I had intended to post a lengthy, probing, insightful look at The House on the Rock, a place of accumulated insanity I recently visited with some friends. Alas, one of those friends peered into my brain while I was sleeping and wrote down all my thoughts before I could get to them. The nerve, Diane, the sheer impertinence! He didn’t even have the good manners to pop in and speak backward to me, or do a creepy little jazz dance. So anyhow, I present to you instead:
VIGNETTES FROM A RECENT TRIP THROUGH INDIANA, ILLINOIS, AND WISCONSIN
I. A rest stop. J. and I saunter into the bathroom and up to the urinals. Two men are occupying the left-most urinals already, leaving exactly two free for the two of us. Two two-ty two two two. We step up and unbuckle and unbutton and unzip. We let loose the dogs of war, and the dogs commence to barking.
In the midst of my “business,” I glance over at the two men to my left. One is short and bald and wearing a black suit. He’s quite physically fit, it appears; or at least he has that short person’s gift of seeming very well-made. The next man over is harder for me to spy on, but he is larger, probably younger, and not as nattily dressed. The two men are staring into urinal-polite nothingness. Like I would be if I weren’t staring at them.
A minute or so passes. I zip up, as does J. We walk over to the sinks and wash our hands. And then we both realize. Silently we look at each other, then over our shoulders at our fellow bathroom occupants. They are still at the urinals, still in the studied pose of men pretending to pee, which – clearly – they cannot still be doing. We dry our hands and leave the bathroom.
Theories are flown. Mine are ridiculous – I suspect a drug deal or a murder in progress. J. quickly disabuses me of these notions and points out that they are almost certainly strangers who are about to have gay sex in the room we just left, the fairly sterile rest stop bathroom on the side of a major interstate in nowhere, Wisconsin. Yes, this seems probable. I suggest we go back in to see if they have relocated, and J. (being the type of person who feels no shame and fears no man) proceeds to do so. When he returns, he reports that they have left the urinals and are now seated in adjacent stalls, pretending to defecate. Clearly this is an operation with many steps, delineated and necessary precautions. Rest stop sex has a protocol.
II. Interstate 90-94 through Chicago. I have seduced my fellow travellers with tales of a monstrous pizza, a delicious Lovecraftian nightmare of cheese tendrils and chunky tomato bits. This pizza, I remind them, can kill an eight year old standing; can open the gates to heaven or hell if you eat just the right amount, or just past it. Giordano’s sells this pizza, and I persuade them to go with me and procure a pile of it.
I exit the highway confidently. I used to live in Chicago, I say. This plan cannot miss. We will be there within ten minutes. I have exited on to Diversey, which I am sure crosses Belmont, which is where Giordano’s is located. I am wrong. I drive away from the lake for eight minutes before realizing that 1. the lake is behind me to the east, and 2. Belmont is to the north, and 3. north and east is where my pizza is waiting, while I am driving stubbornly direct-west. I do not tell my passengers that I am an idiot; I just casually turn right and then when I hit Belmont, right again. It takes us half an hour to get from the exit to the block the restaurant is on. In Chicago time this is still reasonable, but I am ashamed of my performance.
We circle in the customary manner, sniffing for parking. There is almost none to be had. It’s a day of the week and a time of the day in Chicago, which means that there are eighty zillion people in the same block we are, and half of them have just parked or are trying to park their cars (while the other half are riding the bus, eating gyros from a taco stand, milling around in front of Jeff Tweedy’s wife’s club, or flaunting their recent sex change operation). Parking spots are gold here, and the rush is on – prospectors are everywhere.
Some have already staked out their claim, in fact. As we drive down one street after another, our stomachs grumbling, we see that nearly all the parking off the main roads is reserved for people with residential permits for particular neighborhoods. This is a good idea on the part of the people who run the city, but on this day, I curse their names (which I do not know) and spit in their faces (metaphorically, for I cannot see them without an appointment). We circle and circle. And then we find a spot with a meter. Fifty cents buys us two hours, which should be plenty. I notice a sign that says parking is not allowed on the nights of Cubs games between 5 and 10 pm. I disregard it. I don’t think the Cubs are playing. Other people are parked in front of me, after all, and it’s already 5:30. Surely they would know!
