Bird For The Daughters of Juarez

Bird for the Daughters of JuarezShortly before his death in 2004, Roberto Bolaño, the great Chilean novelist, mailed off the manuscript for 2666, his sprawling, frustrating, multi-layered masterpiece about a world coming apart in many locations and time periods– all at the same time.

Central to this story–stories, actually–are the murders of women in the fictional St. Teresa, which is actually Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.  Authorities fear there may be as many as 5000 unsolved murders of young women and admit that there are at least 1200.  The Mexican government blames the outlaw Narco-Mafias, as well as members of  Los Rebeldes, a notorious Juarez street gang involved in drug and human trafficking.  Police have also arrested itinerant workers and bus drivers known to drive the routes where some of the women’s bodies have been found, all to no avail.  The murders continue as well as an eerie proliferation of corridos, or “murder ballads;” songs circulated about killings of unfaithful lovers, hookers  and “bitches.”  It is a horrifying phenomenon that has been going on since around 1993, with the indifference or incompetence of police forces too afraid of the gangs to adequately protect the young women, mostly from other parts of Mexico and Central America.

What resonates from all of the conflicting stories are ugly tales of sexual mutilation and violence accompanying each murder.  Rape is almost always a component of these crimes. Bodies are found in vacant lots and trash dumps as well as by the sides of the roads.  What is shocking is the cavalier nature of this brutality.  Women are murdered routinely and with impunity, with no fear of consequences.  At the center of Bolaño’s messy novel  is the idea that someone or something in the air suggests these are “sacrifices”  for a world devolved into a degenerate state.  There are lots of other ideas ventured as well, but the sickness at the center of the world’s heart is never more acutely rendered in this novel than the murders of these women.  That it is based in concrete fact gives the novel a chilling moral authority.

Before Bolaño died and his novels were published, he traveled widely throughout Mexico and South America and Spain for a time, embracing Marxism and then abandoning it, all the while bearing witness to down-at-the-heels governments unable (and in many cases unwilling) to help those they govern.  He seems to have adopted a mordant gallows humor about the condition of mankind.

I’ve read 2666 once and am re-reading it now.  I’m not now convinced this was ever supposed to be one book.  It’s always felt to me like a combination of books.  That Bolaño died before this book was ever in galleys tells us that he was not the final voice in deciding what exactly went into this book.  Of course, once  2666 was published, the posthumous Bolaño became a critical fetish-object; the praise being hurled from every quarter, for this door-stop tome full of digressions, contradictions and multiple stories;  some having very little or even nothing to do with the others.

The underlying thematic device, for me, seems to be the world’s rapid untethering from any idea of sanity.  The murdered women part of 2666 is where we hear Bolaño at his most ferocious.  the murder of innocents is still a thing of incomprehensible sadness; well-worthy of moral outrage even in an insane world.

I’ve heard people describe this book as “apocolyptic” or “millennial,” whatever the fuck that means.  I’m not so sure.  I’m not so sure about anything with 2666–even as to whether it was completed or not.  Oddly enough though, I was convinced I’d read a great book–in fact, a great few books.

I love the literature of Mexico and South and Central America.  As a young man, I felt as though books like Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis: Memory of Fire and Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and One Hundred Years of Solitude kind of set me free with their magic and their shape-shifting.  In a lot of Mexican-Indian cultures, birds like sparrows, starlings and blackbirds are interlopers between worlds, often carrying the spirits of the dead from this world to the next, or in Haitian literature, to the “gray world”–a kind of way station between the living and the dead.  These authors and those stories warned us that the natural world stood witness to our evil and our folly; that in daylight or in darkness, to some living entity, we are always visible.  This thought used to give me comfort.  And now, I  am not so sure.

The ongoing murders of women in Juarez are still largely unsolved.  There have been many arrests for individual murders but better than 99 percent of them are still without resolution. Ciudad Juarez, in fact the whole state of Chihuahua and its governing body, stand as a black mark on the earth; unholy ground marked evil by its own inaction.

Published in: on February 26, 2011 at 5:47 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Hobo Smelt

The Hobo Smelt

At the end of March and in early April of every year, the smelts of Lake Michigan decide to kill themselves.  The little fish haul ass from the deeper parts of this treacherous lake and head for the shore.  On the way, they spawn, which means they bust one more nut on their way off this mortal coil.

