I realized immediately after I entered Chicago from OHare, that I knew nothing (really) about Chicago. This is what I know about Chicago: I have read books set in Chicago and Ive talked to people from Chicago. The people Ive talked to from Chicago often complain about hot dogs in other cities. Since hot dogs hardly seem like edible food, perhaps in Chicago they are good?
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is set in Chicago. Carl Sandburg has a poem about Chicago. Sister Carrie rises from poverty in Chicago. Stuart Dybek has a very short story set in Chicago called the Gold Coast. But when I hear the phrase, The Gold Coast, this always makes me think of Africa. Gwendolyn Brooks is from Chicago — there is a suburb called Bronzville which was one of the neighborhoods that grew as a result of the migration of rural blacks from the South to Chicago. I know about the Chess Record label. Muddy Waters single, I Cant Be Satisfied, was a big hit with urban blacks since the song is a nostalgic send up to the music from the country, that by the forties was lost or maybe never had. But all of this means I do not know Chicago.
Chicago is also the city in the future where Buck Rogers lives. And it is also the gigantic green glass city of OZ. OZ, in fact is about as close as I know Chicago. When I stepped off the train — I refuse to call it the El because I havent heard anyone in real life call it that here. Everyone talks about stops and distances, and no one Ive talked to has uttered the word El. Chicago feels more like Spokane to me — although a well-heeled Spokane — then it does like Seattle, San Francisco, or New York. People in Chicago speak at a medium speed and are very direct it sounds like from listening to people on the train.
I went to my hotel room downtown in the middle of supertall, very old buildings. Some block away there was a massive outdoor space, the Millennium Park, and Art Institute of Chicago. To the north there was a river. To the west there were the modern skyscrapers with exposed metal frames and glass. I slept and woke and when I left for to meet everyone at Quimbys, the bookstore where I had a reading, it was incredibly hot outside. I wore a sweater because it had been chilly in Seattle and in the morning on the way in from the airport.
I took the train and got off in the neighborhood where the bookstore was located. Everyone was wearing loose, light clothes. I started to get sweat huge amounts. Finally I located the bookstore. The wasnt any vegetation on the street. It was brick, cement, and terra cotta. I located the bookstore. Id never been to Quimbys before. It was full of handmade books, zines, and small press work includes an entire shelf of Clear Cut Books. Logan who works there and who Ive emailed a few times was at the counter and I asked him where I could by a t-shirt. He pointed me south a few blocks since everyone on Quimbys street was expensive. I walked through the sweltering neighborhood and tried to find the store hed directed to me, The Brown Elephant, and instead found myself on an empty block with a K-Mart and a Salvation Army. Inside the Salvation Army, there were wizened old men examining the shirts. A Russian man was at the counter. I found a several shirts of questionable origin that would be cooler than the thick (and now soaked) sweater I was wearing. One of them was a white t-shirt for Ira I. Silverstein for State Senator. The shirts cost four dollars and sixty-seven cents.
Five dollars even, the guy said.
Where can I change? I asked.
You want to wear these? the man asked.
Yes. I didnt see a changing room. I didnt want to change on the street. Although it was so hot and that hardly anyone was outside.
Go down into the basement.
I couldnt find the basement steps. I walked behind a line that said, No Customers, and a man jumped up from his chair. No. No. No, he said. He scooted me out of the space by brushing his hands at me.
Finally, I found steps down into a basement full of old furniture and ancient computer equipment and a heap of ink jets printers from the 1990s. A mother and her daughter were looking at dining room tables heaped up in one corner. I found a hidden space and furtively changed into my new clothes. I started to cool down immediately, and made it back to Quimbys before the reading.
Ann Elizabeth Moore, the editor of Punk Planet, was there. And so was the other reader, Patrick Somerville. Ann read a story about North American slave ants which juxtaposed both the trouble of these ants and their ability to make other ants do labor with them but also her own experience dealing with major media and their attempt to make in roads into independent media. She described someone from Time/Warner claiming that while they worked for Time/Warner, they really like indie work, and wanted to support it. I think this is a kind of funny problem because most indie work is indie not out of an overriding political sensibility but out of necessity. I think the necessity creates a sense of political sensibility and lends itself to a writer or musician or whatever being forced to think about what happens when they make a song or book and how distribution and consumption of the work happens. Perhaps there are musicians or writers out there who demand that the entire chain is pure. Maybe Fugazi is like this? But I suspect most writers for instance would be completely happy to sell out if they could sell out, and if selling out meant that all they had to do was write their books.
When it comes down it most indie media is pretty cheap to buy if major media actually wanted to buy it. Rebecca Brown, who is published through City Lights, once said she would sell out if anyone was buying.
But at the same time, I think small press writers or musicians who make their own work depend on the channels of independent commerce such as Punk Planet and Quimbys. It is good to hear that there is a line being drawn by someone. Even though from a production standpoint the creation of independent friendly channels might have stemmed from necessity — that the doors were closed with traditional distributors and bookstores or record stores — the creation of these channels is a lot of work. And it requires a degree of work to maintain their economy. So when Punk Planet doesnt carry ads by Time/Warner, for instance, they are maintain their economic dependence on the health of these independent channels of commerce.
Patrick Somerville read an excellent story LOVE STORY about an Iraqi shopkeeper and his daughter and a young man who was a self-consciously homogenized American.
Also at the reading, there were the Jonathan and Zach of Featherproof Books, a great and tiny small press that published beautiful books such as Todd Dills Sons of the Rapture.
When I returned to my room, I listened to a strange hushing noise coming from the vast airspace between the supertall building I am in and the one next door. They were supertall the way building were supposed to be supertall — they were rebar and brick and the rebar was hidden behind layers of hand set red brick. Not to say that most of Chicago isn’t filled with very tall glass and rebar buildings, but I was staying in a region of brick.