Posted by jdg | Wednesday, August 01, 2007 | , ,

Every year on a September Saturday my high school German teacher would borrow one of the athletic department's 15-passenger vans and take eighteen of his German students to Chicago. This teacher was a wise and fabulously lazy man who grew up in the very small town of Watervliet, Michigan before attending college and settling down in the slightly bigger town of Kalamazoo. Looking back, I believe he saw his role in our lives as more than a mere martinet of Teutonic grammar; he considered himself a mentor whose mission was to expose young provincials to the possibilities of the wide world beyond their petty secondary-school social upheavals. Not to get all Mr. Holland's Opus on you, but if men and women like him weren't out there sacrificing the exciting lives they could have led in Berlin or New York to inspire the pubescent petite bourgeoisie to get liberal arts degrees and move away to bigger cities, there would be no embittered penniless hipsters living out their thirties in cramped Brooklyn apartments writing short stories about embittered penniless hipsters living out their thirties in cramped Brooklyn apartments. And without them and all the other urban paralegals, copy editors, consultants, lawyers, editorial assistants, government employees and research associates bored out of their fucking minds at work, who would be left to read and write blogs? If no one had inspired us to break up with our high school sweethearts and seek something more from life than throwing empty cans of Milwaukee's Best into the rock quarry every Saturday night, there probably wouldn't be any blogger conferences to go to in Chicago. Danke Herr Holland!

Back in Chicago all those years ago, wir deutsche Kursteilnehmer were supposed to spend the morning on a brief architectural tour, followed by a few hours in the Art Institute, and later dinner at the Berghoff. But between Nighthawks and the Schnitzel, we were allowed to roam the city as we pleased. Most everyone headed up Michigan Avenue, straight for Niketown. I remember Niketown being a very big deal to people. If you told someone that you went to Chicago, you were always asked if you went to Niketown, and if not it meant you had a lousy trip where it was assumed your parents made you do all kinds of boring crap. I don't think Niketown is such a big deal anymore, now that downtown Chicago has ESPNworld, OldNavyburgh, Hollisteropolis and HighSchoolMusical2Land.

Skipping the not-so-magnificent mile, a few of us hopped on the elevated train and headed up to see Cabrini Green before it got knocked down. We did not consider this to be dangerous; all our knowledge of Cabrini Green came from the movie Candyman, so we figured if Virginia Madsen could almost survive it, three high school guys from Kalamazoo should have no problem. People there just glared and made us feel like the assholes we were, so we left to try to find Al Capone's hotel, which was also scheduled for demolition. After we stared up at that crumbling old building ("that's probably where he killed that dude with the baseball bat!") we rode the train down to Chinatown and laughed at the crazy and smelly goods in the stores and wandered around the surrounding area filled with abandoned buildings until we found a paper bag stuffed with about twenty little plastic baggies of a resiny drug none of us recognized, along with a wad of about seventy dollars in cash and a .38 caliber revolver. We tossed the drugs and split the cash, and I saw the guy who picked up the bag put the gun into his jacket's inside pocket. "The best place to find shit is where people are always running from the cops," he said. The whole afternoon was just like that "going to town" scene in Wet Hot American Summer. Only real as fuck. By six we were back in the Loop with our classmates and their Niketown bags, eating spaetzle.

I wonder sometimes how horrified I will be when Future Juniper does stuff like hop on a train into an unfamiliar city and walk around places where she could very easily get sold into white slavery or get forced into running guns for the Yakuza. This is a curse of parenthood, I suppose, desiring nothing more than for your kids than for them not to be as fucking stupid as you were. I read an article a few weeks ago about how over the course of four generations, an eight-year-old British boy's freedom to move had been restricted to 300 yards from his front door, while his great-grandfather had enjoyed the freedom to walk six miles every day to go fishing. I thought of my own youthful wanderlust, spending all day hiking through endless forests (that are now endless subdivisions). I think of days like that one in Chicago, formative in a way of what I still find fascinating and interesting about the cities of the world. And then I wonder if I am committing Juniper to a life of virtual house arrest, even though my fearful colleagues in the suburbs are largely doing the same thing.

* * * *

"Psychogeography" is the study of the specific effects of a geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. In 1958, Guy Debord wrote the seminal psychogeographical text Théorie de la Dérive, or "Theory of Drifting," what he called, "a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences." In a dérive you (or you and a friend) drop your existing relationships for a few hours, you drop your work and usual leisure activities, ignoring all your other usual motives for movement and action, and let yourselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters you find there. Sights and attractions intended as touristic are to be avoided along with itineraries, your journey instead becomes "dependent on chance and the spontaneous subjective impulses and reactions of the wanderer."

Debord had been inspired by the situationalists, particularly the study Paris et l'agglomération parisienne, in which Chombart de Lauwe noted the narrowness of the real Paris in which most individuals actual lived, in comparison to the grand, touristic idea of Paris. Most Parisians, he suggested, dwell exclusively within an extremely small geographical radius. Lauwe diagramed all the movements made in the space of a single year by a female student living in the 16th Arrondissement. Her itinerary formed a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which were the School of Political Science, her residence and that of her piano teacher. Why live in Paris at all? One naturally wonders.

We spent the past weekend in Chicago. On Friday we followed our itinerary, visiting friends and beautiful old buildings, finally ending the day on Navy Pier---a tourist destination with a character seemingly defined by the absence of reality---to visit with people we only knew through the internet. On Saturday we took the train to uptown and walked back towards the tall buildings. I love Chicago. Beyond the city's obvious charms, there are still so many wonderful thoroughly unspectacular things to see there. It is never the grandeur that impresses me most, though I can certainly see the appeal of gothic skyscrapers and miesian monoliths as well as the bustle of a vibrant city center. I love the dirty Italian beef stands in Chicago, the old movie palaces turned into Mexican dance clubs, the Indian funeral homes, and the bars with glass-brick windows and faded Old Style signs hanging above the door. Tourists are almost always in a better position to partake in the dérive: seeing the familiar as new, bisecting the small triangular ambulations of the locals as we walk down streets with no idea where they'll take us.

We are back in Detroit now: house, market, playground, our own comfortable triangulated rut. But beyond the joys of seeing old and new friends, getting over to Chicago for a couple of days reminded me of the pleasure of wandering that so consumed me when we first moved to Detroit. Tomorrow I'm going to turn left where I usually walk right.

You never know when you're going to come across a paper bag filled with drugs, cash, and a gun.