So It Goes, Part 25: Let’s Dance

September 30th, 2009

We danced the suburban ballet. We twirled cans of peas, we used our shovels as swords. We drove our cars in circles like so many dancers. The men juggled wrenches and hammers, the women spoons and stenographers’ pens. What was the music to which we danced? Ah, that’s the surprise: we each danced to the music we chose to plug directly into our ears. We chose our own soundtrack. We moved in our own orbits and only occasionally did we collide and move in unison.

In the suburbs in the middle of America, you never had to be alone for a moment, and you never had a moment’s silence. Think of the shepherds on the high mountains of Pakistan, the pilgrims prostrating themselves over and over on the way to Mount Kailash, the elderly ones around a campfire in Central America, with only the wind and the birds and the trees providing background sound. They move with the rhythms and sounds of the earth.

Here, we created our own sounds and rhythms. We need have nothing to do with the earth and sky and rain and sun. We lived in boxes, we traveled in metal containers rolling on wheels. There was my sister, holding her shiny chrome Emerson transistor radio to her ear, listening to Queen singing Bohemian Rhapsody. My father drove down Mannheim Road, one arm draped over the back of the long bench front seat, one finger on the wheel, humming to 101 Strings playing a symphonic version of Come Fly with Me. My brother sat with his high school friends in Barnaby’s Pizza, listening to REO Speedwagon. My mother, in the kitchen, had the AM newsradio on and the phone cradled between her shoulder and ear, talking to her sister. I lay on my bed, my Koss headphones with the water-filled earcups cradling my head like two hands, listening to the Beatles White Album, and my favorite song, Yer Blues:

Yes I’m lonely
Wanna die
If I ain’t dead already
Girl you know the reason why.

Unlike the Rootweavers, we had no mind-to-mind connection. We generated our own thoughts, made up own stories, lived out our own dramas. Even when we turned off our music and talked to one another, the sounds kept playing inside our heads, distracting us. During my awkward conversation with the young woman I had met on the train, I had to keep asking her what she had just said. I could barely concentrate. I somehow worked up enough courage to ask her out for pizza, and she said yes. Then the music built to a crescendo. I went off to my job at the drugstore, dancing through the living room unnoticed by my sister and mother, who were listening to their own music, living through their own dramas.

I was lost, floating in a timeless void. It was quite pleasant, actually. Then I found myself descending to earth in front of our little Monopoly house in Des Plaines watching myself get out of my claptrap sports car and trot up the steps.

“Don’t be in such a hurry,” I called out, watching my younger self stalk inside without wiping my feet, uttering a grunt rather than a greeting. “And would it hurt you to say hello to someone once in a while?”

This was not a typical afternoon. The tone and shape of our collective lives felt totally different when our father was home. He went to work at United Airlines in the afternoon and evening, and he often had days off in the middle of the week.

I looked through the screen door, which was rickety and always slapped against the frame like a gunshot when you went inside. The wires of the screen were cold and scratchy against my face.

My sister was picking wads of Kleenex off the floor and running the carpet sweeper back and forth. She was wearing an apron. My father sat in his easy chair, a catalog on his lap, with his “easy listening” music playing on the stereo in the background.

To understand my father, you must understand the entire genre of “beautiful music.” I don’t know if this type of radio exists any more. It is the sort of music played by Mantovani, and the Hollyridge Strings, and the Boston Pops—symphonic versions of songs done in dreamy, sleep-inducing arrangements marked by choruses of cascading violins. It’s not quite elevator music. Elevator music is different. This was just…relaxing. My father’s great ambition is to be the most relaxed man in the world. Listening to the AM radio station WAIT, which had the slogan “The World’s Most Beautiful Music,” allowed him to do this.

The music and his stolid presence changed the energy completely. He was like a capacitor, one of the electronic components he often tinkered with in his basement workshop while listening to his beautiful music. A capacitor builds up an electrical charge and then discharges it all at once. He discharged the electrical energy so everything was in balance again.

“Hello, Greg,” he greeted my younger self in his singsong voice.

I said a quick “Hi,” grabbed a phone book, opened it on the white porcelain Roper stove, and started looking for people with the same last name as the girl I met on the train. Luckily, it was not a common name. There were three or four listings. I took a deep breath and started calling.

No one in my family seemed aware of my older self as I came in the house. “I’m really glad you’re cleaning,” I said to my sister. She took no notice of me. She was talking to Dad about her cat and wondering if it was going to have kittens.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say hi,” the older Me said to my dad. “I was sort of wrapped up in myself, in case you didn’t notice.” He didn’t notice me now, either.

