As if you needed another reason to move to Chicago…
Kenneth Morrison, native of greater Jackson, MS, and longtime Chicago resident, is the progenitor of the Pilsen Saint Patrick’s Day parade, a five-year-old ragtag affair I had the pleasure of marching in this year. As upstart parades go, it was a beauty, beginning in the backyard of Morrison and company’s digs at Canalport and Halsted and proceeding up Halsted to 18th and west to the Jumping Bean Cafe at 18th and Bishop, then back. Morrison, with just a twinge of a southern drawl, says, “My basic belief about all of this is that there are no spectators, only participants. I believe that about most things in life.” Hell of a way to spend a Sunday, anyhow, whether you identify as Irish or not. And I was struck by how easy it came off, how effortlessly the affair unfolded, and this in spite of the lack of any sort of permit. As Morrison says, “We’re not hurting anything–we move to the side of the road if cars really want to get by. Most of the time if a car honks it’s like beep b-beep b-beep-beep — a celebration. They’re with us, not angry at us.” And you can do it too. Morrison and other of the parade regulars suggest essential elements, as follows.
1. Priest. Though Sinn Fein got snubbed by the Bushies this year, the Pilsen parade’s acting priest, trial lawyer and activist Jerry Boyle, is adamant about the group’s full welcome here. “In fact,” he says, “they’re even represented. I’m a member of Friends of Sinn Fein.”
2. Rabbi. “James Joyce thought the Irish were doomed as a people,” the priest continues, index finger brandished like a weapon. But his temper turns as he adds in a gentle, almost grandfatherly tone, “But they were a nomadic people, and the only European country to never persecute its Jews.” Today’s acting rabbi, a character know around the neighborhood simply as Ffej, turns out to be quite the spiritual guide to the day’s proceedings.
3. “Music is essential, preferably played by freaks,” Ffej the rabbi says, his voice somehow both gruff and whiny. Today it’s Chicago’s “favorite marching band,” he says, Environmental Encroachment (aka EE), whom you might recognize if you’ve been at any of the ubiquitous war protests around Chicago over the past few years. They’re dressed to the nines in costumes and with toms, trombone, trumpet, alto sax, and all in all a fantastic marching medley of tunes like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the occasional free-form drone. But the rabbi adds, “boom boxes will do as well. Preferably more than one.”
4. Bikes. For the first time at the Pilsen parade, the Rat Patrol, the seminotorious Chicago freak-bike gang, supplied custom-built tall bikes, decked-out humans to ride them, and boom boxes. Loudspeakers rigged to baskets on the front of certain cycles pump out crowd-pleasers to complement EE’s marching music.
5. Booze. Lots of it, as the rabbi explains it. But also Diet Coke, though there’s never enough for his liking, he says, thinking hard on it, hand to his chin. “Yeah. Most people bring booze,” he concludes. Morrison, who marches with what amounts to a three-foot test tube full of a Bloody Mary, says, “I always pay tribute to Mary Queen of Scots on Saint Patrick’s Day.”
6. Intellectual clarity. “We didn’t like the way the city and the south side were going around celebrating Saint Patrick as this ‘liberator’ of the Irish people,” says Morrison, “crediting him with ‘driving the snakes out of Ireland.’ We all know there were and are no snakes in Ireland–it’s a cold climate–so what really happened was that Saint Patrick eliminated the Druidic matriarchy and replaced it with the papal patriarchy. So you can tell we’re all feminists, right?”
7. Costumes. In addition to a priest and a rabbi, today we have a storm trooper of the apocalypse (in battle gear), a masked Polynesian grandfather on a pedal-powered wheelchair, a green cowgirl with built-in horse (a carousel horse said cowgirl found in an alley split neatly down the middle fashioned around her waist), and etc.
8. Floats. “You need the chariot of the slobs,” says the rabbi. “You need the shrine of the unknown catholic school girl”–a keg on wheels festooned with green streamers and outfitted with a wooden cross as tap handle, around which is placed the upturned legs of said schoolgirl, the bottom half of a mannequin of obscure extraction, feet in socks and all. The priest dubs this contraption the “Holy Troika,” for equally obscure reasons, and today, for the first time in the Pilsen parade’s history, said troika did not make it, breaking down just as it pulled out from the alley behind Morrison’s house. Essentially, the two bikes to which its cast-iron and wooden frame were attached weren’t sufficiently, well, attached. “That’s the last time I delegate that responsibility,” Morrison says. On the other hand, the requisite rolling bonfire is in full effect, a tradition in Pilsen. “Being true Irish, as we are,” Morrison says, “we love fire.”
