Off The Map: My First Year in Boston

I moved to Boston 25 years ago today. I’ve commemorated past anniversaries with photo essays, listicles and, five years ago, an account of my first 48 hours in town. Below is a follow-up essay on how I spent (and survived) my first 12 months as a Bostonian.

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I wore out a City of Boston street map my first year living there.

Accustomed to Milwaukee’s perpendicular street grids (see also Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and nearly every other major Midwestern city), little prepared me for this layout. An ungainly mess of former cow paths and meandering post roads dating back to the 17th century, I likened it to the messy imprint left behind by a fistful of linguini with sauce, misidentified as spaghetti and flung against the wall by Oscar Madison in the film version of The Odd Couple (upon which he proclaims to Felix Unger, “Now, it’s garbage!”) As a longtime map enthusiast, I was determined to know it by memory. In this pre-smart phone era, I carried it with me, often unfolding and consulting it everywhere I went from the student and immigrant ghettos of Allston Village (where I resided) to the shores of Wollaston Bay in Quincy on a Saturday spent scoping out its beach and multiple clam huts.

My first week in town, I composed in my journal an itinerary of Places To Visit based on obvious landmarks, Boston Phoenix listings and random hearsay. I included major tourist destinations (Quincy Marketplace, the North End, the friggin’ Freedom Trail), cultural institutions of the sort I usually seek out in any big city (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library’s central branch) and naturally, since I moved here to earn a graduate degree in Film Studies from Boston University, independent movie houses (Brattle, Somerville, Coolidge Corner.) A few items on this list now baffle me—I can understand wanting to check out massive community garden Back Bay Fens (even if I had no inkling of its after-hours reputation as a cruising spot) but wherever did I hear that Chestnut Hill Reservoir, while a pleasant place to visit was a must-see spot amongst the myriad of more-than-adequate parks closer to my apartment?

Inevitably, some places didn’t live up to the lofty reputation I assumed of them simply because of their names. Take Downtown Crossing, a shopping district home to Filene’s and Macy’s. Sounds like a hip, happening neighborhood, no? I remember my spirit dissipating the first time I walked along pedestrian-only Winter Street and took in the shabby storefronts, the pathetic Corner Mall (laughably dated even in 1997!) and the rundown Paramount Theatre (a few years before its glorious renovation.) All that held interest for me there was the modern, massive Borders Bookstore at the intersection of Washington and School Streets. Though I miss the now-defunct chain, even then it was nothing worth getting too excited about.

In time, I’d stumble upon places I’d actually want to revisit: the original and relatively spacious outpost of AIDS Action thrift store Boomerangs located down the street from the TD Garden (then called the FleetCenter); Pipeline, Looney Tunes, Second Coming and every other used record store strung along Mass Ave. between Central and Harvard Squares in Cambridge; Deli Haus, a venerable Kenmore Square greasy spoon that I described in my journal as “the dumpy, unpretentious lunch spot I’ve been looking for”; and a handful of local coffeehouses. Having formerly lived in a city without any Starbucks (Milwaukee’s first opened around the time I left), I had a somewhat irrational aversion to them. To my delight, late 90’s Boston was teeming with plenty of alternatives from the workmanlike Caffe Romano on Newbury Street and local mini-chain Carberry’s to funkier, more exotic joints such as the richly painted little rooms of Curious Liquids just across the street from the State House or Iron Lung, a homey, cozy place to sip a Chai Tea near BU’s South Campus. (All of these establishments are sadly if inevitably long gone.)

Often craving to escape my apartment (which I had dubbed the “Shitbox”), I took refuge in whatever beautiful green space I could find (at least until winter arrived, and sometimes even then.) I’ve written before about Knyvet Square, a tiny oasis of a neighborhood park in Brookline just blocks away from the Shitbox; I also often rode my bike down to the Esplanade in hope that one of a group of four benches flanked by three giant trees overlooking the Charles River and the Longfellow Bridge was available. I eventually made my way up and down Frederick Law Olmstead’s famed “Emerald Necklace” of linked parks: venturing south along the Riverway, I fell hard for Jamaica Pond and the Arnold Arboretum, both places considerably expanding my city view by offering acres of space for hiking, reading, sunbathing and solace.

One of four favorite shaded benches overlooking the Charles.

The Public Garden is also a major and more centrally located part of this chain (and one of the notable places in Boston that hasn’t seen too many significant alterations over the past quarter century.) After biking along the Esplanade all the way down to the Hatch Shell, I’d cross over the winding, monolithic Arthur Fiedler Footbridge where the Garden’s northwest corner awaited on the other side across Beacon Street. I’d walk my bike on the central path circling the lagoon teeming with wooden swan-shaped boats (and often, some actual swans), seeking a bench overlooking the peaceful milieu or perhaps another spot along the secondary paths that broke off from the main drag. Some of them led to elegantly manicured rose bush displays or such hidden wonders as a monument dedicated to the invention of ether.

One late Sunday afternoon in early October, I lounged on a bench there reading The Portable Jack Kerouac. A middle-aged man sat down on the next bench over, clad in a blue suit and striped tie, sporting early traces of a receding hairline. Before long, he introduced himself as an out-of-towner here on a business trip and asked me for suggestions regarding stuff to do. Our conversation about the best Boston had to offer rambled on innocently enough for five minutes until, slightly nervously, he asked, “I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner with me tonight.” So, this guy wasn’t just looking for tourism advice. I’m certain I turned beet-red realizing that a man twice my age was trying to pick me up. In a tone straining to be as polite and least awkward as possible, I blurted out, “Oh! Sorry, I actually need to go. You know, homework to do before class tomorrow.” He seemed less disappointed or embarrassed than apologetic as I wished him a good rest of his time in town, got up and left.

Biking home to Allston, I was extremely weirded out. With my green-flannel shirt and short blonde hair, I must’ve resembled quite the young twink engaging in conversation there with an older man looking for some action (no matter how discreetly.) The thing is, I was actually yearning to connect with other gay people. My coming out happened to coincide with moving to Boston, though at this early phase it was more about my own coming to terms with it. After years of denial and despair, I was finally able to admit it to myself and accept it. However, given my introvertive nature, I didn’t yet know how to be actively out. I kept hoping the gays would come to me, that I’d magically stumble upon them. Perhaps if this guy had been more attractive (not to mention much, much closer to my own age), I would’ve taken him up on his offer. Instead, it was what it was and not what I wanted my first homosexual encounter to be.

When I look back at this period, learning how to take comfort in being out defines it as much getting used to being completely on my own. I took on two massive changes simultaneously and struggled with both. Although grad school offered plenty of structure, it threw into relief the part that didn’t—a mostly nonexistent social life. A brief attempt to meet up weekly with my fellow classmates for movie nights and visits from my parents and a close friend from home broke up the monotony somewhat. Still, I generally had way too much time to myself. I did adjust to moviegoing alone, catching a matinee of the then-new The Big Lebowski at the Nickelodeon near BU on Easter Sunday; I also attended the occasional party, including one where I tested the outer limits of my alcohol consumption. I even once worked up the fortitude to check out gay night at Avalon, a spacious nightclub on Lansdowne Street (now home to the local House of Blues.) I paid my cover and lasted less than an hour, dancing by myself a bit and downing a Rolling Rock (my brew of choice as an impoverished student.) No one spoke to me and vice versa; I was likely too nervous to actually notice if anyone was checking me out. I quickly decided it just wasn’t my scene—the insistent, anonymous house music thump held no allure, and everything was too loud, too dark.

I longed for much more, missing the life I had in Milwaukee while knowing it would do me no good to go back there permanently. When I did return for a two-week visit after the Spring semester ended, I wrote in my journal, “I’ve been trying too hard to recreate good memories here.” Back to Boston on Memorial Day with no classes until September, I spent weeks devising productive ways to occupy my time which, given my responsible Catholic work effort would ideally result in a paying job. Combing through the classifieds, looking into summer work-study opportunities at BU and filling out applications at local businesses produced few desirable prospects. I finally resorted to temping, scoring an eight-week term as a desk receptionist at the Massachusetts State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain. It was dull but manageable work, sadly cut short after a week when one of their night watchmen coerced them into giving him the job instead—my older co-worker Linda dismissed the guy as “psychotic” to the point of her having to take tranquilizers to deal with him, so perhaps I dodged a bullet there. Either way, by then the staffing agency was unable to find me another short-term assignment.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ether Monument! (at the Public Garden.)

