Charlie Hennessy was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. That was the first thing he wanted you to know. He wore a maroon hoodie boasting the words Golden Gloves Boxing beneath his crinkled denim jacket, when he came in from the 5:30 rush hour cold. He looked like he’d never seen a summer, the way his body was this scrap of tin beaten into a cursive letter by thirty-three years of Chicago winters. Charlie was like an El train at night or a character from a Nelson Algren story or the glow of skyscrapers against the face of the Midwestern sky–something that you sense has always been a part of this place, that makes up the big-city blue-collar bones, and the beautiful grit of the cityscape between sunset and steel.
I sat next to him every week in the creative writing class that met Monday nights through one of the worst winters in decades. He lived underneath the beige brim of his panama hat, a jerky little guy. Charlie had turned his schizophrenia into a manic, stuttering creativity. You could feel it coming off the pages he held in his shaking hands when he read, this vibrating heat emanating from that tangled black knot in his mind. If I reached over and removed the panama, the top of his skull would be gone, just a pink-gray brain sparking like Christmas lights, with the evil genius illness seething like a black spider knotted up in the meat. Even the howling wind and snow in the cement-walled courtyard outside the windows quieted when Charlie read, as if in deference to the gift that wore this scrappy human vestige.
By day, Charlie was an art promoter and ran a gallery out of a storefront in Humboldt Park. That was a poor Puerto Rican barrio, full of abandoned buildings barred with wooden planks and iron grills, staccatos of broken glass and graffiti, Latin Kings territory. You pushed open the door of one such storefront, on Milwaukee and Washtenaw, and there was this space: walls painted lipstick red and branches jutting from the wall like antlers hung with Buddhist prayer flags. People-sized paintings loitered in the middle of the floor like dignified guests you were supposed to greet every time you entered. A makeshift stage swam beneath strings of blue and white lights and a bar was in the back set up on milk crates, cases of Old Style going warm on the paint-splattered concrete floor.
Mattilda was the primary artist there. He was responsible for the cigar store, Indian studded with rusty iron nails and the life-sized portrait of Mayor Daly as Madonna. Mattilda was like some Babylonian mother goddess. He moved through the obtuse colors and bright geometry of the gallery in the full glory of his rolling obesity, draped in bright silks, beads that clacked a holy rhythm, face of blue and white and golden paint.
Charlie ran a story slam there the last Wednesday of every month. He invited poets and playwrights to read, from staid professors who wafted in on tenure and shining publishing credits to ex-gangbangers and Renaissance women from the deeps of Pilsen. Others got up there with a beer can in one hand and a page of scribbled prose in the other to read as much as they could before the crowd booed them off, hoping to win the sweaty fifty-dollar bill in Charlie’s pocket and the distinction of being the hippest writer in Chicago until next month’s slam. Charlie’s wife, Inez, would hang out in the back during the slam, disappearing into Mattilda’s monsters, smiling at you like she was your big sister, somehow anchoring the anarchy her husband had unleashed. She had skin the color of caramel candies melted in the sun and this Medusa-black hair; I could understand why Charlie had gone to jail for her, beating her ex nearly to death with those Golden Glove fists.
Every year Charlie scraped together what was left over after paying tuition and the water and electric bills at the gallery and went to Pamplona, Spain to turn his manic tic against the bulls. One July night at the slam, Charlie was up there on the plywood stage, his hat brim casting blue and gray shadows on his sweaty white t-shirt, narrating Charlie versus the bulls. He sucked up every pair of eyes like he was a gyrating black hole at the center of the gallery, the way he shouted and ducked and jerked, sweating like those bulls were after him again. I imagined this is what people did back in the primeval folds of Africa and Asia and Europe, gathered around those with the mystical illness of creativity to absorb the electricity of story. Suddenly, as the bulls of the story approached and Charlie was hunched over, ready to run again, lightning struck a car outside on the street and the whole building flickered and shook. And it was like Charlie was God, calling down the shades of those Basque bulls from the thunder to beat their hooves against the metal and concrete of this decaying barrio.
Most of the time I brought Alicia with me, a tomboy in a cruelly feminine body, her double-D breasts stuffed and smothered into a sports bra. She shared a love of Midwestern beer-belly punk rock, those bands that make you feel the despair of tiny flatland towns and the reckless hope of youth perched on the city skyline with a three-chord heartbeat. We saw the Lawrence Arms and Dillinger Four together every time they played, pooled our singles and bought seven inches at shows to listen to on our shared record player, and pretended love in the bubbling malt affection of forties of King Cobra.
