Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Windy City

Part I

I had just returned to Chicago from a much smaller pocket of the Midwest - from my cousin's funeral. I had returned to the town of my early years in a way I never could have imagined: to see my cousin Joel laid to rest. Now there would be no way of saying what I was never capable of saying before. Growing up, he had played a crucial character in my story - that of slightly elder kin, the kind you idolize from the get-go. The lasting memories of my late cousin conjured up images of summers past in Northern Michigan at my aunt and uncle's cottage on Burt Lake, those summers growing up that are pivotal in a boy's life. In the untamed wilderness of Petoskey, Joel showed me how to skip stones across a morning lake, taught me how to ask out a girl from class, gave me my first cigarette from out of his sock behind the cottage shed. It seemed tragic but fitting that he died up there.

That Winter I was struggling to keep my head above water. After graduating from Michigan the previous Spring, I moved to the big city after a summer in Petoskey and suddenly found myself living away from my home state for the first time, hundreds of miles from my family and friends and girlfriend. The rigors of a first year law curriculum and a mean streak of a Winter, even by the Windy City's standards, weighed heavy on my shoulders like eight inches of snowfall on a dilapidated rooftop.

Amidst the turmoil that winter, I relied heavily on a combination of the Detroit Red Wings and the bottle. Yet the substance that had provided the answers to all of my problems in my collegiate endeavors suddenly was yielding more equations than solutions. As if set to clockwork upon college commencement, my body was no longer a willing participant in an exceedingly dependent relationship. What had heretofore been a love affair with Jack Daniels of internal unwavering suddenly had reached a domestic crossroads of biblical proportions, and in my twenty-two year old innocence, I hadn't the vaguest of notions as to how to grapple with real world issues, let alone one of this magnitude. But that collective storm disappeared the minute I heard the news about Joel.

As it turned out, I was sucking down whiskey sours in one of the nameless taverns in the gaslight district of Chicago's nightlife when Joel embarked on an ill-fated snowmobile excursion into the Petoskey woods that Friday night. I awoke in a daze early the next morning to a phone call from my Mother. I immediately suspected the worst; it was one of those phone calls too early in the morning to be anything but tragic news. My roommates still sound asleep, I sobbed quietly in that early morning silence before my Mom could finish a sentence. The phone call rocked me to my core. I stared out the tenth floor living room window into the Chicago dawn, the streets eerily empty as a fresh dusting of snow fell from the coalsmoke sky. My emotions crippled, I did the only thing I knew how: I reached into the refrigerator and poured myself a tall glass of whiskey and went to town. I emptied the bottle and didn't bother to sober up until I stepped onto the bus bound for home the following day.

By the time of the funeral three days later, the tears had yet to cease, but I knew I owed half of those tears to the fact that my hands were still shaking from what I was gradually beginning to recognize, undeniably this time, as the first inklings of alcohol withdrawal. When I looked into Joel's casket for the last time, I felt guilty as hell. I held up my trembling hands to his lifeless body, as if to show him; it was a plea for help, I realize now, one that I would be unable to mouth to any of the still breathing relatives gathered in that funeral home for some time to come. Maybe I needed Joel to hear it first. One thing was certain: this thing had become serious at last.

My girlfriend and family bade me a somber goodbye at the bus stop, the expectation of me being that I, like anyone who has ever attended a funeral, would move on. And back under the familiar shadows of the skyscrapers of Chicago, I tried to do just that. As I walked eastbound, however - down Jackson towards the law school building in the Loop - visions of Joel played on in my head with no pause button. As young deaths are wont to do, Joel's funeral had left me with a shocking dose of mortality. He was just a kid, not much older than I was. His funeral served as a stark reminder that even someone as young as he could cease to exist, without warning.

I had spent a good chunk of that bus ride from Ann Arbor to Chicago staring out the window at the passing Michigan countryside, pondering the gravity of my decision to embark upon a career in the legal field. I had succeeded in half-assing my way through my own reservations during the first semester in a haze of self-indulgent adventure in this exciting new place, which temporarily muted the nagging voice over my shoulder whispering premonitions of one grave mistake. With Joel's death in the rearview mirror, it was no longer a question of whether I had taken the wrong trail diverged in the wood, but whether or not I should get back on the trail I had chosen at all. As I entered the business hub of downtown Chicago, I felt tears welling up in my eyes once again. I was in over my head.

The Loop buzzed with Chicagoan energy as I made my way downtown. It felt strange that while my life had come to an utter stop during the previous several days, Chicago's urban motor continued to churn without missing a beat. Round-the-clock coffee brewed through tin pipelines into the cups of drowsy urbanites; underground the red and blue lines rumbled and paused, opening their doors to relinquish subway passengers, only to rumble forth again; at street level an endless brigade of honking taxicabs and police sirens polluted the airwaves unabated; and revolving doors at the feet of great skyscrapers swallowed up and spit out the nine-to-five crowd as if synced to the hands of some omnipotent clock tower. Chicago was ever moving. Yet there was no denying the fundamental change in scenery that had taken place within me: Chicago looked a little bleaker, smokier, darker even.

