I came back to the Midwest from LA because the penetrability of Southern California light had gotten to me. It was February 1997; I was twenty-one. The days documented in this book begin in spring 2004, a few years into what has since become a two-decade run in Chicago. This book is a testimony, of sorts, to my obsession with the city.
In the early aughts, living in a series of extremely cheap and decrepit apartments on the edge of an industrial corridor, I was an unwitting participant in a wave of gentrification that has since subsumed the area. All the empty lots mentioned here are now condos; the moused-up punk houses were razed for redevelopment and now exist only in collective memory. I was not yet a professional writer but mapped that dream often.
I was hardly ever without my friends. This is as much about their lives in that particular time and space as it is my own.
AMERICAN CITY, I LOVE YOU TOO
Since enacting my Lenten pact to only drive for work-related errands, I am experiencing Chicago’s deep mantic powers on the daily. This is not to say I did not love this hobbled city, potholed and bluecollared, from the moment I arrived six years and three days ago. But just that having to bike, sometimes too far, to new and inconvenient places, and often on the same old route down Damen, I might as well be seeing it for the first time. All the apartments illuminated with the blue glow of a TV, the living room walls gridlocked by mounted collector plates, scrubbed-clean dudes in light-rinse jeans drinking beer from a can on a leather couch (viewed so easily due to the two-story basement-to-ceiling windows in the front of their new construction condos). The patinaed crosses and gilded domes of all the bright Ukrainian churches. A dude in a red convertible Ferrari, with a vanity plate reading FERRARI, holding his dick while he cruises.
Just stuff you miss when you’re in the car with B96 up too loud.
On Saturday Al—and Nora, the chain-smoking young sweetness he hangs with—and I biked 14.4 miles to the psychedelic art show over at Texas Ballroom in Pilsen. On the way, Nora and I chattered in the bike lane about girl stuff (Lacan). On the way back, Nora lollygagged behind and I took off ahead, seeing just how fast I could go on a friend’s fancy track bike. I was re-enacting scenes from Breaking Away on the barren byways in the heart of Cook County at 2 a.m. on a spring Sunday.
Taking Damen Avenue from one side of town to another, you get a good span of Chicago, something practical to counter the highlights reel of Lake Shore Drive. Damen is all that is old, burnished, and lopsided. It is profoundly comforting to live in a city that doesn’t give a shit and loves you how you are, because it is every bit as marred, bereft, and cocky as you are.
We came through Pilsen’s strip malls, past the 24/7 donut diner, over the freeway overpass where all the trucks exit for the mills and factories, through Latino revitalization and SAIC students tangling up on 18th, through nine straight blocks of taquerias and storefront churches, past bondo’d Cutlasses springing tinny umpa-umpa bandas, then through the five blocks of the tunnel underneath the train land bridge that is strangely clean because it’s so vast and sketchy that no one walks through it (not even to tag it), which empties out to broken cement parking lots and sprawling brick warehouses that once served industries that no longer exist, past public housing bungalows isolated from their now-demolished twin—the Ida B. Wells Homes in Bronzeville—past Little Italy’s ass-end, through the hospital campus with its wide, presidential-appellative streets of Roosevelt and Washington—its spartan gutters—into the direct arterials to downtown, over the bridge that spans 1-290, through a Near West Side neighborhood holding out against gentrification, past the parking lots of the United Center—trashed after the Bulls vs. Golden State Warriors game hours earlier, past the long swath of empty lots and boarded up CHA low-rises, tiny mountains of debris and weedy knolls on either side of the Green Line train elevated tracks—the parts of West Madison St. that have never been rebuilt since being burned in the riots—then underneath the tracks where the best car chase in the Blues Brothers movie takes place, past two women singing a Mary J. Blige song together on the corner, past a gaggle of hipster friends of friends in funny outfits waving and hugging while exiting a square dance at Open End, past the Drag City office, underneath my favorite train bridge, then three more blocks, where I hung a right on Ohio and rode no-handed the last two blocks to my little house.
March 03, 2004
THE TYRANNY OF DISTANCE VS. POWER OF PROXIMITY
I did a dumb thing last night, something I knew better about and managed to stave off doing for the last seven weeks of living in LA. I looked at pictures of my friends and life back home. I wondered when I will go home. I’ve been avoiding that question. But once I looked at the pictures, there was not a thing I didn’t miss. Marcus Garvey Burgers from Soul Veg. Animals. My bike. All my deeply weird and funny and stinky friends. Books I had checked out from the library and was in the middle of. Intersections. All the bike punks with U-lock outlines worn into their back pockets. How fucking loud it is all the time. I miss how when you walk down the street in Chicago, you are expected to say hello to people and if they have a dog, say “hi puppy,” compliment their dog or ask its name (at least!). On the park trail here in LA, people react to that question as if I’d just asked if they birthed their dog vaginally.
June 22, 2008
Took Wood to whatever street the United Center is on.
CHA projects are still coming down slow: bent girders hang building bits outta burnt-up bedrooms painted institutional peach and tan on the nineteenth floor, a wrecking ball suspended and still beside a halved superstructure. “New Development. New Neighborhood.” So says the sign outside the temporary trailer realty office. Pedaling the two-block bracket between fallow glass lots that have stayed empty since ’68 and the unmarred blacktop of the United Center parking lot, I think of what I know about these blocks: the tiny chairs I dumpstered when they tore down the school and the news anchor that got shanked in the neck in the lot, and lived, and is now a motivational circuit speaker. Here’s to overcoming adversity, tiny chairs, and the rolling blight of bright brick new construction condos, on blast.
May 22, 2005
Excerpted from Night Moves by Jessica Hopper © 2018, published with permission from the University of Texas Press. Jessica Hopper is a contributing Rookie writer and former Rookie Music Editor. You can purchase Night Moves here. ♦