So It Goes, part 7

September 11th, 2009

Dirt called to me in those days. Not just the dirt in the underground world I had discovered, but the dirt and grit and garbage of the city. Like a sort of urban farmer, I longed to reach into the gutter of a city street an roll the cigarette butts and gum wrappers and shreds of newspaper between my fingers. “Ah, good soil for growing dirty,” I would say. Here was a place one could become filthy and gritty and jaded without anyone noticing. You could surround yourself with things that were old–old brick apartment buildings, twenty-year-old Chevrolets, televisions that still used vacuum tubes–and make a new decrepit life for yourself.

The city of Chicago was everything Des Plaines was not: big, old, crowded, somewhat dangerous, and full of culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Three or four days a week, I drove to the Jefferson Park stop and took the el into the city, where I was taking college classes. When you got on the graffiti-spattered train and looked out the grimy window blurred by greasy hair, it seemed that suddenly all the houses you saw were made of brick. Chicago passed a law after the great fire of 1871 banning frame houses, and apparently that law was still in effect. “More, more, more,” said the brick houses that were so close together you could barely walk between them. “Come,” said the streets that were jammed with parked cars, lines of which stretched on for blocks, fender kissing fender.

It all seemed so exciting that I seldom studied on the train, but stared out the window, an open book on my lap, watching a series of tableau pass by the glass windows. There was the Gale Street diner, at near the Jefferson Park station, with men slumped over at their stools, humming the song about drinking wine, spodey-odey. There were lines of workers trudging to trains, singing the anvil chorus from Verdi’s La Traviata. There was a tailor, putting a suit in the window, singing bel canto; there a gang of dropouts, intent on avoiding school, singing four-part harmony–the song “Whispering Bells” by the Del-Vikings. There was a construction crew whistling at women, singing the Sonny and Cher song, “I Got You Babe.” The air was thick with music, horns, grinding tires, whining motors, sirens, and shouting voices.

My grades were good enough that I could have gone to school anywhere. But I did not go to school in California, or New York, or some faraway place, at a big university. I decided to attend the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois, and live at home, and commute. In truth, it felt like I had chosen to go far away to college. The city and the suburbs were like two different countries, two continents even, separated by boundaries like rivers, expressways, the el train.

When I left the train and walked up the ramp to Peoria Street all the romance ended. My campus was an uninspiring concrete jungle of pillars, overhead walkways, strange forums, glass, and more concrete. It had been built in the 1960s atop a once-thriving Italian neighborhood, the remnants of which could be found just to the south, on Taylor Street. The Italian lemonade and Italian beef merchants eyed us resentfully even as they took our money.

Once I walked to class I thought not of cars, or old houses, or history, or singing Italian tailors, or anything having to do with my home town. I worried about grades, and homework, and at the same time found my thoughts inexorably turning toward women. Temptresses surrounded me, in every class, calling me away from imaginative thoughts, beckoning to me, singing to me sweetly like the Ronettes dooing “Be my baby, my one and only baby…”, twisting my mind into obsession. With all the time and energy I spent dreaming about females, I could have written 50 novels. That is, if I had had anyhing to write about, because I had done virtually nothing and had no experience yet of anything that might be called “real life.”

I spent my days locked in battle, struggling valiantly to think about history and literature and art and psychology, and continually being won over by this smile, that bulging sweater, that head of bright blond hair, that pair of shapely legs emerging from that tiny miniskirt. The women almost always won. Yet I kept coming back for more because the battle was so sweet. And gradually the battle brought me subjects to write about, in the form of my weekly columns.

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