WITNESS TO THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE (Oh Usa!)
I thought for years that what I wanted was consistency. I wore the same shoes every day. I had four pairs of used black corduroys that I rotated out every three days for upwards of an entire year, until long after the back-right hip pockets in each of the four began to fade, to burst holes through which the change will rattle and fall, the corners of the black leather wallet eventually popping through, inviting pickpockets of all shapes and sizes. Let it ride, I told myself, let it go for consistency's sake. When the pockets threatened a furious and final disintegration--a blast and gray-cloud explosion of minuscule fibers (this would be about the time the pile weave of the corduroy between my legs had rubbed down to about the thickness of cheesecloth)--I would take my body down to a store near Oz's place where they sold old 80s department store overstock, buy four more pairs, black, and begin the rotation anew. My Mother back in South Carolina told me never to doubt the routine, the method you picked to dull your life: use fatback when cooking the green beans; brush your teeth every day; drink orange juice no less than four times a week, water four times a day; open doors into restaurants and convenience stores for girls; for women, do it a few times, after that, let them get it; if happen they gave you the squinteye the first time you let them get it themselves, open it exclusively from then on, for you were dealing w/ a Belle; stay away from Belles.
Not to say that I took all her advice. I devised other activities to compliment and/or supplement those detailed above. Among them: propel artichoke hearts from Oz's roof every second Sunday; get drunk at least every other day; meet Oz and Chad for this purpose, normally at the Two-way, Wednesdays, 9PM; leave for the train weekday mornings at the exact time you're required to be at work; arrive daily, however late, at exactly the same acceptable 20 minutes after the time it is you're required to be there; have your immediate supervisor (someone who, you would hope, could relate at least a little to you) marvel at your consistency; smoke constantly, at least one pack in every 24-hour period; read at least one book per week as long as they are not too very long, equaling four in a month, two of which should be borrowed from your neighbor Lise so as to save enough cash to nourish your other routined habits, etc.--and I could keep it up, I'd found, w/ a minimum of strain on my mind.
In summer I wore shortsleeve white undershirts w/ my corduroys--tight, all of it, formfitting, no pretense. Chicago winters necessitated a coat, but under that coat (my last was a wool pea coat, black) was simply a longsleeve, thermal undershirt in substitute for summer's shortsleeve.
Among the non-routine events: I saw John Cusack and a famous significant other once walking arm in arm at a gallery in Wicker Park, sold a cinnamon scone to Liz Phair, ate lunch next to the Nature Boy Ric Flair at a River North steakhouse (which was exceedingly odd, Flair hailing from Charlotte, from more or less the same red clay I burst). Once after one his Saturday shows I saw Artichoke Heart every day for a week.
Coming into a bar--like the Two-way, a place w/ two entrances and a pervasive air of sexual ambivalence--he will be standing by the jukebox in full regalia: this thing he wears up over his greased-back afro that's half-tiara, half God-knows-what like some sort of eclipsed space helmet: it's metallic, maybe aluminum, like a tiara it rests around the crown of his head, painted red, the metal sculpted to resemble the flames of hell. He'll stand there all night alone, or else w/ his friend Billy (this rather white-South, rednecked-out sort that somehow appeared on the scene from parts deeply Southern, Carolina even, just as we, though we've yet to officially meet him). Artichoke Heart will stand there bobbing his head w/ his eyes closed, mumbling his mouth a little to the noodlings of uncertain stars, the blast of trumpet and Spanish bravado that typically screams from the jukebox. He's usually in this full red-vinyl jumpsuit; his eyes covered w/ mirrored, Aviator-bug sunglasses. His black cowboy boots are spurred.
Oz and Chad and I will stroll in, fresh out of the grind, three blind guys lost in fatigue and routine, make the customary initial barstand--what'll you have, Chad? I'll ask--and you, O?--always offering the first round up for the boys. They'll cycle between themselves from then on, see. A decent trick: buy the first; generosity will take care of the rest.
