Monday, July 6, 2009

So Casey and I took off to Kenosha, WI, to set up the Bristol Rennaisance Faire. Everyone who wasn't part of that community would ask us both what we do.

"I'm the production stage manager," Casey would say.

"I do absolutely nothing," I would say.

But the guy who came by to set up the sound system didn't ask that question. "You!" he pointed to me. Then he ordered me to set up a ladder, climb up into the treetops with cables, and connect a bunch of speakers on the tops of poles. That's how it seems to work with jobs. If you ask for work, people mutter about liability. If you don't, they find you and order you to do it. Thankful that I discovered this new method, I climbed up the ladder and set things up.

Then I was sent to set hidden anetnnae into Faire structures to pick up signals from the microphones. Casey helped me with everything. I actually didn't mind being an insta-employee at all.

By the end of the day, I was wiped, though it was mostly from the fact that I'd walked miles and miles back and forth around the property and, when it came to lugging boxes from one place to another, was given the dolly with flat tires. I grumbled about how easy the issue would have been to fix, given that the dolly had completely standard Schrader valves.

A few days later, we went to see the Neo-Futurists. They were doing a series of shows based on movies that flopped, and I was lucky enough to be in Chicago in time for Cruising. In case Casey's theater troupe, The Plagiarists, is as good, I'll probably ask her if they're performing next time I'm in Chicago.


By the 4th of July I was gone, having snatched up all the food I could carry as well as some lip gloss. Believe it or not, when you bike 90 miles into a headwind, you could definitely use that stuff. But I didn't bike 90 miles when I left (I saved that for the next ride). I took a mini-tour of the Chicago suburbs. I took it easy. I spent two hours on a bench in Elk Grove eating the lunch Casey packed for me. I walked the bike for miles and talked on my phone until it died. I figured I should go no farther than Elgin, because by that point, I would be out in the cornfields.

I arrived in Elgin and stopped with Monica. Monica arrived from Spain seven years ago and has been here ever since.

"People in my country call me a traitor sometimes, but there was nothing for me in my country. At least here, I have a job."

She works at the high school, teaching kids. In Spanish.

"Over 50% of Elgin speaks Spanish, and 30% of those are illegal."

I asked how safe it is. She said she wouldn't go outside at night.

"Over here," she pointed as we passed by in her red VW convertible, "it's fine. You cross that street, and it's ghetto, psh, psh!" She made gun shapes with her hands for the shooting sound effects.

We went to the mall. Everything was in Spanish. No signs in English. There was no English to be heard. Monica saw a girl and chatted amiably for a minute, only letting herself look uncomfortable when she walked away.

"I failed her," she whispered in my ear.

Illegal immigrants in Illinois have no obstacles to sending their kids to school, where they can study in Spanish. The kids also not only get free healthcare up to age 18, but free dental and optical care. The last time I was an employee, a significant part of my paycheck went to health and dental insurance, and optical care for me was completely out of pocket.

"Illegal immigrants get very upset when a service isn't provided," said Monica.

All the service at the mall was very polite, especially when I spoke Spanish. The fact that you could bargain on the price was nice, too.


For the Fourth of July, Monica took me to the parade. The Mexican population of Elgin largely didn't do anything for the Fourth, which, although I felt it was in bad taste, was convenient because their businesses were open. It also meant the parade was conducted entirely in English.

A large part of the parade involved businesses sending their little parade additions—particularly those who were in the business of "fun."

Then there were various organizations, nearly all of them either gymnastics organizations that had their students do fancy tricks, or else random organizations named after animals, some of which I'd heard of and some of which I hadn't: the Elgin Lions, the Elgin Elks, the Elgin Sharks, the Elgin Ducks.

The Elks were my favorite for obvious reasons.

Among all of these were scattered random groups toting signs screaming about anything from tea parties to "healthcare for America NOW." I got the feeling that the politics there are pretty well-balanced, though of course the parade might not reflect anything real, not to mention it's a subjective matter anyway.


Monica took me on a tour of everything from watch factories to windmills, and then took me to Streamwood to watch the fireworks. (She was somewhat bitter about the fact that while Elgin had the money to support "20-year-old Mexicans with five kids," it claimed not to have the money for its own fireworks this year.)


The next day, I rode off into the brutal westerly wind, finally through endless cornfields.

For a while now, I had been in contact with Jilly and Kenbob, of Freeport, IL—serious and experienced cyclists. When I was in Elgin, I called Jilly and she sent me detailed directions for the final 30 miles of getting to them, and rode toward the town of Byron, where the detailed directions began.

It started getting hilly. Despite having been on the Mississippi so many times, I'd forgotten about the steep bluffs surrounding it, and the hills, from what I can tell now that I'm biking in the area, extend about 100 miles from the river. About 70 miles from Elgin, on the top of one of these corn-covered hills, I was waved down by Jilly and Kenbob, who had ridden out to meet me, and the final 17 miles were my first experience on this trip of biking with others and talking as we went.

The most common sentence I hear from cyclists who do it as a sport and invest a lot of money in it is "I couldn't do it the way you do." Jilly and Kenbob, unlike others, looked at everything in pieces. Jilly said she couldn't ride in long pants. Kenbob said he couldn't ride with a backpack.

"Those must be hot," said Kenbob of my steel-toed boots, "but I bet the hard soles are good for cycling."

"They're definitely hot," I said, "but if you weigh them, you'll see they're better on my feet than in my backpack."

"It's mad," said Kenbob, "but there's definitely a method to your madness."

In eatern Massachusetts, getting flat after flat, it was hard to be taken seriously by passing cyclists when they'd ask where I'm going. Now, well over 1,000 miles from home, it's much easier, though I think a lot of it is that, using the experience I've gained while biking through the east, I've changed how I do some things, and now actually travel in a way that hopefully will work.


"Do you have any professional painting experience?" asked Kenbob.

"Professional? None. I painted a kitchen for someone I stayed with on this trip, that's about it."

"That's the extent of your experience?"

"That's it."

"Then you're out of luck. Or rather, I'm out of luck."

That said, bright and early the next morning, Kenbob loaded me into his car and took me to a job site where I promptly not only climbed a ladder onto a roof, but began tearing out the very roof I was standing on and throwing torn pieces of it over the edge into the back of a truck.

It reminded me of a time last summer in South Boston, when I climbed out of a fifth floor window with my friend Hagan. I remembered pulling ourselves up onto the roof and sitting there, looking at the Boston skyline, enjoying the view but feeling the constant tinge of terror because of the slope and the gaping one-sided chasm at the end of it (although I have to say the worst feeling was putting my feet over the edge when it was time to climb back down). That roof was solid. I felt much calmer on this roof, which I was tearing out, and parts of which were rotten, probably because the surrounding workers were so calm and so used to it.


"You have a motorcycle license?" asked Kenbob.

This sounded like a job I'd have wanted to do, so it was with enormous reluctance that I answered "Nope."

"You ever ride one at all?"

Was there still a chance to do something? Unfortunately, the answer to Kenbob's question was still "Nope."

"Well, then," Kenbob smiled, "we're going to have to fix that."

Very briefly, the plan had been for me to learn everything quickly and grab an Illinois license while I'm here. Unfortunately, though with good reason, there's no way for me to prove I'm a resident of Illinois, so the knowledge will have to suffice until I get to somewhere where I actually live.

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