national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011
Nonfiction Prize Winner

Gauche Chemistry

Frank Schweihs  • 
Columbia College Chicago

I’m in the commode with all the other swinging dicks, and the drunkards queuing behind me, and the Global-Industrial-Dyson-Metallic-Silver-Airblade-Rapid-Hygienic-Digital-Motorized-Drying machines that sound like cloud-piercing X-1As trying to snap the sound barrier, and the one-and-a-half-story sound system vibrating the architecture, when all of a sudden I notice, in front of me, scrawled across the faux-dingy pisser walls, a Keith Richards quote. Some platitudinal nonsense: I’ve never had a problem with drugs. I’ve had a problem with the police, or some such thing. Close by, made to look like it was sprayed on in a sort of bus-station-graffiti font, is a quote from River Oak, Michigan, native Glen Frey. The only difference between boring and laid back is one million dollars. Next to this is a quote from Rod Stewart, and then there is Kid Rock’s and Simon Le Bon’s and Bon Jovi’s and so on and so on and… Sage insights and rock & roll aphorisms for all the swinging dicks to read, but not me. I don’t have time to loiter around the posh bathroom of some Chicago nightclub all night reading scripture. Besides, the line’s moving fast. Shit or get off the pot. Grab a couple of quotes, carve out some dormant real estate, some cache in the back of your mind, and store those profundities away like canned rations. Like a billboard or bumper sticker, they’re to be consumed quickly, not so much meant to be scrutinized but ingrained. And then zip, soap, rinse, a little air pressure…VROOOOOOM… and off you go, back into the crowd, all hopped-up on iconoclastic maxims and complimentary breath mints, to stand by the bar and wait for the RedBull to kick in.

 

The bar area of LaSalle Power Company is spacious when it’s only mildly populated. Intended to look like one of those post-punk Bowery relics—the ones where the bar counter is all exposed nail and crooked wood, like some malconstructed treehouse—LPC instead is wrought like a streamlined pop-punk version of that; a deluxe poverty trompe l’oeil, where the rock band insignia hanging on the walls spreads out like the perfect pop-culture equation: tongue plus apple plus obscure occult symbol plus peace sign plus banana plus devil horns plus leather jacket equals authenticity.

Right now, though, it’s a landfill of drunken, clumsy joviality, and we’re all pressed shoulder to shoulder like midday Metro passengers. At the bar, vying for a drink, the staccato playlist on a schizophrenic loop, I notice the hockey player and Biff entering the joint. The hockey player is a guy I knew growing up who bounced around the NHL for years before landing in Finland. He played overseas for a few seasons and now he is back in the States, back in the NHL, playing for Atlanta or Dallas or somewhere or other. But the hockey player is irrelevant, inconspicuous. He just stands around staring at the buoyant little asses of the underage brigade. No different than anyone else.

But Biff, now this guy is a sight to see. He walks in like Colossus Neronis with salmon Lacoste polo and Johnny Unitas crewcut, and the hockey player just follows docilely behind him, his lips attached to a straw and his eyes wandering. When our eyes meet, mine and Biff’s, he makes a beeline toward me.

“All heel, lookie her. It’s Chi city’s own Mr. Schweihs. Making the rounds tonight, partner?” Biff speaks in a sort of whacked-out Bourbon Street patois. I just raise my eyebrows and smile at him blankly.

“These little lovelies her, you know any of them?”

I shake my head and chew the ice from my glass.

“Bullshit. Look at that getup. Like you running a whore house,” he wobbles a finger over toward the buttons on my shirt. “I hope you don’t know any of ’em, cause I’m a try to fuck ’em.”

Biff is not this character’s Christian name. It is not the name his mother gave him. It is the name I gave him. In fact, I don’t even know his real name. I call him Biff because I can attach no other name to his person. He’s got the look of a high school wrestling team Dionysian, a letterman-jacket date-rapist. When I call him Biff he correctly reads it as an affront, though it’s clear he’s not sure exactly why.

“Biff, buddy, where were you tonight? You look exhausted. Drink too much?” I ask him.

He shoots his shoulders up quickly and bounces off the hockey player, squinting his eyes at me like a cowboy in the sun and sizing me up. “I ain’t never too drunk,” he says to me. “You want something?”

He snaps his fingers at the bartender, who winces at him in disgust. “Get this longhair a shot a Jameson, tootse.” The little bartender clenches her teeth at ole Biff, and he throws his arms up in the air.

“Uncle, baby. You got me.” Biff looks over at me and whispers. “They don’t like it much when you call ’em tootse, do they?”