There I was in the kitchen, making the first call and getting no answer. “You really want to take some time and think this through,” I said to my younger self.

“Shut up,” I answered.

“Who are you talking to?” my dad asked.

“Oh, just to myself,” I told him.

I saw myself make the second fateful phone call and get the girl’s aunt on the phone. “Oh yes, they live in Park Ridge on Talcott,” I heard her tell me. “Here’s the number.”

There was nothing I could do to stop my life unfolding. What would I have changed, really, if I could? It was like an electrical circuit: once the power is turned on the components build up a charge and then it is discharged all at once by the capacitor. The power had been switched on to a new circuit, and now this new machine would run for a while until it died down. But along the way you had the chance to enjoy some “beautiful music.” All you had to do was pay attention to it.

Here I go getting serious. I really didn’t have a drink of any sort until I was almost 20, and that was at an outdoor beer garden in Munich, Germany. I felt I had to do what the locals were doing. By the time I wrote this I was a devoted beer drinker, and safely over age 21. This sounds more like an editorial than anything.
[Click on image to read column]

Sometimes obsession works to your advantage. For instance, when I got to my car that day, I realized I had only gotten the young woman’s name and the fact that she lived in Park Ridge, but not her phone number. I swung by the Jefferson Park station, scanning the bus stops for the Frye boots and the suede coat with the fur collar, but saw nothing. All the way home I could not get her out of my head. But why?

She had done nothing exceptional to inspire me. She was just a young woman my own age living in the town next to me. She wrote for her school paper. She was smart, she liked literature. That was all the fuel I needed to get the engine of obsession up and running. She was just like me. That was the bond that brought us together, and that would one day break us apart as well.

With the clarity of hindsight, I jump into the passenger seat of the convertible, floating down from above as in the old Hertz rent-a-car commercial, sitting next to my younger self. I watch myself turn up the music, eagerly switching gears, speeding down Higgins Road.

“You might slow down and stop and think about this for a minute,” I yell to myself over the music.

“Who are you? Where did you come from?”

“I’m you, thirty years from now. I’m older and wiser. I want to tell you to think about this.”

“Oh, leave me alone. Let me be young and do something silly, you old fart.”

“You’re going to end up unhappy. You’re going to end up divorced. Then things will get really complicated. Is that what you want? And by the way, you’d better rustproof that floor. It’s going to rust all the way through and…”

“I want someone to be with, that’s all,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?”

“But you’re not really passionate about this woman,” I said. “Don’t you want someone who makes your heart stop when she walks in the room?”

“I had that,” I said. “It was awful. She broke my heart. I just want to relax and have fun.”

“But someone you’re just ‘okay’ with isn’t enough,” I said. “You’ll never be satisfied…”

I pulled the car over abruptly with a squealing of tires. I turned to my older self and asked, “Who are you with right now? Aren’t you alone, at age fifty-two, or however old you are?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“What do you mean, yes, but? You’re alone. You haven’t got anyone. Who are you to give me advice? Get out of this car and let me do what I want.”

I stood on the corner of Higgins and Cumberland and watched the Fiat rumble off into the forest, sounding like an overgrown lawn mower, carrying my younger self into a future that seemed inescapable. So much for the wisdom of age, I reflected.

Once you have given up on your life’s dream, living becomes easy. You don’t have to have any conflicts or disappointments because you don’t care any more. You drift along, marking time, until the game is over.

After I abandoned the hope of sharing my creative writing with the world, I was numb. I glided from home to train to school to work to bed like the robot from Lost in Space, mumbling in monotone, in a sort of living dream. I hardly said a word.

“What’s wrong with you?” my mother would ask as I simply walked through the room and up the stairs without speaking. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be a little friendly, would it?”

“He’s too good for us,” my brother would say.

“Maybe he just wants to be quiet,” I heard my sister say as I closed the door to my room. None of it mattered any more. My thoughts were my own and I would not share them with anyone. My friends the Rootweavers taught me the value of speaking: you didn’t need to, as long as you were connected to each other and to the earth.

All our lives we are taught to strive, to seek, persevere, to succeed. No one teaches us how or when to give up. Muhammad Ali became my hero not because he was the champion—twice—but because he gave it all away. He wouldn’t play the white man’s game and take part in their dirty little war. George Washington gave up the army after the Revolutionary War. Lou Gehrig is best remembered for gracefully retiring from baseball.