The summer dragged on. I biked nearly everywhere until the chain on my cheap ass Trek jammed up. After taking it by the local shop (the pretentiously named International Bicycle Center) and being told by a snotty employee it was “horribly unsafe and not worth fixing”, I unceremoniously dumped it into the massive communal trash bin in back of my Shitbox. Given that my lease was up at the end of August, I began looking for a better place. For a week or so, I believed I’d found one, a three-bedroom unit on Beacon Street in Brookline that was tiny but sunny and at least much cleaner than the Shitbox. Unfortunately, within two weeks of seeing the place, the current resident suddenly decided to move herself; the landlords gave me 24 hours to either put down a first and last month and security deposit for the entire unit or find two roommates willing to go in on it with me. Neither option was going to happen.

I felt like I was slowly losing my mind. Perhaps a combination of the relentless summer heat and my continued inactivity was to blame but I began witnessing sights that seemed exceptionally surreal: the middle-aged, Middle Eastern, pink-shirted man practicing ballroom dancing steps by himself in Knyvet Square, or an army of kazoo-wielding toddlers marching and tooting past my bench in a park in the middle of Cambridgeport. My hometown and adopted home began merging in my dreams where, instead of the spot Commonwealth Ave curved at Packard’s Corner, I’d find myself getting on the MBTA Green Line Subway at, say, Forest Home Avenue a few miles from where I grew up.

It all came to a head frightfully early one morning when I awoke to the CLICK! of a door abruptly locking behind me. Inexplicably, I stood outside the Shitbox wearing nothing but my tidy whities (good thing I didn’t sleep in the nude!) A 6:00 AM sun beamed down but I found this bright, cheery tableau utterly disorienting and baffling—this was decidedly not a dream. I don’t recall ever having sleepwalked before, but as the old cliché goes, there truly is a first time for everything. Knowing only one of my two roommates was home (the other had gone out of town), I rang our buzzer five, ten, twenty times, to no response. Heck, if I’d been in bed and heard it this early, I would’ve ignored it too.

Thus, I had no choice but to exit the lobby and walk barefoot in my undies around to the back of the building and shout at my roommate’s first floor window, “Abel! Wake up, I’ve locked myself out!” The window was open (no A/C for us in the Shitbox!) but I had to repeat my plea a few times in an increasingly louder (and more desperate) voice. Finally, Abel got the hint, got up and walked to the building’s auto-locking front door to let me in. I thanked him profusely, embarrassed but knowing I had no other choice than to seek his assistance. We both went back to our respective bedrooms and never spoke of it again.

Thankfully, this was my first and last time sleepwalking (that I know of.) It was even more disturbing than that failed pickup in the Public Garden, but I was determined to move beyond it. Later that day, I wrote, “I’m not going to let this city drag me down,” and I meant it. I contacted another staffing agency and scored a few brief assignments in August (including one office job that I summed up as “A world of cubicles, fruit platters and coffee creamers.”) I found a better apartment all the way over in North Cambridge in the right half of a townhouse where I had two roommates (one of whom became a good friend) and, as my bedroom, the entire basement to myself. As the days grew shorter, I could see my limbo approaching its end, for September would bring new classes and work-study opportunities. When the fall semester began, I purchased a new map to replace the old, seriously creased and tattered one, though my familiarity with the area was now such that I didn’t have to use it nearly as much. If I learned anything that first year as a Bostonian, it was that a map can only lend so much direction—the rest comes through various experiences, mishaps and the occasional success.

If shoes are hanging from a telephone wire, it must be Allston, circa 1997 (or whenever.)

The Long Way Home For Christmas

I felt a sense of impending doom as Steve drove me to Logan early on a Friday morning, three days before Christmas. I had an 8 AM flight to visit my parents in Iowa. Since no direct connections between Boston and Des Moines exist, I would have a layover at O’Hare in Chicago. Not that I’ve tested any scientific data to back this up, but I believe O’Hare to be the most hated airport in the country. Due to its central location on the continent, it serves a large volume of flights which only increases the probability for delays, cancellations and other travel hijinks. I’ve rarely had a smooth experience flying at O’Hare: this particular travel hub seemed cursed all the way back to my first airplane trip ever when an arrival there from then-President Clinton delayed my flight to Boston (to look at apartments for my upcoming move) by over six hours.

Five years after 9/11, I’d grown accustomed to such air travel hassles as luggage checks, taking off my shoes and putting small liquid containers in sealed plastic bags. The idea of transferring at O’Hare, however, conjured up recent memories of sitting on the floor there against a bay of windows at a congested boarding gate, removing my headphones every five minutes to check if there were any updates as to when my puddle jumper to Des Moines was now scheduled for takeoff. As Steve pulled into United’s departure area, we hugged, somewhat sad not to be spending our first Christmas as a couple together (though we had celebrated and exchanged gifts the previous evening.) I grabbed my suitcase and backpack and proceeded into the terminal, ready to begin a long-ass day of likely aggravations.

The flight from Boston to Chicago was smooth: everything on time, with no delays for wind, snow, late return of aircraft or engine problems. I anticipated not being so lucky once at O’Hare. After all, this was the same place where, seven years before, I sat in a stagnant plane on the runaway for nearly four hours before takeoff. Eventually, the flight attendant informed us on the intercom system, “We’re delayed because we can’t find the pilot.” We can’t find the pilot are words you never expect nor wish to hear on a plane, along with “Is there a doctor on board?” and “The second engine just failed.”

Sure enough, upon arriving at O’Hare I spotted the Departures board and saw a big red X next to my Des Moines connection. The reason for its cancellation? Yesterday’s massive blizzard in Denver (another travel hub) had a chain-reaction of an effect on screwing up scheduled flights across the entire continent. A cancelled flight is unfortunate but usually easily rectified by replacing it with another one, even if one has to switch airlines. However, given the high quantity of cancellations and also that it was already one of the busiest travel days of the year, no more available flights were to be had until Sunday. The day after tomorrow. Christmas Friggin’ Eve. My only option was to wait on standby for a slew of other Des Moines flights throughout the day.

My name was not called for the first flight. I remained calm and hopeful.

My name was not called for the second flight. This is when I began to panic. I may or may not have actually screamed out loud at while walking away from the boarding area. I did not want to be stuck at O’Hare for potentially two whole days, let alone ten or twelve hours. Three more Des Moines flights were scheduled for the evening; all I could do was wait.

With hours to kill, I walked from one terminal to the next in an effort to hang on to as much of my sanity as I reasonably could. O’Hare is one of the more sprawling airports I’ve ever flown in or out of. United alone takes up so much space that there’s a long underground pedestrian tunnel connecting terminals B and C. It’s decked out in structural curves and neon light wall panels that continually morph into a rainbow of colors. Completed in 1988, the tunnel is a trippy throwback to that era: a version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” (United’s theme song at the time) plays overhead, synchronized with the neon’s changing colors. Given the design, one would expect to hear something more 80s-adjacent such as “Take On Me”.

I must have shlepped that tunnel’s moving walkways at least ten or twelve times during the course of that day stranded at O’Hare.

After dinner at what was then known as the “Jazz Food Court”, presumably named to celebrate Chicago’s musical heritage (though the city’s arguably more famous for the Blues), I mentally prepped myself for those three remaining flights. I was hopeful but also cautious: “Forget it, Jake, it’s O’Hare!”, I thought to myself, paraphrasing that killer last line of dialogue from Chinatown.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Ag, a good friend from high school, lived nearby as she was serving her medical residency at the University of Chicago. I could stay with her if she hadn’t yet gone home to Milwaukee to see her parents for the holidays. I called and she was still at her apartment! I had somewhere to stay overnight if it came to that.

I phoned my dad next. We’d been in contact all day. He and my mom offered to drive the six hours from Des Moines to Chicago to pick me up the next morning if necessary. No way was my mother going to let me spend one minute on Christmas Eve in another state.

My name was not called for the third Des Moines flight, nor for the fourth. I had one chance left and a few hours to kill, as the final flight didn’t depart until 11:30 PM. I found an empty boarding gate to zone out in, reading chapters of Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (from which most of perennial holiday movie A Christmas Story was adapted) and Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. Oddly enough, Ag had gifted me both of those books.

Many standby names were called for that last Des Moines flight of the night, but not mine. All day long I kept thinking I was near the end of my rope but now I had truly grasped it. Us remaining, rejected passengers were instructed to head down to baggage claim and remain there overnight; I opted to take a cab to Ag’s high-rise studio apartment in Downtown Chicago. At her tiny but modern 33rd-floor unit overlooking the Playboy headquarters, she welcomed me with open arms, an apple and some almonds to snack on; she also mixed me an exceptionally stiff (and much appreciated) Cape Codder.

