Philip says that this is the greatest youngest city on earth. There is a sketch of it all burning down from the Great Fire in 1871 that he pulls up on his phone to show me on the train ride into town. Some old lady milking a cow was said to have knocked something over and started it. The clumsy act left this young start-up smoldering for days, viewed by countless gape-mouths from sailboats and makeshift vessels on Lake Michigan.
But the people rebuilt with the abandon and vigor of a scorned divorcee, reconstituting their forms a thousand-fold in reaction to some unforeseen conflagration that woke it up abrupt and with something religious to prove. It feels reactionary, built from shock. The buildings here worship upward in a flailing unison, a steely genuflecting of a thousand erections toward Gods who sit waiting in the upper atmosphere. The totality of it gives one the impression that the heavens are just above, that the ceiling is nearly breached.
We stay in the main business district – Chicago’s old heart – The Loop. It got its name from the ring of elevated tracks that have been repeating their circumvention of this city like screeching clockwork nearly a century. Beneath, minute by minute, millions upon millions of irregular footfalls with original and independent intent and angles hit the pavement with a clicking modernity. It is forever dusk underneath the El and it is especially easy here to imagine a thousand intrigues involving mobsters, Catholic priests and seedy Cook County Democrats. Their ghosts seem to effervesce in the oxygen and there’s shadows everywhere among any number of nooks and crannies for them to hide behind. To try to take it all in is to invite a vertigo not plausible in other places.
We check into the hotel and then start underneath the El at a place called Monk’s. It’s got some sort of old European flair to it, maybe Belgian. This entire city will be turned Irish over the next couple of days and it feels right to start with some sort of contrast. We have a pale lager with a pleasant sour tinge to it and move on. We walk towards the Billy Goat Tavern in order to drop another notch underneath this place. We sit below the architecture, the train, the under-streets and on into a basement bar below all of that that to sip on subpar beer on a tilted bartop that tries to invite spills. We sit with the full weight of Chicago on us because we don’t know any better and we trust it all to stay put.
Philip asks about my father, about the various cities he stayed in and how a man could be so spread out. He knows the basics; that my father managed to run through an obscene amount of old money and that he intermittently wrote to my mother, but he likes to hear it all re-told every so often. I have to admit there’s an allure to the whole thing, to him and who he was.
I don’t know that he ever looked on me like I look on Bradley, watching the stomach rise and fall, smiling down lovingly at me while I slept. He might have gazed at me and my working parts and he might have loved me in amorphous, cellular ways that poets and priests can’t describe. He might have been a father. I don’t know any of this. I do know that while I was growing up – with social studies and plays and recitals and sports and all of the glandular mayhem with these girls who emerged out nowhere to knock me sideways – I do know that while that was all occurring that his mainstay was Chicago and that he always returned to this place. I do know that he kept an apartment in the Greek Quarter outside of this Loop and that much of what he was currently fills an old brownstone building that a neighbor watches over, awaiting my arrival tomorrow.
We drink for a couple of hours and then stagger up and out of the deep recesses with heavy feet and worn lungs. I’m struggling to acclimate to the air here. I wonder out loud if this is Middle America and Philip laughs. Or are they talking Nebraska or Kansas or something when they say Middle America? I feel that I’ve lost my geography just one city removed from my typical day to day. I’m curious as to how my father bounced around so much.
At night, from inside of it, these three-hundred-and-sixty degree climbing broadstrokes of architecture in this city foul up your compass. Philip’s petered out and I’m pulling him along. Something’s driving me to walk through more of this place than I need to, to refrain from trying to right myself, to scrap logistical efficiencies and return to the hotel only after some aimless wandering. I get these unaccountable bursts of energy, fed by thoughts and twilight and in spite of the ugly things I’ve consumed throughout the day. Philip’s kinesthetics are all off. He’s unbalanced and tactile with one foot fighting to stay in front of the other, eyeing spots of concrete like it’s hard to find here, like he could miss a Lilly pad and sink. He’s on some long march without agency or cadence and I am his captain. I could take him anywhere right now. He trusts me in full like a son trusts a wise father to make simple but forever correct decisions in order to get him where he needs to be.
I know we need to meander towards Wacker and I’ve got some vague notion of where the landmarks are. Alicia went to medical school here in Chicago. We wandered these self-same streets but in brief as she always emphasized that Chicago was really in the neighborhoods – Pulaski at night and Polish enclaves for brunch and to some dive in the Ukrainian Village for ping pong and day-drinking. “We’ve got to get west of such and such and north of such and such,” she was always saying. “Beyond the Loop.” I loved when she said things like this. Bradley might have known after some such comment, with strange energies we can’t explain, a couple of years before his conception, that the idea of him was there in some corner of my mind after the words came out of her mouth, right here on these avenues in Chicago. I walk along thinking it’s funny how people and places and their narratives and histories come together. I’m finding my father is what I’m doing, even he’s some blundering oaf of a father, even if this whole thing is masquerading as some drunken, marauding romp through Middle America or whatever it’s called.
