Archive for October, 2013

Bed Bugs, Latin Kings and Creek Beds: My Attempt to Feel like I actually Live Here

I told a friend of mine I’m moving into a nice apartment seven stories up on Sheridan avenue overlooking Lake Michigan. “Ooh-la-la” she said, mocking my materialism. “You don’t understand”, I said. “I’ve lived in Chicago for six years but in 12 different apartments, most of them sketch. Only once did I sign an actual lease.  And the apartment I live in now is the most sketch yet.”

“Define sketch“, she said, glancing at me accusingly, implying that I was using the word to refer to not-white, poor.

“Bed bugs and Latin Kings”.
“OK” she conceded, “Go for it”.

The gang members who live in my building are disarmingly courteous. Often I’ll be coming home at night with my bike on my shoulder and they’ll go out of their way to open the door for me, saying ‘What’s up Bro’ or even ‘Hello Sir’. I respond cordially, addressing them as a group warmly, with encouragement and a hint of camaraderie. ‘How’s it going, guys?’ It’s a technique I picked up from my dad.  Not that he uses it to talk to gang members, he uses it for teenagers in general. And not that he does it on purpose. I’ve just noticed it’s how he talks to teenagers who are probably used to being ignored by people, because they’re teenagers and mildly threatening or in an awkward phase where no one knows what to make of them. My dad makes a point of recognizing them in a natural, emphatic way. As do I, especially when they take a break from recounting violent exploits to wish me a fine evening.

Because that’s what the gangbangers are. Teenagers. When I was their age, I had the luxury to hang out in a creek bed behind my buddy Jim’s house where we’d shoot pellet guns and smoke our first tobacco. We blew up shit with fireworks and cussed and maybe planned some minor vandalizing. Granted, when we vandalized we didn’t scrawl symbols that staked out territory to other gangs, but we vandalized nonetheless. The teenagers in my building don’t have such a luxury as a creek to hang out in. They hang out in front of the building because they got nowhere else to go. I haven’t seen them do anything violent. The most I’ve seen is one them flash gang signs at a slowly moving car before the driver of the slowly moving car shouted, turning on a spot light, ‘Really!? You’re going to flash gang signs at an undercover cop?’ At which point the teenagers acted real contrite, unleashing a series of Yessirs and I’m Sorry Sirs. The police officer drove off.

I’ve lived in Chicago for six years but it’s not where I’m from. For most of that time, if you asked me where I was from, I’d say ‘Well I was born in Rockford, lived in Byron (a rural town in western Illinois) before moving to Will County, before moving here’. That long-winded explanation served two functions. One, I distracted you from the fact that I grew up in a plain white suburb with creek beds in which know-it-alls could pretend they were dangerous. And two, I’d play up the idea that I’m from rural Illinois. That I’m a country not a country club boy. During the past month, finally, when people ask where I’m from I just say I’m from Frankfort. It’s the truth, that’s where I ‘grew up’. Whether or not I currently call it home.

The bed bugs are a totally other story. Same apartment, different story. I told another friend recently about them. He leapt back from me. ‘Stay away!’ He said, eyeing me nervously.

I expected better from him. He’s HIV Positive. You’d figure him of all people would be more sympathetic. Not like people with AIDs are contagious; that’s the point, there’s an irrational stigma. I remember watching in my suburban high school health class a video about AIDs, and about how it’s actually OK to share a cup of water or a piece of pizza with somebody with AIDs. But even so, would I do it? Would I share a glass of water with my friend just to exhibit my noble transcendence of society’s stigma?

Plus, he has had bed bugs. A truly horrific case, much worse than mine (I had at most a couple dozen, which I caught early, before having an exterminator visit). He described to me waking up in the middle of the night in order to catch them in action and flipping the bed over to find thousands upon thousands, a veritable metropolis of bed bugs seething, breathing beneath his mattress. In a scare, he dragged the bed to the sliding glass patio door and, opening the door with one hand and dragging the mattress with the other, while simultaneously suffocating from pure revulsion, he hoisted the mattress onto the ledge, shouted ‘LOOK OUT!’ and threw the mattress over the balcony, seven stories down into the alley below. He turned back, and on the floor of his apartment, tracing the path from his box-spring to the patio, was a stream of smeared blood, the crushed remnants of bedbugs, like a scene out of Pyscho.

Given that experience, I can see how, despite his situation, he wouldn’t get near me. I don’t blame him. And I don’t blame me, also, for wanting to move out. I want to begin with a clean slate. I’m throwing most of my shit away, donating it if I’m sure it’s contagion free. Moving 12 different times to 12 different apartments and dragging along an ever growing mass of personal useless shit is getting old. It’s about time to leave it all behind and start fresh with a bona fide 18 month lease, in a building with a security guard who might, who knows (they’re paid) be just as friendly as the 15 year old Latin King outside my doorstep.

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Follow Your Bliss (now and then)

“If you love something, give it a rest”

I remember my first love. Hockey. Starting at the age of five, every waking moment of my life, nay, every moment of my life even in my sleep, was devoted to hockey. It’s all I talked about to my older sisters. It’s all I talked about at school. I collected hockey cards, watched hockey games, played hockey; I thought, dreamt and fantasized about it constantly. Obsessively.

At first it was a simple relationship. I played at the local ice house against other youngsters. Then after a few years, I joined a travel team. That meant five practices a week. I can still remember the smell of the rink at five in the morning. That meant tournaments in Michigan and beyond. That meant fifty games a season as well as off-ice training in the summer. That meant parents going berserk, coaches freaking out, and kids planning their professional hockey careers, all at the age of ten.

