One coordinate of Borich’s story is Chicago, the prototypical Great Lakes port city built by immigrants like her great-grandfather Big Petar, and the other is her own port of immigration, Minneapolis, the combined skylines of these two cities tattooed on Borich’s own back. Between Chicago and Minneapolis Borich maps her own Midwest, a true heartland in which she measures the distance between the dreams and realities of her own life, her family’s, and her fellow travelers’ in the endless American migration. Covering rough terrain—from the hardships of her immigrant ancestors to the travails of her often-drunk young self, longing to be madly awake in the world, from the changing demographics of midwestern cities to the personal transformations of coming out and living as a lesbian—Body Geographic is cartography of high literary order, plotting routes, real and imagined, and putting an alternate landscape on the map.
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A map of the Middle West, with insets past and current
The Amtrak depot was cold, which was why I wondered about the young blond woman across the waiting room from me wearing sequined flip-flops, her arms bare. She looked to be the age of the college freshmen I'd taught the previous spring. Wasn't she chilly in this dank station?
I'd noticed her earlier as well, because her sweatshirt and pants were so sharply green that I'd almost had to squint to look. I tend to take note of girls her age, young women with slight bodies and cagey faces, because of how they shock me back to who I was at nineteen. Now, on a rainy September morning, in this featureless warehouse gully of Saint Paul, the girl had stripped down to a thin tank top. How could she be hot in this drafty station, when the heat still hadn't been turned on for the season? But I forgot about her as we all lined up to board the train.
The Empire Builder is the name of this passenger line on the west-to-midwest route along the northern plains. It runs from Puget Sound to Chicago, stopping on the way in this Saint Paul industrial park. A double-decker Amtrak cruiser with curved and weather-splotched observation-car windows, the Empire Builder is not just one train but a fleet of four — two traveling west, two east — passing each other in the long silence of Montana and North Dakota. Narrow headlight beams intersect in the middle of the night on the far western segment of the route, the whoosh of speed catching for a moment in the vacuum of their passing, lives echoing each other in the occasionally lit-up windows, passengers up late drinking or reading or staring out, until the whoosh resumes and the meeting is over with a spark, a clank, a long whistle's moan into the dark.
I always cringe when I hear the stationmaster announce this train's name. I hate all those parts of American history that are about rounding up the natives and making way for progress. The Empire Builder was the nickname of the nineteenth-century Saint Paul railroad magnate James J. Hill, and this train was named in homage to the roots of development frenzy, when train tracks wrapped the continent in a leash of steel that must have made the old coot lean back in his chair, rub his one good eye, and think, Mine, mine, mine.
Yet all Americans, even the most put-upon among us, might have a little bit of empire building in our makeup, some desire to refind the lost parts of ourselves through locating and owning, landing somewhere and inscribing our names. I recognize the baser version of the urge when I come across stuff I want, from a loft with a view in my home city of Chicago to a sweater with a low neckline I know will cause Linnea to kiss my collarbone. Mine. This blank pull of wanting, a desire to erase all obstacles, can reel me into one of those give-that-girl-a-crown-and-a-bundle-of-roses daydreams, the girly version of James J. Hill's long recline back in a leather chair as cigar smoke forms a crown just above his head.
Boarding the train to Chicago, I was trying to pinpoint what it was I meant to regain on this trip back, when behind me someone yelled. Hey! We need help over here. I turned to see that underdressed blond girl again. Pale to begin with, she had blanched gray-white, her eyes unfocused, her thin body slouched on the shoulders of two mom-like middle-aged women with hair pulled back into ponytails. These women had probably been looking forward to curling up on the train and sleeping at least until Wisconsin Dells, and now they had this kid — they didn't seem to know her — hanging off their shoulders, loose-limbed as a straw girl.