My parents arrived at her building at 10:30 the next morning. After saying our goodbyes and my mom gifting Ag a box of her homemade Christmas cookies, we set off westward. We soon stopped at an outlet mall just outside the city, in Aurora, for an early, quick lunch at a Panera. As we left the parking lot to continue our journey back to Des Moines, a white Hyundai pulled up next to us. The driver, a balding, middle-aged man cloaked in a sweatsuit, rolled down his window and pointed out to us that we had a flat rear left tire.

Supremely flummoxed, we ambled over to the nearest gas station, a just-built self-service Shell with a half dozen grinning employees, none of whom seemed to speak much English. A random guy coming out of the McDonald’s next door offered to help change our tire for us—we did have a full-sized spare in the trunk. However, my dad could not find the key to unlock the tire’s lug nuts (much worse than not being able to find the pilot, in this case.) Our vehicle, a tan Audi sedan, was a newly acquired company car.

The three of us sat in the Audi for an interminable period of time, snacking on another red-and-green Tupperware container of my mom’s sugar cookies, pinwheels and pecan fingers. This was still the pre-smartphone era, so my dad had to call a 1-800 number in order to find the closest Audi dealership, which happened to be in nearby Naperville. Their maintenance department was closed for the day, but a customer service associate got my dad in touch with a local towing service.

About forty minutes later, a flatbed tow truck arrived to take us and our car to a Goodyear store a few miles away. To safely accomplish this, the three of us had to cram ourselves into the truck’s passenger seat, which was built ideally for one person or two at the very most. I wish someone had taken a photo of me and my parents literally squished together along with the truck’s driver as they dragged our new but unusable Audi through western Chicago suburbia.

It was only early afternoon, but Goodyear was already closed. Luckily, Chihuahua Motors, a local service garage on the other side of Aurora was still open. After we plied ourselves from the truck’s passenger seat (and each other), the mechanics successfully hacked off the locked lug nuts with a foreboding implement resembling a giant ice pick. They removed the flat tire and put a new one on. Nearly 28 hours after my arrival in the Land of Lincoln, the three of us were finally back on the road to Iowa.

We reached Des Moines a little after 7 PM. Thankfully, the airport there had my checked luggage, albeit with the wrong name on the claim ticket. After wearily but determinably settling this with United (an airline I then vowed never to fly on again, although I have a few times since), my parents and I went to their apartment, had martinis and broiled lobster tails for dinner and all promptly passed out from the day’s (or in my case, days’) travel. I’d made it to Des Moines before Christmas Eve.

I also made it clear to my parents that we would not be spending Christmas together in Des Moines again, at least for the following year. Instead, they came out to Boston to celebrate two weeks early. I don’t recall if they were required to transfer planes in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit or (god forbid) O’Hare, but they made it without having to spend the night in their connecting city. Along with Steve (now my spouse), I still occasionally travel for the holidays (though not in COVID times.) I return to the Midwest less often now that my parents have relocated to South Carolina. When I do, however, I’m secretly thankful if I can at all possibly avoid O’Hare and its endless neon pedestrian tunnel, its montage of shifting color mocking its passengers as they flail from one terminal to the next, lost in the temporary limbo of moving towards, however slowly, their final destination.

NYC, 2003

In September 2003, my roommate Frank and I decided to go spur-of-the-moment to New York City for a weekend—Greyhound bus tickets were pretty cheap, and he found a reasonably priced hotel room online. It was my first trip there.

I’d been yearning to visit the Big Apple ever since moving to Boston six years before, but never made it, not even when another former roommate relocated there in 2000 (she’d leave for San Diego shortly after 9/11.)

Upon arriving at Port Authority on Friday evening, we proceeded directly to Times Square, where Frank took this pic of me—I was only partially aware of the photobombing ladies on the left. Although I was too late to experience the seedy glory of pre-Giuliani era Times Square, at least the Howard Johnson’s was still in business, albeit looking most anachronistic amongst all this 21st Century neon.

We stayed at a boutique hotel on 41st and 7th, next door to the Nederlander Theatre (then home to Rent)—yes, my very first night in NYC was right in the heart of the city’s tourism Valhalla most real New Yorkers would rather avoid. Our accommodations barely left enough room for a queen-sized bed, but they were modern and clean.

42nd Street near Bryant Park, looking East.

Anyway, we only needed the room for sleeping. That first night, we stayed out until 5:00 AM club-hopping around Chelsea and the West Village, ending up at a place called Hell in the Meatpacking District that played cool alternative ’80s and ‘90s rock (as opposed to the generic dance music most gay bars specialized in.) We slept past noon and went out exploring. Back then, one had a nifty view of the Chrysler Building from this vantage point; now, it’s blocked by the monstrosity that is One Vanderbilt.

Facing South on West Broadway at Prince Street, Soho.

From there, we walked South towards the Village, and then through SoHo. I immediately felt more at home in leafier, funkier lower Manhattan than in touristy Times Square.

Facing South on Mulberry Street at Prince.

At this time, Little Italy still extended further North; today, the green-white-and-red banners seen here are long gone, the neighborhood technically called “Nolita” (but really just another part of SoHo.)

Heading further South through Chinatown (where I’m certain we stopped for dim sum at some point), we eventually reached the mighty Brooklyn Bridge.

A perfect, beautiful, late Summer Saturday to walk all the way across it.

The world teems with many great urban bridges, but few match the classicism and elegance of this one.

Frank and I and Manhattan, with the Empire State Building central in the background.

We later met up with a local friend of Frank’s and spent some time at South Street Seaport, which has undergone a massive re-haul in the past 18 years. This was our Financial District view from the deck we sat on. Although 9/11 was relatively fresh in everyone’s minds, the city felt like it was pushing forward, a celebratory air of the new New York, a Manhattan that had yet to become entirely a haven for wealthy foreign tax dodgers.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn: Facing North on Manhattan Ave. at Greenpoint Ave.

On Sunday, we ventured out to Brooklyn. Hipster Williamsburg was in its ascendancy; we walked through it over to a mostly pre-gentrified Greenpoint where we lunched at a place now known as Karczma but at the time was simply a bare-bones joint called “Polish Restaurant”. The massive combination platter, which included stuffed cabbage, pierogi, potato pancakes, kielbasa and Hunter’s Stew made me proud to be of Polish descent.

Before heading back on the Greyhound to Boston, we visited Central Park where an idyllic Sunday afternoon at the Great Lawn was in full swing. I recall walking past an affected young woman who seemed to think she was Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but I didn’t get a pic of her.

Also, I can’t leave out that before boarding the bus, Frank and I stopped at a midtown Krispy Kreme and picked up two dozen donuts (including a dozen freshly glazed and hot!) to bring back with us. As our bus made its way up through Harlem and the Bronx, we lounged in our seats, donut boxes on our laps, blissfully induced into Krispy Kreme Komas. Although I’d never seriously consider moving to NYC, I knew I’d be back to visit again—particularly after I made a good friend there who came to personify the city for me.

Marquette University Campus, 1995

During a marathon digitization of my old photos, I came across a set taken in the Spring of 1995 when I was a Sophomore at Marquette University and living on the top floor at Tower Hall, a building so tall you can’t even see the top of it here.

These were likely shot with a Nikon camera on loan for the Photography course I took that semester, though not for the course per se (we shot only in black-and-white); I thought I’d take advantage of using something other than my own cheapo Kodak while I had the chance. Above is Marquette Hall, noteworthy for its Gothic bell tower.

Next to it is Gesu Church, perhaps the campus’ most striking classic landmark. More notable to me now, however, is the dank-colored building in the right foreground which housed the University Store (where I often got a Snapple or a Cleary Canadian between classes) and, around the corner, Grebe’s Bakery, fine purveyors of danishes, crullers and other sweet doughy treats. Within a year of this photo, the entire building would be razed for “green space”; Zilber Hall (built in 2009) currently sits there.

Here, the old-school architecture of Gesu and Marquette Hall are flanked by what was then a shiny, brand new complex.

Cudahy Hall, completed in 1994, was most notable for housing MU’s computer labs. It was the first place I ever sent an email or surfed the internet; I will never forget the countless hours I spent there sitting at a monitor, scrolling through green type on a relatively tiny black screen.

When exploring the information superhighway got to be a bit much, I’d take refuge at the Haggerty Museum of Art.