The slams were likewise part of our courtship. We cuddled into each other’s hair, leaned flirting thighs together in the metal folding chairs in the pool of the stage, and took turns with two dollars to get lukewarm cans of Old Style. The bartender was beautiful, with pecan-colored skin and licorice dreads down his backs, a smile like an embrace that took in the sweaty money we pushed across the board, our age and nervousness, but he hadn’t the heart to deny a couple of nineteen-year-olds an alcohol bath for their puppy love.
Sometimes Alicia couldn’t go. She had to get up early for court-ordered community service in the morning, or she had to go visit one of her mystery friends in a posh highrise in the Gold Coast, probably remnants from her coke-dealing days. So I brought Token instead, Kyle that is. He was a frat boy from Birmingham, drinking So-Co with Dr. Pepper, a Confederate flag on the sleeve of his jacket, eyes big, but soft, like dogwood blossoms. Somehow he’d become the token straight guy any group of gay people tends to collect. Mostly he hung around to screw the fag hags and confused bisexual girls, but he was also a bit of a lesbro, and listened to riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Huggy Bear.
We would stand by the aquarium tank in the back of the gallery, draining our beers and tapping fingernails against the glass. The turtle munched romaine lettuce while we discussed the politics of punk rock and sex, the catharsis of gritty guitar chords against the regret that hangs like a poison sack in your stomach, the painful shimmering beauty of our lusts and angers. We’d drunkenly sing snatches from our favorite song, “Rebel Girl,” cooing to the shy turtle, “you know I wanna take you home I wanna try on your clothes – Ohh!” and everything we knew about rock n’ roll and desire hinged on that plaintive “ohh!”, the cry of three-chord-souls of white-trash punk rock youth, exploding from bedroom speakers and basement shows up and down the heterosexual backbone of the Midwest.
If it was Token/Kyle, he’d drive me home in his Jeep with the Alabama plates. Growing up, my dad never driven sober, so the can of beer between Kyle’s knees and the steering wheel didn’t panic me. If it was Alicia, we had our legs and the El. The slams ended too late to catch the Milwaukee bus, so we had to walk the mile to the Damen Blue Line station. Humboldt Park was the sort of neighborhood two drunk, white lesbians should not have been able to walk in the deep of the night. But at that hour Milwaukee was deserted, only a ghost of salsa music and barking male voices drifting in from the black yawning side streets.
Sometimes the city gives you a break, in the static late-night hours when the streetlights flicker through unslept sleep and the normal laws of urban physics bend. You’ll find yourself feeling safe and alone, untouchable and filled with a lambent glow like a train coming around a subterranean bend, or a heart-black saint on some crumby street where you should be getting mugged or raped. But for every peaceful 3 a.m. walk you find yourself gifted with, you know the city is going to throw you a subway masturbator on your morning commute or a face-full of stinging February hail. Nobody’s every really lucky.
But the barrio would be beautiful in its abandonment, as it was that night we walked to the train in the dregs of Charlie’s storm, the echoes of his bulls rumbling off into Logan Square, the Ukrainian Village, out to O’Hare and the northwest suburbs. The parked vans and busted windows and graffiti slumbered like dusty preserved jewels of some civilization that had died a long time ago, when the sun went down. Then Milwaukee Avenue folded us back into the lights and bustle of Wicker Park, and we rode the train together as far as Clark & Lake, where Alicia stayed on southwest to her neighborhood, and I caught the Red Line to the North Side.
There’s not much point to this story, besides the fact that when I got home my roommate had left all the windows open and the dresser beneath my window was swimming with water and receipts and change, and a green beer bottle had fallen from the sill and shattered emeraldly in the water on the floor, and these are things I don’t have any more, Charlie’s stories and Milwaukee Ave at 3 a.m., these friends and that bedroom. A verdant spray of glass across the fractured surface of my life.
Memory is broken-bottle green, the same color as the nausea of nostalgia. It’s these shards of glass I can’t stop chewing on.
Awakening the Dragon
Self-Portrait with Head and Hands
Godfrey, Help Me Rest
After Learning Too Much About Oshún
Matt W Miller
pilgrim (were you the where)
The Yellow Names
Something Other Than Whole
A Very Small Stain
Valentin in Trouble
Carole Glasser Langille