Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Groundhogs on the Northern Haul: New York to Chicago

We’re 227 miles from Chicago. My right hand is swollen with a cluster of mosquito bites that have become one enormous hard aching welt. Anthony has pink eye. The car has lost two wheel covers and the brakes are squeaking constantly. Entropy. Things fall apart. We drink a lot of coffee. I turn to the artists I admire for ways to talk about decay that are fearless and appreciative of its beauty: Henry Miller, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen.

In New York, I had the fascinating experience of feeling severely disappointed by the Museum of Sex. Max (Ted) and I went to it with high hopes. Only one floor, the “Sex Lives of Animals” exhibit, was really mind-blowing. My main complaint is that the Museum of Sex is actually more of a Museum of 20th century, Western cultures’, Sex-in-media, a kind of pornography and erotica retrospective that has unclear notions of where it wants to start and how it wants to progress. The place, in attempting to somehow stay out of any particular political debate about sexuality or censorship or taboo, has rendered itself rather boring and quaint. Great underground bar, great store, a few really good pieces by some mostly contemporary artists. Not nearly enough context for anyone to know the true importance of what they’re looking at historically.

The Tenement Museum, in contrast, was brilliant. Oh, all these museums are too expensive, but our tour guide, Rachel, made our tour the most exciting and important and informative and infuriating (in a good, activist way) 90 minutes possible. I turned to Max and said, “This is really, really fun for me.” Learning, real learning, is one of the most pleasurable activities there is, I think. And now I know quite a bit about the garment industry of the early 20th century on the Lower East Side, which helps me think about immigration history in our country, which helps me understand better what is happening now in Arizona, Texas, California, and so on.

And then we left New York! We met an Amish family in rural Pennsylvania. They had dirty clothes, blunt haircuts, four horses, and they sold us honey in old salad dressing bottles at $2.00 a piece. We drove through two small towns: Desire and Panic. In Desire, we saw a hutch full of baby lop-ear bunnies. They wore black rings around their eyes and most of them still had one ear pointing up, like some fantastic sound had just rolled in from the West. And that is where we’re headed. West on I90, listening to Springsteen and missing Clarence Clemens and drinking no-name coffee from yet another defunct Dunkin’ Donuts. There are maverick, functioning, former franchised donut shops all over this country! Just another reminder that the constant fight for survival is still tolerated by those who fantasize about being the next big capitalist, not the lower management or worker. Desire and Panic. We are not a Buddhist nation, sir, oh my, no.

We stopped in downtown Sykesville, PA and met an arrogant Israeli pastry chef who boasted that he had no employees. His cinnamon rolls were sweet butter dough dancing, and he’d built a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of cardboard and icing.

At the Museum of Labor and Industry in Youngstown, OH, I tried to understand how people in the 19th century poured pig iron, and imagined being a wife in a company town. 

The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame rose from Lake Erie like a disco-ball promised land and I walked into a U2 concert in Buenos Aires, in Cleveland, and got enraptured by the mad bright 3D crowd and their perfect strong shoulders, but especially by Bono’s screaming desire for the Overman. I last saw U23D in January of 2008, when I was a different Vanessa, living in a different city, thinking much different thoughts about my quite different life. Pow! Time and space collision!

One tendency I see in this part of the country that fills me with distrust is the constant architectural use of boxes. Especially in the depressed areas of cities, the boxiness of the strip malls, little houses, schools, hospitals, restaurants seems like a form of aesthetic punishment. All the signs are rectangular. The windows are rectangular. The siding is a long series of rectangles. The fonts used to advertise are square and symmetrical. I don’t believe it to be much or at all cheaper to write that way than to use script. There’s an inertia to this kind of urban landscape that people take for granted, and I think it’s one of the contributing factors to our being no longer a revolutionary country. When people are given only boxes to live in, they see boxes everywhere. If they are told, in the subtle form of their city planning, that they do not deserve beauty unless they are wealthy, they will believe it, and that belief spells the end of creativity. The Heidelberg Project offered a gorgeous “fuck you” to this homogeneity of aesthetics.

The Heidelberg Project is a street, a nonprofit, a community art organization, a cluster of unlivable, burned out houses that have been transformed into huge art projects in Detroit. One of the houses in the H. Project was covered with stuffed animals. They’d been nailed to the outside walls, and it seemed that new ones kept getting added. One could tell how long a stuftie had been living on the house by its level of disintegration--many of them were drooping and matted, greying and sagging from rain. I photographed their sweet sad faces.

I met a boy at the Heidelberg Project who offered me such hope for change. He was eleven years old, black, living in this ignored and depressed area of Detroit, riding his bike around the neighborhood with a few friends. He let us play with his basketball and I asked him if he’d contributed to any of the installations on the block. He said yes. Which one? I asked him. He refused to tell me.

“Come on, you’re never going to see me again,” I said. “Why not tell me?”
“You gotta guess,” he said, smiling.
“Tell me one fact about yourself,” I said. “Then it will be a fair chance for me to guess.”
“I like art,” he said. “And basketball, and I play football at school.”
We played a brief hot-and-cold game until I’d found all 3 art installations he’d helped with. One of them was a two story home covered with enormous colorful polka dots.
“You painted some of those dots?” I asked.
He nodded.
“That’s my favorite house on the block,” I said.
“Mine too,” he said.
Hell yes. Hell yes. Hell YES.

Earlier. We kept seeing these adorable fuzzy animals on the side of the road--both alive and dead, and then found out that they are woodchucks! Groundhogs! They are incredibly cute, and the internet says that they get killed by cars in enormous numbers because they like to eat the grass at the side of the road. Immediately after reading that, we were hearing more and more reports on the Casey Anthony’s release, and we realized that nationally, accident statistics dwarf the statistics on crime, but it’s crime reports everyone seems to care the most about. It’s as if our collective desire for control over death manifests itself in a phobia of “criminals” instead of a logical move to prevent stupid accidents. Can’t CNN do a story on defensive driving?

We’ve killed nothing but some bugs so far on this trip, so our current level of decay and entropy feels lucky. And now I’m in Chicago, sweating out the dusk in Wicker Park, eating Wheat Thins and tuna on a blanket, waiting for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to play on the big inflatable screen. Pow! Another confusion of spacetime! You thought I was 227 miles from here! And I was.


  1. Your blogs progress effortlessly like a child genius' weird games.

  2. This is my favorite adventure ride and I do not want to get off. Seeing stuffed animals where there are dead groundhogs, woodchucks, les marmots. It doesn't matter.

  3. I adore the game of "Guessing" with this kid, seems pretty cute and smart just from your description. This seemed to be so adventurous and moving, constant moving. Moving your writing, moving your brilliance around like blowing bubbles, adorable, and full of energy and magic!

  4. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
    The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.