I frequented the Haggerty often; my Freshman year, I couldn’t believe how cool it was that there was an art museum right on campus! I’d also often have lunch or study at one of the picnic tables next to the building.

Not far from the Haggerty, Lalumiere Language Hall is easily MU’s most unique-looking structure, one whose modern, brutalist design (those windows!) I’d spot all the way from I-94 as a child. Opened in 1970, it seemed a little rundown by its 25th anniversary (note the missing letters), but it still stands today.

The most beautiful part of the campus might’ve been the West Mall: green space with benches and paths that were particularly inviting in the spring and summer months.

The West Mall was also adjacent to Memorial Library, where I’d spend hours studying, reading, browsing and relaxing—probably more time there than any other place on campus, apart from my dorm and Johnson Hall, where I had all my Journalism classes.

However, my favorite spot in the West Mall was the St. Joan of Arc Chapel. Built in 1420 France, it passed through a few hands before it was gifted to Marquette in the 1960s. Shipped to Milwaukee and re-assembled stone by stone, it’s a lovely, intimate structure. Pictured here is the back of it; a view from the front and a more detailed history can be found here.

While spending many hours near the Chapel, I saw my share of squirrels—at the time, I noticed they were among the fattest I’d ever witnessed due to all the scraps they received from students and faculty. When I think back to this time and place, these little critters are as essential a part of it as getting a between-class donut at Grebe’s or free Friday night films at the Varsity Theatre or the time we all silently watched Madonna’s banned “Justify My Love” video in my Media Law class. Renovations abound, new buildings sprout up and technology moves forward, but I bet those fat squirrels are still there in abundance.

Christmas Night Lights

One of my favorite childhood Christmas activities was the annual ride Bob and Barb (my parents) and I took to view lights and other outdoor decorations on Milwaukee’s tony East Side. After Christmas Day dinner, we’d get in the car and head across town to Lake Drive to see all of its coastal mansions done up in displays spanning from the chaste and tasteful (a single spotlight, a mighty fir dressed in a single red bow) to those so gloriously ostentatious that the electricity bill for one night would’ve likely exceeded what my parents paid to keep our entire house illuminated the entire year. All the while, EZ 104 (actually WEZW-FM 103.7) would soundtrack our sojourn, piping nonstop holiday songs from “The Little Drummer Boy” to “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” into our Mercury Monarch.

The ride enabled us to get out of our South Side bungalow and escape into a prettier and certainly more upscale world, if only for an hour. Truthfully, however, we didn’t have to travel all that far to partake in the electric beauty of the season. Heck, we could even experience it from our very own living room via the gorgeous, gigantic white metallic star lit with fat multicolored bulbs our neighbor across the street exhibited every year. Whereas most homes up and down the block strung up their holiday light displays the day after Thanksgiving, this elderly woman who lived alone would wait to decorate until about a week before December 25. One night, the star would suddenly, magically appear; I looked forward to its materialization every year.

Naturally, we did our part to make our own home look festive. Our tree, usually covered in simple white lights would sit in the living room, smack dab in the center of the four windows that faced our street. The windows themselves were decked out in crisscrossing strings of multi-colored lights. Scores of blue lights would dot the three roomy bushes below the front porch, while a wreath sporting older, fatter colored bulbs was always hung on the front door. Next to it, we often replaced the porch light’s white fluorescent bulb with a red or green one, just to be extra festive.

Our display was relatively average, anodyne, even, compared to other homes in the neighborhood. Here and there, one would spot the usual assortment of illuminated, life-sized angels, reindeer, snowmen, Nativity sets and Santa Clauses, both in sturdy concrete and inflated, plastic and more malleable forms. People lucky enough to sport giant conifers in their front yards would cover them with endless strings of lights. Occasionally, a homeowner would go above and beyond to present something unique, like the square, squat one-story home a few blocks away that, without fail, always put up a rather impressive giant neon martini glass (complete with green olive!) on top of their roof—it really stood out among all the other two-story structures surrounding it.

The neighborhood holiday decoration I most fondly recall, however, sat two-and-a-half blocks up our street. In front of a brick house with a terraced roof was a plastic snowman head placed over a lamppost. Painted to include a brimmed hat, red earmuffs, a big red nose and matching patterned scarf, it completely covered the lamp, while the white post was wrapped diagonally with a red ribbon and topped off with a shiny red bow. Simple, cheap and utterly basic, it nonetheless achieved legendary status in my family when I was ten or twelve and Bob first said, “Hey look, it’s Chris-on-a-Stick” once as we passed it.

Every subsequent December, whenever we’d drive by the house, the presence of Chris-on-a-Stick was something he rarely failed to acknowledge. For the first few years, this teasing made me furious which of course only encouraged him to do it more. As I entered High School and put the initial indignities of puberty behind me, I came to accept and embrace the nickname. I even grew to anticipate having a reason to drive past Chris-on-a-Stick, to revel in the joke, comprehending how silly and yet sublime it was to see what had become my namesake—a ridiculous Frosty-the-Snowman-head-on-a-post that would only appear one month out of the year.

When I was 17, I detected a subtle change in Chris-on-a-Stick—he looked a little less faded and possibly a tad jollier. After driving by a few times, I began to think something was awry; upon closer inspection, I discovered I was right—there was a new snowman head on the lamp this year. To the layperson or casual onlooker, it was almost indiscernibly similar, but those aforementioned changes, along with the fact that the plastic head was now two-faced, with an identical visage on its opposite side pitched at the house, confirmed that it was indeed a replacement. “That’s not the real Chris-on-a-Stick”, I’d scoff, adding yet another layer to this seasonal plastic mythology.

That year, Bob and Barb somehow convinced me to pose for a picture standing next to Chris-on-a-Stick (I can imagine its owners’ bewilderment if they were home), even if it wasn’t the real one. Decades on, I’m so thankful they did, if only because I have photographic evidence that it really existed. As for my dad, I got my revenge the following year when, one block over, I noticed a fat plastic snowman placed in someone’s front yard on the ground right in front of a towering flagpole.

“Hey look, it’s Bob-on-a-Pole”, I casually announced as we drove past it one night. Barb burst out laughing and Bob enjoyed the joke as well, knowing that it’s good to both give and receive, not only during the holiday season but throughout the year.

Chris-on-a-Stick and yours truly, 1992.

Sweet Potato Bake

Boiling Sweet Potatoes

Twenty Thanksgivings ago, I had to come up with a potluck dish for a dinner with friends. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of making a Sweet Potato Pie as I had done the previous year (and whose recipe I first attempted for a Potato Party (no, really) five years before.)

I was out of school and working at my first permanent, full-time office job. In response to my dilemma of What To Bring To The Table, Jane, a co-worker, emailed over a recipe for this Sweet Potato Bake (that could also be made with butternut squash if desired.) I tried it out and it was a big hit with everyone (mostly twentysomething gay men, BTW) at that Thanksgiving dinner.

Boiling and mashing fresh sweet potatoes (or yams, if you prefer, though I can never tell the exact difference) is key—never tried it with the canned variety, never will unless there’s an unlikely shortage of fresh taters. However, I think the real secret to the dish’s success is the crumbly topping: equal parts chopped pecans, brown sugar and flour mixed together with melted butter.

I’ve made this dish nearly every Thanksgiving since. Oh, there was that one year I thought I’d try something different, a similar dish involving maple syrup, but we shall not speak of it again. Because the boiling and mashing takes up considerable time, I only make this once a year, and usually the night before so that I can focus on the Turkey on the holiday itself. Here’s the recipe—if you like sweet potatoes, it will never fail you.

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups cooked sweet potatoes mashed
  • ¼ cup sugar*
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup butter (softened)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • ½ cup milk (or 1/3 cup heavy cream)
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ cup chopped pecans
  • 3 tablespoons butter (melted)

(*The recipe originally called for 1 whole cup of sugar (under which Jane wrote in parentheses, “You can tell right here it’s going to be good with a ratio like that!”), which may explain its instant popularity. Over the years, I’ve determined that a ¼ cup is more than sufficient.)

Directions:

  • In a large bowl, blend boiled, mashed potatoes, sugar, salt, eggs, ¼ cup softened butter, vanilla and milk.
  • Place in a greased 1 ½ quart casserole dish (or 9 x 13” pan.)
  • In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, pecans and remaining butter; top casserole with this crumbled mixture.
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes.

A Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Sweet Potato Bake is the dish furthest on the right.

Midwest Trilogy, Part III: Michigan

Go here for Part I and here for Part II.

