My Vacation as Parallax Pt. 7
All vacations develop into sadness.
I truly believe this.
Here’s the part where my vacation got sad:
On Tuesday I visited what I consider “my neighborhood”.
I lived in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood for several years. It’s the neighborhood in which I felt most comfortable. It’s the neighborhood I chose, you know?
Now. I left years ago. I left West Town, left Chicago, and left a life that was a struggle in which I reveled.
I have long held on to the childish, naïve, and ultimately self-damaging delusion that when I leave a place it will remain as it was until I return.
It will not.
West Town is different now, but not entirely, of course.
It’s good to see that Permanent Records is still thriving. It was pleasant to have still-excellent chilaquiles at Flo, served by the same attentive but beleaguered waitress as years ago. And I enjoyed a cup of coffee at Atomix, just as I did (at least) weekly since 2003 or so until the week I moved away.
But Vigilante Press 1 was closed. They’re supposed to open at noon. I passed by several times and they were still dark and gated. 2
I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture of things in West Town. The neighborhood isn’t dying. It’s quite healthy, in fact. The streets are busy. There are several new bars and restaurants on Chicago Avenue between Ashland and Damen (my old “main drag”) and quite a few more east of Ashland.
These new places have customers, too, lots of them. And that’s part of what’s so strange to me when I visit.
Who are these people? Since when is my neighborhood teeming with Iowa and Notre Dame 3 graduates?
One of the new businesses in the neighborhood is a bar that features “Quad-Cities-style” pizza; a thing I believe does not exist 4. But people sure go for it. On a weekend night the place is so crowded it looks like the old phone booth gag, various limbs and faces sticking out from the windows and doors.
Walking up and down Chicago Avenue and in and out of various shops a very dark and unsettled feeling came over me.
I hit upon something in my search that underscores the sadness of returning to any former “home”:
This is how it feels to be a ghost.
I move about in a space that used to be my own. It’s changed, but I identify what it once was. What it was is what I am looking for. Nobody sees me. No one will notice me unless I act out.
I went to Permanent Records, a favorite of mine. The couple who opened the place, Liz and Lance, have long since moved to Los Angeles and opened a second location. The kid working was busy at some random shop stuff and didn’t look up when I came in. A few minutes later the Billy-Corgan-looking owner of Atomix came in and they chatted amiably, never acknowledging me. I walked out without comment.
I believe I could have shoplifted a couple of CDs for my drive without notice, so
invisible was I.
I needed contact. I needed, not validation, but verification.
Somebody note that I exist, please.
Where else would I go but to Cleo’s? It was my neighborhood’s answer to Cheers. On the rare occasion that I knew none of the patrons when I came in, I’d certainly know some by the time I left and would see those there again. It was the most affordable place to go when I lived around the corner (apart from home, but who wants to go there?) simply because the staff and owners of the place liked me and felt somehow compelled to not charge me most of the time. For my last week as a neighbor I visited Cleo’s every day and was charged not a single time for any item.
But that was almost five years ago. Everything passes, yes? It was an opportunity for deep disappointment, going into this old familiar place in hopes of solace.
I went into Cleo’s. I was the only customer. The bartender was Lance. He’s one of the guys who bought the place just over a year ago, well after I decamped for Oklahoma. I met him one evening when I was in town last September.
As I sat down at the bar I said, “How’s it going?”
Lance said, “I remember you. Is it Marty?”
I exist. I am known.
I was at Cleo’s for a couple of hours, just chatting. We talked shop, talked food, and talked about the excellent music playing (heavy on British New Wave with occasional forays into old good punk like the Buzzcocks).
Somehow my old neighborhood, my “home”, had been again normalized. And by somebody I didn’t even know when I lived there.
This visit to West Town was a mirror I needed to see.
It was cracked, sure, but there I was looking back.
The neighborhood has changed, just like I have. There have been great new things and awful new things. There will be more of both.
1 It’s hard to explain the significance of this comic shop. I like comics, but it hardly has to do with that. This shop opened well after I was established in the neighborhood. Sean and Lily, the owners, became dear friends to me. In fact, I spent my last night as a Chicago resident having dinner and drinks with them. We’ve sadly fallen out of contact. This happens.↩
2 I saw a post on Facebook the week before saying, “Help Save Our Shop!” It was a dark feeling indeed to see that gate closed all day. An update: I came back to the neighborhood a few days after writing this essay and found them open again. They worked out whatever problem they had. Please visit them and give support. Keep this vital little shop open, yeah? ↩
3 Notre Dame grads- or “domers” as they disgustingly call themselves- are not the worst people in the world, but they are obvious “also-rans". They’ll try to trick you into buying that Notre Dame is an Ivy League school. Do not believe them. ↩
4 I asked my friend Corey from Anty Shanty, a Quad Cities native, about this. His response: “That’s not a thing! What, does the pizza have meth sprinkled all over it or something?” ↩