a work in progress, new essay up today
Our country has awakened, recently, to the tensions between communities of color and the police who work in those same communities. Certainly many Americans, particularly Americans of color, have been aware of these tensions for some time. I remember hearing about Amadou Diallo getting shot 19 times in 1999 by four NYPD officers who fired a total of 41 bullets at the unarmed Black man. That’s as far back as my memory for this sort of thing stretches; I humbly acknowledge that for others, pigment and circumstance have necessitated a longer memory.
Diallo got some national attention, and even a Bruce Springsteen song about the killing, but in the end the officers were acquitted and we all went on with our lives. There have been other killings of unarmed minorities by police in the years since, some of which have garnered more attention than others. Oscar Grant was unarmed and lying on the ground when he was shot in the back and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. Grant got a film; the officer got involuntary manslaughter.
Still, though, many of us hadn’t woken up. Trayvon Martin’s death was even more high profile, though if you’re paying close attention and disinclined to agree with the path I’m cutting, you’ll likely point out that he wasn’t killed by law enforcement. Fair enough. Even so, George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain, and, it seems clear enough now, used his position of authority in order to wield power over the unarmed African-American teen.
If the details were different, the trend is the same, and reveals some troubling attitudes buried deep in the American consciousness about how we feel about young Black men.
And many of us still slept.
Around the same time we began to hear criticism of the NYPD’s Stop-and-Frisk program, a consitutionally murky protocol that disproportionately affects Blacks and Latinos. This seemed to capture our attention for a while, then fade in to the background somewhat as other news items garnered the spotlight.
Among those: Eric Garner and Mike Brown. The killings of these two unarmed Black men by police (and the non-indictment decisions that followed) woke us up as a country. There were protests, there were riots, athletes wearing shirts that said “I can’t breathe” (Garner’s last words while being choked to death by police), and social media campaings.
The most notable of these is #blacklivesmatter, a simple hashtag that captured the country’s attention.
Unfortunately, when the spotlight came on and woke us all up, many of us weren’t ready, and had a hard time seeing clearly.
Enter #alllivesmattter, a reactionary hashtag that seems to suggest that we live in a post-racial utopia with a Black president and everything, and so should get over the notion that any of us is different than the other. In some cases it seems to be an attempt to drown out voices crying out for racial justice, in other cases it seems perhaps a genuine belief that we’re all living the same reality. Some demonstrate a limited understanding of the law (and cast minorities as criminals).
Implicit in #alllivesmatter is the notion that anyone was saying that it’s not the case, or that #blacklivesmatter is actually suggesting somehow that #blacklivesmattermore. This is false.
What’s not false, and what is absolutely critical context for this whole discussion, is a ProPublica analysis of police killings from October, 2o14, which states the following:
Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater i, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.
21 times greater. To say #alllivesmatter, then, is to attempt to erase the privilege that whites enjoy, one in which, by and large, we get to worry about being killed by the police 21 times less than African-Americans.
That’s completely staggering. We are not, then, all the same. Those who try to suggest that we are and that we are all living the same experiences are not, I’d venture to guess, familiar with very many Black people.
Since #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter took hold in the collective consciousness, we experienced another tragedy. A mentally ill Ismaayil Brinsley shot and killed NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. They were ambushed and murdered in their car, a brutal killing, like so many others, that should raise questions about our country’s attitudes towards guns and mental health.
Instead it spawned #bluelivesmatter and #policelivesmatter, and here’s why that’s incredibly offensive.
Again, setting aside fringe elements like Brinsley, in the main, no one is suggesting that police lives don’t matter, least of all me. In fact, my brother-in-law credits a police officer with saving his life by busting him for dealing drugs, an event that directly led to his own sobriety and pursuing a career as a chemical dependency counselor. Police do heroic work and face great dangers. They are not infallible, as we’ve seen, but their lives do, in fact, matter.
Here’s the problem. Social media users, seeking to advocate for law enforcement, could have come up with any number of clever hashtags to do so. To advocate for police at this very moment, however, using the very language that, let’s be honest, communites that have been oppressed by police are using to advocate for themselves, is insulting. It is tantamount to the kind of cultural appropriation that minorities in this country have faced since its inception. It is, in fact, like saying #policelivesmattermore.
And do they? NYPD officers turned their backs on mayor Bill de Blasio at Rafael Ramos’ funeral, a reaction, no doubt, to de Blasio’s criticisms of the NYPD’s history of police brutality. The action seems to suggest that, perhaps, the two officers would have been alive had de Blasio been quiet (in the face of racist violence). Ultimately, they turned their backs on Ramos’ grieving family, as well.
