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Alex Carnevale

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in chicago (17)


In Which We Do Whatever We Can Get Away With

Escape to New York


Just as our first romantic relationships impress types upon us, so, too, do our early urban experiences determine if and how we will live in cities. There are people from whom we do not recover, experiences into which we try to fold all others, places we do not leave.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1933, the photographer Bruce Davidson spent his adolescence on the train, riding the El into Chicago. "I’ve left Chicago," Davidson later told an interviewer, "but Chicago hasn’t left me." The experience was "catalytic," he said; as an adult, he would go on to document New York’s transit system in the series Subway. On the trains he found "an iridescence like what I had seen in photographs of deep-sea fish."

Before Subway, he had submerged himself in South Brooklyn, where he documented the romances and rituals of a young street gang called the Jokers. After covering the Civil Rights Movement, he returned to New York, to its parks and streets, and, for two years the 1960s, its tenements. He set up on the block between Second Avenue and First, working with a large camera on a tripod to capture the street’s sidewalks, bedrooms, and the people who used them.

East 100th Street appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Nearly twenty years later, my parents and I moved into an apartment a few blocks west, on 100th between Park and Lexington. Both streets belong to the part of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem, which runs from 96th Street, where well-tended medians on Park Avenue give way to train tracks, up to the northeastern edge of the island and the Harlem River.

The neighborhood is largely Puerto Rican, and home to 24 public housing projects. Last year, the Department of City Planning designated the neighborhood a "food desert," which means its residents have little access to fresh food, specifically produce, and are therefore likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses.

When I was very young, I did not realize people considered my neighborhood unsafe; once I did, I thought they must be mistaken. It was not until after the building next door to mine burned down that I learned it had been a crackhouse. Nobody ever told me anything. If someone was admitted to the hospital, I was informed days or years after they were released.

Now this seems to me fantastical: how do you not talk about things? But my parents and I, we did not talk about things, so for a long time I pretended everything was fine. Then, when evidence to the contrary became impossible to ignore, I decided not to care. This is actually a choice you can make.

The images in East 100th Street do not disclose secrets like a diary, those subjective assessments of material experience. They hold only the brute, dull detritus of daily life: 15-cent pie, a flyer from a camping show, Hart brand bird food. Looking at Davidson's photographs is like visiting someone's apartment for the first time, or reading his blog: I eat a sandwich, I drink a beer, I do not make my bed.

To see the people Davidson photographs is to be reminded that people exist when we do not see them. These are not candids, or stolen shots of animals taken securely from safari caravan, but their subjects accept him without ceremony, as one admits not a stranger but a sibling, someone who has a key and does not care if you have cleaned your apartment.

At the Howard Greenberg Gallery, East 100th Street is accompanied by Davidson’s wide, expansive shots of Central Park. In the foreground of one lies the sweating, bathing-suited body of a woman; beyond her, more bodies, and trees, and beyond them the city, the buildings rising together like a great crenellated castle.

In comparison to his photographs of Central Park, the images in East 100th Street are airless and cramped. The exteriors feel like interiors. Rarely do you see the sky, or the spine of the Triborough Bridge, that big animal, lying across the East River. The city resembles a room, a closed space, a closet. The effect is counterintuitive; in Davidson’s work, narrow alleys and low ceilings serve as reminders of the city’s size, of how much it contains, and conceals.

If you believe people do whatever they can get away with, you might imagine his portraits of people peering out windows or sprawled on beds to be portraits of lust and false-heartedness. Manhattan's geography generates infidelity: ours is a capacious city, a vast island whose size permits isolation and therefore betrayal.

Davidson's photographs remind us that people's personal lives are mostly tedious. Everybody has dirty plates and families. Privacy protects us. Behind closed doors we shine our shoes and our personalities; we rest and then resume playing the roles of interesting people. We hide our worst selves, and our dullest: we would rather have people see us as bad than boring.