9. Cultural relativity. Morrison says, “And of course being in a Mexican neighborhood, we’re very happy to yell, ‘Viva San Patricio!’ Tip our hats to the neighborhood. Actually what really gave me the idea for this was finding out that Pilsen was originally something of an Irish neighborhood. And there’s not a party between New Year’s Eve and June and around this time everyone has their doldrums. This becomes an easy way to force social engagement, which I like.” The parade sets off by 3:30, or maybe it’s later, hard to say…by sometime in the afternoon, anyway, Morrison emerges from his house in a hippy wig and oversize motley top hat, joins the assembled party and leads us forward with a jubilant “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!” then striding into the street bedecked in a vaudevillian outfit and with his shepherd’s staff raised high, in his other hand the three-foot-deep test tube of a Bloody Mary. He dances us north past the Sunday-shuttered art galleries and otherwise abandoned storefronts of Halsted Street. And this might seem like an insular crowd from what I’ve told you thus far, but there are people from all over the city here. Cars honk in cheer as they pass us, and those backed up behind us on this side of the street, well, they wait, mostly patiently — though a couple cops do fly by and off to more threatening infractions, I guess. But after we turn down 18th, heading west, the mood shifts noticeably. Our parade quiets. The street’s more crowded with cars, for one, and as we approach the old Saint Procopius church a passel of locals to this more solidly Mexican section of the neighborhood stands gazing on from the sidewalk — the looks on their faces are not necessarily pleased, you might say. Looking into their eyes one might sense a vague bewilderment tinged with quiet but respectful derision, waiting to be swayed, maybe. Morrison is prepared. He raises his Bloody Mary test tube high and belts, “Viva, San Patricio! Join our parade!” doing a slow-circling dance and now the children and fathers and mothers on the sidewalks are beginning to smile, a man outside a liquor store raising his own brown-bagged forty-ounce and gleefully saluting. “Viva San Patricio!” yes, I’m screaming stupidly and smiling. And we all join the chorus, one of the Rat Patrol cyclists pedaling ahead and now cranking up the Sugarhill Gang classic “Rapper’s Delight” on his front basket-mounted loudspeaker. This is celebration, a precious commodity in our time. And all Irish jokes aside, it’s celebration for it’s own sake. And it’s beautiful. Thousands dance in the street… OK, there’s not even fifty of us standing now outside the Jumping Bean Cafe at Bishop, and the few brave kids on the sidewalk who marched along with us past the church quickly got bored and took off — but the possibilities in this are endless. That’s what counts.
10. A caged leprechaun. The rabbi claims this is optional, but the priest vehemently disagrees. The leprechaun, this year played by Mr. Brant Veilliux, admits he wasn’t prepared for the ritual pokings and proddings he received at various points along the parade route, but otherwise feels lucky as ever. He says, “I didn’t even have to walk.”
Finally, the rabbi says that if you can find some children, keep them away from the leprechaun — he gets hungry, you see — but definitely bring them along on the march. Preparations for passing the torch, as it were. The fate of the Pilsen Saint Patrick’s Day parade lies with them, of course. Morrison’s got a model in Mal’s St. Paddy’s Day Parade, the Jackson institution he saw the meager beginnings of. “Back home in Jackson, the problem is there is absolutely no fun offered you at all. You have to create your own. Some friends of mine — mainly Malcolm White — started a parade down there a long time ago, which is now the official city parade. We were marching down the street almost 20 years ago with a red wagon carrying a keg — Malcolm actually trademarked it and made a lot of money off of it. It’s huge.” Though Morrison’s aims are much more meager in that respect. “We’ll continue to do it as long as I’m in the city, I guess,” he says. At the gathering at his place afterward, to recoup costs for the food and booze, a plastic pig missing a leg was passed around for donations. The priest, as ever dictatorial, made the rounds through the place, entreating partygoers to “feed the pig.”
I grew up with some very stupid ideas about Canada, most easily summed up by the bumbling drunks played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis in the classic Hamlet takeoff Strange Brew. I say this mostly for the benefit of a particular Torontonian (that right, Jim?), but also because it’s a convenient-enough intro to this week’s near-parliamentary or -Senatorial digression1, winged (I really wish the past tense of wing were wung2) for you.
Of the many books that came out last year, two of my favorites were from the Great White North, sort of3. Darren O’Donnell’s first novel Your Secrets Sleep With Me (Coach House Books, Toronto) left me as winded as I was when I recently caught up to the end of Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles4. I’ve called Secrets5 “a bible for the dispossessed, a prophecy so full of hope it’s crushing” elsewhere (and I’ll stick to that summation), but suffice it to say that it shares with the second of the aforementioned favorites, Corey Frost’s The Worthwhile Flux (Conundrum, Montreal) [and Houellebecq's book too, for that matter], the characteristic of being a window onto my favorite late current in literary production, that of the sublimely possible.
I received Flux in a parcel of mail sent seemingly randomly from the Torontonian referenced above, a man who however knows my tastes in books6. I read Frost’s earlier tome, My Own Devices (also Conundrum), a couple years back in a state of giddy anticipation after the first of its many antitravel or “untravel” pieces, in which Frost or a fictional counterpart suffers mightily — horrendous intestinal difficulties, language barriers, anything else you can think of — on a literal and very metaphorical trip round the world. Of the longer narratives in Devices, though, for my money nothing comes close to the explosion of wonder between the coded jumble of sentences in Flux‘s pieces. Frost wrote them for performance, originally, and their fractured points of view and giddy linguistic flights belie the fact. I once saw him perform at Quimby’s here in Chicago, typically fresh on the tail end of a bad case of the flu and a consequently abbreviated stint on the Perpetual Motion Roadshow back in 2003. In the memorized and I suspect at least slightly improvised performance, Frost keyed up some bass-heavy trancelike music which seemed to fabricate an urgency behind the giddiness of his fractured narrative. In short, though I enjoyed the performance enough, I wasn’t quite convinced, and it would seem that putting pieces of this nature into print would deaden them. Such is not the case. And here’s why.