What’s more, they have obfuscated the issue. To ask police to stop killing unarmed Black men is not the same as being anti-cop. To say that #blacklivesmatter is not to say that white people don’t matter, or police, or anything else, but rather that we need to figure out a way to work together to create a society in which we do not have a racial predictability about which group is most likely to be killed by the police.
Those of us who, by virtue of our skin color, enjoy unearned privilege in this society need to put off guilt and shame and defensive posturing and instead examine and own our privilege, and in fact use it to create a more equitable world than the one we were handed.
I intentionally avoid using this blog for conventional blog posts. There’s enough of that on the internet, and my goal in maintaining a blog is to have something of a presence for my more real-deal literary pursuits. Even so, it seems some updating is in order.
In August I wrote an update indicating that I was residing not in my hometown of Minneapolis, but in my wife’s hometown of Santa Ana, California. I remember writing that post I tried to be careful not to tip my hand too far; rereading it now I see I didn’t do that great a job of hiding my unhappiness. Scrolling further, the poetry that came out of that time gave further hints (“Jilting” was me vowing to return a Minneapolis I left stranded at the altar — I’m that important, while “On the Realization of Dreams” was about just that — holding the reality of a life in California up to the dream of it, and also about how tragedy can feed a dream).
So we’re back in Minneapolis, and for a variety of reasons, none of which really make enough sense on their own, but which taken together were like a tractor beam from somewhere deep below Minnehaha Creek. It’s a period of adjustment, to say the least, both in terms of housing and employment, financials and long commutes and, frankly, the guilty feeling that comes from snatching a toddler out from under his extended family. We had that feeling in California, too, and it’s clearly a situation for which there are no easy answers. But this is home, and despite everything, it makes so much sense to be here.
I was going to say that it feels so wonderful to be here, but it isn’t, for the most part, elation, it’s more a constant comfort, or rather, the absence of longing. It’s knowing where the bathrooms are at First Avenue, or ordering a drink from someone at Muddy Waters I used to work the Monday afternoon shift with at Extreme Noise fifteen years prior. All sort of dumb stuff, but nice all the same. Turns out I was too old to start over, and I know it now.
In the meantime, though, the world is still a mess. I just watched a room full of students pledge allegiance to a country whose Central Intelligence Agency apparently thought rectal feeding was a thing that made sense/was humane/might produce some good intel. Further, it seems we are a country who thinks that white cops killing unarmed black men is completely inactionable. I believe in beauty and goodness and hope, but sometimes it’s difficult to imagine.
And I know, too, that it’s complicated. To quote the always brilliant Propagandhi:
“And yes, I recognize the irony.
The system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds.
That’s exactly why privileged fucks like me
Should feel obliged to whine and kick and scream.
Yeah, until everyone has everything they need.”
So that’s the update on my whereabouts and general feelings about the state of things.
I also have some writing news, which is maybe why you tune in. I’m thrilled to announce that my essay “On Infertility” will be in the final issue of Rad Dad Magazine. Their online presence is a little tricky to negotiate, but I believe that the tenacious among you can order your copy here, though it may take some clicking.
I find it tough, for whatever reason, to commit to serious writing during the schoolyear (did you already know that I’m a teacher?), and so don’t produce a lot in the way of poetry or essays during these months, though I do have a lot of ideas ruminating in my head. I do, however, continue to write about music at my other web location, the Shuffler. I hope you’ll consider clicking on over there as well.
As always, thanks for reading.
When I first moved to Chicago with my limited skill set and education, I got a job painting houses. One of the two bosses, I found out later, had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig‘s disease. He received his diagnosis at just about the same time that I was hired, and I remember noticing a curled hand and some slurred speech.
His name was Ben Byer, he was very active in the Chicago theater scene (I saw him play Elvis at the Steppenwolf Theater once), and he fought hard to the end, even making a documentary about his illness called Indestructible. I’ve known quite a few people who have died, and it always seems to effect me in a different, unpredictable way each time. I was especially struck by the cruelty of ALS, a disease that destroys the physical body while the mind remains sharp and intact throughout.
This is a story that I am particularly proud of, and, for what it’s worth, would like to dedicate it to Ben Byer and to all of those whose lives are touched by ALS. Thanks to Dan at Cellstories for running it.
