Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Left of the Loop Part 1: Ish Spungdkt, Kill Your Pets, & The Strangers

210 N. Sangamon Avenue is a parking lot. The address of Ishmael Spungkdt and Stark's (no first or last name, just Stark) loft in Tim W. Brown's 2001 novel Left of the Loop is a dramatically different place for visitors today than it was in the Eighties when it was Spungkdt and Stark's  post-apocalyptic urban playground. If you walk down Sangamon to Randolph, you'll see a few holdouts from the old neighborhood -- meat packers, restaurant supply warehouses, and Adults-Only shops -- still there in between the Starbuckses and trendy restaurants . But SUVs and young adolescent trees line the 200 block of Sangamon now, and the parking lot at 210--walled-in, gated tight, and completely empty -- is surrounded by galleries, swanky architects' offices, and lofts. "Historic Loft Living, Great Views, 15 Floor Plans, Rooftop Sundeck, Vintage Architecture," reads the big yellow banner hanging on the Lake Street Loft building, clean and ivy-covered on the northeast corner of Lake and Sangamon.

Historic indeed.

If there's anyone that can tell you about Historic Loft Living in Chicago's West Loop, it's Tim W. Brown. Left of the Loop is the fictionalized account of Brown's years spent living in a barely-habitable artists' loft in the bombed-out wasteland that was the West Loop in the Eighties, the only permanent residents for several square city blocks of broken-down industrial scrabble peopled by hobos,  smacked-out ragtag punk outfits, sometimes-identifiable animal parts that found their way out of trucks and dumpsters behind meat packing plants (see: bone chute), and lots and lots and lots of broken glass.

Now living in New York (and in a dwelling legally approved and suitable for human habitation), Brown has been kind enough to share some of his thoughts on Left of the Loop, the American frontier, and the post-industrial urban apocalypse with me -- and some amazing photos, too.

MC: "Spungdkt?"

TWB: Ha ha. I'm curious how you heard the name "Spungkdt" pronounced in your head as you read the novel. The correct pronunciation is "Spunk," with silent G, D and T. The last names of the two protagonists (they only go by their last names) are very literal, describing their respective outlooks on life -- Stark is detached and cynical, whereas Spungkdt is energetic and rebellious. With the additional letters, I tried to downplay the literalness while also vaguely suggesting the character is of Eastern European heritage, belonging to a typical Chicago ethnic group with a last name containing lots of consonants.

MC: Your 2010 thoughts on "Kill Your Pets" [a huge piece of spray-paint art described in the book as adorning one of the loft's walls; Brown also describes its humorously disconcerting effect on first-time visitors to the loft]?

TWB: Hmm, well, "Kill Your Pets" was merely one of a number of rude sayings written on the walls of the loft. Some of these sayings were memorialized in the book, while others exist only in memory and in some cases in photographs, one of which I attach [see below!]. For example, we kept a running "Grand Asshole List" to which we would add names when the impulse struck us. I don't remember many of the names on the GAL -- it was very topical, consisting of mid-eighties celebrity jerks -- but I do remember the ubiquitous car dealers Celozzi & Ettleson were on it with an asterisk and footnote saying, "Counts as one."

As the book details, an artist friend was inspired to spraypaint an appropriate illustration to accompany the words -- a cartoony dog being run through by a spear. She also decorated our refrigerator with an arty spraypaint design. I don't know what happened to the artist; I've searched the web for information about her, but so far I've struck out.

Actually, I volunteer nowadays for East Coast Assistance Dogs, an organization that trains dogs for disabled people. I dog sit on weekends, trying to reinforce their training while watching how they perform in home environments. I've never advocated harming animals -- except ironically or satirically.

the Kill Your Pets opus

One of the book's ongoing storylines is the madness, drama, and sometimes genius surrounding the Strangers, a band that uses Spungkdt and Stark's loft as a practice space. The roller coaster relationship between beautiful-yet-odd ex-model frontwoman Wanda and abrasive ex-junkie bandleader Rudy (whose claims to have known or at least rubbed shoulders with every name in rock and punk since the Seventies are somewhat of a running joke in Left of the Loop), framed against the unpeopled backdrop of the Post Industrial Urban Apocalypse, makes for an interesting subplot.

MC: Can you still hum a few bars of "Super Mental Masturbators?" Any idea whatever happened to the Strangers and Wanda?

TWB: As you undoubtedly noticed, the book is kind of unusual. It reads like a memoir rather than a novel. In the early nineties when I wrote it and shopped it around among agents and publishers, the memoir genre hadn't yet exploded into the huge sector of the publishing industry that it is today. So the book was positioned as a novel. A number of episodes are based in fact and direct experience (I have the pictures to prove it). But, to avoid legal hassles, many things were fictionalized to camouflage the identities of the characters' real-life counterparts and to disguise certain other recognizable details. These changes included altering song titles -- "Super Mental Masturbators" and "Pepsi Cola in Petrograd" are completely made up.

When the band broke up, I lost track of "Rudy the Roach" and "Wanda." I glimpsed "Rudy" once in a North Side convenience store sometime in the late eighties; fortunately, I was able to duck any conversation with him. My roommate, who has kept closer tabs, told me sometime around 2000 that "Rudy" was doing private investigative work, having seemingly given up pursuing a music career.

It's a shame on a lot of levels that the band never got off the ground. "Rudy" was a talented if unfocused songwriter, and "Wanda" was an appealing if flaky front woman. I have a cassette tape recorded at the loft that contains several of their songs. They still sound as good as any power pop band played on the radio then or now. But there were too many personnel changes and personality conflicts to overcome.

The Strangers' practice space

Coming up: the bone chilling bone chute; the Wasteland; urban pioneers!

Tim W Brown lives in the Bronx. His fourth novel, Second Acts, will be published by Gival Press in October 2010.

His first three, Left of the Loop, Deconstruction Acres, and Walking Man, can be found here on the Chicago Underground Library shelves, along with the many other books and zines he's generously donated.

-Story originally appeared in July 2010 on the blog of the Chicago Underground Library

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