I went to Champaign-Urbana, IL this weekend for work. I was there less than 48 hours. I was reading a strange book, didn’t have access to the Internet (more on that in a future post), and was generally feeling very isolated. In my hotel room, I wrote these notes. People keep asking me how my trip was so here you go.
At the airport, the courtesy phone that’s supposed to dial right into a cab company doesn’t work. Finally I get hold of Freedom Taxi. Waiting outside, the sky is an intense indigo. The driver comes and he takes me to my hotel by the back roads, which look like country roads where I grew up—one-lane asphalt cracking at the edges, no street lights. But after a few miles I notice that this place is totally flat. No hills. The cab company is obviously him, a cell phone, and one other woman who keeps chirping him on the phone. “She’s slower than a box of rocks,” he tells me. “And that’s pretty slow.”
My suitcase is coming after me so I have to stay up late. I go to a 24-hour chain diner across the parking lot from the hotel and feel like a character in the Paul Auster existential mystery I read on the plane. Or a protagonist adrift in a Haruki Murakami novel, in the first part of the book, before he figures out what he’s supposed to be searching for but is beginning to understand what he’s lost. These characters are always eating by themselves at diners, reading a book or scribbling in a notebook.
The young guy at the hotel desk says, “Thank you, my friend.” He is a strange Quaker, with silver earrings, his hair spiked curvily up with gel, and a small pot belly beginning to nudge the bottom of his suit jacket.
The next day at my meeting, an engineer tells me the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes in the same area (physics) was a professor at the University of Illinois. He won for transitors and superconductors. Yes, a total badass who deserves a melancholy, eponymous tune if Sufjan Stevens ever writes part two of his Illinoise album. One of his students invented the LED and some kind of laser, I read on a plaque outside. In 1922, a professor here developed the technology for talking pictures but it wasn’t adopted by the industry for five years. They kept using grammophones.
Walking from the university to the hotel, I flinch, startled backwards as if I was about to trip. A foot-thick swarm of ants is charging across the sidewalk. I’ve never seen ants move so quickly and thickly without evidence of a soda smear or a dead animal up ahead. I watch them complete the 2.5-yard journey from the grass on one side of the sidewalk to the grass on the other. Do they have some purpose for doing this? I can’t tell. An ant who strays from the group reminds me of the penguin running to his death in Encounters at the End of the World. I’ve been thinking about ants, and talking to people about ants, a lot lately.
After a nap in the hotel, I’m groggy and when I try to remember where I am there is a noticable delay. What year is it, and who is the president? Where are we? After eating at the best Mexican restaurant in Urbana, IL, I feel a little better and I take a walk. I like the suburbs around here. Lots of small houses (most in minor disrepair), narrow streets, people sitting on the porch in the beautiful evening.
Thank you, my friend.