The line moved forward, out of the station and toward the platform, but when I looked back a few moments later the girl was lying down flat on the floor. Her feet had fallen askew. A silver ring glinted dully from one of her wan toes. A paunchy stationmaster with thinning hair leaned over her, shouting, Are you conscious? Can you hear me? Even though the guy was yelling, he sounded calm, unruffled, almost bored, taking care of his daily routine. The women who had been holding up the girl crouched around her now, as if they were conducting a séance. The stationmaster called an ambulance on his walkie-talkie. Was the girl having a seizure? Maybe she hadn't eaten yet this morning. Maybe she hadn't eaten in a week. She was skinny enough to be bulimic.
There was nothing for the rest of us to do; already too many people were crowding around the fallen girl. The stationmaster asked folks to please step forward. We boarded the train, most of us craning our heads back twice, three times, to gawk.
This kind of thing, skinny blond girls fainting in broad daylight, is always happening on or around Amtrak. It might be something about the train, a long container of change that compresses people together, as in the plot of a 1970s disaster movie, all those lives that wouldn't otherwise intersect stuck together behind a smoke-spewing engine dragging them across the prairie. Still I sometimes take Amtrak back to Chicago because I like the train and don't like planes and because the train helps me remember times past, when I was a skinny, fallen blond girl myself.
On this trip, if anyone had asked, I would have said I was traveling home to see a show by the photographer Terry Evans, a series of large-scale aerial portraits of the city and its suburbs, exhibited outdoors, in the Loop's new Millennium Park. But I was also homesick. As long as Linnea and I had been together, nearly twenty years, and despite all practical home and work considerations, I'd been wishing we'd leave Minneapolis and move back to Chicago, and lately my longings had gotten worse. Evans's panoramas of the urban prairie, shot from such untouchable heights, photographs I'd so far seen only in books, felt both familiar and strange. The shift in visual position recast the broken whole as beautiful, and the photographs became like mirrors held up to parts of my body nobody in Minnesota could see. This personal terrain — the histories gone missing in me but then seen anew — was what I sought each time I ventured back to Chicago. I wanted some key to discern the difference between what, in Alcoholics Anonymous, we describe as the things we can change and the things we cannot.
Though Linnea and I are not morning people, she was good to me this early Sunday, waking at 5 a.m. to get me to the depot an hour before departure. She had even come into the station, her curly gray hair mussed, one sweatpants leg shoved up a little higher than the other. She'd waited with me for more than an hour, the train late again, though I was lousy company, griping about stiff seats, hard lights, and the nonexistence of the bullet train between Minneapolis and Chicago that was supposed to have been built by now, the one that promised to whisk passengers between my two cities in three hours, which pretty soon would be the amount of time I'd been waiting for this blasted Empire Builder.
HALT. Years back, when I first quit drinking, the AA old-timers warned me about hours like these, when I'd find myself hungry, angry, lonely, tired. HALT is what they called it. Acronyms and slogans are big in AA, and some of them are silly, but this one has always made sense to me. Stop moving forward. Pay attention. Wake up before you take another step. The idea is to stop you before you take a drink, which wasn't a big danger in that nothing train station so early in the morning, but in my case HALT was also a warning to change direction before I had to be sorry later for something I'd done or said to Linnea. HALT is one of the ways I usually remember to live since moving away from Chicago.
The train takes at least eight hours to get to its terminus, if we don't stop and sit somewhere in the Wisconsin brush. I like to watch, from the train windows, the shifts between Minneapolis and Chicago, the seismic recalculation, a remaking caused by the slow, ravaging route the glaciers took, by centuries of immigration, by the transformation of the prairie into the American farm.
When I was the age of that girl we left on the station floor, I did things on trains that I have trouble understanding today, risky things I thought would make me happy, like making out all night with an off-duty conductor on the line running west back to Chicago from Syracuse, and time-wasting things, like spending an hour in an onboard ladies' room lounge with a glaze-eyed redhead recruiting for the est seminars she promised would free me from the past, transform me into a human who was cleaner and better than I could ever expect to be.
Even on this trip I found myself doing things I'd never do on land, as when I sat still and smiled while a very thuggish, very young man in the adjoining seat told me he was on his way into the city for his day in court and then tried to pick me up. I've been known to tell complete strangers minute details about my life, but I told this young man nothing. I wanted to avoid getting stuck on the train next to a guy who might turn out to be a homophobe who knew too much about me.