Thursday morning, Ewa yells down to the basement, “Chris, are you up?” Half-asleep, I mean to answer “yes” but blurt out, “OK!” We have a six hour drive ahead of us and want to reach Ann Arbor by 5. After a quick meal of Sugar Smacks and Polish peach concentrated drink, we hit the road. Under overcast skies, we enter I-94 South, which will take us all the way to our destination. I pop in The Last Days of Disco soundtrack while Ewa whips out a pack of Kool cigarettes, having run out of our beloved cloves. It takes a few puffs to adjust to a fresher, mint-ier flavor, but as “I’m Coming Out”, “Good Times” and “Let’s All Chant” (the latter’s repeated “WOOP! WOOP!” cries will stay in my head all weekend) fill the air, I get used to the taste.

An hour passes as we crawl through Chicago; by then, we’re knee deep into ABBA, listening to “Waterloo” twice in a row, each lighting up another Kool. We leave the South Side behind for the blast furnace-lit shores of Northwest Indiana. A sign announces the new state as THE CROSSROADS OF AMERICA, whereas Michigan, some 20 miles on, has GREAT LAKES and GREAT TIMES (a slight improvement over the YES! M!CH!GAN tourism campaign of my youth.) Craving more than the leftover bread and tomatoes Ewa brought along for the ride, I make her stop at a Long John Silver’s outside Benton Harbor so I can use the restroom (or “Necessary Room” as they label it) and order some fries and hushpuppies.

We return to I-94, munching on fried food, unceremoniously throwing the trash into the backseat without a care that someday, we’ll have to collect and dispose of it elsewhere. We look for ways to amuse ourselves as we roll across flat, uneventful Michigan. I spot a business curiously called ABBITT, INC., to which Ewa suggests, “Well, some of their typewriter keys must’ve gotten stuck.” We bypass a town called Coloma, which inspires me to note, “I’d rather be in a coma than have to be in Coloma.” Hours pass. We listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland and I read a chapter or two of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. In time, I recline my seat and nearly doze off to the dreamy African choral sounds of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”

We arrive in Ann Arbor right on time. I imagined Teresa, whom I haven’t seen in over two years, would be living closer to the University of Michigan (where she’s studying Behavioral Science); instead, she’s in an ugly, utilitarian 1950s apartment complex on the outskirts of town, not too far from neighboring Ypsilanti and quite close to the Ypsi-Arbor Bowl (one can spot its vintage neon sign, with four pins spelling out B-O-W-L from her sliding glass door.) The unit is decorated with Formica-heavy furniture, tan shag carpeting and thick brown window drapes (with an ancient, equally brown 70s stove)—the kind of place you’d expect an elderly woman to reside in more so than a grad student, but Teresa seems content, as does her brownish-orange cat, Virginia, forever slinking near the door wanting to escape.

After a lazy debate as whether to go out or stay in for dinner, we rummage through Teresa’s fridge and find a package of Healthy Choice hot dogs and in the cupboard, a can of generic brand baked beans. Combined with Ewa’s leftover bread and tomatoes, we boil the hot dogs, nuke the beans and have ourselves a poor grad student’s feast. Still, it’s not enough. After a run to the local Farmer Jack’s for a box of Orville Redenbacher’s Redenbutter Microwave Popcorn, we settle in for an evening of The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, which Ewa and Teresa have seen repeatedly to the point of being able to recite all of the dialogue. Ewa takes the spare bedroom, while I set up camp on the living room couch. Virginia scratches the side of it for a minute before taking refuge on her cat bed. Worn out from all that time spent on the road, I doze off immediately.

The three of us sleep past noon and hang around Teresa’s place, resting before the evening’s activities: we are to pick up her friend and U of M classmate Nate and then go out to dinner followed by dancing at Nectarine, a gay club. Ewa in particular’s excited to go there with me; it’s not my first gay club, but the first one I’ll attend with friends from my pre-coming out days. I’m somewhat anxious about them seeing this side of me, but I figure that if I’m going to go to a gay bar with anyone from my past, it might as well be these two gals I went to high school with: Ewa, my best friend and Teresa, my Junior year Homecoming date (we went as “friends”, naturally.)

Nate resides in a typical off-campus apartment in central Ann Arbor—well, typical except for walls blanketed with taped-on Abercrombie ads ripped out of magazines featuring muscular young men in their skivvies. If I’m a newbie in regards to coming out, Nate’s unquestioningly gay with a capital G: he has the requisite bleached, cropped hair and wears a V-neck white t-shirt with a rainbow-beaded necklace; he only differs in appearance from the boys on the wall in that his physique’s more that of a (shaved) bear than a jock with a six-pack (or a twink.)

I instantly see why Teresa’s friends with Nate: he’s unaffected and outgoing, especially in his incessant candor regarding his sexuality. To pass time before dinner, he shows us a porno called Comrades in Arms from some former Eastern Bloc country. “All the guys in it are uncircumcised!,” he gushes. I haven’t watched any gay porn at that point and am intrigued for obvious reasons, but the women in our group aren’t impressed. “It just feels like something’s missing for us!,” Ewa explains. Nate then puts in an unmarked VHS of amateur porn (neither made by nor starring himself, thankfully) just because he wants us to witness the moment a women loudly belches after she spends what seems like hours going down on some guy.

I feel no physical attraction to Nate whatsoever, but his openness fascinates me; it’s something I haven’t really encountered on the handful of dates I’ve had with other guys. During dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, he even says to us, apropos of nothing, “I worry I jerk off so much that it’s making me ill!,” causing me to nearly choke on my Mango Chicken Curry.

Like the gay clubs I’ve checked out in Boston, Nectarine is dark, crowded and loud, but the vibe’s a little different—not as intense or as guarded for sure. Maybe friendlier? Or is that just because I’m an unfamiliar face on a Friday night at what’s likely the only game in town for the LGBT community? The four of us get drinks at the bar (I’m sticking to Absolut Citron and Sprite) and venture out onto the dancefloor, Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” coursing through the sound system. The boy/girl ratio is at least five-to-one; there’s a few male couples here and there and not too many obvious lesbians.

Maybe it’s the booze, but I feel far less self-conscious than I usually do at a place like this. In the men’s room, I breezily walk up to a urinal, only half aware of the spiky-haired, heavily-pierced guy waiting in line ahead of me. He says, “You just walked right past me… and you did it so well.”

“Yes, I did!,” I triumphantly respond, my back to him. When I turn around, I see he’s probably close in age to me and kinda cute, but I don’t think of extending the conversation any further; I just smile and nod. I’m in town only for the night, I’m here with friends and I’m don’t want to hook up with someone right now. Still, I exit the bathroom more than a little giddy; no guy has talked to me so… flirtatiously before.

I return to the dancefloor, confident, exhilarated, even, worming my way through the throng, finding Ewa and Teresa at the opposite end; I don’t know where Nate’s gone (I’ll later find out that he went off with someone he met at the bar.) Donna Summer’s exuberant version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partirò)” comes on and the whole venue pulsates, seemingly on the verge of exploding.

As we jump to the beat, a tall blonde guy wearing a salmon-colored sweatshirt begins to dance right in front of me, smiling. I smile back. I don’t feel any pressure to make a move on him; perhaps if I were home, I’d feel more inclined to strike up a conversation, but it’s so loud and it doesn’t matter—I feel euphoric, as free as I’ve ever been. I’m doing the very thing that was inconceivable to me three years before when I finally realized exactly who I was and felt nothing but fear and misery about it. At last, I’m being myself and doing it so well.

The next morning, it’s time for Ewa and I to drive back to Milwaukee. My parents are picking me up there in the afternoon and we’ll return to Des Moines by nightfall. As we head West through Southern Michigan (nearly as flat and devoid of life as Western Illinois), Ewa says, “You know, Chris, Teresa and I were talking before we left. We’re impressed—you seem so much more comfortable in your own skin since the last time we both saw you.”

“Really?,” I respond. “Well, yeah, I guess I do.”

Midwest Trilogy, Part II: Wisconsin

Go here for Part I.

Less than an hour on the United Limo bus from O’Hare, we cross the state line. A rustic wooden sign, WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU in the shape of said state only hints at an array of tidbits on the other side: Mars Cheese Castle (with its ginormous concrete mouse), restaurants promising “Bohemian Specialties” and a couple of adult video stores. Escape To Wisconsin for Dairy and Porn!

