This is a story I wrote for a book I published in 2012. It's a snapshot of a certain mindset I was in when I lived in Chicago in the late 90s. I was recently looking at a map of Chicago and the horror and beauty of those days hit me all at once, and I decided to see if I still have a Word file of this story. I do. Unfortunately, I don't think this story captures the horror, darkness or beauty of those days, at all. It reads like a remedial math equation that technically explains an extremely narrow selection of events, as opposed to an actual immersion into a time and place which had a very profound and formative effect on me. The Chicago years were by far the darkest years of my life. They were the only time I've ever given up hope... entirely. As dark and lost as I've been at other times of my life, I have never been as intentionally sold-out to darkness as I was in Chicago in the late 90s. I have never embraced nihilism and hopelessness as fully as I did in that dark, frozen city full of weird rooms and dark parties and heavy drugs and booze and strange women and noise and pain. I was way beyond lost... I was intentionally lost. I had thrown myself away, as an act of reckless indifference, and the hellishness of such an experience can barely be described by a short math equation about some drugs and a warehouse job. The existential waste was so total, all-encompassing, and intentional, that this short story simply can't describe it. Scanning through it, it's like each sentence is the tip of an iceberg of fire, floating in a sea of burning oil.
Much is missing from this story. It tells the reader almost nothing.
For example, though I've never been gay, I used to go out painted in silver body paint from the top of my head to my waistline, and drink excessively like that all night, shining silver like a madman. There was no reason to paint myself silver; the reason was, simply, "why not." Who cares what anybody does or thinks or says about anything? Certainly not me. Once, on one of my many silver nights out, after being 86'd from a place for being too obnoxious, I was walking down Milwaukee Avenue punching at the walls in fury and rage. My anger was uncontrollable, and I took it out on the walls and storefronts on the dark street. My fist connected with a window, which shattered all around me. I didn't intend to break it, but it shattered and rained down on me, and I ran out of there quick to find a cab. It would never have occurred to me to steal anything; if anything, it was my own soul I was trying to destroy. Not the window.
By the grace of God, I only got a small cut on my wrist, but I had to go to the ER to get stitches. When I went back to the hospital a week later, all the nurses called me "Tin Man," cuz they'd never had a patient come in painted in silver body paint; I was a first, and they all went home and told their kids about it after their shift. "You'll never guess what happened to me tonight, some super-wasted guy came in painted silver and needing stitches." That kind of thing happened on a regular basis, and this small, short math equation of a diary entry titled This is a House of Warship barely scratches the surface, and expresses none of the terrible beauty of those harrowing, horrible days. Here's a picture I took of myself the next day:
To document the ruins of the forgotten joyride through hell I had set myself on, this photo was the 3rd installment of a series of photographs I took of myself, which I titled "The Progression of the Rake," named after the 18th-Century paintings by William Hogarth. I felt a certain infernal kinship with the protagonist of those works. I thought, subconsciously to be sure, I can beat this guy to the bottom. Prison and the madhouse, please. I will drag my soul to hell, laughing all the way. I will puke fire on him, languishing like a rich man on his comfy bed in Bedlam.
It is a horrible, infernal mindset. If you've never been there, you are blessed.
To tell the entire Chicago story would require an entire book. It would be a beautiful story, hopefully. These days, I could make it beautiful. It's long enough ago that I could look back at it and express the horror of it without tainting it with rage. I could reflect the beauty of the darkness without the myopic hangups or the spiritual condition that led me to make such extraordinary mistakes in the first place. I had no idea who I was back then. I was totally lost, and while I'd never kill myself or hurt anybody else (and never would have), and while I've never been a criminal, I certainly have never really cared whether or not I made it through a situation alive. That isn't strictly true. I got my ass kicked by a gang one night in Logan Square. I was lucky to get out of there with my life. It was the only time in those few years of infernal, demonic recklessness that I was genuinely scared. It was the fear that saved me. They saw that they'd "got me," and it caused them to back off. If I continued spitting insults at them like I usually did when I was getting my ass kicked in an alley, they would have killed me. My fear saved me.
It was the only time I was ever afraid back then.
That time, and the drug overdose in Milwaukee. But this is turning into the story of the story, before the story even begins. I'll save it for the book.
Angels on Fire is my first official solo album. The title is a reference to The Birthday Party's Prayers on Fire, and in fact the image of me is from the same day I took the "Tin Man" photo above. The cover art is supposed to look like a Catholic votive candle from hell. These are your saints of fire, your doomed prophets of death, you pray to in your nightmares. This is the demon you created. Light the flame at your own risk. Pray to the devil it doesn't burn out before you repent, or I'll drag you down to hell with me, and we can spend eternity glaring at each other's rotten corpses, smoldering with fury.
It's hard to explain the horror of it. I've spent my entire discography digging myself out of it. Colonel Kurtz knew. Do you?
Some of you will think that's pretentious, and should thank the gods of your choice that you have enough room in your heart to see it that way. You are blessed beyond your capacity to understand blessing. Spoiled, spiritual rich kids, to a man.
For the rest of you, I do have 21 albums of material that skips melodies off the lake of holy terror like so many flat stones. Brimstones, probably, ricocheting off the flames like stray bullets in a Chicago shootout. Most Christians think my discography is "evil." They're not entirely wrong. Joyful music for well-adjusted people it absolutely ain't.
But they're not entirely right, either.
There's a difference in embracing the flames because you see no way out of them, than in seeing a way out and ignoring it, because you don't believe you're actually on fire. One tries to be courageous in its recklessness, and if it drinks the fire, it is aware that it is fire, but drinks it anyway. Because who the hell are you?
The other drinks fire believing it is water.
My discography is the former.
Thanks for listening.
This is a House of Warship
The first apartment I moved into after my divorce, I lived on 18th & Racine in Chicago, next door to a Mexican bakery that sold churros for 50 cents and across the street from 2 liquor stores, one of which only sold Night Train and Wild Irish Rose and 40's of Old English 800. I lived in the downstairs garden apartment, sunk halfway underground so that my front window looked out at street level, and you could see the tires of the cars parked in the street at eye level. I lived there during the winter months, and there was a draft under the front door that let in the snow, I would open the door and there would be huge snowdrifts in my tiny, narrow front hallway. I never took the cat box out, and the cats pissed and shit in my closet on a pile of old clothes that I never wore, denim vests I'd gotten for Christmas, sweaters, pants with pleats in them, ugly clothes full of cat piss and cat shit, rotting in the closet. The entire apartment smelled like cat shit and piss almost all the time. I got 1 hour of direct sunlight every day, in about a 5-foot area of the front room. The rest of the apartment was completely dark at all times.
Upstairs lived 3 young guys, 2 white guys and a black guy, all trim, hip, cool guys, skaters, hip-hoppers, cokeheads, potheads and acid dealers. Coming home from the bar one night, I asked them in my drunkenness if they had any acid and they said that not only did they have any, but that they had a freezer full of it upstairs right now and I could come over anytime I liked. During the time I lived there I would get 10-strips of blotter acid for I don't know, 10 bucks, a dollar a hit, gel-caps with a street value of $7 for $3, cocaine anytime, weed always, sometimes they'd knock on my door and wake me up, just to give me some acid from their latest buy. I never turned them down.
I was seeing a girl in Milwaukee, and every couple weeks I would take the Blue Island bus north to the Greyhound station in the snow, past the projects on Roosevelt, past the University and the neighborhood I'd first lived in when I was married. I'd empty a bag of cat food on the floor, pour a huge bowl of water for the cats, and leave to get wasted and take drugs in Milwaukee for 2 days straight. I worked on Michigan & Cermak at a warehouse for photographers' muslins and backdrops, where dudes would paint the huge canvases with dirty working-class faces and paint-spotted workpants. I worked in the shipping and receiving department, unloading trucks and packing orders for various photographers around the country, packing photographers props, little bicycles, toy horses, little clothes, fake wings, oversized plastic crayons, folding chairs, ladders, all manner of useless trash for rich people to set around their upperclass babies.
The warehouse was always cold, and the ceiling was low, so that I had to duck at all times so as not to hit my head. I often walked to work, and my jump boots had holes in them so I would wear plastic bags around my socks before putting on my boots and stepping out onto the icy sidewalk for the 2-mile walk past Chinatown, under the orange line, past expensive condos under construction, downtown and the Sears Tower looming to my left, huge black towers, cold grey skies. The bridges over the train tracks, the endless fields of industry and steel, smoky tunnels and twisted rusty metal.
Two black guys worked with me in the shipping department, Lenny & Les. Lenny was a shyster-type who smoked Newports and talked about alcohol and bars and parties and coke and crack and fooling around in general. We had a lot to talk about. Les was more conservative, probably religious, wore glasses, had a beard, looked like Curtis Mayfield if you were drunk enough, which I was on a fairly regular basis. Les got uptight towards Lenny from time to time for who knows what reason. I liked them both, and only lost my temper on them once. I lost it on Lenny I think. He was talking on and on about nothing and it was getting late in the day and there was a lot of work to do and I snapped at him about getting the job done, and since I had been hired as an assistant manager, he backed down and took the servile workman's attitude to get the job done, and I felt bad. I felt like an asshole. I didn't want to snap at these poor black working-class guys who lived in God-knows-what project or flophouse or hellhole, but I had.
18th & Racine in January of 1999 was primarily a Mexican neighborhood. My first night moving in, 4 movers were helping me move a piano. It was dark out, and with the windows at street-level it was easy to see in and see what was going on. While we were moving the piano some gangster kid walks in, Mexican kid, dark stoned blank face, asks to talk to the tenant, which was me, asks to use the bathroom, looking around at everything, angry kid, bad vibes. I told him he couldn't use the bathroom and he kept vibing me very aggressive, some jailhouse tattoos on his face, hate in his eyes. I didn't know what to do. One of the movers, the white one, walked up to him and started talking all this Jesus stuff in his face, telling him he didn't have to live like this, he could change his life, the Lord loved him, all that, and the gangster kid just froze, he didn't move or say anything. The mover kept on with his sermon and finally the kid just left. We finished moving the piano and one of the Mexican movers said you better carry a knife around Holmes, cuz they watching you. I didn't have enough money to pay them, so I found a jagged kitchen knife with an 8-inch blade and put it up the sleeve of my orange leather jacket and went out with the movers to find an ATM machine to get some cash. The Jesus talk must've worked, cuz I never saw the gangsters again and never had any heat of that kind for the entire time I was living there.
It was easy to score crack in Pilsen, you walked 2 blocks in any direction and it was a frozen wasteland of hard drugs and gangs. My favorite corner was 15th & Racine, near some railroad bridge, by some loading docks, but I had to find a homeless guy. I always called them Pilot Fish because they guided me the greenhorn whiteboy through the shark-infested waters. I would give them a hundred dollars and then follow them to the ghetto high-rise to wait behind the dumpster while the hardcore gangpunk holding pistols waited downstairs watching me, and the bum upstairs copping dope. And then we'd find a place to light up, anywhere, under a bridge, or in some school playground. Anywhere.
Once I was sitting in this broken-down conversion van under a billboard near the 90/94 freeway, looking up at the billboard in the frozen van smoking crack with my Pilot Fish. I knew I wasn't getting a hundred bucks worth of dope, maybe fifty, but I didn't care about anything. I always liked those guys, those broken black crackheads, I always felt a connection with them that may or may not have been real, but was real enough at the time. They understood me, or pretended to, and I identified with their struggle, even though I really didn't. It just struck me as more real. More real than going to college and becoming a teacher or wearing a necktie or anything like that. Smoking crack in a broken-down conversion van under the 90/94 freeway, you learn things that can't be learned when you're well-adjusted, when you have a good relationship with the world around you, when you have a family, a wife, children, money. You learn not to be afraid.
You learn not to care.
You take power in your ability to traverse the final frontier, not the wild west or outer space, but the ghetto, the underclass, the dark side of the street, where nobody actually GOES at night, the kinds of neighborhoods no one moves to. Where there are no hip clubs, only dive bars and hookers wearing clothing from the swap-meet. Where Santa Clauses are nailed to the walls and not taken down, still hanging there, crucified in June. Where the liquor stores have bulletproof glass, where it's always dark, dark cold streets, broken payphones, fights, filthy cars, old cars, ugly cars. Never any white people. Never coherent English heard on any corner. Currency exchanges and Taquerias. A neighborhood some people wouldn't have the balls to go.
What's a boy supposed to do to become a man, when the figures he's supposed to respect, from whom he's supposed to learn things teach him nothing, give him nothing nice to say? He has to learn to fight, himself. To become tough he has to throw himself into the fray, and learn not to be concerned with whether or not he makes it out alive. To leave his destiny up to the gods, or God, or Santa Claus, it doesn't even seem to matter, you are drinking every day, drunk at work, waking up in a puddle of Budweiser, crying every night, how better to erase the tears than to smoke crack under the freeway? You want to find yourself? Go FUCK YOURSELF! This is a House of Warship. I'm enraged and I am bleeding. There's the Saviour on parade, hanging on 18th street, Mexicans and n***ers, fuck the college girls and eat their panties, I am evil and I'm hungry.
I got a burrito on Lawrence & Clark and drank 'til dawn in the park, walking out on the pier at Foster Beach with a bottle as the tide came in and my feet got wet, the pier slowly submerging and me standing on it with a bottle of wine, tempting the lake to kill me. I screwed a girl out on the Wilson Pier, we broke into the little chain-link cage surrounding some city equipment, who knows, climbed the little tower and screwed like evil angels with the lake around us and the Hancock tower or whatever the hell it's called to the south, the girl from Milwaukee, who took acid with me in Pilsen, once me laying in bed with her listening to Sketches of Spain and coming down from acid and the heater in the dark room blowing the sheet on the wall so it looked like a tent, and us laying there naked and her sleeping on my shoulder, and the acid keeping me awake I felt like I was in the desert really, I surrendered to the illusion and felt that I was in the desert and we were free and there was no city no ghetto no nigger no honkey no whitey no people no anger, just a tent in the desert with a chick on my shoulder and a head full of psychedelic drugs, still my favorite in the book.
From Dancing on the Ceiling of My Existential Kitchen ©2012 Nathan Payne