Stepping out into the parking lot, the sunlight is blinding. The radio said that today’s is the warmest temperature on record for this date in May. I imagine a version of myself – more youthful, less aware – driving home with the windows down, blasting the first Weezer album through shitty factory speakers, singing along at the top of my lungs. Young Self gets home, calls up everyone he knows, and hosts an impromptu early summer barbecue. Real Self is struggling to get the car keys out of the front pocket of his jeans, his hand curled and non-responsive, the keys falling to the dusty pavement below. Real Self kicks the fender, slurs a curseword, and looks around humiliated before retrieving the keys with his good hand. He drives home and calls no one.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t sit home on the couch for hours, cell phone flipped open, almost calling every person I know. I do this. I sit there and sit there, first in the low, warm late afternoon sun, later in the cool purples and blues of twilight, and finally in the sad and lonely light of my phone. I almost call, but don’t know what to say, and each time think that maybe I can fix this, maybe this isn’t forever, maybe they can’t tell. And each time I almost get up to get my laptop, almost check every medical site I can think of, and each time hear the doctor say no known cure at this time, only stopgap measures.
The doctor was so nice, too. It would have been so much easier if he had been an asshole, or if he’d had bad breath. But he was warm, empathetic, and smelled like antibacterial soap, which is comforting, in its way. His eyes were deep pools of sorrow and apology, and I stared into them as he delivered the news, looking as though he were taking from me a boarding pass for a plane he knew would crash.
Back at home, my bladder can hold no more. On the way to the bathroom I wonder how long it will be until I’m no longer able to perform such a simple task. I return, grab the laptop, and find my way to lougehrig.com. There is a picture of The Iron Horse smiling back at me. Dumb motherfucker obviously had no idea what was in store for him when this picture was taken. And then, even though it’s his disease that I’ve contracted, I somehow wind up feeling guilty: I’ve always been a baseball fan, but never knew that Gehrig was Number 4. Feeling now somewhat connected to the man, this seems like vital information. I watch his farewell speech over and over, struck by the hyperbole of terms like “bad break” and “luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I feel sick.
I stare off and eventually focus on the ceiling fan above me. I allow my eyes to follow the blades as they spin, and then to get lost in them, and for a moment I’m tricked into thinking that the motion has reversed, but then everything comes back into focus and it’s a trick I can’t sustain. I do this again and again, losing myself in the illusion, waiting and watching as the laws of physics are suspended and righted, lost and found.
I want a knife or a laser or a time machine, something to extract the reality of the moment somehow, to make it unreal. It definitely feels unreal. I want to lay on the floor and open my mouth, vomiting out all of the sickness until there is no trace left. I want to be eight again, playing baseball with my friends in the vacant lot across the street from my house, the sun casting long shadows across our improvised home plate. I want to go back and live inside that moment forever, fully appreciating it as I do.
I want to run, physically sprinting through the darkened streets of my neighborhood, and begin to pace around, looking for my running shoes, my keys. When I finally find my keys, I decide the running idea is stupid and that I should just drive and drive and drive, maybe north to the Iron Range and Canada and the frozen Arctic Circle, maybe south to Mexico, but somewhere, anywhere else, to a place where none of this is happening.
Something in my brain clicks and I realize that I might be having a panic attack, veins awash with adrenaline and the sound of my pounding heart fills the chambers of my skull. I know this is unhealthy, remembering the time in college I punched through a dorm wall and had to pay a fine. I stop and breathe, my head between my knees, and finally, weak and ashamed, collapse onto the couch.
On TV there is a movie starring a man who is not George Burns, but should have been. He has been told that he has seven days to live, and must choose how best to spend them. It’s a movie I remember seeing some long ago Saturday afternoon in my dad’s basement as a kid. Not-George-Burns is in the capitals of Europe, the beaches of South America. He is with family, at the fourth birthday of a grandson. He is skydiving. He is not, this man that should be George Burns, concerning himself with the relative merits of taking massive amounts of antioxidants versus acupuncture and/or stem cell transplants as safeguards against the rapid degeneration of his body. Instead, this very forgettable actor is all smiles, checking off items on a list with smug satisfaction. I drink a lot of whiskey while I watch, stepping outside of myself as I do. I wonder how loss of physical control due to intoxication compares with the death of motor neurons that control voluntary movement. I wish my mind would shut the fuck up. I fall asleep before the movie ends.
My friend Brandon calls about an hour later. For a brief moment, I forget everything. Then, without thinking, I lay it all on the table.
“I’m dying, Brandon.”
“Yeah, we all are. Hey, those Twins tickets you got, were those for the sixteenth or seventeenth? I can’t remember and I need to put in for the time off work.”
I let it go. Brandon never really knew how to relate to anyone on much of an emotional level, and as a result, we were never really that close, but I think we both accept the friendship for what it is: we might go to a ballgame, get some drinks, help each other move, but it isn’t the kind of friendship either of us are expected to bring our feelings to. I have other people for that, and don’t lose a lot of sleep wondering whether or not Brandon does.
