Located on West 47th Street, Soup Kitchen has a downtown feel. The New American restaurant had been an actual soup kitchen in the 1930s after a fire leveled the Chicago stockyards, and before that, a prosperous meatpacking plant. The architect who converted the factory into a fancy eatery preserved a bunch of functional and ornamental details. The exposed brick walls are flood-lit and the dining room features the original concrete of the killing floor. The workers’ coathooks now hang below the barroom mirrors, and in the bathroom, aesthetically rusted and non-functional shower heads are displayed like statues.
My interview was happening in a sterile and fluorescent office space on the second floor. I had my phone open on my lap while I waited, and in my back-pocket, a paperback. I thumbed through my apps for a few seconds before I remembered that I had deleted Meat Market. When the manager called me in, I was downloading Proletariat.
The manager was a twenty-something named John. He sat with his ankle slung over his knee, and between the hem of his pants and the top of his sneakers, I could see a strip of argyle sock, a festive pattern of orange and brown. The office was empty besides a desk and a few bookshelves with no books on them. I think he offered me the job because I was from Iowa. When he told me that he went to Grinnell College, he sounded as though he owned the whole state, and simultaneously as though this was a circumstance we shared.
The dining room was large and dim-lit and the kitchen was a bright, linoleum frame for two metal slabs of preparation tables. I was wrapping vegetables in cellophane when he asked if I wanted to get a drink with my co-workers. It was my first shift, and I already knew I would come here nearly every day of the week. My workplace would have to become an imitation of home.
We went to Teamsters, on the other side of the yards. Teamsters is a former American Legion turned union office turned faux-patriotic, hip-ish dive. We sat around a table with phones and a few packs of cigarettes in front of us. The cook, Chet, pontificated about food while the other servers assessed our culinary knowledge. I was the new guy, and so my sociocultural depth was more deeply, silently examined. I nodded and swallowed and resolved to seem like someone without a personality, rather than embarrassing myself with my ignorance.
After a few drinks, I noticed my manager waiting for service, elbows propped on the beer mat, staring sadly into the distance of the liquor wall. Every couple of seconds, he swiped at his phone. I ambled over to the bar and peeked at the screen. I said something about the song playing over the speakers, and John looked at me as though I had caught him doing something wrong.
“Don’t be ashamed,” I smiled. “Proletariat?”
“Vanilla Cream,” he replied.
I had reason to be analytical about the apps: the night before my interview, I met a guy named “DL_Smoove,” who I liked a lot, although he was dodging my texts and I doubted that I would see him again. After we had sex, he pointed out that the symbol for Proletariat was a stylized Hammer and Sickle, and that the symbol for Rule of Fist was modeled on the image that the Mano Blanca, a right wing anti-communist death squad active in 1960s Guatemala, left on the doors of their victims.
“I didn’t know that,” I told “DL_Smoove,” whose real name was Jamal.
He puffed the joint we were smoking in my bed and said, “You see the Mano Blanca and the Hammer and Sickle everywhere. They’re easy to pass over. They’re both in like every first-person shooter. Do you like video games?”
Ten minutes later, he left.
I got rid of Meat Market.
Anyway, my manager raised his eyebrows as he slipped his phone back in his pocket. He said, “Sociological purposes.”
“Well. Half the fun of promiscuity is seeing where people can afford to live.”
John laughed. “Where can you afford to live?”
“Central Park Avenue near Apocalypse Bar and the Farmer’s Market. Unfortunately I have four roommates.”
“I love Apocalypse Bar.”
“It’s alright,” I conceded, and shrugged.
The first guy I met on Meat Market had gotten a large and unsightly neck tattoo since he took his profile picture, which only goes to show the flaw intrinsic to meeting people digitally, I told my manager, who laughed. His laugh was chesty, and when he found something funny enough, he held his pointer finger to his nose and laughed silently. All of this made his sudden shyness especially striking when we stepped out of the car at the end of the night and onto the tree-lined sidewalk. His apartment was a one-bedroom on the second floor of an old tri-cornered house, and maybe because I commented on its luxuriousness, he said that his landlord was an eighty-four-year-old widower who lacked a desire to play the contemporary real estate game.
“I pay nothing,” he said. “Literally.”
“Less than thirteen-fifty.”
