It’s one of those days during the heat wave after you’ve lost count of how many it’s lasted. Da Mare requests that people conserve water, but in his usual Republican way, he doesn’t issue any orders. Fire hydrants are open all over the city as kids seek relief. The water pressure is low and tap water begins to taste brackish, sort of like you’re drinking it out of a rusty can. The temperature and the humidity are in the 90s–high 90s, low 90s, it doesn’t really matter. You know that if you go out, you’ll have to change your shirt three or four times, but you’re sick of air conditioning. You feel trapped, closed in.
So you put up with the blast of superheated air as you head for the car. The air conditioning went down a couple of years ago. The driver’s-side window doesn’t open. The car chugs and heaves and heads toward the lake like it has a mind of its own. Heat waves shimmer from the blacktop. Fumes waft into the car and you quickly become nauseous, but as you cross into the park at the Irving Park underpass, you can feel a lake breeze taking over. You cut around the tennis courts and head out to the rocks near the Park District maintenance sheds.
As you get out of the car and strip down to your swimming suit, the breeze is already cooling you down. It’s more than a breeze. It’s an out-and-out wind. It whips off the lake and gives you a cool, soft massage, peeling the heat from your overheated face. You hear the waves crash against the rocks– huge concrete cubes the size of washing machines, or even refrigerators–stacked like steps leading down into the water.
Three businessmen, ties flapping in the wind, stand in a row, one foot up on the first row of rocks looking out at the lake. They seem to be watching the sailboats. Their shirts are soaked, but the reflection of the midday sun on the white material is blinding. As you reach the top row of rocks, you realize they aren’t looking at the sailboats but are leering at a woman in a skimpy black bikini. It’s one of those thong-type things that some people are trying to have outlawed.
You can’t figure out what the big deal is. You remember 20 years ago when you used to swim from the rocks near Northwestern University. People used to go out there to get high: students, Evanston townies, hippies, whoever. A lot of people skinny-dipped and screwed on the rocks. It just wasn’t any kind of big deal.
And you remember the time off the point when the waves must have been 6, 8, 12 feet high. People don’t believe you, but you know they were. Some people were even surfing. The wind can do that. And those waves can take you under. Like that time a huge wave broke over you and the undertow scooped you in like a ball in a giant first baseman’s glove and pulled you back toward the rocks. Then another and another, until you felt that you might actually be under the rocks.
And you did the smart thing, the right thing, the only thing. You went limp. You were in the womb of the power and you made a deal: I sure as hell ain’t gonna fight you, so whaddaya say? And the lake finally spit you out like a piece of corn stuck between its teeth. And you’ve respected that power ever since.
As you climb down the rocks toward the water, you’re careful. You cut your left foot a couple of weeks before and it still bothers you. You’re not sure if you cut it on one of the wood pilings at the water’s edge or one of the metal rods that hold the pilings together. But it bled the entire time that you swam. It never got infected, so you figure the water is fairly clean. You remember when you got blood poisoning after swimming off the Foster Street rocks about ten years ago.
You’re careful not to step on the broken glass sprinkled over the rocks. And you grip handholds as you work your way down. It wasn’t that long ago (or was it?) that you’d leap from rock to rock like an urban mountain goat.
You find a good place about three rows from the water to stuff your towel and keys. As you straighten up, you see that the leering businessmen have left and have been replaced by a couple of leering park workers. It’s as though somebody were selling tickets. The woman in the thong suit reads, pretending to be oblivious, but you know she can’t be. The leerers whistle and slap each other on the back. One says, “Man, is that some pussy or what?”
You head to the rock where you always ease into the water. You remember it because of the gouges along the water’s edge: there is a neat row of deep grooves, about six to eight inches long, in the rock’s surface. They were made by an air hammer, but it looks like it was clawed by a giant saber-toothed tiger.
The rock is your altar. Your feet cool down in the icy waves that break over them, and you realize that the other rocks have burned your feet and hands as you climbed down toward the water.
You squat and scoop up the water, splashing it on your face, almost breathing it in. It’s nearly frigid.
The lake had warmed up significantly during the past couple of weeks, but now the wind must have brought in the cold water. You splash some over your shoulders. It runs down your back and chest, and when it hits your belly you’re startled, suck it in.
The waves are higher than usual, more turbulent. You spy the place in the water between some rocks that you think of as your harbor. Even now, as the waves crash around you, you know that the passage is safe. You step gingerly onto the pilings and then lower yourself in, catching your breath against the sudden ice-cold slap. You push out from the pilings, noting rocks on either side of you and directly below. The back-washing waves expose their jagged edges, coated with a film of algae.