I would be the Iron Horse of literature: I would write beautiful things that no one would ever see. I would be able to go around, convinced that I was a great writer, without ever needing anyone to validate that fact. I listened over and over to the Simon and Garfunkel song I Am a Rock:

I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock, I am an island.

…And a rock feels no pain.
And an island never cries.

I turned in an article for my school paper, which was housed in a tiny wooden shack-like structure in the old Italian neighborhood surrounding the university campus. Italians sat on their stoops, talking, as I walked by. I didn’t stop to visit with my classmates. I was a rock, an island, and had no need of friends. A dark-haired man in a “dago-T shirt” waxed his olive green Chevy Impala. At the kosher butcher shop, Nea Agora, a man in a white smock and cap hung up the carcass of a lamb. I envied the lamb. The lamb felt no pain.

I felt no connection to these people. “What are you, too good for us?” the old men sitting in chairs in a semicircle on Polk Street seemed to say. “Look at him, he don’ feel nuttin’ These kids today, I swear, they don’ got no ambition.” “I got yer indifference right here!”

I headed to the el, practically trudging, barely able to lift my feet off the ground. I stood on the platform as expressway traffic hurtled by. No one looked at anyone else. That was the way it should be. I got on and got a window seat and glanced at the school paper, where one of my articles had been printed. They had misspelled the word “endeavor.” Just as it should be, I thought.

The train was never crowded on the west side. After we went through the Loop it got packed with commuters, all rocks, all islands, no one looking at anyone else. A pair of tall brown leather Frye boots and Levi’s blue jeans sat down in the seat next to me. I didn’t look at the face but I could tell the boots and jeans belonged to a young woman. Did she know she was sitting next to a rock, an island? I looked out the window, indifferent. She unfolded a large newspaper. It brushed against me. “Sorry,” she said.

“I am a rock,” I thought without saying anything. “It doesn’t matter, brush against me all you want.”

The paper, I saw as she folded it to a more compact size, was the student newspaper of Loyola University, a Catholic university on the far north side. It was much bigger than our paper. They had ads, too—for Chandler’s Bookstore, for My Pi pizza.

“Want to read it?” she asked.

“Hm?” I was disoriented, an island no more. “Oh, well…no, thanks.” Out of habit, in remembrance of the days when I was interested in such things, I noticed that she had long brown hair, and a suede coat with a fake fur collar.

Something deep within my mind, a voice inside my head, the voice of Farkus, muttered in its low growl: Writer. I barely paid attention. But the brief thought formed itself into words. Words are what get us into trouble. Words are what change our lives.

“Do you write for that paper?” were the words that emerged out of nowhere, with no clue to who this young woman was or what she did.

“Yes, this is my article,” was the response. She pointed to it, something about food in the school cafeteria.

“This is mine,” I said, pointing to my story, something about a protest in the school forum.

We traded papers. It seemed so innocent, the bridging of two islands. It still seemed innocent when we talked and discovered we lived in neighboring suburbs. It needn’t have gone anywhere from there. There was certainly no clue that this young woman and I were destined to be married one day. You don’t meet people on the el and get married to them. Right? Who would have ever thought that this simple “coincidence” would lead to years of drama, occasional joy, the joy of traveling around the country with someone, the thrill of leaving the suburbs and building a home in the city, then dealing with illness, with doctors, with drugs, with lawyers, with the pain of divorce? All of that spun out from being in the same place at the same time and saying a few simple words. But I learned, slowly, painfully, that the Rock and Island principle was unworkable. Just as the trees are not separate, but all interconnected, with their roots tied together in a vast unbreakable network, we were not separate, we were already connected in some unseen fabric woven by invisible hands.

This is neither meant to be comprehensive nor a “ten best” list. These are just ten marketplaces I have written about and am aware of personally. I’ve talked to the owners, who are innovative entrepreneurs determined to provide good, personal service.

1. Atomic Mall. Mike Shannon wanted to create a marketplace where you don’t have to register until you have made a purchase and are about to check out. That’s certainly unusual, if not unique.

2. Babylon Mall. A site started by Deb Whitten, a programmer and mother of two teens in Ottawa, Canada. She sells vintage clothing, and that’s what this marketplace specializes in.

3. Bonanzle. Mike Harding’s 70-year-old mother is a registered user on this site, which advertises mostly by word of mouth and is doing really well. It’s a fixed-price marketplace, not an auction site.

4. eCrater.com. Run by Dimitri Slavov, who was unhappy with the way eBay addressed his concerns and decided to fight back by creating his own marketplace.

