Monday, August 19, 2013

Not Reading Augie: Scenes from a Chicago Summer

Only the city knows the whole story.
-Aleksandar Hemon

Andersonville in the golden-crusted late summer gloaming. I was walking west on Berwyn Avenue from the L, squinting into the sun, United A320’s sliding down the glide slope into O’Hare. Chunky globules of lofted sprinkler water outlined in high-def light. The air not yet autumn-tinged, but starting to gesture at fall, with a baby’s-butt-smooth breeze coming off the Lake. Unseasonably dry for August and too soon for corn, still waiting for the last blast of Indian summer heat. The whole scene ready-made for Instagram. Sunflower stalks climbing up wrought-iron fences and starting to reach their crescendos. The tiger lilies shriveled and the lightning bugs gone. Now just the sound of cicadas and tentative piano chords from a bay window. The smell of something freshly baked and flags hanging limply over stone stoops.

For the fourth week running, I had Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in my bag. I was meeting a friend for soul food at Clark and Balmoral—pretty much the soft, gooey center of Chicagoan gentrification in the city’s unofficial “Little Sweden.” That is: about as far from Augie’s West-Side childhood home (and Bellow’s own Humboldt Park digs) as one can get in Chicago. And though I had some time to read before dinner, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of evenings you have to save in the memory banks for freak-show January days, when the snow comes down sideways and you can’t recall summer and you says things like: “You sound sick. Are you sick? I’m already sick. You definitely sound sick too.”

So, for about the thousandth time this summer, I decided I’d just “read later.”

I started Augie for reasons that have begun to seem like someone else’s ideas. It’s supposed to be a quintessentially Chicago book. In 2011, it was chosen for “One Book, One Chicago,” a program meant to inspire Chicagoans to all read the same thing at once. But because it’s long and has a kind of strange extended interlude in Mexico that involves hunting lizards with an eagle, I think consensus is that the book didn't quite "work."

Nevertheless, I’d been curious how the Chicago that I know compares to the brawny, striving, immigrant city that Bellow describes from the book’s very first sentences. “I am an American, Chicago born,” Augie begins in his own take on Call me Ishmael. “Chicago, that somber city.” I wanted to see how Bellow takes Somber Chicago’s particularity and wrests universal themes from it—something that few writers have done to such unanimous acclaim. And to a lesser extent, I wanted to come up with some observations about anxiety of influence in a town where conversations about literary lights too often seem to return to the same cluster of Twentieth Century men (Algren, Bellow, Dreiser, Terkel, Wright, etc.).

But it had already taken me more than four weeks to finish Augie, and summer was starting to feel scarce, the angle of light trending more acute every day. Instead of just finishing the thing, I looked for any reason to put the book down, to distract myself—as if I were a petulant freshman creative writing student, insisting that it was more valuable to experience the world than to read about the world.

Or something.

So on that particular evening in Andersonville, for instance, I used the evening farmers market at Berwyn and Clark as an escape: a kind of pleasant sensory overload.

Michigan peaches and quarts of blueberries. Heirloom tomatoes the size of basketballs. Handouts at an artisanal honey stand that advocated starting my own urban beehive. Stout, saucer-faced farm girls from Normal, Bloomington, and New Glarus, smiling in custom farm-branded hoodies and handing out samples of jams. Neon yellow Wisconsin cheddar cheese curds in clear plastic bags—the kind that squeak when chewed and sweat when left out on the table too long. And an eight-year-old boy wearing his bike helmet as he danced on a wooden crate in front of a string band playing folk tunes. Off to the side, talking with a butcher who was sharpening his knives in the back of a van (which, okay, seemed a little strange), the boy’s parents watched.

Everyone smiling their biggest, pleasantest, sincerest late-summer smiles.

Saving it up for January.

That was August 6. That night in the West Pullman neighborhood—on East 120th Street (the very opposite side of the city)—two men, a 35-year-old and a 38-year-old, were murdered. Maybe while I was looking at jars of tomato sauce. Who can say?