A few breaststrokes out and you break into a butterfly, crashing through the waves. At first the frigid water seems to turn your skin to ice, but the chill does not penetrate. Your breathing is quick and shallow, then you don’t even notice it and you break into a smooth crawl, heading south along the shoreline.
Your usual pattern is about 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back. You like to start out against the wind and current using the crawl and backstroke. On the way back, it’s the breaststroke and maybe a little bit on the side. Today’s heavy wind and currents fool you. You can’t tell if you’re swimming with the flow or against it. But the waves breaking against the rocks create a strong backwash, so you swim out a few more yards.
Parallel to the shore, you flip onto your back, but the bright sun is blinding so you roll over again. You double-check your distance from the shore. You figure you’re 10 to 20 yards out. You spy a rock covered with red-and-white graffiti and feel a chill. You remember that moment a couple of weeks ago.
You were in a backstroke, cruising along, and you felt the speedboat’s motor churning through the waves. You could hear it, a fine whine, like a refrigerator hum on a sleepless night. As your right arm extended over your shoulder at the top of the stroke, you saw the boat’s bow bearing down on you. Reflexively, you went into a hard dive straight down and stayed under for as long as you could. Popping up like a bobber, out of breath, you saw a guy in surfer’s shorts staring down at you from the stern of the boat. Beer in hand, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders when you choked, gasping for air, when you screamed “You stupid son of a bitch!” The boat roared off and you dog-paddled, trying to catch your breath; when you rotated and looked toward the shore, the red-and-white rock stared back.
But that was weeks ago. Now you’re cruising, cutting the waves like a sleek sailboat. Listening for the humming sound.
You make a wide turn and head back. As you move in toward shore, you can feel the undertow pushing you out, then changing its mind and pulling you in. You breaststroke until you get close enough to grab an underwater rock. Then you pull yourself in while the waves gently slap you around. You get to the altar rock and pull yourself up.
Even though the wind still blows heartily, you barely feel it. Somebody told you this exhilaration is an endorphin high. You don’t know. You just know that you feel good and clean. Baptized.
You spread out your towel on one of the rocks to let the sun and wind bake you. It will only take a few minutes. Propped on your elbows, you bend your head back, face to the sun, and close your eyes. You don’t know how long it is before you near the kids screaming.
“Muthafuckah, it just a goddamn muthafuckin’ cut is all,” says a tall, lean African-American kid, shirtless, heavily tattooed, with a beeper stuck to his waistband. He sits along the top row of rocks, examining his bare feet. He’s gashed them both. The blood runs down the side of a rock. A Band-Aid hangs loosely from one toe.
He smiles as he yells down to a companion sitting in the water atop a rock. “Ain’t shit man. I had worse than this a hundred times.”
The buddy, a tanned white kid, just shakes his head and stares into the water. He says over his shoulder: “You better come down here and wash that shit off. That shit’ll fuck you up man.”
Two Puerto Rican girls who came with the boys stand about ten feet away from the bleeding youth.
“Goddamn,” says one, “I can’t take none of that bleeding shit. That bleeding shit makes me all sick ‘n’ shit. Shit.”
The other says: “C’mon girl, shit. Let’s make some fuckin’ water. That’s why we came down here. I gotta beat this fuckin’ heat ‘n’ shit an’ then we got to get back an’ get ’em. Shit, they got my shorts and shoes and shirt an’ took it off to their cave ‘n’ shit. Shit girl, c’mon.”
“No way. I ain’t swimmin’ ‘n’ shit. That’s dangerous shit. Uh-uh girl.”
Meanwhile, the bleeder works his way down to the water to soak his feet. The blood swirls in the water. He climbs back up the rocks, smiling all the time, leaving bloody footprints as he goes.
At the top of the rocks, the kids stand around, gesticulating wildly and screaming at each other.
“Shit, look at this shit. It’s like a fuckin’ pool of oil or something. C’mon. Shit we gotta go.”
“I got some fuckin’ rags in the ride. At least wrap the shit up so you don’t bleed the fuckin’ shit all over the fuckin’ ride. Shit.”
“But what ’bout my shit? Shit. They got my shit and took it off to their cave ‘n’ shit. What about my shit man?”
The kids climb into a fire-engine red Mustang convertible. The bleeder drives.
The sun has already dried you and you start to sweat. You climb back up the rocks and stare at the pool of blood on the sidewalk. It’s the size of a garbage-can cover. You think about the small cut on your foot. You think that the kid probably deals dope. You think about AIDS for a couple of seconds. You dress, get into your car, and head back into the heat.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.