A Walk in the Park is No Walk in the Park
by Winter Goebel
The big and famous brilliant pastel balance of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte hangs in The Art Institute of Chicago. You can pay eighteen dollars to spend an actual Sunday afternoon admiring it: life ordered into art, life ordered up as art, order bought as art down at the Institute. There is no charge to spend an afternoon in the actual public parks of this city. Humboldt Park has no entrance gate or admission fees but it feels something other than free. I go with my white spotted dog and find brief idylls, little order. I find every day there. There are costs.
The public pool in Humboldt Park has a small adjacent playground: a single circus mule in a red painted saddle on a steel spiral, a swing set, a wooden plank bridge. Before they’re all mown over, dandelions bloom for a damp yellow week among four folded dirty diapers in the grass. A beige Labrador sits like a sphinx on the wooden planks of that fake bridge anchored in and over land, its face abraded to blood at the snout. It runs a circle around the spray pool and out to the alley. I wait for the pool gates to open with an old man sleeping unwashed on the next bench. He blinks awake to ask me for a smoke. I interrupt another man napping in the shade of a scarlet hawthorn. He pulls down his pants and thrusts, tells me to “Get out, now.” I find domestic fights that came out for the nice day, stray dogs and dead ones, and cooked chicken’s bones. Across the street a warped bridge blackened with half-assed tags divides a mud-brown shallow pond floating wavering white plastic bags and ducks. We watch the quotidian again and again and again and it accumulates to a lifetime. That sure is something but is surely nothing like the pointed order of fine art.
In the park, cement and dirt are shaped for sports in courts and diamonds. Last summer the new mayor sent workmen to tear out live grass and four feet of real soil in order to fill the space with a soccer field of plastic grass in uniformed blades. They spelled out “Allstate” in its center in all white. The fact that grassy spaces here serve mostly as backdrops for team sports events points to some confusion over what to do in or with nature itself. I go to the park every day of my life, never any less a tourist. I see the land but don’t walk it; the land I walk I can’t work. The park service works the land on a tractor. Their rapport is a gas-powered manicure, leaving us a child-sized, child-safe set of seasons evidenced in well-positioned poplar trees and a green space. At least it’s a green space. Well, we should give some thought to the at-least caliber of life. Enough to eat, so eat it up, this food is shit but think of all the starving everybody in the lesser worlds. At least you’ve got a job, even though your job is a thumb that smears out your own and only agency. At least this president’s not the last guy, you can mean this with little worry over who the new guy is and what he does or doesn’t do. You can keep this up as a refrain with no concern it will ever catalyze or mean anything but an excuse, at least, for the marginal goodness in your life, a good that matters not in its own right but relative only to the weightier troubles of others. Faces flipped like quarters toward the plastic trash lifted into the fine blue and white weather over the city’s lawns, we live entitled to actual idylls and obligated to petite repulsions, born not exempt from either in this dim and privileged corner of the Western hemisphere.
Listen, life is two birds singing in a bush blooming purple as a new bruise and you’re stoneless. You are snareless. You will not win. Life is halcyon intractable tragedy: a real jewel set in singed aluminum foil.
Lilac bushes flower as brief and dense as spring itself, and as I pass one, a man turns to me from his squat near its slim trunk. A short thread of crack smoke rises from his blithe smile, a hot circle of blackened aluminum in a Pepsi can in his left hand, a bright yellow plastic lighter in his right fist. Crack smells like an old coat brought up from the basement, heady as these blossoms heavy on low branches. They seem to melt in the heat and the rain and are gone.
Where is last spring, or the one that you first woke up out of love in? Is the past a frame or in one? Call it art but where is next year? Find every day in a dot of paint or an afternoon. Time bears with us and rises up between the dumb succession of all normal horrors, but of course it is one. Time will kill us all, or serve as vector for our more abrupt deaths. But then again, and always, keeps life from accumulating as nightmare, as a terminable series of petty trials, of encounters with foul and lost men, abandoned and angry dogs, soiled babies’ diapers and dogs’ undiapered shit, the pretty shatter of glass bottles, the low shine of used condoms. Life in time is one thing then the next but holds no truck with the serial conquest of video game, with its small challenges and little victories leading to some boss you fight, maybe defeat. For who would it be? The actual middling boss of your office? The spooky new mayor with his dungeon undereyes, or your own frantic sadness in the city? Cartoon death with black robes and bone hands the very end of all your everydays? Listen, life is two birds singing in a bush blooming purple as a new bruise and you’re stoneless. You are snareless. You will not win. Life is halcyon intractable tragedy: a real jewel set in singed aluminum foil. The way to find next year is waking up and walking to the park.
Winter Goebel is from Delton, Michigan, and loves her parents. She has a degree in English literature and works as a mental health counselor. She believes in stars behind the orange light of night skies in big cities, literacy as an instrument of popular education, and most likely you.