“The seventeenth. They were for the seventeenth.”
The idea of having tickets for something, standing plans of any kind, is strange. I’m still kind of lost in a whiskey fog, trying to follow Brandon’s story about a car accident, a spinout on 394 during the last snowstorm of the winter, but I still feel somehow as though I’ve already died, this afternoon, at the doctor’s office. The truth is, I’m still very much alive, very capable of going to a baseball game, and probably will, but after I hang up the phone I’m alone again with a treacherous body whose betrayal has already begun en masse. I want to be able to seriously consider suicide, and really do weigh the pros and cons of each method. In the end I can’t decide on one. I’m scared of what I might do in my state.
I get up and pace the apartment, unsure of where I’m going or for what purpose. I’m enraged, but quickly lose steam and make my way to my bed, where I sob and sob in a snotty, messy heap. I let loose, crying from somewhere deep within my chest, a place I haven’t accessed since my parents’ divorce. I was in the second grade. I cry until I can’t, and fall asleep, sideways and uncovered, just like in the old days, imagining again the disease leaving my body.
At some point I make my way under the blankets. Dawn creeps slowly and softly into my room not long after. It comes without fanfare or invitation and just sits, like a stranger watching me sleep. At a certain point it’s too much. I get up.
The sky is blue like a robin’s egg, or a flame, promising another unseasonably warm day. My mind races as I begin to plan, but it doesn’t take long for me to realize this will be my first day living with the knowledge that – in a very real and not very metaphysical way – I am dying.
The first thought something might be wrong I was at work at the group home, bouncing a dodgeball down a long hallway. The hallway smelled like Folgers and copy toner. I remember thinking that it was the hallway for stinky black powders, and began to sniff the air for dirt and gunpowder. Terry, one of my clients, shot the ball back at me with all of his considerable strength – Terry could never play an actual basketball game, but I’ve seen him sink ten three-pointers in a row before, it’s really something – and as I went to block it I found I couldn’t fully open my right hand. I’ve since learned to do this, though it takes time and the help of my left hand. That day, though, the ball struck my hand, jamming my ring finger, ricocheting into Betsy’s head. She was seated nearby in her wheelchair, and she began to wail. Betsy is sort of medically fragile, and so I still feel terrible for having her seated so near our game, and worse still for my inability to catch a stupid dodge ball.
That was the first day I wondered. After fawning over Betsy, apologizing more than was probably necessary (let’s be honest – she’s always wailing about something), I walked outside to schedule a doctor’s appointment.
It was one of these late spring snowstorms. Big, slow flakes that don’t mean any harm, don’t want to bother anyone, just want to bring a little quiet into the world. It was barely cold enough to snow, and I was fairly happy to be away from the noise of the group home. I got the clinic’s recorded message right away. As I waited on the line, I remembered hearing somewhere that Frank Capra had corn flakes painted white to mimic snow in It’s a Wonderful Life. I tried to imagine cornflakes falling out of the sky, and just couldn’t picture it. I remember wishing that I could fall into the illusion of black and white film.
Brandon and I managed to cop some pretty good seats for the Twins game. I had forgotten about this until today, but here we are, lower level, five rows back, right along the first base line. It’s the last season they’ll play in the Metrodome, the only ballpark I’ve ever seen a baseball game in. I remember my dad used to talk about the old Metropolitan Stadium, the Met, where the Mall of America is now. “That was real baseball,” he used to say, “this indoor shit is ridiculous.” I’m trying to explain this to Brandon, about how my dad was kind of a badass. I go into this whole thing about how the original home plate is supposed to be somewhere in the mall, but I’ve never been able to find it.
“Dude, are you drunk already? We just got here – that’s not your first beer?” I realize I’ve been slurring my speech; I have been all day. I’ve also been talking a lot, about anything, because whenever I stop, all I can think about is how bad off I am. And then – and I know this is terrible, I can’t help it – I lay it all out for Brandon, right there during batting practice while Justin Morneau fires rocket after rocket into the cheap seats. I’m yelling, and pretty soon I’m sobbing, and poor Brandon has no clue what to do. He just sits and stares into an empty beer cup that’s half-filled with spent sunflower seeds.
