Deciduous Neighborhoods

FeaturedDeciduous Neighborhoods

Setting piles of leaves on fire in the street was once a beckoning call to winter. True to their nature, trees delighted us throughout the fall as their leaves turned red and purple and gold before fluttering onto fading lawns and raked to the curb.

All the neighborhood streets had dead leaves piled up in front of their houses. We jumped in them, waded in them and grabbed armfuls to throw into the air so we could bask under dead leaf showers.

Gathering them back into pyramids, we’d let them cure for a while until they were deep brown, crinkly crispy. We’d hunt down the perfect skinny branch to skewer our marshmallows and ready ourselves for the fire.

In the Northern Hemisphere, where I lived as a child, deciduous trees and shrubs lose all their foliage in the winter. The leaves are cut from the branches by specialized cells, a process called abscission, as in scissors. Abscission helps the tree conserve water and energy during the winter.

Piling up fallen leaves and burning them is banned in most towns now because it’s unsafe, a cause of air pollution, and makes people sick. My family moved around a lot and I didn’t react adversely to leaf smoke until we moved to deciduous Kenilworth, Illinois, during my fourth-grade school year.

A reaction to any one or more of the trees could have sent me to bed that fall —maple, oak, elm, beech, birch, walnut as well as larch, honeysuckle, poison ivy, Virginia creeper and wisteria. A lot of dead stuff ended up in the street and went up in smoke.

Leaf smoke produces fine bits of dust, soot and other particulates. After the fire party in front of our house, my eyes & sinuses swelled, my throat & lungs closed, I coughed all the time and my dizzy head ached. I laid down in my parents’ darkened room and slept for weeks. 

This fall I met a friend at an outside cafe in a leafy Chicago neighborhood. We had a purpose—to entertain ourselves with the latest Trump jokes and cartoons. As we looked in and out of each others phones, my head suddenly felt too heavy to stay perched on my neck. I needed to sneeze and couldn’t, my throat closed and even though I was sitting down I was dizzy.

“Did the EPA lift the ban on burning leaves?” I asked.

“Dunno. Why?” He answered with a question.

“Don’t you smell leaf smoke?”

“No.”

I had a heightened sense of impending distress. People secretly burn leaves in their backyards and alleys and the fumes reach my nose long before they’re made public. 

Memories of crackling sparks popping up and away in front of rosey-cheeked children stirred up from my coffee. I love the smell of burning leaves like I love the flirtation of dangerous men. It’s wispy and sweet initially then overpowering and menacing. 

“I have to go!” I squealed to my friend, then ran from the whiff of the past.

In Living Memory

FeaturedIn Living Memory

O’Hare Airport opened in 1955, but most Chicagoans continued to fly prop planes out of the old Midway Airport on Cicero Avenue. Travelers wouldn’t trust jets taxiing onto O’Hare’s longer runways until the 1960s.

The Kennedy Expressway opened about that time, too, creating a faster route from Chicago’s northern suburbs to both airports. But in early December 1958 my parents’ drive to the airport was right on the cusp of these modernizations. 

At ages two, eleven, twelve and thirteen, my sisters and I could have stayed home but we were accostumed to saying good-bye at the airport when my father left on business trips. We piled in the back seat of the Buick and headed down Grosse Point Road for the hour-long drive to Midway. At the Chicago city line we could have turned on either Pulaski Road or the wider, faster Cicero Avenue. We had plenty of time before my father’s plane left for Mexico City, so my mother turned south on Pulaski. 

Midway was the center of air travel to Mexico from the Midwest. By the end of 1954 three planeloads a week of Mexican workers who entered the US illegally would be flown involuntarily out of Midway Airport back to Veracruz. Federal officials named the operation “Wetback Airlift”.

My mother wasn’t a thrill-seeker but she seemed to be at the scene of disasters by happenstance. While wading in knee-deep water once at the Atlantic Ocean she witnessed a shark swim in and chomp off a swimmer’s leg. Another time she was out for a walk and watched a hotel light on fire and burn to the ground. She told these stories at cocktail hour sitting cross-legged in her chair, Marlboro in one hand and a scotch in the other, as if she were a significant witness to earth-shattering historical events.

