Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the people you see every day.

I prefer to imagine that my wife, a few friends, and occasionally my mom are the only ones who read what I do, though I realize that this is somewhat unrealistic.  -Chris Ware

Santa gave Scot Building Stories for Christmas. Santa said he had to share it with me.
On this rainy January day, I'm sitting in front of the window in Prairie Lights, an independent bookshop in Iowa City, caffeinating and attempting to finish a post I began last year which was supposed to be my homage to the people of Chicago before I left the city for two months to rehearse a play at the Riverside Theatre. Perhaps I am thinking about these abandoned people today because I am halfway through reading Chris Ware's imaginative and melancholic graphic novel, I should say experience, Building Stories which explores the lives and minds of half a dozen Chicagoans living in the same apartment building.

So more on Iowa and 2013 later, because there are some people I've wanted to introduce you to...

Last December, on my ride on the El to Dr. C's downtown office, my knitting was interrupted when an entire second grade class stormed through the sliding doors of the Blue line train. All the kids were yammering away loudly and bumping into each other playfully when the tallest kid in the class bellowed over the other seventeen squeaky voices, "HEY GUYS! This isn't play time. Hold onto something." I was touched by both his leadership and the genuine concern in his voice. Amazingly, the children obliged. I wish every teacher had a kid like that in their class, a kid the other kids respect or like or fear enough to do as he/she says. The best people to lead us are the people that are people just like us.

While I waited for the Doctor, his receptionist told me she was looking forward to Christmas but it was bittersweet for her because her father had died two years earlier on the day. She said to me, with tears and faith in her eyes, "My daddy loved Christmas so much and God decided to take him home on the day he loved the most." The calm faith of strangers often awakens and stirs my own questioning faith. Don't aggressively hand me a Bible on a street corner. Tell me how certain you are that God holds your father in the palm of His hand. That's inspiring.

Audrey Hepburn, photographed the year I was born.
As I waited for the train home, I swayed to the music of an accordion player in the Jackson Blue Line stop. I closed my eyes and pretended to be in Paris eating spaghetti at a candlelit cafe. It seems in my fantasies, I am eating Italian food in Paris and I'm also dressed like a mime minus the white face paint and the tear.  So basically I'm dressed like Audrey Hepburn in any movie ever and if I'm crying it's only because the food is so delicious.  After boarding the El, I saw an elderly woman across from me on the deafening train take out one of her ear plugs and silently insist that the man across the aisle use it. After an initial protestation, he too obliged. I hope they knew each other, or maybe not. That's sort of amazing too.

After arriving in Wicker Park, I saw a plump woman screaming at a jolly young hipster man in cupcake truck. Who knows why? I laughed. She stormed away angrily. He called her back and the altercation seemed to be settled when he gave her a free sweet potato cupcake for the road. A diabetes-inducing happy ending.

Earlier that week,  I was at the laundromat with a young mother and her two kids. No one wants to be at a Chicago laundromat on a Thursday night. I'm sure she was tired; she'd probably worked all day and she had about five loads of laundry. Yet she was still in a good mood and was helping her daughter with her homework and teaching her young son how to work the dryers. One dryer wouldn't stay closed, so she set up a chair in front of it and had him sit there by telling him it was his job to guard their clothes. Forget the firemen, this woman is one of Chicago's finest. The single women who have kids, no washing machines in their homes and still manage to have smiles on their faces at the end of the day. 
Even kitties can read picture books.

I asked Scot today why Ware writes such sad characters, characters who can't help but be cruel or thoughtless to each other. "Does he want us to read this and be better, kinder people? The characters seem so hopeless at times, does he think we can be better?" Scot, who has read much of Ware's work, answered, "I think it's about empathy, Ware wants us to understand that the people we see on the steps of our apartment buildings are all experiencing some sort of unique, real struggle." That seems to be a worthy goal for 2013. It seems easy to empathize with and care about the families of the victims of the Newtown shooting, but can we empathize with and care about our next-door neighbors whose names we didn't care to learn?