Monday, January 16, 2012

ONE FLEW OVER CUCKOO WRIGLEY FIELD

1976 was a kinder, gentler time.  Fourteen years before that, the times were even more blissful...to the point of innocence.

The novel, "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST," was published in 1962.  At its root, the story is about subtle and coercive methods of oppression, censorship and forced conformity.  To make his vision more palatable, author Ken Kesey set the scene within the walls of a hospital's mentally unstable ward.  His insights suggest that this is modern society's toxic path...unless a catalyst can trigger our instinctual need, for a free human spirit.

Kesey's title came from a nursery rhyme. 

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest

The book's narrator was one of the patients, (Chief Bromden).  He mentioned that as a child, his grandmother sang that nursery rhyme to him.  On a broader scale, a cuckoo's nest is a playful name for a mental institution.  And one interpretation of "flying over," is a patient going too far, (getting in trouble).
IN THE 1975 FILM, JACK NICHOLSON PORTRAYS R. P. McMURPHY. HE REPRESENTS INDEPENDENCE AND THE HUMAN  INSTINCT FOR FREEDOM.  HE FAKED MENTAL PROBLEMS TO AVOID PRISON AND IS INSTITUTIONALIZED WITH UNSTABLE MEN, (ACUTES).  McMURPHY IDENTIFIES THE SUPPRESSION CAUSED BY NURSE RATCHED AND RALLIES THE MEN'S DEADENED INDIVIDUALITY. UNTIL, HE FINDS OUT THE HARD WAY THAT THE ACUTES HAVE VOLUNTARILY COMMITTED THEM SELVES AND CAN LEAVE ANY TIME THEY WISH...BUT HE CAN'T.
In 1976, the movie's message was fresh in my mind when I had my solo, cross-country trip. During my sixty-eight days on the road, I fully exercised my independence.  But on a deeper and more interesting level, I also had the freedom to temporarily become dependent or conform to a given situation.

My modes of transportation were Greyhounds and hitchhiking.  In bus depots, the open road, youth hostels, seedy motels, camp grounds, colleges and tourist destinations, I was thrown together with a wide range of derelicts, knuckleheads, freaks, eccentrics, good people and the elite.  While some of the extreme cases might've needed psychological help, at no point was I ever in real danger or "acutely" uncomfortable.  Instead, many of these folks took me into their hearts, cars, homes and confidence...while sharing travel information, food and our most private thoughts.
ONE OF THE FEW TIMES THAT I FELT UNHAPPY OR LONELY WAS THE NIGHT MY GREYHOUND PULLED INTO SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS.  I WAS UNDER THE WEATHER.  AND EVEN THOUGH THE ALAMO WAS ONLY TWO BLOCKS AWAY, I CHOSE TO GUT IT OUT AND SLEEP ON THE BUS ALL THE WAY TO EL PASO.
A month later, towards the end of my journey, (Monday, August 23rd), I reached Chicago.  It was in the "Windy City" when I felt loneliness again. 
THE WILLIS TOWER...WHATCHU TALKIN' ABOUT?  THE SEARS TOWER, WILL ALWAYS BE THE SEARS TOWER. LOCATED AT 233 SOUTH WACKER DRIVE, IT IS THE FOCAL POINT OF THE CHICAGO SKYLINE.  ITS 108 STORIES MAKE IT THE TALLEST BUILDING IN THE USA...AND THE SEVENTH HIGHEST FREE-STANDING STRUCTURE IN THE WORLD.
Unlike most places I visited, I had no pre-planned Chicago itinerary.  I had no direction, no "must-see" points of interest and I even had trouble finding a cheap place to stay.  Luckily, the terminal's gift shop lady suggested the Ohio East Hotel.  It was in walking distance, on the other side of the Chicago River.
STOCK PHOTO OF THE CORRECT STREET.  BUT THIS HOTEL LOOKS LIKE THE RITZ COMPARED TO MY $4.50 PER NIGHT RAT TRAP.
I was led to the section of East Ohio Avenue that was their version of Skid Row. Weeks earlier, I had slept at a similar, "retired gentleman's" hotel in San Francisco's Mission District, for half the price...and by comparison, it felt like I was in the lap of luxury. The Ohio East was more like a welfare, flop-house.  It didn't even have a lobby. 

From the street, I walked up the interior, unlit wooden staircase. At the rickety landing, I pushed through a heavy metal door and was greeted by a makeshift, "front desk." It looked unnatural, like it was built in an hour and jammed into the second floor hall. Behind the clerk, the dusty room key slots had oddball items in them like, a Bayer aspirin bottle, a bent screwdriver, silverware and a Donald Duck comic book. 

The impatient, sixty-ish desk clerk spoke in a sporadic cadence, like he was tripping.  The only thing he made clear was; NO loud noise after ten, NO cooking in the room and NO female company.  Then he gaped at my wallet as he dangled a fourth floor key, until I paid. 

