Stranger from the Natchez Trace

FeaturedStranger from the Natchez Trace

St. Louis is categorized as an urban, damp, subtropical climate. My family moved there in the mid-fifties for about a year. Air conditioning, a novelty in mid-century America was treated like a passing fad in St. Louis. It’s the hottest place I’ve ever lived.

Summers for a nine-year old came with mixed blessings. During the day, people opened their windows, turned the fans on or sat outside in the shade. On the plus side, I liked being able to see my mother through an open window, to call to her, hoping she’d express kindness and pride in whatever I did to try to impress her. On the minus side, I didn’t like that she could overhear my outside conversations and arguments with friends or sisters.

My parents never made friends with neighbors or with our friends’ parents, like others did, but for some reason they introduced a stranger into our family the summer we lived in St. Louis. Lucien Gaudet appeared without notice or explanation. My father worked in an office everyday or traveled but Lucien Gaudet didn’t work with him or have a job. The few friends my parents did have were old Georgetown University classmates. An Ole Miss alum, Lucien Gaudet, with his dark curly hair and slim athletic build cured his voice on Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, far from any experience of my parents. To them, Lucien Gaudet represented a charmed South that exuded a Gatsby-like idyll of white-suited straw-hatted men and linen-and-lace women who lazed under wisteria vines drinking Gin Rickeys all day. 

He taught me how to read notes and find them on the piano. I imagine my sisters received special attention from him as well because all three of us liked him. He brought us a Dalmatian puppy from the Budweiser farm. We wanted to name the dog after him but he suggested we name her after his mother, Antoinette. Tony for short.

Lucien Gaudet and my mother drank together. Drinking buddies, they were. My older sister thinks she saw them in bed together. To escape the heat they sat on the back steps drinking cold beer. She made him laugh and he made her happy.

One day I could no longer stand swatting Mississippi River mosquitos away from my perspiring skin. I took my bike out to get relief. After a spin around the neighborhood, I rode into the driveway toward the back of the house to show off my skills in front of my mother and Lucien Gaudet, hoping for a compliment. I rode on the outside edge of the pavement to give myself a wide berth. As I turned my wheel to circle around, I felt the tires slip on the sandy grit splayed around the shoulder of the asphalt. My front wheel slid fast and hard like a dislocated knee and I went down. I skidded along the pavement with my bike and scraped the side of my thigh and calf.

“Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you,” my mother shouted, “Get up!”

Lucien Gaudet didn’t say a word. They blinked and turned back into themselves to a place I didn’t belong. 

And I, I felt sorry for myself.

Adulting by Dave Schanding

I never thought of adult as a verb. Always a noun. Something one wants to become when one hits a certain age. When I was growing up, becoming an adult occurred overnight when one reached age 21. Then you could drink, get married, be seen as joining the normal flow of lifecycles. Somewhere after I became an adult, the magic age shifted to 18. I think after the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, the country felt that if you were old enough to be drafted and fight in a war, you should be able to vote and be seen as an adult. Drinking alcohol legally is still age 21 in the USA. I’m not sure whether one can get married without parent permission at age 18. Kath and I were 25 y/o when we got married, so this minimum age thing was well behind us.

I first heard of adulting as a verb from our son, Kevin. He had lived in our home in Des Plaines while wife Kath and I spent most of my early retirement years in a condo in downtown Chicago. We were trying out the idea of living downtown as a lifestyle, and we held onto our home in Des Plaines during this trial period. After six or seven years, we decided that downtown life agreed with us and, with Kath’s retirement now coming up soon, it was time to sell our Des Plaines home. One might wonder why a young adult in his mid-30s was still living in his parents’ home. This scenario was more common than usual due to a severe economic depression that hit our country (and the world) from 2008 to around 2015. Many ‘millennials’ (persons born after 1980) were caught with long periods of unemployment due to layoffs and had fewer housing options as restrictive mortgage lending regulations were instituted to address money-lending abuses that had initiated the recession. Kevin got bumped around by the country’s economy. Ironically, he was the child that couldn’t wait to become independent when he finished college, then proceeded to live with us for another decade.

