The Power of Place

23 Apr

Billy goatTo get to the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago you have to go to Lower Michigan Avenue. Upstairs in regular, normal Michigan Avenue you have the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. If you continue north there’s a bunch of hotels, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, the Water Tower, and the John Hancock building. It’s called the Magnificent Mile and it is basically the equivalent of Fifth Avenue in New York near Tiffany’s and Bergdorf Goodman. There are great restaurants and women wearing fur coats. It reeks of money.

Lower Michigan – and to a greater extent, it’s evil cousin, Lower Wacker Drive – are oil-stained car parks. It’s where they shot all those chase scenes in the Dark Knight films. When you walk from the Upper to the Lower it is like traveling with Dante into a deeper, darker circle of the Underworld, but with no Beatrice to guide you safely home. There is a sense – a tangible, palpable, and yet eerily otherworldly sense – that something really bad could go on down there. It’s like Rape & Murder Central. Sun does not permeate and people do not congregate. There should be a sign that reads “Here There Be Dragons.”

Years ago I got lost down there and was walking by some cars when a dog started chasing me. It was a Rottweiler. I walked too close to it and it started barking and then started chasing me. I ran, but could feel its breath on my soon-to-be-chewed ass. Suddenly, I heard this clanking of metal and a soft whimper. I turned and the dog was standing about five feet away from me, eyes ablaze, fangs bared, but stopped in its tracks. Someone had chained it to their car as a rudimentary protection against auto thieves. I had wandered to close to it and…

Boy, did I need a cheeseburger and a beer.

So I went to the Billy Goat Tavern, a greasy spoon once frequented by old school Chicago journalists like Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet, and  later made famous by John Belushi’s “Cheezeborger! Cheezeborger! Cheezeborger!” sketch on Saturday Night Live. (Though the diner in that sketch was called the Olympia Café, it is based on the Billy Goat). There’s also a little matter of a curse supposedly handed down by the owner upon one of Chicago’s sports teams, but, whatever…

When you go into the Billy Goat, the history rubs off on you. You have to order a double cheeseburger, not a single, just like at McSorley’s in New York you can’t just order just one beer, you have to get two. It’s cheap and the beer is awful, but who cares? There is something so warm and inviting about it that you feel safe having just come in from that evil Lower level and its yapping hellbeasts.

Lower Michigan and Lower Wacker feel wrong. They feel off. Just like the Billy Goat feels right. It feels warm and comforting. Whether it’s the light or lack thereof, the amount of people, the photos on the wall that imbue a tavern with story and history, or whether it is something you bring to a certain location, certain places have power.

***

I feel about new Yankee Stadium the same way I felt about old Yankee Stadium. It’s utilitarian. The views are fine, and the concessions are overpriced in that perfect New York way. It’s neither particularly pretty nor intrinsically ugly. The team is what you’re there for, after all. Who cares about the looks, it’s the fucking Yankees? In that way, Yankee Stadium is a plain Jane who dresses well but will never be the person all eyes at a party seem to follow. But she’s smart as a whip and if you corner her into a conversation, you will soon discover why all the other women hate her – she really is better than they are. (I guess, this makes the Metrodome the ugly, stupid, mean girl with acne and a harelip.)

The historical significance of old Yankee Stadium never really got to me. I knew things had happened there. Babe Ruth and DiMaggio and Mantle played there. Gehrig, Whitey Ford. Reggie Jackson became Mr. October there. But somehow the fact that these things happened there never really got to me. And then one night it did. A walk-off homer by some no-name bench warmer, and suddenly the place erupted. There was the power of the place, the unexpected explosion of kinetic energy that flooded the stadium with all the glories of the past and the potential of the future. But that is baseball, after all – the humdrum of the present broken by the strange immediacy of history.

***

Why is it that haunted houses always just happen to be built on Indian burial grounds? Because they are. Look it up.

A haunted house, by definition, had someone die in it. Usually that person died somewhat horribly, like axe to the chest or bowling ball to the testicles (okay, that one won’t kill you, but you’ll wish you were dead and your screams will echo throughout time). And because of that death, because it was so unnatural, the spirit cannot move on, but rather stays right there in that house. That house that was once normal, but is now very much haunted.

