THROUGH SPACE, TIME, AND MIDDLE AMERICA PART TWO: POLISH FORTUNE TELLERS, DENNY’S, AND SOLITUDE
By Jason T Sparks, Our Man In Nashville
THROUGH SPACE, TIME, AND MIDDLE AMERICA PART TWO: POLISH FORTUNE TELLERS, DENNY’S, AND SOLITUDE
“…ooooooooKAY, parents, it’s 5:00 on Saturday. And some of you know what that means.”
I don’t. I mean, I do know, having read it in the schedule, but if there’s more to it, that is not a part I know. I am in a crowded gym at Shepherd’s College in Union Grove, Wisconsin, surrounded by fellow parents of folks with developmental issues/special needs/disabilities (yes, these terms shift). My son Robert is not near me, having made, in less than three hours, several close friends, including his roommate.
So now, I am again alone.
My wife is not here.
“5:00 on Saturday, opening weekend, here at Shepherd’s,” the voice on the microphone (the dean’s voice) continues, “is when, we have to be mean, and, in the service of our whole…guiding idea, getting your sons and daughters to appropriate independence, means we have to close the campus. In other words, mom and dad, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. So, at this time, moms and dads, hug everyone goodbye, shake hands, do whatever—but you leave now.”
I leave now. I knew that. I saw it on the schedule. I knew this was coming. Here it is; okay, then. I find Robert. I hug him, I tell him how proud I am, I get a few more pictures, I shake hands with his roommate. “Bye, Dad,” Rob says, his impatience with his emotional old man completely not hidden. Anything else he needs? No, he’s good. Any other business for me to see to? Nope, all squared away for now. What follows is for me to leave this gym and make my way back to the car, and start my long trek back to Nashville.
I will be making this journey alone.
It had been a big weekend, last weekend; my son’s birthday, his last weekend before school starts all the way up in Wisconsin. On Facebook, we asked to the general public if anyone knew where we could find cheap school supplies, and we found them—we were inundated with them, by well-wishers near and far. We hadn’t intended that, but there it was. All day Sunday at my mother-in-law’s, except for a big swath of the day when my wife’s ubermensch cousin David took Rob and I to (that huge department store; you know the one) and spent a $250.00 bonus he’d received on Rob. Gifts showered on the lad. From Rachel, his girlfriend, a first kiss.
My wife slept a lot.
She slept deeply. Early symptom of sepsis, we’d learn.
Wisconsin, northern Illinois
Oooooooooooookay. Rob is squared away, time to go; let’s do this, Self. I trundle myself back into the 1992 Caprice. Gas station across from campus—full tank, 2 quarts of synthetic 5w-20. Dairy Queen across from campus, last malted chocolate milkshake, and I use the drive-thru. One for my baby, and one more for the road. Before I know it, I’m plowing down 15th Avenue, AKA a thin, 2-lane, rural capillary in the Wisconsin road system, St Rt 11, to be specific. One last stop at Dollar General—headphones, as a 1992 Caprice does not know how to interface with a phone.
Yes, I plan to drive with headphones on.
You get that I’m alone, right?
Headphones secure, milkshake mid-quaff, I am ready, and lo, I am on Interstate 94, heading South. I have one more pit stop, this time at a Wisconsin tourist trap-cum-Mecca by the name of Mars Cheese Castle, which sells—well, you know—cheese. They also sell the Cheesehead hats worn by fans of the Packers, one of which I have promised my manager at the day job. I fear they will be hard to find; they are literally on plates on a phoneybaloney-medieval dining table (this being a Cheese Castle, you see) as soon as I walk in. Cheesehead scored quickly, I’m back on 94; campus has been closed less than an hour, and I am crushing it.
Which is where Spoon comes in. Spoon, an indie-rock band from Austin, are a band that Robert and I went to see at a free concert about a month prior. They feature heavily on the playlist coming through my headphones, and sure enough, as I am crushingly cruising down 94, Britt Daniel and company cue up, telling me not to evah/be down/don’t you evah/’coz it’s gonna keep from hangin’ AROUND!
Oh hey. It’s Spoon.
The band I saw with Rob last month.
I almost begged off of going.
Then my wife Cathy talked me into it.
Into seeing one more show with my son.
Whom I just left at college.
Thankfully, at about that point on the drive, there is a modern phenomenon called a Travel Island. Imagine that a shopping mall and a truckstop had a baby, and said baby straddled both sides of the interstate, on what is essentially a giant bridge. Very handy place to stop, use the loo, get a fresh drink, have a meltdown because you miss your boy and your family just changed forever.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
I could have pushed myself to drive farther the first night. I did not want to. That’s as plain a truth as I can tell. I wanted, furthermore, to have at least one night in Chicago. I settled on Arlington Heights, a suburb north of the toddlin’ town, and the bland safeness of a chain hotel. None of this was the original plan. The original plan was to stay at a hotel called Heart O’ Chicago, which (per a musician friend of ours who hails from there) is an iconic spot among touring rock bands. Of course, the original plan was for my wife to be with me. Once I’m in my room, I call her.