"Oh Jesus," I'll say, "Here he is."
Oz's face will rise from his beer, cheeks gathering upward momentum, folding, resettling into jowels--"Ahh, yes, by the jukebox, your nemesis."
"Is he everywhere or what?"
"Who now?" This will be Chad, who for some reason never comprehends the system of turds, keeps his attention honed on the task at hand--he'll slam his empty bottle down on the bar in request of yet another before Oz and I have ever finished the first halves of our own. For there are gradations of celebrities. There are gallery curators, magazine editors, musicians, promoters all of whom Oz and I know at least by sight, if not by name, frequenters of these hybrid spaces, like the Two-way, minor celebs who need to feel like they are alive (like, likely, yes, like us) so they flock (again like us) to bars filled w/ old west-side drunks and their aging women.
"It's Artichoke Heart," I will tell him.
And here will be a guy Oz knows, a gallery owner or somebody similar--for Oz never goes out of his way, otherwise--who will take the boy and his jowls away from us, rescue him from our middling company (though he is no roach, Oz, not a infestation). And Chad and I will laugh and he'll ask me who that is and I'll tell him. He'll play the part of the guy w/ the busted engine, me the mechanic, for once, his index finger extended between handholds on his High Life to henpeck out each and every little part, every little attendee of this ceremony--"And what's that one?" And I will give him a quick litany, insisting often that he knows full well that this blasted Velma is an editor at the Zine for the Study of the Female Cadaver, this fat man just some barstool sitting and having his drink after work, this Afro-bound racketeer the principal curator at a joint called the Duffelbox.
And lo, this next one, friend, is Artichoke Heart.
And Chad will say something like he looks a tinge the ex-slave w/ a little bit of a queer in him, slam down likely at this point his fifth or sixth beer and laugh his choked-feline cackle.
Well. I will tell about the time I saw his street show--Artichoke Heart does streetfests, blasts a trumpet (look at the jowels on that fucker! Chad says)--where he bounded through a set made up half of old Mexican Banda classics and the other half covers of M.C. Hammer and Aerosmith tunes. "He did a crazy version of 'Dream on.'"
"What a shit song."
"Yeah, but he used accordion instead of guitar. Sang it just like Tyler but behind this wailing wall of accordion trio. Fucking amazing."
"Yeah, he's got a big enough mouth for it."
Eventually Artichoke Heart will venture from the jukebox and stop and say bye to the Duffelbox curator, adjusting the tiara after he bumps the fat butt of one of the barstools, passing by. And a cheer will go up, in the form of something of a hush. When A.H. leaves his spot beside the juke the thing stops in midsong. The pervasive chatter will go on, but when he reaches the door, bidding adieu to Duffelbox and reaching up, once more, to pull the flames back up into place, the chatter suddenly falls off like a skinny man diving into an Olympic pool. People look to the door, where the spurs on Artichoke Heart's boots glint in freeze frame for second, before disappearing somewhere down the sidewalk.
"Because you will note," I will say. "You will note what is happening. All of these people. They know, now, that the thing is over. The night. It's over. That's it. Artichoke Heart never leaves before he knows the shit has taken a turn for the worse. Or, you might say, before he senses that the shit is-here's the thing-about to take a turn. And they all know it."
"You're drunk," Chad says.
Chad's tongue by this time will be hanging from his mouth, bobbing of its own accord. But I'll go on. Some time into it he'll call for another beer, but I'll raise my hand, signaling to the bartender that he's out, has had plenty, to Oz that we're out of here. And we go; Duffelbox or somesuch other jerking his head to us on our ways out--the end of the night calls for at least some recognition, a modicum of camaraderie.
"So what'd so-and-so have to say?" I'll ask Oz, Chad standing between us, arms hung over respective shoulders, head hanging, tongue lolling halfway down to his chin.
"Ehh, you know. Bullshit."
Todd Dills is a hair's breadth more than a hum-drum affair, replete w/ wild Polka music and whole-hearted high-fives.
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