By the time I turned twelve, something changed inside of me. I stopped caring. I didn’t realize that I stopped caring for a long time. Then one night, it was as clear as the ocean. Oceans are clear, in case you’re wondering.

Tell me if this hasn’t happened to you: You do something well past the point you’re actually enthusiastic about it. In your head, you start to justify to yourself why it is you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. I can’t stop now. They depend on me. I depend on them. It’s who I am. It’s what I’m supposed to do. I’ve put so much of myself into this, how can I quit? What would I do without this?

Then one night, the story falls apart. Your heart has made the decision long ago— you’ve only just now caught up.

The night I quit hockey I was in the car with my mom driving home from a game. (Shout-out to my mom, who’s reading this now and knows what’s about to follow). During all those years of hockey, we drove in the car together to all those games, all those practices. She was as invested in the game as I was. I looked to her and said, ‘I don’t think I want to play hockey anymore’. It was raining. We pulled the car off the road into a parking lot next to a play ground. ‘Come on, Ben’. She opened her door and ran out into the rain. I followed her. She took off her shoes and started dancing around the playground. I did too. We played, laughing and dancing and running around. We were free, free at last! From hockey.

I still have a tendency to obsess over whatever it is I love to the point that I don’t enjoy it anymore, to the point that it’s not good for me. I’ve done it with running, drums, weed, philosophy, and work. I’ve done it with reading, writing, meditation, relationships, tea, food and chess. None of these things are bad in and of themselves. But the way I do it is to the extreme, to the point where it’s not fun. I end up losing my enthusiasm, and eventually I don’t care. Then I quit.

Part of me gets down on myself, saying I really need to stick to something for the long haul. That I need to make a sacrifice in order to accomplish anything great. But the other part of me is dancing in the rain, celebrating the transience of life. Maybe that will be my next love. Dancing. Transience. Because the real problem, if there is any at all, is that I suck the life out of anything I love, hoping it will give me, what? Meaning, certainty, immortality…

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Why build a House? Life is Short!

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was biking from Chicago to the Ohio River. I was half way, in Champaign-Urbana, in a bike store buying an extra light. When I came out, a group of boys was gathered around my bike. It was a sight. On the back of my road bike was a tent, a sleeping bag and two panniers filled with clothes, books, tools and cooking gear. They asked me what I was doing. I said I was biking from town to town. They asked me where I slept. I slept in my tent, in a park or on a field, wherever I could find. ‘You’re homeless!’ they shouted. ‘No’, I explained, ‘I’m not homeless. I’m traveling. ‘No you’re not’, they said, ‘you’re homeless!’

We can say we’re one thing but be something else in someone else’s eyes. At the time I was homeless, even though I didn’t know it or think it. But I wasn’t, I thought to myself, like the homeless back in Chicago. They were really homeless. They weren’t volunteers, but victims of circumstance and misfortune. I on the other hand, my homelessness was a matter of choice. I wasn’t really homeless.

There’re a lot of homeless people in Boulder Colorado, where I’m writing this now. And a lot of them aren’t really homeless- it seems to be a freely chosen life-style rather than a calamity. They’re less destitute than bohemian. They live in packs, ranging from 6-18 individuals, hanging around the public library and public parks, sleeping in vans insulated with spray foam, the kind you put around a window, or in sleeping bags under trees or in the park. They might have a dog with them, usually a couple of instruments and some weed. They’re also self-righteous. They’re proud of their life-style, their homelessness, their supposed freedom from a job, home and all the soul-sucking implications.

Their pride became obvious to me as I sat on a bench by the Boulder Creek, watching them on the other side, when behind me a group of young recruits, Air Force, started running past in groups of 6-18, wearing identical blue shorts, grey shirts, short hair-cuts and shoes, and one of the homeless guys jumped up from his sleeping bag and started clapping and shouting, cheering and jeering: ‘Hurry! Faster! GO! GO! GO!’

He was mocking them for being in the Air Force and running and trying to improve themselves and trying in general. He meant to make them feel inferior, but the runners didn’t even notice him- they looked empowered, like they were having fun. I remember when I was in cross-country in high school running together along paths early in the morning through woods and trails different than the normal rubber track. Getting back to the school bus where a jug of Gatorade hung out the back, it was only 10 AM but you’d already run 10 miles and were feeling alive as the sun started to shine fully straight over head.

Later, I tell my sister about my observations of the homeless folk. She’s familiar. She refers to them as Travelers OR Rainbow People OR Gutter Punks. They’re a distinct subculture found in most cities, less often in a place like Chicago, which has a long winter and doesn’t suffer loafers gladly. You find them more often in places like San Francisco, Boulder, and libérale Montreal (despite its winter). One of my sister’s friends used to be one, she says, but now her friend has a kid, a house and a salary; she actually likes her more traditional life-style. She likes the consistency, the knowing-where-you’re-going-to-sleep and what’s going to happen Today.

We have choices to make about who we are and what we do and we can make different choices at different times in our lives. When I was biking cross-country, I recognized that- despite being outside on a farmer’s land listening to coyotes- the setting-up and breaking-down of the tent and the cooking and necessary chores to ensure my bike and body functioned was a form of domesticity. Now my life is much more explicitly domestic. Nobody mistakes me for homeless. But neither am I running with a group, chasing a common prize. I’m somewhere between, identifying with both, listening to the Boulder Creek rush away.


Lie Here With Me

Something different this week. Music.

Guitar part written and performed by Kevin Gallagher. Lyrics, vocals and leg-slapping by Ben Wegner.

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