Vintage Prints

Originally appeared in After Hours, a Journal of Chicago Writing and Art, June 2006
The shop window promised antique furniture and vintage prints, the sign said “open,” but the doorknob would not turn. The locked door should have clued me in — open shop, locked door — and someone was eyeballing me from the shadows inside. In a moment the lock clacked and buzzed, the door snapped open, I was admitted.
A clerk welcomed me, then shadowed me. I studied chairs and lamps and clocks and so did this clerk, as if shopping in her own shop, always flanking me, always following. She watched my hands while I lifted price tags and dropped them quickly. She looked at my shoes.
She also furtively watched a couple studying a stack of old posters. The man fingered the tanned paper of the topmost poster and flipped it over to view the next. The hovering clerk rose on her toes, her calf muscles tightened under her black stockings, her hands knotted into little fists at her sides. The man flipped another poster. The clerk stepped forward.
“Would you like to see these prints, sir?” she said, the “sir” snapping like a twig. She spread her hands on the prints so he could not turn them, not without turning her.
“Yes thank you,” he said, and I sensed — I don’t know why — that he had just moved to Chicago too.
The clerk flipped the prints now. She flipped them no more carefully than the man had, but she flipped them with an air about her. They should be flipped with the knees slightly bent, you see, with the elbows just so, with the chin cocked thus, with just such a posture.
“Oh I like that one,” said the woman of the couple.
“Mmm,” said the print-flipping clerk. “It’s a Verdoux. 1928, very rare. Don’t you love the colors?”
“Yes,” said the man, “How much is that one?”
“Forty-two hundred,” the clerk said. “I love his use of red and green.” Her nonchalance did not fit the number uttered. Forty-two hundred, she had said, as if it were forty-two cents.
“May we see a few more?” the man said, a new formality in his voice.
It was just that sort of a shop — you could stay and pretend you had the money, you could try to shift the shame back onto the clerk, you could fantasize about pulling a roll of Franklins from your jeans and peeling them off — thirty-nine, forty, forty-one… Forty-two hundred did you say?… or you could just get the hell out.
The door clanked behind me with the metallic certainty of a jail-cell door, and I found again the freedom of the wind and the drizzle. It was a cold rain but a light rain, like specks of sand against the face. Most diners left their umbrellas closed as they hurried from taxis to trattorias.
“Wells Street,” one black overcoat said to another as they flew past me. “You should have seen it in the 70s. Lots of head shops and hippies and—.”
On the corner — North and Wells — a woman keened into the wind, her long gray hair whipping behind her, the rain forming tears on her broad face. She was smiling. People passed her at right angles just like the cars: rushing, crossing, pausing at lights, rushing, crossing, pausing at lights. She stood among them like a rock in a river, smiling, searching their faces for an opportunity. She found my face.
“Hello,” I said to her.
“I use to live in this neighborhood,” she said, in an accent from long-ago deep Mexico. “I live here all my life. I went to school right over there.”
She pointed, I looked, I saw a comedy club.
“Where did you go to school?” I asked.
“It’s gone now. They tear it down. I was a little girl here. But then, you know, we have to move away. I would like to show my children, but I never have any children.”
The light changed. I crossed Wells remembering that David Hernandez poem about Old Town — Armitage Street:
Waiting for the elevated train during a pale afternoon
I looked down on Armitage Street full of quaint old buildings
Upscale stores and fashionable mothers
Pushing white-walled baby carriages on well-heeled sidewalks;
And to think it seems just like yesterday on Armitage Street
That Alfeodor and Chacha played hide and seek with Quinto the cop
While Cosmo and Aidita made love in the gangway…
People move in this city the way people move through history — in tribes — sometimes mixing like Anglo with Saxon, but more often pushing each other onward and outward, like Anglo-Saxon and American Indian. I know this from Wells Street, from the woman on the corner, from David Hernandez. I know it from my own people — grandparents who came from Ireland and Germany, made a home on the South Side, made thin progress in factories and speakeasies, made good money and lost it in the Depression and never got it back. I know from the parents who moved me out of the city – away from the tribes warring under the stockyard stench – moved me out to the suburbs, and then, when that wasn’t far enough, moved me out of state, out West to the next promised land.
And I know it from myself.
Thirty years in the West was a life of strange loves, strange loves that only now made sense — the love of cobblestone alleys, for instance, the love of smokestacks, the love of street clocks, of cantilevered bridges, of fire escapes, of train tracks, the love of steam rising from manhole covers and of stone flowers vining up skyscrapers. Trees that drop their leaves, air that drips with mist, life that clings to crevices. Mossy concrete and rusty steel. Antique furniture and vintage prints. The love of things old and urban and Midwestern. The love of things strange to the deserts and beaches where I lived.
Why have I always thought universities should be gothic, have gargoyles, wear ivy? Why did I never find a museum in the West that was big enough, pillared enough, marble enough for me? Why have I always envied those who live in crowded apartments above busy stores on dark and peopled streets? Better still if those streets are slick with rain and reflection, or hemmed with dirty snow. It’s all here in Chicago. Was I ever gone, was I ever tethered? Is that what home means? For Chicago, it seems to me, the question is not whether you can go home again, it’s whether you ever really left.
So I pause on an opposite corner of North and Wells, turn into the stinging drizzle, smile like I just got home from a long trip. I search for a friendly face I can tell — “I used to live in this city. I’ve lived here all my life.”

For a thousand years the rains rinsed the blood from the sod, the sea-winds swept the smoke from the ruins, and the Irish transformed hardship into poetry and song. But there’s a strange new stain too stubborn for the rains, a change in the air unmoved by the winds, and the poets scribbling all the long Irish night in cottages and pubs have little yet to show…. Read this commentary at Contrary

I discovered them in a bookshop on one of those pensive Sunday afternoons — you know the type —when every hour droops under the weight of the work looming on Monday. The place smelled of that sweet must familiar to grandmother’s attics, mummies’ tombs, second-hand bookshops: places excused from time. I was studying all the colorful spines on the pine shelves, seeking escape from the death throes of Sunday, when I spied Ezra Pound in a slim paperback. I hadn’t read Pound and I knew I had to, in this life, and what easier entry than a Selected Poems? But nothing has been easy. As I took down the book I took up arms I would carry long after the revolution seemed lost…. Read this commentary at Contrary.

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