In the big storm, we stopped, to watch the big storm, which was enough.
we sat on the front porch and drank beer, grateful to have nothing else to do just then, while we watched water pour in, while life washed by on the street.
water is something to watch.
people in water are something to watch.
people are something to watch.
In 2003, the music video for the song “Stacy’s Mom” was released by the band Fountains of Wayne. The video was very good. By very good, I mean, very easy to watch. The song and the video are built out of the fantasy of a straight preteen boy - a video from and for the male gaze. A fantasy - which most pop songs and music videos are so I can’t exactly fault it for that. I remember hearing an uncle of mine say “Stacy’s mom really does have it going on” - which, as a 13 year old girl, I found unnerving because I thought that the woman in the video looked closer to the age of my peers and the high school girls I saw at school than to any of the moms I knew. In the video she’s shown emerging from the backyard pool large chest-ed in a small bikini.
I saw the video week after week on the VH1 video countdown. It was a great video because it featured great boobs, which is to say a direct appeal to the small mindedness of a certain population of straight men.
In college, I was a swimmer for two seasons. I got into a swimsuit and into the pool five days a week for about 90 minutes a day in the dead of winter. On weekends I taught swim lessons. I’d never been an athlete but always been a competent swimmer, which was exactly the prerequisite for our gentle liberal arts college team. I learned then that if you do something that much you will get better at it. It’s impossible to not.
Around that time, I was starting to realize I had a body. I have been fortunate to have the kind of easy-to-maintain body that doesn’t often yell at me to slow down and pay attention to it, so until the middle of college I pretty much hadn’t.
I hadn’t considered firsthand how bodies change shape for the tasks they perform. How that process can change you inside and out. Swim practice didn’t feel like being nearly naked, though we were. It became clear to me that the feeling of my body in a sport swimsuit was different than in a casual one, and swim practice so different than a day at the pool, wearing sunscreen and faking confidence. Being sausage-ed into tiny competition suits was functional.
In college, we were a team of queer bodies and changing college bodies and big fast bodies and small slow bodies. Shape didn’t matter. Showing up to practice mattered and showering after mattered and eating dinner mattered and swimming mattered. One day standing on the deck before practice in a red suit with thin black straps, the assistant coach looked at me and said happily, “Emma, you look like a swimmer!” My shoulders we broader and my waist was narrower and it clicked in my head that I was starting to have a body shaped like I swam for hours every week, because well, I did.
Louis Sullivan is famously quoted as the author of the notion that “form ever follows function.” This is true, in bodies both human and architectural. When I started swimming, I felt for the first time in my life like I was the architect of my physical form. I’d made my own clothes for several years to get close to that feeling, but suddenly that was mere ornament - this was structural. I was a woman of big shoulders and I was elated.
Richard Nickel was a Chicagoan and architectural preservationist in the 1960s and early 1970s. He is responsible for photographing and preserving so many pieces of the lost Louis Sullivan buildings. The many Sullivan buildings that still stand in our great city at well worth a visit. I personally love the facade of the Krause music store, having worked next door to it for years.
Richard Nickel’s story is a kind of tragic love story - where everyone dies for no reason. The kind where love lives on, but only just barely, in the telling.
Richard Nickel was obsessed with the buildings. He lived in a time when Chicago was demolishing her buildings like the grew naturally from the silt-y earth on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Like they were nothing. He knew they weren’t nothing. In the relatively short span of modern architectural history he knew that preservation was key and to destroy a building was one of a million metaphors for callous destruction of the past and of beauty.
The tragedy of his story comes with his own death, on one of several preservation missions to the Old Stock Exchange he was crushed under part of the demolishing building.
Richard Nickel’s grave is in Graceland cemetery. It is a small and sleek headstone and heartbreakingly close to Louis Sullivan’s grave, which is also not far from the Sullivan-designed tomb. It’s a quiet full circle.
One summer between college years, I got a job as a lifeguard at a private outdoor pool for a condo building on the northwest side of Chicago. I thrifted a pair of red and blue lifeguard short-shorts and was given a navy blue lifeguard swimsuit. I wore my swimsuit and short shorts; tan skin, ponytail and sunglasses, attempting to conjure some air of no-bullshit leisure - the image of Wendy Peffercorn from The Sandlot never far from my mind. Four days a week I got dressed to sit on deck and tend the waters of a pool that existed for the pleasure of the building’s residents.
