Father Hungry

FeaturedFather Hungry
Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

The week before Thanksgiving, 1991, I called my father from Little Rock to tell him Governor Clinton had told all campaign staff to go visit their families. 

“He said we’ll be busy and out of touch from December until the end of the primary season,” I said, letting my father know I’d be back in Chicago on Thursday. 

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

I was so caught up in the excitement of my co-workers’ plans to visit their families that I’d forgotten my father never made plans to celebrate holidays. Nor birthdays. Nor graduations. Nor milestones of any kind.

“Dorothy doesn’t want you joining us for Thanksgiving,” my father told me over the phone.

I can’t remember whether they were married yet or whether Dorothy was still just another one of the girlfriends. I had no particular ax to grind with her outside of her unnerving naiveté. She actually believed my father was going to provide a secure home for her and her son. When she showed me her engagement ring the previous summer and asked why I didn’t jump for joy that they were to be married, I thoughtlessly answered, “You’re kidding, right?” 

Like she knew what I knew.

Furious, alone and full of self-pity, I abandoned the trip to my home town and settled into catching up on the never-ending details of planning events, logistics, contingencies and recruiting new advance people for my candidate. When asked, I’d feign, “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with my father.”

The hunger to be normal is one of my fatal flaws.

But Governor Clinton was on to me. Late that Wednesday evening he called out of the blue and invited me to “come on over to the house” for Thanksgiving.

I drove into the guest parking lot at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion about 3:00 pm and recognized cars that belonged to staffers from the Governor’s office as well as the campaign. Bill answered the door, introduced me all around and took me into the kitchen to meet the chef.

He bragged that Clarence was the best cook in Arkansas, that he was once on death row for murder but that shouldn’t scare me because he’d pardoned him.

“Thas right. Thas right,” said Clarence.

People who study psychology say if a girl grows up craving attention from her father she will gorge herself on various substitutes to satisfy the longing. I certainly proved that theory while stuffing myself at the Clintons’ dinner table that Thanksgiving. The Governor kept telling Clarence to bring out more food. He insisted we all eat up, and my self-consciousness around overeating in public disappeared into 2nd and 3rd helpings.

After dinner Governor Clinton had us all go “out back” to play touch football. I sat on the sidelines with Hillary and others. The First Lady laughed and joked with us about the goofy footballers and told funny stories about Clinton’s well-reported inept sports activities.

On the way back to my apartment, I stopped by the campaign office to type some final touches into Clinton’s schedule for the next week in New Hampshire. Alone, but no longer angry, lonely or hungry, I paused, called my father and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving.

Up In The Air with Bill Clinton and Daddy

Hillary Clinton celebrated her 50th birthday with a private party at the Chicago Cultural Center in October,1997. Chicago transplants working in the Clinton Administration were not only invited to the party, but also to fly with her and Bill and their guests aboard Air Force One from Washington.

Per instructions, I joined my fellow Chicagoans in the 1950’s era lounge at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington a few hours prior to the scheduled take-off. Boarding the plane in a heightened mood we located our assigned seats in the guest section.

The Clinton friends arrived with the President and First Lady in the motorcade from the White House. Senator Barbara Boxer sat down next to me. Ted Danson and Mary Steenbergen sat in the two seats facing us. I sent a numeric “thank you” text to my friend in the White House who had compiled the plane manifest and assigned the seats.

Mary Steenbergen is an old friend of the Clintons. She and Ted had married about a year before. Ted looked nervous and self-conscious. I had read he had a hair transplant or plugs or something and I couldn’t take my eyes off his scalp. Mary chatted away, making introductions and jokes and we all relaxed. As soon as we were in the air, Bill Clinton, of course, sauntered back to the guest section. He introduced me to the two movie stars, then told them that I had worked in the campaign in Little Rock. They acted impressed. I felt impressive.

We landed on the military tarmac at O’Hare Field in 39 degree rain and rode downtown in the President’s motorcade. I rushed to the makeshift staff room to use a secure landline because cell phone coverage failed inside the 1890’s cement landmark. I needed to call my son at my father’s bedside phone at Northwestern Hospital.

“He just died,” Joe said.

I hadn’t seen my father for about five years, ever since he started trying to swindle my friends and former employers.