We sleep in until 10am or so, up with enough time to go to the Lakefront. We’re due in Greektown at 3pm and I feel like I’m still seeking out some oasis in order to shake off the night before. This is the Third Coast here and I imagine that the sheer girth of Lake Michigan ought to cleanse things, sanitize my senses, absolve me of the rotten extract. Philip remains half boozeblind but he’s in good spirits.
Philip says it felt like the Bataan Death March getting in last night. He’s got blisters on his feet. He asks what time we made it back to the hotel. I don’t know how long we walked. I tell him it was probably 3am but it might have been 4 or 4:30.
We get some bagels and coffees in the hotel lobby and cab it over to the waterfront. Philip wonders aloud about when they’ll dye the river green and the driver confirms that it’s today. I think St. Patrick’s Day is tomorrow but I’m not completely sure. There’s a light sprinkle coming down and it hits the waters of the lake just right. It looks so close but we have to keep walking and walking to reach it. As we get closer it’s all doing the trick, dislodging this loathsome stuff from my taste buds.
Philip is coming to now and he’s offering up a running commentary on it all. His voice coincides nicely with the waves here, this water en masse seemingly shouting at all the walking bodies to trust that it’s just as dangerous and spiritual as any number of self-implicated oceans who don’t have to explain themselves. Its visible scope animates it all without much effort and all of the noise seems additional, seems to punctuate the optics with exclamation points. These sounds feel like a gratuitous benefit from a goodly part of some obliging nature, a universe conspiring to make me so happy I can’t stand it. You look and you believe that you could suck this place dry and there’d be in it a much denser graveyard of ships and bony, spiritless bodies than at any port on any seaboard on earth. These are all imaginings and as Philip said this is the greatest youngest city on earth, but that’s the felt sense as you gaze at it. It’s as far as you can see and it’s difficult to fathom that you can travel on through the Straits of Mackinac and find yet another of these behemoths opening up with a mammoth depth and history all its own. Philip says he’s quite certain that Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are really one in the same, that these straits don’t exclude these bodies from one another, that the ecosystems are singular.
I feel like I’ve thought for the first time in days as we walk along the banks of Lake Michigan. All of its undulating and floating along encourages stuck brains to do likewise. We agree to eat before heading to Greektown. We sit in a cozy spot that’s all windows overlooking the lake. It feels different inside without the waves talking at you. It begins to rain heavy and thick as soon as we sit down. It’s a sight as the drops hit the water and silently splay black up at the grey-black clouds that hover just above. They blew in with haste and look like permanent fixtures mounted in the sky now. You can feel the portents even of past storms and rusty old shipwrecks in it. It plays on the eyes something sublime. No one in the restaurant is able to talk for the first couple of minutes after it hits.
Our senses settle into relief and Philip asks about these cities and these decisions of my father’s, being careful with the topic, prefacing everything with, ‘Do you wonder why he did this or did that?’ He knows that I know roughly as much as he does and wants me to appreciate his awareness that it’s all just conjecture. He’s curious as to why it was always cities, and American cities at that. There was never any cabin in the woods and there was never any Europe as far as we know.
I’d asked my mom why he didn’t just leave the country, stay in some farflung unpronounceable dominion up in Canada or sit in cafes in Paris or sweat it out in Latin America. She told me that in his own way she really believed he wanted to be near his family. Philip doesn’t seem to doubt the sincerity of the idea, doesn’t question that my mom trusted in the veracity of something like that. He loves her and called her mom from the day he met her. She looks at him askance but she loves him too. She wants him to find a nice girl and settle down just as she always wanted me to.
We catch a cab into Greektown and the storm’s engulfed the city now. It feels like some Papal divinity is trying to baptize all of Middle America. The water is climbing up the buildings as we come to a halt in front of my father’s place. Greektown is hard to take in under this onslaught. If there were ever any Mediterranean trimmings in the neighborhood this Midwestern weather is washing it all from my view. I can’t see the aqua and everyone’s inside.
We’re soaked after walking twenty feet to the awning above the apartment. I knock and realize I’m banging on my dead father’s door. I can’t find the man even when I’m here. We’re forced to venture out again and scramble over to the neighbor’s identical entryway. All of these buildings right now are just washed-over brick and siding that can’t differentiate itself. We don’t have to knock this time. A very short, gentle old woman opens the door wearing a wise frown. She looks to me like some Old World oracle, all Eastern European in the lips and in the jawline.