It's volatile enough that so many on the train, in the Midwest at least, are people already in trouble, possibly lost, some so close to combustion that one thing or another is bound to blow the minute they sit down for an hour or more, hoping to get away, hoping to arrive in a far better place. There's always the danger, on the way there, of falling off or down or through, of never arriving at the alabaster city. Which was why I kept muttering the words the stationmaster had shouted into that fainting girl's ear: Are you conscious? I had long been whispering the same question to myself.
Inset of the Imitation City
People, 28 million, from all over, poured out of the Chicago train depots in 1893. They came to look at the alabaster city. The alabaster city is a name for Chicago, or a part of Chicago, the imitation city of projected desire, the fake alabaster skyline, called also the White City, built on the South Side for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
The world's fair featured statues of bare-breasted ladies who were supposed to symbolize late nineteenth-century Empire Builder America, staring over the temporary capitol like pirate captains, chanting with voices I imagine as a cross between Lauren Bacall and the Greek Sirens, Progress, Progress, Progress. If every city is both a real place and a dream place, our expectations catch in our throats as we look up at the heights and the lights.
The white buildings of the world's fair were as long as the fields these visitors plowed back in Indiana. The central plaza featured statues with bosoms bigger than cow heads, waterways wider than the harbors back in the Old Country, fountains with Our Lady Columbia at the center, surrounded by water spouting taller than the rock ridges along Lake Superior's shore, back up in Michigan mining territory. Those who came stood on ferries, on overlooks, and they stared and stared, as if they were viewing ancient Athens. But this was someplace new.
The alabaster city was Chicago's dream of itself. Most of those people, not just Chicagoans, must have known the White City was a phony — a vacation park, an extravaganza, the real city's mythic twin — but they didn't care. They were looking for the technology of completion, some shimmer of a future freed from the past.
The White City was made of 120,000 incandescent lights, 18,000 tons of iron and steel, 75 million feet of lumber, and 30,000 tons of wall plaster. The Ferris wheel had cars the size of train engines. This was at the cusp of the twentieth century — before machine-made wars and atrocities sullied America's technological optimism — the time of intellectuals like Henry Adams, who thought we might replace the Madonna with the Machine. Katharine Lee Bates wrote about the White City in the song "America the Beautiful." Thine alabaster cities gleam. The empire builder's dream of America has always promised that by taking possession of a new place we can repossess ourselves, make our lives over. But the White City was mere intoxication, a touchable mirage, a gorgeous scam, a whitewashed stage set sparking and trilling in the midwestern sun. Oh beautiful.
Inset of the City Inside
The frontal blast of the engines, the streaking whistle wail — these were part of the wallpaper of my childhood. A train horn is a memory trigger, my version of Proust's madeleine, the sound transporting me to a physical past where the rail traffic was too constant to be worth anyone's notice. The minor-key pitch of the whistle was what first carried me back to that landscape of trains.
It used to be that I traveled back to Chicago only when my mother or father begged me to attend a graduation or retirement party, showing up reluctantly, leaving much of myself back in Minnesota with my new world of lesbians, oddballs, and dropouts. All the way there and back I felt transparent, stretched clear across the upper prairie, belonging to neither place, not fully occupying the present.
I have a black-and-white photograph my father took when I was twenty-two. In the photograph my hair is braided down the right side of my head, as I wore it then, imitating some singer-songwriter I'd seen on an album jacket. The shutter captures me as I turn back to look at my parents before stepping onto the platform at Chicago's Union Station, on my way back to Minneapolis, wearing the same scowl that appears in all the pictures my dad shot of me during those years. As soon as I was alone on the train I would release my held breath, smile. But before I boarded — surrounded by the Daniel Burnham–designed train station, with migration history swirling past in a hundred configurations, my mother crying, my father pointing that camera at his only daughter — I refused to admit I was leaving anything behind.
Half a dozen years later Linnea and I took a driving trip from Minneapolis up along Lake Superior into Ontario. Our destination was an amethyst mine near the upper Great Lakes, just east of Thunder Bay. In the mid-1980s lesbians loved to talk about the healing power of herbs and stones and crystals. The amethyst was said to be a sobriety stone, and the lilac glint of the raw gem cast a light that read to me as clarity.