I arrive at Mitchell Airport just after 3:00. Ewa shows up in a red Grand Am and a white T-shirt. Her hair, like Dana’s, is the longest it has been since high school, rendering her slightly less tomboyish than usual. We hug and have so much to say to each other we barely know where to begin. Within seconds, however, she excitedly asks, “So, no pressure, but do you wanna drive out to Ann Arbor to see Teresa on Thursday?” Teresa is a mutual friend from high school that was also Ewa’s college roommate for two years. I wasn’t expecting to go to Michigan, but she really wants to see Teresa one more time before she moves to Poland to begin medical school next month. Ewa’s originally from there, having immigrated to the states with her family when she was seven.

Midway to her parents’ townhouse in the suburbs, I disclose that I have a fresh pack of clove cigarettes in my bag. “Well, Chris, why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” she blurts out. We immediately tear into them and take the long way home so that her father won’t smell anything on her. We drive down Old Route 41, itself shadowed by the adjacent expressway, past ancient motels sparsely dotting the strip with names like “El Rancho” (which Ewa dubs “El Roadshow” because it’s never busy except at lunchtime when customers apparently congregate for a downlow quickie) and the “Knotty Pine” (which I’ve always called the “Naughty Pine” for the same reason.)

After we drop my stuff off at the house, we take a walk along the new bike trail across Drexel Avenue. The late-afternoon August sun dominates the sky. We break out the cloves and I ask about her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend; I get an expurgated version as she’s already sent me an epic letter with all the details (I’ll see it when I return to Boston.) In turn, she asks me about my sexuality. I’d come out to her the previous year via another epic letter. I am her first openly gay close friend, so she has a lot of questions. She’s curious at how I know what I like, since at that point I’m still a virgin. “What do you think of Harrison Ford?!,” she asks, herself a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones; she’s watched The Fugitive at least a dozen times. It’s hard to explain (I’ve never really thought about Ford, to be honest), but I don’t feel insulted, more relieved to be able to talk so freely with someone about this.

We head back towards civilization and reach Ewa’s house just in time for her father’s arrival. A physician, his thick accent and considerable girth always intimidated me in the past; now, it’s time to have dinner with him and Ewa’s comparably petite mother. We eat in the dining room, amidst upright cabinets displaying Polish plates, butter dishes and assorted knickknacks. On the menu: individual meatloaves, plain boiled potatoes sans any hint of seasoning and green beans one can accompany with a pour of bacon grease. Roughly similar to the kinds of meals I was served growing up, and yet not (potatoes of every variety were always doused in butter and bacon grease was usually poured directly from the pan into an empty can to congeal before its disposal.)  I load up on beans (and just a few drops of the grease.) Her dad questions my post-grad school plans and offers some wine. I do as best I can to convince him I know what I’m doing with my life; I decline the wine—before dinner, Ewa warns me never to accept alcohol from her father or encourage him to drink because he tends to gets drunk, and besides, he’s on call tonight!

After dinner, I crave that hometown delicacy, Frozen Custard, so we swing by Kopp’s on 76th Street for a scoop. Then, we take a rather impromptu trip to my old neighborhood on the South Side. I haven’t been back home in over a year, but my anticipation diffuses as we drive down my street—it feels overly familiar, but tired rather than inviting since my parents no longer live there. We swing through the alley in back; our neighbors have replaced their junky old swing with a slightly newer, but still second-hand (and fairly junky) one; everything else is pretty much the same.

I awaken the next day around 11:00, racing up two flights of carpeted stairs from the basement and poking my head into Ewa’s bedroom. She’s still asleep under her cow-print blanket, arms at her sides like a mummy, her little grey cat, Taro, curled up on her pillow. Her father sits in a front of a computer screen in the next room, looking for a good deal on a used computer Ewa could take with her to Poland. His back to the door, he doesn’t notice me. I return to the basement, sprawl across the sofa bed and stare at a wood-and-brick paneled wall, pictures of Ewa’s older brother (now living in California) and his many framed accomplishments staring back at me.

In time, I walk back upstairs to find Ewa sitting in the living room, a bowl of Sugar Smacks in her lap, a mug of Turkish-style coffee at her side. We go downtown in order for Ewa to visit the Citizenship Office to get her status straightened out before going back to Poland. Once there, we empty our pockets before passing a security check—a novelty in the days before 9/11 made this mandatory for air travel. At the other end of a spacious marbled hallway, the Citizenship Office is so packed, Ewa has to take a number. She picks 10; they’re on 69, somehow. As we sit on an oak bench, I pour through copies of local alternative weekly paper The Shepherd Express and The Onion, which one can only read online in Boston.

Thirty-odd minutes later, I need some air, so I go for a walk. Compared to Boston at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, Milwaukee’s almost a ghost town. I head west on Wisconsin Avenue towards the Milwaukee River, past Wok N Roll (a Chinese takeout place, obviously) and Grebe’s Bakery. I wonder into Walgreen’s, craving chocolate. A bum stands outside the store, selling something indiscriminate—candy, perhaps, or crack. Upon exiting Walgreen’s, I slip my Butterfinger into my jeans pocket and avoid eye contact with the street-salesperson (who is now talking to an immense, bearded man.)

I take the Riverwalk, passing under multiple skywalks until reaching Wells Street. From there, I revisit all the institutions I grew up with: The Pabst Theatre, City Hall (forever immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley), Marcus Center For The Arts, Cathedral Square. As with my old neighborhood, everything feels overly familiar, not thrilling like I’d expected or hoped. I think back to a few years before, when I’d walk all the way from Marquette University to the Lower East Side, rummaging in one used record or bookstore after the next, blissfully bored but satiated. In Boston, I can more or less do the same thing there, so the idea of tracing this route again no longer has the same appeal.

When I return to the Citizenship Office, the front door’s locked. It had closed at 2:30, but Ewa was presumably still inside. She emerges fifteen minutes later, her status closer to being sorted out but not entirely (to her chagrin.) Ready for lunch, we drive over to The Gyros Stand in Bay View, which still has the best gyros I’ve ever consumed. I order the titular treat, along with super-thick-cut seasoned home fries and a bright green lemon-lime slushy that comes, as always, in a short, fat plastic cup.

We take our food over to South Shore Park, eating at a picnic bench overlooking Lake Michigan and the beach. Ewa only finishes half of her gigantic gyro, so she throws a piece of meat towards a seagull nearby. Seconds after this gesture, a swarm of twenty or so additional gulls materialize; they all caw and screech whenever Ewa throws them another piece of gyro meat. We take delight in this display of hunger and greed amongst the gulls, although I question whether they might start attacking us, having now developed a taste for flesh. Fortunately, as soon as Ewa runs out of meat and pita bread, the gulls quickly disperse.

By the following evening, we’re both chronically bored—contrary to what some Milwaukeeans might claim, you can only consume so much frozen custard or smoke so many cloves while driving through the outer suburbs or spend so many hours slugging down cheap coffee and frozen French fries at a George Webb’s (a local greasy spoon chain frequented by slacker college students and the elderly.) This is how I generally felt two years ago when I decided to move to Boston, hungry for disruption and change. Fortunately, Ewa and I were heading to Ann Arbor the next day.

Midwest Trilogy, Part I: Illinois

I’m on a Greyhound Bus, en route from Des Moines to Chicago, back in the Midwest for about a month to visit my parents (who moved to Iowa from our hometown, Milwaukee, the previous year) and a few friends dispersed among three other states. Having just finished grad school in Boston and very much burned out on academia, I’ve spent “A Summer Wasting” (to quote a then-recent Belle and Sebastian song), filling my days writing in coffeehouses, biking along the Minuteman Trail and methodically weeding my way through Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I never finish.)  I have no real prospects or cogent ideas as what to do next, so I’m living off my dwindling savings, prolonging the real world for as long as I can.

This six-hour express route has one stop along I-80 just outside Davenport at a large facility frequented by truckers and fellow travelers. I sit in a white plastic booth amidst the bleeps and blare of a nearby video arcade, sipping an Orange-Mango Tang juice box, eating fresh grapes from a plastic baggie and a cinnamon bagel generously spread with Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves. My bus driver’s in the booth behind me, downing black coffee and greasy Wendy’s potato cakes. After popping in my contacts in the men’s room, leaving the sink a saline-soaked mess as others line up behind me, eager to take my place, I return to the bus. It’s muggy outside and also unseasonably cool for mid-August.

Crossing the Mississippi River, a sign proclaims THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS WELCOME YOU. From there, the road stretches on, the landscape pancake-flat with endless fields of nothing, flanked by the occasional tree, decaying farmhouse, string of power lines, crop duster or road sign like NEXT EXIT 36 MILES. With Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions on my headphones, I attempt to write in my journal, but it’s too bumpy a ride, my pen involuntarily jerking all over the page.

