Noe Valley Voice June 2000

The Move Back

By Mark Ziemann

ONE DAY, after living in San Francisco for nine years, I decided to move back to my hometown of Chicago. My parents were getting older and I wanted to spend some more time with them. I missed seeing my two brothers as well. I was longing for that first snowfall of the year, the change of seasons, and the red brick buildings. I needed a new life.

The drive out didn't take long. Nine days in an old Toyota. The sights were fun -- the Great Salt Lake, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands. But no sooner had I hit the edge of Chicago, than I felt out of place. I was in a crowded city with people anxious to get home.

Apparently, people don't just get up and move to a place like Chicago. I would meet random strangers and they'd say, "Why did you move back here?" looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. They'd make some comment about how I was going to suffer in the winter. This is the city of big shoulders, after all.

But it was good to see old friends and to get pizza without having to remember to order tomato sauce as an extra ingredient, like in California. I was enjoying that sense of being somewhere new. I could start fresh.

I found an apartment with a spacious room to work in and good light. I could walk out onto the fire escape, where I had a good view of the city. Across the alley lived the eternal barking dog. Sometimes he would start barking in the morning and bark all day. After a while, you didn't even hear him anymore. Then, you'd be in the middle of doing something, and notice he's still barking and he's never stopped.

I walked around the city. There were the old places, and lots of new ones. It had been so long since I could go out on a summer night without a jacket! The beer gardens. The smell of beef grilling in the air. I'm home again! I knew I would come back some day. I did the right thing. I wasn't even even thinking about San Francisco anymore.

I got a job working at a toy store downtown. I called my old friend Nick. Nick's drinking problems had gotten out of hand in the past few years. He told me his family was having a gathering and invited me to come by next weekend. I told him I was going out with my own family that afternoon, but we could meet up in the evening.

My family was getting together for our first outing in years. We went to a train museum in Union, Illinois. We got to ride old trains and buses. As we got off the last train ride, my dad tripped over the tracks and landed right on his head. I remember seeing his head hit the cement and the impact jerking it back. Bright red blood came gushing from his 74-year-old head, lit up all the more by the sunlight of a late summer afternoon. A crowd gathered as my dad lay there stunned. Now my family was the grim afternoon attraction.

My brothers and my mom retreated to the train station. They couldn't take the sight of blood. I got down and held onto my dad's hand as if to keep the life from escaping. He was still warm. That was good. I kept talking to him. Soon he started coming around. The ambulance came, and my whole family rode off to the hospital. After a few hours, he was all stitched up and asking where we were going for beer. I never made it to Nick's.

Two weeks later, I got a call from Nick's stepmother. She said to call her. I knew right away it was something bad. I returned the call that night. She told me that Nick had died, and his wake was tomorrow. I felt weak. I had known Nick for almost 25 years, and now he was dead only a week before his 40th birthday. They just found him dead, riding the "El" one day. Maybe he was going downtown for pizza. A couple of nights later, I had a dream that Nick sent me this beautiful woman and we had passionate sex. Nick's gift to me before he went away.

WINTER WAS on its way. And with the first chill I caught my first cold, as I always did when I lived here. It lingered on as usual for a couple of weeks. It went away, but soon after I got another cold. Then it snowed.

Winter in the Midwest is no place to be single. And I was having a case of single like a bad case of hemorrhoids. It's so hard to get out. It's not only cold, but damp cold. It goes right through to your bones.

By January I had caught my third cold of the year, and people were tell-ing me, "You're lucky, this is a mild winter." Mild nothing. It was freezing. It was dark. Cold. Damp. It hadn't bothered me before, but now my blood had thinned.

I sat out on the fire escape and admired the evening view. The buildings lit up like burning embers. So large. So distant.

On the last freezing cold night of the year, my car died. It was the middle of March. My brother Rej and I were driving over an icy viaduct. I heard a loud "pop." I knew this was not good. I pulled over and opened the hood -- the fan had broken off and destroyed most of the engine. We called my mom and got a ride back to her house. I felt like I was regressing, calling Mom to the rescue. I didn't have enough money to fix the car or buy a new one, so now I was a pedestrian.

The next few months I worked a spotty schedule, due to a post-holiday drop in sales at the toy store. I went out with the manager, Claudine, a few times, but we didn't click. Things were not going well in the Windy City. The streets were too wide, and the trucks with their elongated trailers just seemed to cough more exhaust up at me. After all those years away, I no longer had a purpose. I was taking a bath in yesterday's bath water.

On the tenth of June, I loaded my belongings into a moving van and put them into storage. The eternal barking dog barked the whole time. The next day I was on a plane back to San Francisco.

Mark Ziemann is an artist/illustrator living in Noe Valley. He teaches at the Art Institutes International.