I get up and walk outside and sit on the steps of the Dome. There are people everywhere, which almost makes it easier to be by myself. Brandon, predictably, stays and watches the game. I sit and watch Twins fans walking back and forth, keeping my body as still as I can, not saying anything to anyone, just trying to feel it. I sit there for hours, feeling my mind working while my body does nothing. Occasionally I can hear the cheering crowd through the Dome’s fiberglass roof. I want to sit there for months, years, however long it takes. I don’t want to get up, to ever walk again, because I know there will come a time where that won’t work, where I will fall, where it will all fall down. It will be me in the group home, in hospice, in the ground. It’s all too much to take.
Across the street I see a homeless man I recognize as a downtown fixture. He’s been hanging around for as long as I can remember, charging passersby a fee to sign his trenchcoat. I assume this is how he supports his crack habit, though I’m not sure, and that’s probably not fair. I sit and see this man, quite convinced that he will still be here long after I’ve gone, still facing the reality of his situation in the most practical way he knows how. I wonder if either of us will get to see a game in the new stadium, imagining us drunk in the box seats at a Sox game, booing A. J. Pierzynski and high-fiving after a Joe Mauer homerun.
There is a blog devoted to the six sentence story. It is, somehow or other, also a social networking site. I don’t pretend to understand, but I do enjoy constraints like that. I submitted a six-sentence story earlier this year for a book-length collection of such stories, and was pleasantly surprised when my story was chosen for publication. Something about being printed in real-life, paper-and-ink, seems somehow more legitimate to me, despite the fact that eBooks seem all the rage right now and also the fact that I am currently writing in a very digital format. Still. It was exciting.
That so much space and serenity could be packed into a second would have been impossible for anyone but Harold Berglund to see. He had walked this route – church, pharmacy, grocery store, home – for some thirty years, and his feet knew well the angle and integrity of every sidewalk paver. Today, though, in the wake of a January thaw turned freeze, Harold Berglund’s boots found a slick patch, sending him into the air. His arthritic body was in flight, and he let his mind drift as well, to all the times he almost moved to warmer climes – Palm Springs, Tucson, he’d even thought at one time about Costa Rica. But he’d stayed, ever the dutiful Midwesterner, for his wife, now gone, and their children, whom he never saw. He saw it all as he flew through the smallest space in his neighborhood, speeding towards the ground he knew so well, where he would break his hip and go to sleep forever.
This was to be the first story published in actual print. So said Duotrope.com when I was searching for a market for my story. Alas, in a down economy, this turned out to be the first online-only issue of the now defunt SALiT Magazine (Savannah Arts and Literature magazine – the logo was a salt shaker). One way or the other, it was the first stranger to decide that my work was worth publishing, which was an exciting honor. This story is about a bad day my friend Eli and I had on our bikes last fall. He has since moved to Alaska, where I imagine he is hunting bears with nothing but his hands and his god-given intuition. Could be he’s working as a handyman or a carpenter, though.
They tell you, the experts do, to never, under any circumstances, employ the second-person autobiographical, adding, for chrissakes, what do you think this is, junior college? But you’re too close, and you need its urgency, and they aren’t there to feel the heat and hear the sound of it or smell the native herbs stirred up by the wheels of the ambulance that autumn day. They aren’t and you are and so that makes it your story to tell however you see fit.
You know that it’s the writer in you that recognizes the irony in the accident. You both bomb a hill and then admit to tapping your brakes most of the way down, for fear of losing control of your bicycles. Age, you say, has made you more anxious, and your friend agrees. He has forgotten his helmet, and comments on it often, as an explanation for the care he takes at intersections. “And if I’m supposed to be this bike role model in the neighborhood,” he says before the ride, “I should really wear a helmet.” You talk about people riding carelessly, and without brakes, and about health care reform and painkillers. But none of it seems ironic at the time, and you aren’t a reader; you don’t recognize the foreshadowing.
Neither of you is going very fast. The hill you sped down was no match for the one you’d just climbed, and now you were tired, were on your way back. This had been your friend’s idea, to wrap up early, and it had surprised you. He must have been tired, couldn’t have been going very fast.
You’ve seen plenty of seizures in your days working as a personal care attendant to the developmentally disabled. Those you’d expected, were on the alert for, knew the protocol. This is something different, nearly unrecognizable. It doesn’t seem real, and you feel stuck in a moment, stranded in time, lost between old and new and the cold sweep of the second hand.
Who puts speed bumps on a bike path, anyway? Surely this move was aimed at protecting public safety, which explains the bright yellow paint, this paint that will replay again and again in your mind as you look down, lift your front wheel, and float over with ease. You are in the lead, and here there are a few frames missing from the film canister of your memory, but there is a noise, a slamming of metal, and you look back to see more floating, slowly, slowly, your friend’s face into the pavement. At this moment, everything becomes unbearably fast, and it is at this moment that you become trapped.