As we neared Chicago Avenue, my father spoke softly, reverently, signaling my mother to keep her voice down. I leaned closer to the front.

“Go slow.” He angled to look out her window and down the street.

“Smell that?” He asked.

“Hmm. What is it?” She answered.

“Lady of Angels. You can still smell burnt flesh.”

A fire near Chicago and Pulaski had ravaged Our Lady of the Angels Elementary School a few days earlier. Ninety-two children and three nuns died. Some from smoke and fire and some from jumping out windows. I strained to hear my parents hushed voices.

“…mostly Italian.” 

“…Sisters of Charity.” 

“…one fire escape?”

“…a nun made a bridge with her body from the windows of one building to the other for the children to cross…”

We said goodbye to my father at the gate. Dressed in a suit, tie and fedora he turned at the foot of the stairs and waved. I imagined him hurrying to his seat to order a scotch. My mother drove home north on Cicero Avenue. She never added the school fire to her disaster repertoire.

When I started traveling on my own, I avoided Midway and the visions it brought of the burned-out school. Our Lady of the Angels is no longer on the route to Midway Airport, but memories have a way of hiding in the senses. Every time I go there, I smell the burning flesh of those children.

Accidental Forgiveness

My parents thought the ability to read and write developed naturally, by osmosis. The first kindergarten in the US opened in 1860 but by the 1950s my parents still hadn’t heard about it. I wasn’t one of those three year olds who sat in the corner and taught herself to read and write. Learning letters and getting them into words, words into sentences, out of my brain through my pencil and onto paper developed painfully when I was eight at St. Patrick’s school in Terre Haute. Measles, chicken pox, mumps and parental neglect kept me from the entire first grade year. I was enrolled in second grade because, well, eight-year olds are in the second grade. On the first day, the nun circled the room asking each of us to stand and read a sentence from “Fun with Dick and Jane”. I rose, steadied my feet, stammered and shook. She stood right in front of me. 

“Well? Come on. Out with it.”

“I can’t read.” I mumbled.

My parents’ nonchalance over my lack of schooling perplexed the nuns. They treated my inability to read as a federal case. 

“I had no idea she couldn’t read,” my four-flushing mother announced to the mother superior, deflecting blame to my father. “He’s the smart one—he was supposed to teach her.” 

They sat me in first grade. My new classmates treated my flame-out as the worst thing that could ever happen at school. My older sister broadcasted I’d “flunked” second grade whenever she got the floor. Other parents said offhandedly, as if I couldn’t hear, that I had to repeat first grade because I couldn’t read.

To temper my embarrassment, my mother bought me a green Schwinn two-wheeler. Then she bought my two sisters their own Schwinns, red and blue. In June the nuns decided I had learned reading and writing well enough to skip second grade. They promoted me to third grade. We moved to St. Louis where I thought I’d escaped the school shame. But at Our Lady of Lourdes I faced a new mortifying unfamiliarity: multiplication tables. 

Sixty-five years later I’m promoting my first book on email and mulitplying the number sold times my cut. When a resident in my building replied “take me off your email list” to an announcement of the publication of the book, I thought, “What a bitch. Just delete it.” I’d included her in mass emails about community sing alongs for years with no response. Why gut-punch me for my book? If she’d known about the long and painful labor birthing the book, perhaps she’d have hesitated. Perhaps not. I never see her in the building’s communal laundry room where small talk turns strangers into neighbors. I suspect she has an unauthorized washer and dryer in her upgraded condo. 

When it comes to my book, my shadowy small self snarls under perceived offenses. I react as a child. It’s binary. Black and white. For me. Or against me. Because I’m published, accidental virtues visit me from time to time. I forgive my hapless parents, and I forgive the incurious, now-deleted emailer, too. 

Chicago’s Sexiest Voice

Chicago’s Sexiest Voice

In Big 7 Travel’s annual survey of the 50 sexiest accents in the U.S., Chicago came in fifth. You may know Big 7 Travel if you’re looking for the 7 greatest waterfalls in the world or 7 of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the U.S. (#1: Carhenge in Nebraska). Last year’s poll revealed Southern accents were most popular. Long Island came in last. This year New Jersey’s accent came in last which is similar to Long Island’s twisted tongue.

