Original long-form nonfiction narrative writing
During a trip to Chicago a chance meeting on the Michigan Avenue Bridge reveals tensions between a young man and his travel companions, in this essay by David Griffith.
The first time I thought I was in love I asked the girl if she would spend the day in Chicago with me. But what sticks with me now about that day is the application of a dubious waterproofing solution to my new Hush Puppies on a bridge over the Chicago River.
Walking fast along Michigan Avenue, back toward the Randolph Street station to return to South Bend, a man stopped me on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and asked if he could waterproof my shoes. He looked homeless: dirty clothes, odorous and unshaved. He held up a spray bottle filled with a cloudy solution. He said it would protect my shoes from dirt and water. He said he needed to get something to eat. C’mon. Help me out.
Chicago was a mere two-hour train ride away from South Bend, Indiana where the girl and I were both juniors in college. I had it all planned out: We would take the light-rail line from the South Bend airport all the way to Randolph Street Station, in the heart of the Loop, and then walk the block to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, we would spend the day holding hands and staring at famous paintings, just like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was a simple plan with no ulterior motives, other than to experience the kind of aloneness that was not possible at school, where we were hemmed-in by single-sex dormitory rules and an attaché of single friends who made it impossible to be alone for very long.
Complicating the situation was that my best friend—let’s call him Jack—was best-friends with the girl in question—who we’ll call Claire. When I told Jack of my plan to ask Claire to Chicago, he said, “great idea, we’ll have an awesome time!” This is not faithful to what he said, that conversation is lost for all eternity, but for a long time I wished I could have that moment back, do it all over again and have the courage to tell him that we was not invited. In the end, I didn’t hold hands with Claire that day. I didn’t get to directly express my affection for her other than to maybe hold a door open, or direct her to paintings that I thought she would like, like Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” and right around the corner, Bacon’s “Figure with Meat.”
I did, however, buy a pair of black suede Hush Puppies at the Macy’s in the high-rise mall, Water Tower Place. It was a difficult, almost painful, decision. I was your typical broke college student and so agonized over purchases that were not alcohol-related, but I had wanted a pair of Hush Puppies for a long time. Hush Puppies were making a comeback thanks to the popularity of ska music and that Vince Vaughn movie, Swingers. At the time, I played trombone in a band called the Skalcoholiks, a septet whose members, with the exception of the guitar and bass players, all played in the university marching band. Ska just happened to be Claire’s favourite music, and she had once off-handedly admired a pair of Hush Puppies in a magazine, so it seemed to me in my state of hopeless infatuation that these shoes would have the power to win her over, to gain the love that I felt I deserved.
So, when the homeless-looking man stopped me, and asked to waterproof my shoes I just so happened to be wearing the new Hush Puppies. Like a little kid, I had worn them out of the store. My old shoes—a beat down pair of Vans—were inside the Hush Puppy box, inside a shopping bag that bumped against my leg with each stride.
I looked up to find Claire and Jack at the end of the bridge staring back at me, irritated and incredulous. There was something about the way they looked at me—the way they had looked me as I agonized over whether to buy the shoes—that caused me to look down and say to the man, “all right, go ahead.” He got down on one knee and sprayed the solution liberally on one shoe, then the other. The black suede turned even darker as the solution—whatever it was—soaked in. Then the man rubbed at them with a cloth, followed by the kind of two-handed buffing that made the cloth pop and snap. When he finally stopped and stood up, the nap of the brand new shoes was mottled and scuffed. “Ten bucks,” he said putting out his hand. I was surprised at how much he was asking—actually, I was horrified, I didn’t have ten bucks to just hand out to some bum; I couldn’t really afford the shoes I had just bought. The shame of buying them came crashing in.
All of this happened beneath a large allegorical frieze. Above our heads, on the bridge pylon, stood a busty woman wearing an armoured breast plate. A cape falls from her wide shoulders and long, flowing skirt falls in folds to her feet where a scaly serpent flickers its tongue. In her right hand she grips an L-square, a common architectural drafting tool, and in her left a sheaf of papers. All around her a crew of classically ripped, shirtless men with Caesar haircuts and Roman noses strike contrapposto, Lewis Hines-esque poses. One hammers at an anvil, another saws a beam, another strains at a tow-rope, and the last stands astride an I-beam being lifted into the sky by a hook. Behind them, peaking above their shoulders, tongues of flame lick the cityscape, representing the great fire of 1871 that consumed four square miles of the city, a disaster of such magnitude and pathos that it prompted one commentator to write five months after the blaze, “to participate in such scenes made every man feel like a hero among heroes.” Overlooking this whole tableaux, a winged messenger blows a clarion, announcing, mandating, Chicago Will Rise Again!
