Reading My Way into Why

(Photo: San Francisco’s little bookstore with a big effect.)

It’s been three years since I came to Chicago and I still haven’t figured out why I did it. I know the factors that pushed me away from New York (slimy employer, post-9/11 angst, hermetically self-encased friends) and that pulled to me to Chitown (aggressively amiable locals, tall buildings, and cheap rent). I know I had lessons to learn here. But I’ve never ever been able to identify the moment when the idea to actually tear myself away from NYC and move across country to the “for Chrissakes, Michael, what are you thinking, it’s the” Midwest actually happened. One day I knew the decision had been made and, utterly, I no longer had a choice in the matter. But I just don’t remember ever making the decision, itself.

Visiting San Francisco last month just made matters worse. Besides not knowing why exactly I came here, now I want to go there. With the same unplaceable vigor that I wanted to come here. So before I jump civic ship again, I think it’s time for me to explore how a Brooklyn boy ended up living in the City in a Cornfield in the first place. Oddly enough, San Francisco made for a good place to start that quest.

No fan of stereotypes, in my pre-trip research (think about it — you’re suprised an anal-retentive urban planner would do pre-trip research for a pleasure trip?) I was drawn, regardless, like a moth to the flame of the writing of Jack Kerouac and his unfinished quest to understand his own particular wanderlust. On the Road, several visits to former Beat-haunt City Lights bookshop, and a healthy dose of Wikipedia later, I put myself on a reading list. Kind of like a crash-diet for the psyche.

For a few weeks now I’ve been clinically (being anal-retentive after all) wading through my self-imposed list of modernist and post-modern memoirs and novels. At half price — speaking as a former Border’s junkie, I am amazed at the number and quality of Chitown’s used bookshops, but save that for another post.

I feel I need to know how others approached their journeys to help me get a handle on mine. And I know I’ll need to write about mine, too. I don’t know how, or where (journal, monologue, book, blog), but it’s bubbling just under and I know, much as I knew it was time to come to Chicago, that it’s time to do this, too.

What I don’t know is what will come of it. I hope at least for a slightly more defined clarity about why I trekked west. All I’m fairly sure of is that, unlike the plays I wrote in college, the central character of this work won’t be a transvestite prostitute selling ice-cream from a live-in Winnebago parked in the meat-packing district.

For now, I’m reading (or rereading), with my eyes wide open for once, the following rapidly expanding list:

William Faulkner — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying
Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises
Jack Kerouac — On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans (so far)
Tom Robbins — Villa Incognito
Spalding Gray — Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy
David Sedaris — Naked
Augusten Burroughs — Running with Scissors

If anyone has any suggestions, I’d be glad to hear them.

More to come…

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