My mom said that people tend to get superstitious when they’re looking for something, when they’re incomplete or when realities and mortality are weighing hard on them. She said that we’re trying to poor concrete on things to make them stay and that you can’t blame any of us for it because it’s beautiful things we end up unwittingly burying and anybody would want to keep them. She was a psychiatrist and every patient she ever had is doing this in one form or another whether it manifests as anxiety, depression, psychosis or exhibitionism. In good faith we become unreconstructed pseudo-buddhists in places like Southern California over this, all the time wearing flip flops and having hysterical ponytails. It gets into the psychosphere of entire civilizations and we pervert pretty Bronze-age myths and worship the shoddy fallout for two-thousand years over it. We flash an unsuspecting public on subway trains over it. And we want to call it religion and that’s okay because it gets us to the weekend. And I’m infected with it now as I look at this old woman. I just want to fall to my knees and beg her like some weeping devout. I want to grant her without evidence powers unworldly, to scream at her to just pre-package my father for me and to send me on my way. It surprises my system with how visceral it is, with how it wants to lean against how numb I’ve been to it until I reach the brink and need it.
She wordlessly beckons for us to come in. She’s got a couple of towels at the ready somehow, like a visionary who sensed there’d be two soggy buffoons at her doorstep before the storm hit. We do our best to dry off and she places two more towels on the couch. The apartment looks like the residence of some knowing priestess or a palm-reader maybe. It’s cluttered in here but her eyes are all straight and piercing and she looks like she has walked through life with them always open, taking centuries in. She has gypsy in her I think, dark features with hints of vagabond world-weariness and shades of untold suffering. She brings us tea and sets it on the coffee table with shaking, arthritic hands.
“Which is Raymond?” she asks. She somehow makes her A’s sound like V’s and I can’t put my finger on it. I decide there’s got to be Greek underneath but who really knows? I’m not sure if I’m in Middle America or not. I confirm that I’m Raymond with a weak half-raising of my hand.
She wants us to warm ourselves with the tea and wears an expression of inexhaustible patience, looking mostly at me and occasionally at Philip. She tells us about Greektown, explaining that the University of Illinois built an extension of itself on top of the original neighborhood some fifty years ago. She doesn’t seem to hold it against them. She describes it as if the Greeks simply slung the neighborhood over their sunburnt backs and carried it up the street, dropping it all in perfect order on a waiting slab of concrete. The new neighborhood is as good as the old to her. “As long as we have our things…” she says. She smiles and looks to be far off in thought, like she’s thinking about how these things came from Athens or Mykonos or Santorini, thinking that their just as good here in the Midwestern United States, and that things are what they are with all of their worth untethered to locations and climates. She talks of some other local events, describes a fire that burnt down a couple of restaurants here a few years back. She says my father, “ran down the street like a Welshman,” to help out and that the neighborhood never forgot it. She then hands us a key to my father’s apartment, along with a slip of paper with the name of a bank and an account number on it. She says it’s something my father left to cover the costs of his things being arranged for.
His apartment is an undulating blur of a place to me. There’s a plant in here that Philip fixates on for a while as I try to find the light switch. There’s a fireplace and a table in a smallish dining room with overflowing stacks of papers falling off of it, books strewn everywhere. A lot of it is poetry, which causes me to let out a spitting guffaw of a laugh. There’s a record player with a live Ray Charles album intact, along with a few dozen other records stacked on either side of it. This sits on the floor. The whole place looks just-lived-in. It’s a small unit. On the refrigerator in the closet-of-a-kitchen there is a picture of me. I look at it for some time. It’s difficult to determine how old I am – high school or maybe into college, I think. It’s hard to tell as I age. My mom must have sent it. It doesn’t seem to belong here but this is one of his things, one of his artifacts like anything else, regardless of how it strikes me. There’s a stock of hard alcohol on top of the refrigerator and a couple of empties in the sink.
Philip calls me to the bedroom and he stands there with a puzzled look on his face. There is a little bed with an exhausted old appearance, the sheets and what you can see of the mattress the color of smoked-walls. There’s a scent in here, maybe tobacco. On the wall in this room there are twenty or so pictures of what appear to be various women. Philip is plucking these off the wall and looking at the backsides.
“They all say Cynthia but different dates.”
He looks closer at them.
“I think…I think this is the same woman. That or he had a thing for a bunch of Cynthia’s that look a lot alike.”
There are a couple of pornographic magazines lying beside the bed. I gather the soothsaying old woman next door didn’t vet my father’s ugly fallout before she handed the key over. I imagine she had the sagacity to know that it was only right to allow me to see him complete. The existence of these magazines seems to color the place with a palpable sadness that animates itself and grieves at me. I think as I stand here that a man this old shouldn’t have had it in him, that a man of his age should have been decent enough to have fought a valiant battle with a prostrate malady or something. He should have had the refinement to have accepted that all of his parts had to atrophy post-surgery. He should have achieved a newfound survivor’s wisdom, sagely respecting the hearts and minds of all young women rather than wailing on himself and viewing them as receptacle’s to stuff himself into. It feels like it fights with the poetry and the pictures of Cynthia.
