In August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, a half dozen people keep coming in and out of a diner about to be demolished for urban renewal/gentrification/whatever they called it in Pittsburgh in the 60s. It’s such an affecting recurring sequence: people running in and out of the same doors over and over, convinced they’re getting somewhere.
I saw a great new production of it last week at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park and it stays with me as an apt metaphor for a pervailing feeling these days. Maybe you sense it too. A kind of hectic rushing about while knowing all the time we’re not going anywhere at all. Just sinking as days go by.
Saturday morning I get the first proper sunburn of the season pedaling up to Evanston for Whitmanstide. When I arrive at the park by the lake, only four or five others are there. I fear I’ll have to read about a third of “Song of Myself” myself. But then another dozen readers show up.
It’s my fourth time taking part but Tony and Beth have put on Whitmanstide for forty years. It might be as close to a legitimate holiday as I’m willing to acknowledge. The first couple times we were all jammed in the basement of their Evanston home, but the last two—due in part to the plague—we’ve gathered in this park. Seems more apt to read from Leaves of Grass sitting in grass rather than indoors.
I’ve never read this poem aside from the four times as part of this ritual. I’m struck by how over-the-top ecstatic and American it is both in its arrogance and its optimism. It reminds me I’m a foreigner. I could never have most of Whitman’s thoughts, much less have the temerity to put them to paper. But it makes me happy to read some lines aloud. They leave a hopeful aftertaste in my mouth. It’s exotic.
I recognize many of the readers from past years but don’t talk to many aside from our hosts. There’s bad blood with one or two. But Whitman provides a DMZ from any hostilities or bad feelings. I don’t hate the guy across the field from me in the dumb white pants so much as I would if we weren’t reciting this poem while he crosses my vision. I’m thankful for the reprieve.
I ride south with some time to kill. Skyler and Sam are celebrating the release of their record two years-plus after the fact, for reasons we all know too well. They’ve asked me to introduce them before they play.
I eat falafel on Kedzie and rest a bit to bounce back from the day’s sunburn. When I get to Constellation they’re soundchecking. I always enjoy watching musicians prepare to do their thing. Gillian has designed a kind of living room stage set behind the drum kit and pedal-steel rig. There’s a couch, some plants, chairs, and a coffee table with a mahjong set left scattered mid-game. Some dollar bills. Whiskey and a couple tumblers.
Their music always makes movies in my head so the stage set feels right.
Early next morning I train it out to Midway to rent a car, then pick up Bill and drive to Traverse City. He’s hired me to be his roadie not for the first time. I’ve never been this for north into Michigan and neither has he. On the way we pass the place I go to pick up my books from the bindery.
We listen to music and resume the ongoing conversation we’ve been having for over twenty years. It’s more or less about making art and how to keep going and all the weirdos we meet along the way. This talk picks up with no need for set up or backtracking or definitions of terms every time we see each other. It’s easy for me to pick up what he’s putting down and I hope he feels the same.
The gig’s really dumb. It’s some kind of block party/food truck rally held in a glorified parking lot. The organizers don’t know what they’re doing where music’s concerned. The sound is shitty and most attendees are just there to eat, drink, and roast in the sun. There’s a schedule reshuffle which keeps us waiting around an hour or two longer than we’d hoped. The whole idea of getting me to drive is so Bill doesn’t have to waste money on overnight lodging.
It’s a long day but Bill’s good company and I’m always happy to lend a hand to make the magic happen. Even when the recipients don’t deserve it.