The pool was generally not exciting and playing the character of “hot lifeguard” gave me something to do. I felt like a really good actor when my hot lifeguard persona did end up attracting a sad pale man. We went on a few dates and I wasn’t interested and the no-bullshit lifeguard in me needed to end it. He sent me a couple intense e-mails, and showed up beside my bike one day after I was off work, eyes wet. It made me nervous enough that I started to park my bike on a different block. Soon the summer ended and I went back to school, 800 miles away.
I had succeed in my Wendy Peffercorn summer. A lonely young man had gawked long enough to make me think he was drowning, long enough to consider saving him. I had become the object of the male gaze and subsequent male creepiness. I was a character in my own summer and I wasn’t even mad about it.
I grew up on the Northside of Chicago, on the border of Uptown and Ravenswood, in a slice of a long townhouse with a massive Victorian home as a neighbor. The whole block is a collection of different styles of buildings - multi unit apartments, single family homes, townhouses - the former American Indian Center at the south end. The house Carl Sandburg was living in when he wrote “Chicago” is a block over. It is a very nice few blocks. There are a lot of trees.
At the very end of May 2018, the massive old victorian house next door to my parent’s house was demolished.
Sometime in my preteen age I was friendly with the neighbor kids and got to spent a few afternoons in that house. It was a beautiful house. The owner restored it and when he passed away last year it was sold and when it was sold it was obviously fated to be demolished.
The American Indian Center moved out of the building at the end of the block which has been in a state of disuse and demolition for over a year now. After a teenager died in it, the abandoned Ravenswood hospital was cleaned up and is for rent. The Chicago Landmark Abbot Laboratories Mansion has been for sale for ages. The All Saints Episcopal Church got a fantastic new paint job a few years ago. Changes happen and demolition happens and some beautiful old buildings are lost and some are restored and some bland new buildings go up: clean, plastic, sans serif, higher property taxes.
On the day of the demolition of the 130 year old Victorian, I spent about two hours watching. I saw them tear apart the brick chimney and I came back later when the back of the house was gone and they’d moved into the center and the side walls.
I was standing across the street when a man who lived in an apartment building on the block came up and said, “This happens all the time where I’m from.” He was from the suburbs. He went on, “Think of how much asbestos must be in there. That stucco was moldy.”
I wasn’t enjoying this nay-sayer’s company.
The demolition was fascinating and I stood there trying to figure out why. I was mad didn’t know who to be mad at.
It felt right to be bearing witness to something. A something that someone built, and was now being un-built by people who were just doing their job. I wasn’t mad at the owner’s adult kids who ultimately sold the place or the demolition guys, though I wonder how they feel about the ghosts the must unsettle on a given day. I was just mad at this whole boring and un-creative system of economics. The one that values new buildings and “nice neighborhoods” and new tenants at the expense of the character and history that make a place particular and worth moving to and living in.
And to be honest I was also enjoying having something to be angry about that day - a sense of purpose enough to spend hours. I could be there with all the permission in the world - on my old block watching the geographic landscape of my childhood change as we all must.
It was interesting to watch. I did not think about being watched. I did not think about existing outside of myself and my nostalgia and my anger. I did not think about my bare legs on a warm day and the bike I rode over on.
I went inside for a few minutes to catch up with my mother, home from work.
When I went back to my bike, I found a note from the men of the demolition team perched on my handlebars. “To a beautiful lady” it said and on the other side one of them had left his phone number offering me “a good friendship.” My stomach turned. They saw me. They saw me lock my bike to a sign post and saw me go inside and left me a note to let me know they saw me.
I have a female body and it is always visible even when I believe I am living far away my corporeal form. Even when I cast myself in my own story as a historian of memory, excavating layers of Stacy’s mom and swimming body and Wendy Peffercorn and Richard Nickel and looking/possessing/destroying, even when I give myself the task of trying to tie them all together, even when I try to write all of myself in a single piecemeal prose piece, I have a female body that I have built myself day after day, in all of my clothing and movement and meals and even when I feel so strong that it’s mine and only mine for the using, I have a female body and I guess that’s something some people need to let me know they know.
In the summer, Chicago is born in big blues and bright greens. Everyday I take in big gulps of the lake. Miles of it, for breakfast. Open air bites out of the corners of my eyes.
Run away from all the looking that happens between the cement of the sidewalks and the brick of the buildings.
Later, I bring home the sand and that spacious air of the beach. The infinite rush of water over sand under feet. Do it again tomorrow.
About the artist...
Emma Casey is a writer and performer from Chicago. She is a member of the ShowParty ensemble and has performed at the Fly Honey Show, Salonathon, the Potluck Variety Hour and more. You can find her selling her zines at the Kansas City Zine Con in September and enjoying a small sliver of internet space year-round on Instagram as @tinroses. Thanks for reading/listening!