For a great many generations, working class, immigrant Chicagoans were ready for them. Polish, Greek, Irish, Mexican, Ukrainian and Italians waited on Montrose Harbor and other docks lining the lake with fine mesh smelt nets full of nylon loops in which the smelt would oblige the hungry immigrant by voluntarily hanging themselves.

Every April in Greektown there was a special “smelt plate” featuring a dozen or so of the slimy fuckers, deep-fried and infused with garlic.  There are people who swear by these.  I watched Steve Earle gobble down a plate of these a decade ago and he was truly grateful.

“I love smelts, man.  Greeks make the best ones.”

I reminded him that they caught these in Lake Michigan; the beaches of which were once in a while closed because of “fecal grease balls.”  He just shook his head and said, ” Oh man, quit being a girl.  All of the hoo-ha cooks OUT.  Are you that big of a pussy that you won’t eat a fish out of Lake Michigan?”

I told him I wouldn’t eat Uma Thurman if she came out of Lake Michigan.

My friends Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan own a few wonderful restaurants in Chicago.  Madia is the restauranteur and works the front of the house at Chicago’s Blackbird and Publican; and Kahan is the James Beard Award-winning chef whose food is as much a meditation on American working people’s culinary history, as it is a reinvention of dishes we thought we knew, such as bacon, oysters and pork.  He is as much anthropoligist and historian as he is chef.

One night at their fine pork and oyster house-cum-Belgian beer hall, Publican, the always dapper Madia brought me and my daughter an elegant plate with two very hearty smelt on it.  I was amazed.  I’d never seen such robust examples of the Lake Michigan garbage fish.  they were plump, shiny and meaty as hell.  Madia assured me they were from Lake Michigan and Paul Kahan backed him up .

“The Lake has really come back,  T,” Donnie assured me, “Not every part of Lake Michigan is like. . .ya know. . .Indiana”, he said with a furtive glance over his shoulder.

These were the best smelt I’d ever eaten and, of course, they were–Paul Kahan had made them.  You could toss him a road-killed dachshund  wrapped in a moldy jockstrap and he’d find a way to turn it into haute cuisine.  Hell, one night he fed me duck hearts and I’d have crawled through broken glass for more of them.

For years, smelting was one of those Chicago phenomenons that transcended tribal boundaries.  The Mexicans fished right next to the Ukrainians and Greeks and Blacks.  Everyone was thrilled at each other’s haul.  Cans of Old Style and Schlitz got passed around and inevitably someone would cook up a bunch of smelt in buckets with coals and smear them on Italian bread, or in tortillas with chopped onions and tomatoes.  And you just ate the little bastards–bones and all.  It was a people’s celebration of the coming spring and the new warmth in the air.  One of those ephemeral and regional joys that happened every year without any great expectation or complicated definition.

My father would walk me from one end of a dock to the other and tell me to close my eyes and see how many different languages I could hear.  At the end of the dock he’d point out the North Star and explain to me how the captains of sea vessels would “box the compass” around it.  And under the dock, the smelt were a whir of silvery light. . .indecipherable as the tails of comets.

It is remembering things like this that allow me to hold out hope for this city.  Those moments when we are not at perpetual odds with each other. . .those instances of  community that bind us as  a species instead of a mere collection of ethnic collectives. . . those moments when we look out over that magnificent shimmering lake. . .we all see the same waves, bathed in  the light of our city.

Published in: on February 23, 2011 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  

Star For the Yellow Cabs

Star for the Yellow CabsIn mayoral politics, Chicago has a fascinating ongoing narrative.

When I was born, we had a Mayor Daley.  When I graduated grade school, we had a Mayor Daley.
When our country’s bicentennial occurred, we had a Mayor Daley.  The day I got married–19 years ago–we had a Mayor Daley.  I am now 52 years old and guess what?

We still have a Mayor Daley.

Not for much longer though.  Unlike his father, Richard M. Daley has chosen not to die in office.  If you’d have asked me a year ago, I’d have told you that the son, like the father, would have gone out on his shield.