Eventually, cornfields give way to strip malls and subdivisions. Off in the distance, I make out the faint visage of the tall, thin, severe Sears Tower. We pull into downtown Chicago a half-hour ahead of schedule. I look around the crowded station for Dana, a friend from high school; she’s currently working on her graduate degree at Loyola. I don’t see her, so I schlep my luggage outside onto Harrison Street, along with a dozen other folks also waiting for rides. A lanky, 68-year-old black man insists on divulging his age repeatedly to an uninterested eight-year-old white boy. I’m not certain that they actually know each other.  The man then does a few push-ups for him, showing off his impeccable-for-his-age strength, I guess.

Finally, I spot Dana down the block walking towards me. She wears bulky denim overalls and her braided blonde hair’s far longer than it was the last time we got together, about eight months before when we met up over the holidays.

“Hey old person,” I call out.

“I’ll never be older than you,” she replies, deadpan. She is a year younger than me, but we maintain this running joke.

Pleased to see each other, but not overly excited, we don’t hug (we never do.) The punishing late afternoon sun, along with the concrete-heavy surroundings somewhat casts a pall on our reunion. We walk for two blocks, then enter the subway deep into Chicago’s bowels and take the L outbound to the far North Side. Her neighborhood consists of long rectangular blocks dense with five and six story pre-war apartment buildings. It’s also close to Lake Michigan, where there’s a number of post-war high rises along the coast (one of them was likely Bob and Emily Hartley’s in the 1970s.)

We take a manually-operated elevator up to her fifth-floor studio, during which I had to follow one rule, due to Dana’s fear of elevators: Stay Still. Her studio apartment is cramped but cozy, densely packed with her canine figurines and an assortment of Pez dispensers. Not wanting to be cooped up in this shoebox on a hot August night, we get in her Blue Tercel and drive out to the ‘burbs for an early dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Although we have our pick of an array of cosmopolitan cuisine in this mighty city, we’re both poor grad students and it is our tradition to dine out on reasonably priced Navajo Chicken Sandwiches at our favorite chain restaurant.

Returning to her neighborhood, we look for a parking space, circling her block (and adjacent ones) over and over until something opens up. We spend at least 20 minutes completing this task, which, according to Dana, is less time than usual. After a quick freshening up, we hop back on the L inbound to Wrigleyville. There, among all the other people in their 20s and 30s enjoying a Friday night out on the town, we check out an immense store specializing in leather jackets, Doc Martens and other “alternative” clothing. Curiously enough, it also sells plenty of unpainted stone gargoyles.

We head up North Halsted over to Boystown, a “gayborhood” flanked by rainbow beacons. Lots of guys out that night—we see one young man wearing tight leather pants. This prompts Dana to ask me, “I don’t get it – why would you wear something just to show off your package when you don’t really have much of one to show off?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that.  She’s still fixated on it as we consume two-and-a-half pots of coffee and a slice of cherry pie each at a nearby IHOP (this one still in its classic A-Frame design.)

As with most of my Midwestern friends, I came out to Dana in an email the year before. She wrote back, “Frankly, Chris, I was more surprised when you said you were dating a girl.” (Yes, that was a thing only two years before, and a story for another time.) Presently, I hadn’t dated much or even slept with another guy; Dana, on the other hand, was actually engaged, having met her fiancé Marc while attending the U of M in Minneapolis. It was clear our lives were heading on divergent paths. Dana, oddly enough, was who’d encouraged me to check out Boston for grad school, her having visited relatives there. I’d secretly hoped she’d even come out there for school as well. Instead, after getting her master’s in social work the following year, she’d move back to Minnesota and get married. We talked about all of this and seemingly every other little thing that came to mind, from our waitress’ hot pink lipstick to how neither of us had ever found a scone as buttery and moist as those we use to regularly get at Gil’s Café, our haunt of choice back in Milwaukee.

The rest of that weekend passed by unremarkably: we watched movies, walked along the Lake and all over the Loop, had the requisite Chicago style hot dog (topped with seemingly every condiment except for ketchup, of course) and sought occasional breaks from the relentless late-Summer heat (contrary to the popular expression, it was not all that much cooler by the Lake.) Monday morning, we took the L all the way out to O’Hare so I could catch a United Limo bus to Milwaukee. This trip took ninety minutes—roughly the amount of time it would take to drive from her apartment to Milwaukee. Our parting mirrored our meeting: no hugs, just a pat on the back, a “Stay outta trouble” and a “Maybe we’ll met up at Christmas”; we’d next see each other at her wedding.

As much as I enjoyed spending a weekend with Dana, I admit I was seeking something in Chicago that I did not find—a sense of direction, perhaps, a reason to relocate again and reconnect with the region I came from. All I felt was ambivalence, a city that was essentially a supersized version of my hometown, less than 100 miles north.

Go here for Part II.

Baby, The Stars Shine Bright

Lake Michigan rocks, mid-afternoon.

Freshman year at Marquette University, I commuted from home (having grown up less than a twenty-minute drive away.) Quickly becoming fed up with that, Sophomore year, I lived in a dorm; Junior year was spent in a residence hall (more like a glorified dorm for four with two bedrooms and a common space.) As for Senior year, I made the coveted but not at all uncommon transition from on-campus to off, having secured (along with three friends from the residence hall) a unit in Renee Row, a modern apartment complex where I’d have my own bedroom, an outdoor deck, and plenty of space for all the curious belongings of four male undergrads (in our case, a neon Zima sign which hung on the wall above the TV; you can’t make this shit up, it was the mid-90s.)

Since our lease at Renee Row began in June, I would also be spending the summer before Senior year in my first apartment—a welcome change from the previous summer, when I had to move back home after nine months of dorm livin’. However, I couldn’t afford to take any additional credits outside the fall and spring semesters, so I had to work. I was already a desk receptionist at another residence hall (this one exclusively housing graduate and non-traditional students), but that was only 10-15 hours a week. Too lazy to have found an internship of any kind, much less one remotely related to my Journalism major (a field I was losing more interest in with each semester), I needed a second job to fill the time, and more crucially, make my rent. I figured another University job was the way to go and hoped to secure a position with the Grounds Crew. During the warmer months of the year, I’d spotted them out in the sun, mowing grass or planting flowers. Planting flowers! I could do that! It’d be an improvement over the crappy, entry-level retail and food service jobs that comprised my work experience to date.

Like the Jewish Theory and Practice course that always filled up instantaneously because it met a required Theology elective (and was also rumored to be a fun, blow-off class at a Jesuit school, of all places), that summer’s Grounds Crew was complete by the time I thought to inquire about it. Fortunately, the General Maintenance department was still looking for seasonal help. With five other students and ten adults, I spent the next three months walking from dorm to dorm, and within each dorm, from room to room fixing desks, bureaus, bunk beds and other cheap, Formica-heavy furnishings. It was almost like an informal assembly line—checking every screw in every handle of every desk to ensure it was sufficiently tightened, doing the same for each bed frame, testing all curtain rods so that they opened and closed properly, etc.

Compared to another summer of dealing with customers and stocking shelves, this appeared to be a pretty sweet gig. My uniform consisted of worn jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and a mint green t-shirt with the words “Marquette University Summer Crew” in purple print on it. This was boring, mundane work for sure. We often got everything done ahead of time, then ambled around the building pretending to look busy but not really doing much of anything. Occasionally, a few of us found a room, closed the door and played card games for an hour or two. I could handle Go Fish or Crazy Eights but could never master the adults’ favorite game, Sheepshead—once becoming so frustrated with it that I simply threw my cards up in the air and walked out of the room.

Such petty emotional injuries paled in comparison to the physical ones. I suffered two accidents that summer. The first involved a long, narrow window spring getting stuck in my near shoulder-length hair as I attempted to tighten it; luckily, it just took out a follicular clump and I had enough extra hair at the time to mostly cover it up. The second injury was more serious: a mere ten days after the window spring incident, the metal bottom of a window screen crashed into my chin as I fumbled to extract it from its frame (a laborious process that required squeezing little doodads in opposite directions to both extract and secure the screen in place.) After I was led over to both the campus infirmary and the HR department (to secure a Worker’s Comp form), I was driven to a nearby hospital (coincidentally, the one I was born in!) and received a few stitches, which I had taken out two weeks later. It was more bloody than painful, and they weren’t even the most stitches I’d ever received (that would’ve been after my forehead collided with a folding table a teacher’s aide carried on a stairwell the first day of Fifth Grade.)