I can’t say WGN radio’s Bob Sirott has the sexiest voice I’ve heard, but it’s all-out Chicago. I recently started listening to Bob in the morning because he broadcasts midwestern comfort. In my twenties I set my clock radio alarm to WXRT and woke to rock and roll. When I started working in politics, WBEZ, the local NPR news radio station rousted me from sleep. I switched to Bob Sirott this summer in order to stop scaring myself to death every morning by waking to minute-by-minute bad news. Bob, who includes a moment of on-air zen meditation, never mentions the current president, rarely discusses the gun shots I hear out my Gold Coast window.

In October 1997 I was a guest at Hillary Clinton’s fiftieth birthday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Chicago transplants like me working in the Clinton Administration were invited to fly with her and Bill aboard Air Force One from Washington. We landed at O’Hare in thirty-nine-degree rain and rode downtown in the presidential motorcade. I rushed to the makeshift staff room to use a landline. My son was at my father’s hospital bedside, and I needed to call.

I had neither seen nor talked to my father for years.

“He just died. Do you want to see him?” 

I wandered into Preston Bradley Hall and found Bob Sirott, who had a morning TV news show then. Bob and I had arranged to talk off the record about what it was like to ride on Air Force One. I described the inside of the plane, the food, the guests and gave him a box of M&M’s imprinted with Air Force One’s seal. I said nothing about my father’s death. But he’s part of the pain and privilege from that night.

News of cops shooting unarmed Black people and the aftermath wake of destruction jolts me every damn time. I want to be informed but I must control the flow. The details. Inner tension between wanting to be safe and wanting criminal justice for Black people blankets my fearful dawn. Having cops on every corner makes me feel safe. Having cops on every corner is meant to deter Black men. Having cops on every corner demonstrates there is no criminal justice, no economic justice, no environmental justice, no educational justice, no spiritual justice. The system is completely broken. 

That sexy Chicago voice breathes a bit of cheer into the morning as I set out into my beautifully landscaped, dangerous, noisy, boarded up neighborhood. A neighborhood I will never leave.

Soul Clawing Days

Anne Lamott, a popular soul-searching memoirist, live-Zoomed a teaching on writing recently. She emphasized two major points: 1) stop not writing, and; 2) no one cares if you’re writing, especially your family and friends. Anne told us to be likable narrators, never vengeful and don’t antagonize the reader.

I risk being an “un”likable antagonistic narrator in writing about the looting and violence in my downtown Chicago neighborhood, the Gold Coast. An amalgam of landscaped mansions, row houses and mixed income highrises, the Gold Coast rose in the wake of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. Wealthy industrialists built North Lake Shore Drive to front their new mansions. In the late 1980s, the Gold Coast was the second most affluent neighborhood in the United States, behind Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  I’m neither affluent nor near-affluent. I live in the Gold Coast to be safe.

In the early morning of May 31, I walked out the back door of my building to Oak Street with Henry the dog. Oak Street is a block-long high-fashion retail museum where the haute couture show off their latest trendsetting wardrobes in oversize clear glass windows. The Chicago uprising stemming from the George Floyd murder turned Oak Street into a comic book version of a visit from Godzilla. Within hours shattered glass lay strewn on the streets and sidewalks, dismembered mannequins lay naked on the curbs, paper and cardboard boxes lay shredded everywhere. A U-Haul truck perched on the curbside by the shattered window of Dolce & Gabbana. Scavengers foraged through smashed-in Armani’s looking for remnants of the organized looting that had just ended. The street recovered somewhat over the next few months and then bam! On August 10 Godzilla came through again and not only sacked Oak Street, but unloosed a reign of violence and looting all over Chicago’s retail corridors. 

Black Lives Matter, a radical national organization became a mainstream darling after the gruesome George Floyd murder. Yes, white people said, we finally get it! We value Black people and their right to self-determination. We want to fight for equitable systems too. We might even support reparations. We’ll try to understand what you mean by “defund the police.” We pledge to learn more about white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Ending criminalization of Black communities is our goal too. We’re with you.

A BLM spokesperson stood in front of the police station that held 100 arrestees from the August 10 uprising and announced that BLM considers looting “reparations”, and that downtown attacks will continue until there’s justice and equality in their neighborhoods.

