A night and day in Peoria Illinois, a city much visited over the years, but never properly known. It is part of what we, the smug self-satisfied ones who live on either coast, now call the “rust belt” in one of the “fly over” states. I have come to learn that Americans who have no sense of irony, say such things and truly mean them, although not without plaintive regret as if this just using these words becomes a harbinger of unstoppable decline. From my hotel window I saw the pallid clouds cast a sickly, shadow less light on the city below me and you sense the chimera of regeneration in that colorless atmosphere; there are halfhearted attempts to create loft buildings with freshly but unconvincingly branded coffee shops and tattoo parlors and mystical, magical words of yearning “Amazon”, “Tesla” are whispered like a secret language, a new currency. But doubt is omnipresent, when I hear Americans use those terms to describe these once hopeful, small and contented mid-west cities I detect a tremor in their voices and the inflection of anger as if they know they are being disloyal, betraying the soul of their American dream. Some of the locals stew in resentment. They act out, grasping for any hope of change no matter how unreliable its prophet, news is dismissed as fake against all common sense which itself is overruled by the fury of the overlooked who behave and vote on the singular impulse to do harm. Some wear silly red hats in case you didn’t notice them before, in the event that you didn’t know the unfathomable, gaping depth of their contempt and their mob power to say fuck you to intellect and reason. You may point out that Clinton won Peoria County in 2016, but it was a narrow win, 48% against his 45%, and every person I see I think it’s a 50/50 chance that I might encounter someone I might want to avoid.
The first stop from New York is always Chicago, a place now that I only see from the sky or the mid-century cavern of an airport. As we approach the landing we see the gridded metropolis, precise and as prosaic as a waffle maker, stretching apparently without end and if you discount the lake, unbroken by the inconvenience of nature. The grid is unnatural and foreign to anyone who grew up in places formed organically over a long period. When we see these precise mathematical rows and crossings we cannot help but think of the surveyors and their tripods, the architects and city planners, politicians and this being Chicago it’s not a leap of the imagination to visualize envelopes with money, expensive meals mysteriously paid for as being the real foundations of these plots of land and suburban streets, the notion of fraud, corruption and bribery being more ambiguous here than other places, as if they were opinions rather than facts. It was always like this, I’ve spend substantial time here in the nineteen nineties and got to know the inner city quite well, it is masculine and handsome with a solidity thanks to an abundance of materials like stone, steel, glass to fortify itself from the harsh weather. In the in the loop there is little in the way of greenery, few parks or squares to rest, the same is true of your evening meal where salad rarely appears and if it does at all it is a small and sickly afterthought, an effeminacy somehow.
On one occasion spending a weekend alone I walked tirelessly with an inevitable energy following a week in an office, eventually far away from the city center through increasingly flat, barren neighborhoods. Tower blocks surrounded me but were invisible landmarks, disappearing thanks to their sameness, Le Corbusier’s “machine for living in” dream was partially realized but failed when it came to the utopian vision of lush parks with children playing, riding bicycles and grandparents grilling fish in the open air; here there was no one, not a dog being walked, not even a bird, my only companion was the persistency of the wind which had started by tugging my clothes like a child seeking attention, but had then turned soft and warm like a breath against my skin and I became at once alert and fearful of the cities unwelcome intimacy. There was the sound of a slow approach of a car behind me announcing the only living creature I had seen for twenty minutes, a Police Officer in his patrol car. He pulled alongside to ask what I was doing in this neighborhood and I confessed that I was lost. Ten minutes later I was back in the city comfortable inside the warm, synthetic vinyl back seat of the Chicago PD vehicle expressing gratitude for a life possibly saved. He had told me macabre stories of the hood which I only half believed during the short drive which broke the monotony of his day, we had quickly adopted predictable roles, his tough and world weary, me naive and incapable, yet the same time it wasn’t unpleasant and I enjoyed the attention from the pedestrians stepping back out onto the side walk from a Police car. Chicago I grew to realize was a contradictory place with refinement and sophistication particularly in its built environment, the architecture is sublime in some quarters and its stars, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies VanDeRoche have made crucial markers on both the city and on their careers here. At the same time earthiness and a lack of pretension is valued, a humor which is self-reflective and lacking in bombast, it reflects the cultural origins of the first wave mid-western immigrants who came from Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland and England, whose ancestor’s still possess the light hair and pale skins of their origins.