You drop your bike and “are you okay” and lips flapping into the ground like a horse or someone with the shivers. He is shaking it off, he will get up, it was bad but he is okay, but he does not get up, it is not shaking off, and it is really, really bad. He is twitching now, and you call 911, and others arrive, and your friend is lying there, bleeding, glasses stuck to his face, being examined by strangers. You try to tell the dispatcher where you are, but you don’t know, or you only kind of know, and “does anybody know if we are near the chapel?” and what if you’d gone riding yesterday like originally planned or if you hadn’t suggested, at that T in the road, “let’s head over to Fort Snelling.”
More strangers now, and your friend is done convulsing, or maybe he’s not, it seems like it goes on a long time, but one of the strangers is good, she tells him not to move, so he must be done, now, and then you hear her tell another, “Sir, thank you, but right now the best thing you can do is go on and finish your ride.” A man in full historical reenactment gear is dressed as some sort of soldier with a red blazer with brass buttons and a hat like a cotton swab. He kneels beside you and your friend’s bleeding, barely conscious face and opens a small first-aid kit, never breaking character as he says, “would any of this be of any use to you?”
Your friend tries to get up, pushes himself to hands and knees, blood and spit dripping from his lips, says, “oh, fuck,” and you feel better, but you’re still worried. This could be bad, really bad. He manages a sitting position, answers questions from you and the good stranger. You can see his full face now, and one side is completely crimson. It’s terrible. There is a family not far away; they haven’t seen him yet because of the native grasses, and as they make their way, you shield his gruesome face with your body and hope they don’t notice. It’s the kids you worry about more than anything.
You’re still on the phone with 911, he lies down on his back, which scares you, but you’re more scared to move him. You get his age wrong, ask if he has a history of seizure disorder; he doesn’t. You are describing his injuries and he points to his lip – which is fat and you’ll find out later he’s bitten through – as if to say, “hey, dipshit, what about THIS?” But you know him better than that, and you feel bad for portraying him with that sort of malice, especially in his condition. He’s kind if he’s anything, and you doubt that this has changed, though head injuries can be unpredictable.
You’ve really got to get this right.
The dispatcher says an ambulance is on the way, and you can hear its siren, but she says, “I want you to stay on the line so we can make sure they see you,” and you are standing just behind the tall weeds, waving your arm, trying to be as visible as possible, lighting flares with your mind, and they do see you, and you thank her, and finally you are off the phone, suddenly without purpose.
The paramedics are good, too, and they speak kindly to your friend, giving him a neck brace and a board, and eventually onto the rig. You’re filling out an accident form with the park director, who offers to take your bikes to the visitor center and store them for you, which is great, because you’ve already gone digging for a lock and tried to figure out how and where to lock everything up before anybody even offered you a ride on the ambulance.
But they do, and it’s strange, nothing like in the movies. They tell you to ride in the passenger seat, and you do, and you sit there for what feels like a very long time while they take your friend’s vitals and ask him a lot of questions about who the president is and what is his address and “North? That’s a long way off. Did you ride down here or drive and then ride?” And you crane to hear his answers, because like them, you want to know what he knows, what he can do, how his brain is holding up.
When the ambulance does finally take off, you’re still in the front seat, not on a pleather bench in the back holding your friend’s hand and begging him to hang in there, please, just hang in there, buddy. And the ambulance doesn’t leave in a hurry, but slowly pulls off, and it’s the driver’s off-handed comment about how the weeds smell so good that tips you off to their existence in the first place so that you can mention them in your opening paragraph. Soon you’re driving the speed limit down the highway, him talking about all five times he himself had sustained head trauma, and how he’s a paramedic and doesn’t wear a helmet even though he knows he should, “but then I also know that lives would be saved if we wore helmets in the shower.” A fair point, and now you’re relaxed.
It feels strange, though, ambling slowly towards the hospital, making jokes with the driver about the relationship between concussions and early onset dementia. You say something about how maybe he should start labeling things now. He laughs, you apologize, he retells a joke Ronald Reagan made about his own battle with Alzheimer’s – “its great! Everyday I meet new people.” You feel like an ass and wonder about your friend, if he can hear you, if he knows what an ass you are. You’ve known him for years; he probably didn’t need today’s excitement in order to fully understand your character.
You used to watch E.R. pretty faithfully, so you think you know what it would be like to arrive at an emergency room in an ambulance. You think that you will be in the way, so you stand to the side of the ambulance once it’s pulled into the garage and the paramedics are extracting your friend. You feel a little useless and don’t know what to do with yourself, but then the paramedics, casual as ever, wave you over and tell you to follow them. So you do, and it’s into the emergency room.