The Ohio East had no elevator, so with the one towel I was given, I trudged up two more flights, to the "penthouse." The first old-timer (guest), I saw on my floor was singing "scat," annoyingly loud.  The next few residents I passed were silent.  Their facial emptiness made me think that they had already had lobotomies.  Who knows, maybe they were real-life, "chronics" from, "Cuckoo's Nest."

My closet-sized room had a moldy, ammonia stink and there were enough water bugs to carry off the bed. I vowed to stay only one night.  Then I went downstairs, left the building and headed to the "Loop."  It was odd, while wandering around downtown, I didn't see any fellow backpackers.  I even went back to the bus station in search of companionship but found none. 

At rush hour, amid the hustle and bustle of commuters pouring out of the modern office buildings, I saw a sign, "EARLY BIRD SPECIAL, ALL THE SMELTS YOU CAN EAT, 99c."  I didn't even know what a smelt was...but for that kind of money, I was willing to gamble, especially because it would be a treat to sit in a real restaurant.

This hash house looked better from the outside.  I stood alone, inside the doorway and looked across the dark dining room's the sea of empty tables.  I had just noticed a strip of fly paper (fully occupied), above the cash register when a man poked his head out from the kitchen and said in an Eastern European accent, "Sit anywhere."

A minute later, he came to my table, set down a glass of water and tried handing me a menu.  I refused the menu and said, "I'll have, the all you can eat smelts."  His neutral expression sagged to a frown as he checked his watch, (it was 5:15 so there was still forty-five minutes left on the special).  Then he snarled, "And to drink?"  I held up the water and said, "I'm good for now."
SMELTS AVERAGE ABOUT SIX INCHES IN LENGTH AND LOOK LIKE SMALL SALMON.  THEY ARE USUALLY EATEN WHOLE.
My big basket of smelts were deep fried.  The crisp breading was all I could taste, so they weren't too bad.  My second order was much smaller and the third only had about ten.  When I signaled the waiter again there were four other tables occupied.  Before I could ask for more, he slapped down the check and said, "You've had enough."

Maybe I should have made a statement over the, "all you can eat," clause and caused a ruckus, but I didn't.  I rationalized that I was full, that smelts weren't that good and if I pushed too hard, they might spit in a forced refill.  When I got outside, there was still three hours of daylight. I soloed around the business district but on a limited budget, it got old fast.

I resisted going back to my dungeon as long as I could.  But when I found a copy of that day's Chicago Tribune, I headed back.  It was twilight when I returned to the hotel.  At the desk, a different clerk was on the phone.  He was jealous that the person on the other end was going to the Cubs baseball game, the next afternoon.  I thought that was a great idea since I was striking out with everything else.  I lingered to ask him directions to Wrigley Field but his intimidating, harsh glare, sent me on my way.

Upstairs, I laid on the thin mattress, read the paper and did the crossword.  Before retiring, I walked the length of the corridor to the rest room.  On the way back, I crossed paths with a normal-looking kid about my age.  My opinion of his normalcy changed when his eyes bugged out as he told me that he had a bullet in his room.  I was polite in turning down his invitation to see it.  He then followed me back towards my room. I was fumbling with the key when he said, "I'm in 411, if you change your mind...I'll be awake all night."

I made several guesses what "a bullet" might have been a euphemism for, as I tried to barricade the door with the chest of drawers.  But it was bolted to the floor.

In the morning, I grabbed my towel and headed back to the toilet. An elderly wino in a tattered, silk smoking jacket and presumably nothing else, was ranting about his missed court appearance, at the pay phone outside 411. I was dreading bullet-boy being disturbed and coming out as I scurried by. 

In the bathroom, I double-tested the door's lock.  I hesitated for a while until I decided to go through with my shower.  Before undressing, I waited outside the shower stall long enough for the water bugs to scatter.  After I stripped down, to be certain that the first gush of water wasn't rusty, I waited again. Considering that the water pressure and temperature were decent, that was the shortest shower of my life.

A third different clerk was on duty when I surrendered my key.  He barely looked past his Popular Science Magazine as he chomped on a nauseating cigar. 