Haunted houses are evil places because evil happened there. Of course they aren’t real, but there are real life places that seem haunted. Walk by the World Trade Center site and you cannot help but be overcome by a sense of loss, a patina of sadness that only dissolves as you move further and further away. Anyone who’s been to Gettysburg or Auschwitz understands that sensation that something horrible happened there. True, we know these places’ histories, but it is more than just knowledge of a location’s story that infuses it with power.

Am I saying there is a supernatural element at work here? Not exactly. This is more like déjà vu, a sudden sense of dislocation within the natural world. We experience it daily – the knowledge of what someone is going to say before they say it, the perfect understanding that a person is lying albeit with no actual evidence of deceit, the sudden premonition that something awful is about to happen. (When a character in a film says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” trust him, always.)

Sometimes you walk into an apartment and you feel like you’ve been there before. It reminds you of some warm and inviting place, your grandmother’s apartment. Maybe it’s that smell of potpourri, baking bread, and cat. Maybe it’s how the light comes in through the blinds. Maybe it’s just the temperature. It’s probably a combination of all the varying sensations that our bodies takes in. And our minds sort them out and calculates them quickly, and relays a response: this is a good place, be happy here; much death occurred here, be sad;  this place is cold, but not so bad, make of it as you will; run for your life, motherfucker, bad shit is about to go down.  We feel it in cathedrals and cemeteries. In the dankness of a windowless office and at the beach on sun-dappled eighty degree days. And at the ballpark.

***

My favorite place in the world is Wrigley Field in Chicago. It opened 100 years ago today, so, um, Happy Birthday, inanimate object where no one’s won squat. At least you’re not the Cell almost ten miles to the south.

If Yankee Stadium is the homely girl with a head on her shoulders, Wrigley is the beauty who might not be the brightest, but is the sweetest and warmest person in the world. She’s the best friend you marry because you want to see her every day of your life.

Wrigley is a box of memories, for me and for all those who venture inside it. And even though so many of those memories ended with heads hung down, tear-stained cheeks, and the only consolation being a long, lonely winter, none of that bleeds into my feelings of Wrigley when I am actually inside it. Disney World is the happiest place on earth, but that is a faux, manufactured happiness, bottled by corporate overseers and marketing gurus to best appeal to what they think people want. Wrigley’s history is real. It happened, good or bad, but it is true and honest. And when I am inside it, when I walk in behind home plate and see the field spread out towards the wall and the old scoreboard whose numbers change by hand, I know that nothing bad really truly happened there. There I am surrounded by my friends and family, all the disparate Cubs fans who feel the same. We are one and together, win or lose. We have each other, in Wrigley’s warm, friendly confine of an embrace.

Wrigley 2

Game Day. A Wednesday afternoon. It’s day baseball, the way the game was meant to be played. You take the day off work, and no one bats an eye at that because it’s baseball and it’s the Cubs, and you take the kid out of school for a day so she can witness the miracle that is nine innings in the sun, the glorious tedium of three hours of waiting for something to happen. You get on the El in your Cubs gear, a cap and a pinstripe jersey with the name Dawson and the number 8 below it, your favorite player growing up as he patrolled right field like a gazelle. Your kid is in her Castro shirt, it’s the one she wanted and you can’t quite break the news to her that this Castro fella might just be a bust. But so what? She doesn’t know better yet, doesn’t understand loss and heartbreak and hope ripped from your soul in the early days of October as the leaves and ivy turn. She’ll learn soon enough, and she will cry, but she will get over it because a hope dashed is reborn in the Spring and a heart broken can always be mended and learn to love again. At least she’s not one of those goddamned privileged Yankee fans, you think as the train stops at Argyle and Lawrence and Wilson and Sheridan and gets more blue with parents and kids in Sandberg and Grace and Sosa and Wood get-ups. There are a couple of old timers in Banks and Santo jerseys, those greying men who’ve not missed a game in thirty years even when it rained or the team was twenty under .500 before the Fourth. These old men go alone and listen in on the radio and keep score. All the ushers know them by first names. You think to yourself that you don’t want the Cubs to win it for yourself, or even your kid, but for these people who have invested so much of their lives in a baseball franchise. And then your kid starts pointing and you can see the tip top of the lights as the train turns down that familiar S-curve, and you feel it.