The emergency room is very subdued, which you figure must be nice if you are a patient, but you want your friend’s experience (which is also your experience, to a certain degree) to mean something somehow, so a little bit of hustle and shouting would be welcome. Instead there is a clerk or receptionist of some kind directing them to a room.
“23 is open.”
“Yeah, in the back.”
“But there was a loss of consciousness.”
“Well, you can go in seven, then, we’ll just move some people around.”
You realize that this is all the urgency you are going to get. As you are realizing this, someone asks you, “are you family?” and you don’t have the presence of mind to lie, and so it is off to the waiting room for you to wait and wait and worry, stripped of all purpose.
This one I felt like maybe didn’t count for a couple of reasons. I have known Dan Sinker, the mastermind behind CellStories, for a handful of years now, since my days in Chicago (and his at Punk Planet), and he and I remain intermittent gChatters. I don’t think he would publish something if he didn’t like it, but even so, he’s a friend, and so to the insecure author who is being published for the first time, it feels somewhat akin to having your mom tell you she loves your writing (sorry, Dan, sorry, Mom). The second reason that I felt this maybe didn’t quite count as being published was the format: CellStories.net was among the first story-a-day sites available to people with cooler phones than mine. A brilliant idea, a limited audience. Many of my friends and co-workers to whom I was bragging were only able to view the site via a technical loophole that’s since been fixed involving Internet Explorer and janky old computers.
More than anything, though, I just kind of don’t like this story very much. I just came from a weekend in Chicago where I actually stayed in a Streeterville apartment, and upon doing some follow up Wiki research, discovered that many of the facts upon which this story is based may or may not be accurate. Alas, I guess that’s the way it goes, and really, it’s fiction anyway. This was originally going to be part of a novel that I ended up scrapping altogether as it was meandering on and on with no point, and largely relied on Elko, Nevada, as a place setting, a place I have never been, except maybe to pass through on the ‘Hound.
All Other Ground is Sinking Sand
With a history as a circus promoter, Captain George Wellington Streeter of the 35-ton Reutan steamboat felt an affinity for the ridiculous. A sudden July thunderstorm precipitated his passengers’ decision to take the train back to Chicago, leaving Captain Streeter, his devoted Maria, and a handful of crewmembers (none of which had the luxury of choice) to press on through the gales and whitecaps, Milwaukee shrinking much too slowly in their wake.* Having survived the Civil War and, later, evading an elephant attack, Streeter felt that he could also conquer the storm. As tends to happen, however, disaster struck just as the Reutan was nearing home. She ran aground on a sandbar not far from Chicago’s water tower. It wasn’t until the following morning that Cap Streeter was able to take stock of his new environs; despite his wrecked vessel and disastrous landing, he felt more invigorated than he had since fighting the Rebs in Tennessee.
*Accounts differ with regard to the purpose of the Milwaukee trip. While many refer to Streeter as a “steamboat operator and excursion guide”, at least one account calls the voyage to Milwaukee a dry run for a gun-running operation George and Maria hoped to spearhead in Honduras. This is not completely ludicrous: according to a New York Times article from January 27, 1886, “A local newspaper publishes this morning the following article: ‘There has been a good deal of suppressed excitement among men in Chicago during the past few days over reports received from the agent of a syndicate of Americans searching for gold in Honduras.’” Where there is gold, the logic went, there is likely to be guns as well.
In the age of Mark Twain, Streeter himself was a larger-than-life character. His moustache was a dominant presence on his face, hanging nearly to his chin. Yet where Twain appeared unkempt, rugged, a wild thing of nature, Streeter was more refined, a small man, surprised by all that he encountered – including, it seemed, his own existence. So he appeared through the looking glass of N. Kellogg Fairbank, magnate of the N. K. Fairbank Co., who had been able to sell enough nickel cakes of Fairy Soap to reside at one of Chicago’s most exclusive addresses.
Upon waking, Mr. Fairbank had, as he did each morning, his breakfast – one banana and a cup of coffee – brought to him in his bedroom. He stepped into the bathroom, splashed his face with cold water (no soap), and returned to take his meal at a small table by the window. His wife snored quietly in the bed. Reaching for his coffee he noticed something resembling a boat about four hundred feet out from shore. From Fairbank’s vantage point, it appeared as though the boat were a model, constructed, rather carelessly, by a child. With the aid of his looking glass, however, he was able to confirm that the vessel was full sized, even if its captain – beaming, breathing in the morning lake air in full pajamas and nightcap – was not.