I shake the ice in my glass at the bartender, who now extends her disdainful look to include me. “Can I convert this from club soda to Ketel rocks?”

This Biff fella is not a microcosm of LaSalle Power Company. He’s just one slice of a very heterogeneous pie. LPC is located on LaSalle Boulevard in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, a stone’s throw away from what was formerly known as the Rock & Roll McDonald’s—which is now a space-aged hulking edifice with “retro trimmings,” wi-fi access, and rooftop landscaping; lodged in between The Loop and the Art’s District, around the corner from the House of Blues and down the street from the three-story Sports Authority and the neon sneaker exhibition, that wonderfully gaudy monument to hip-hop urbanity. It’s not the kind of place that demands the vanguard specificity of a hipster hole-in-the-wall. It’s the kind where you go to celebrate the birthday or the bachelorette party of the climbing-thirty crowd, or to inaugurate a corporate gathering planned months in advance. After midnight, when the place begins to fill in a bit, it becomes a bizarre consortium for the socially inept and the customary vogue: dowdy little awkward geeks; corporate white-collar white guys in moderately priced suits acting as if they’re worth more money than they make; rich middle-aged white guys in exorbitantly priced suits with thinning hair trying to pick up suburban college girls; pudgy, atherosclerotic prowlers of the same middle-age trying too to zero in on those same college girls; Indian kids who dress like Tiger Woods; Asian kids wearing Moto-Grand-Prix replica jackets and Oakley Jupiter sunglasses who look like they just zoomed here on cherry-red Ducati Streetfighters; Italian kids adorned in fluorescent-roaring-lion Ed Hardy polos—like a lion in some Robert Bateman portrait, only rabid and radiating phosphorescence; mothers who had dinner at Quartino who’ve wandered in by accident; club kids who couldn’t get into the chic places but still contain the requisite amount of allegiance to the scene, who still dress in the absurd, capricious garb of the moment. They’re all here—tourists, divorcées, businessmen,  creeps— all mingling together in a pungent bouillabaisse. What’s that Elvis Costello line? There’s so many fish in the sea, who only rise up in the sweat and smoke like mercury. Well, they’ve risen and been washed up. LaSalle Power Company is the shore, but instead of the pervasive stench of a salty death, what you find here is the endless sour odor of Drakkar Noir or the bitter odiferous air of Juicy Couture. And here, the fish don’t flop; they dance. But I swear you can barely tell the difference.

Away from Biff and the hockey player, I plant myself next to Vincent, my demented friend. Vincent is slight and innocuous-looking, with a neat, old-time-South-Side parochial school bob. He’s goofy though, and the closer you get to him, the more sparklingly prominent the dementia in his eyes becomes; think two swollen light bulbs with a constant, crackling blue-wire filament. High Voltage. He is why I am here tonight, to accompany him in the meeting of a woman and her assortment of friends for a birthday extravaganza. The women in this group, I must say, are a fascinating bunch, even for the LPC. Long and gangly, they look as if they just filed out of an activity bus, like a D-1 volleyball team riding all night through the dark monotonies of attached suburbia, only to reach the city, remove their shorts, change into dresses, enter the nightclub, and look with exhausted contempt at all the other girls whom they dislike for their conventional proportions. When they saunter awkwardly through the crowd to get their drinks at the bar, gigantic feet and skinny frames flanked side by side, they resemble the backup squad in the Basketball Jones cartoon: their joints triangle obtuse; their necks, long and widening, ascend and open at the heads like sousaphones.

Now we’re at our designated spot, all of us—our group—me, Vincent and his eyes, two goddamned blue halogen bulbs in the dark, this woman Samantha, and the squad, the Basketball Jones reserves, and we’re spread out over one of those long, Victorian Rosewood sofas; you know, one of those nouveau-baroque lounge sofas that are always in places like this—the ones that look as if they belong in the drawing room of Osborne House. Along the couch the squad gracelessly crosses and uncrosses their legs as Samantha screams at me through the clangor of the music: “What do you do?”

I’m pretending that my head is impenetrable to her screams.

“WHAT DO YOU DO?”

I shake my head confoundedly. Eventually she quits asking and instead just stares at me, her lips pursed and her eyebrows all crinkled, until finally I ask, as if I’ve just thought of this very interesting question myself, “So, what is it that you do?”

Back to the screams.

“I’M AN ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT IN THE PHYSICAL THERAPY DEPARTMENT OF NORTHWESTERN MEDICAL BUILDING.”

