living underground in the real world

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

IN WHICH IT ALL GETS FIGURED OUT, AND I’M DONE WITH IT. FOR A WHILE, AT LEAST.

The idea of the walk came to me a week or so before I left.

I was at what I now see was the tail end of my months-long third-life crisis. I had worn out just about everyone near me (roughly two people) by endlessly talking about it. Talking talking talking:

Talking, talking, talking. Rehashing, reworking, going in circles, trapped in my mind. Then a voice said something to me.

The voice doesn’t really matter; this is a story about me. The voice could have come from my best girl friend, a stranger, a person I was paying to tell me such things, my mother, my lover. That doesn’t matter. What matters is what the voice said:

“You are that person, though.”

“What?”

“This person you want to be—this calm, sane, rational person. You already are that person. You just need to allow those facets of yourself to come out.”

This fucking blew my mind.

I was literally dumbstruck. I sat there and let it sink in, and the minute I was alone again, I got out my journal and wrote:

EVERYTHING YOU NEED IS INSIDE YOU.

YOU ALREADY ARE WHO YOU WANT TO BE.

WHEN YOU’RE FEELING THE BAD, KNOW THAT THE GOOD EXISTS SEAMLESSLY ALONG WITH IT.

I’m not really a caps writer, I’m more of a cursive writer, and really I’m not one for writing treacly little aphorisms in my journal, but I did it, all in caps, like that, on a whole page, surrounded by plenty of white space like it was the words on a wall at a museum—those words needed space to breathe.

In time, of course, I realized what it was: Zen, of course. But it didn’t irk me.

Does it sound like mumbo-jumbo-y, new agey, hippie bullshit to you? It’s weird, when you’re a person like me who mocks all that crap, to have your mind blown by something that you might see engraved on a polished river stone and sold at the Renaissance Faire or something. It’s a bit embarrassing, like telling someone that The Prophet is your favorite book. I sort of want to take two steps back from myself, you know?

But who cares? It blew my mind then, and it still does now. In all my months of agony, it never occurred to me. (This is weird; I like to think that everything occurs to me.)

My insides might, at times, be filled with compulsions and an obsessive need to control and perfect my surroundings, but they are also filled with the ability to enjoy life despite (or, sometimes, because of) these desires. The obsessive need to “be productive” all the time can sit in my heart right next to the mentally stable person’s love of free time. It’s all there, and I can choose what to focus on.

It game me enormous power, and I see it as the first step out of the weird hole I’ve dug for myself in 2010.

I was thinking about all this as I decided to walk ten miles from my hotel room to my mother’s apartment in Chicago.

I went to Chicago because a play my mother had written was having a staged reading, and I wanted to see the play and support her. The play is a beautiful two-act tribute to her father, who transcended his first-generation immigrant Russian Jewish background to become a naturalist who ended up publishing six books about finding nature in Chicago’s unlikely places. The reading used professional actors who had had several rehearsals, but they used scripts and weren’t in costume. Apparently, staged readings are something a lot of theater companies do now to gauge interest before fully staging a play. So, I decided to fly out to see my mom’s words brought to life.

For reasons that are unimportant to the sweet story I’m trying to tell, I don’t stay at my mother’s apartment when I come to Chicago. I love my mother dearly, but I can’t stay very long in her apartment. So my sweetheart, with his years of expertise wringing cheap rooms out of pricey hotels for bands, found me an amazing deal on a hotel in The Loop, and I decided to tell my mother I was getting into town Sunday and really come into town Saturday. For one thing, it would save her the trip to the airport, and for another, I’ve never had any alone time in Chicago.

Chicago—the name still feels like a present on my tongue. When my brother and I were kids suffering in the Hot State with our horrible father, Chicago was our yearly salvation. The three of us would go for exactly two weeks every summer, to stay with our beautiful, brittle, stately, Germanic, perfectionist grandmother, who lived in a precise and pristine apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, on Grace Street.

Chicago was a humid green paradise, filled with loving, non-mentally-ill, nonviolent relatives; seemingly endless presents to unwrap; and restaurants.

Entering a restaurant today still gives me a frisson of excitement borne from those special Chicago dinners out. In Chicago our mother was around all the time (and her mother paid for everything), and consequently we could eat as much fruit as we could hold, could order anything we wanted in a restaurant and could get pretzels and cotton candy and innumerable special treats while on jaunts to the zoo or the Art Institute café.