At age 34, Kevin was embarking on adulting—moving out of his parents’ home and taking on those pesky responsibilities like mortgage and utility payments. It’s not like he didn’t do any adult things prior to this. He attended college and was now employed. He took care of our home in Des Plaines while Kath and I played downtown during the work week. But there’s a difference between taking care of your parents’ home and adulting. Much of this centers on paying bills. It’s one thing to take care of day-to-day stuff in one’s parents’ home, knowing that repairs and remodels would be on their dime. One feels the pinch in renting one’s own apartment or buying one’s home. Kevin had been saving a portion of his income while living in our home, but the typical adulting bills were still ours to pay. When he described his transition to buying a condo and suddenly having utility bills, cable TV and Internet bills, a mortgage and property tax, homeowner’s insurance, car insurance, homeowner’s association (HOA) fees, he would often describe the challenges of adulting.

This got me thinking back to my transition to adulting. For me, adulting began in mild form at age 23 and hit me squarely between the eyes at age 24. For my high school and college years, I’d been in a Catholic seminary, studying to become a priest. In January 1974 (age 23), I decided that I was no longer interested in the priesthood. I moved from my all-expense-paid seminary life into an apartment. I characterize this initial period as a mild form of adulting because I shared an apartment with three other former seminarians with each of us paying $37.50 per month in rent. Today (2019), a large deep-dish pizza at Gino’s East costs that much. Of course, a dollar in 1974 bought considerably more than a dollar in 2019, but it was still very inexpensive rent, even back then. We lived at 1066 Granville in the Edgewater area of Chicago, just south of Loyola University. I was working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology and working full-time as I embarked on adulting-lite.

A bit shy of age 24, in May 1975, I got my own apartment in Rogers Park, the area of Chicago where Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus is located. Two of my Granville Av roommates got married that summer, and the third guy was pretty stingy on paying bills, so I decided to get my own place. While experiencing adulting-lite, I had been able to save money and purchase a few necessities like a color television and my brother’s used car—not too taxing on the wallet while living in my $37.50 per month rent. Then I hit the economic wall when I was on my own, paying $150 per month in rent and paying the entire phone, electric and gas bills. With a car came insurance and repair bills. My routine was to stack bills on my desk as they arrived, pay off what I could on pay day, and generally leave myself around $50 for food and cigarettes for the two weeks till next payday. That’s right, I allotted funds for cigarettes. They were $5 per carton back then, and I went through four cartons per month. I couldn’t think much about dating at this point—a movie and pizza would have wiped out most of my monthly spending money. I furnished my apartment with hand-me-downs from the guys I’d lived with on Granville Av, items that they had gotten from other friends and from their girlfriends’ parents’ basements. My former roommates, the newlyweds, were able to buy new bedroom sets, new living room couches, and matching dishes and pots and pans. I was very happy to have an interesting assortment of vintage couch, chairs, dresser, bed and dishes.

I was making $12,000 per year in 1976, working in mental health at Ravenswood Hospital on the north side of Chicago. This was a good salary for a young professional. I had completed a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Loyola University and was working as a clinical supervisor. In today’s dollars (2019), this would probably be $50-60,000. I spent most of my weekends at home during my first six months of true adulting, partially due to minimal spending money available and partially due to the fact that my best friends had gotten married and were now occupied with their new lives. At the time, it felt like this very minimal existence went on for a year or two, in fact, I met my future wife, Kath, at a friend’s party in December 1975, six months after I had begun true adulting. By then, I guess I had figured out how to budget for an occasional date. Women’s liberation also helped. Women wanted to be seen as equals in most aspects of life, and it was common for young couples to go out “Dutch treat”—with each paying half of the cost of tickets and food. I was not upset that Kath felt liberated!

I was pretty low emotionally many times during my transition to adulting. While living on Granville Av with friends, I was oftentimes alone. They had girlfriends and I didn’t. I was working the evening shift for much of the time, and this was a real killer when it came to establishing a social life. With little spending money, I had few alternatives to this fairly isolated life. I had a girlfriend for a while, but I was socially immature at this point in my life and she understandably chose to move on. Adulting was more than taking on financial responsibilities. It also meant acting more maturely. I would eventually get there. The one thing going for me at the time was a good job—a professional position in health care. While socially awkward and financially challenged, I could at least feel good about my educational and professional status.