“Interesting,” I say. “What does that position consist of?” As she opens her mouth to tell me the specifics of exactly what it means to be an administrative assistant in the Physical Therapy Department of Northwestern Medical Building, a drone, louder even than the music pumping out from the speakers, begins humming through my ears. I hear not one word she says to me. I just feel the warm, saccharine breath from her vodka cranberry suffusing my neck. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the squad, the lankiest one, engaging in a sort of Alvin Ailey pre-dance stretch. In the matter of a minute, the whole squad is up and moving—their long bodies unfurling from the sofa like languid reptiles, unlinking themselves from the gawkish human fence they’ve built—and all of them are sliding back and forth to the buzzing between my ears.

The buzzing lasts for the next two, three, four hours. It lasts through each succeeding drink imbibed; it lasts in the comfortable early morning air, outside of LPC, where I see Biff leaning against the wall, vacillating in the wind like a docked boat, trying desperately and ineffectively to pinch out a cigarette from his pack, his fingers as graceless and ponderous as a bowling-alley-claw-crane machine. Only with the ride home, speeding down the Eisenhower, does it subside, this buzzing; with Vincent driving and the train-track-spark cigarette embers flashing past the back window, and Samantha writhing uncomfortably in the front seat; past Rush Presbyterian Hospital and the Rosen Bread factory with the giant phallic hotdog looming over rush-hour traffic; Ventilator Blues pumping out of the car stereo—the first Stones song I hear all night—warning, Ain’t nobody slowing down no way. Everybody stepping on their accelerator. Don’t matter where you are, everybody’s gonna need a…ventilator…yeah. Detached from the squad, Samantha looks like the only extant member of familia dromaiidae; her long neck hanging out the window for air, and Vincent, with his eyes bulging, pressing the gas and smiling the perverse smile of some wild Australian poacher bumping his way through the outback.

 

Tonight I’m at English, down the block from the LaSalle Power Company, having a drink with The Gambler, who refuses to let me use his real name—“What’s with all these questions? I don’t want no part of this essay. And don’t use my name. Use Vincent’s, or whoever else you want, but don’t use mine.” The Gambler believes in the American mysticism of the margins, so therefore he is dedicated to his anonymity, his maxim being: “Work when you’re out of action, when your bankroll has depleted; otherwise…gamble.” Under the golden translucence of the paper lanterns hanging above his head, his face glows with photonic energy. It’s like some radioactive gamma ray in an LSD trip—this is what his face is to me in the new light of a new bar. Eventually my eyes adjust.

“Corporate Rebels and Stunted Perversities. This is what you should call it,” he says to me. His mustache is soaking wet with alcohol, his hair is combed backward, and the first three buttons of his shirt are undone. Peeking out from behind the buttons, showing her radiant face, is Mother Mary. This is not an image gilded and hanging off some loose jewelry, mind you; it’s a portion of the chest-length tattoo The Gambler quixotically had etched for permanence on his skin years ago, in Sicily. She’s staring right at me, this image on his chest of Mother Mary , with  one eye piercing out amid all the furled chest hair and linen. and she looks horribly bored.

In English, we have virtually the same crowd, and the building is just as old, older in fact, with a facade that is far less plebeian; Babylonian ziggurats, Ionic capital volutes, the worn-down patina of valued architecture, the Art-Deco terra-cotta glazes that speak of the decadency  that began with those Greek artistic flourishes long ago. This is how the old Veseman Building on the corner of LaSalle and Illinois wears its face. In the morning, it presents a cracking and vile visage. At night though, at night, with the neon luminescence of the sign pouring out onto the street, blinding everyone to the fissures of its countenance, and that old, sophisticated Lancaster font inviting you in for a pint, the building becomes strangely attractive.

“Corporate Rebels and Stunted Perversities.” He says it again. “That’s your title.”

I barely understand what he’s talking about, but instead of explaining it any further he just stares at me, his eyebrows lofty over his worn-down eyes, and waits for me to figure it out myself. I never fully do.

Finally, he puts his hand in front my face. The tip of his middle finger touches the tip of his thumb; his other fingers fan out, as if he were about to conduct an orchestra. He swallows whatever it is that he’s drinking and says, “None of it really adds up. The new technoalgorithm that computes everything and spits this place out uses faulty information. You’re here because of spam; spam that reminded you of the time you signed your address away to some slender young thing with a clipboard and an HGH ogre with an overactive pituitary. For a free admission, at the door you mumble out information and therefore you fit a segment.” He moves his mouth up and down and half covers his eyeballs with the sheets of their lids to gesture a drunken pantomime. “Or you’ve just signed divorce papers and are out of the game but by the allure of a corporate magnetism, or a couple of your younger work friends, you’ve ended up here, tonight, on what was once and still might be a hot corner, looking for nothing in particular except maybe the reminder that your privates still produce the proper pheromones to attract the opposite sex; or a Facebook friend, your son’s college roommate, somebody you’ve had a couple of beers with over the years, IM’d you about it and…” He stops here, thinking about whether or not he has the terminology right. “Is that what they call it still? Instant Messages? Is that still with the Facebook?”