We walk the five blocks (one west, four south) to Giordano’s. We are seated immediately and order with gusto. A pitcher of beer arrives, a Coke for me, a water for Nancee. Pizza will show up eventually. An assortment of fried appetizers is en route.
And then two things hit me:
One, I have made a critical error. Chicago is not on the same time zone as us. It is just now passing 5:00 pm.
Two, a lot of these people are wearing Cubs shirts. A whole lot. More than usual for any part of Chicago, on any day other than… game day. I remember when I lived here that my car was swiftly towed on a Cubs game night. It was a long walk home from Kinko’s. Well on this night, we will be full of pizza, we will be wanting to get home to Indianapolis – which is a much, much longer walk – and some of us will be kind of drunk. We will not want to deal with the Chicago impound lot. We will not want to take a cab or the el downtown and pay hundreds of dollars to retrieve a car full of our crap and marked with chalk on the window: 16743A-90234342311 LOOK AT THE DUMBASS WHO DIDN’T KNOW THE CUBS WERE PLAYING 234B.
I run out of the restaurant. I run five blocks, four north and one east, hoping against hope that my car is still there. Flashbacks haunt me – memories of the long death march from Kinko’s to my home on Hoyne. My pace would quicken, but I am desperately out of shape. At last I turn the corner and – there is my car. It is still parked, without ticket or tow truck attached, and the cars in front of it are still there as well. People in Cubs shirts are still walking around (“Game? What game?”). I blink at them. I mutter and sweat my way back to the restaurant.
When I return, the appetizer platter is growing cold. The fried cheese has all been eaten.
III. The bowels of The House on the Rock. This groaning behemoth in Madison, WI is a repository of all things outsized, bizarre, and nightmarish. I have seen a colossal octopus fighting an enormous whale, both frozen together in sculpted struggle for eternity. I have witnessed a bear and a monkey making music together in a little box that requires my 25 cent-value tokens to operate. I have shuddered at the majesty of the world’s largest merry-go-round, which is located underground and lit up like a NASA launch pad at night – plus the world’s largest Christmas tree, times the world’s most decadent Fourth of July celebration. I have walked in the Infinity Room, a jutting cantilevered needle-pointed hallway that might well have been designed to stab Frank Lloyd Wright in his eyeball.
I’ve done all that stuff, but what is currently blowing my mind is that I am sitting in a generic, clean little cafe area that resembles nothing so much as a food court in a snotty, upscale mall. Everything is done in blocks of gentle colors like tan and moss-green, and everything is circular or at least rounded off to convey that New Age office impression. Painted pressboard signs on the walls impart wisdom from great men. There’s some Abe Lincoln and whatnot.* And in the middle of the greats is the House on the Rock’s greatest great of all, Alex Jordan, chief House on the Rock-itecht, telling us this:
My house will stand
on a rock on a hill
Overlooking a valley
deep and still
There you have it – the essence of the House. It will stand partly on a rock, but you will mainly remember being in it and under it. It will overlook a valley deep and still, but you will spend most of the five hours it takes to tour the place in underground caves looking at collections of Santa mugs. This quote has no meaning; it pretends to inspire but instead it baffles, perhaps slightly nauseates. This quote embodies the House in its awe-inspiring width and utter lack of depth. It is a place you absolutely must go, Diane. Near the end I felt like everyone was talking backward and doing creepy little jazz dances all the time.
* My apologies for misleading you, but there may actually not have been any Abe Lincoln quotes. I didn’t write the quotes down; I don’t remember who actually said them. They carried a general quality of Abe Lincoln-ness, though. More fitting quotes would have been from Howard Hughes and P.T. Barnum.