“Hi, Jakey,” she says, her voice pitiful, defaulting to the name my grandparents used for me. It’s shorthand for be gentle with me.
“Hey, kiddo; how are we tonight?”
“We are better, kinda sorta; um, my plans for the next little bit are changing. I’m looking at doing a stint in rehab, and I don’t mean Amy Winehouse.” In other words, the sepsis was serious—it was even more serious for Jim Henson—and she’s going to need physical rehabilitation. Inpatient, this will be.
But this will also be tabled, as she then asks if I got Rob to school, and how that went, etc. Dutiful husband that I am, I recount the stories, but I try to lead the talk back to rehab—only to have it redirected time & time again to Rob. When our convo ends, I know little more, except that my wife is going to rehab, and my son is (still) in college. I am an introvert, and I get “peopled out” easily, even with my own family, for whom I would take bullets. I yearn for solitude.
One of the deciding factors in my choosing the hotel in Arlington Heights was, I am a little ashamed to say, this: it’s across the street from a Denny’s. While we still have a tourism industry in Nashville, there has not been a Denny’s in our town for many a year, and to me, that restaurant means travel. It also means the kind of starchy, high-carb food I jones for, my arteries be damned. If you want to play Armchair Therapist here, go right ahead, I’ll help you—he was alone, he had just learned he’d be alone for a while yet, he was insecure about change; AHA! Eating his feelings! Being self-indulgent!
Well, yes, actually. Right or wrong, I’m a believer in comfort food, and generally prefer restaurants that serve breakfast all day. I’m not a food snob. (I’m a movie/TV/book snob, thank you very much.) Besides which, I had morning brain meds to take and digest, and I had a day (consisting of an epic schlep) to prepare for logistically/spiritually/mentally.
Thus I found myself at the center of a one-man beach-head in Denny’s, my table overflowing with eggs, pork, hash browns, pancakes, pill bottles, notebooks, and the large City of Chicago map I acquired in the hotel lobby. My son, I was sure, was fine, and my wife, while not fine, was attended to, and apparently still in something of a dance with consciousness; I spoke to her that morning as well, and had to remind her of our call from the night before, which the sepsis had wiped her memory of. She has a long road ahead of her, and while I’ll take most of that road with her, I’m not there now, I’m here. In Arlington Heights.
Or, as I suddenly noticed on the map, 3-J. Whaddaya know, the exact intersection where I’m noshing is right on this map. Algonquin and Arlington, yep, there I am, and there’s I-90, and…
There’s the city of Chicago.
Which I have all to myself, just this once.
I could, and from certain points of view should, hop right back onto 90 and get back at all speed.
I could also follow this map—this surprisingly detailed map—and catch 90 a little further down, once I’ve driven through Chicago, a city with which I became enamored on my last trip through—and that was on a bus. Now I can see even more of it, mano a mano, charting my own course.
But what of my poor, sickly wife? Should not I hasten to her fevered brow?
The woman who encouraged me to do Study Abroad, until I finally did? The woman who talked me into seeing Spoon with Robert? The woman who has actually talked me into going to most of the concerts and shows I’ve gone to, but for whom I would never have met my favorite songwriter (Colin Hay) and standup comic (Gilbert Gottfried)? The woman who…is always encouraging me to experience things.
I left Denny’s, turned left onto Arlington Heights, towards the on-ramp for 90, which I passed without a second thought. Down Arlington Heights I went, mostly seeing suburban Chicago, a series of 70s-era ranch houses, all of which I was sure had appeared in John Hughes films. From there, according to the map, it was a left onto Irving Park Rd, then stay on Irving Park right through town, all the way to Michigan Avenue, then Lake Shore, then 90. Hay presto, see the town, hop on the interstate.
This probably seems like the part at which I get lost and wacky high-jinks ensue. No. This is the part where the map proved to be 100% accurate, and I got the best, biggest dose of Chicago I could have reasonably hoped for. It was a beautiful, sunny August day; in sharp contrast to my southern homeland in August, being outside didn’t suck. I drove my huge Chevy, window rolled down, pivoted that pimp sled onto Irving Park. As you ease down Irving Park Road, the suburbia fades, and City begins. And if you like City, boy oh boy do you get city. Brownstone row houses and Italianate brick office buildings, old and shabby. Restaurants upon restaurants, all offering Chicago-style hot dogs, dipped beef, ribs, and every other decadent, wonderful thing Chicagans have figured out they can do to pigs.