What’s all this talk about technoalgorithms? The technoalgorithms to figure out the technoethos? The Gambler is very pious about the Chicago scene, and drinking in particular, so needless to say he is up in arms over the current state of social interaction within the city. Here he is distraught as he tries to grasp this sad reality. As if drinking in Chicago at one time or another was this divine custom, then all of a sudden the corporate takeover began; the ultimate defilement showing itself in the uninspired computerized restoration of this very Veseman Building, which was God knows what before it was English… She’s been around for nearly eighty years! With each incarnation her face has rotted away even further; a concrete and steel Gabor sister, caking on globs of paint to hide her age. The day has long since passed when the aesthetic of this building was pristine. But instead of being allowed to slip into her logical and seemingly inevitable demise, this marred structure has become the sacrosanct assignment of the preservation ministry.

“Tear it down,” says The Gambler. “Get rid of it. It’s unhealthy. And it’s stunting the natural social growth of the city. Stunting the natural relations between people.” He gets very quiet now and leans into me, some stale-old-grim look on his face. Ominous even. “Old buildings, old music, old ideas. The same old and expired reverence that comes only out of obligation…and the tired old exploitative ideas on how to make a buck. New technology bringing you to old ideas.”

“Every building? No history? Each one new?” I ask.

“No. Just where people come to drink and fuck.”

Silence for a moment. And then a sigh. His once-slicked-back hair is now leavening in the humidity—small little curls of electric vivification so light they now seem to float over his head. “This didn’t come about naturally,” he says, keeping himself vague. “The molecular structure of an authentic movement comes together without influence. That’s why the hippies were illegitimate; it became a Madison Ave movement. And they were susceptible too. Only the hippies could drink the Kool-Aid or kill the LaBiancas.” He’s getting lost in himself, drifting a bit, sailing away from cohesion. “Fucked up the components. Bent bonds. Bananas, man. Look at the room, Frank.” He waves his hand. “A steric hindrance. All these people don’t belong here, don’t belong together. It stunts the growth, which then stunts the relations. It stunts the natural development of the proper perversities. The healthy perversities that develop in the atoms of a properly composed movement.”

The Ansonia in the Upper West Side of New York. The Beaux-Arts style monster of grandiosity. The towering hotel built by William Earl Dodge Stokes that he intended to be the “grandest hotel in Manhattan.” This is what remains in my mind after The Gambler quits speaking. I’m thinking about the turrets that come out like the tops of medieval castles and the double-width doors that Stokes built so the musicians could easily get their grand pianos in and out of their rooms; and then how that whole elegant pretense just sort of faded away over time, transitioning into the Continental Bath, the Babylonian bathhouse with the candy machines that dispensed K-Y jelly, which doubled as a seminal NYC cabaret, predating 54 as the au courant refuge for the exhaustively hip; and finally, Plato’s Retreat. This was the Ansonia’s last reincarnation: Larry Levenson’s sex cave for porn stars looking to hustle an extra buck; middle-income suburbanites and their wives; low-level outfit, semi-famous ball players; and the handful of other dubious types existing on the fringe of the NYC social scene at the time. It was a subterranean sex club advertised on public-access television, an ancient-Roman-inspired debauchery with a cold-cuts buffet and an indiscriminate door policy, where, if you were lucky, you’d get to hang out with Sammy Davis Jr. or Buck Henry before partaking in a six-couple orgy.

From the palatial to the perverse; from the high class to the prole. Makes sense to me. I don’t see the origins of perversity as clear-cut or distinctive, or the social mixtures as dangerous. I want to say this to The Gambler, but in the midst of my seemingly split-second thought he has become occupied by a big-bosomed Polish girl. Our age, roughly, the woman seems; pretty, with short hair, cropped like Maria Falconetti. Soon as she gets a sight of that tattoo peeking out from his chest, the one of Mother Mary’s listless face, she opens his shirt, opens it wide for nearly the entire bar to see, and then starts in with the mock genuflection, speaking quickly in an accented and mangled English, bowing up and down over The Gambler’s waist, while he just stares at me, laughing; his hair coiled and twirling around itself, little DNA helixes—an ornamental volute!—extending high above his head and up into the photonic golden lights.