Life can feel like an eternity when things are tough. I left the safe ‘cocoon’ of the seminary in January 1974. Once I met Kath and began dating her regularly, starting in December 1975, my life picked up. That nearly two-year period was a difficult adjustment into ‘adulting.’ By the end of 1975, my financial situation hadn’t changed all that much, but my mood had improved. A couple of years later, when purging old bills, I took some time to see where my meager funds had gone in my young adulting transition. The one item that had really taxed my budget had been auto repairs. I had bought my brother Greg’s car, which had been faithful to him for several years. I, on the other hand, had a more difficult time, having to replace the starter and flywheel on more than one occasion. I would have been financially better off without the car, but having a car gave me independence and a sense of adulthood.

I don’t tend to procrastinate. Kath and I met on December 6, 1975. I asked her to marry me on May 1, 1976 and, fortunately, she agreed. We married on November 13, 1976. We purchased our first home in December 1977, just in time to get a Christmas tree. Our children were born in 1979 and 1982. I completed my first master’s degree, in counseling psychology, in January 1975. My second master’s degree, an MBA in healthcare management, came in June 1980. By this time, my adulting was in full swing. Kath and I managed mortgage payments, utility payments, car payments, insurances of several types (home, life, auto, health) and we managed to have a few modest vacations. Our finances restricted us to many weekend nights at home, but It was definitely easier to be an adult with someone to share the challenges with.

Adulting was a successful transition for Kath and me, and it’s hard to imagine a time when we won’t have the responsibilities that come with it. Our son is single and lives alone. I can see him having the same feelings as I felt during my transition. It’s harder, both financially and emotionally, when one is doing all of this alone. As our son has gotten used to paying mortgage, various insurances, HOA fees, medical bills and so forth, he describes not being a ‘fan’ of adulting. Former US President Harry Truman described his role as ‘the buck stops here.’ Most of the time, personal responsibilities land squarely on the shoulders of the adults. Adulting brings both challenges and freedoms. Sometimes it’s gratifying to reach adulthood. Sometimes, adulting is a burden. The transition toward greater personal independence can be daunting. Becoming a full adult takes many action steps. And for this, I suppose it makes great sense that adulting has become an action verb and not simply a static noun.

The Women in My Family

My cousin, Therese, called me in Chicago to say my mother, Agnes, was in the hospital in New Jersey.

“You’d better come,” she said, lovingly snatching the decision right out of my hands.

On the way down the Garden State Parkway from Newark Airport Therese gave me the lowdown. All my mother’s organs collapsed at the same time and she keeled over. Emergency workers attached her to a ventilator at the nursing home and took her to the hospital. She was brain dead.

Life support. Two words that say someone must make a decision about life and death.

'We can't pull the plug until the paperwork is finished.'None of my three sisters called to inform me about Agnes. I don’t know if I spoke to them as I made arrangements to fly to New Jersey. They all lived on the east coast: Maere in New Jersey, Gael in Connecticut and Stacy in Vermont. Cousin Therese had called Stacy who remained in place, waiting to hear.

Agnes looked surprisingly peaceful, considering she’d lived her last five years in dementia and the previous fifty-five years in an alcoholic haze. I picked up her hand and noticed her freshly painted nails. Therese answered the question on my brow.

“I took her for a manicure three days ago,” she said.

My mother’s chest rose and fell as the ventilator pumped oxygen into her body. The nurse looked in and said, “You can talk to her. She can hear you.” She can? That made no sense. She hardly heard me with a live brain and certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to talk to her dead brain. Don’t be an ass, I could hear her say.

But, just in case, I whispered, “It’s Regan. I’m here.”

Therese left to care for her own family, and I waited alone for the doctor. He gave me the medical information—alcoholic brain syndrome—and said the hospital would require signatures from all four sisters to turn off the ventilator.

I called Stacy and Gael to make arrangements for them to fax their signatures. Maere, who lived nearby, said she’d come to the hospital. By the end of day she hadn’t shown and I couldn’t reach her.

I overnighted with Therese and spent the next two days at the hospital trying to contact Maere. Finally I told the doctor she was unreachable.

“We’ll have to proceed without her,” I said.