In the living room-kitchen there was crap piled everywhere, records and sleeves and video games and clothes-hangers on the futon, the womb chair, the sill of the bay window, the kitchen table, the stand of the ten-year-old flatscreen. On top of a little wood box adorned with details like the arches and windows of a cathedral was a rolled up twenty-dollar bill. John was from the Gold Coast, an upscale neighborhood south of the zoo, and had worked a number of jobs in restaurants and bars since he graduated from Grinnell. He was five years older than I was, and treated his birthplace in the city and his pedigree in the service industry with the same nervous, outspoken pride he extended toward the university he attended. I told him that I wanted to go to Columbia, but that even the Chicago colleges more affordable than art school were way too much money for me. He put a Nina Simone record on the player, moved the needle meticulously to a specific groove, went to the bathroom and ran the water. When he came back, leaned over, and kissed me, his breath smelled like toothpaste.
“My dad got me into records,” he said as he sat on the futon and removed a baggie from the box. “We go to record stores sometimes.”
I shook my head when he dangled his keys in front of my face. He put them to his nose and said, “I’ve never done this before.”
“If you don’t think about it,” I said, and imitated his laugh, “it’s no different from having sex with anyone.”
The next morning, I lay beneath him with my mouth open while he tried to finish. I pulled his balls, licked them, stuck a finger up his ass, then my tongue, pulled his nipples, kissed his lips, his ear, and his feet. I was becoming impatient, and my mouth was sore. I was touched when he came as I kissed his lips.
My Proletariat name used to be “Scheherazade,” but no one understood who she was, or that I was giving fair warning I might tell stories in bed. One night, when I was working my last job, at a twenty-four-hour hot dog place in Lincoln Park, two investment bankers swung each other around the center of the dining room. One managed to get a hand free and rear it behind his head, which is when I slid in and pushed them apart. I told John about the last time I spoke to my parents, four or five months ago. Whenever we talked, it was always the same, Mom and Dad on the chat screen, cawing in confusion each time the technology stopped functioning.
“I ran an HVAC company and I was never as busy as you are,” Dad said. “I was responsible for several employees.”
Mom said, “If you were manager, I might understand better.”
“We’re not going to call our son anymore if he isn’t going to pick up. We’re going to wait for him to call us. Our son moved to Chicago two years ago. Our son has only been home once since then,” I mimicked my parents in bed. “And I haven’t called them yet. So mostly, they give me the silent treatment, but every few weeks they text or call and I let it go to voicemail. What they say is usually passive-aggressive. Like I got an email from my mom about how Americans work more than people in other countries, and how this isn’t good for our life expectancy or mental health.”
John was silent for a little while. He told me about a study he read in college that said Americans feel less duty to their families than people of other nationalities.
“So I guess if you were Eurasian or Sub-Saharan African or something,” he added, “you wouldn’t have these problems with your parents.”
I learned that he was only accustomed to orgasming one way, by masturbating himself while he lay on his back, which meant he probably watched too much porn. His ass was covered in fur that spooled and looped around his hole and down to his balls, which I sucked while he jerked off. A couple of weeks after I fucked him for the first time, he managed to reciprocate, his motions stiff and greedy, his cock buckling like a train against the wall of a tunnel. We never discussed his sexual history. One early morning, he rose suddenly, collected his erection in his hand, deposited it in my mouth, and came.
Most afternoons, we woke at one or two and stayed in bed until we left for the Soup Kitchen in the early evening, so we could eat a communal meal with the rest of the staff before the dinner shift began. Sometimes Chet cooked for us, and the food he prepared was usually a spin on the food he liked to cook for his girlfriend. He used whatever meat the restaurant had in surplus, beef or chicken or pork, his methodology magic, although he tossed it off as though it were easy. Chet buzzed around the table while he served our meals, leered in expectation, and then slumped in his seat, as though nothing we said could possibly make him feel secure. Sometimes, he told us that he was lazy and ordered pizza and bristled visibly at the thought that we might enjoy take-out more than the stuff he made, but then again the bristling was only visible if you observed him closely.
My vocabulary for food was limited, and I ran out of ways to compliment Chet’s cooking, however much it deserved compliments.
“You can stop complimenting him,” John said. “You were probably the only person in the room who noticed that he was upset.”