Our Chicago relatives were pleased with our healthy appetites, and my brother and I dreamed of moving to the Windy City, sans père, but once the two weeks were up my mother and her mother would have a giant argument in which my father’s name would be mentioned repeatedly in low tones. Afterward we took a cab to the airport. We savored even the airplane meal, and steeled ourselves for another year in the inferno.

So, I had the idea that walking from my hotel to my mother’s apartment in Rogers Park would take me past all my childhood landmarks, and while inhabiting the weird mindspace nostalgia always puts a person in (I love the etymology of the word “nostalgia,” which literally means “the pain of returning home.”) I would do some heavy thinking (you Zen fucks could even call it meditation, I suppose) about what self I want to put forward, seeing, as I now do, that I have every self I need already inside me and ready to go, like those old plastic pencils where one perfectly sharp tip was always ready to be poked out the bottom when the old worn one was pushed into the top.

I set my phone’s GPS up with my mother’s address: 10.7 miles. OK, that was fine. I felt the need for this walk in my deepest core. I checked the weather: low 50s and drizzly. The need for the walk was greater than my typical love of coziness and hiding from any sort of inclement weather.

I put on a typically inappropriate outfit (Chucks offer little to no good walking support, but they sure beat the four other pairs of utterly useless pretty pretty shoes I packed for this five day trip; white jeans for walking in the rain: capital idea, that one.), asked at the front desk if they had an umbrella I could borrow then decided against it when I saw all they had were those douchey giant ones I’d have to lug everywhere, and set off.

Declining to look at the GPS for the first 20 minutes because I figured I knew where I was going, I slowly started to realize I was walking in the wrong direction. I pulled out a trick I used to use when I was new to Manhattan: I asked a random passerby which direction the river was. If you know where the Hudson River is in Manhattan, you can figure out everything else. She pointed left, and only after I walked another 15 minutes and found myself at the Chicago River, all skinny and urban, did I realize that by “river,” I meant, of course, Lake Michigan.

That trick works a lot better in Manhattan.

By that time it was raining, but a soft rain. I can deal with pretty much anything except a freezing rain, and I adhere pretty strongly to my (non-Chicago) grandmother’s cheery (in the special way that long time alcoholics can be cheery about anything, as long as the bottle of Jack is nearby.) approach to wet weather: “I figure I’m ‘bout as waterproof as they come.”

I walked along Michigan Avenue for a while, which NYC people would know better as “kinda like 5th Avenue, but crappier” (and here my horrible bias and true belief that Chicago truly is the “second city,” begins to show. When in Chicago, about 100 times a day I have to stop myself from stridently telling my mother and brother how something in Chicago is pretty much crap, compared with NYC. I truly didn’t realize I loved NYC so much, until this trip when I found myself waxing nostalgic (the pain, the pain) about how marvelously, magnificently, spectacularly more horrible it is to drive in Manhattan than Chicago. What on earth do Chicago drivers have to complain about? Too many readily available parking spots? Lanes that are too wide? A dearth of cars on the roads? It’s unbelievable to me, almost as unbelievable as my chauvinistic pride in bragging about how much worse/better things are on the good old East Coast.), then I wound my way over to the lake, and that’s when I started to get wet for real.

People are always jogging and riding bikes and walking dogs and generally seeming to enjoy life on the spacious paved lane next to the lake downtown, but I remember even as a kid it being unbearably windy and bone-chilling, even in humid August. This day it was raw, with frothy, choppy, angry-looking waves going in disconcertingly different directions. I soon crossed the street so I could dart into the overhangs of the fancy apartment buildings when a downpour came.

Many downpours came, and many downpours went. Mercurial, this weather was, I tell you. But I really didn’t mind at all. I was wet, but not especially cold, and walking warmed me up.

As I walked, I really did concentrate on summoning up all the pain and loose anxiety that I’ve been swimming in this year, understanding it, and beginning the process of chipping away at it. I walked and walked, and it was tiring and freeing just like I’d imagined it would be when I first came up with the plan. When you’re feeling all churned up and weird inside is anything better than a long walk? Everything inside me was unspooling, stretching its legs, and rearranging itself in a better order. I worked out all the tangles, untied all the knots.

