An excerpt from
and Other Stories from the City
The sergeant handed me a large clear plastic bag from the top of a file cabinet outside the commander’s office.
“This will be a good experience for you,” he said.
The bag was wrapped tightly in binding cords and was heavy. I alternately cradled it in front of my stomach and hoisted it on my shoulder. I did not know what it was, or what the sergeant meant. It was my second day out of the Chicago Police Academy. My partner, who would be training me that day, was late. I had no radio. I never heard the assignment about a removal, and, even if I had, I wouldn’t know what it meant. Remove who? Where? Why? Rather than look stupid, I nodded and stood off to the side of the hallway after the sergeant left, not making eye contact with any supervisors in white shirts who might approach me and ask me who I was and what I was doing. I looked at myself, standing in the hallway with a large plastic bag cradled in front of me, without knowing why. I imagined my voice responding feebly to any inquiries.
“I really don’t know.”
After my partner showed up and informed me I would be driving the wagon in downtown rush-hour traffic, he directed me to a café for his coffee, obviously in no hurry to reach our assignment. The brief narrative on the computer explained that a woman was dead, and removal meant we must take her to the morgue. The narrative stated she was in her fifties. That was it. My partner did not speak about the task ahead, though I could not stop thinking about it. The service entrance to the address of our assignment, a high-rise building on Michigan Avenue, was below in the labyrinth of alleys and parking lots off Lower Wacker Drive.
I had never driven a wagon in traffic. I made my way there slowly, constantly stealing glances through the large mirrors on both sides, bracing myself for a collision each time I changed lanes, squeezing my head into my shoulders every time a bike messenger whizzed by, waiting for the slap of his body on the metal of the wagon. After we descended the ramp connecting the surface with Lower Wacker Drive, we roamed the back entrances of buildings looking for the address, but never found it. Many times I had to back up the wagon in tight turns between delivery trucks or concrete braces. A few times we were called on the radio and asked when we would get there. My partner told them to hold on, we were looking for the service entrance, but he didn’t really seem to care. Then we both chuckled about giving up and just carrying the body out in a bag through the main entrance onto Michigan Avenue in rush hour.
Pardon me, body coming through. Look out.
Even as I was engaged in my first removal, I fought the image of myself doing it. I conceived of the police job as my first real career at the age of forty. Instead, hauling a dead body hinted at my life before the police, where I ended up in service jobs, mostly as a doorman hauling bags, while I entertained and pursued, fruitlessly, other plans: teaching, trying to oust the old guard in union elections, and writing. With the security of a police job, I had told myself, I could continue wandering the city, keep writing, and live decently. I could buy nice cars, go out to eat when I wanted, go on vacations to tropical islands. I imagined the more glorious aspects of the job. Everyone does. You are filled with this imagery in the academy: catching murderers and gangbangers, working together with other units in stings, becoming a detective, getting promotions. Hauling dead bodies was rarely mentioned, mostly because the labor was canceled in the last union contract and was slowly being phased out, district by district. The sergeant’s statement echoed in my mind.
Good for me?
Eventually a Latino maintenance man was sent to the entrance to flag us down. An elevator we never noticed before opened, and he walked out, waving at us. I parked the wagon as close as I could, and we walked into the building, the maintenance guy leading the way. My partner reminded me of the bag, and I went back to retrieve it, its purpose clearer now. The halls were dimly lit, the paint thick. It was a well-kept building, but old, requiring steady care. One could sense the many layers of paint on the walls and trim. We rode the small elevator together, not saying anything. When it opened, I smelled death for the first time. The question that had been lingering since we got the job now came to the forefront: Could I handle this? If I failed to complete this task, I feared I would never live it down. Would I be ostracized? My spirits plummeted; the smell was so awful.
I recalled somebody once told me to inhale through my mouth and exhale out my nose at the scene of a dead body. Two detectives stood down the hallway with gloves on. The door to the apartment, the obvious source of the smell, was held open by a small rug. On the floor they had measuring tape, clipboards with notes attached. As we walked closer, the smell intensified, so that when I walked into the dark room after we spoke to the detectives, I became a little dizzy. I looked down on the floor next to the bed at the woman wrapped up in blankets, only part of her face and her hair visible. I would learn later that a dead body wrapped up in blankets is usually a good break. All you had to do was carry the body with the blankets into the bag. Sometimes you never even had to touch them, just roll them into the bag. But since the cause of her death was still unknown, we had to unwrap her for investigation.
At my partner’s direction, I set the bag next to her and tugged on the plastic binding, but could not open it. He whipped out a knife from his vest pocket and handed it over to me. The bag expanded out onto the floor of the apartment after I cut into it. He grabbed the outer, clear plastic and pushed it over to the side. It was garbage now. We took the remaining black bag and spread it next to the body, unzipping it all the way. I positioned myself at her feet and slowly tugged on the blanket, which was stuck to her decayed skin. I turned my head away from her. My partner said I needed more force. I pulled harder and she unwrapped, her decayed skin ripping from the blanket noisily. She rolled out onto the floor, much of her skin and face purple and green. Clumps of hair stuck to the blanket, the smell billowing out of the now-exposed body and secretions on the floor, the blanket, and her clothes. I turned my head. I became dizzier, left my position, and walked to the open window, pulling in clean air and dry heaving.