Thousands of people clogged the arteries of the city streets, cramped together side by side on narrow sidewalks, yet an odd feeling of isolation hung in the air. The roar of the winds and the sirens made the countless cell phone conversations in progress inaudible. Wool scarves wrapped around frost-nipped ears and fur parkas strung tightly against rosy cheeks disguised individual faces into one indistinguishable conglomerate of flesh.  In this mecca of capitalism, I felt disconnected from the city-goers around me - emotionally, spiritually, physically - to a degree I hadn't experienced on any previous foray into the city. As a crosswalk blinked from red to green, I fell into step with the rest of the masses, realizing that not one of these people knew about my personal tragedy, and not one of them cared. We were a community in name only, I'd sadly come to comprehend.

For once, the law school building looked welcoming. I pressed the eleven button on the elevator car and rode upwards with the hope of escaping my own head by means of delving into the great quagmire of contracts law. Still, upon entering the law auditorium, the sight of my fellow students only further plunged me into my own dark rabbit hole. Here congregated bright minds who needed only coffee for their conquests, looking dapper and genuinely enthused for life and law, chatting away within their individual law school cliques. How did they all look like so self-assured?

When my 1L year of law school began that Autumn, I was more stuck on the loss of my college buddies than I was intent on making any new friends; consequently I had managed to become somewhat of a lone wolf in my law school environment. This made the pre-lecture minutes of socializing and gossiping an anxious block of time for me. I resented them in their North Face coats, Ugg boots, immaculately groomed hairstyles, freshly-pressed sport coats, and striped ties, even if I couldn't pinpoint why I resented them. The exuberant chatter, the eagerness to discuss caselaw as the professor strode arrogantly down the aisle, the perfectly-crafted notes spilling out of briefcases - it all seemed to me some unjust conspiracy in my own misery.

Compounding the usual anxiety was the fact that, in my drunken haste to book a ticket home for Joel's funeral, I hadn't bothered to notify my professor's of my circumstances. It simply didn't register as important at the time, but it now triggered the fear of being cold-called during lecture and the corresponding embarrassment of revealing a lack of preparation to a lecture hall full of ever-prepared personalities. My usual routine consisted of riding out the inevitable hangover of Sunday and Monday and then cramming a week's worth of class preparation into a one hour time slot prior to class. In between the binge, the withdrawal, and the grieving, though, I hadn't bothered this time around. Instead I said a silent prayer asking that the professor call on any other unsuspecting victim, and, although this too was a customary part of the usual routine, I prayed with the religious fervor of an inner-city preacher this time time around.

It had been two days since my last drop of alcohol. And while leftover anxiety from the withdrawal still lingered, I thought I had cleared the physical hurdle of digestive torment and the slightly trembling hands. That is, until the nausea collapsed on me in a hot flash.

In my perpetual battle against the symptoms wrought by the come-down stages of weekend binges, I had swallowed a multivitamin prior to departing for class, thinking - inexplicably - that one daily dose of vitamins might compensate wholly for another weekend's worth of bodily abuse. From previous experience I instantly recognized the nausea as my body's rejection of the foreign vitamins to my system. I had scarcely touched any food in the past couple days, and it was not uncommon for vitamins to come back up on an empty stomach. I barely made it to the men's room before I started dry-heaving rancid-tasting particles of vitamins into a toilet.

Literally brought to my knees, I crouched over that toilet bowl feeling rotten with guilt. I thought I could feel the presence of my cousin's ghost in that stall with me at that moment, whispering solemnly but with that reassuring smile: You can hide it from the others, but you can't hide it from me anymore, pal. You need some help. I wanted to apologize to Joel right then, for letting him down at his funeral, for being unable to live the life he could have lived if he was still here. I wanted to tell him about how, when I first heard the news, I broke down in tears and listened to "No More Buffalo" on repeat. I wanted to confide to him how much those summers on Burt Lake truly meant to me. I wanted to explain to him how I wished we had stayed closer over the years, too. I glanced up from the toilet, as if to look over my shoulder for him. But I was painfully and utterly alone. And therein lay the problem.

The plight of an addict is an alleyway lined with gothic gargoyle statues, jagged black tree branches overflowing with barking crows, rusty metal fence posts, and prophesying black cats lurking behind trash cans. That road is lined with moments, too, not unlike the one in which I found myself thrust upon inside that bathroom stall. It is a moment of bitter truth that forces you to come face to face with your demons, demons which appear with maniacal eyes like haunted visages of your latest bender to remind you just how far off the rails things have come, with no hope of ever turning back.