“Yes sir,” Myrna was a slight Irish girl, barely twenty years old, whom the Fairbanks kept in their employ for all of their domestic needs. “Is there something else you’d like?”
Fairbank’s gaze remained fixed upon the water. He had done so much in life, but he’d always dreamed of a life behind the captain’s wheel. Like so many powerful men, his successes were merely a metaphor for that which had escaped him. “Myrna, I’d like you to send a boy out along the sandbar to that man, to ask him if there’s anything he needs and to give him permission to remain until his boat is repaired.”
This rare moment of generosity from the tycoon owed a lot to the fact that his wife wasn’t awake to talk him out of it. It was also predicated upon the belief that the captain would, in time, see fit to fix his vessel and sail away. What Fairbank could never have predicted, however, is that a character so unscrupulous as to have promoted the circus and plotted some sort of Central American arms-trading adventure will have little qualms about altering a municipal sign in the dead of night:
CITY OF CHICAGO,
with a little bit of paint, a little bit of moxie, becomes:
See Boat Captain.
And so Captain George Wellington Streeter was able to amass a small fortune while also creating for himself—by way of construction debris and captured sand—186 acres of prime Chicago real estate. For Streeter the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was truly great, as it produced a construction boom the likes of which the city had never seen, and he was more than happy to build his empire upon its offal.
This was not the way that the Fairbank fortune had been made, and so the notion that Streeter was able to combine brazen outlawry with dumb luck was enough to turn the soap peddler’s world on its ear. Weeks went by, during which N. Kellogg Fairbank continued to take his breakfast at that small table by the window, his gaze still fixed on that spot upon the water, a spot which continued to grow in size as time elapsed. “Something must be done,” he would hiss, the venom in his words drowned out by his wife’s snoring, the finish of the chair’s arm wearing away under the firm grasp of his white-knuckled hands. “Something must be done,” as he recalled a conversation with an acquaintance from the Tribune at the club: They say this fellow down on the lake set up shop over at the Tremont Hotel. Say he’s selling plots of ‘land’ – if you want to call it that – to anyone who’ll pay. Calls it the District of Lake Michigan, and says that the “deestrick” is only under the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Seems to me someone ought to do something. “Something must be done,” until he got tired of hearing (or not hearing over the snoring) himself say it, and one day rose from his breakfast, took his shotgun in hand, and walked to the shore.
By this time, the Streeter clan was no longer housed in the Reutan, but in another boat that had serendipitously run aground at Streeter’s shantytown. Upon examining the abandoned vessel and seeing its Castle moniker festooned upon its rather ample hull, Streeter gathered up his people and property and moved them from one shipwreck to the other. It was to this latest shipwreck that Fairbank set out.
As Fairbank had never been to war, had never lived among circus performers, and had never lived outside the gentry, it can also be said that he had never before approached another man, shotgun in hand, evil in his heart. Streeter, on the other hand, had learned at a very young age of the cruelty of the world, and of the need to guard his belongings with his life. In this latest chapter of life, this meant giving parcels of land to members of his crew in exchange for armed sentry work. Fairbank didn’t have a chance. Young Peter Zabrocki saw him huffing along his east lawn towards the encampment and opened fire, alerting the other guards to do the same. It wasn’t long before Fairbank was scampering away, returning to the safety of his home to draft a desperate, angry letter to his lawyer.
While Fairbank’s lawyer was doing what he could to win court cases for his wealthy client (illegal squatting, selling liquor without a license, etc.), old N. K. decided that he needed some Civil War muscle on his side. To this end he enlisted the help of Allan Pinkerton’s private security firm, the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. If the Pinkertons could foil a plot to assassinate President Lincoln, certainly they could run Streeter off of his homemade marsh.
In the end, it wasn’t the Pinkertons, or Fairbank, but rather the Chicago Police Department, some twenty-eight years later, who finally ran Streeter from his empire, which as this point he was calling “the Oasis.” And just as with later arrests of high profile Chicago criminals, the charge for which Streeter was ultimately brought in was not the one that made him a target: he was charged with violating the law against selling liquor on Sundays. Despite a number of outgoing shots coming from within the Oasis, this time around, no one was injured. According to the Times (November 15, 1915), “On Oct. 12 last Mrs. Streeter shot and wounded a policeman who had arrested her husband on a charge of selling beer without a license.” And even in these late years, Streeter had succeeded in enlisting his tenants in the Oasis’ defense with varying degrees of success: “Harry de Carmaker, 17, who lives with Streeter, was found shivering on a cake of ice in a refrigerator guarding the supply of beer with a rifle. He surrendered without firing a shot.”