5. iOffer.com. Forget about a fixed ending time for a sale. At this site, which specializes in buyers making offers for sale items, CEO Ryan Boyce and his staff allow buyers and sellers to haggle back and forth as long as they wish.

6. OnlineAuction.com. One of the most successful non-eBay auction sites, it’s run by Chris Fain, who is about my age and collects fountain pens, like me. Headquartered in a small town in Oregon.

7. Stootsi.com. Bryan Corbett created this site, which is one of several to offer a “Daily Deal” at a predetermined time each day.

8. Wensy.com. An auction site run by a guy who works in a hospital by day, and runs an online auction site virtually all by himself in his off hours.

9. WorthPoint. This site purchased GoAntiques, so the two have joined to create a huge marketplace with an extensive database of past sales. Go here if you want to find the value of an antique you want to sell. You can consult with a “Worthologist.”

10. Zazzle. This site lets you sell your artwork and crafts for free, in contrast to sites like CafePress, which charge a monthly fee for operating a store on their site.

When I was done telling my little story you could have heard a pin drop in the classroom that suddenly seemed as large and cold as an auditorium. I gulped, and the sound my throat made reverberated like a fart off the walls. Pens doodled nervously. No one looked at anyone else.

“It’s charming, but we’re really not into fairy tales here,” said Gonzo. “We’re talking about life, real life, about gritty urban experiences—“

“But this was real,” I said, surprised at my own nerve, nerve that came from anger, anger that came from hurt.

There was audible giggling that burst here and there around the walls like so many rifle shots.

“Excuse me?” said Gonzo.

“It was real to me.”

“Well, that’s fine. Who’s next?” and that was the only feedback I got.

No one said “That was intense” to me as we left class. No one spoke to me at all. So I said goodbye to my classmates, goodbye to the couples making out in the little circular meeting spaces that were like pimples on the concrete upper level of the campus. I said goodbye to the slackers in baggy bell bottoms, fringes torn, staring down the dresses of girls from seats in the Circle Forum at the center of campus. I said farewell to the black women in babushkas and hollow eyed homeless men sleeping on the train, so long to the bus drivers and commuters standing tired and resolute in the Jefferson Park station, get lost to the frantic drivers cutting ahead of me in traffic, go away to the kids playing frantically on Orchard Street, who cares to my sister talking to a guy leaning on a motorcycle in the driveway, leave me alone to my mother making her spaghetti. I would share none of my work with them ever again. I didn’t need them; I would write only for myself, I would be my own best audience, my only audience.

I tore the pages with the Rootweavers story out of my notebook and left it, along with some Juicy Fruit gum, back by the awful construction area at the edge of the anonymous industrial park along the indiffeent train tracks and in the shadow of the heartless water tower. And I never wrote about them in my column and never told anyone about them, until now.