Here’s one thing I kept returning to: the importance to sticking with my own values and my own definitions of success. That’s where all the trouble started, really—when you only have yourself to answer to, the pressure can be bottomless. I know I need to work on that, but I also saw the corollary: only you know what success means to you.

Remember Lagusta’s Axiom? OK, it doesn’t always work. There are quite a few exceptions, but most of the time it’s an incredibly freeing notion to me. My business barely gets any press—I don’t seek out press. I know that that’s why most of what you see in food magazines and the New York Times food page gets the attention it does, and therefore I am happy to just keep my head down and work.

Maybe I won’t always feel this way, but I actually enjoy not getting press. It’s always fun to see your name in print or whatever, but subversive little anti-capitalist that I am, I love flying under the radar, feeling like my business is a secret treat for those in the know. (A few days after I came home, my friends Ken & Doug were riding the wave of having an article written about them in the New York Times, which, while definitely a huge exception to Lagusta’s Axiom and also making me feel all “my friends are so rad!” and “a rising tide lifts all boats!”-y, also made me feel nervous for them because of the stress of packing up so many seedy orders they underwent while they were riding the wave of attention the article brought.)

This love of running a business that’s a secret treat for those in the know conflicts with Big Project things I will be able to discuss more fully around, oh, December* and with a very real need to grow my business—because even though overall I’m happy, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to increase my sales over time, if only just because then I could provide good jobs in my community, and also because, let’s admit it: it would be nice, someday, to make money without having to directly have touched every single chocolate, washed every single dish, chopped every single onion, and I know that if I want to do that I need to promote, promote, promote. Puke.

But I worry that if I don’t, and if the press doesn’t magically come knocking, I might turn into my friend T. T. is a lot older than me and has owned her own business forever. It’s a beautiful business, one that deserves more recognition than it gets but one which will never get the recognition it deserves because it’s a weird, quirky, complicated business, not readily explainable or digestible to the mainstream world. T. loves and is proud of her business, but she will be the first to say she is bitter about her lack of recognition. It’s about time for her to retire, and I know it eats her up inside that she has been inferior businesses zoom past her modest success, simply because they had more media attention. She doesn’t allow herself to think about why more mainstream, simpler, businesses get media attention, she doesn’t allow herself to see her lack of it as a badge of honor—she just feels the pain of being a renegade, none of the joy.

Things. There are always things. Traps you’ve seen your deepest friends fall into that you want to avoid, weird states of mind you lose yourself in for months, night terrors and daytime nervousnesses. A walk can help to smooth them all out.

So I walked. I felt myself on this edge, between the tiny, claustrophobic island of “why-am-I-always-nervous”ness and the old familiar landmass of “there-are-always-stresses-but-fundamentally-things-are-cool”ness. I took all the niggling annoyances in my business life and my personal life, and just walked through them.

By the end of the walk I’d decided: I’m OK. I’m OK in the deepest sense. Everything is functioning. Maybe that sounds plain or boring, but it was sort of everything to me at that moment, and sort of still is. I needed a big, long, exhausting check-in with my deepest self, and that’s what the walk gave me.

I took so many little side trips and ate so many nibbles at interesting little shops and made so many photo stops that the walk ended up taking me about seven hours. By the time I finally rounded the corner to my mom’s street, I was carrying way too many trinkets, had a massive blister, and the flowers I had brought at the corner store for my mom were already looking wilty. I was wet and cold and utterly exhausted. I got to my mom’s gate and realized that in order to knock on her apartment door and see her all-important look of surprise, I’d need to somehow be buzzed into the building. I stood outside for a minute thinking about this dilemma, and as I did my phone rang.

It was my mom.

“Gus?** Hi! How are you? I’m so excited to see you tomorrow!”

“Hi Mom—listen, can you do me a favor? Can you come outside to the front gate for a minute?”

It was good.

* I KNOW.

** I KNOW.

4 Responses to “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing / so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”

  1. NYC walk « resistance is fertile

    […] After reluctantly leaving Mary, I intended to take the subway to meet Jacob up at Radio City where he had a show. But he had a few hours until he was free, and I felt like walking. Also, I figured a springtime long NYC walk would be a good bookend to the autumnal Chicago 10-mile walk. […]

    Reply

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