Category Archives: Urban Life

On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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Commute

d9d4c68cb3bb5818776e12b294909c8bThe key wouldn’t turn the way it needed to. He tried for some time and then had to go to work. On the way he told himself an unlocked door is fine as long as no one tries it, and he couldn’t be late again or he’d have no money for rent.

He thought briefly about calling her because she still had a key and might have the touch to make the lock work. She did much better with objects, understood subtle shifts of position and emphasis that made them cooperate. Every thing seemed troublesome to him. At first, she’d found his confusion charming and laughed at his clumsy handling, but her impatience grew like a bass hum in an audio line, building until it overwhelmed the signal.

On the day she left, she locked the door. He returned expecting to find the apartment open and her inside making something to eat, as that morning she’d offered. Instead, he found a note on the bare table explaining she’d taken most of her things and would be back for the others that weekend. Nothing in the note explained why really, but he understood.

They could be friends, she promised.

He’d be late anyway. The L always chose the worst time to delay and, between each station, a voice announced, “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily, waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly.” Sometimes the message just finished as the train lurched to life, the air conditioner stirring as it engaged. Sometimes the lull continued, passengers doing their best to pretend they hadn’t heard.

“What are your ambitions?” she’d asked him once.

He shrugged. The degree he’d earned wasn’t practical, and, encouraged by his parents to “follow his bliss,” he’d never thought much about income. He’d always worked, never at anything, however, he’d devote a life to. He settled between jobs. He knew what he’d like and what, in the meantime, he might do to get by. When the getting by squeezed everything else out, he felt strange relief. Absolved from dreaming, he could live instead.

She might have left him when she took her new post or three months later when she received her first promotion. He took her staying as proof she loved him as he was but also detected her restlessness, the way she seldom sat with him anymore, never simply read or watched something with him.

Before the L reached his stop, he’d vacated his seat for an old man bent by labor or some previous injury into an awkward S. They’d passed a light smile, and he thought momentarily about speaking but recalled how she hated that, her forced laugh when he’d explained his parents’ faith in casual conversation.

One of his friends asked if he knew she’d started seeing someone else. He said, “Yes,” though, of course, he hadn’t. In retrospect, the hints lay everywhere, but he’d thrown himself into work, taking unnecessary shifts and covering co-workers when they or family members became ill. She’d scolded him. He might have noticed how he neglected her.

“And for what?” He almost said the words aloud.

Every time he passed through the revolving door at the station he had to think which way to turn—something in the bars scared him, and those exits always reminded him of factory machines to knead or slice bread. A man in a business suit behind him almost ran over him. He glanced back in mute apology.

On the street, peeking at his phone, he saw the hour had passed. The manager wouldn’t really be angry because he’d been a dutiful employee and a good co-worker, a good boy. Still, involuntarily, his pace quickened.

Their first conversation after she left was to arrange a meeting that never happened. She needed to talk to someone, and he said he had a conflict too. Since then, they’d spoken twice on the phone. The second time, he’d meant to be dignified when she asked how he’d been, but he’d been honest.

“I’m pretty miserable,” he said.

She tried to console him, but nothing she said stuck.

Down the block, he saw the familiar storefront and one of his coworkers cranking the handle to release and extend the awning. That was his job, he thought, and then he heard his own voice, barely audible on the busy street.

“Go home,” it said, “call a locksmith.” And, before another moment passed, he turned and went.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Two)

basho-loc-01518vAs I wrote last Thursday, I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

xli.

Many days I pass the same man begging. I know his name now—Jimmy—and he often asks for money by saying, “Make Jimmy happy.” Though I’m sure I can’t, I give him a dollar, easy enough for me to spare, a greater source of relief for him than for me. When he shakes my hand, I feel the leather of his palm—winter, summer, a life outside I don’t know. When I smile, he recognizes the sign and smiles back.

His eyes never smile.

this hour

sun takes cover—buildings

won’t hold light back

One day, walking to work, having just given Jimmy his dollar, another pedestrian doubled back from just ahead of me.

“You shouldn’t be giving him money!” he said.

I said nothing.

“He spends it on crack! He’s a crack-head. I know. I was on it too, and he said, ‘Give me some money, I’ll bust your ass!’”

Anger streamed from him. His expression stretched, neither smile, nor snarl, nor surprise. He touched me on the upper arm.

“Sure,” I said, “I hear you.”

at intersections

waiting for clearance—the street

slick with weeping

 xlii.

I suppose it’s nothing special that after some runs—during the time I was really running—steam rose from my shoulders and chest as it does from horses. I felt like an animal.