John liked to pepper his conversations with mentions of professors who gave him As and Little League games in which he played well. I got moved to the Friday and Saturday night shift, and he told me it wasn’t something to get excited about, that I would just make more in tips. A food influencer posted rave comments about our roasted buckeye chicken and stewed Tennessee fainting goat with apple cider vinegar and molasses sauce. On a kitchen wall, Chet had posted photographs of reviewers who might write about the Soup Kitchen. Embarrassingly, I had a crush on one, a tall Tribune employee with rosy cheeks and a floppy baseball hat.
John sniffed a few times a week, and when I did not join in, I pacified him with assurances that my days of heavy drug use had occurred when I should have been studying biology and algebra and the SATs. One time, he told me that I became intensely self-absorbed and tranced-out during sex.
I said, “Arthur told me the same thing.”
I didn’t think John would mind hearing about Arthur. After all, he laughed when I brought up Meat Market and Proletariat. But John could be jealous, and he didn’t even appreciate the irony that my ex was an employee of my father. Arthur did contract jobs for the HVAC company, and he also helped around the yard. He cut down trees, uprooted pests. “One night, there was this huge thunderstorm and trees fell and the power went out. Arthur and Dad were supposed to chop down a rotting trunk early the next morning, and Dad suggested that he stay the night in my bed, and that I sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. We got stoned on the front porch, like we always did, and later he kissed me.” I didn’t mention that, before he kissed me, while I was undressing in the corner, Arthur turned toward me and let his dick rise through the front hole of his boxer shorts while he spoke to me about the weather outside.
“He was a very gentle person.” I added, “Someday, I’ll tell people the same about you.”
“I can’t smoke pot anymore,” John said. “Because it makes me anxious about my future. How old were you at the time it began?”
“And how old was he?”
“It sounds like he raped you,” John replied. “Did your parents find out?”
“How did it end?”
“Well, I mean, it was inevitably going to end, because there was no room for growth. My dad’s company folded. Arthur left for Minnesota to install units for another company. He actually gave me too much space, because he hated himself, I guess. He could only have sex when he was stoned or drunk.”
We fell into a deep and comfortable sleep. I woke again around five in the morning when John slid inside of me. He was forceful and awkward and strangely quick. I imagined that he had been lying there staring at his erection for several hours before he decided to wake me up.
Another thing about Proletariat is that sobriety is not an obstacle to conversation. I went to a gay bar that had been turned into an entertainment palace with televisions playing sports games and others playing videos from the 1990s. In one room, men sang showtunes. In another, there was a disco. On the second floor, there was a small lounge.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” asked a sun-weathered man with grey hair in the small lounge.
“I don’t have one,” I said.
We watched a TV show in which a guy in a bolo tie and a Panama hat went around to abandoned buildings in neighborhoods that were otherwise trendy and worked with small business owners to flip them. After the episode ended, an argument broke out between us; it began with a piece of minutiae about real estate and eventually extended to families, the Fourth Amendment, the age of consent, God, and American involvement in the Middle East. “You’re belligerent and unreasonable,” John concluded when he realized that I was not going to let him win the fight, the subject of which I did not understand.
We made up at the Soup Kitchen the next day, during the communal breakfast before the brunch shift. We made out and pressed our bodies together in the doorway of the adjacent building, against the backdrop of a private alley that once led from the packing plant to the yards of doomed cattle. He stretched his arms and pushed me away from his torso, and with my shoulders between his hands, he apologized and told me that he had been so upset about our fight, he had made plans to eat dinner with his parents and stay at their house that night.
A few weeks earlier, Bruce and Claudia drove down to West 47th Street, where they would never go otherwise, to eat at the Soup Kitchen. They arrived after the dinner crowd had largely thinned out, and while Bruce waited for his dessert to come, John and I talked with them about the food. There was an uncomfortable silence. Bruce, a small man with a furry neck and weight he carried below his waist, told us he had no idea that our restaurant was located in the factory on which Upton Sinclair supposedly based his novel The Jungle.
“Who’s Upton Sinclair?” John asked.
Bruce, momentarily the spitting image of his son, looked scandalized by his ignorance.
“I think he was mentioned on the plaque outside of the restaurant,” I made the mistake of saying.
“It was a very famous book,” Bruce piped up. “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of it.”
“Why would they have heard of Upton Sinclair?” Claudia asked, and took a sip of her wine. “Kids their age don’t read The Jungle.”