His measured response said Maere had been pleading with him every night on the phone to keep her mother alive and that she was sure my other sisters would want that as well. That threw the disposition of my mother in contention. So now the hospital required all the sisters to be present to sign, witnessed by a hospital employee.

They all came, each with different emotions.

Gael was angry that Agnes had disrupted her life. Stacy was happy to help but had to rush back to Vermont. Maere scowled at me. At the funeral, an old bartender friend confided that Maere sat at his bar those days before Agnes died, crying,“my sister’s trying to kill my mother.”

When the nurse turned off her artificial life, something tickled my spirit.

Agnes. She heard my whisper.

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Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Small souvenir dishes clutter the top of the old painted dresser next to my bed, overflowing with hair clips, earrings and obsolete campaign buttons. “Lori Lightfoot for Mayor” buttons spill out of their dish and take on a life of their own. The badges slip between pages of books, stick onto errant scarves and slide into the sock drawer. When they’re discovered I exclaim almost out loud, “what the heck…?”

When Chicago’s 2019 mayoral campaign heated up in the fall of 2018, I grabbed a half a bag of buttons from the Lightfoot campaign. A few times every day someone noticed the Lightfoot badge on my coat, and said something like, “I like Lori.” I’d then unhook my button and hand it to them. I carried extras. Whenever I slipped my hand into my pocket or dug to the bottom of my purse, I pricked my finger on one of the pins.

A month before the end of the campaign, I volunteered in the Lightfoot office making calls to arrange details for her appearances. I’ve worked in campaigns for fifty-five years and no matter how popular my candidate was, scheduling an appearance at an event

was always like pulling teeth. With Lori, as soon as I announced why I was calling, the person at the other end fell all over themselves to accommodate her. I returned a call to a business-oriented non-profit group who wanted Lori to meet their Board.

“How many Board members will be there,” I asked.

“The whole board,” he said. “About seventy.”

“Is this a regular Board meeting?”

“Oh, no. We’re pulling it together just to meet her.”

Right then, I knew she’d win.

The Lightfoot office was full of young workers with names I’d never heard before. Some were experienced, most not, but they had everything under control. After a few days, I left the office with another bag of buttons. I’d be more useful walking around handing them out to anyone who expressed interest.

One day I ran into a machine politician who asked if I was helping Lightfoot.

“They don’t know what they’re doing over there. I can’t get anyone to return my calls.”

Of course they did know what they were doing. Lori Lightfoot ran an outsider campaign, untethered to old-time Chicago politics. The staff wouldn’t know—or care to know—political operatives tied to the old Democratic machine.

On the way home from a mayoral forum one evening, I hopped on the 151 bus. A young man dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie sat next to me. I recognized the uniform.

“Are you on your mission?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m a member of the Mormon Church. Do you know about the Prophets?”

I said I knew a little about them.

“Most people say Jesus will come again when all the world is wicked. But I believe Jesus will come when the righteous become valiant.”

And then he got off the bus.

Hm. Yes, that’s how I’d describe Lori Lightfoot: righteous and valiant. Maybe I should start looking for Jesus.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.

Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.

The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar. 

“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”

We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.

The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy. 

I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”

I did mind.

My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.

We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.

Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him. 

Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side. 

I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.

Screwed by Gary Hart

Screwed by Gary Hart

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I responded to a reporter about presidential candidate Gary Hart.

I was in Denver working on Hart’s campaign in May 1987 when The Miami Herald front-paged a photo of Hart in Bimini aboard the sailboat, Monkey Business, with a blonde beauty on his lap. Hart tried to conduct a normal campaign, but after a week of hounding from the media for answers to questions about his extramarital affairs, he dropped out of his race for President.

When the Hart campaign folded, I dispirited myself away to Indianapolis to manage an unpromising U.S. Senate campaign. I should have gone home to Chicago to look for a job there instead.

Six months later, Gary Hart changed his mind and started working his way back into the race. The day before Thanksgiving I was contacted by a reporter from the Gary Post-Tribune for a comment about the rumor that Hart was getting back in. My friend, Roger Ebert, a newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, always cautioned me in my political work to never talk to the press.

“You’ll just screw yourself,” he said. “They’re out to trip you up.” 