What must I do to have that moment happen again?

sun glances

from the lake’s horizon and

stops ascending

 xliii.

too early,

your voice blunders into quiet—

we both know now

I wonder if you sensed us stepping around you. The evening creeping from the sliding glass door drew the ornate shadow of the la-z-boy’s reach. Your neck, vulnerable, rolled like a snake to the side. You snored.

“let statues lie,”

she said, as if choice lay

with them

xliv.

In another life as a sleeper, I run from words. They seem too plain to evoke. They define and refine until they speak exactly. Say what you will of abstraction, it eludes reality and the relentless chore of logic.

from the window,

a rectangle of light, marking

a far wall

In a recent dream, I spoke to the freshly departed. They entered the room one at a time and greeted me as old friends even when we’d barely spoken. I tried to be polite, offering what I had, which, in this dream, was a pair of mittens and a broken wine glass—the base, the stem, and half the blossom.

wind ruffles

open books, smiling pages

touched

Finally I settled with someone I didn’t know, exchanging phrases and listening enough to pick up the twisted thread of precedents.

you read loss,

lines of levels dropping—

eyelids half-fallen

Closing time arrived. I rose to leave. I shook a hand I wasn’t certain I knew. I left a card on a table, sure it wasn’t mine.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.

xx.

Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears

 xxi.

In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring

 xxii.

 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.

xxiii.

On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.

unbound,

the newspaper still holds

its curl

xxxiv.

When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company

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Someone Who Sees

grain-electric-love-ring-diy-7Because my life follows regular patterns and others’ lives do too, my daily walk to work crosses the same people going the opposite direction. Of course, we don’t acknowledge each other, but I know them. They must know me.

One is an older man, though he may be no older than I am, just more wrinkled. He carries a notepad, reporter fashion, pen ready to record some detail worth jotting down. He pauses periodically and glances up at streetlights lit on mornings this time of year. Or he turns to the opposite side of North Avenue and people rushing into Walgreens or Starbucks. Or he dips his head and stops to read his writing, and the sidewalk traffic flows around him.

Including me. The other day, as the pedestrian timer started to count down at an intersection a block ahead, I grabbed the straps of my backpack and made a run for it. He’d just stopped. I had to swerve to avoid him, and he glanced directly at me, his pen going from still to ready. He nearly looked at me, but only nearly because, from my perspective, his eyes didn’t have time to grip my image or attend.

He wrote something down. Safely on the other side of the street, I looked back and saw it.

He wears glasses doctored by wire. Maybe the elaboration of blue and orange and gray and red and black is decorative rather than functional. His glasses are now mostly wire. They’d have to be fragmented and loose to need all that scaffolding. What he sees must be adorned by multicolored vines framing the world, so his moments of accounting come with a vague squint, as if he’s confused by which is the distraction, his job recording or life itself.

I observe him as he observes me. I can’t weave my way into other minds and discover what’s really there, but I think I understand him. We go in opposite directions yet occupy the same spaces together. His brain may be blurrier, but it’s a conglomeration of wet cells with spindly strands between them. The same arcs of impulse seize us both, though the impulses may be different. And perhaps they aren’t that different. I am, after all, a recorder too.

Lately fatigue has settled in my chest, as if my spine, tired of bracing against the engine of my heart, can no longer stay its vibrations. My posture, I’ve been told, is weak. My head slides forward by degrees. My back bows. Though people often remind me I’m still a young man, I recall what youth feels like.

My alter ego hunches over his pad, his brows concentrated behind his improbable glasses, expressing the exertion in his task. He doesn’t appear tired, just purposeful. If I weren’t always anxious to do what I’d meant to do the day before, I might turn to follow him and see what he’s looking at or looking for.

I’m sure he’s crazy, another of the lost souls cities attract and perhaps cauterized by horrendous experiences I’ll never know or understand, but he’s also oddly enviable, possessed by something bigger than the accumulation of days, something bigger than his own mind.

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Encounter

rat-aloneThe rats live in holes under bushes required by the city. In Chicago, when you smash a house to make a parking lot, some percentage of the freed land must be earth, and in the earth must be plants—trees cabled straight plus some tidy and soon neglected undergrowth. Rats are incidental, neither necessary nor desired. They find their way there instead, ambling in some hidden moment toward fresh and valuable territory.

The alley next to the parking lot runs beside a restaurant and rows of dumpsters. Waste from the kitchen crowds the dumpsters’ interiors. A streetlight illuminates the gap between the rats and the outdoor space on the sidewalk where, in nice weather, diners sit.