Right around the start of July, to avoid having to read on the L, I started biking the twelve miles from my apartment to my office in Hyde Park, through the Loop and along the sludgy Chicago River to the Lake Path. I downloaded an app to track my speed, distance, and calorie expenditures. I watched my progress and weighed myself. I’ve gotten faster and leaner. But every day, bikers in Lycra body suits and clip-in shoes, traveling four to a pod (a swarm? a herd?), still shout “On your left!” and pass me.

Man, they really do seem to enjoy it, too.

When I bike to work, I shower in the gym at UChicago and change in my office. At the end of the day, I shove dress shirts into my desk. I have to figure out when I’m going to take all of those clothes back to my apartment because it’s too hot to carry them on the bike. Riding home on hot July evenings, I would pack Augie and stop at 31st Street Beach on the South Side. I’d leave the book in the sand and wade into Lake Michigan. I’d drift north, looking toward Navy Pier, trying to let things come to me.

Families from Bridgeport and Bronzeville and Pilsen swim there. They barbecue in the grassy park behind the beach and everything smells like sausage. They drink Bud Light Lime while CPD officers look out at the Lake, as if straight through them, with their hands tucked into their bulletproof vests.

A few times, I sat at the beach too long, reading Twitter and not reading Augie, and got caught in thunderstorms that came flying in over the Lake. Dark pillars of clouds vectored in from Minnesota, breaking over the skyline in waves. I biked until the rain filled my eyes and then waited under awnings or beneath Lake Shore Drive, drenched. The storms would clear and leave sticky greenish air behind.

At the end of July, I bought a small condo in Logan Square, the neighborhood where Augie accompanies Mimi to an abortion doctor. Which is only to prove: I continued reading the book, even while using various meetings with agents, brokers, inspectors, appraisers, and lenders as excellent excuses to read it as slowly as possible. I’ve been calling the condo “my own 750 square feet of America.” It’s at the end of the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.7 mile-long rails-to-trails project that will revitalize more of the northwest side of the city.

The mechanics of urban development confuse me. I'm just trying to make good decisions. My father tells me it sounds like a good investment. I called him 42 times in the first 10 days of August.

A few weeks ago, my friend Chrissy was packing for a move to Boston and I had an early-morning flight to catch to California. We decided to do a quick dinner to celebrate and say goodbye. After, we smoked cigarettes on Kinzie Street, watching the lights turn on and off in offices and showrooms along the north side of the Merchandise Mart. People on rented Divvy bikes piloted unsteadily past, banging through potholes in the bike lane.

I told Chrissy that I was still reading The Adventures of Augie March.

“I’m worried I liked the idea of living in Chicago better than I liked living in Chicago,” she said. I’m not sure if it was exactly related to Bellow or if she was just nervous about leaving. We smoked. A cyclist stopped in front of a valet station and ninja-kicked a cone that had been placed in the bike lane. He rode away, turning to stare at a valet in a red vest, who simply righted the cone.

I knew where Chrissy was coming from. On one hand, there’s a sense that something about the right-now experience of Chicago fails to live up the muscular originary ethos of the place. The Augie March narrative. The narrative about midcentury gangsters and immigrant workers and coal yards and diesel engines and the blood-smell of the slaughterhouses hanging over the Loop. The one that has something to do with Chicago being the most authentically American of cities.

On the other, who can say what exactly all that’s supposed to mean?

And who’s to say what replaces it?

On the way to the airport in the morning after I had dinner with Chrissy, I sat next to a woman on the L who wore a TSA uniform. She kept falling asleep. I was going through old tweets and not reading Augie. And I’d forgotten that Chicago author Aleksandar Hemon had responded to me when I invited him to eat hot dogs at the very beginning of the summer. One Chicagoan to another. Hemon lives in Andersonville. Or maybe he just writes about Andersonville. I can’t remember, but I did read his book of essays The Book of My Lives. It’s more about a Chicago that I recognize. Even though some of the essays aren’t really even about Chicago. At least not directly.

Anyway, here’s how he responded: “Tempting: Hot Doug’s [the name of the place] is sometimes the only thing standing between vegetarianism and me.”

A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago. He lives on Chicago's Northwest Side. Reach him at

No comments:

Post a Comment