I have complicated feelings for the father and the son; among them, a feeling of great debt, because of both of these men, this city still stands tall among the world’s great cities.  In the 60’s, when Detroit, Cleveland and all of the other rust belt cities were abandoned by their middle class and falling into disrepair and despair, Chicago did not.  We had our period of furious “white flight,” but Daley senior did not lose the industrial and manufacturing base those cities did.  Daley did not lose his city.  He attracted jobs and built and built and built.  Chicago expanded ever outward and upward. While others shrunk and ran for cover, Daley built skyscrapers, bridges, highways and schools.  There were always jobs to be had in Chicago.

Did he allow corruption?   Almost certainly.  The old man was not interested in money much himself; his Achilles heel was power–and he had an immense amount of it for a city mayor–in fact, enough to hand John F. Kennedy the 1960 election.  It seems some Cook County votes were lost  during the long election night (perhaps as much as a truck full).  Oh, well.  Did the Irish cronies he counted among his supporters do well financially?  You bet;  so did the Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish, Black and Hispanic supporters.  The old man rewarded loyalty and punished disloyalty.  If one got caught, he disowned them.  There is an old saying in Chicago politics: “Pigs get fat.  Hogs get slaughtered.”

If guys got greedy and subsequently caught, the Old Man fed them to the wolves.  Whatever they did, he let them know that God, and more importantly, Daley, had forgotten them.

He was vain, boisterous, patriotic, modest, vindictive, religious, and loyal as a soldier.  And he loved this city.

Other Chicagoans– African Americans chiefly among them–will tell you he was the embodiment of white institutional racism and they would not be wrong.  He lagged far behind other city mayors as far as equal opportunity initiatives went and a great many of my black friends will tell you they believe the Dan Ryan Expressway was built to keep blacks from coming downtown. Still others will point to his membership in the Hambourgs as a young man, an “athletic club” of Irish young men that was known to have participated in the bloody 1919 race riots on Chicago’s Southside, touched off by the murder of a young black man who’d inadvertently crossed the color line at Rainbow  Beach.  One could easily make the case for Daley the Father’s racial insensitivity.  One would  also have to acknowledge the fact that Daley senior was elected six times carrying all of the African American wards every time.  The evidence suggests that the old man was a racist.  I’ve never been so sure of this.  Did he share the unfocused bigotries of men of his generation?  Almost certainly. And let us remember that the old days were awful and bigoted speech was not only winked at, it was expected and it was institutional.  I make no excuses for the old man, but the key word here is old; the zeitgeist moved faster than he could. . .or would.

Was Daley a better man than his times?  Sadly , no.  Chicago was, and in some ways still is, a bastion of racism.  We are still one of the most segregated cities in the world.  One can also not blame Richard J Daley for this.  This was a city of tribes long before he got here.  We almost always soft-pedal this shit.  We say coded and rote things like, “We’re a city of neighborhoods,” which is Chicagoese for, “Stay the fuck out of mine.”

We are not unlike other places; we want to be with our own.

Under Daley the son, the power was distributed differently.  Every group got its own power franchise of sorts.  The son was and is a brilliant tactician and like the father, woefully easy to underestimate, which is a mistake.  He also must be praised for holding this complex, contrary and vindictive place together for better than two decades.  He is slightly more eloquent than his father, who gave us gems like, “I resent the insinuendoes” and “I’m here to preserve the disorder.”  Nobody ever backed ass-first into a sentence like the old man.

Richard M. Daley also saw this city through its storms.  He also had an ugly temper, losing his shit at press conferences, his whole head turning purple.  I love his freakouts.  There were not a lot of them like his Dad, but some of them were choice.  A constituent threatening to sue the city over the snowfall and Daley junior going mental on the guy, “That’s an Act of God.  Whattya gonna do?  You gonna sue God?  Huh?  Huh, smart guy?  Call your lawyer up and sue God.  Sue  God.  Tell me how that goes for you.”

You can’t make shit like this up.

Suffice to say the son didn’t have to preside over as much tumultuous history as the father did, but he fought his battles–believe that–and he won them all.

I think what you can say of the Daleys, father and son, is that for absolute good and despairingly ill, they are and were men of their corrupt, magnificent and transcendent city.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 1:46 am  Comments (1)  
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Star for My Black Irish Heart

Star for my Black Irish HeartAlmost every year in Chicago, it’s the same story on St. Patrick’s Day–a bunch of drunken, green-wearing slap-dicks spilling out of bars all over the city and projectile-vomiting foamy green puke on everything in sight.