Shortly after arrival in Peoria, I stepped out of the Mark Twain hotel and turned my back to the slowly moving river. Walking through the downtown area at night through a light mist I was acutely conscious of its emptiness and solemnity, there were limitless empty office buildings and closed ornate banks but other than a few passing cars some of which slowed down approaching me making me a little more anxious than normal, the city felt deserted. After a while I passed an impressively massive school and the streets became narrower, tighter, more stirrings of life could be seen; the blue smoke from the parked pick-up exhausts and the soft green glow from the dashboard light cast flattering light on the muffled dark shadows inside, a couple of young women smoking outside of a bar are suddenly silent when I walk past and I wondered what they made of me, what cruel comments will be forthcoming when I am out of ear shot? I don’t blame them as it must be strange, on a damp Wednesday Midwest evening to see someone like me ambling, admiring the buildings and shop fronts, searching for ghosts in their all too familiar neighborhood. The place can be dated by the signage on its stores, the art deco neon, the flowery Parisian scripts from the 1950’s and the overly stylized 1970’s informing us that this town was not so immune from the outside world after all, its accommodation of all these conflicting visual symbols alleviated the tension one inevitably feels in the precise, bland architecture in the city center. I find myself grasping with false memories in streets like this, an unaccountable nostalgia for a 1950’s America that I obviously never knew but which was acquired on a comfortable sofa in a drab English suburb when there was nothing to do except watch American Graffiti or Happy Days. Even though I never circulated amongst the chrome, immodest spluttering of Hot Rods and muscle cars outside the Hop, or heard the sound of Candy Apple Stratocasters and Telecasters wailing into the warm night I feel it’s part of my past, I have an illogical sense of ownership and claim these memories as if they were my own, a perversely inexplicable entitlement. Back in the hotel I see in the bar a group of robust happy men drinking and talking in high volume, they tell me to join them but as I approach I heard the word Trump in admiring terms and back off immediately, I know better to engage and think (always too late!) of a Twain-ish witticism; Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you to their level and then beat you with experience. It might even be somewhere written on these walls which are full of his unnoticed memorabilia. The next morning I woke to the clatter of chains and the sound of barge bells, then sudden growls of thunder and a little later the offbeat patter of rain, misrepresenting reality when I opened the blinds to see the ghostly outline of the bridge in the grey mist. At breakfast the other guests wore baseball hats and ate breakfast only with a fork.
I was here once in the August of 1997. It was the height of summer and for once the city was populated with children and families late into the evening. They would navigate towards the river and find room on the grassy verges where bars served cold beer and hot dogs. Blankets would be put down to claim territory and parents would look mystified at their small children, arms extended making furious circles like airplanes, but grateful that they are exhausting themselves before it is time for bed. I had walked the length of this strip by the river and was delighted to find a pair of antique stores selling artifacts from the relatively recent past, chairs by Eames, Danish 1950’s furniture and then the ultimate find; a pair of unusually shaped George Nelson bubble lamps, things that defined interiors in that joyously optimistic midcentury moment. Now they are produced again as this period is back in fashion, but then it was a rare find and I bought them without thinking of how I would get them home to New York.
The drive in a rental car took two days and its monotony was absolute, in time adopting the dream like sequences of a sailing boat on a calm sea, avoiding the sounds of the sirens; antique malls, donuts and coffee. Distances which were measured in hours not miles by gas pump attendants, the actual directions minimal and represented simply the names of cities to drive towards. Drivers, I began to realize, fixate on the landscape itself which was so endlessly flat and featureless that on the rare occasions where a forested area or natural undulating farmland could be seen from the road it was hard not to be overcome with an exaggerated sense of joy.
By the time I approached Philadelphia and found I could phone my wife there was a sound of commotion in the background, she told me that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris, and I told her I was certain she must be wrong….it could only be an accident and she was injured at worst? but no her brother confirmed, dead. Even anti-royalists like myself sensed the immediate shock, like awakening from a beautiful dream only to be disappointed when face the same reality, the world had shifted little by her passing and I realized then how she had crept unnoticed into our affections through her modesty and nervousness in front of cameras which is a universal fear. The final stage of the journey, down the ugly, concrete i-95 corridor in New Jersey offered us the most apt backdrop the melancholy we both felt. Mary and I talked about the rainy day (really not so long before that moment); we were hurrying back over the River Thames to beat the rain which was starting to fall and encountered a small group of elderly peering over the bridge to a theater below us, they told us they were waiting for “Lady Di”, looking down with them we could see there was another small gathering of by-standers. Should we wait in this cold drizzle or walk on? Mary insisted we wait and almost immediately a large black car arrived and we saw the tall feline, figure emerge and smile briefly acknowledging the small crowd before disappearing into the building. It’s odd and inexplicable but it took our breath away a little. She was wearing the tight cocoon of a shimmering dress despite the weather and Mary mentioned a name of a famous designer but it was lost in the rain which was now coming down heavily and the new north wind, blown down towards the Thames and out past the estuary out to the sea. Another Mark Twain quote about royalty and how we still keep it alive in our hearts despite what we say to the outside world was floating in my head but I was too preoccupied in my thoughts which were too disjointed to repeat with any coherence, the sense of loss was for the young person, our anger bound in feelings about wider society, about the corrosive nature of fame and our collective hunger to propagate this, rather than the still improbable presence in England of the Royal Family and absurd class hierarchies which for some reason everyone seemed to be blame.