“Do you want to see him?”

“No. I’ll call you later.”

I looked at the only other person in the room—a Secret Service agent I didn’t know.

“My father just died. He’s in a hospital 5 blocks down the street.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you leaving?”

I wandered down the hallway to Preston Bradley Hall, grabbed a Diet Coke and walked around in a daze nodding to friends. I found Bob Sirott, who had a morning TV news show at the time. Bob and I had arranged to talk off the record about what it was like to ride on Air Force One. I gave him a box of M&M’s imprinted with the aircraft’s seal and described the inside of the plane and the food.


I left early to overnight at Joe’s. He told me some bits and pieces about my father’s last moments.

Up in the air the next morning on a United flight back to Washington, the cumulus heaven below held me in contemplation. My mantra: thank God he’s dead.

Umpteen Nervous Breakdowns

Umpteen Nervous Breakdowns

fullsizeoutput_31ecI’m not exactly sure what a nervous breakdown is. Is it the same as a mental breakdown? Emotional breakdown? Whatever it’s called, I’ve had a few of them. Like in every job I’ve ever had. And with every man I’ve ever loved.

When I was hired to work in the Clinton Administration I walked in the door of the U.S. Department of Education knowing it was the best job I would ever have. I worked for Secretary of Education Richard Riley, one of God’s greatest manifestations of His image and likeness. Surely this was a good sign.th

The previous year I’d been working at the Cook County Clerk’s Office. I’d landed a job there after cracking up in the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. In that grueling 16-hour-a-day job as Clinton’s scheduler, sleep was constantly interrupted by phone calls from Clinton friends who questioned my every decision—everything from who would be introducing Clinton onstage to what sandwiches would be in his holding room. When I returned to Chicago from Little Rock I blamed my getting canned on sleep deprivation rather than a frazzled emotional state. I didn’t want to look weak.
At the Cook County Clerk’s Office, I tucked the shirt tail of my mental collapse into my suit skirt and presented myself as an emotionally stable, confident, experienced political operative. At about the 11-month mark as Director of Communications I took an extended sick leave and started Prozac. That’s when I received a call from a campaign friend who worked in the White House Personnel Office inquiring about my availability to move to Washington. I accepted without deliberation, convinced it was a sign of better days ahead.

A friend keeping watch over my umpteenth nervous breakdown tried to warn me. He said moving to Washington was not a sign from God. He told me it was not a good move. But my default modus operandi is self-sufficiency. Deep inside my soul grows a bed of weeds whose dandelions of reason attract me like bees to nectar. They tell me I am my own master gardener. I provide my own seeds, water, nutrients and sun to my life. Reason tells me it’s unnatural to ask for help or accept advice from others. Whatever my spiritual condition is, at any given moment, Reason proclaims, “You are your own god. Be perfect.”

All spiritual teachers say a life lived on reason leads to despair. And so it did. By the end of the Clinton Administration I was seeing a psychiatrist every day. On weekends I feared I’d drive across the Potomac and buy a gun at a Virginia Wall Mart and blow my brains out.

When I returned to Chicago in 2001 I sought help, as I’ve always done when hitting a spiritual bottom. There’s been no loss of despair but I’ve learned to let hope live next to it—not hope in imaginary perfection but hope in the unknowable.

Remembering Revlon

Remembering Revlon

Whenever my mother dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in a living room chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails with a little bottle of toxic red enamel. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself. 

First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose and give me a headache but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark bristles dripping in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the th-2antique mahogany side table, and the other hand holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get just the right amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. 

I’ve watched artists do this same thing with their paintbrushes. I wonder now if my mother could have been an artist since she seemed to be a natural in manipulating the brush. Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.

At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lip brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips with the curved tapered brush. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual but not unnatural. She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick pouch.

In her dementia my mother always carried a small clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nurses gave her their old lipsticks for her purse because the sound of the click-clacking as she rifled through it calmed her down.

Unknown-1For a few years after my mother died, I entered into the ritualized glamor of painting my own nails red. I sat before a young manicurist who updated me every week on the intrigue of her affair with a rich married man. When she moved in with him and quit her job, the allure of painting my nails lost its luster. 