“I’ve been meaning to read that for a while,” I almost said, but I never told stories about books. No one I met wanted to talk about them.
When I was not with John, when I was not working, my life seemed long, meaningless, and episodic, a serial of events that felt like little more than the passage of time. I wandered the endless Chicago streets, periodically checking my phone, until I approached a large tower with an enormous marble lobby. From Proletariat, or perhaps Rule of Fist, whatever app I was using to meet guys that night, I knew a lot about “Fine-ance:” his height, his weight, the length and girth of his penis, what he liked to do sexually, his job, his religious and political affiliations, and which “factions” interested him. I knew that he considered himself a jock and that he lived in apartment 8ACDE. The only thing I did not know was his first and last name.
The second lobby was a vast carpeted space with a few clusters of elevators and a maze of jutting hallways. It took me five minutes to find the South Tower, another couple of minutes to find the correct elevator bay, then a few more to find the correct number. The door swung open the moment I knocked and a hand drew me into an embrace. “Fine-ance” imposed his tongue inside my mouth before I pulled away and walked toward the living room, where a mounted television with a screen that was too large for the room flickered. On the screen, a boy with bleached-blonde hair fucked another boy on a chaise lounge.
“Not your thing?” “Fine-ance” asked, coming up behind me to kiss my neck. He was thin and willowy, a couple of inches shorter than he claimed. His genitals looked bigger than the stats he gave. He spoke cheerfully about his seventy-hour-a-week job in the Loop, and got hard again twenty minutes after he ejaculated. I checked my phone while he was in the bathroom and saw that John had taken a picture of Claudia making a ridiculous face in a restaurant. The picture was captioned, “Dinner with my parents on Thursday?”
“Sry, sry, I was asleep,” I wrote. “I’d love to.”
“Thursday works,” I added.
Then I sent him a picture of the last page of The Jungle, captioned, “My mother texted me tonight At least I have this to keep me entertained.”
The memorial designed to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre consists of several unobtrusive structures of faceless, rust-colored men. A bomb went off in a crowd of unarmed workers protesting for an eight-hour workday, Claudia explained, and police opened fire. We were seated at a tapas bar located on the site of the massacre. After dinner, John and his parents and I drove to their apartment on Astor.
Their building, the Broadmoor, has a dark lobby and scuffed wood panels on the walls of the elevator, an operator who turns a crank. In the entryway, there are tapestries and intricate moldings on the walls, pieces of fruit in bowls on the kitchen island, Ming and Qing vases and Gabonese wood masks in the living room. Hanging in the bathroom are watercolors and drawings John made in elementary and middle-school art classes, all of which are framed.
Bruce told us that John Jacob Astor, who owned half of New York at one point, never lived in Chicago, and was only celebrated by the city for his wealth.
He kept on bringing out bottles of liquor that I had never seen before, and I drank until I was so drunk that I began to talk about The Jungle. I said that I admired Sinclair’s method, how he was a fictionist pretending to be a journalist pretending to be a cog in some huge societal system. I blathered for a little while, calling the book “dazzling” and “mesmerizing,” and because I recognized that it sounded as though I might not have read it, I spoke about the scene when Stanislovas gets eaten by rats. I realized that I only used the word “dazzling” because it appeared in a blurb on the cover of a book that was on their coffee table. Neither of his parents understood nor mentioned this fact.
“Did you buy it?” Bruce asked. “How did you find it?”
Bruce’s face curled in incredulity. “Doesn’t reading online hurt your eyes?”
“Of course it doesn’t,” Claudia said. “It hurts your eyes because you’re old.”
I blushed. John excused himself to go to the bathroom. He ascended the stairs, although there was a powder room next to the parlor.
Bruce told me that he was shocked by how people of my generation took so many cultural touchstones from people of previous generations. “When I was your age, I never thought that anything people my age were making would last,” Bruce said. “I mean, think about the buildings that architects were building in the sixties and seventies. It was almost as though the world had accepted that the apocalypse had already happened, and that we were living within it.” He paused for a moment, self-impressed. “Where did you go to college?”