Mishaps aside, as with most jobs, the sheer monotony festered into something toxic in no time at all. One day blurred into the next as my co-workers and I wandered through those immense, uniform buildings, massive living spaces entirely devoid of life for one-quarter of the year. This surrealness carried over to my leisure time: here I was, trudging through all ends of campus every day, (temporarily) no longer a student. Unlike two of my roommates, both enrolled in summer classes (the third was all the way back home in Oregon and would join us in the fall), I was at school exclusively to work, and it felt off.

One day, about six weeks into this routine, I was walking back to Renee Row in the early evening, the sun still blazing, the air deeply humid (I wasn’t regretting not getting an outdoor job at that point.) With the old Jesuit Residence coming up to the sidewalk at my right, I spotted a throng of people to my left, filing out of the library across Wisconsin Avenue. Like a thundering mob or perhaps a heard of cattle, they ran in my direction, twenty or thirty of them, all my age or younger, possibly teens present for some sort of conference or summer program.

Not only did they come directly at me, they didn’t seem to register that I was an object in their path. They smiled and laughed while also seeming vacant and oblivious. Approaching from both my left and straight ahead, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught. I slid up against the brick wall of the Jesuit Residence, my hands grasping it as one tall boy of about seventeen or eighteen crashed right into me, his eyes lifeless and glazed as if I didn’t exist. My two left knuckles bled a bit from the force of this collision as they scraped against the brick. And just like that, it was over—the boy and his mob moved on, as if an uncommonly violent breeze just passed through.

I wasn’t physically hurt (as with the stitches, I had suffered worse scrapes), but the incident left me utterly bewildered. How to explain this out-of-nowhere teen mob in such a euphoric state, decimating anything (namely, me) in its path? Had I just turned invisible, all of a sudden? Slightly dizzy and also exhausted by the heat, I made my way past the Alumni Memorial Union, over to Wells Street, around the Campus Town Apartments and up another block before arriving safe and sound at Renee Row. I heated up a frozen dinner, popped open a wine cooler and gradually put the surreal incident behind me as another day of tightening screws and card games awaited.

***

I call in sick the next day; I often do with this job. It’s never a big deal, it just means I won’t get paid for the day. At $5.50/hour, my funds won’t deplete that much, and I still have a few shifts of desk receptionist work to fall back on every week. I feel a bit guilty about forgoing employment for idleness every once in a while; looking back, I’m thankful I exercised that rare freedom a 21-year-old with a low stakes job retains.

One Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, I blow off work and spend the afternoon hanging out with my mom (whom often has Fridays off from her retail job.) We drive out to Southridge Mall, eat lunch at the food court and then go over to Half Price Books where I pick up a handful of used vinyl records from the dollar bin. By that summer, I’ve amassed a minor collection of the stuff, ranging from such staples as the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and peak early ’70s Elton John to somewhat forgotten ‘80s works from the likes of Yaz, Missing Persons and New Order. That day, I purchase Everything But The Girl’s 1986 LP Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a title that would soon prove prophetic.

That evening, my friend Jen calls, wanting to go out. I’ve just spent the previous day with her—the entirety of it, in fact, attending Summerfest and the Violent Femmes concert. After all that, I’m kind of tired of hanging out with her, dealing with her mood swings and her intensity, but she’s still my friend. Besides, I have nothing better to do than sit around with my roommates and watch a cable-TV documentary about the History of the Bikini. I’m still some distance from coming out, but confident that I have no interest in this particular subject.

Within an hour, Jen picks me up. We are to meet Diana, another friend from high school at Sunset Blvd., a newly opened coffeehouse on the East Side. We ramble along the misty streets, windows rolled down all the way because the A/C’s broken. We listen to Jen’s Stabbing Westward CD. Like a lesser Nine Inch Nails, the music’s all minor key arpeggios and industrial dead-beats. Track three, their big alternative radio hit, keeps skipping. Jen pounds the steering wheel with her right fist in time to its insistent stomp. She’s mostly lost in the music, at one point even flooring her burgundy Toyota Camry and running a red light at a deserted intersection. The mist is so light Jen rarely has to use the wipers, though still concrete enough to feel as my right hand dangles outside the passenger seat window.

I could go for a hot fudge sundae with double the fudge and triple the whipped topping, but The Chocolate Factory closed at 10, it’s now almost 11, and we have to pick up Diana. Jen wears a pink XXXL Budweiser shirt and a denim blouse, while I’m in my black Snoopy World War I Flying Ace tee and olive cargo shorts. The mist prevails but the temps have dropped a few degrees since we left my place. Jen goes on about her three-month-old pet rabbit which she acquired at a rural roadside stand that was giving the damn things away for free.

We walk into Sunset Blvd. It looks thrown together with kitschy 1950s-style tables, walls done up in bright green paint and exposed brick and amateur artwork. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love echoes through the brightly lit café. I order a Lime Italian Soda, Jen gets a Chocolate Malt. Diana sits in the right corner with ten other girls and guys on chairs and a couch arranged in a sloppy circle surrounding a table littered with Friends-style oversized coffee mugs and cobalt blue highball glasses. A cloud of sweet clove cigarette smoke wafts above them; within a few years, the place will close, unable to survive a citywide indoor café smoking ban.

Diana’s group is deep into Vampires, a D-and-D style role-playing game, with cards spread out everywhere. Most of them consult strategy-filled notebooks and scan as “Goth”, decked out primarily in black and dark red clothing, Manic Panic’d hair and a panoply of Doc Martens, chain mail jewelry and unusual piercings. So intense is their discussion that Diana doesn’t even register our arrival at first. Waiting for our drinks, we walk over to them. Upon our presence, Diana, tiny with her long brown hair put into a ponytail, suddenly jumps up, hugs us and yells, “Hey guys! I missed you so much!!!,” interrupting the pudgy bespectacled guy with the jet black hair going on and on about how Lollapalooza in its sixth year had lost its sting.

Allowing our friend to finish the game, Jen and I grab the only vacant table and proceed to play five games of Connect Four. By the third one, I’m getting tired of dropping red checkers into plastic slots, but Jen remains oblivious to this. I think her meds are taking hold; she seems preoccupied, her face lost in some faraway state of “Jen-dom”. As we finish our fifth game, the gathering of Vampires begins to disintegrate. When closing time arrives at Midnight, Jen and I head out with Diana and fellow Vampire player Alice, whom she knows from Dance Camp. Alice has the requisite blood-red lipstick with matching hair, but also a breezy, floral-print blouse, cutoff jeans and a giddy, almost wide-eyed demeanor. Up and down Murray Avenue, the streetlamps glisten with moisture from the mist and everyone wonders what to do next. No one’s ready to go home or walk two blocks over to Ma Fischer’s, a diner that’s the only place guaranteed to be open this late apart from bars that all card (I’m the only one of legal drinking age in our quartet.)

We leave the café and drive a few blocks to Lake Park, where we park illegally on the street. The park and the adjacent golf course closed hours ago, but everyone goes there after dark anyway. I take in a clearing sky peeking out through the cityscape and the suddenly sweet summer air. We stroll past Bartolotta’s Bistro, down the ravine, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and over to Lake Michigan. We arrive at the beach’s northern end where the sand’s overtaken by rocks.

Jen and I are a bit paranoid—no one’s allowed here this late at night and we keep looking over our shoulders for cops; however, Diana and Alice do not seem to share our concern. The four of us wander onto the rocks, which extend North along the shore for what seems like miles. We aren’t entirely alone, hearing other voices in the dark and the occasional car zipping along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The vastness and stillness of the Great Lake ahead of us and the increasingly starry sky holds our attention.

We sit on those rocks for at least an hour. In time, we impulsively begin singing Tori Amos songs, mostly from Little Earthquakes: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter” and “China”; Diana admits she once thought the latter was corny, but now, she likes it. Actually, what we were doing was pretty corny in itself, the four of us warbling, “Why do we / cru-ci-fy ourselves /ev-er-ry day” under the stars, waves gently crashing against the rocks, Lake Michigan before us devoid of any perceptible boats or ships. Still, for one hour, my frustration with my job, with Jen, with feeling like I was in a continual state of limbo just dissipates. Such things suddenly feel petty and unimportant. Although I have another six weeks of working in the dorms ahead of me (including the two injuries I mentioned above), this night somewhat cleanses my soul. It reminds me what magic (or perhaps a better word would be beauty) one can discover when one’s not even seeking it.