Thomas Bates

Brief Thoughts

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Looking towards the Museum from Promontory Point

I went to sleep around 4 AM last night, having stayed up trying to distract myself from the new year by playing Halo with a friend and reading Giovanni’s Room before bed. This week is usually a mix for me. I balance myself only by staying so busy as to ignore any personal stresses lurking in the corners. Of course, Christmas through New Year’s, everyone gets sucked into the holiday vortex, and work grinds to a halt.

I spent most of the past week unmoored, drifting from memory to memory, trying to find some distraction. I woke this morning at 7 wanting coffee but fell back to sleep before getting up. At 8, I was out of bed and showered; I even took the effort to clean up my beard and comb my hair, not usual Sunday activities. It snowed in Chicago yesterday, and I wanted to have a walk in it and feel the cold in the air.

I walked down the street to the only coffee shop I’ve been to here in Hyde Park, Sip & Savor on 53rd. I listened to a podcast on my way. When I got to the store, I was surprised to find it closed. I stood there for a minute, wondering where else to go for coffee and wondering why the shop was closed. Google Maps showed a litany of other shops, all creatively named in such a way as to mean nothing. One stood out as the name was familiar; I remembered someone I had class with mentioned working there. The new shop was 1/2 a mile away, so I turned and plodded on down the road.

Feeling the snow under my feet was nice. It’s years since the last time I walked through the snow in Chicago. The last time I remember vividly was eight years ago, nearly to the day, stumbling from Lincoln Park Zoo’s festive music and lights down to Navy Pier for New Year’s fireworks with a friend. For being close to 10 AM, I thought the streets were unusually empty. Then I realized I had not walked the streets much since moving here six months ago. The neighborhood seemed quiet, with the rare passerby or passing car slowly going about their business. It was not what I thought of when I thought of Chicago.

I came to the coffee shop, which was also near empty. One person sat adjacent to the door, their equipment across a few chairs. Another lingered at the counter and ordered to go. I stood looking at the radiant glow of the pastry cabinet, which held pies, rolls, doughnuts, and a variety of other chocolate iced things. I ordered only a medium coffee with some almond milk and sat near the front of the shop, looking towards the street. I can’t remember the last time I went to a coffee shop and just sat there to drink. It could be that it was when I was a student at UIC in 2013 when there was a Caribou Coffee down the road from my dorm. If so, today was much quieter. Some inoffensive music played, and I opened my kindle and propped it up so I could continue reading Giovanni’s Room while I sipped.

Apart from Call Me By Your Name, I have never really read any novels about being gay. Baldwin’s book has been painful to read because so many of the protagonist’s, David’s, thoughts are so familiar. I struggled not to stick familiar faces on the characters as I read. At one point, an older character tells David, “You play it safe long enough, and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever - like me.” The dialogue between David and Jacques in the bar is scary to read because I am the same age as David, and I feel myself getting older. I feel my wants starting to become unsteady under my feet, having wasted how many years trapped by rumination or avoidance of rumination.

I watched people come and go from the coffee shop. A woman carrying two coffees struggled with the door; I thought about getting up to help but didn’t. A man came in with his little child, who looked as though they’d only been walking for a few months, barely bigger than a stepstool. They ordered and sat somewhere behind me; I listened to the little kid kick against something over and over again and thought that usually, this would annoy me, but it only reminded me now of how strange it is to be a child. The two eventually left, and watching the kid hesitate to step outside made me wonder why people have kids. We all go through this world with some level of pain, yet so many keep bringing in new life; do we hope that things will be different for them? Or, maybe some people are better at focusing on the good in life, and the good of raising a child looks a fine port when seen from the sea.

The man who sat there when I came in left as I finished the first half of my coffee. He walked around outside the café for a few moments taking pictures with a nice camera. The snow was coming down lightly, and it was a pleasant sight, with the streets still mostly empty.