“God, dad,” John said, descending the stairs. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Bruce began to make a case for a Fleetwood Mac album, and why John should rescue it from the obscurity of their home. John was outspokenly skeptical, but simultaneously all ears. Claudia disappeared for a while and returned with an old, battered, paperback copy of a book by a writer named Jean Rhys. It was called Good Morning, Midnight. When it was time to go, I went to give her a handshake, while she went for a hug, and we did a little chest-and-knees dance before we came together successfully. I went to give Bruce a hug, but he went for a handshake, and we jerked from side to side before I put my hand on the back of his arm.
When we got back to John’s apartment, we learned that his landlord had died. The scent of the corpse had seeped through the ventilation and set off the dog who belonged to the lady upstairs. We stood with her while the paramedics carried the man’s body from the house. John and I had our arms around each other’s shoulders.
The somberness and concern we shared lasted barely a day. Our last fight, he said that I sounded affected when I spoke about books, that I was pretentious, that I only fed my intellectual appetite because I felt bad about my sex life, and that I was dishonest. I said that he had a low self-opinion and a stupidly high opinion of his parents’ opinions. I also said that he was a mediocre lover. I was hurt, but then again, what John said about me was not true, and what I said about him was not true, anymore, either.
A few weeks later, he texted me seventeen times between midnight and four in the morning. I went over to his apartment at four-thirty. He stood in the threshold and watched me climb the stairs. His rent was being raised by two-hundred percent, he wrote me earlier. He planned to leave by the end of the year.
In part, I had come there to excavate my few belongings from the piles of his extended childhood, but we ended up having sex instead. As the sun came up, he said, “Before I met you, I didn’t know about sex. I tried with women, when I was in college, and later, I tried with men. But I couldn’t get it up with anybody. I stopped taking drugs. I thought this would help. I decided that I was just confused. Now that we’re broken up, I’m confused again. My therapist tells me that what I did was extremely brave.”
“I didn’t know you saw a therapist,” I said.
John nodded and wiped his nose. Then he pulled down on the tip with two fingers. “He thinks you’re good for my development, actually. You’re the first person who made me feel like a human being. Before you, I was caged by my own indecision. I asked for help when I knew what it was that I had to do.”
“John, I’m going back to Iowa tomorrow.”
He looked crestfallen. “Forever?”
“No,” I confessed. “Just to visit my parents for the long weekend.”
I came back unfulfilled, bored, angry, and guilty. I helped John move to a smaller spot.
We were cordial until he yelled at me in front of a family of four when I messed up their brunch order. I yelled at him in the kitchen in front of the staff. We finished our shift in silence, and later, I slept with a top. I closed my eyes for a moment after we finished, and when I woke again, I was surprised to find the person lying beside me was not John. He turned over the moment I touched him, which gave me the impression that he was only pretending to sleep. He put an arm around me because his bed was a twin. I remembered him mentioning on the app that he was a painter. He joked about guys who use Rule of Fist to find rooms, and someone who messaged him advertising his services as a handy-man. “He wasn’t a hustler,” the painter said. “He was just a guy looking for a job.”
“What did you want him to do?”
“I told him that I needed help deconstructing a show. But I wanted him to fist my hole.”
“Did he deconstruct your show?”
The painter shook his head. “It was a lie. I had a group show, but the gallery hired people to deconstruct it for us. My first solo show is next April. I can send you the information. But I have to get to my studio now,” he said. He walked over to his desk and slid a toolbox into his backpack. “We should hang again sometime. Thursdays are good for me. Wednesdays sometimes work.”
I said, “Sure.”
“I’ll send you the information about the show.”
“Information sounds good.”
There were pictures on the walls, and some of them looked cool, but I did not trust my knowledge of art enough to know whether any of it was good or not. I looked at the signature on the bottom of a small pencil drawing. I wrote his name down in my phone.
On the train home one day, I opened my copy of Good Morning, Midnight and the spine split. Whole chapters fell from the book and separated into individual pages, which fluttered around the train car while everyone watched.
So I was especially pissed when I got back to Central Park and found that my street had been blocked off by a line of cones. Workers stood around in bright neon vests and waved little orange flags. Behind them was a beautiful turn-of-the-century structure with cornices and crown moldings and the faded name of a company, Shawnee Salts & Chemicals, on the south-facing facade. I took my phone out to capture the building’s demolition, but unfortunately my photographs did not turn out too well. In the first set, all you can see is a cloud of dust. In the next, there’s a gaping hole, and behind it, the dim outline of the endless city to its west.