There is an impression that the Irish are a bunch of happy-go-lucky dipshits with fake brogues and cheery dispositions.  Let us dispense with this myth right now.  There is no darker heart than that of the Irish, Boyo.

We gave the world Whitey Bulger, The Westies, Michael Collins and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, as well as Owney Madden and Legs Diamond–not a bunch to fuck around and try to ‘high-five’ with.  They were all poor kids who had to beat, steal and kill their way to a small piece of the world, and they new well that the “luck of the Irish” was a myth and the cruelest of jokes.

You don’t want the luck of the Irish. Poverty, famine and the oppression of the British Crown are some of the components of this “luck.”  Still, from time to time, our boys managed to get their licks in.

Vincent Coll was an enforcer for both Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden, and both were scared shitless of him.  He was the blackest of the “black Irish,” with dark eyes that never blinked.  Owney Madden, who owned the Cotton Club and the gambling and policy (numbers racket) in Harlem, once asked Coll what it was like to be able to kill a man without so much as a second thought.

Coll looked at him with those unblinking eyes and said “Boyo, it’s like anythin’ really.  A fella’ must love what he does in order to do it well, and I love my work, and I’d do it even if no one ever tossed me a quid.”  It was then Owney’s fear of Coll began in earnest and, over the next few years, tried many times to have Coll murdered.  It wasn’t Madden, but Dutch Schultz’s gang that finally got Mad Dog Coll. . . in a phone booth at 23rd and 8th in New York City, but not before Mr. Coll dispatched at least 50 people off of this mortal coil.

The Irish have been conquered, raped and pillaged by the Spaniards, the English and the Vikings.  Some “luck.”  They still managed to take the language imposed upon them by their conquerors and use it better than they did.  The Irish gave us James Joyce, his secretary Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and Keats.  We are the best storytellers on the planet.  We endured a famine so atrocious almost a quarter of our countrymen perished while the English raided our surviving potato crops.  Nothing really grows on our boggy pile of rocks (in the North) except grass and potatoes and some scraggy trees.  Our grass is so rich with minerals, we raise the finest thoroughbreds in the world.  Book-making is legal in Ireland and damned near everybody is on the dole.  The best thing though, is that artists pay no taxes.  The place is a knot of contradictions.

We are a combative bunch.  We love our mothers and fear God.  We revere the water and the fairy tales about Selkies and Jenny-Linds.  We believe in luck and are eternal optimists in games of chance.  My father burned at least 10 bucks a day on Lotto tickets and, being a child of the Irish Sweepstakes, always believed he was going to win the big one some day. Three days before he died of skin cancer in 1998, he had me running down to the pharmacy for scratch-offs from the daily game.

We’re full of shit.  We’re the biggest braggarts in the world.  Ours is the sin of Pride.  To this end we produce politicians, especially in my city.  Daley, Burke, Hanrahan, Danaher, Touhy, McGann, Dunne, O’Malley, Durbin, Mell, Finley; these are just a few of the names of politicians who hold or recently held office in Chicago, and I could go on.  They ain’t Swedes.  They are also damn near half of the police force and when I was a kid, they were some brutal motherfuckers.  Some of you are probably old enough to remember the warm embrace the hippies got here in 1968; the tender mercies extended to them in Grant Park while the whole world watched.  In 1996 I ran into a copper I knew at the ’96 Democratic Convention.  He was wearing a T-shirt that read:

“Hi Asshole, I kicked your Dad’s ass 20 years ago — now it’s your turn”

The Irish have a ferocious sense of boundaries.  Reach for mine?   I’ll cut your hand off.  It was either Shakespeare or a Chicago Pol that said,  “Kiss only the hand you cannot sever.”

Still, somehow we have been burdened with this jolly-asshole reputation.

There is a marvelous, overlooked movie from 1981 called, True Confessions. It stars Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, as well as a host of brilliant Irish American actors like the late Ed Flanders and Kenneth MacMillan, Burgess Meredith and Cyrill Cusack, and the great Charles Durning, in what I think is his best screen role, which is saying a lot.  The movie is based on the great John Gregory Dunne’s novel of the same name and in it, Durning plays Jack Amsterdam, an avaricious, psychotic, dying gangster who is in cahoots with the Catholic Church.  He is the worst kind of hypocrite; a murderer and pimp and corrupter of other men.  He is also the worst kind of Irish; sentimental and blustery with the cheap not-so-charitable boosterism and racist to the core with a murderous temper.