What is universal are chores, the failure to do them, and the desire to be looked at. From the way one girl turns her foot you can tell she has taken ballet. She is wearing church clothes; in another picture, a sign on a storefront church proclaims, "All are welcome!" Sunday devotional services meet at 12:30, and something abbreviated "W.P.W.W." gathers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30.

A few of the buildings Davidson photographed still stand, but this church is gone. The northwest corner of the block has been cleared for a baseball diamond, and luxury condominiums now run along First Avenue up to 101st Street. In 2006, one of the new apartments on Lexington Avenue sold for $8.5 million dollars.

The protagonists of children's books are usually orphans. The family home is a prison that must be demolished before the book can begin. Only once they are freed from their cells and captors can the characters' adventure begin. Out of the cradle and into the boxcar, or boarding school; the best world is the one without parents.

My parents sold their house this fall. Like Davidson's subjects and storybook orphans, I am one of the lucky ones: I never have to go home again.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer from New York. She last wrote in these pages about Dawn Powell.

"Goodnight Everything" - Liars (mp3)

"I Can Still See An Outside World" - Liars (mp3)

"Proud Evolution" - Liars (mp3)

"Scarecrows on a Killer Slant" - Liars (mp3)


In Which We Aim for New York and Land in Chicago 



Chicago is known by many names: The Windy City; The Second City; The Third Coast; The Homeless Man’s New York; etc. It’s the place I aspired to build when I played Sim City in junior high school. It’s where actors go to star in a few regional commercials and get an agent before moving to Los Angeles. It’s filed with people who eat and drink and root for sports teams named after large animals. It was Frank’s kind of town, and — for the next two years or so — it’ll be my kind of town, too.

I’ve lived in Chicago for a month, haven’t been to a single museum, and still can’t figure out where to put my recyclables. In other words: don’t try this at home. With that out of the way, some advice and observations.


The Red Line is the key to Chicago’s train system. Without it, the CTA’s rail system becomes DC’s or — even worse — Boston’s, two plans based on the premise that people only travel from their homes to downtown and back. With the the Red Line, however, CTA offers a direct path south from the Evanston-Chicago border to end of the Dan Ryan Expressway, a near-perfect Y-axis from which riders can transfer to any number of buses running parallel to Chicago’s X-axis.

The grid makes it easy for people like me to feign knowledge of how to get around. While the numbered streets don’t start until south of the Downtown Loop area, all the street signs indicate how far they stand from the intersection of State and Madison, the grid’s origin. It gets tricky when the diagonal streets come into play, but those are mainly useful for cyclists and delivery truck drivers.

Residents polled for advice recommend buying a bike, as Chicago is a "bike-friendly" city. This is half-true. Yes, Mayor Daley declared that he wanted to make Chicago the "most bicycle-friendly city in the United States," and the expansion of bikeways — from 50 to 350 miles in the past 10 years -- as well as the introduction of Bike Chicago — a 3-month series of organized rides — indicate a clear commitment to that goal, as does the McDonald’s Cycle Center in Millennium Park. Unfortunately, motorists hate cyclists here as much as they do in any other big city, and if one is foolish enough to ride on the sidewalk to avoid traffic-related death, fines and imprisonment await.

The drivers aren’t the only crazies here, though. The folks on public transportation put Boston’s Green Line passengers to shame. In the last week I’ve watched a quartet of Crips down a handle of off-brand Vodka at two in the afternoon, a Nigerian woman put a curse on an entire train before an angry guy with a unibrow told her to “shut up,” and a small group of teens simulating a snowstorm by breaking up pieces of styrofoam and tossing them into the air. Hey, at least the Red Line runs all night.

The Soul of the City

A friend recently remarked that she found New York overwhelming in large doses, the idea being that once the initial enthusiasm of moving there wears off, you lose the motivation to attend art openings, free concerts and weekly group Spanish lessons. Chicago doesn’t seem to have such a brutal personality, at least not yet.

