A few days before the New Year’s Eve, I was blindsided by vicious flu bug and ended up spending several days in bed. Too delirious to do anything, I was subjected to fifteen-consecutive hours of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. As I drifted in and out, I listened to the half-bright Shakespearean posturing by British actors, countered by all the grunting, roaring and snarling that I could stand. If the sword fights and creature sounds were removed, all three movies would have been over in two hours. After a couple of days in bed, I made it to the sofa and ate two pieces of toast. The physical move, fraught with light-headedness, chills and perspiration was a major achievement of human engineering. It was followed by a shower and change of pajamas. But even as a person has his head in the toilet, life doesn’t stop: the house needed cleaning; we had to buy food, and were errands to run. Once I had the strength to dress and sit down for dinner, my wife suggested we take a quick trip up to Chicago on the last day of the year.
After downing all of the cold and flu medication I could find, we hit the road. I kept the hallucinations to myself. Although I was feeling better, the scenery and my mood, however, hadn’t improved very much. It happens every time I get a fever. The brain cooks a little bit and I get delusional. One time I was convinced that others were trying to poison me. Invariably I think too much when I am sick, and things bother me that I usually don’t notice. I begin with physical symptoms and then I assume that the problem is with the cosmos. This time was no different. I even contemplated the End of the World.
Fever, head and back ache, and upset stomach aside, I was convinced that something was massively wrong with the world. There I was surrounded by mobs of people on Michigan Avenue, all breathing the same air, touching the same doorknobs, and sharing their germs. It was December 31st, 2010, and it was 57 degrees, misty and pouring rain. Usually, Chicago hovers around 15 to 27 degrees in the winter, there are mounds of snow, and the wind is so ferocious that the streets are abandoned by six o’clock. There were a lot of things that were clearly out of whack. The radio informed of a 100-car pileup and a massive blizzard on a lonely highway in South Dakota, and tornados had leveled homes in Missouri and were headed toward downtown St. Louis. The only thing that was missing was an errant report on the war in Afghanistan, informing us that our bombing campaign had sent yet another village into refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan. Either the world was coming undone like a cheap pair of socks, or the NyQuil was having a serious drug interaction with the four tablets of oregano, organic thyme and St. John’s Wart that my wife gave me so I could drive.
I was counting down the last twelve hours of the year and 2010 had been horrible. Instead of us having to battle armies of orcs, mutant crows, dinosaurs, and legions of the living dead, my wife had passed the entire twelve months under veritable siege from members of her family who having nothing better to do with their lives. Day after day I have watched her scream into the phone at idiots who have no sense of legal process. Although a New Year should bring forth feelings of warmth, cheerfulness and blessed tidings for the next twelve months, I secretly desire that my in-laws burst into wretched flames and burn to death after their cars have plummeted into a thousand-foot ravine. Only when their rotting flesh has been digested by a band of rabid hyenas will my soul truly feel cleansed.
So, as the clock lurched ahead toward the end of this wretched year, the only thing left to do was top off the cold-formula buzz with a triple-espresso, hunker down in a café in downtown and watch the insanity. And, Chicago was chocked full of that on the last day of the year: tourists were taking advantage of the sales, lugging their packages up and down Michigan Avenue; cars were speeding up and down the streets, dousing the unsuspecting tourists with water; and people were yammering away into the cell phones broadcasting the intimate details of their lives. One brassy woman from the Western suburbs –while waiting for her double-decaf, low-fat, caramel, and extra-whip cappuccino–talked at length about the removal of the polypus from her husband’s prostate. This included a graphic description of the insertion of a metal wire with a claw-like pincer through his member’s urethra, which ground the polypus into hamburger and cauterized the wound.
Even though the end of the year brings out the worst in my misanthropic musings, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that the Apocalypse was on the horizon. Even when it appears that the orcs are going to beat down the doors, the end is still far off. The Seventh Seal hasn’t been opened and the trumpets haven’t sounded. It’s doubtful that there will be a hell storm of fire and brimstone, volcanoes erupting in the cornfields, and earthquakes leveling Indiana. Not a chance. The odds that all hell will break loose are about as slim as those that predict that Walmart will close its doors forever. But even though the end isn’t going to come quickly, nothing seems to be stopping us from falling into the sinkhole of stupidity. The dumbness is all around. I close my eyes, and I can still see George W. Bush babbling about a mission accomplished. But I didn’t have to listen to FOX news or listen to the congenital liars we call politicians. All I had to do was try to get to the grocery store.
