Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois
Though the place is crowded there’s an absence in here. Shoulder to shoulder patrons squeeze their way around. A laptop looped into the stereo spits a predictable playlist of pop, while bar banter buzzes like oblivious static; anything could be playing so long as the groove is dance, dance, tonight we all get laid. After all, no one is here for the music. This is Lincoln Park. Not yet rich enough for downtown proper, or perhaps oddly sensible enough not to waste cash there, this is the bar scene for those perpetual frat boys and their sorority sisters who see adulthood on the horizon, and push it back one drink at a time. No, it’s not an absence of people, or noise, or even booze, it’s an absence of hope — rebels against the inevitable.
Sidewise glances shoot down the bar at a fellow in tattered jeans, ratty black and red checkered jacket, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. Head bent, attention entirely on a notebook he occupies a corner of the bar like eczema on a supermodel… or maybe that’s just how I like to remember myself: a lumberjack pirate in a hell of my choosing.
I never belonged in this place, a joint called O’Malley’s West. However, I knew enough of the staff that going there meant cheaper drinks. My tab became a matter not of quantity, but duration: I paid based on how long I was in the bar rather than how much I drank.
The previous summer I graduated from university. I spent most of 2004 in O’Malley’s because on weeknights the spot afforded me plenty of opportunities to indulge in clichéd writer behavior. I sat at the bar, endlessly tattooing notebooks, all the while drinking and smoking like a suicidal immortal taunting death. Much of this routine also involved slipping into my own audio bubble. Putting on headphones, heavy metal cranked to the max, I lived in my own world. And since I didn’t fit in with the usual patrons, I never worried about being bothered by anyone; I could be alone in my own world outside the world.
Still, those ear splitting hours, though productive, often left me wanting. The peculiarities of social anxiety disorder prompting me to disappear from parties like an Irish ghost in order to then sit for hours in a paradoxical mix of thundering earphones and vocal silence. So it was, my own adulthood on the horizon, I began wondering if, perhaps, I’d wasted months here. Or worse, maybe I wasn’t so different from the usual clientele.
Higher education was not my choice. At seventeen I found the chance to get a job as a tow truck driver, and preferred that prospect to four more years of school. However, knowing my family, stoic Catholics only capable of expressing anger, I could expect my father to react with the delicacy of a rabid bear, roaring about the insanity of thinking my life decisions belonged to me; that I would be going to college not “wasting” my life. So I did. Like an elephant eyeing a small stake, I folded without a fight.
Though I can’t say the “choice” didn’t result in some pleasant experiences — sex, new best friends, etc. — I would regret it more and more over time. Until in 2005 I found myself sitting in O’Malley’s once again, basically living on repeat. The last four years feeling like a complete waste, I set about doing the one thing I that made me comfortable: I fished around my bag, rummaging through CDs for something to silence the world, and began firing shots to kill all thoughts.
The bartender said (as far as I recall), “This one’s on the house. Guy over there didn’t want it,” setting down a straight whiskey inspiring me to dig out a Pantera album. I found Official Live 101 Proof. Drifting through tracks, I eventually reached the final song, “I Can’t Hide.”
Setting the CD player to repeat, I listened to that song for almost two hours. The bar closed, and I stumbled out into the night, cutting through Oz Park screaming my own private karaoke. The lyrics just kept hitting me between the eyes: I can’t hide, to erase, what I’ve done — Last year, and the years before… It reminded me failure only comes when you stop trying; that choices remained for me to make.
Although a soothing balm that evening, one song wouldn’t solo tackle the issues ahead. However, it put a crack in an impending brick wall. It remained to me to bust it open, head-butting through if necessary, but that seemed possible now that I possessed a part of the sound track to my escape.