At this point the apartment is wearing on me in ways that I can’t define. It feels off at every angle and I start to feel nauseous. I let Philip know I’m ready to go and we agree to go look into this account, then figure out what to do with his things.
We are leaving Greektown and I’m walking with the knowledge that my father read a lot of poetry, liked music and alcohol, was obsessed with a woman who wasn’t my mother, might have been some sort of revered neighborhood hero and had a proclivity to engross himself in pornography. It’s a lot to sort through. Philip wants to talk it over, to follow the story, pour over the evidence. Only the last thing I can picture at the moment is following this dead man around, this dead man who should have followed me to the ends of the earth but didn’t.
Philip gets in my expression that we’re not going to continue talking about this just now and we agree to hoof it back towards the Loop. It’s about time to experience some of the neighborhoods. I know Philip will eventually fill the void. It’s in his bones to prevent me from perseverating on things that hover ugly above me. For a while though we are as silent as we’ve been through this entire trip.
I’m allowing things to soak in as we make our way along the cozy sidewalks of Little Italy and go roundabout into Pilsen, deviating without efficiencies, looking for nothing. These places seem like all of Middle America condensed into a mathematical remainder of brick-and-mortar buildings and people ornamented with trappings that nearly shout that this isn’t the coast at you. They notice you here a bit more than their counterparts in the Loop seem to.
As we work our way through Chinatown it seems we’ve entered something new and ancient at the same time. Old men sit on stairs above doorsteps. Women are all the time in and out of these places and children run around like it’s all on fire. Peddlers shout out prices in a sing-song Chinese that bounces off all of the dark reds and yellow-golds that hang over the top of everything. It’s so foreign I can almost see the pictographs coming out of the mouths and buildings. Yet in all the ostensible chaos every one of them, even the screaming children, seem to know exactly where they came from and where they are heading. My cells are becoming scrambled and I need Philip to talk now. He gets some cue or another in my stride and he’s got these alien energies in his arteries now. He’s going on about architecture and geometry and the psychology of neighborhoods and cities. He talks about urban planning and he’s wildly demonstrative in the way he tends to get when he needs me to pay attention. He makes squares and circles and is attempting parallelograms with his hands. He says something about Portland making people weird in a scientific way that can be proven by dividing park space and the distance between structures and multiplying that by the annual climates of cities lying along the same latitudes the world over and how this then equals something or other down to the exact decimal point. He doesn’t even know where to begin when it comes to explaining all of this uncanny stuff and how the concrete gets poured out and ends up in the nerve-endings of the people. He says it’s on me to figure that part out but that I can’t argue with the calculus on it.
It’s fascinating to think that Philip has read up on a topic like this and that this is his takeaway, and also that he feels like he can drop it all in my lap like I’m obligated to buy it and then to figure it out with him. But really I am. The math is undeniable when it comes to us. He trusts that I’ll think about it, that I love him enough that I have to think about it. And he loves me enough to know that I need this right now because it has nothing to do with my father. His timing is always perfect when it comes to my big existentials. I’m laughing and imagining him up nights pacing through his kitchen sorting through it all. And as absurd as it all may sound, it needs discussing as much as any topic on the planet as we walk through Chinatown with the sun finally re-emerging above us to come down and to dry this city up. The Loop begins to emerge again and it looks as certain as I’ve ever seen it.
Philip has rambled his way into a new topic. He’s lost in explanations of colors and how they affect the psyche. Red has the longest wavelength so it’s the most powerful. We tend to take it on and to see it when we’re angry. We all experience, yellow streaks; a little bit of it and it lifts our spirits, too much and we turn anxious. Blue affects us mentally rather than physically. Time and again it’s found to be the favorite color of people from just about any culture. It stimulates the intellect and leaves us pondering; skies and oceans as kindling for the brain. But it can also bring on a coldness and a frigidity if our thoughts wander into concocted skies or false oceans.
We round a corner and the river jumps up into the ether in a way that jostles my bones and then settles. Philip explains that green is at the center of the spectrum. It’s at our nature; the color that babies like most. On a primitive level, he says, there’s no risk of famine if you’re surrounded by greens and mostly we can’t have enough of them. It warms us and sets us straight. We walk up Wacker with this green expanse floating along at the periphery. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to stay for St. Patrick’s Day. It doesn’t matter now. We follow the river and I know one way or another it’s taking me back to Bradley.