Sunday, September 25, 2011


The rails, tho busy, were easier to deal with than roads. The paths go straight, are kept quite clear, and I prefer to dodge trains than automobiles. They are much more predictable. Even after dark, so long as they headed east, towards the moonrise, it was a far better to take the railroad than the highway. This is Illinois. They can’t go but one way.

Getting into Chicago – and then, getting out – was much harder than being there. Like any major city, the length of suburbs were the more difficult part. Once I got into the heart itself, I was just another vagrant. I have tried, whenever I have relocated, to blend with the locals, to do as they do, go where they go, eat what they eat. In a grey hoodie, off-color grey pants, grey hat, I fit in with the grey city. Wherever I am is where I’m from.

A well-meaning girl had warned me in Iowa to watch out for police officers in Chicago, since they might think I was homeless.

- I am homeless.

- -Well, I meant like those that sleep on park benches.

If that is the sole distinction, then I did not sleep on any benches, and so don’t qualify by her measure. But there are few traits to otherwise distinguish me, at least from those I met on the Loop and the South Side. They are these:

1. I am younger than 40.

2. I carry a tent

3. I am reasonably clean-shaven

4. I am not black.

They were all good folks, the ones I met, and like folks anywhere like you better when you act and talk like them. I never withheld money - if that is what was asked of me - and never took a photograph without offering something.

By the third day, the anonymity and neural stress of the city were more than I wanted, but I stuck around while some prints got developed. It was like being in a bus station or an airport when everything necessary has been done and all that remains is for something, some one thing – some great thing? – to happen. Two more days and they were done, and I headed out, towards Indiana, thru the South Side.

I had long known that the city I had seen was not for me, but the notion was fixed when I went into a gas station to ask directions from the clerk and found him completely surrounded by glass, a knot of cracks, a bird’s eye, in front of his neck where a bullet had stopped.

Fifteen blocks further south was a forest preserve. Dan Ryan Woods. I had chosen it since a satellite map showed a park within city limits where the crowns of the trees touched. Figuring I would have better cover there, I headed for it.

Inside the woods there was very little undergrowth, suggesting either wood gathering or the tramping of feet. There were bottles, cans, cigarette butts, the usual urban detritus, and a few worn footpaths casually growing over in creeper . I wandered to find both a place to spread my bedroll and to find those who camped here and gain their permission. But tho I found food wrappers, clothing, and marks of a toilet, there was no sign of fire or even of a cleared area for sleeping. Even the shirts and socks I found were half-rotted and had likely sat sinking into the earth since before the last winter. Whatever indigenes there were had gone elsewhere.

Under a broken locust, I set out my bedding. Dogs and traffic whined thru the night, but I slept well, having come back to a place where I could respect the rules of conduct. In the hour before dawn, from the north side of the woods, an owl cried.

Some folks wanted to interview me for a podcast. You can listen to it by clicking here.

photo trade: David Lee

I met David Lee in DeKalb, Illinois as a guest of his roommate. He also enjoys taking film photographs and the following were some prints that I traded for.

You can see more of his photos here

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Clutter: Illinois

Iowa: Butter-fed Beauties

A last hot breath blew across the prairie, coloring garden tomatoes and heating the towns in a lustful haze.

The midwest seems always to be producing things. Corn, soybeans, hogs, steers, industrial pistons, hydraulic arms, scholars, literature. Everything springs up and travels out.

The young women were beautiful. Almost without exception. In pairs and alone catwalking the pavements of university towns. Gliding with the grace of items sliding down the checkout conveyor belt: a blushing mango, a glossy tube of tooth paste, a long-necked bottle of drain cleaner. (Label: Concentrated youth & beauty)

Some lose their allure when at rest and look tired as they sit to sip on cold drinks or smoke. Others carry a light wherever they go so that they seem to always be on stage, unable to shake the spotlight. The greatest among them move as tho on wheels of silk, pretending to a humility that heightens their glamor. It's as tho by giving away their good looks in the smallest of rations they're making it last, knowing the greater part is still in the bottle.