The frieze is titled “Regeneration” and is part of a quartet adorning the bridge’s four pylons by sculptors J.E. Fraser and Henry Hering. The reliefs honour and mythologize Chicago’s mercurial rise from a marshy fur trading post on the banks of the Chicago River at the turn of the 19th century, to hosting the World’s Fair in 1893. On the south face of the same pylon that I stood beneath as my shoes were spritzed and buffed, a frieze titled “The Discoverers” depicts French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet gazing boldly toward Lake Michigan. Behind him, touching the officer’s arm as though offering counsel, is his travelling companion and chaplain of his expedition, Father Marquette in flowing monk-like robes and tonsured hair. Marquette and Jolliet were the first White men to explore and map the Mississippi River. Surrounding the explorers, sinewy and nearly naked, Indians stalked. Flying above the heads of Marquette and Jolliet, and also gazing sternly into the distance, is the winged-goddess of victory, Nike, bearing a torch, lighting the way forward.
Growing up in the Midwest, I had studied this history, seen many depictions of it in murals on courthouse walls, statues in municipal parks, and in school filmstrips educating us on the great pathfinders of the Midwest, and in propagandistic textbook accounts of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, so-called because it was in part a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World, an exposition replete with an ethnic zoo of sorts, in which African natives and Native Americans in ceremonial dress sat in dioramas recreating their natural habitat. In some cases, complete villages were recreated so that spectators could feel that they were coming close to what life might be like for these people. Ironically, the motto of the anthropological exhibits at the Exposition was “To see is to know.”
Here in these friezes was a radically condensed and potent crash course in Midwestern history. On the other side of Michigan Avenue from where I stood, a frieze titled “Defense” depicts an American soldier locked in mortal combat with a wild-eyed Indian in full headdress while defending Fort Dearborn in 1812. Behind the solider a woman huddles, clutching her child. The fort, built in 1803, was burned to the ground and its inhabitants massacred. At the opposite end of the bridge, the relief “Pioneers” depicts a party of men, women and children, led by fur trader John Kinzie, trekking westward toward the newly liberated territory. In 1804, Kinzie, born in Quebec and who considered himself a British subject, bought a cabin on the north bank of the Chicago River where the pylon stands. He purchased the cabin from Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a Haitian émigré who built the cabin in 1779 and who some consider the “Father of Chicago” as he was the first non-indigenous person to settle in Chicago. (Note that du Sable is not represented in any of the four reliefs.)
There is a noticeable gap here. Not represented are the treaties and land sales, the “enclosure” of the land that the Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, Potawatomi and Miami Indians had been hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Sac chief Blackhawk challenged the validity of these deals declaring, “Land cannot be sold,” thus launching the opening salvo in the Blackhawk War, a short-lived war ending with the massacre of dozens of men, women and children as they tried to flee a Federal fighting force twice their size. Also not represented are the stockyards of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which would not have been possible unless the Indian territory had been enclosed. The vast stockyards were the first of their kind anywhere in the world and pioneered a method of killing, processing, and shipping meat referred to by Chicago history expert William Cronon as essentially “annihilating space.” The Jungle, which I read as a high school senior, served as my introduction to the issues surrounding poverty: usury, slave wages, the shame associated with charity, and the paralyzing despair that comes with prolonged poverty. Though I didn’t know it at the time, The Jungle radicalized me; it made me aware of a reality I would otherwise have remained blissfully ignorant to for years to come.
In order to represent the whole, complicated history, the bridge would need many more pylons. Ancient Egyptian temples, where the term pylon originates, sometimes had several pylons decorated with large reliefs of the king slaughtering his enemies to boast of the Pharaoh’s might. Pylons framed temple entrances and were thought to symbolize the two hills of the horizon between which the sun rose and set, but they also called attention to the divide between the “chaotic outside world and the [orderly] created world,” the inner-sanctum of the temple. Archaeologists have discovered that the space between the pylon walls were often built with the rubble of older, ruined temples. Since Pharoahs were thought to be descended from the gods, temples symbolized their creative power, their ability to affect and shape the world itself, and so this practice of filling the hollow walls of new temples with rubble is also thought to be an expression of mankind’s continual battle against chaos, entropy.1
But the pylons on Michigan Avenue Bridge are rarely seen as symbolic or having cosmic connections, though they do rate as art. Commissioned by the city of Chicago in the mid-1920s as part of an architectural plan to rival the Champs-Élysées or the Unter den Linden of Berlin, the reliefs, depicting the stages of Chicago’s development were imagined to mark the passage from the old Chicago of corn, pigs, and cattle to the new Chicago of skyscrapers and shopping plazas. The new construction would be built over top of the existing Wacker Drive, now known as Lower Wacker, so that the old would reside beneath the new.