You feel that you are close, that you are at the outer layer of its atmosphere. That familiar warmth. You remember when you were a kid and skipped school (but not with your parents’ permission), and got cheap bleacher seats (six bucks, unlike the fifty they are today) and some of the old old timers would buy you Old Styles and the wind was blowing out and it turned into one of those games that no matter who you had on the mound the ball was just zooming out, and once you almost got one, a homer by that Phillie bastard Mike Schmidt, and all you wanted to do was catch it so you could throw that mother back. Now you look up at the flags and see that they are pointing out. Whipping out. Oh, it’s gonna be a good one. A real slugfest. Anybody’s game.

The train stops at Addison and you hold your kid’s hand as you make your way downstairs and through the turnstile and past the scalpers going “Who needs bleachers?” “Got two! Got two!” and past the frat boy assholes, and you wonder if they go to the park for the team or just for the beer and the camaraderie of being in a chiseled douchebag coterie. These are the rich fucks who don’t care if the team wins or loses, and yet they’re the rich fucks who can afford the tickets when(if) the team gets to the postseason. These will be the rich fucks who will celebrate Inside if(when) they win it all, while you will be at home with your kid (unless you’re dead by that point and your kid has kids of her own) and happy, but so very far away. And the rich fucks piss you off because they have tinged Wrigley with something distasteful. They’re the good-looking rich fucks who are hitting on your beautiful and sweet, warm and inviting girlfriend. You still think she’ll choose you in the end, but just the fact that she is humoring them nauseates you.

You buy a bag of peanuts outside because Wrigley for some reason doesn’t mind people taking peanuts in from outside. You find your gate. You lean down and give your kid her ticket. And when she goes through the turnstile and the old woman rips her ticket your kid says “Thank you,” and really, isn’t that the best thing that can happen all day?

You’re Inside. You were Outside, and now you are Inside. And you take your kid’s hand again and you follow the signs that show you where your seats are, but you pass the ramp that goes all the way upstairs because you want to take her somewhere else first. It is dark in here, in the concourse with the beer and hot dog and sausage concessionaires. It’s almost as dark as Lower Wacker Drive, but this darkness is not menacing, it’s only an antechamber to the light that you can already see streaming in from the ramps to the field. The one you want is right up ahead. You hold your kid’s hand as you begin to walk her out to the field right behind home plate. You can already see the bleachers in the distance and the buildings across the street with their own makeshift bleachers. You look down and your kid is trying to peer up but is too short, so you pick her up and put her on your shoulders and you walk out like that as the sun hits her face first and then it slides down to yours. You can smell not just the beer and peanuts, but the old beer and peanuts, the ones eaten here ten, twenty, fifty, sixty years ago, the ones eaten at that last World Series when a man with a pet billy goat was not allowed admission and cursed the team henceforth and in perpetuity, the sun now warm on both of you, the history of all those losing seasons somehow never really what you feel, rather an invitation to hope again, to sit with your child, and she with her own children in years to come and henceforth and in perpetuity, from one generation to the next, hoping and praying, and eating peanuts and cracker jack, and being warm under the high summer sun, and you come out and there’s the diamond spread out before the both of you, and there is the bricked and ivied outfield wall, hawkers yelling “Beer here!” and “Peanuts! Get yer peanuts!” and above you your kid looks around, just taking it all in, and understanding what so many others have been discovering for a full-on century, what coming here really feels like.

She’s home.

2 Responses to “The Power of Place”

  1. Beth Berlin April 24, 2014 at 10:46 #

    This is just fantastic! Have you ever been to lower, lower Wacker? The auto impound lot is down there and is downright creepy. Makes “regular” Lower Michigan/Wacker feel like a walk in a well-lit park.

  2. Jacob April 29, 2014 at 10:50 #

    Never been down there. But the next time I’m in Chicago I will take my hasmat suit and check it out.

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