July 18, 2010
I started to jumble my words on the freeways heading into Chicago. Not truly badly, or to the point where I was nonsensical or in any way reminiscent of Steve Miller Band lyrics, but just enough that alarm bells started to ring.
So, while we were at McDonald’s, getting coffee, on the outskirts of town, Zara gently quizzed me.
‘Hey, what state is Hobart in?’
My mind was a foggy, cotton-wool blank.
‘Um… I know it’s not Western Australia, so maybe it’s… uh… fuck. I have no idea. Where is it?’
‘Tasmania,’ Zara said.
‘Oh! Yeah! Tasmania. That’s right. It’s the capital city of Tasmania. Well, I knew it wasn’t Western Australia.’
Even though there were only ten minutes to go to Gina Frangello’s house, it was unanimously decided at this point that Zara should take over the driving.
In my defense, we’d been driving for days of this:
And my higher faculties had declared a teacher’s strike.
And Tasmania sucks.
I slumped in the passenger seat and suddenly realised how completely exhausted I was in body and mind when my bones started to lock into position as a primitive defence against moving anywhere ever again. As we pulled back onto the expressway and I started to slur my sentences, I turned to Z:
‘Yeah, it’s a really good thing that you’re driving right now.’
I love American highways. I like the way that they curve above and over cities and turn in engineered semicircles and split and slew off like Hydra heads. Almost like when Dion O’Banion was executed on November 10, 1924, and Henry ‘Hymie’ Weiss, Vincent ‘The Schemer’ Drucci, and George ‘Bugs’ Moran sprang up to take the vendetta right back to Al Capone’s front door.
Something something Chicago, something something Prohibition.
This is what I know about Chicago.
This is all I know about Chicago.
So I wasn’t really ready for our turn into a sidestreet of friendly Americana, because I kinda figured that all the houses would be shaped like either guns, whiskey barrels, or politicians dressing far above what their pay grade should allow. But no. There was a vibe there in the streets of Chicago that I immediately clicked with; I think it was when I noticed that every house had a seat or bench on the front porch, something that spoke of summer nights where you could sit with your friends or partners or family out in the evening and throw conversations back and forth across the street with your neighbours. Whether or not that actually happens, I can’t say. But it’s a nice image.
We got the call maybe a minute after we pulled up, and as a car was pulling in a couple dozen yards behind us.
‘Where are you guys?’
‘Oh, shit,’ I said to Zara. ‘It’s Becky. Don’t start any arguments because she’ll beat us at them.’
Like many of you, I had suspected that Becky was merely TNB somehow come to a kind of eerie electronic half-life; that she could pull resources and knowledge from the entirety of the internet because, in a very real sense, she was the internet; the sum total of human knowledge.
Instead, she’s just kinda badass. And her husband’s awesome.
And they brought a whole cooler full of beer. Which is generally how we like to meet people.
Gina, who kindly, but foolishly, allowed us access to her house while she wasn’t there, was still at Printer’s Row, so the four of us shipped our bags from the car to Gina’s place and then headed over to meet the rest of Chicago’s TNB representatives, and, so far, the only TNBers who have had any children together that we know about.
The first question, of course, was to know how the famous shirtless Boose horseriding picture came to be. Boose, with an easy smile and an easier laugh, told us about how he was on holiday, and horseriding was one of the activities on offer, and at the end, the horses rode through the ocean, and it just made for a fun photo opportunity.
And then he got a strange look in his eyes, and he leaned in real close – too close – and absently scratched at his shirt, as if remembering an old wound there, possibly from a bayonet wielded by a nameless French cat burglar at a range of about a quarter to a third of a foot.
‘But as long as you promise to never mention anything about this, especially on the internet,’ he said, in a harsh and haunted whisper, ‘then here’s the real story.’
‘Oh, Greg,’ Claire said, carrying a plate of one of the most delicious dips I’ve ever had out from the kitchen. ‘No one wants to hear our boring old diamond-heist-gone-wrong story again. I swear, every time we have guests.’
So we got to sit on the deck and look at the river and talk about how it sucks to write humour, because the industry has no idea what its missing but one day, one day we’ll be there to shove their stupid faces right in it, which is always nice, and we found out that Claire’s work has appeared in Australian newspapers, which is more Australian newspapers than my work has appeared in, and then, with a careless breeze in through the door, Gina Frangello was with us.
She stopped to wipe her boot on the mat as she came in.
‘Sorry, ‘ she said. ‘Some fan of my new book was lying in wait for me and wouldn’t stop smearing lipstick all over these shoes. Embarrassing, really. But what can you do?’
I like TNB people, and I liked the Chicago TNB people. And so it was a shame that a beer and a half and hours of fatigue reduced me to a syllable-esque conversational black hole that light itself couldn’t escape from. ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Good’, and ‘Bad’ became my avenues of discussion, silvery threads of expression that I clung to tightly as a means of staving off the sleepiness that sluiced through from the back of my skull and swaddled my eyeballs.
‘So, how is it living in Australia?’
‘And do you like what you’ve seen of America?’
‘How was Gary, Indiana?’
The last half of the night saw Becky and Palani take us down to downtown Chicago for a view of the town proper. The sights we got to see included:
– a giant silver blob shining splendid in the night
– watching as a guy who had tried to panhandle us five minutes previously was panhandled himself by another panhandler who was dressed marginally worse
– our very first Great Lake
– Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator himself, sitting in stern and silent contemplation of Chicago at night (I left him a penny, figuring I would want someone to do that for me if my face was on money. Some day)
– and, the personal favourite, the guy speeding through the streets on only his rims, his windshield smashed, and bumper crumpled back so badly the hood of his car was folded over itself and the corner was scraping across the asphalt as he drove (not long after seeing this guy, we saw speeding police cars heading in the same direction he’d taken).
And so by the time we got back to Gina’s, we were exhausted, and grateful, once more, that someone from TNB was taking care of us. Because our next stop was the East Coast; given that we’d started on the West, we were going to need some sleep.