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Bohemian Culture in Parts of 1980s Chicago

Seamus comes to encounter a bohemian culture outside the punk scene on his L ride through the West Town area (Logan Square, Bucktown, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village) of Chicago in the 1980s. In this period of Chicago history, West Town was not yet gentrified. It’s barely a shadow of its former self today. After an elaborate description of West Town, Seamus begins to share his own vision of urban bohemian culture, which he distills into two characters named Cassandra and Orestes – names borrowed from Agamemnon and traits borrowed from his favorite writer, Henry Miller:

They walked down the boulevards in smocks and berets, cradling paint palettes—those starving artistes in Paris long ago. You hear legends about crotchety landlords and mustachioed chefs chasing deadbeat poets and painters with butcher knives. You see old movies and musicals about big-name suicide artists beating checks at cafés. The whole time they’re laughing up their smocks—laughing even while running from butcher knives, laughing long before they get big and famous, long before their art starts selling, long before they look back and smile on how cold the little attic they lived in was, how little food they had and how the wine, whores, and absinthe flowed even when the cash didn’t. 

But that was Paris and that was a fuckin’ long time ago. First time I saw all this shit going down in West Town, it was Chicago, 1987, and these artistes were in salsa gangland. This is the only upside I can see to going to Xavier. I get to see this shit every day! All this shit going down right on my way to school!

Kept asking myself how this new breed lives. Well, on the cheap, obviously. I kept imagining buildings full of white artists and Mexican families, living in apartments right next door to each other. Ay-yay-yay! What’s it like living in a cheap-rent building full of artists and Mexicans? Sounded one hundred fucking percent better than living in a doorman building on Michigan Avenue or Lakeshore Drive. That’s where Brody burns up all his loot. I kept trying to imagine what West Town apartments look like inside. In my mind’s eye, I saw the ceilings caving in, dripping like Chinese water torture. Fuck, what I wouldn’t fuckin’ give to move out and get tortured by some of that Chinese ceiling water!

Long after Grampa Liam died, Grandma Margaret kept living in the West Side tenement Dad grew up in. The building looked a lot like the tenements in Logan Square and West Town. Mom and Dad kept riding Grandma’s ass to move out, but Grandma Margaret flat-out fuckin’ refused to leave the West Side when the neighborhood was what Mom and Dad call “changing.” Grandma came down with Alzheimer’s after a while, though, and Mom and Dad had her legally committed to Saint Martha’s Rest Home in Inverness. I guess it’s for the best, though. It was right around the time Grandma Margaret started pissing in her refrigerator’s vegetable drawers. She could’ve electrocuted herself. The staff won’t let her do that at Saint Martha’s, but it doesn’t stop her from trying.

From the L, I picked out one apartment in particular on the third floor of a building I pass every day at the corner of Milwaukee and Cortland, a few blocks north of North Avenue. I was reading Agamemnon at the time, so I spun a daydream about a guy named Orestes living in sin there with his girlfriend Cassandra. The whole scene reeled in my head like an old black-and-white movie. Up until about six months ago, I was playing out the scene for Dr. S every time I went to his office. “Your ever fertile imagination, Seamus!” he’d say. 

The whole scenario went down in black and white. Just like George and Mary Bailey, squatting the house on Sycamore Street in It’s a Wonderful Life, Cassandra and Orestes have to keep slapping newspaper pages and ad posters all over wall cracks to keep the rain from pouring in. It’s hot and muggy, inside and outside the apartment. Cassandra’s smoking a black Sobranie cigarette, the kind Tressa buys with French novels at Europa Books on Clark. Cassandra’s sitting on a window seat, watching silent rain. She’s reading a used book, a collection of Greek tragedies. She’s wearing a form-fitting black dress and a garter belt, but she’s thrown her stockings on a Murphy bed, just like the one Grandma Margaret and Grampa Liam used to pull out of their tenement apartment wall. Cassandra: she looks like pictures of Henry Miller’s ex-wife—tall, blonde hair crinkled into a bobby-pinned bob—I somehow knew the look before Tressa even gave me Tropic of Cancer. And just like Henry Miller’s wife, Cassandra invites women over and slow-dances with them to scratchy Billie Holiday albums when Orestes isn’t home. After a while, they tumble into bed for lesbian sex fests. There’s a tarp over her painting, which sits on an easel at the east wall. She’s taking a break from her new painting. She’s worried about Orestes, her writer boyfriend.

Orestes looks like the anorexic philosophy dude who talked to the dreadlocked anorexic chick on the L, except with a much more forties Nelson Algren look. Instead of wearing tight Am Vets sweaters, he’s got on brown tweed pants and white-collared shirt with sleeves rolled up and a white wifebeater tank top peeking out of it. He’s trying to crank out a novel on a manual typewriter, but he keeps going fuckin’ ape-shit on it like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. “It’s not coming together!” he’s always fuckin’ screaming. “It’s not fucking coming together!” He screams that shit all the time. He’s even slammed the manual typewriter on the floor a few times and threw the last one through the window. And he had to save up months for this new one, which he still throws on the floor; Cassandra had to board up the window pane with cardboard just like I did with my bedroom window on Jack Daniel’s Vandalism Day, last Thursday.

Cassandra fears for Orestes as she sits in the window seat, smoking a Sobranie, watching Orestes pound his typewriter and slug back cold black coffee. He cashes out another smoke and pitches more typing paper he can barely afford into the trash. He’s past thirty and hasn’t pumped out a book yet (just like Henry Miller; I fuckin’ love Miller, that crazy cock). At this rate, it doesn’t look like he ever fuckin’ will either. They’re listening to Dixieland over the old-style, World War II radio. When Cassandra looks out their front-room windows, she sees rain and the Coyote Building and, past that, the whole downtown skyline, all in grainy black and white. She doesn’t know how long she can take this shit. She had to have some idea what she was getting her ass into, though, when she shacked up with a writer. They’re known for their fuckin’ moods. They can’t not have them if they’re gonna write any shit that’s worth a goddamn. She’s flush with fuckin’ moods herself. See the tranquilizers in her falling-apart purse? See the hypodermic needle and tourniquet in the dark drawer?

Man, all last year, I lived on fantasies about Orestes and Cassandra—turned them over all day, every day once I found out West Town was a fuckin’ artist enclave. Dr. S fuckin’ loved it when I’d have him lay back on the couch and hear all my new Cassandra and Orestes tales. I made all those stories up in algebra class every day at fifth period…

But I wondered, these visions of West Town: Was there anything real about them?  Or was I just imagining shit? Did these visions only make sense in this sick head of mine? Was this still the same West Town that Nelson Algren lived in right after the war? The more I rode the L, the more I saw my ideas were…black-and-white movies.

From here, Seamus decides to see for himself what’s real and what’s imaginary. He goes on a long search for the bohemian culture of West Town and comes up short until he hits Café de Sade and has a vision of Nirvana (not the band, they wouldn’t make it big for a few more years).

Want to learn more about bohemian culture? Read 85A to become an expert.