Chicago 17th April 2008
We pass rolling fields of yellowed stubble, kites suspended overhead eyeing the rat-runs. Road-kill raccoons litter the shoulder; I speculate that it’s mating season, that they’re throwing themselves across the freeway to reach potential mates whose ripe scents are wafting on the wind. You could get three coats and a good stew from the carnage.
Enormous road-side billboards invite us to Adult Superstores (1000 yards off Exit 56) and budget motels and family restaurants. There is not much view for them to obscure. A pair of hipster dudes zip by in a vintage Buick, wearing vintage shades and vintage T-shirts and vintage facial hair. Then a pick-up passes towing a trailer loaded with blasting material. That’s followed by a truck carrying medical waste. There’s a pile-up I’d like to see.
The lady in the truck-stop admires my shirt. I seem to be appealing to the older woman these days. Once they’d want to mother me, now I think it’s something else. I tell her it’s second-hand but that doesn’t translate. Used, baby, used. The next comment I receive I will say that I am in mourning and wearing my deceased grandfather’s wardrobe. To be fair, for all I know I might be. Although my grandfather was a Victorian Calvinist and I don’t think he had much taste for round collared Celtic-green chemises.
The beautiful Chicago skyline rises suddenly from the horizon like Atlantis emerging from Lake Michigan. I remember how breathtaking the same view was when I first saw it in 1986 as the August night fell. America is a place still capable of thrilling a person as jaded as me. The sky is a piercing blue, the breaths of air from the lake waft pleasantly in your face as if you just opened a freezer door. I want to stay here for a month and go to shows and diners and sordid bars.
The crowds at the two shows exude a highly personalized affection for the tunes. They know all the words and often break collectively into song on particular lines from verses and middle-eights. Maybe that’s where I hid the choruses. I never could get my head around a hook.
In the morning I take a bus downtown – so clean and gleaming. There is always this relaxed atmosphere here, like someone took New York and turned the volume and contrast down. Lakeshore Drive bends around its huge expanse of vivid turquoise. I’m in a pensioner’s version of Grand Theft Auto. I feel serene, strangely; not a state I am used to. A young woman with a clipboard grin asks me to contribute to gay rights. I become befuddled. Am I just to hand over a dollar bill to affirm my liberal world-view? It seems to me that the better option would be just to say I am gay – what does it matter anyway?
Now back to the interstate. We point our vehicle north-west to the Twin Cities and press go. The landscape flattens and widens, broken by lines of the low bare trees that delineate the plots of dry soil. Great steel snakes stretch across the fields injecting water into the parched dirt. We cruise through, Gillian Welch on the stereo moaning exquisitely about this vast sad land of hopes and desires stopped short and buried in the shallow earth.