I am the greatest writer in the world–in the vision of myself that I’ve carried around in my head since I was a boy, at least. I’ve written 20 or more books full of creative writing. There they sit, on the shelf over there in the bedroom. You might well ask why, if I have been so dedicated about writing for myself, I’ve never tried to share my words with others. Well, I did.
When I first graduated from high school, I enrolled in Columbia College in downtown Chicago, to take creative writing classes in their well-known Story Workshop program. I remember being terrified from the moment the bus onto Michigan Avenue to the moment class was over and I trudged back down Ohio Street through the cold winter wind called The Hawk to take the same bus back home. I ate nothing, I was ready to throw up at any moment, and I loved every minute of it.
When I got to class, the students were all older than I was. Many wrote for local magazines as freelancers. They were taking this clsss as a lark, so they could practice the “New Journalism” of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. I, of course, was there in preparation for the Great American Novel I was destined to produce.
We sat in a tiny circle no more than an arm’s length from one another. The teacher, Paul Pekin, who looked like a grizzled gold prospector heading down to the river with his pan to search for treasure, in a red flannel shirt and baggy jeans, with long sideburns and a droopy moustache, looked around the room to silence the chatter. He uttered just four harmless-sounding but terrifying words: “Give me a word.” A new wave of nausea shuddered through my entrails. Each of us said a word that was supposed to come to one’s mind on the spur of the moment, from the depths of the imagination, inspired by the words just uttered previously.
I, of course, planned my words out beforehand, even writing them down on the bus beforehand. I made an effort to pull great words from my personal dictionary like a miner panning for nuggets of gold. I uttered impressive words like cornucopia that had nothing to do with the imagination. Then we moved to images, and finally, we wrote for the rest of the hour, our pens moving in unison, traffic moving by outside, the sounds of the city far below. Then we would read from what we wrote. I remember creating what I thought was a dramatic story about a man who went to a gas station and was executed by a man in the bathroom for no apparent reason. Such a thing had never occurred to me, but it was the most dramatic event I could imagine. “That story was intense,” one long-haired slacker dude told me after class.
Why did I decide to leave that school and get a traditional degree from the bigger and better-known University of Illinois at Chicago? Why did I feel I had to get a “real” job? I thought studying English literature would make me a better writer. In truth, it killed whatever confidence I had and made me feel absolutely unable to write anything of substance for many years.
I slogged through theory clases where we attempted to understand the blatherings of Jacques Derrida, discussing terms like hermeneutics and the terrible word deconstruction, a word that sends a shiver down my spine to this very day. It’s the single most boring and thought-deadening term ever created. We studied Dickens, and Shakespeare, and Joyce, and we were told that no one could reach the heights of that pantheon of literary giants, especially not us. I learned that the greatest accomplishment of a writer was not self-expression or the depiction of his or her time but to become an object of minute examination by scholars who cranked out studies exploring every theory or nuance they could event. I was taught that the scholarly study was the most important priority, not the creation of art itself.
I did go to a writing class. I thought that here I might be able to share my experiences with the Rootweavers, to test how such events might be perceived in the “real” world. Our teacher (whom I will simply call Gonzo because he is apparently still on the faculty, lo these many years later) was in love with “experimental” fiction. He came to class in a long black leather coat that stretched almost to the floor, and a black leather hat, a pint-sized Wyatt Earp. He slammed his books down on the table and we snapped to attention. “I want you to forget everything you’ve learned about plot and character and rising action and falling action!” he yelled. “I just want you to write! Let it flow! Open a vein and let it flow down your arm and let the blood of your words flow onto the pen! I want moments! I want images! I want fresh, now, tomorrow! I don’t care if it makes any sense, I just want it to be alive. Go–write!” He plopped himself in his chair and stared at us. That was his idea of teaching.
When it came time to share our bloody moments and images I timidly spoke: “My best friends are a society of little people who live beneath the earth,” I began. You could practically hear the sighs, feel the air go out of the room.


Sorry for the bad scan; I was in a hurry…

Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.

One moment I was alone in the dark, and the next I wasn’t. I became aware that a shadowy figure had appeared silently on the front steps of the house sitting next to me. “I’m so glad you came back!” I said. “I was so worried about you.”

“Well, like you said, all I had to do was be strong and I would be OK,” said my brother’s nasal voice, which somehow managed to sound angry and resentful even at this early hour of the morning. “Isn’t that what you said, Mr. Mature?”

As a boy, the neighborhood kids had called me Victor Mature, presumably because I acted much older than my age. I sighed, letting the air out of the Balloon of Hope that had burst inside of me.

“So, what seems to be the trouble?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?”

“I wanted to see what’s bothering you. Why else would you be sitting out here in the middle of the night before the sun came up?”

I sighed. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Of course I wouldn’t. I’m too stupid. That’s what you all think.” He got up and went in the house.

I walked along the dark streets, seeing the light come up over the Des Plaines River to the west. I went to the industrial park out of habit, knowing I wouldn’t find anything there. The white tail of a rabbit hopped into a bush. I passed tree after tree. Their dry leaves rattled—first one, then another, then another. At that time there were still a lot of big elms in the neighborhood. I thought of all the roots joined together. Instead of separate trees it was a huge network of trees that behaved as one. And that network was connected to another one in another neighborhood, and so on, all around the world. When you thought of the trees that way your view of the world changed. It was somehow comforting to think that they were all nourishing one another and that some unseen force was taking care of them. I wondered what the world would be like if people like that, and houses, and cars, and traffic. But then I realized: all the cars and drivers are dependent on one another; if not, there would be accidents all over the place. Maybe we were all joined together, and I just didn’t see it that way.

When I got to the place where the Rootweavers’ hole had been, a bulldozer was parked nearby. And big concrete blocks were piled all around. I sat on one and stared forlornly at the dirt as the gorgeous peach colored light illuminated the brick buildings, the tar-streaked telephone poles. The light shone on a swatch of bright yellow among the debris. I stumbled over to see what it was: the box of Juicy Fruit gum I had left earlier. At first, I thought the construction guys had taken it all. But I had buried it so deep… the box was dirty and torn but I could read some words scrawled in a childish hand: BING MORE GUM.