The rat my wife and I encounter on our way to the gym is gray, his tail bent by injury to the point of appearing almost jointed. I tell her this gives him character. She knows I’m joking. We pretend affection but never get used to his appearance. He’s an interloper, however natural his scooting across our path may be. Though he might represent one of nature’s models of efficiency, he needs too much getting used to, and we don’t. He’s timid and unobtrusive but never invisible enough. In his rippling gait we recognize a sense of purpose we don’t appreciate. He pauses sometimes—nose sniffing our coming near—and doesn’t sense he’s unwelcome. His expectations unsettle us.

The other day I saw him deeper in the alley nuzzling a second rat. He leapt left and right over her nose, stopping her advance. She seemed to oppose his attention, but I felt paralyzed. Some situations demand action and elicit none—I considered rescue but instead wondered what exactly I was feeling. Do more than rats sit outside my concern? Why is some kindness so willful?

“They’re rats,” I thought, “whatever happens with them or to them belongs in their world.”

After my wife and I pass the rat holes in the morning, they quickly fade. If some shadow image remains it’s of a dark hole, some hidden intelligence lurking, another world to haunt the day. Later I may see something empty to bring those holes back, but I try to forget having seen them.

More often I think of rats’ history, dim genealogies stretching back into antiquity. A host of begets and begats brought them to my neighborhood, the unrecorded lines thin and pulled to vanishing. Our rat may be descendent of a plague carrier, a son’s son to a clan of way-back immigrants.

However hard I try to ignore him, he’s present still. For all I know, the gray may await me, his familiar if unconscious start to the day. Perhaps he looks at me as I do him, a presence out of his control, like the sun, like the weather, like the season.

And perhaps he’s mostly imagination. Who can say? Who can know and who avoids feeling he does?

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15 Thoughts About Things (1-8)

800px-WLA_vanda_Netsuke_4I’ve written another long lyric essay this week, so I’m posting it in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention. Ultimately the second half will land on top of the first half because that’s how blogs lay out. I’m sorry about that, but my excuse is that lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.

1.

In the 1970’s, a game show called “The Pyramid” (in various dollar amounts) asked contestants to label a category by offering items from it. For instance, you might say “hammer, square, tape measure, drill, screwdriver” and I’d guess “Carpenters’ Tools.”

In the big prize round, the categories reached strange dimensions, and the contestant or a celebrity helper would lead his or her partner to guess “Things A Mother Says,” “Things You Do To Escape Prison,” or “Things You Accidentally Leave Behind on Vacation.”

Watching a team climb the pyramid excited me, but the reorganization of reality opened my young brain to see everything as part of categories, simple ones like “Things To Do Before Going to Sleep,” and “Things I Want to Study” but also darker ones—“Things I Wish I Could Forget” and “Things That Lead to Overpowering Feelings of Personal Futility and Worthlessness.”

2.

Thoreau says, “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” The “Chopping sea of civilized life” he says, requires a “a great calculator” to navigate fully. We can’t trust to any innate sense of direction because, having abandoned it so long ago, we’ve lost it.

Out walking in a city you see so many people engrossed by smart phones, and, on a crowed L car with no seats remaining and most people standing, you find only one or two passengers not using some device.

I think sometimes of all those devises hold. Were they books, tape recorders, short wave radios or primitive mainframes, pedestrians might be dragging overburdened carts behind them, and every L train would sink on its tracks, paralyzed by friction.

3.

Recently I said that, if I could choose a religion, I’d pick Buddhism, and someone laughed. “You know Buddhists are supposed to live in the moment, right? You know they don’t believe in guilt?”

Maybe she’s right, maybe I carry too much to exist immediately.

4.

Being part of “People Who Create Categories” means you live between giant blocks of experience. It’s never just one thing you’re looking at or thinking about. It’s a condition. You can feel squished.

5.

As the utility of memory fades, our searches become more complicated, though easier. Finding the virtual storage site of an individual detail through Google requires knowing how to call it forth, and, having called it, we let it slip back into smoke. In grade school, my teachers advised me to use a dictionary to check the spelling of words, but sometimes I couldn’t spell the word well enough to find it quickly. When I did locate the word, it became another of many similar searches, each difficult to distinguish and remember.

6.

Only feelings persist, a vague sense of familiarity as words move from pile to pile, useful for what they are and where they lay in an ocean of associations.

7.

Having a middle school girlfriend meant gathering conversation in advance. Though I had no literal notecards, I’d have a pocketful if I’d written everything down. She might lose interest, I thought, if I didn’t always know what to say, and so I spent time between meetings mentally rehearsing. All the back of the class witticism, the cafeteria gaffs, the teachers’ lunacy became filed away bits.

And if she said anything outside my store, I would look to others: “Stories About Misidentification,” “Stories About Parents,” “Stories About the Unfair Nature of the World,”

“Stories Explaining the Source and Strength of My Desperation.”

8.

This is that too.

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