Jeans and t-shirts, ponytails, tennis shoes, perhaps foundation but never lipstick. Their speech is free of any place-holding 'ums.' Their tongues never once passing their teeth. They look you in the eye when they talk to you. And then you feel that you've had some glimpse thru the glass at the untapped reserve beneath - a shale formation of crude beauty under the already covetable sheen that overspreads the surface.

Who are these butter-fed beauties? How did the lumpen, potato-shaped generations preceding lead to this? Yet if the parents are any indication, the future is easy to see. Thirty and married, moderately happy careers, now with children, living in bright boxes set in squares of corn. Mid-life-midwest-midnight checkouts and Goodnight Moon. Aging like lollipops in reverse, thickening even as their candy-bright shells wear away.

The men, too, are beautiful. Muscular and vain, and in the last panting of summer, eager to show both. To show, perhaps, an unfortunate truth. That beauty is not trivial. Not at their age. Probably not in any.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Iowa: Corn and Soybeans National Park

Looking over my finances, it's become clear that I won't be going to Venice this year. Likewise Caracas is out. And I better give up any dreams of a Vespa, or even a Schwinn. Probably no dinners out, and it's a good thing I don't buy cigarettes so I won't have to consider whether I'd like the filtered or unfiltered. Also, I won't be worrying about the mortgage or my stock portfolio. Regular or premium? Not a problem. Not my problem.

I've come to understand an unusual freedom that I had never entirely thought out until recently. It's not just that I don't have many possessions. I like that I can move what I own by the power of my legs. I don't have any house to fill up with worry. My concerns are these:

- weather
- water
- food
- cleanliness
- writing
- photography
- shoes

Every choice I have is related to these concerns. The first four general shift my path in small bends of a few miles, the last three can move me several hundred. But none of them are so pressing as to stop me completely from an inability of decision. I don't think at any other time in my life have I been able to consciously name and count my determining needs. So it is not only a freedom of choice, but a freedom from choice.

Personally, I don't want a lot of stuff. Some people do. I don't think that's a bad thing. Some people like marble statuary and land enough to run the hounds. I like that I can walk away from anything and any place and that I live wherever my bag goes. (Current residence: Coffee shop. Address all mail accordingly) But it's beyond a limiting of possessions. Not having is not using, not using is not considering. In not having to consider - and choosing not to want - I'm free instead to enjoy what is at hand.

So, no, I won't be going to Venice, but I am in Iowa. And in some strange ways the state does make me think of Europe. The towns are tidy clumps of houses and businesses and everything is within an easy stroll. Folks are very hospitable and almost every inch of land is owned by someone. Just try to find a songbird.

From some miles out, the grain silos look like the turrets of a Moorish fortress in the Alhambra. Each time I approach, I hope the curtain of corn will draw back by the tassels and I will walk barefoot beneath orange trees, crushing thyme and listening for the stir of the Jewish market. I climbed up one of the silos to see the land stretch flat all around, and a flock of pigeons spilled out from a vent as I went up the steel stairs. It looked like a faucet someone left on that continuously dripped birds. They kept coming out and circling around, giving the silos the glow of a Renaissance cathedral that both spouted birds and drained them away.

There were many things which I saw - wind turbines, cornfields, young men and women - who did not in themselves have grace but were lent it by motion. Like gulls in flight, or falling water, or plastic bags, ordinary things that became transcendent as they moved.

I won't be sitting by the Grand Canal, or the Bosporus, or the Ganges for the sunset. Not this year anyway. But to watching the sun dip into Clear Lake while the sail boats came in and people jumped from the docks didn't feel like any kind of regret.

I won't call it a delusion. I'm not sure what I would call it. Maybe its just because there aren't any soaring mountains or canyons in the Midwest that I have to make do with what there was. Maybe I only realized the small instances of beauty because I had to look harder for them.