Activist Michael Pfleger appeared hangdog on TV mouthing a familiar plea including words like, “decades of disinvestment and abandonment,” and begging city leaders for a strategy. 

“I’ve never seen things worse.” He said.

In 1968 I had an autographed copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice”. I have no idea what drew me to anti-racism then or what draws me to it now. But I sure do feel as defeated as Father Pfleger sounds.

And I miss walking Henry through the Oak Street fashion museum.

Is Zoom a Reliable Alibi?

One of the joys of the Shutdown has been discovering crime dramas on what used to be mysterious and unclicked words on my TV screen. The series of murder mysteries on MHZ, Hulu, Britbox and Acorn are not necessarily formulaic, but they have one major scene in common: the detective always asks if the suspect was elsewhere on the night of; and if there are witnesses to the alibi.

I had an alibi last Sunday. The Shutdown service at my church was livestreamed into an adequate eleven-inch computer screen propped up on the desk in my bedroom. The sermon struck the taut chords in my silent mouth and unclapped hands. I needed a collection of witnesses to shout “Amen!” to Pastor Shannon’s sermon. But I was alone, looking out the elsewhere window weeping over the no-one. No one to join in a standing ovation, no one to see and no one to see me.

After the sermon I sang along with the tinny music emanating from the computer; an old hymn I love:

Live into hope of captives freed

From chains of fear or want or greed.

God now proclaims our full release

To faith and hope and joy and peace.

Halfway through I shuttered with a renewed and deeper knowing that I’d never attend a church service in person again. The pandemic Shutdown will hold me captive in chains of fear until the end of my days. Groups, especially singing groups are out of the question for my old bones in these non-vaccine days. 

I won’t observe Pastor Matt’s infant grow from a toddler to a Sunday schooler. He’ll never again see me ooh and ahh in the delight of his fatherhood. I’ll never sneak into an early morning service in my pajamas (hidden under a long winter coat), to hear Pastor Rocky again. And he’ll never see me admiring him in the way of a proud mother. Gabrielle and I will never again join arms, run up to Pastor Shannon after the service and proclaim our undying gratitude for her ministry. And she will never see the reflected glow of our admiring faces in the pews.

crrub140320Albert Einstein once posed a question to a fellow physicist, “Do you really believe that the moon only exists if you look at it?” It’s a common philosophical question, similar to
the sophomoric, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”. In morning meditation I intentionally ask myself if I’m hearing sound or “thoughts of sound” as a way to go deeper, where there is no sound.

Intentional solitude is not the same however as the feelings of isolation that arise from the existential supposing, “If I’m neither heard nor seen, do I exist?” Responding to covid requires an abrupt “so long” to a group existence I wasn’t ready to leave. In an alternate elsewhere life, witnesses see and hear me on Zoom.

Is this a reliable alibi?

 

You Went to Woodstock?

R-13471089-1563892691-9421.jpegThere’s not been an event in my life that’s made me feel more like a hot shit than going to Woodstock.

On August 15,1969, everyone I knew in my small circle of dope smoking friends were either headed there, planning to meet there or trying to get there. Hundreds of miles of caravans disrupted the pastoral dairy farms of lower New York state, rolling upcountry from the Jersey Shore. Reveling to the world’s greatest rock and roll bands melded our bodies and souls to three days of peace and love.

Throughout the festival Wavy Gravy danced to the microphone with updates on the number of cool cats sitting on the hillside of Max Yasgur’s farm. When he exclaimed half-a-million, whoops and whistles rose up to the spirit in the sky. All the hippies in America, maybe the world, had come together. I was right where I was supposed to be.

My friends and I told and retold Woodstock tales for a time afterwards. And then it was over. Or so it seemed.

Eight years later as I stirred spaghetti sauce in my Sandburg Village kitchen in Chicago, my ten-year old son and his friends were snickering in the doorway.

“Go ahead. Ask her.” My son elbowed his friend.

“Did you really go to Woodstock?” He asked.

“Yes, I did.”

“See, I told you.”

“Wow. What was it like?”

I brought out a small box of photos and souvenirs including my prized ticket to Woodstock to show the unbelievers. Until that point I’d kept Woodstock quiet.  No one in my new crowd of straight and sober friends was or ever had been a hippie. Woodstock wasn’t yet a badge of honor, rather the confession of a derelict life.

