers.

A large booklet of 78s that also holds the death announcements for my godmother and uncle.

The head of a wooden bird toy Mom played with as a child.

Porn tapes I'd misplaced.

A clock depicting the Last Supper that plays the Hallelujah Chorus at the top of the hour, "won" at a Christmas in July party in Dayton.

A small carboard horn with Captain Marvel on the side.

Half a dozen pairs of cowboy boots.

A rubber shark I've had since the original Jaws came out.

Three Cindy Crawford calendars and two Heather Thomas calendars kept safe in a WGN portfolio.

A Star Trek communicator.

More action figures and model kits than I could ever display, even if my new apartment were the size of Graceland.

And much, much more.

Each object evoked at least one specific memory, if not a torrent of them. Sometimes, I smiled. Sometimes, I winced. Sometimes, the object in question didn't make the trip to the new apartment, though usually it did. Sometimes, knowing what was in the boxes--the (re)discoveries made, the pleasures and acquaintances renewed--made carrying them that much easier. Sometimes, it made them weigh twice as much.

I guess that's what happens when you live in one place for so long. The memories themselves, whether good, bad, ecstatic or somber, can weigh more than the furniture. And the ghosts? You may not be able to kill a ghost, but you can, at least, give it a polite nod and move on.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Vanishing Chicago: The Esquire

The single best movie-going day of my movie-going life came in the summer of 1982, when my then-landlord's eldest son and I hopped on the No. 66 Chicago Avenue bus, rode downtown and caught three blockbusters at three separate theaters all within relative walking of one another: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the Esquire, Poltergeist at the McClurg Court, and Conan the Barbarian at the Carnegie. After that last movie, we went to the Burger King at Chicago and State; something about Conan had put us in the mood for meat.

That was a long time ago, before the multiplexes moved into downtown.

The Carnegie has been gone for ages, closed in the mid-1980s and demolished. The McClurg Court survived into this decade, despite a theater with nine screens opening to its west and another with 21 screens opening to its south; its large main screen, a remnant of the days when it was a single 1,200-seat theater before it was split into three smaller theaters and ideal for epics like Titanic, may be why it lasted so much longer. But it eventually succumbed in 2003; it now sits empty, awaiting repurposing.

And as of today, the Esquire will be gone as well.

It was always the oldest of the three, opened in the 1930s as an elegant downtown movie house just off of Michigan Avenue, now one of the premier shopping districts in the world. In recent years, its age showed, at least on the interior: Worn carpets, uncomfortable seats and sparsely populated (if manned at all) snack bars.

Like so many older theaters, the Esquire had been split up in the 1980s; what had been one screen became six. But six, in the long run, wasn't nearly enough. The same multiplexes that took down the McClurg Court also contributed to the Esquire's demise, but so did its location. The current owner of the property, after patting himself on the ass for having kept the theater open longer than he probably should have, given the red ink it was soaking in, announced that it will be razed, with a low-rise shopping/dining complex rising in its place.

But do we need more shopping on Oak Street? And even if there isn't a restaurant right on Oak, certainly there are plenty of upscale eateries within short walking distance in any direction.

Smaller movie theaters, on the other hand, are a breed dying a slow, lingering death. So many have gone under in recent years, like the Biograph (reopening as a live theater soon), the Burnham Plaza (converted to office space) and the 3 Penny (just...closed). I went to them all and came away with memories, good and bad.

Not all local movie houses are on the decline, though. In the years since being threatened with demolition/condo conversion, the Davis has thrived by showing first-run movies at discount prices. When I saw The Illusionist there on Labor Day with JB and Dee, the theater was respectably full, and a line snaked down the block for some other movie (probably Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) on our way out. The current owner has even spruced the joint up a bit, installing seats that don't make my ass hurt nearly as much.

Another North Side movie house, the Portage, has actually come back to life after being shuttered for a few years. It now hosts special events like the Silent Film Society of Chicago's annual festival and next month's Chicago Horror Film Festival (especially appropriate, with the huge Halloween costume shop just Milwaukee Avenue). And still another, the Patio, closed for five years, has a banner hanging on its badly dented and rusting marquee mentioning renovation and rehabilitation, so there's at least a sliver of hope that it might see a revival.

The Esquire's fate is sealed, however, and has been for quite some time. I didn't go to it as often as I had in the past--the last movie I saw there was Brokeback Mountain this past Christmas--but I'll miss it nonetheless, just like I'd miss any old friend, even one that didn't dress as nicely as it once had and had gone a bit to pot. There aren't that many old movie houses left, and we aren't doing a very good job of treasuring, maintaining and supporting the ones we still have.

So when the screens go dark for the last time tonight, all we'll have left are memories. For me, the Esquire always be the place I saw William Shatner, bad poodle-shaped toupee and all, screaming into his communicator, "KHHHHAAAAANNNNNN," his voice echoing and finally fading into the void.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Review: The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

Like most people who have websites, I'm fairly obsessive about checking my site stats--I check how much traffic this small, dark corner of the Internet draws, from whence the traffic comes and what exactly on my site people are visiting most.

The results never fail to surprise, bemuse and confuse me. For example: Do you know what the single most visited page on this blog is? If you guessed that it's any one of my essays on Vanishing Chicago, my account of 9/11 or movie reviews like the one before you now, you'd be wrong. If, on the other hand, you guessed that it was one of my poems, you'd be right--but not because I'm such a brilliant wordsmith.

No, it's because that poem happens to feature, amongst other photos employed to illustrate verses, a shot of '50s pinup model Bettie Page.

I came late to the cult that swirls around Bettie Page. It was 1990, and I was in a comic shop--don't ask me which one, because I don't remember--when I saw a small magazine called Bettie Being Bad, which consisted of a three-part essay by longtime comic-book production man John Workman that spoke of pop culture in general and, in particular, Page's place in it and impact on it, and numerous (if poorly reproduced) photographs of the woman herself. I recognized the face--comic book writer/artist Dave Stevens had used her visage for the girlfriend of the lead character in The Rocketeer--and thought, "Wait...she was real?"

Workman's essay was an eloquent, thought-provoking piece, to be sure, but that wasn't why I bought Bettie Being Bad. I bought it (and still have it to this day) for the same reason many men (and more than a few women) have purchased magazines, books, comics, paintings and sculptures of her over the decades since she vanished from sight (until she resurfaced several years ago, perfectly willing to talk about her days as a model, but not to be photographed again).

There was something about her, an intermingling of sexuality and playfulness--sure, she was posing naked much of the time and looked damned fine doing it, but more than that, she looked like she was having fun doing it--that made Bettie Page more alluring and less intimidating than any of her contemporaries. And the number of hits that photo of Bettie on this site gets attests to her continuing popularity, nearly 50 years after she last posed.

That popularity may explain why, after so much time, we have a big-screen biography in The Notorious Bettie Page--a title which, perhaps intentionally, comes off as ironic, given the downright tame way director Mary Harron and cowriter Guinevere Turner approach their subject. If it weren't for the occasional nudity, this could easily have been a made-for-TV movie (and maybe The Notorious Bettie Page really was one at one point--it was produced by HBO).

The story Harron and Turner tell is relatively straightforward: Page (Gretchen Mol) has a rough early life (sexual abuse at home is implied; gang rape is outright stated, though not shown), just misses making valedictorian of her high school class and marries young to an abusive lout, all before she moves to New York and tries her hand at acting. There, she is invited to pose for "photo clubs"--gatherings of men and women with cameras who like to take pictures of girls in lingerie. Once Page steps in front of the photographers, she truly comes to life, and she winds up doing fetish shoots for Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and his sister, Paula (Lili Taylor, in a funny supporting performance), which leads to some unwanted attention from Congress in the form of hearings conducted by Estes Kefauver (David Straithairn, wasted in a tiny role) .

Eventually, though, Page rethinks her career choice and gives her life over to religion. (There is no mention of Page's later mental breakdowns or subsequent revival as a pop-culture icon.)

What makes The Notorious Bettie Page more interesting than the average biopic is the visual approach Harron and company take: Much of the movie is shot in crisp black and white, with later scenes set in Florida suddenly bursting into postcard-vibrant color, making for a movie that is at least never dull to look at.

Then there's Mol's performance in the title role. More than merely matching Bettie Page's look (both in and out of clothing), Mol captures the spirit of Page. When she takes all of her clothing off in front of the camera for the very first time, her smile, her eyes, the language of her body all express the ecstacy born of absolute, uninhibited freedom that I saw in those photos reprinted in Bettie Being Bad more than a decade and a half ago. But Mol also gets across Page's intelligence--she may have made her living taking her clothes off, but that didn't make her stupid or vacant, and Mol shows in small glances and gestures Page's growing discontentment with how she's perceived. It's a remarkably subtle performance worthy of Oscar consideration, though it's unlikely that the Academy would ever take either the actress or the subject of her performance that seriously.