The detectives looked at me, then my partner.
“His first one, second day on the streets,” my partner said.
They nodded and after they inspected her for any signs of foul play, the elder detective took my position and pushed her skillfully into the bag. I stood next to him. I never even touched her. They had no obligation to look out for me. Nothing else was said about it.
Somewhat ashamed at my inability to do the job, I now overcompensated. I grabbed the bag by the handles on the sides and slid her down the smooth carpeting of the hallway by myself, into the service elevator, and out to the wagon, where we each took a side and lifted her in. We pulled off our gloves and threw them in the Dumpster. Then I awkwardly maneuvered the wagon out of the narrow loading zone, back and forth at least six times, the reverse alarm sounding each time I shifted, and we ascended back to the surface of the city with our body bag in the back, my partner sipping his coffee.
Writing about Chicago poses a formal dilemma. On the one hand, I carried a heavy duty that obliged me not only to collect the messy remains of failed life and intent, and all its attendant baggage, but also to make sense of it, meaning out of it. Until that answer arrived, I was pulled downward by my experiences in the city, my need to know it, all the while craving the form that would let me transcend it. There is no more wrongheaded state of mind. I had no idea where I was going, but, in retrospect, I think this confusion serves a purpose: No one thinking clearly would keep going. I did not move in a straight line; rather there were stops and starts, rejections of the enterprise, then returns to it. Often, in the self-accounting that takes place when I recalled these experiences, these stops and starts were the most debilitating signs of what I conceived as my failure and my wasted life.
Let me be more specific. Capturing a place like Chicago poses a challenge because the various devices of nonfiction and fiction both fall short. Since the aim of writing about place is to illuminate it, not escape or transform it, I felt constrained to facts and realism. Yet I always sensed something more lingered behind them, particularly in Chicago, whose ambivalence to truth and fact is well known. To get there, I was drawn to the mechanisms of fiction. But it was my own experience in the city I wanted to capture, not an imagined character. In this condition, all forms, tenses, and points of view danced in front of me, canceling each other out, each one holding possibilities, each one showing its obvious insufficiency as it was written.Nevertheless, a faith lingers, a faith that this desire to write about place will one day reveal the appropriate form. This form, unreachable for so long, seems to come all at once, unifying elements like point of view, tense, and substance. But there are, in fact, preludes with distant roots, recognized clearly only in retrospect. These preludes provide their own narrative, so I went back to them. A religious force moves to the forefront, unifying the writing. I passed through many intellectual and artistic “schools of thought”: moral, didactic, political, from realism to romanticism, before I realized that what I was seeking was not necessarily a definable place, subject, or theme, but the appropriate understanding of a mystery, rooted in the city, that had drawn me in all along, a mystery that was alive and provided satisfaction these other forms could only partly, and therefore insufficiently, satisfy. Much of what could be called my “voice,” I concluded, was the manner in which I would approach this mystery. I saw that not only does this mystery survive my lowest sinking; it intensifies along the way, undeniable evidence in my mind that the mystery is real.
In retrospect, I wondered at how long I fought the context of this mystery, partly from my own cowardice, partly in deference to current literary pretenses. Here my education proved destructive. It tended to pull me away from the base and unorthodox corners where I lingered, where I often preferred to go. Rather than embrace these places, I tried to escape them, seek other sources deemed more noble and appropriate. I got lost in schools, art scenes, planned trips to Europe, writers’ workshops, repressing the sense that what was in front of me was already more compelling.
One bitterly cold day on the far north side of Rogers Park, I was assigned a removal in the basement of a large apartment building. I stood off to the side while another officer, Jimmy, finished his report and waited for the detectives to call back and declare, officially, no further investigation was required. I moved to the back of the basement, to the warmest section, holding a conversation with Jimmy but aware that, try as I might, I could not keep my attention away from the body in the corner, partially under the couch, as if the dead man had crawled under it. He was about the sixth body that month. I had had enough of them. I was sick of working the wagon, sick of Rogers Park with all its various dead, more dead than any other district I had worked. How could they make cops, wearing uniforms with ties, stoop to such labor, I groused. When it came time to turn him into the bag, I stopped, stood there. I could barely tolerate the job anymore. Only a sense of duty pushed me onward. Jimmy, with some fifteen years on the job, seeing my hesitation, taunted me good-naturedly, then walked over and pulled the body into the bag with an ungloved hand. Show-off. My partner and I lifted, bearing the body out the door and down the gangway into the brutally cold, bright winter day. The light reflecting off the snow contrasted with the dark basement, causing us to squint. We had to stop to rest three or four times; the body weighed about 275 pounds.
I looked at myself resting on the thin sidewalk between two buildings, the black bag on the ground between us, glanced at my partner across the alley.
Here in this gangway, I admitted a writer willfully loses his sense of direction, finds repose in an imagery that exudes its own music, one in which issues of form, fact, and fiction find their own resolution. Piety prevents me from dissecting this imagery further, dissection being, as they say, a fancy word for murder. My concern now was its life span, durability, and my ability to remain in it. What most terrified me, thrilled me, was not the resolution of form, but its hint of the divine, lingering, like an elegy, among what is lost and what remains.