My friend Ben is visiting Chicago this week. We both lived there for three years, more or less, after college and the Peace Corps. Ben is now one of the only Western journalists in the Middle East who speaks fluent Arabic, a feat he undertook deliberately in Cairo, after he left Chicago. Salon has dedicated a page to his reporting, which it republishes on a regular basis, as does much of the web. But then, Ben was always a writer. A few years ago, just after I arrived to the Bay Area, we met in Chicago and spent a valedictory week bowling, drinking, walking the lakefront, going to a Cubs games, hanging out at the Kopi Cafe, the Hopleaf, Carol's Pub. We saw half a Harmony Korine movie at the Music Box one afternoon, and walked around Evanston the next. To us, Chicago had become a prelude: our old, temporary hometown. Then, I remembered Chicago as the place where Katie and I made a life before we married, where my nephews were born and we all played cards in the kitchen instead of getting a babysitter. I taught middle school social studies during the day. Ben tutored high school students for standardized tests. We started a writer's group, and when that collapsed, we corralled friends and partners into a book club that also petered out after a few meetings. The authors we admired were guideposts to a certain kind of future, we were certain of it, we had only to unlock the key and pace ourselves in certain directions.
I am in bed today, sick with the flu. Mostly, I've slept. I watched some television, though the more I stared at the laptop screen, the more my eyes, head, arms, legs, fingers hurt. I've read some of the magazines and books on my nightstand. Mostly, I've laid in bed, nodding off, listening to Cait and the boys upstairs, feeling terribly guilty for getting sick in the first place. This room is so quiet for the excuse of lying very still in it. Still, what an unfair disruption to a family life to spend all day in bed. A little while ago, I took a handful of Tylenols and Advils, in the hopes of standing up, showering, and eating something. The achiness is not so bad, at least, though I am fairly light-headed going back and forth.
One of the books I keep picking up and not reading is Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow's wonderful 1975 novel about Chicago, which the book jacket tells me is also a roman a clef about Bellow's friendship with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Ben gave me this book for Christmas a few years ago, along with Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (I gave him, I think, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking). I have read Humboldt's Gift in starts and stops ever since. Now, I have about 100 pages left. There is a terrific introductory essay at the beginning of the edition I own, by Jeffrey Eugenides, that I read to re-orient myself every time I pick it back up. I like what he says here:
"A phrase that might also describe Bellow's chief and lasting achievement: he elevated language and, by doing so, reversed the spirit's atrophy. That's what reading Bellow feels like. What makes Bellow's prose better than just about anyone else's is that it is touched, in every clause, by enlightenment. Every clause glows with its own aura. Even the verbs are doing holy work....Almost alone in his generation, Saul Bellow maintained a connection to the vatic role poets had in earlier ages. He did this in a modern, twentieth-century way, tentatively, probingly, with self-humor and a large measure of dubiety, but not outright rejection."
Like all the great American cities, Chicago is easy to love from a distance. It is big, crude, friendly, expansive, and self-sustaining. It doesn't need our affection, which only increases its allure. Chicago might be over-run with beer gardens in the summer, or boarded up and barely open on a Monday night in January, but the city itself presses out along the Lake and continues in both directions all year, for as far as the eye can see, toward the many neighborhoods that accumulate at its edges. It is the city's worst-kept secret that Chicago has no good restaurants in the Loop, where the conventions and hoteliers keep visitors in ballrooms and top-floor steakhouses, watching that skyline light up and not move. Chicago is a static city, which is its great advantage in every season: it generates tremendous stores of energy while keeping very still.
How lucky, sometimes, to transform anything and remember it differently. I don't take much time to miss Chicago and I hardly write about it. But then, I'm not sure I marshall my affections and interests so deliberately. I do miss seeing Ben so regularly. Tonight, I'll neither write nor read, opting instead to run a rash of litmus tests at the hypothetical morning. How high is my fever? Will it break soon? Am I hungry? In pain? If there is a unreasonable limit to reasonably good health, it is the utter neurosis of waiting for an illness to end, and the way the mind alternates reason and distraction as it tries to push through. I'm hoping that by keeping low today I can hedge some of tomorrow's exhaustion (and contagion), get up with the boys in the morning, and be again a reasonable husband, father, and teacher. I like those roles very much and I don't like not being able to do them well. Now is precisely the kind of moment that will seem remarkable until it passes, this all-consuming flu-bout I'm unlikely to either romanticize or miss.