Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Murdered?

FeaturedWhere 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.

Schoolyard christs

Schoolyard christs

 

I can’t remember which grade school.

The girls double dutched on the noon

Ignoring my new-girlness.

Pulled me to them. Here! Like this!

Grab the ends and swing in time.

Each hand holding a dirty ol’ clothesline

Syncopating with the girl at the other end

While one of ‘em waited for the perfect time

To lift up and jump into the bend. 

Then Now! my turn to switch my place

Lift up and jump to the slap slap slap

My keds catch, the old rope wraps

And all the girls laugh with grace

For me who doesn’t deserve it

The new girl who hasn’t earned it

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

On November 8, 2016, I settled into an election night victory party in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The first bit of bad news came over the TV early: Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh lost. Wizened political operative Keith Lesnick flashed a guttural look, “That’s bad.” 

Fourteen hours later, fellow campaign volunteer Susan Keegan and I drove home to Chicago. We had no victory, no trophy, no good news. What we did have was despair, hopelessness.

Years before, in April 1992, I returned from a grueling 90-hours a week job in the Bill Clinton primary campaign. A psychiatrist treated me as if I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Within a few weeks, Hillary Clinton came to Chicago to speak at a women’s forum. I stood alone in the back of the room, away from the crowd. Someone came to me and said Hillary wanted to see me backstage. She greeted me with a teary hug, said she was sorry I left the campaign, asked if I would consider working at the Democratic Convention in August. I told her I was too tired, that I wouldn’t survive. She understood, thanked me for all I did to get the campaign off the ground and assured me her door was always open. We parted as friends, equals really. When I later worked in the Clinton Administration, I saw her many times. My admiration for her superior intellect increased, always undergirded by her unscripted and genuine kindness toward me. 

I felt a thousand little cuts during the 2016 campaign, watching her withstand the cruelest name-calling and ugly attacks not only by her opponent but by my own friends. For months after the election I felt like she died, like I died, like the country died.

At the end of that bleak November, I looked out over out my MacBook Air, watched three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back—caw, caw, cawing at each other about their Thanksgiving dinner. I believed they knew me, saw me looking at them. They restored me, enlarged my soul, allowed gratitude to seep in, grateful for them if nothing else. I wondered for the millionth time since election day what Hillary was doing.

All of a sudden, something popped up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly broke off communing with my wild pets and opened the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either.  th-3  th-4Unknownmsnbc-logo_0  However, I had involuntarily begun to relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I clicked. The next thing I knew a little box appeared with a photo of a pair of shoes I coveted. Hmmm, I wondered if those were on sale. I clicked. As I lifted out of my chair to take a break, I saw two pop-ups I had to read first:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”  

It’s two years later and this compulsion, this savage addiction is my sentence for seizing the fantasy that something is going to happen to reverse the outcome of the election.

Any day now.

Someone’s Living In The Attic?

Someone’s Living In The Attic?

Two of my sisters and I were born in Annapolis immediately after World War II. My father, stationed at the Naval Academy, defended Naval personnel on trial for war-time petty thefts and black market racketeering. At night he drove the hour-long commute back and forth to Georgetown Law School in Washington to complete his final year. Upon entering the District of Columbia Bar, he moved us to a Georgetown townhouse and began his civilian law career. Powerful union boss John L. Lewis hired him as general counsel to the United Mineworkers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout Mormon, and my father, a binge-drinker already in the first stage of alcoholism, had battling temperaments. Lewis suspended his zero-alcohol intolerance long enough for my father to write and implement the landmark UMWA 1950 Pension Plan, the first retirement benefits ever negotiated for American labor.

The backyard of our Georgetown townhouse abutted the garden of a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. After my father’s few successful years, we moved to a five-bedroom brick colonial at the corner of Fox Hall Road and Edmunds Street in Northwest Washington. Both of my parents had friends and relatives living, working and matriculating in the District. They all found an open door at our house. I never knew who would be joining my sisters and me at the breakfast table or who’d be passed out on the living room couch from all-night parties. No one ever cared where their cigarette ashes landed or bothered to clean up their spilled drinks. 

One of my parents’ friends lived in the attic. I know he came out at night because all the adults told morning-after stories and he was a prominent source of laughs. I finally came EdmundsStupon him once in the kitchen. He was guzzling a bottle of orange juice standing in front of the open ice box wearing a buttoned up wrinkled trench coat and loafers, no socks, bare legs. 

“Hi, I’m Ted,” he said.

“Hi. I’m Regan. It’s from Shakespeare.”

My mother taught me to tell everyone that so she wouldn’t have to answer how I got my name.

“Well, what’s your favorite thing to do, Regan?”

“I like monkeys,” I said.

“Want to go to the zoo?”

“Yes!” 

“Ok, get your sisters and get in the car.”

Ted had no car. He meant my mother’s car. The keys were always in the ignition.

We drove down Fox Hall Road toward the Washington National Zoo and crashed into a telephone pole. No one was hurt. My father represented Ted in court and got the charges dismissed but Ted had to pay for the telephone pole. 

“Your honor, I have no funds and no income. I live off the bounty of my friends,” he proclaimed.

Ted would have gone to jail had my father not forked over the cash. My parents howled over this incident for all the rest of their days. All their friends loved re-telling the story. 

There was never mention of the danger his drunken driving posed to the three little girls in the back seat.

Bring On The Border Collies

Bring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.

Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

Shallow, I’m Into The Sha-la-la-low Now

When the attendant told me I was at the wrong gate, I froze. I’d been at Midway Airport for two hours waiting to fly to Salt Lake City for my granddaughter’s 2018 graduate school graduation. My vision blurred, my legs shook and I gaped at him without speaking. I actually couldn’t hear him. Someone grabbed my arm and raced me over to the correct gate just before the jetway closed. Inside the plane, I was escorted to Row A
where they keep an eye on people. th-4

I traveled twice more that summer. Once I was in the wrong TSA line, so confused that a stranger brought me to where I needed to go, again. I’ve since developed a phobia, thanks to nightmarish remembrances of Tom Hanks in the movie Terminal—about a man who lives in the airport after he is denied entry into the US.

A friend who works for O’Hare tells me airport workers regularly experience confused old people wandering around lost and panicked. I’ve traveled a lot in my life but familiarity with airport commotion holds no weight now.

When I first retired, I was unsympathetic to people with cognitive disorders. I joined the morning exercise classes at church but not to make friends. I told myself I wasn’t like those old people. Well, those old people have subsequently shown me how to be old, have compassion for those who talk slower than I do, who will never remember my name nor I theirs, nor the title of the book we just read or the movie we all saw. Our get-th-7togethers are often hilarious games of 20 Questions where we all guess what someone is trying to remember.

There’s just not enough room for all the bits lodged in my aging brain. A mysterious natural phenomena controls the shedding and changing of my grey matter, like menstruation and menopause in my body. Trouble is, the shedding seems to be more active these days. Oh sure, curiosity fills my brain with new information but its cells refuse to let those memories form and what I learned yesterday is soon forgotten.

One technique I use to block braincell destroyers is to ignore anxiety-producing articles that say cognitive decline slows if I eliminate sugar or learn chess. Perhaps the content is correct, but I’m possessed of my own version of old age, not a researcher’s cookie-cutter version. Similarly, I cast off brain-shrinking agitations delivered by younger friends who tsk me for walking too slow or for asking them to speak up. 

However, I love music so I responded to an article about choir singing strengthening the memory and joined the Good Memories Choir. Singing won’t get me back in airports, but learning music keeps me attached to the real world. In Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, Lady Gaga sings about the love of the two main characters as “far from the shallow now,” as if the brain has no choice but to deepen the couple’s experience. In my case, like the reversed flow of the Chicago River, I have no choice but to spill out of the deep and into the shallow now.

___________________________________________________________

For those who don’t understand my title, I give you, with love, Shallow