Power, Corruption, Lies, and Urine in Chicago.
It is a grip on immortality we all hope we will somehow keep after we die. Maybe it's like this — somewhere there is a shy girl or boy, too timid to tell the object of their affections about their love, too timid to approach them without shaking, too timid to speak in school, or to ride a bike in a group of their peers. But they keep a journal, and somewhere tucked between the pages is a tiny wish that someone somewhere, long after the diarist has died, will discover the dusty manuscript, the heart-breaking words of love and loss, read them, and publish them to acclaim. The author will be remembered as a genius for the whole of future history. A book placed on a shelf next to Shakespearean Sonnets and Rilke love poems. The author's story will be tragic, an Emily Dickinson or Fernando Lawrence, and the diarist will be remembered as an unknown, an unrecognized William Blake amidst their generation. A tiger, burning bright, in a nighttime forest. We all want to be huge; we want to leave legacies, and so of course we all want our children to be heroes. So why would I decide to urinate on the side of Wrigley Field? For the same reason Michael Tompkins works at a record store in Chicago 50 hours a week, with a tumor in his head. Desperation and passion. And because neither of us are Marilyn Monroe.
~ ~ ~
I meet Michael Tompkins in a used record store near Wrigley Field. I am browsing a bin full of used LP's, thinking about buying out their supply of Elvis Costello, when a short dusty-haired man of about 45 comes up to me and asks how's it goin'.
– I'm good, I'm good. Thinking about buying out your Costello collection.
He thumbs through what they have.
– King of America might be one of the worst Costello records I've ever heard, he says. But that's like saying there is a "worst" Beatles record. It's ridiculous.
– Let it Be. I say immediately.
– Yeah, he chuckles. Good point. That record is just bad. Oh, Phil Spector.
– I hate that record. I hate Morrissey's new one too.
– Yeah. I hate it.
I don't know why we started talking about Morrissey, but then I see that he is thumbing through the bin that I am in, and there is a copy of Viva Hate flying past his browsing fingers. He makes quiet remarks to himself as he flips though record after record. Great record, okay record, best-thing-they-did-but-that's-not-saying-much, hate them, love them, etc. He knows every record, including the one dollar "throw aways" that have probably been there for years.
He introduces himself as Michael Tompkins. When he had come up to me, I had just pulled a copy of New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies out of the bin. It's cover, with the pink and yellow flowers on a gray background, has always transfixed me, and I didn't at the time own any New Order on vinyl. It's an album cover you remember — one that is automatically recognizable. I saw it as six dollars well spent. Six dollars for a classic.
– That's the one of the best records of all time, he says, indicating what I had in my hands. He talks to me like we eat lunch together everyday.
– Yeah, I don't know much New Order.
– This is the second-best record of all time, he says, and throws a copy of Low-Life into my hands. In graduate school I would listen to just those two records. My friends and I argued all the time over which was the better.
– What did you study? I ask.
He turns back to the bin and starts going through it again. He gets to Meat is Murder by The Smiths and curse Morrissey's new record again.
– History and government. I taught at U of I for awhile, but now I work here.
– Got tired of teaching?
– No, I was informed a tumor was spreading through my head, and my doctor said I needed to take it easy. I was trying to publish all the time to get tenure. Then the tumor, while unfortunate, gave me the excuse I wanted to just say "fuck it" and work in a record store for the rest of my life. It's nice. I get to be cynical about Morrissey.
I didn't really know what to say. I'm all for talking to strangers, listening to the stories homeless people tell in front of bars; but this was something else. We talked for a while about New Order, about Power, Corruption and Lies, about Seattle, where he had lived for a bit and where I had said I was visiting from. I left with two New Order records, and a desire to figure our what the fuck I was doing with my life.
~ ~ ~
A good friend of mine from high school lives in Lincoln Park. Her apartment has two old mattresses in a closet which serve as sleeping bags for guests. I stayed there for a week last summer, waking up every morning to a foot in the face and a bath-robed high school friend giggling before kicking me in the side. Off my floor, asshole. Time for you to buy me breakfast.
My friend would go to work and I would bum around the city. Riding the L became like driving around my high school parking lot. I found the record store after going to Wrigley Field, to see what it looked like during the day. The only other time I had seen the field was amidst blankets of nighttime rain, running past neon signs that burst like giant rainbow fireworks out of bar windows. And then on the way to see Bright Eyes at the Metro, I ran past a quiet slumbering field, a heroic landmark, really. I wanted to see it again, this time in the daylight. In the rain, in the middle of a rainy night, landmarks are dark and nothing. Only neon lights seen through water-drop covered eye-glasses seem real.
I went to Wrigley and was walking around the sidewalked perimeter. There was no game that day, even though it was the end of August. But the field was obviously up and running. I walked around the whole of it, thinking about the history of a place like this. Wrigley Field. An organized pile of bricks. The foundational difference between a baseball park and a pile of gravel is organization. Millions and millions of people have seen people play baseball here. It's phenomenal when you actually think about it. But it became a moment of over-thinking maybe. At least that's how it felt. It was living in surreality. A place like Wrigley Field is more than just an organized pile of bricks, it has attained an ideology. A place like Wrigley Field is a center of memories and culture, a nucleus holding the very fabric of much of what Chicago, as a city, is.
After going to the record store I walked around Wrigley some more, depressed. The man at the record store, Michael, he had said his name was, had been a professor. He had been published in journals, was having a solid career as an academic. Then he got a brain tumor and decided it was a better idea to work in a record store.
– Music lives forever, he had said. Something like that New Order record you just bought. People have been listening to that for years, it's a part of them you know? It's like when you hear the Beach Boys now; you can't help but think of the first time you heard it. Great records stick with you like that. And I've been an audiophile my whole life, I'm stuck on this stuff. My wife argues with me about it all the time. But my life has been a series of records I could just line up and say, "This is my teenage years, this is college, this is grad school, this is my marriage." Why would I want to do anything else? Why did I ever want to do anything else? Working in a record store is like living in my head, and my head is being killed, slowly and efficiently by a cancer. At least here my head is organized.
He said that all while he was ringing up my records. He
had smiled and given me a little salute as a goodbye.
I looked at Wrigley Field, this giant pile of bricks that so many people thought of as more than just a pile of bricks, and I swung the weight of two circular pieces of vinyl that really weren't any different than a tarp. But if you put the vinyl on a record player, they were suddenly Michael's years in grad school. I looked at Wrigley Field and had an overwhelming desire to cry.
So I urinated on it.
There was nothing else to do. I urinated on it because I felt small, like I was terribly inconsequential, like I wasn't even vinyl or a brick. It was a deliberate attempt to be something, an act of quiet desperation. I looked at the dripping brick side of Wrigley Field and told myself I could either be a stain on immortality or I could be immortality itself. I went back to my friend's apartment, put Power, Corruption and Lies on the turntable, and decided to drive to Washington D.C. I left in the morning.