Those restaurants—I guess we could call them “Chicago joints”—are but one option. Irving Park also boasts Irish pubs, Italian restaurants, Mexican, Russian, Polish, everything short of Easter Island, and about half of them also serve (per their ancient and beautiful neon signs) as banquet halls as well; in my head, I picture weddings, communions, and a host of other food-laden, music-laden rituals that, as a WASP, I’ll never have. On my right for a moment is the Bulgarian Community Center—what? There are so many Bulgarians in this town, let alone any at all, that they need their own place! Wowee, neato! On both sides, I keep seeing businesses listed as Polski Wróżbita; I finally see one that has bothered to translate their sign into English as well—Polish Fortune Teller. Whaaaaaaaat? That’s a thing? In this town, I guess it would be—the Polish population in Chi-town has always been huge; in fact, you can listen to Polish radio stations from there.
The urban niftiness of Irving Park briefly fades away, only to be replaced by a different niftiness: Irving Park Road, as it happens, runs along the southern edge of O’Hare International Airport. My hometown of Nashville, as you know if you have Frequent Flyer miles, is a considerable air-traffic hub. Compared to O’Hare, it’s some flat asphalt and a windsock. Terminals and freight depots and warehouses seem to stretch for miles, and if they didn’t already seem huge enough, the 747s and Airbus-380s moving between the buildings like so many golf carts really enhance the effect. Also, those airplanes seem to represent every airline you can imagine, and some you can’t. I watched an El-Al plane roll past a UPS, just down the tarmac from an Emirates and an Air France.
O’Hare does finally end (one begins to wonder), and it’s back to the great city. As I roll through another international neighborhood, I begin to notice the locals are mostly in Cubs gear, and all walking towards the same thing. Turns out I’m driving towards it—Irving Park intersects with West Addison, as in 1060 West Addison, AKA Wrigley Field, AKA the official address of one Elwood Blues. I can’t believe my luck—I wanted to experience this town, and this one road appears to be giving me Peak Chicago.
Shortly after it crosses Addison, and goes under several beautifully noir El stations, Irving Park ends, and I have to turn onto the road that will finally get me back to I-90. That’s okay, though, because the road that will finally get me back to I-90 happens to be…Lakeshore Drive. Know why it’s called Lakeshore Drive? Because of what’s next to it—the literally gigantic shore of literally gigantic Lake Michigan. Which, this being August, is full of boats and water skiers and swimmers—and a lighthouse, it turns out! What? All this epic city, and they throw in a lighthouse? Oh, wait, it’s the lighthouse you see at about the same time as Soldier Field! As in Da Bears! As in the last place the Grateful Dead ever played together! You gotta be kiddin’ me! Wait—no time to process any of that—I’m passing the John Hancock! And the Sears Tower! And those round buildings from the cover of that Wilco album!
Finally—to my chagrin, and to my relief, because I’m not sure how much more “Oh my God, it’s Iconic Thing X!” I can take, Lakeshore becomes the Chicago Skyway, which becomes I-90, which very soon gives way to…Indiana. And a toll booth. After all the delightful things I just saw in one of the world’s great cities, I have to pay for the privilege of entering…Indiana. Well, at least I’m still in the industrial part of the state, near Gary and (it’s actually called this) East Chicago. I’ll still have trains and such for a time.
I must remember all this to share with the wife.
If you know your dinosaur rock, you’re likely familiar with The Who’s magnum opus, Tommy: 1914-1974. You know that it’s a rock opera. You know that it’s a double album, somewhere around two hours of music.
Here’s what you probably don’t know: shortly after you drive into Indiana, you can begin to play Tommy on your headphones. You can play every single song, singing loudly and terribly right along with Messrs. Townshend and Daltrey, and two hours and change later, once you’ve listened to the whole entire rock opera, once you’ve made the Amazing Journey from Tommy’s childhood to his role as pinball-playing Messiah, you are STILL IN INDIANA.
And in my case, this happens:
I find myself, past the eerie wind turbines, past Indianapolis, past some of the 18 quintillion farms, finally low on gas and nearing the end of the album anyway. Those two factors, plus a 46-year-old prostate gland, all dictate that a pit-stop is in the offing. I stop, but the album isn’t quite over yet, so I leave my headphones on.
The gas station is the only thing on this exit that isn’t part of a farm, and it isn’t exactly urbane. On the counter are endcaps full of knives, lighters, and other artifacts upon which a skull and/or a Rebel flag can be printed. The cashier stares off into the middle distance, even when I ask which way the restroom is; to my surprise, he answers, if by “answers” I mean “laconically raises one hand without even bothering to point as he says ‘zat way’.” My bladder cannot empty fast enough, nor can my tank fill fast enough, because the kid at the counter and the two lanky Hoosier farm boys at the other pump are all staring the same blank stare…at me. My head down and my eyes on my feet, I leave ASAP—and Roger Daltrey begins to sing:
Listening to you
I get the music
Gazing at you
I get the heat
I climb the mountains
I get excitement at your feet
It’s happening again, like it did with Spoon. About a month earlier, Robert and I were lucky enough to see Daltrey sing all of Tommy with the Nashville Symphony.