The “tall city” feel is concentrated in the Loop area where tourist necks snap up at sights like the Hancock Center and the Willis nee Sears Tower. The rest of the city rolls out like an endless urban rug, akin to Queens, or Brooklyn, or Omaha.

This sort of urban sprawl is less oppressive and indomitable than the up-up-up of Manhattan. It’s also much cleaner here than in New York, perhaps because there are fewer skyscrapers.

That’s not to say Chicago is without its stunning edifices. The architecture here is richer than that in any other American City. It buries New York’s. For proof, watch Batman Begins or The Blues Brothers. If you’re tired of those classic films, try Adventures in Babysitting — it shows off what may or may not be a Chicago bus terminal.

For the best view up close of Chicago’s towering skyline, there are a few boat-based architectural tours, all of which are priced for tourists from countries where the Euro is king. If you don’t mind making up the facts as you go along, take a Chicago Water Taxi from Michigan Avenue to Chinatown. An all-day pass is only six bucks and it includes all the best views as well as complimentary lifejacket use.

Chicago is also highly walkable, but I’ve found that walking around here reminds me of the 30 Rock episode where Liz Lemon realizes that if she moved to Cleveland, she could be a model. It’s not that people are unattractive in Chicago — they’re just closer to the mean than folks in Manhattan and Paris are. If Fox were to cast a reality show called “Real People of America,” they could just grab a handful of Red Line riders and call it a day.

Dining and Entertainment

For people who can afford to dine out with impunity, Chicago’s restaurants are truly what make it The City Second Only to New York. In my sole break-the-bank eating experience, I ate at Prosecco, a high-end Italian kitchen that includes among its repeat clientele Bon Jovi, Vince Vaughn, and Jakob Dylan. If you have the means, you must drop in; the risotto alone is worth the visit.

Of course, there are those of us in Chicago who would prefer to get our food free, in the form of hot-wings if at all possible. Thankfully there is BrokeHipster.com, a site dedicated to Chicago’s free and cheap dining. You don’t have to sport an ironic mustache or ride a fixed-gear bike to use the site.

Fun and laughs are plentiful here. Chicago is the core of the improv universe. Every night of the week offers a free or cheap show of mid- to high-level entertainment value. Some of the best include TJ and Dave at iO, Messing with a Friend at The Annoyance Theater, and the independently owned and operated Dirty Water, a 5-man show about “the fun-loving wise-cracking regulars” of the fictitious Boston bar bearing the show’s name (the first Friday of every month at Town Hall Pub, 3340 N. Halsted, 8:00pm).

Chicago is also great for fans of Public Radio. Both Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and This American Life are co-produced by Chicago Public Radio. Wait Wait… is even recorded weekly in front of a live Chicago audience. Anyone with $21.99 and directions to The Chase Auditorium can join in the fun.

Lastly, a note on working out: Gym use is down in middle-America, so most gyms are eager to let you sample their facilities, some even for weeks at a time. Most of the people who purchase memberships are coastal transplants, young professionals, and law students who are too good for university-level athletic centers. If you are stealth enough, you can sneak into the Crunch at Grand and Wabash for months without being asked to show proof of membership. (This Recording does not endorse gym membership theft).

And Then…

I could go on… I’ll go on: Al Capone. David Mamet. The Cubs. SCTV. The Green Mill. University of Chicago Physics Grad Students. Ferris Bueller. Pitchfork, the Festival and the Music Hype Machine. Chicago, the Band. Wrigley. Obama. Kanye. Common. Uncommon. Deep Dish Pizza. Michigan Avenue. Lake Michigan. The Goat. Art Institute of Chicago. Navy Pier. Lakeshore Drive. Oprah. Ozzie Guillen. MJ. Da Bears. And don’t forget House Music.

Nicholas Freilich is a writer living in Chicago. He maintains The Poetry Project, which you can find here.

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"Numero" - Chewy Chocolate Cookies (mp3)

"Apocalypse" - Chewy Chocolate Cookies (mp3)

"It Was Only A Kiss" - Chewy Chocolate Cookies (mp3)

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