That's no surprise. Maybe it's even just about right. The cool kids always "got" Bettie Page, and wherever she is today, she knows she was (and is) appreciated well beyond what she would have expected of her "posin'." The Notorious Bettie Page may not be an in-depth analysis of Page or her place in history, but it's certainly an respectful appreciation of the woman and her work. And considering how well-remembered most models of that era are--i.e., not at all--maybe that's enough.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

Marshall Field's

Today, Marshall Field's stores officially became Macy's. No surprise at all: Federated, the company that owns Macy's, bought May, the company that owned Field's, and announced some time ago that the name of all Marshall Field's stores--including the flagship store on State Street, that long-ago "great street"--would be changing.

I wish I could feel the righteous anger that some shoppers do toward Federated over the name change--a large number of them have vowed never to shop at Macy's, no matter how nice they try to make with the locals, and there were vocal protests in the loop this morning. I would love to shake my fist at those insensitive out-of-towners. Don't they know that Chicago was the crucible in which the department store was forged? That Sears, Montgomery Ward, Carson Pirie Scott and Field's all originated here? How dare they take away our local traditions?

I understand what those shoppers are feeling. I sympathize. But I can't feel it with them. Because I didn't shop at Field's that much.

Our family was poor. Sure, we came downtown at the height of the holiday season to stare through the windows at the elaborate, animated displays that Field's put up every year. But then, we went back to our own neighborhood and bought our presents at Woolworth's or Goldblatt's or Zayre. That's what we could afford. Even just walking through Field's was a reminder of what we wanted, but couldn't have.

As an adult, I could better afford to shop downtown, but our habits in life are formed early--I still didn't do more than walk through Field's on my way to somewhere else. The last time I can remember actually shopping there was a decade or more ago, when I was looking to buy some Calvin Klein underwear because I'd been told that the woman I was then foolish-head-over-foolish-heals for wore men's Calvin Klein briefs because they were more comfortable than typical women's panties. (Is it just a bit weird that I wanted to wear the same undies as the woman I thought I loved? Yes, yes it was. And did wearing that underwear help me in the least? Did I get the girl? No, no I did not.)

The last time I went into the flagship store at all was a couple of years ago or so, when I met a few former co-workers for lunch--including the woman who liked to wear the Calvin's. I sat next to her the whole time, smelled the Lancome perfume that used to intoxicate me so...and felt not a thing for her. It was a pleasant lunch that gave me a small sense of closure. But did having it at Field's make it any more special? No. We could have had lunch at McDonald's, and it would have been the same.

Does this mean that I don't lament the loss of the name of Marshall Field from the local shopping scene? Of course I do, but not in the personal way that people who shopped the aisles there, bought special gifts there, met lovers under the famous clocks there do. For them, this is more than an attempt at corporate synergy, a unified national brand, something in common to sell to the masses. (Though, if they must sell it to us, especially via an expensive commercial campaign engineered by a Chicago ad agency, why'd they have to change the lyrics to "Dancing in the Streets"--not the most daring song choice to begin with--to excise the name of Chicago and replace it with Saint Louis, a town not exactly embraced in this cradle of Cubdom? Nice way to woo the locals, boys.)

Mine is a more general sadness at yet another layer of Chicago's personality being exfoliated. We're just a little more like every other city now. And should it wound our civic pride that the name subplanting Field's is Macy's, a brand so closely identified with hated New York? Probably not, but it does nonetheless.

Add it to the lengthening list of names vanishing from downtown Chicago, along with the Berghoff--the sign remains, but the restaurant closed months ago--and Carson Pirie Scott, another retail giant of old whose new owners are closing its flagship store at State and Madison early next year.

The buildings that once held Field's and Carson's, just one block's walk from one another, will of course remain--both are city landmarks, and thus safe from the wrecker's ball. (Relatively safe, anyway--I'm sure that a few well-placed, sizable contributions into the appropriate campaign warchests would change a few minds and cause a few ordinances to be tactfully ignored. It's happened before. It'll happen again. It's Chicago.) But they won't be the same with new tenants. Their personalities will change, just as the city's personality continues to change.

We're not really unique anymore, Chicago. But if Chicago is just like everywhere else--which it is more and more with each passing day--what's the point of living here?