American artist Charles Simonds’ sculptures embody a similar idea. The first of what he called “dwellings” were built in 1971 inside condemned tenement buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ignacio Lucenti describes Simonds’ ruins as “secret sculptures” reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamian ruins or Native American adobe dwellings; they “represent sentences, excerpts that speak of man, of landscapes and building.”
In the days, weeks and months following the fire of 1871, Chicago took on such symbolism for Americans. Within days of the disaster, plans were underway to rebuild Chicago bigger and better than ever. According to one commentator, the fire “did nothing to resolve the city’s deep divisions along class and ethnic lines,” but it did something “more radical . . . it provided a model for individual initiative and innovation.” A visitor to the city, witnessing the renewed spirit of progress, called Chicago, “the concentrated essence of Americanism.”
The bridge on which my Hush Puppies were waterproofed, the Michigan Avenue Bridge, was the lynch-pin of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 “Plan for Chicago,” connecting the south side to the north side shopping district now known as the Miracle Mile. The sheaf of papers held by the Amazonian woman in “Regeneration” is no doubt a reference to Burnham’s “Plan.” Studying the friezes now, more than a decade later, in the pages of architecture books, in personal Flickr accounts, and on Web sites devoted to tourism and public sculpture, the most striking moment of any of the four takes place at the bottom edge of “The Discoverers.” Here, one of the Indians, his well-muscled back and right quad bulging, kneels at the feet of Louis Jolliet and appears to be holding a piece of cloth.
The friezes, added up—the classically rendered pale faces posing gloriously, heaving and sawing with smouldering determination, the attendant heavenly hosts, the tonsured missionary and the lean, skittish savages—reveal the double helixical strands of American DNA: the heavenly mandate that the fresh, wild, yet untrammelled, bosom of the New World should be brought to heel by any means necessary and that this long and perilous work would be rewarded by multitudinous blessings on each succeeding generation—as long as they worked hard. Here is the sanctification of work and the eroticizing of the will to power. All of those who have not been blessed by the spirit of enterprise and progress will be left behind, their houses will fall into ruin and within two generations the damage will be irreversible. Here is a shrine to Manifest Destiny and the Protestant Work Ethic.
With Claire and Jack looking on, some well-spring of vanity and pride moved my unwilling hands to reach into my pocket, take out my wallet and hand the man kneeling before me a ten dollar bill. Neither of them could understand why I did it. “Why did you stop?” they asked. I didn’t know. I couldn’t explain the impulse, which made me furious at myself and them.
We made the train with time to spare, but the ride back was subdued. I have no idea what any of us was thinking. I undoubtedly imagined how romantic it would have been to hold hands with Claire as the train jounced toward South Bend. Jack probably composed a few lines of poetry in his head. Claire, well, I never knew her well enough to know what she was thinking, but I like to think she was thinking of me. But all this looking back, imagining our fresh, uncomplicated faces—the tortoise shell barrette in Claire’s hair, the smell of Gauloises cigarettes on Jack’s sweater—discussing poetry, as we often did, is sentimental and vain.
What happened on the bridge was no symbol for progress or connection. The bridge was just a bridge. The figures in the tablets were nothing more than decoration, a pleasant wallpaper pattern that I’d grown used to. As the train left behind the city lights and we entered the rural dark, I stared at my shoes and worried the scuffed places and the money and longing they represented. I had already forgotten the man on the bridge. I had paid him to get lost.
1. J.G. Boggs describes Simonds sculptures as “archeofantastical ruins in the hollowed-out flanks of crumbling tenements.” Boggs asks, “ . . . just what sort of activity is going on—art? play? madness?—and indeed that confusion was part of what the work was about.”
David Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard To Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Utne Reader, The Normal School, IMAGE, Creative Nonfiction, and online at Killing the Buddha, Essay Daily, and Bookslut. He teaches at Sweet Briar College in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, and his two children. He blogs at http://davidgriffith.tumblr.com