Right behind you
I see the millions
I see the glory
I get opinions
I get the story
How did I first learn Tommy? Oh yeah—my dad. Funny thing about him: he’d been a football player and track star in high school. His son was in Drama and Writers’ Group. Did he dismiss me as a disappointing fegeleh? Not by half—he made a point of buying me cast recordings of Broadway musicals and rock operas (Tommy has since become both).
I get opinions
I get the story
And he told me once that the lyrics at the end of this song were how he felt about me.
I climb the mountains
I get excitement at your feet
Which is interesting, because, as I had probably realized a million times before, those lyrics are also how I feel about Rob. Yeah, I do get peopled out, I do yearn to be alone, but I don’t really feel that very often with any of my kids, especially not him, who shares my taste in music and geek culture, who is positive, friendly, kind, creative, who even in his twenties amazes me every day.
I’ve left him in Wisconsin. I left my wife in Tennessee—I had to. And here I am in between both, in the long, slow state of Indiana, no one to inspire or support me, just myself and some wide-eyed farm boys who might feed me to their hogs. You may crave solitude, but you’ll lose that craving when surrounded by emotionally dead Midwesterners who can’t give you anything but solitude (or, maybe, sacrifice you to the harvest gods).
I don’t much care for Indiana.
You probably have to be Southern to experience this: once you’re less than 50 miles from the Hoosier State’s southern border, you realize that you’ve had about as much Midwest as you can stand. As a result, even if you’ve never been a “redneck”, even if you’ve never had much of a Southern accent, even if Southern for you is more about Bill Faulkner and Roy Blount than, say, King Richard and Larry the Cable Guy, you absolutely cannot wait to return to the region of your birth. You begin to literally feel withdrawal symptoms from being outside the South.
Which makes it all the more fortunate that I-65 South runs over a bridge straddling the Ohio River, and that halfway across said bridge, you are suddenly and definitely in Louisville and, by extension, Kentucky. I actually felt a tightness in my chest dissipate. (I later found out that Indy had one last barb to throw; somewhere on that stretch of I-65 is an electronic toll reader. There’s no booth, no deathtrap for James Caan, just a machine somewhere overhead checking for transponders or some such that the Hoosierites keep in their cars. If the machine detects no transponder, it photographs your car, runs your license plate, and weeks later, they have the unmitigated gall to bill you EIGHT DOLLARS for the privilege of leaving their state. I still haven’t paid.)
Louisville, and for that matter most of Kentucky, was a giddy blur, as my proximity to home (and my wife) was now dramatically closer. The two high points of my trip through the state were a stop at a truck-stop Rob and I had discovered on the way up, so I could procure the unique blue jeans they had for sale (unique in that…truck drivers and I apparently have similar physiques; don’t ask) and my final stop/promise to myself at a Denny’s. No breakfast this time, just the sandwich that restaurant sells with perhaps the silliest name of any consumer product available in this world—Moons Over My Hammy. I generally feel like a fool ordering food with silly names, but that one, inexplicably, I can live with.
As I noshed on my—sorry, My—Hammy, I made plans; no, I can’t just sit and eat. I had the house to myself, for who knows how long, since my wife was headed to rehab, and our house needed loads of attention—things upon things to be put in their correct places or purged altogether, et cetera. And oh what plans I made! Every day, I was going to be Captain Productivity—at work by day, knocking out my house by night! Rigidly! Unstoppably! And I’d start tonight, by God!
That’s the plan, you betcha. I’ll start tonight. I’ll stand in the eye of a hurricane of productivity tonight. At my house. Where my kids lived, all three for over a decade, then they began to taper off into their own lives, finally making less noise at my house—making none at all. Where my wife and I were for a year and change before we had kids, and now we are there after—no. Now we will be there after; right now, she isn’t there. It’ll be myself and six cats and an unearthly silence (punctuated by the odd meow, but still).
Come on, Jake, you knew this was the cost of the ticket, right? Kids grow up and leave, and that’s natural. It’s supposed to be that way. And the over/under on you outliving the missus would hardly be worth betting on. Being the sole occupant of this house—the sole human, at any rate—was always in the cards. You don’t need a Polish fortune teller to tell you that. Well, pally, when your journey ends, you get a sneak preview of the fifth act of your life. But maybe you can stay busy enough that you don’t feel it.
Where this journey ends, however, is not the eye of a hurricane of productivity. It ends, hours later, in a room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where the patient is recovering from sepsis, the patient’s husband is half in a chair, half laying on his wife’s side in the fetal position, and, as both mull the unexpected rise of the curtain on Act Three of their lives, it is impossible to tell who is consoling and supporting whom.