An Image of my Ex-University of Chicago


This isn’t the first time I’ve allowed myself several minutes of deep recollection, nor will it be the last.  For some reason it’s images that do this to me more than any other form of media, even music.

Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not all images that have this affect, only the special few that manage to tickle, what I shall call, a memory fiber, and the thing is, the very constitution of such a fiber – memories – implies that with every new day that comes to life, a new fiber is formed, the result being that the new morning not only brings with it a fresh start, but also a higher likelihood of being tickled.

That’s what keeps me going:  the perennial creation of memory fibers resulting in a better chance of being tickled.

It’s a rule of nature, this increasing tickle, that positively correlates with ageing, so that the two ideas are practically synonymous.  To grow old = To grow tickled.

But please excuse the childish language, tickled.  I don’t even like being tickled in the traditional sense of the word.

I’m the boy who said, “Stop tickling me.”  I would bunch my muscles and fling myself straight, bunch my muscles and fling myself straight.  It was never enough, though, this convulsive squirming.  It always failed to make the fingers stop tickling me, and so I would repeat while writhing in my skin, “Please… stop… tickling… me… please!”

I had to muster all my strength to make my cry intelligible, and still I doubt I ever succeeded because no one reacted accordingly.  I couldn’t stand the tickling, I really did want it to stop, and yet I couldn’t get it to stop, and I couldn’t figure out why it was making me laugh so uncontrollably hard and yet want to cry.

To this, all I can say is that tickling the skin is not the same as tickling memory fibers.  Tickling the skin is a cruel punishment, while tickling memory fibers is stimulating to the point of wanting more.  But, alas, demand is greater than supply when it comes to the latter kind of stimulation.

It is indeed a low supply that makes me treasure the above image, and I’m not using that word, treasure, liberally.  This image really is one of those special few that tickles a memory fiber.

Dubbed The City Gray that ne’er shall die after the University of Chicago’s alma mater, this image taken by Justin Kern unlocks fragments of my past with its tickle.

I look at the gray skies and see the big black birds that look like warty-nosed witches on broomsticks.  Then, underneath, prone to attack, the winter-frozen landscape of what Fitzgerald called “the intellectual stockyards of the South Side of Chicago” in Tender is the Night, a novel that killed whatever Fitzgerald infatuation I previously nurtured.

I look at the gray skies and warty witches and winter landscape, and I am tickled into thinking of the cold I suffered through just walking around campus.

In this picture there is a part of me, a tilt-shifted toy version of me.  He walks in scene from the bottom left-hand corner and weaves through the six-pack of parked cars in the uncleared snow straight to the dumpster.

He scans the area around him and sees only a man who looks eerily like Jesus Christ quickly open the fire-escape door of his office building just long enough to pop his arm outside, snatch the smoke from in between another man’s lips, and shout, “Don’t you know already?  Cigarette smoking kills!”

Tilt-shifted herocious shakes his head in disapproval of nicotine and everything related to nicotine when the ex-smoker makes eye contact with him.  If sympathy is what this walking carcinogen wants, he’s not going to get it here.  The fire escape door opens and the ex-smoker steps inside, safe from scorn.

Ostensibly alone, tilt-shifted herocious dips inside the dumpster and rifles through the perpetually removed and replenished mound of books and magazines that is Barnes & Noble’s retail trash.

This is the fodder tilt-shifted herocious packs his bookshelves with at home, banished Barnes & Noble books and magazines, their covers torn off their binding, deeming them unsellable.

Not finding anything new among the earthbound books and magazines, tilt-shifted herocious sneaks between the buildings and hooks left past the bookstore’s maroon banners.  He traverses the same crosswalk that was the setting for a short-story of his about a student who got hit by a car and a nurse who lived in a bizarre house.

Across the street is the face of the least appealing building on campus, downright ugly even, a downer, namely, the Administration Building.

He walks through the glass doors, stomps his shoes clean of snow, eyes the analog clock without noting the time and, bracing himself for the cold again, comes out on the other side.

The gargoyled buildings of the quads are, unlike the Ellis Avenue facade, detailed and significant.  Even dressed in snow, tilt-shifted herocious can’t help but feel that this is where he wants to be, not in Miami where people are undoubtedly active, tanned, and naked on the beach, but right here, where the temperature must’ve read something like it does as I write this:

Somber buildings with a valid reason for being somber.

Tilt-shifted herocious hooks right towards Cobb Lecture Hall.  The snowfall from last night hasn’t been sufficiently cleared from the walkways.  He stamps his shoes into patches that haven’t been stepped in yet, and before finding warmth inside the lecture hall he stands in the middle of the C-Bench and listens to his amplified whisper.

I turn my head and move my ear closer to the image above.  I try to hear tilt-shifted herocious’s whisper.  The last thing I want him to do  is whisper into thin air.  What good is a whisper into thin air?  You have to whisper into another ear, that’s the only way your whisper will amount to anything.

“Don’t you already know?” whispers tilt-shifted herocious.  “Cigarette smoking kills!”

It is in the Cobb basement that he cuts pizza, pours soup, and rings up customers of Cobb Cafe.  An agreeable job except for stocking the coolers full of soda and Snapple at the end of the day.  He’d prefer to wash dishes rather than walk back and forth between the pallets in the pantry and the coolers by the counter carrying what felt like an interminable supply of twenty-five pound beverage flats.

The problem with stocking coolers is that you have to slide the cold and un-purchased bottles and soda cans forward to make room for the warm and new inventory behind them.  This is how you keep your beverages fresh in the rotation and assure that no one buys a  fermented bottle of Snapple, or flat can of soda.

After work, tilt-shifted herocious zips his thin gas-station jacket, covers his ears with a knitted beanie, inserts his hands into mittens – they’re warmer than gloves – and walks out the secret back basement door up the ramp to street level.  In his hand, a bi-weekly paycheck, which he immediately deposits in his bank across Ellis Avenue.  The pigeons outside the Brain Research Pavilion huddle over mysterious vents that spit clouds of warmth from some kind of subterranean boilers.

Tilt-shifted herocious holds his breath while walking above these vents.  His theory is that the clouds of warmth are composed of brain research by-products, and he is of the opinion that no by-products, not even ones resulting from the noble pursuit of brain research, are good for his health.

It being the end of the workday, tilt-shifted herocious returns to the Barnes & Noble dumpster with renewed enthusiasm.  Sure enough, he fishes out a life-size green sign that he saw just yesterday hanging in the bookstore:


Surveying the premises, he furls the sign, tucks it under his armpit, and walks home with a giant smile on his face.  This would soon be on display in his living room, a reminder of the bounteous dumpster that not only stocks his bookshelves, but also decorates his walls.

::Image pilfered from tWp::

March 19, 2009 7:01 am

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