The first piece in Flux (“A Few Advanced Yo-yo Tricks”) begins on a train. I began it on a bus. “Two people are travelling7 on a train. Suddenly there is an accident.” These are the only words on its first spread, opposite a photo of boxcars running along a track cut into a dirty gray hillside in an unknown locale. (In fact, the book’s full of Frost’s photos from locales around the world.) This particular morning the bus was crowded with commuters headed east downtown on the Chicago Avenue line. It was earlier than normal for me. The bus lurched to a stop at one of the many nondescript corners between Western and Damen, sending a short woman, standing with a very large bag at my right, careening down the center of the compartment, taking out a younger sort of gangsta guy on her way. It caught my attention, but only briefly. I turned the page: “But they’re both okay.” The gangsta dude and the woman embraced each other on their way up from the bus’s floor, the woman then prizing her very large bag and apologizing profusely, the gangsta almost tenderly brushing the dirt off her shoulder. The Chicago denizens behind me roared a chorus of cheers and the whole compartment erupted then in applause. The gangsta’s face darkened a shade.
Moments like these, when a work of art so utterly (and stupidly simply) crystallizes the world around you, imbues it with if not any particular significance then at least a beauty apropos of the damned uncanny nature of human experience turned literary…these moments I find so rare as to be things of indescribable beauty. It’s a kind of simple verisimilitude, yes, but one taken to another level, a feeling of simultaneous parallel experience, maybe, the possibility of a second plane of lives, two trains on the same track each only occasionally departing from the other’s course, and that only to merge again and shock you blind.
To maximize these moments, move to a North American or European urban center (if not there already) and read The Worthwhile Flux on the trains and buses that ferry you to and from your workplace. Read slowly. Spend a moment between each page staring into the eyes of your fellow travelers, even for a few seconds after they’ve noticed your gaze. From the third spread: “A nuclear device is stolen from a former Soviet Republic, but it is soon recovered.”
You will find titles such as these:
–5 Minutes With the Communist Manifesto (“The Communist Manifesto walks slowly out of the water and up the beach. It is absolutely naked….”)
–Everthing I Know About Aphids
–5 Minutes With the Global Economy (“Two people are travelling on a plane. One turns to the other. He is of the opinion, it seems, that the North-South divide could be resolved if the labour markets were completely liberalized so that skilled workers could migrate to developed countries, work, and send money home to their families. The second traveller considers this carefully. Finally, he turns to the first traveller. “I am in a lot of pain,” he says….”)
–A Farewell to Q
–5 Minutes With the Ground
–5 Minutes Without the Ground
…and the title track, about among other things a trip to an abortion clinic and the demise of a relationship and conspiracy theorists riding on trains, forever between points, in flux.
In a book like this, in which clarity of vision bursts from the space between the sentences, from the motion of turning a page, the fadeout requires a slow fizzle, it would seem. The end is beautifully chosen here — a piece called “It’s Bits World,” beginning thusly…
“They were looking for a total transformation of mundane experience into bliss. It had become necessary. The winter came fast and hard, and it stayed a long time. The potatoes froze in the ground, there was not enough wood for the stove, and the modem was too slow. There was a war, and people were being asked to recycle aluminum. It was the off-season. I am so sleepy right now, but I’ll tell you something: you should regard every anomaly as an opportunity to be awestruck.”
Corey Frost is purportedly coming to Chicago with Sherwin Tija and some others. Go to his show. The ever-industrious Mr. Gleason-Allured is working on securing a venue for May 12 or 13, I believe. Stay tuned for more.
1) Dare I use the much-vaunted “nuclear option,” here? Do you realize that the longest filibuster on record is that of the old coot Strom Thurmond, former and now-dead Senator of my home state, South Carolina? I believe he was attempting to forestall the passage of the much-needed and -appreciated American civil rights legislation just post-midcentury, last century of course.
2) like maybe string/strung, hang/hung, ring/rang/rung, drink/drunk….
3) I say “sort of” because, though I believe the man grew up in either Ontario or Quebec, Frost seems to spend much of his time between Montreal and New York, not to mention flitting around the globe as evidenced by much of his writing.
4) Absolute must-read, I think, though others disagree. Just Google the man’s name sometime.
5) Also must-read.
6) These footnotes are compounding into infinity, and starting to seem a mite ridiculous to me, but one more is in order: said Torontonian’s actually Jim Munroe, and he’s likewise got a particularly good book that came out last year. An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil, it’s called. I prefer his Everyone in Silico, but I like all his stuff, really. He’s a pal.
7) OK, one more. Sorry. The spelling of this word is, I would prefer, “traveling.” One L. But I’ll assume the difference is product of the unholy alliance that remains between Canada and Britain re the spelling of stuff like labor/labour or color/colour, traveling/travelling, etc…