There is a point in this film, at Durning’s daughter’s wedding, where this awful man finds a moment of grace.  The great Durning is standing around glad-handing and shit-talking and all of the sudden, the band starts to play a slow and mournful Irish song.  And Durning, who had to go at least 300 pounds at the time and was about 5 foot 9, starts to dance a traditional Irish jig and he is letter-perfect.  Not just “good for a big man”; hell, good for any man.  One moment he’s Jabba the Hut, the next. . .as fleet and graceful as a Celtic rhyme.  It is a marvelous moment in American movies; a rare moment of beauty from a bad man.

This is the way with us Irish.  We contain great beauty; that which history has not been able to take from us, and we wield it with the best and worst intentions.  Get in the way of our dance in this life, Boyo?  And we’ll knock your dick loose.

Published in: on February 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (1)  
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Janky Ohio

Janky OhioIn the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

–Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright

The above poem might be my favorite American poem.  It’s often a toss-up between this and 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens.
Wright was a native Ohio son who lived in Martins Ferry amid the disappearing industries of that state.  Steel, paper, rubber, glass. . .all of the things our country used to proudly make, were made in Ohio.

It was a necessary place.  The  manufacturing, beating heart of America.  Ohio was blessed with three rivers much prized for being conduits to the St. Lawrence Seaway and its precious economy.

There was a time when Ohio had it made.  Akron was the rubber and tire capital of the world.  Cleveland a major manufacturing and rail hub. Youngstown was the city of steel; the town that made the cannon-balls that won the Civil War.

The Buckeye State also grew rich on paper mills and the manufacture of glass.
Those businesses have gone away now; the slow leak of a century’s diminishing economies took its unholy toll.  There were cheaper places to do all that Ohio did and most of the manufacturing moved to right-to-work states  or out of the country, away from the rust belt and lousy weather.

Ohio is a physically beautiful state; rolling hills and farmland once you escape the cities. . .the Allegheny plateau in the eastern part of the state, rich with hills and streams and bucolic greenery.

I started this body of work out of a need to tease my pal Stan Klein, who is a native Clevelander  and then the odd mysteries of the state of Ohio took over.  It is our middle and for the last decade or so, the repository for all of our anger as Americans; a battleground state, (politically and  constantly) and a place of eroding hopes and mundane shades of ideological gray.  It is home to some of the finest learning institutions in our country.  Oberlin College, which has produced some of our finest writers and musicians and scientists, Ohio State, Miami of Ohio. . .the list goes on and on.  Yet for all of its erudition, the only representative population of this state we see lately are the John Boehners and Michael Steeles of the world.  The latter of these gents recently bounced from his job for “someone” on his staff blowing two grand on “faux lesbian sex” at a club in Vegas.  Really.  A sharper guy would have realized he was in Vegas and for about half that price, you can get real lesbian sex.  Wise up, Michael Steele!

I’ve been to lots of towns in Ohio–Columbus, Toledo, Sandusky, Dayton–and  they all have the same kind of decent, salt-of-the- earth Midwesterners I’ve known my whole life.  The only unattractive trait being an unfocused bigotry against those they perceive to be doing away with their economic opportunity; foreigners, big government,unions, and the like; the usual suspects torn from the Republican-climate-of-fear playbook.  They never blame each other, nor the local political constructs that succeed in keeping them docile and ignorant–people like Steele and Boehner.  When Obama made the remark about scared and angry people clinging to their religion and their guns, it was about Pennsylvania (which is basically Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Alabama) but it could have been about Ohio.

In recent elections, Ohio is the easiest state to rile up with rhetoric and through the right kind of prism, hey look an awful lot like the entire body-politic of middle-class America.  It’s a political tool of image making that has served the swine who perpetrate it very well.

Truth is, most Americans are better off than Ohio.  The rate of unemployment and disappearing industrial  jobs bears this out.  But do the citizens of this mysterious state ever get angry at the political structure that got them here. . .that let companies outsource their manufacturing and tech jobs?  When do these development-deficient politicians get their feet held to the fire?

The answer is, “never .”  They just sell anger and yell louder and sink this great state even further into the gray.

Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 12:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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