I was newly sober. Correction: I had stopped smoking pot and drinking but hadn't really earned the designation sober, still trying then what AA terms the precursor to actual change, the easier, softer way. I hadn't yet done rehab, or even AA. I didn't know yet about the work required to get and stay clean. Years later a sober friend would tell me that 90 percent of us relapse at least once. I had yet to take note of when, how, and why I drank, or of why I might want to (and in fact did) drink again. I'd stopped drinking cold, because even though I was still in my twenties, I was sick and scared and didn't know why, and all around me my drinking and drugging friends and lovers were either spinning out or sobering up. I was afraid of being left behind with nothing but a cheap bottle of wine. And then I fell in love, with Linnea, who, I found out soon enough, liked me only when I wasn't drinking. That sobriety could be contained in a stone was just another projection — like the alabaster city — but I was still a believer then.
Mining amethyst is not like mining coal. The mines in Ontario were really just open ground, like a u-pick-'em raspberry field. The amethysts were glassy purple gashes in the rocky Canadian earth. All we had to do was reach in and gather up all that sobriety, I thought, as if serenity were a commodity I could purchase by the pound, as if the simple weight of a pretty rock in my pocket was all it would take to make me change.
But first we had to get there. We'd meant to stay over along the way, on the Lake Superior shore, but it was a weekend night in resort country, and there wasn't a room anywhere. We couldn't find even an open campsite. So we drove on north and reached the Canadian border well after midnight.
When the border patrolman asked our professions, Linnea had a clear response. She was a graduate student, a teacher. I had no clear categories to offer the man. I was a barely published poet, but did he want to scribble this onto his form? Did he want to hear about my last temp job? When he asked me what I did for a living, I stammered and he squinted. I must have looked like a fugitive making an overnight crossing. This aspect of me might be hard to pick out now, unless my tattoos are showing, but then I still had the air of a teenage delinquent. My hair was bobbed shorter on one side than on the other and streaked unnaturally red, with a band over the ears shaved all the way to the scalp. I wore a tight, short halter that didn't entirely hide my nipples. The patrolman motioned for Linnea to open the back of the truck, and I whispered to her, I should say I'm a stripper. I meant to make her laugh. Instead she pinched me and whispered back: Shh. In our early days Linnea was always shushing me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Body Geographic"
Copyright © 2013 Barrie Jean Borich.
Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsLEGEND. My Body as the Middle West.
MAP 1. Geographical Solutions. A map of the Middle West, with insets past and current.
MAP 2. Alabaster City's Gleam. A body map of Chicago, with insets.
MAP 3. American Doll. A map of Hong Kong imagined, with Avenue H insets.
MAP 4. Mapping the Body Back. An overlay map, with pages illegible or missing.
TRIPTIK. On a Clear Day, Catalina. Los Angeles itinerary, with overlooks and day trips.
UNMAPPED. Cities of Possibility.
MAP 5. When We Were in the Projects. A topography of my mother's and my Chicago.
MAP 6. Navigating Jazz. A map to the end of longing, with insets of my father's and my escape.
MAP 7. Here Be Monsters. A cartography of the prairie, with overlays and panorama feature.
TRIPTIK. Waterfront Property. New Orleans itinerary, with overlooks and meanderings.
REMAPPED. City in the Middle.
LEGEND REINSCRIBED. The Middle West as My Body.
POSTMETROPOLIS. Body Geographic.
About the Maps.
Map of Acknowledgments.
What People are Saying About This
“Body Geographic is as astonishingly original as it is profoundly humane. Barrie Jean Borich writes of the body, the psyche, the land, and real life with a reach so grand and a mastery so definitive it clutches the heart. This is a beautiful, bold, blow-your-mind book.”—Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild
“Borich maps place and body, time and space, personal history and the history of the American Midwest, in prose that makes me want to follow her daring journey wherever it leads. A glorious new take on the memoir form.”—Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire