Saturday, October 16, 2010

From West to East

After living in Los Angeles for eleven years, I moved back to Chicago in 2005. “West to East” is inspired by this transition. I started the piece in a sketchbook back in LA as a simple painting of a rooster in the mountains. Many of my drawings start as a chicken or rooster. I can’t exactly say why I do this beyond the bird being a portal into accessing my inner drawing-world. Like a meditation, prayer or ritual, the process of drawing a rooster seems to open a door to emotions or sentiments that I might be reticent to share in any other way. The drawing has morphed into different things over the past years and I finally appropriated it into a larger work.

It’s not until you leave a place or a person that you realize how much that place and person meant to you, and how things will never quite be the same in your new life.

I lived with my sister, Ginger, in Los Angeles for 9 years. We had a great time. We lived in a semi-dilapidated upper floor of a duplex in the lovely Silverlake hills west of downtown LA. Hidden behind a house and with stunning mountain views, our little rustic apartment, dubbed “the cabin,” doubled as an art and music studio. 1920’s stucco charm, wood floors, arches, high ceilings, and a scenic view masqueraded the decay slowly consuming the foundation of the sinking structure, not to mention a missing support beam in the “garage.” We never had cold water in the kitchen sink, and lived without air conditioning or reliable heat. The shower was nutzy and we had a mold problem. We felt every earthquake tremor, as the wobbly building magnified the shakes.

Accessible by 2 narrow flights of stairs down, and another one up, our place was open to the world-- the front door usually unlocked, with all the windows and door open to let night-blooming jasmine perfume in, as well as a gang of neighbor cats, on a regular basis. Joking about the eccentricities of the apartment became a creative sport, like playing the dozens-- that was better than searching for a new place and moving, or actually fixing the problems.

Most of the residents of the duplex agreed that a friendly ghost resides in the building. One afternoon we were hanging out in the garden area on the first floor, chatting with the neighbors and the apartment maintenance guy, Catui. “The ghost doesn’t like the mens,” Catui declared, puzzling over the fact that Ginger and I were both unmarried. I denied the ghost’s existence, and was seized with a sudden coughing fit so severe that I had to drink straight from a bottle of Robitussin. Never again did I denounce the ghost. Ever.

Of all the wildlife we coexisted with, including the ghost, squirrels, rats, raccoons, skunks and coyote, my favorite outdoor pets were the night birds. LA is quiet at night. For being a large city with a lot of life, the silverlake hills were silent after 9 pm. A night owl, I would retire to my bed around 2 am and listen to the night birds sing their songs for a half hour or so, just thinking... thinking... and slowly drifting off to sleep.

Those birds will always remind me of the freedom Ginger and I felt living in that once grand, rent-controlled, crumbling structure that was our home. We had few material luxuries beyond a computer, TV, two cellos and a boombox, but it didn’t matter. Self-employed, struggling, young, alive. Those were good times.

When I moved back to Chicago, I needed a day-job that could pay the bills and provide some decent benefits. BOOM. I’m surrounded by people who have been thinking about retirement since the age of 21. 401 Ks, life insurance, flu-shots-- corporations sure know how to direct one’s thoughts to their own mortality and stages of inevitable destruction. I may not have much to fall back on during hard times, but I wouldn’t trade 15 year of my life not worrying about that shit for anything.

Chicago is a different beast than LA. While I feel like I gave up a certain communion with nature by leaving LA, I acquired a community, in exchange. It took me a good year to assimilate back into the urban world. The first months, I felt claustrophobic and mildly anxious while sharing a subway with hundreds of others, stuffed like sardines. While you can insulate yourself from other people in LA, and drive away from some uncomfortable situations, you are forced to contend with your neighbors in Chicago. Soon, the yuppies, gang-bangers, crazy-people, homeless, artists, musicians, Cubs fans, Sox fans, immigrants, drag-queens, senior citizens, children, dogs, squirrels all become people and creatures you live with. Closely. And I like that, most of the time...

My family links me to both LA and Chicago. I miss my bi-coastal sisters terribly, and we talk every couple of days on the telephone, and visit throughout the year in either LA, Chicago or New York. My parents live here, and I’ve had the joy of spending time with them. I’m pleased to say that unlike a lot of senior citizens, they seem to get more progressive with each year that passes, instead of becoming more conservative, clinging to the despair manufactured by right-wing television pundits, like a lot of older folks. My parents make me really proud.

I don’t hear night birds anymore. But if I ride my bike out to Lake Michigan, I listen to the sound of seagulls. Pigeons are ubiquitous, but eagle-eyed seagulls have the brains to find the food, even a mile away from water. Their call is the sound of the sea. I love the water. When I listen to them, I think of the distance that separates people I love from me. The seagulls' soulful, melancholy call is music that that makes me happy to be alive in this weird world.