I finished my coffee around 11 AM and closed up my book, now more than halfway through. I decided I wasn’t ready to come back to my dingy little apartment quite yet, so I walked back down 53rd towards the first coffee shop I’d tried. I walked past, towards Lake Shore Drive, and followed a pedestrian trail to a pedestrian crossing under LSD. I walked out towards Promontory Point, an outcropping of land jutting into Lake Michigan surrounded by limestone blocks. More people were out walking, mostly couples and older folks who were alone. Some jogged, some had tall walking sticks, some had dogs. I switched from my podcast to my reading playlist, mostly full of music from Studio Ghibli movies or video game music. I felt a little bad for constantly needing some sort of sensory input other than just nature.

Everything was gray and dreary, but it looked pleasant to me. Lake Michigan is vast. Throughout the rest of the path, I occasionally walked to the very edge and stared out over the water. I paused my music and took out my earphone to hear the waves washing against the limestone. I’ve never seen the ocean; everyone who has talks about the incomprehensible amount of water and the breadth of it all. I thought about that looking out over the lake, which is nearly big enough. After walking to the furthest part of the Point, I got as near the edge as I could. I wondered if there would be a layer of ice over the smooth limestone and avoided that. The water was all gray and white where crashing over the rocks. I thought about how if you fell into that water, the cold would grip you so tight as to expel the air from your lungs and pull your body down if it didn’t just toss your head against the rocks.

I passed two people, who were totally inscrutable to me, building something in the snow. I thought at first it was a snowman, but as I grew closer, I realized it was just a tall mount, more like a cone. I watched for a moment while taking pictures of the lake but then kept on. I forced myself to walk slowly and listen to the crunch and crackle of the snow and ice under my boots. Something about the sound was so pleasant to hear with the waves sloshing over the rocks nearby. It occurred to me that while I usually have rain or wave sounds to put me to sleep each night, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really heard waves like this, at least not since the last time I was walking along the shore of Lake Michigan years ago, and I can’t remember what they sounded like then.

Frozen tree

Some of the trees on the northern side of Promontory Point were encased in ice, an event I always find lovely. The weight of the ice looked to have collapsed a limb of one tree so that it looked lopsided and upset. Nearby on one of the blocks near the waterline, someone has sprayed, “LINEAR TIME IS A LIE,” and “THE END HAS COME BEFORE.” I took a picture while I thought about someone coming to this place in the night to tag that particular message on that particular bench. Nothing sensational came to mind, so I just kept walking while avoiding memories from times that’d come and gone.

Linear Time

As I came to the northern side of the Point, the city proper became visible in the distance. Covered by the blue hue of distance, I could see the sunlight coming through to light up some of the towers. Shedd Aquarium is visible in the distance. Outside of Shedd, there is an outcropping that overlooks the Lake, it is my favorite spot in the city, and I’ve not been there for years.

Chicago from Promontory Point

Chicago from the Shedd Aquarium, 5/29/2013, the day I came out

As the Point began to join back to regular land, I started feeling the coffee towards my bladder and decided I should start home. I put my earphone back in and resumed the music while crossing in front of the Field House. I passed several older people walking alone; most of them looked to be doing it for exercise rather than distraction. I wondered what they thought about while walking through the snow. At some point between the Field House and the pedestrian tunnel under LSD, I became frustrated with my glasses and permanently put them on my forehead. Their tint helped my eyes, but they fogged and made the world brown instead of white, gray, green, and blue. Taking them off left everything outside of 15 feet to nothing but a blur of shifting focus, but I felt fine with that as that’s how I felt anyway.

As I approached the pedestrian tunnel under LSD, I decided I still didn’t want to be in my apartment. My legs were quite cold, but my feet and body felt fine. I continued my slow walk southwards towards the 57th street beach, an area I had never been around. A nice elevated ramp sat midway between the Point and the Beach, and I crossed through the snow to stand here and look out over the lake again. Some part of me wishes that I could say that deep thoughts crossed my mind, but of course, nothing did. The waves bounced around between my ears and made me feel hollow.