Roger’s advice?  Say, “No comment.”

I heeded his advice religiously until this particular reporter caught me off guard. I picked up the phone on my way out the door to Roger’s vacation house in Michigan. I’d been invited to Roger’s legendary Thanksgiving party in 1987 and was looking forward to a weekend of great food, real characters and loads of laughs. I never gave the reporter’s call another thought.

Roger Ebert loved people. He bought successively bigger houses in Michigan to accommodate weekend guests. During those weekends we’d take caravan excursions to the used book store in Niles and to art and antique stores in Lakeside. At home we played poker and watched movies. In his well-stocked kitchen everyone chipped in to make big family style meals. Roger told the same funny stories over and over. I was his biggest audience and his biggest target. He teased me relentlessly about all my losing campaigns.

“If you wanna place winning bets on who’s gonna lose, find out who Regan’s working for,” he’d say to any gathering.

On that Saturday Roger returned from the store in New Buffalo with the Sunday papers, bagels and cream cheese. Someone brewed up a pot of coffee and the weekenders gathered at the big old dining room table. All of a sudden Roger screamed that I was onth-6 the front page of the Gary Post-Tribune. When he read the quote aloud, he laughed so hard he could hardly spit it out.

“It’s his (Hart’s) swan song. This is like a lover who woos you, then dumps you, then comes back, asks forgiveness, woos you again and dumps you again. I’m not falling for it.” Said I.

I never lived it down. For the rest of the day, all the next day and nearly every time I saw Roger for years afterwards he recited my quote.

Gary Hart did get back in the race. And I did help him get on the ballot in Illinois. He got four per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, then dropped out again.

My candidate in Indiana lost.

But I gave Roger one big priceless punch line.

——————————

R.I.P. Roger. We miss you.

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

On the afternoon of November 23, 1963, I walked through my empty high school cafeteria to pick up the receiver hanging from the pay phone in the corner. As I said hello, I noticed the cooks in the back of the kitchen huddled around a radio. My mother, Agnes, was on the line.

“Are you all right?”

When I was fourteen-years old, I had immersed myself in the 1960 presidential race. Agnes hardly listened to me when I talked to her about it (what adult listens to a fourteen-year-old) but when it came time to vote, she asked me what to do. She didn’t want to vote for a Catholic. Now she had to report that my hero, President John F. Kennedy, had been shot. She was visiting a friend and suggested I catch the bus from Williamsburg to Washington to join them. I was under no one’s legal custody but my father had given the boarding school nuns orders prohibiting me from seeing my mother. I frantically called my father and asked if he’d sign off on letting me go to her. He said no.

I slinked over to sit with the downtrodden cooks listening for any morsel of hope. There was none. We lamented together—me and the Black kitchen workers in southern Virginia, slave descendants, whose hope for civil rights laid in the Kennedy White House. My sorrow could never touch the depth of theirs. They comforted me, as if my heritage had also been clouded by the despair of violence. They made me theirs. I was in the company of saints.th-8

The nuns had us boarding students go to chapel throughout the weekend then allowed us to fill our other hours watching TV. The next week I visited my father for Thanksgiving. While he and I were sifting through the magazine rack in People’s Drug Store at DuPont Circle, the store radio blurted out President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation that Florida’s Cape Canaveral would now be known as Cape Kennedy (ten years later Floridians changed it back). 

“Hear that? Never forget where you were when you heard that,” he said.

Washington sputtered that weekend in the aftermath of the assassination—no one moved except the crowds advancing to JFK’s gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. 

At eighteen and without a driver’s license I capitalized on my father’s somber distraction to hone my driving skills with his car, visiting school friends who were home for the holiday. Everyone was glued to their TVs, trying to settle their own emotions. So I, having red-lighted my feelings, spent time alone learning to navigate Rock Creek Parkway, the notoriously confusing Pierre L’Enfant circles, Key Bridge, Pennsylvania Avenue and the cobbled streets of Georgetown. I stayed in the Northwest part of the city sensing something sinister about Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast Washington.

I cruised by the home I’d occupied with my parents and two sisters a dozen years before, wondering what happened to our family. I had no idea what alcoholism was nor did I realize I was living in the consequences of that untreated disease.