Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The Impossible Chicago Pilgrimage Of 2009, Or: The Return Of The Black Mariah

My home town in industrial northern Indiana stood craggy and sharp against the grayish mud-colored skies of the Region...a vast, endless lakeside junkyard that had been created by that mysterious obscene wrecking ball known as Time.
- Jean Shepherd

It was during the planning stages for a recent trip to Chicago (this consisted largely of determining where the closest record stores and Italian beef emporiums would be located) that I realized that I would be merely a half-hour’s train ride from Hammond, Indiana, the ancestral home of American humorist Jean Shepherd and location of the boyhood home immortalized in the now-classic film A Christmas Story.

The midsection (or breadbasket, if you will) of the country that I’ve lived in for most of my life has always been, by and large, a mystery to me, and has remained mostly unvisited by me, having long ago filed it away in my mental gazetteer under “flyover country,” that spectral flatland so beloved of pundits and politicians that it has become shorthand for the true heart of a great nation, where the simple joy of a game of catch has never lost its lustre, where apple pies sit eternally cooling on immortal window sills, and where common sense is the truest and greatest of national currencies.

I imagined hunting down Shep’s legendary Warren G. Harding School, home of so many humiliations and triumphs. Surely its halls were still haunted by the likes of Flick and Schwartz and, yes, even Scut Farkus! Then I’d be off to Cleveland Street where a young Shepherd had watched the Old Man battle the Bumpus hounds, obscenities flying willy-nilly into the Indiana atmosphere as his kid brother whined about something, indeed, anything! All the while I’d be accosting strangers and asking them to take my picture with my iPhone so that I’d have photographic proof of this spiritual pilgrimage.

Such were the thoughts that simmered in my fevered brain as I boarded the South Shore Passenger Line, an unknown traveler cleverly hidden amongst Chicago commuters to whom this daily trip to Northern Indiana was an ordinary event. It was nothing of the kind to me; my stranger’s eyes were busy feasting upon an endless tableau of trains, train tracks, and power lines, a horizontal line that stretched itself out into the Infinite. What secrets were waiting to be unlocked? What encounters with my Midwestern brethren lay ahead of me, life lessons barely concealed beneath their neutral accents?

With each passing moment the landscape appeared to grow emptier and emptier until, having at last reached our destination, I seemed to disembark in the middle of nowhere. Indeed, the very walk from the train to the train station seemed to take forever. Having no idea exactly which direction to go in, I walked into the seemingly deserted station and made my way to the snack bar that provided a small dab of color at the other end of the drafty and barren structure.

I was puzzled. Where were the other tourists like myself that surely rode this train to glory in search of Shepherd’s ghosts? Had I beaten the usual rush? And exactly how far was I from Shep Central? Surely any town worth its salt would be smart enough to place its train station next to its most popular attractions?

The snack bar man put down his Chicago paper and looked at me. It was a look I had seen before, largely reserved for those occasions when the real world managed to slow down for a moment and get a really good look at me.

Even with the aid of the cane I was using this day (my faithful friend Dr. Harris Allred), the man told me I was miles away from the part of town I wanted to find. He suggested that I take the bus that stopped outside part of the way but, even then, he didn’t see how anyone could make the journey on foot. Laughing to myself, I thanked him and started walking, quietly confident that my Paul Bunyan-like strides, cane or no cane, would have me at the threshold of the Warren G. Harding School within the hour.

The quiet residential neighborhood I found myself strolling in seemed deserted. Well, of course, they were all working, beating out mighty sheets of metal destined for those mighty skyscrapers and stadiums yet to come. A truck drove by bearing what looked like giant iron washers for some gigantic sink. After what felt like an hour, I came wearily to an intersection that had route numbers. Surely this was progress.

I was cheered by the appearance of a White Castle hamburger restaurant on the one corner. In the middle of the street there was some sort of roadwork going on. With these exceptions, however, every other part of the visible landscape was completely unblemished by people, places, or things. And Cleveland Street remained miles away.

Somewhere in the pit of my stomach, the horrible realization that I had radically miscalculated the distance involved in this errand was becoming more and more difficult to ignore. And yet, ignore it I did, for if there was one thing I’d learned throughout my years of stubbornly pursuing the impossible, it is that it is always possible to make a bad situation worse providing you refuse to admit your mistake.

Completely and thoroughly exhausted by the distance already walked and the brutal winds assaulting me, an enormous overpass now lay ahead of me and I bargained with myself that if the remainder still appeared to be too far to go by the time I had set it behind me, I would turn around and go back to the train station, my mission unfulfilled. Because surely – surely – having come this far, the fates would smile kindly upon me and gather me up into their loving arms, depositing me neatly on Cleveland Street and even taking the pictures for me that I had come for.

At the crest of the overpass I surveyed the horizon. Behind me lay the black hole I had come from. On either side were the ubiquitous train tracks that spread out like this empty landscape’s forlorn signature. Ahead of me, though, I saw signs of life, storefronts and traffic lights. Thus encouraged, I made my way down the other side of the overpass, eager to make the acquaintance of the businesses huddled together on the block ahead.

The storefronts all bore signs that informed the reader that they were long gone, vestigial reminders of some other moment in history. Even the promising State Bank Of Hammond had, judging from its appearance, pulled up stakes sometime before Miami Vice had been popular. At the end of the block was a bar named Just Toni’s which, by the looks of the rules it had posted outside, had probably seen its share of spirited debates.

Had Shep ever riffed on gang colors?

Still, though, I could see those traffic lights in the distance. Like Gatsby’s green light, they urged me onward with their empty promises of a street just one more block away. Maybe the next one…but no. I had been bested. There would be no communion this day with Scut Farkas and his black Mariah or Wanda Hickey and the Cherrywood Country Club. I gathered up the shattered pieces of my American dream and slowly began to make my way back from whence I’d come, leaving the flatlands of Indiana to the giant washers and train tracks and Just Toni’s, a speakeasy that Fitzgerald’s doomed hero would have surely understood, as I allowed the current to bear myself back ceaselessly into the past.

I did, however, stop at the White Castle on the way back. I may be stupid but I’m not nuts.


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