Lake Michigan

I turned around, starting back towards the bike path to continue South. As soon as I did, the cacophony of Lake Shore Drive’s roaring traffic crashed over me. The cars felt so loud as they shot northwards. This sounded more like Chicago, and to my surprise, I found it unpleasant. Speed and pressure. I walked along listening and thinking about how those two things have been my whole strategy over the past few years. Nothing but work, nothing but school, make yourself as busy as you can so you have no time to think about anything else. No time for rumination, no time for fantasy, just work. Tell yourself the jobs are important, that you’re useful and doing important things. Stress about things that may happen that do not involve you personally. Go through time as quickly as possible, safe in the pressure of work and the protective barrier of having no time for anything else.

What had been boiling in my head all week finally clarified - this is not a way to heal yourself or move on from the past. As soon as the pressure melts away, so does everything else, and you are alone with yourself, who you know nothing about other than things you don’t like. I walked further down the path towards the Museum-adjacent pedestrian tunnel and thought about some meeting I had been in months or years ago. It was an organizing meeting of some kind, with different agencies and people with lived experience. They asked us to introduce ourselves, but specifically to leave out our job titles and to say something interesting about ourselves instead. I’ve always hated these sorts of icebreakers, and this one really took me off guard. I feel that my entire identity is my job; it’s the only thing I’m any good at, the only thing I know diddly-squat about.

Since I was little, I’ve wanted to work in the government. As I got older and sought to avoid more and more stress, I wanted a job that would swallow me up. This started when I worked in the ER when those busy and stressful nights gave me a firm shape - something I’ve always called good stress or good pressure. When you are so busy that you no longer think, you just do. I relish that feeling. It’s not the same, exactly, as zoning out and just being on autopilot. Instead, things are so clear, and what needs to happen is so clear that you zone in and feel very productive and valuable. As though you are not a person at all, you are just a body that the job looks through and works. Never have I reflected on this and seen anything undesirable about it. This has been my goal, in some ways. I’ve thought that those are the important jobs that can make things better for other people. I never thought about enjoying anything else but the work, even the bad parts of the work. This is not to say that I have no enjoyments, just that they are not what I’ve ever used to measure myself.

I came to the hill near the pedestrian tunnel, and there were a dozen or so parents and their kids sledding down it. There was written “4TROTSKY” on the tunnel’s wall in medium, red letters. Once again, I tried to picture who the person was the woke up one night and decided to spray-paint this name nearby the cradle of the Chicago School of Economics. What made them choose this spot, whose grand audience was a bunch of kids, their parents, and some random folks walking through? Did they think one of us would get excited to read The Permanent Revolution? The thought gave me a chuckle, but I guess in the end, it stuck with me.

Once I came through the other side of the tunnel, I started thinking that the walk would be a good thing to write down. I argued a bit with myself about it, knowing that reading what I’m reading, my writing would end up just being a faux style of someone else with nothing original. I decided that being original was a lot of work, and I didn’t care much about it. I might benefit from rolling back through my little 3-mile walk, even if I don’t share everything I thought about or avoided thinking about while on it.

As I closed in on my apartment, I thought about what an odd thing it is to live somewhere and work constantly and be in school constantly and constantly look for more and more work to fill yourself with. You find yourself six months later knowing nearly no one, realizing that there are only six months left to live here before moving on to the next place, the next job, the next project. I know that at some point, I will look at these years spent doing nothing but working and regret them. I also know that, at least for now, I don’t know how to do anything else. I keep telling myself that eventually, I will settle somewhere, and that is when I will be less of a drifter.

In the same beat, I think about moving as far away as possible - you can’t read Hemingway and Baldwin in the same breath and not wish to move to Paris to scrounge for life unfamiliar.

A Squirrel