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

Watch It! There Are Thorns in Those Roses

My mother woke me very early one morning on my fourth or fifth birthday. Men were waiting downstairs to wallpaper and paint. This was my birthday present—new wallpaper. I had to quickly dress and stay out of my room until they were finished at the end of the day.

“C’mon, we’ll get your sisters and go visit Joanne!”

It may have been that day or another that my mother took my two sisters and I to see her youngest sister, Joanne, who was in the Maryland countryside about an hour from our home in Washington. Joanne was 10 years younger than my mother so she would have been about 20. She attended Georgetown Visitation high school and junior college with the Smith girls who lived at an 18th century Maryland estate, Mt. Airy. During her school breaks Joanne stayed with the Smiths and in mid-June they would have been lounging around the pool with their cigarettes and tanning lotion.

We all got our hair washed and were set out in the sunshine to dry while my mother, Joanne and the Smith girls painted their nails, gossiped and laughed over beer in the estate’s coach house.

My mother directed me to sit in an oversized lounge chair near the shade of a mighty Southern Magnolia.

“Lay down there, Regan,” she said, “Don’t get up until your hair is dry.”

The old-growth evergreen burst with sturdy white flowers that looked like folded linen, sweet-smelling like the Smith girls. This is the first time I remember birds flying in and out of tree branches. The sun fell through the breeze into the dark fleshy leaves and lulled me into a meditative reverie that I can easily reconstruct whenever I’m under a summer tree or feel the whiff of magnolias or their cousin gardenias drift past me.

At the close of day we returned home and I ran upstairs to my new room. Everything was covered in red roses—the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread and pillows. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever received and indeed, the only one I can remember as a child.

My sisters and I were born one after another in the Naval Academy Hospital in Annapolis where we lived in the years immediately following World War II. After myth father left the Navy, we moved to a red brick colonial on Fox Hall Road in Washington and my father started his first job as a labor lawyer for John L. Lewis, founder of the United Mine Workers. They held the same liberal political views but Lewis, a devout, moralistic Mormon and my father, in the early stage of his alcoholism had battling temperaments. 
By the time I was in the first grade, the job, the house and the rose-filled room had all gone south.

My father picked up work in law firms and corporations throughout the Midwest, and my family started moving around the country with him.

So Fly Mother

There’s no North Star to navigate me through today’s rapidly expanding and changing vernacular. I’ll bet my parents felt this and probably theirs before them. In my early teens I used the word “cool” in a conversation with my mother. I forget everything about that conversation except she snapped.

“Stop using that word. You sound like a degenerate beatnik.”

Oh. My. GoD. That’s exactly what I wanted to be. I’ve used cool ever since to describe things I like, assuming whatever I like falls into the universal “cool” column.

“Awesome” took the place of cool in the public square when I wasn’t looking. I’m mildly annoyed at the overuse of awesome but at least people use it close to its true meaning, unlike cool which confounds us with all its meanings: aloof, care-free, chill, funky, and in the case of Barack Obama—sophisticated, elegant and unflappable.

The Webopedia has a comprehensive list of texting language. ROFL means rolling on floor laughing. LMK means let me know. And my favorite, STFU means shut the fuck up which is teetering on the cliff of overuse in the aftermath of the painful November 2016 election and the reign of the twittering emperor.

Nothing stumps me more than hip hop language. Until recently I thought hip hop and its musical sister, rap, glorified pimps, whores, violence, drug dealing and guns. But I’ve met writers in the hip hop world who are neither gangsters nor malevolent. I see a world of hip hop creatives whose first thought every morning is to write. it. down. Like rock ’n’ roll before it, hip hop is a creative outlet for young people who are on to us, who use poetry, music, fashion, video and street art to proclaim their intolerance of our white privilege.

The words though are tough. I get the word homie, meaning a good friend as if from the neighborhood or home. “Hoe” a diminutive form of whore is used as a general insult, much like bitch. But, it’s elevated to a type of red badge of courage for poet Britteney Black Rose Kapri who titled her book Black Queer Hoe. I like it but as a former barfly who sold herself for Rolling Rock, I can’t bring myself to use it—yet. For that matter as a former drug addict I bristle at the use of the word dope as a substitute for cool, as in the HBO series, Two Dope Queens.