Clutching the side of that cold porcelain toilet in the men's room of my law school complex mere moments prior to class, my eyes watering desperately, and staring into a toilet bowl stewing with recently-projectiled bile and undigested vitamin fragments - that was one of those moments: a moment of brief clarity when there was no denying the face staring back at me from bowels of that toilet bowl. I was an addict. And I would face down my demons. I had to face down those demons. And in that moment I knew, instinctively, that Joel was in that stall with me. And I knew, too, that Joel would be there beside me as I faced such demons.

While those moments of clarity on that treacherous road of addiction are indeed numerous, as any addict knows all too well, they are also fleeting. And it is the fleetingness of such moments that fuel denial, allowing the addict to move on uninhibited for his suffering. Because while I could feel the enormity of the bottle crashing down on me in that moment, and even see, too, the face of my torment staring back at me from the bathroom mirror, only minutes later I could stroll out the bathroom door, aided by eye drops and mouthwash kept on hand for such very occasions, return to my seat in the law school auditorium, and submerge myself into my contracts law text book in fact feeling all the more composed than I had upon first entering the law building. In a matter of minutes the professor commenced the Socratic method and my mind wandered off to the mysterious realm of caselaw. By the end of Hawkins v. McGee, I had nearly washed my mind of the bathroom incident entirely. Further, when it became clear that I had escaped the call of the Socratic method for another day, my anxiety dissipated like the aroma of an apple pie drifting out an open window on a sun-kissed Spring afternoon. Such an escape liberated my soul, and by the end of class I had even begun romanticizing the warm, soothing sensation of a Winter evening's cocktail.

From a disconnected or retrospective vantage point, it is easy to see the insanity of such cyclical thinking. But on the road of addiction it is nigh impossible to see the trees for the forest. The landscape of an addict's mind can change in an instant.

As I exited the law school building into the snow-packed terrain of The Loop, the epicenter of Chicago's business district, a weight appeared to have been lifted from the cityscape. Over the course of my Conracts Law lecture, the five o'clock rush hour had come and gone unnoticed. The city's business men and women had all retreated to the comfort of their townhouses on the North Side or their condominiums in the suburbs, leaving a barren landscape in the dark of the city night that looked less burdened, free even. It was in that post-supper dusk period that Chicago's streets opened up, paving the way for the underbelly of Chicago's alter-identity - it's nightlife. The possibilities waiting down each and every empty avenue seemed endless.

Traveling on foot, I bypassed the subway entrance leading a flight of stairs underground, as I often did when the weather relented, foregoing the squalid, cramped atmosphere of mass transit for the cleansing solitude provided by the mile-long walk back to my apartment in Greektown. In stark contrast to the hustle and bustle I had encountered only hours earlier, Chicago's streets now resembled an urban wasteland, void of life in the dead of an arctic Winter. Momentarily the scene brought me back to the Millwood woods of my youth, where we used to drag our toboggans across trails hidden beneath heavy snow, our adolescent bodies laboring under a canvas of treetops drooping with icicles after a recent snowstorm.

Chicago stared back at me from its shops and alleys alongside the Jackson street sidewalk: some Italian immigrant looked up from a pizzeria window as he sprinkled red pepper flakes over the grease topping a freshly baked pizza pie; two vagrants in tattered clothing huddled over a trashcan fire in an alley, one of them swigging from a plastic bottle enclosed in a brown paper bag and then handing it off to his partner. Friends and Seinfeld and Law and Order episodes glowed blue from television sets high up in apartment lofts, the distance that prevented any diagnosis of which shows played from which windows being of inconsequential significance. If this was the American dream, it certainly looked lonely.

Onward I walked over the bridge that rose above the Chicago River. Just beyond the river, the golden clock tower of my apartment building rose into sight from the West, shining like a Draculean full moon guiding me home. I paused along the bridge to look down into the river. The Chicago River dissected the cityscape like a fault line ruptured from an earthquake, but frozen over it looked tame and impotent. Underneath the bridge, miniature cyclones of dusted snow spun aimlessly atop the frozen river surface. The icy waters stood still, as directionless as my life felt in the eerie calm of that winter night.

I couldn't make sense of it all. Only a year ago, everything seemed to make sense. In Ann Arbor back then, my girlfriend, my best friends, and my school were all within a fifteen minute walking distance of my college house, that cozy place on State Street that never failed to feel like home on a cold winter's evening during my senior year. Now, a hundred miles from anything that I had ever cared about, I couldn't seem to relocate that feeling of home in Chicago.

I hastened my pace, knowing that serenity awaited me at the corner liquor store outside my apartment building. I walked onward to the West, bought a bottle of gin, and went searching for that feeling of home in the bottom of a bottle.


Joel and I would face down those demons, but it would be another day. The road I was traveling may have been treacherous, with a number of twists and bends up ahead, but it would be many exits before I would reach any sort of impasse. Until I got there, I like to think that Joel was watching over me all the while, keeping an eye on every mile marker along the way.

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