After we finished our business on the Magnificent Mile, we headed to the Whole Foods on North Avenue. Still half-tripping from the mix of cold syrup, caffeine and holistic medicine, I saw Lincoln Park transformed into Sarajevo. SUVs were chasing pedestrians out of the crosswalk. The normally educated and snobby elite of Chicagoan yuppies were behaving like British hooligans on the gib in a country without enough police to savagely beat them into submission. After braving the parking lot, we descended into the madness of the store. It was obvious that shoppers had been power drinking all morning and were now venturing out for the final purchases before the city closes down for New Years. Everywhere I looked I found men and women alike drinking pints of ale and large glasses of wine as they fondled the fresh produce, pushed their way through the crowds, and treated their fellow human beings with the same amount of rudeness that has characterized the year.
Nothing was sacred or appreciated by the gang of exiles from the lean years of the ´90s. The shoppers fell on to the free samples like pigs in a trough. The locusts from the Book of Exodus left more on their plates. All that mattered was that it was free of charge. The hordes stuffed their faces with the guacamole, salsa and lime-flavored tortilla chips, cheese, brownies, and stale cookies. The irony was that the samples were terrible, unfit for sale, let alone consumption. After a few minutes of comparing heads of lettuce, I went into survival mode and abandoned my wife with the cart. In these situations, the trick is to keep moving and try not to let the dumbness swallow you up.
Things were starting to get intense. The store’s musak was playing some kind of Kids Bob version of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” an outstanding piece of music rendered into garbage by a mob of screechy first graders. The weirdness was all over, and I wondered if the smell would penetrate my clothes. I was looking for a place to dodge grocery carts, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a strange looking imported beer. At first, I assumed that its logo had a wild-west appeal, because its logo sported a guy with a cowboy hat. On close examination, however, I discovered it was kosher. By that, I don’t mean it was “fine” or “okay,” but rather that the cowboy had locks of curly hair hanging from each side of his head. The beer had been designed to corner the Hasidic market. The brewer’s name was Schmaltz, and the product was He-Brew, the Chosen Beer. It was the same company that also brewed Messiah Stout and Genesis Ale. This is the closest I would come to deeper meaning.
Somewhere around then I had an epiphany in the insanity of the last minute shopping. How was it possible? It was a long time ago when we were locked in a land war that was going absolutely nowhere. How did we get into this mess again? As a kid, I remember every night eating dinner in front of the television and having Walter Cronkite tell us how many tons of bombs we dropped on North Vietnam that day. I remember the students demonstrating on college campuses, Kent State, the riots after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and a late-night candle-light vigil for Bobby Kennedy. Despite the mess, we made it through the Civil Rights movement, bussing, bra-burning, the pill, and moved right into Gay Liberation. Somehow we got lost somewhere around in the Reagan years when we started spending on bombs. People forgot that some loyal friends, big hugs, a cozy house, a warm bed, long kisses, soft sex, and a table of good food was all that anyone ever needed. Cocaine, greed, insider trading, junk bonds, big screen TVs, houses with six bathrooms, Enron and oil spills came to define our lives. Is anything more hideous and cruel than this dumbness? I guess it is the punishment for the Great Gatsby and American dream: behind the veneer of a debonair education, extreme wealth and affected speech resides the Golden Calf and an onslaught of spam, internet porn, and every get rich quick scheme from the Robber Barons to the rum runners and bootleggers from Prohibition. In the ‘90s it was balloon mortgages; now, but now the scams are about federal grants, cheap-website hosting, health-care jobs, casinos, investments, and mail-order love. No wonder the stock market tanked; it too needs some faith for it to work.
I popped the last hit of pseudoephedrine and met my wife at the cashier. We checked out and went home. I fell asleep before midnight. Maybe 2011 will be better.