Tuesday 20 October (Chicago, Day 149)

Here’s a thing about America that I’ve been thinking about – its size and its scale. There is, of course, the story Americans tell themselves about how everyone can do anything, be anybody. But the size of the place, the scale of it, makes me feel small and like the chances of doing something great are tiny. Just the statistical likelihood of rising out of these hundreds of millions of people seems so slim.


Whereas I feel like Australia is small enough that if you throw yourself into something, are committed to it, and are any good, you’ll get someplace. You’ll quickly know the other people doing that thing. Say, if I want to turn Learning German w/ Christoph Waltz into a performance piece in Australia – the road to do so will be obvious.


Here … well I think of Angie McMahon, the performer who’s one-woman show (The Day Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert Nearly Killed Me)  I saw last Friday … she was thrilled Jon Stewart even mentioned the satellite festivals – not her satellite festival, just the satellite festivals in general. In Australia, Paul Keating attended Keating! – a musical about the former Prime Minister’s career. Maybe he didn’t get to the early performances, at the fringe level – but I’m sure he heard about it straight away and that friends of his attended. Here, I bet neither Jon Stewart nor Stephen Colbert have even heard about McMahon’s monologue – maybe interns for their publicists have seen mention of it.


The rows here just seem harder to hoe. I guess, however, if you are successful, the rewards – financial and in terms of recognition – are bigger. But maybe not always more desirable.


Enough ruminating. It’s a glorious day today – my last in Chicago for a while. The sun is bright and golden, the air unseasonably warm but still a bit autumnal. I hop on my bicycle and ride to Evanston.


I’m meeting my old friend Stephen at a different ‘Brother’ coffee house than the one I visited yesterday – this one, The Brothers K, is on Main Street. He’d suggested Starbucks at first – um, no. Hell no.


It’s a large space crowded with tables and awash in natural light from plate-glass windows along two sides of the room is full of customers clickty-clacking on their laptops, seemingly settled in for the day. Stephen is already here, and he looks exactly the same – just older.


Of the meetings with Chicago friends so far, it’s the best – just an easy-peasy very enjoyable endless conversation. Like we’ve picked up where we left off years ago. Some people you just connect with and that connection is true and real and timeless. He’s one of those people.


We met when I worked at Kroch’s and Brentano’s Books and he was a regular customer. That was, when? 1989, 1990, I guess. He also introduced me to Thai food – and for that I am ever so grateful.


He’s been thinking of unlocking his German-language skills. Both of his grandparents, on one side, were Austrian. When he was a child, they spoke to him in German and he understood them. But he’s let it slip away. I’ve pointed him towards Duolingo.


His grandmother was from Graz, Austria. When he visited, it was the first place he saw his grandmother everywhere, he said. Also, people just assumed he was a local and were surprised when he wasn’t. He spoke at an event there and when he was introduced – at the mention of his surname the crowd quieted and gave him more attention than they had other speakers because he was clearly, to them, Austrian.


We’d met at 11 am and spent two hours yammering away. We could have gone longer but both had other things to get to.


The New York MLB office has come up with a ticket for me for tonight’s Chicago Cubs playoff game. I could have had two tickets – but having pinged everyone in town I could think of who might be keen, couldn’t find a taker.


Travelling Again — well, sort of


So, I ride home, get a few things done, pack up and go.


I’m staying at a hostel in Greektown tonight, ahead of an early bus to Detroit tomorrow.


I’m feeling the light excitement of getting back into my travelling mode as I fling my duffle bag over my shoulder and head out to catch the bus to the Metra staion. I’ve almost never taken the commuter train into the city – that I’m using unfamiliar public transport, and I’m heading to an unfamiliar part of town, and have all my stuff with me – what little of it there is – makes me feel like I’m back home again – home on the road, home travelling.


I’m met with a warm welcome at Chicago Parthenon Hostel. It’s a nice little place. I’m in a good-sized 8-bed dorm, they provide towels, and breakfast – not that I’ll be here for that, as my bus leaves at dawn.


Bunk beds in a hostel dorm room
A little weird to be staying in a hostel in my ‘home’ town.


I dump my stuff – setting out my pjs and toiletries for easy access when I return from the ball game and set out for Wrigley Field.


Baseball and Me – a long story, in brief


I am … was … a native-born Chicago Cubs fan. I grew up on the north side of the city (Cubs on the north, White Sox on the south). My brother was a baseball fan. I played. I don’t really know where that came from – none in my family were sporty. Of course, I am adopted, so my genes may be sporty. But I started playing baseball, t-ball, when I was 5 or 6. And then progressed through the ranks of Little League right though the summer after 8th grade. Then I got to high school. And the allowances that had been made which permitted me to play for all those years were exhausted. You see, I lacked that most important of physical trait for the game – I didn’t have a penis. No penis, no play.


They pointed me toward softball. It’s like if a tennis player got to high school and was then made to switch to badminton – I mean, they are basically the same sport, right? I played softball for a year, I was better than most of my teammates, I was the JV starting catcher as a freshman. And I didn’t like it. It wasn’t my game. So I decided to take up other hobbies for the rest of high school – going to gigs, using a bad fake ID to get into bars, smoking weed, and cigarettes, and riding the train in and out of the city rather than attending class as often as could be managed.


Baseball broke my heart. So, I left it for a while. Though I couldn’t stay away forever and came back as a fan in the late 1990s.


