The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: time traveling to the sun-kissed bliss of Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE

Memories are made to fade. Even the strongest of them lose data over time. That’s where music comes in. A song, an album, an artist can act as a time capsule for eras of our lives. They serve as sensational time machines that can conjure up images enough, just enough, to make us feel that moment again. Something truly great can stitch together memories in an un-tattering fabric that yearns to be worn when we need the halcyon digest of youth the most. Listening to channel ORANGE, I always embark on the same somewhat mundane stream of consciousness that, in full, transcends the mundane. It isn’t a memory of summer, it is the summer, and it lives with me still, ten years later.

It’s late. It feels late for me, at least. The morning sun has been high for at least an hour by the time my feet are out the door and off the ground and on a set of bike pedals. There’s a decent breeze at my back as I turn east onto Armitage with the sound of a video game console booting up. My headphones are in my ears. They’re not supposed to be, but everyone does it. The cord runs into my black t-shirt down into the phone in the pocket of my shorts.

channel ORANGE came out a few days ago. I’ve barely had time to digest it all, despite being just about the only thing I’ve picked for my rides this week.

It’s warm, but not too hot; a blessing in what can often be brutal Chicago summers. The smell of restaurants and car exhaust and melted pavement patches. Okay, its hot out, but the breeze shifts to my face as I pick up speed to meet an intersection. Each one has a miniature game clock counting down to the death of a green light and a moment of stagnant air. Five… Four… Three… I coast through the checkpoint. On to the next one.

“Fertilizer, I’ll take bull shit if that’s all you got”

I feel I am part of a massive, sprawling metropolis and alone on the planet in the same moment. Growing up in the suburbs just over the border in Indiana, I could only dream of this kind of momentary freedom. The day was mine, for better or worse. I decide to wander, ride with no true destination. A right turn, a left, a right, a left, a couple rights, another left. I’m near the Lake, but still far enough to not see it.

Beautiful, ornate hotels with manicured tree lines speckle the path. One man opens a car door for a middle-aged woman in clothing that likely costs more than my rent. Another man opens the door into the hotel for her to walk through. She’s holding a very small, but well-behaved dog that probably eats better than I do. The smell of jasmine or lavender briefly washes over me. It’s just a taste of the good life and its pleasures without any of its plights.

“You’re the dealer and the stoner, with the sweetest kiss I’ve ever known”

The tree cover is lush, shades of kelly, emerald, forest, turquoise, and peppermint. The sun finds holes to patter an illiterate Morse Code on my path. It’s late, later than it should be. Maybe two or three now. I don’t own a watch and don’t care enough to risk dropping my phone for a time check. I work outside of minutes and hours now, weaving through days and weeks like my bike’s wheels cut between cracks in the road.

I emerge from the wealthy avenue to find myself passing into a tunnel below Lake Shore Drive. Even with music playing, the rounds of echoes from the cars above bounce through the cavern like a spoon suddenly changing direction while stirring. The semi-circle of daylight means the path along the Lake.

The first few notes of “Pyramids” play as I exit the tunnel, and as if cued by the almighty, twilight arrives. It doesn’t make sense, but I’m at home with the method. It’s still hot, but the waves on the lake bring air cooled just for me. The sun still holds purchase on the western sky, and faint pinks and golds and purples flank the city.

Downtown never requires darkness to illuminate, but in my eyes the glowing skyline is staking a claim as the last bastion of humanity. To the east is nothing. The Lake is still, black, endless. A man with no sense of geography or reason might feel the world ends at the horizon, and for all its worth to me, it does. The juxtaposition of one of earth’s great cities and the sea that gave birth to her is never so great as it is now. I stop and take it in.

I think about how it’s important to be a tourist in this world; to never feel at home enough to disengage from the beauty of something so simple as lights and water.

A band is playing at the Logan Square Auditorium. They’re covering “Lost”.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of people still on the trail along the water. All of us, separate islands of conscious and subconscious. Surely some of them are listening to the same music I am. If I look hard enough for it, I can see them moving to the rhythm as the song climaxes.

I’m far enough south to see the finale of a fireworks show glowing high off of the residual smoke over New Comiskey.

Traffic has eroded from its high tide of an extended rush hour. There is more space on the once-busy streets, and I drive my bike back upon them to head home.

“If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.”

It’s hard to not be romantic about solitude. I feel wholly holy as my own creation while still feeling damned to the fate of the next day and its troubles. I have the power to remove everything else from the road before me. Sodium lights make modern yellow brick roads under jet-black infinity above. I think about texting the wrong person. I think about riding to the wrong apartment. I think about how it’s easier to be wrong than alone. My body is turning in on itself like a Rubik’s cube, and the night wears on me.

It’s a gift to be sad, since it means I’m alive enough to have concerns.

“Sensei went quiet, then violent, and we sparred until we both grew tired. Nothing matters.”

The route back feels endless. My sense of direction has never failed me, and it won’t now, but nothing feels further away than my bed. The music turns quiet and sparse. A car door opens in my ears, I’m somehow on my block.

I hop off of my bike and walk toward my building, pulling off my helmet and my headphones. I reach the back door and slide my key in when my attention is pulled to the east. The sun is poking up. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense.

It’s late. It feels late for me, at least.

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