Hog Butcher, Stacker of Wheat

Chicago

“The great trains howling from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of city waters, beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”

Nelson Algren

The El © Ken Rodgers 2014

Chicago is a muscled-up version of Denver or Phoenix. Brassy and confident, the streets alive with jive and new suits and Teslas and glassy buildings that scratch the edge of the sky.

Among other big league teams, Chicago’s Cubs play here and their fans are raucous and wear blue hats and shirts with big red Cs. The El loops around this brawny town and the rumble and crank of wheels on its seasoned tracks, the moan of its superstructures, roll on all night.

Wrigley Field. Home of the Cubs. © Betty Rodgers 2014

From the Art Institute the works of Van Gogh and Monet and El Greco and Chagall shout out for the home folks and the tourists to tread before the museum walls adorned by some of the finest art in the world. A location where museums reside, Chicago plays host to the sublime and other more mordant things, museums that record the art of war and the memory of war.

View From Inside the Pritzker Military Museum & Library © Ken Rodgers 2014

Down the canyons of Jackson and Monroe, the wind rises off Lake Michigan and buffets as you stop and gawk at the line queued up at Dunkin Donuts. Chicago native Lou Rawls sang about the winds of Chicago. He called the wind, “The Hawk,” and at dawn The Hawk swoops down and cools the seething streets.

Lake Michigan © Ken Rodgers 2014

And the food: Italian, German, Asian…the list is long.

Say New York? Chicago yawns. Say LA, Chicago laughs. Say London, Chicago shrugs its industrial shoulders.

We shared meals and sightseeing with new friends and old: the writers and artists, Patricia Ann McNair and Philip Hartigan; our old Cowboy Poetry pal Michael Lawson all the way from the Monterey, California region; tenor Don Hovey, Betty’s four decade friend; my Jarhead mate Michael E. O’Hara.

A Chicago Canyon © Ken Rodgers 2014

Carl Sandburg, 20th Century Pultizer Prize winning author and Illinois native, called Chicago a hog butcher and a toolmaker and a stacker of wheat. And Chicago is still those things and a lot more. He’s a capitol city: Capitol of the Midwest. He’s an educator and an entertainer, he’s a high tech maven, he’s Chicago.

Let me end this paean to the Windy City with more Sandburg.

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse,
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!

For those of you interested in reading fiction, I have begun posting short-short stories on this website. If you are interested in reading them, you can find them at https://kennethrodgers.com/flash-fiction/.

On El Greco, Aretha and Art in the Bar

Last Saturday Betty and I hung her photography exhibit in Boise at an event titled Art in the Bar V at the Knitting Factory Concert House. It turned out to be a 15-hour event and it took us a few days to recover from that experience.

Betty shared booth space with her photographer and writer friend, Sheila Robertson. This all took place in a larger space with a wild and diverse mix of artists and arts from tattoo to performance art. There was zombie art, nude photography, surrealistic paintings, horror photographs Photoshopped from various other photographs, metal sculpture, jewelry, funny political and pun drawings, found art sculpture, ceramic mosaic and a lot of stuff I don’t know what to call.

The Lineup

There was a lot of what I will call digital art. The man in the booth next to us, portrait photographer Allan Ansel, said to me, “Digital is the new canvas.” I had to think about that for a while. El Greco and Velasquez and Rubens painted on canvas. So did Picasso and Matisse. So did Jackson Pollack. A wide variety of ages, philosophies and methods, but they all painted on canvas. Why can’t modern artists paint on canvas?

I think about El Greco who was painting in Spain four hundred years ago, and how his highly dramatic and expressionist paintings brought consternation to his contemporaries, but we like him a lot now because much of our present work finally caught up with him in the 20th century. I think what I am getting at here is that what seems foreign and new and weird now might be acceptable, even revered down the road. So if digital canvas confounds us now, maybe it won’t later.

El Greco

When I was in Vietnam I remember waking up from a nap hearing Aretha Franklin sing “Respect,” over and over and over and over. While she was singing out of a little battery powered portable record player, a bunch of Marines and Corpsmen were singing along with her, over and over and over and over.

At the time I really liked soul music from singers like Sam Cook and Smokey Robinson, but Aretha was something else again, a wild-bird-flying-up-loop-de-loop voice that sang that song like avian acrobatics. It was different, and they played it, they sang it, over and over and over and over again. I jumped off my cot, groggy, my head banging inside and I screamed for them to “Knock it off.” Lucky they didn’t get all over me and whip my butt for my behavior.

One of the men singing the loudest had come to our company from another battalion that had done some serious damage in the A Shau Valley…some damage that could (but didn’t) have caused a My Lai kind of reaction from the American public. At least that is what that Marine and the other Marines that came with him told me. I remember after I jumped up and shouted at them to turn that horrible music off, he stopped and laughed at me. Let’s call him A. A laughed at me.

And I can remember four months later hearing the Beatles singing “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” and the Jefferson Airplane singing “Somebody to Love,” not knowing if I should like it or disdain it for the break with what I thought was real music.

I remember A standing up there as I obviously showed some confusion about what was and was not proper music. He grinned and his gold-capped teeth caught the glint of the sun, and he raised his long muscular arms over his head, and showing off the twin, silver plated, .357 Python revolvers snug in their shoulder holsters, he said “Brother, you can’t stop the train that’s coming. Music brother, music, like you’ve never heard it. Can’t stop. Love it.”

I think of El Greco and Aretha and John Lennon and how A was right, you can’t stop it even if you want to. It’s coming at us like a freight train. Nor can I stop digital media, digital art, poetry slams, techno-thump-boom-boom-thump-thump music, or tattoos.

Sitting in a chair watching all the people come up and look at Sheila and Betty’s photos, I observed the wide variety of folks: old, young, children, Ivy League, cowboy boots and hats, people struggling with walkers, and the illustrated people with all their piercings and tattoos. Even though I had decided that I needed to accept the wild art I was exposed to, I still wasn’t sure about the colored, tinted, narrative skin I kept seeing on the young men and women.

Admiring Art in the Bar

I noticed a young man—a big strong man—carrying a little boy in a backpack. That young man had things in his ears that looked like they’d let fifty-caliber machine gun bullets pass clean through, and his skin was tattooed on the arms, the neck and who knows where else. I wondered why he did that to himself and I wondered how it might feel to have all those tattoos removed.

He came up to a neighboring booth and took his backpack off and picked up his son and hugged him. They looked at some digital art and then the illustrated man whispered something to his little boy, and they laughed. They smiled and they laughed and laughed and laughed.