 

In the bathroom of Stone Lotus there are no rock star quotes on the walls. It’s quiet looking, coated in the stark monochromes of silvers and grays and blacks and whites, which seem all to meld into a confluent one color. Only it’s not quiet. It’s louder than LPC, or English too, for that matter. Its sound is palpable and continual. The body of Stone Lotus—smaller in structure than the other two places, almost unnoticeable among the hollowed-out buildings and desolation that becomes the city on the corner of Orleans and Chicago—is in a state of constant vibration. It’s as if a giant were on the dance floor, stomping his feet to the beat of the music. A real seismic experience.

Stone Lotus is the vanguard spot, but really, that seems almost incidental. It helps that it rests somewhere in the short route between the flashing electric playground of the LaSalle River North strip and Rush Street—up through Ohio to the lake is the closest Chicago gets to resembling Times Square, or the Tokyo in Tokyo Storm Warning, where it begins and ends in the strange sci-fi camouflage of modernity. A Philip K. Dick image. The reservoir of the crushed Capsule Hotel, bodies over bodies; the Disney abattoir and the chemical refinery. I knew I was in trouble but I thought I was in hell. It helps that the haute deluxe poverty required to sanctify a club like this is connected to the real poverty that shares its geography with Stone Lotus; the blocks surrounding Stone Lotus are like an urban ghost town, making it fittingly clandestine and dangerous. And it helps its vanguard status that it’s exclusive. No mommies allowed unless they look like the Real Housewives of Orange County and agree in advance to bottle service. In that case…

I’m out tonight, third night in a row, devout in my nightlife reconnaissance, at Stone Lotus with The Gambler and Angelo, and we’re leaning against the bar with our heads in a rumble from the noise echoing out of the ubiquitous sound boxes. In front of us, against the backdrop of the artificial electric waterfall, sits an older Asian man in a gray suit. Next to him is a girl who is pouring herself champagne and fidgeting with the apricot sirop and bruléed summer berries, observing them as if they were exotic fungi.

“YOU SEE THAT?” Angelo screams in my ear. “YOU SEE THE WAY HER LEGS ARE CROSSED? OPPOSITE HIS DIRECTION AS OPPOSED TO TOWARD HIM. THAT MEANS SHE DOESN’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH HIM.”

“REALLY?”  I ask.

He nods his head. Angelo is a delusional little Italian man I’ve known for some twenty years, since we were small children. He’s just psychotic enough to think that he has a grasp on the through-line of every character who populates the narrative of his life. “LOOK AT HIM STRUGGLING. SHE DEFINITELY WANTS NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM. AND YOU KNOW THAT SON OF A BITCH HAS MONEY. I SAID, YOU KNOW HE HAS MONEY. LOOK AT HIS SUIT. HE’S PROBABLY SOME JAPANESE BUSINESSMAN, HERE FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, STAYING AT THE PENINSULA, SPENDING TWO GRAND ON BOTTLES OF GOOSE AND CHAMPAGNE IN HOPES THAT HE CAN GET THIS LITTLE PUTTANA DUCT-TAPED BY THE END OF THE NIGHT. WATCH. IN NO TIME HE’LL BE PINCHING THE BRIDGE OF HIS NOSE, RUBBING HIS EYES, AND MAKING HIS WAY OUTSIDE TO CATCH A CAB AND GO BACK TO HIS HOTEL ROOM. YOU THINK I’M WRONG. JUST WATCH.”

Prophetic is the little guy tonight. Soon enough the Asian man in the gray suit is pinching the bridge of his nose, rubbing his eyes, and shaking his head, while the girl next to him continues to occupy herself with the strange delicacies brought out to accompany the spirits, the rosewater essences and licorice sugars and whatnot. But the little guy is wrong about him making his way outside to flag a cab and returning to his hotel room. In time, the Asian businessman in the gray suit makes his way over towards us, by the bar, and leans on it similarly, as do the atherosclerotic prowlers and HGH ogres with the overactive pituitary glands, and the middle-income suburbanites. Eventually they all form a line across the bar, joining The Gambler and Angelo. As the night wanes, they settle here, leaden from an evening of drinking, and lose themselves staring up at the dancing girls, wavering in the electric-blue waterfall, under the wooden-Japanese lotus flowers, who bounce maniacally into the dawn to the nonstop electronic noise.