When I think about it now, I see I came back to the game at an age when most of my peers who’d been allowed to play on would nearly all have been done playing. The best of the players who, like me, were born in 1969 would have played in college, and the minor leagues, a small number would have made the majors. And by 1997 most of them would have been spat out of the game. Only the elite of the elite would have still been playing – of whom the very very best were Ken Griffey Jr and Mariano Rivera. Good thing they had penises.


Anyway … so I came back as a fan in the late 1990s. I was living in New York City but being a Yankees fan was out of the question. And, while I wasn’t still a heart-and-soul Cubs fan – they were my National League team, so I couldn’t become a Mets fan.


The Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken had broken Lou Gehrig’s record streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games at the end of 1995 and he was pushing the record further and further*. I was a fan of Homicide: Life on the Street (a tv show based on a David Simon book about the homicide department in Baltimore. He would later go on to create The Wire). My flatmate and I took weekend trips to Baltimore. And, so, I became an O’s fan. A big O’s fan. In 1998 I moved to Baltimore and over two seasons I saw a lot of games at Camden Yards.


Then I moved to Australia and in Australia I ended up working for Major League Baseball for 14 seasons. The Australian players – spread around the minors, independent ball, Asian and European leagues as well as the amazing few that made it to Major League Baseball – were my team.


Now … well, now I still care about the Australian players but I’m also free to just simply be a fan again.


As I’ve been travelling the whole of the 2015 season, I haven’t really been able to get back into the game, as a fan. Needless to say, I wasn’t paying much attention to the Orioles or the Cubs while riding around Europe.


But here we are. The team that taught me to be grateful for baseball even when it’s likely your team is going to lose has a chance to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1945. And, I have a ticket to a game. (Of course, they lost that in 1945, they haven’t won a World Series since 1908.)


Back in the Friendly Confines


I arrive at Wrigley Field to lights and noise and massive crowds. Scalpers are touting tickets and police horses are pissing and shitting in the middle of the intersection of Clark and Addison. People are shouting into phones trying to find other people on phones. ‘Can you see the statue in the Ron Santo jersey?! That’s where I am. Where are you?!’


Even as the sun is setting, the evening is balmy. There’s a joy in the air – this sort of weather, this close to winter will put lightness into the step of any Chicagoan. Add that the Chicago Cubs are playing this far into October and the people here, these people – are almost giddy with it.


I plunge into the crowd moving towards the turnstiles. There are vendors selling programs. And a brass band playing old-timey tunes.


Of all the places in Chicago that give me a sort of tingly sense of returning home from a distant place, Wrigley Field does that the most.


When I was as young as maybe 6 or 7, my brother – who would have then been 14 or 15 – and I travelled alone on the bus and train to Wrigley Field to attend games. I don’t know how often we did that, but we definitely did do that – it was the 1970s, times were different. Not safer, definitely not safer, but there was a totally different measure of what constituted acceptable risks for kids take.


This is the place where I felt, as a kid, connected to my city. It was a big public space, but I knew it and kind of understood how it worked and where everything was – like how to buy a program, and which seating section was where, and where to find the toilets.


And, while they installed lights (eventually), and more recently a big fancy scoreboard, and where once people watched games in lawn chairs from their roofs opposite – now they have gentrified purpose built seating. Nonetheless, it’s a kind of home.


There’s a damp smell in the bowels of the place – like kids’ modelling clay mixed with beer and hot dog steam and mown grass. It is as it always has been. And there is this thick layer of shiny paint on the railing of ramps leading to seats higher in the stadium. As ever.


View of the field at Wrigley Field during a night game from a lower level seat, back in the crowd, along the right field line
Post season baseball at Wrigley Field – my 12 year old self would have been ecstatic.

The Mets put a run on the board in the top of the first inning and the Cubs match them in the bottom. The Mets retake the lead with a solo homerun from Daniel Murphy in the 3rd; and the Cubs tie it back up in the 4th. Through all of this the crowd is ear-ringingly loud.


The Cubs are staying in it even though they aren’t playing that well. The umpire is calling a super-low strike which seems to be messing with the Cubs more than the Mets. They are swinging at garbage.


I cheer a bit and groan some and boo a little – but I don’t really feel it in my heart. I don’t feel it the way I felt the Wallabies Rugby World Cup quarterfinal game the other day. The people all around me – they are feeling it.


The Mets break the tie in the top of the 6th with a runner scoring on an uncaught 3rd strike – with two outs the batter reaches first safely and the runner scores. It’s a demoralizing way to see the other team get ahead. The Mets add two more runs in the 7th and the Cubs have hit the wall. They are running on fumes and aren’t coming back to win this one.


I leave in the top of the 9th – a violation of old principles – but I have a 7am bus to catch and need to get some groceries before heading back to the hostel.


While I’m in the supermarket it starts pissing down rain. Walking back to the El Train I’m swimming upstream against a tide of disappointed and wet Cubs fans.


I’m back to the hostel room a bit before midnight. There are two others already asleep and someone on their computer. I get myself ready for the morning as quietly as I can and go to bed.


Here are the highlights of the game …


*Cal Ripken eventually set the consecutive game streak with 2,632 games. There are 162 games per season – he began the streak in 1982 and didn’t miss a game again until 1998. Hell, from June 1982 to September 1987 he didn’t even miss a single inning.


I don’t know why I haven’t made my own maps earlier – the house is not-quite where my parents live, the coffee cup is Brothers K, the bed is my hostel for the night, and the baseball is Wrigley Field.


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