Recently I participated in an intergenerational poetry workshop taught by Kevin Coval, Chicago’s Hip Hop Chronicler. Kevin MC’d a performance of us workshoppers and our poems at Lookingglass Theater. He introduced me as “so fly”, and I immediately thought of Super Fly. The slang “fly” dates back farther than the 1971 movie though. In my teens I heard “fly” in 1920’s African American Fast Talkin’ Blues on old scratchy 78 RPM records. It was someone like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Lead Belly who used the word fly to describe a stylish, snappy, sophisticated woman. My 1960’s beatnik-wannabe friends and I never adopted fly in place of cool because it sounded too black.

BOCn5vf4SLqbLC+5R+QVewThey all called my mother cool behind her back not because she dressed in black turtlenecks like a degenerate beatnik but because with her acid tongue and casual elegance she let them drink beer in her living room and laughed at all their jokes.

I accept Kevin’s compliment with gratitude, but I will never be as fly as my mother was.

Don’t Fret—Luxury Apartments Coming Soon

Don’t Fret—Luxury Apartments Coming Soon

My friend Amy and I have mutual loves—among them are birds and art (also Democrats and anti-Trump jokes). So I clicked yes! to her text inviting me to Chicago Truborn Gallery’s Fight or Flight exhibit of bird art. Pulling up outside we ogled fresh art painted on the old three-story brick facade—birds and animals in purple, blue and yellow painted as if they are moving in and out of the building’s windows. Inside, famous street artists whose names I’d never heard had constrained themselves to canvas and board to fit the first-floor walls with their bird creations.

For opening day other street artists had contributed small examples of their work to a Truborn fundraising raffle. We bought raffle tickets, wrote down our particulars and dropped them in jars. I put all five of my tickets in one jar by a work labeled “Don’t Fret.”

“Who is this artist?” I asked the gallery curator. “I’ve seen this work someplace.”

“That’s Don’t Fret. He’s very famous. He has work all over the world. Elusive, shy.”

“Don’t Fret? That’s his name?”

“Yes. Don’t Fret.”

‘What’s his real name?”

“Don’t Fret.”

As it happens, I tell myself “don’t fret” all the time. It’s my way of staying present—halting past and future thoughts that bring on worried pain. I often text “don’t fret” to friends instead of “don’t worry.”  “Don’t fret” is less demanding. Worry malingers, like a spooky old hook-nose relative looking over our shoulders marking every wrong decision, every wrong move. Fret, on the other hand hard-stops at its very sound. It has no shelf life. “Don’t fret” lightens the load for those of us who may be worried that we worry.

A few weeks after our trip to Truborn (and a memorable lunch at Hoosier Mama Pies across Chicago Avenue), Amy messaged me that I won the raffle for the Don’t Fret.

“Huh? No one contacted me. Where’d you see that?”

She saw it on Instagram. I post photos on Instagram but I willfully bypass notifications on social media so I missed it. Thinking it was too good to be true, I decided to not fret and put it out of my mind. About a month later Truborn contacted me directly.

I woke to rain the day I’d arranged to fetch my prize but even on a cloudless day the artwork would have been unwieldy on the bus. I imposed on a friend to drive me to Truborn for the 3’x4’ wooden box—open in the back and a pedestrian street scene on the front. The artist painted a lone white guy with a backpack galumphing along the sidewalk passing in front of an oversized sign on a brick building. Grade-school lettering on the sign reads “Coming Soon Luxury Apartments! Premium Retail Space! Shiny Metal Buildings!” 

I imagine this is Don’t Fret’s whack at gentrification but these days signs promoting “Luxury  Apartments” appear on buildings in every Chicago neighborhood, every zip code. It’s nondescript, a throwaway, less than meaningless, annoying even. To me it’s an ode to the ignored and unread signs along our way from here to there. 

When I disentangled the art from the protection of my raincoat in the lobby of my building, Noel the doorman, whose real job is photographer, jumped out from behind the counter.

“You have a Don’t Fret! Where’d you get that? I’ve been trying to catch that guy in action for years.”

“What? Where have you seen his art?”

“It’s around. I’ve got lots of pictures of it. But not him. You’re so lucky to have that. It’s worth a lot of money.”

Don’t fret, Noel. You’ll catch him eventually. It’s a sign.