In the clean morning air, I headed towards the Greyhound station.  I wanted to stow my belongings and find out that night's schedule, going east to Windsor Ontario.  Just before the small bridge over the river, I spotted a letter carrier.  I appreciated his smile as he recommended a city bus route to Lincoln Park and then to Wrigley Field.  I came away from our meeting thinking that not everyone in Chicago was crazy.
"THE FRIENDLY CONFINES," LOCATED AT 1060 WEST ADDISON STREET, IS BETTER KNOWN AS WRIGLEY FIELD.  IT HAS BEEN THE CHICAGO CUBS HOME SINCE 1916.  ODDLY, THEY HAVE NEVER WON THE WORLD SERIES THERE, (1908 WAS THEIR LAST CHAMPIONSHIP WHILE PLAYING AT A DIFFERENT STADIUM).
I got to the game early and bought a general admission ticket. During batting practice, to get more in the mood, I bought a Cubs tee-shirt.  I toured the iconic ballpark and appreciated the old-school charm of the hand turned scoreboard, the ivy-covered outfield walls and the fact that they didn't have lights, (it wouldn't be until twelve years later that night games were played in Wrigley).

The Cubs were a crappy team that year.  So with the dog-days of August almost coming to an end, less than 11,000 people showed up for the festivities. The lack of fans enabled me to get a great seat, about twenty rows back, on field level, between home and first base but closer to home.

When the National Anthem was over, my entire row, ten seats to my right and left remained empty.  In the second inning, a regular guy, (dressed neater than me...and I was wearing a brand new Cubs shirt), sat several seats to my right.  I still had bullet-boy from the night before on my mind, so when I figured that this man could have sat anywhere, even the four-seat buffer between us, didn't seem like enough.

The Cubs opponent was the Houston Astros.  It marked the first time I was at a game that didn't involve my adored Mets or against the hated Junkees. So in addition to having no rooting interest, both teams being bad and neither squad having a big star to marvel at, I was sitting alone at the predictably dull, non-event.

In the middle innings, the man to my right and I shared short comments about the game.  In time, I realized that he was a knowledgeable fan and a pleasant person.  So when he switched to the seat next to me...it was neither weird nor a threat to my personal space.

While the game dragged on, he said it was still great to get out on such a beautiful day.  Our conversation strayed from baseball as I told him anecdotes of my trip. When I told him about my loneliness in Chicago and that I was leaving later that night he said, "To get a feel for the true Chicagoan, you need to be around people."  Then he pointed towards the left field wall and said, "McCluskey's is a great bar on Waveland Avenue.  Its a tradition to go there after the game. They serve free hot dogs with chopped-up tomatoes on them, the 'THREE STOOGES,' are on the TV till seven and they have Heileman's Old Style on tap."
BACK IN CANARSIE, MY FRIEND SLW WAS A FAN OF OLD STYLE BEER.  HE HAD IT ON A TRIP TO THE MIDWEST AND USED TO LOVE MAKING FUN OF ITS BREWING PROCESS CALLED, "KRAEUSENING."
The hot-dogs didn't sell me and overwhelmingly, beer whether its kraeusened or not, is just beer.  What truly gravitated me to McCluskey's was the Stooges because the show, due to its violence, had been banned in New York.  Of course partying with my new friend was important too.

The Cubs rallied for two runs in the ninth, but lost 4-3.  On our way out I said, "I can't wait to buy the first round of Old Style."  He said, "I can't go."  I said, "Why?"  He said, "They know exactly when the games end. I have to get back to the institute."  Our chat had concentrated on baseball and my travels so I felt bad when I realized that he didn't get much of a chance to speak about himself.

We were leaving the darkness under the grandstand and back into the warm sunlight as I said, "Are you a doctor?"  He advanced to an adult tricycle that was chained to a light pole and laughed, "Doctor?  I'm a patient.  They let me out a couple afternoons a month."  I was stunned as he unchained his ride. 

The crowd around us flew east,
I flew west 
and he pedaled back to the cuckoo's nest.
THE "CUCKOO'S NEST" BOATING SCENE, DEMONSTRATED THE POWER OF PERCEPTION, WHEN THE PATIENTS, OUTSIDE THE WARD, ARE PASSED-OFF AS DOCTORS.
I did venture over to McCluskey's and it was everything he said it was.  But I was still alone in a crowd.  At least it gave me the chance to assess the world around me.  While scarfing-down free hot-dogs, I realized that chopped-up tomatoes sucked as a topping, the old memory of the Stooges was better than the real thing and even though I was twenty-one years old, that I was still quite naive.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love the stories of your cross-country trip.

You nailed the Cuckoo's Nest boating scene...when it comes to people, we should never judge a book by its cover.

"Bullet-Boy" pretty creepy...the guy in the smoking jacket deserves honorable mention too. --- FARNSWORTH

Anonymous said...

Its always great to be quoted in your blogs. In your latest, "ONE FLEW OVER WRIGLEY FIELD," I was brought back to my cross country journey (1975). My friend's friend was a Chicago State University hockey player. We hit every bar on the Northside and drank Old Style on tap for a week. --- SLW

Anonymous said...

"One Flew Over Cuckoo Wrigley Field," was another highly entertaining story. While Chicago is definitely a great town, you should know that when I was in L.A., I not only saw nuts but I saw flakes and fruits too. --- JERM