But after wowing those ten-year old boys, I knew I was on to something.

In 1969, half a million was only .2% of the population. By 1979 we were an elite group, only 500,000 of us. In 1994 I interviewed for a twenty-fifth anniversary story in a local Chicago paper. The Presbyterian church showed Woodstock the movie and asked me to give a talk about my experience. 

My ten year old grandson called one day in 2007 and asked, “Regan, my dad said you went to Woodstock. Is that true?” I assured him it was.

“We just watched the movie. It looks pretty wild.”

That box of souvenirs mysteriously disappeared after I showed it to his father’s pals at the same age. My grandson didn’t need proof to tell his friends though. Unbelievable reality turns believable with age. He asked about my favorite Woodstock band. The next Christmas he gave me a complete set of Janis Joplin.

Using “Woodstock” in the description of my upcoming book on Amazon optimizes search engine results. Even in my seventies friends introduce me as “…she went to Woodstock.” What are they implying? Drugs? Hippie? ‘60s radical? Or simply that I used to be a hot shit badass.

It Will Always Be The Sears Tower

In my twenties I had three different last names. One maiden name and two different married names, to be exact. Changing my name when I married wasn’t mandatory, but doing so made it easier to cash a check or use a charge card: women weren’t able to obtain credit cards separate from their husbands until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974. I had to show an I.D. to do either.

Neither married name lasted long enough for anyone to notice, including me. The surnames were easy to change and change back. Every once in a while one of the defunct names shows up in a credit report.

Just as my own name change had little effect on me, neither does changing landmark names like the Sears Tower to the Willis Tower. I and everyone I know still calls it the Sears Tower. We all have our particular reasons, from memorable tours of the ninety-ninth floor observation deck to family conversations about our hometown having the tallest building in the world, which it was for twenty-five years.

Driving back into Chicago after a sixteen year hiatus I had my driver’s license with my newly-reclaimed maiden name tucked close in a jeans pocket. My nine-year old son spotted the Sears Tower from miles away and breathed, “We’re home.” A few years later, we rode our bikes down Franklin Street to watch helicopters maneuver TV towers in place on the 110th story rooftop. Whenever out-of-towners visited us we couldn’t wait to take them to the top of the Sears Tower. Now my son shows it off to his own children, their friends and their own out-of-town guests.

OIP.7Wn5-vbqH2H6HgpjGLOGrwHaLMPeople often ask why it’s called the Sears Tower since no tools or washing machines are sold inside. I shrug my shoulders. The well-reported troubles of the Sears Tower are too exhausting to recount. Even as the doors opened in 1973, Sears Roebuck & Co., had slipped in its ranking as the largest retailer in the world. Lawsuits beset the half-built tower trying to limit its height so it wouldn’t block television signals. The news has continually reported the building’s bankruptcies, miles of vacancies and its lost status as the world’s tallest building.

On September 11, 2001 terrorists flew planes into New York’s World Trade Center, and the Sears Tower instantly became Chicago’s “ground zero”. I worked a few blocks away and when we evacuated that morning, I mindlessly shuffled along Jackson Street past workers furiously cordoning off a wide swath around it. For years afterward, few went inside the building fearing it would get attacked. Scores of business offices moved out leaving whole floors deserted.

In May, 2020, my TV blanked out after the Chicago River rose and flooded three Sears Tower sub basements, knocking out electricity to those TV towers. I’m rarely in the vicinity these days, but it appears everyday within my roving city view, anchoring my heart, that Sears Tower.

Suddenly Adult

In grade school I suspected most little girls in my class didn’t hide under their beds at night afraid a drunken parent would yank them awake for no reason. 

Actually there were reasons. My mother would rock my sleep-deprived body and warble declarations of love for my father. Stories spewed through her scotch-soaked breath about their college days, and how she missed him, even when he’d be gone for months leaving us with no money. I never knew what to say to her. This love stilled words of comfort.

My father had reasons too. He’d turn on all the lights, crash into the bedroom like a defensive end screaming, “where’s your mother?” Sometimes she huddled under the bed with me. Sometimes she hid in the closet. 

I trusted my parents knew what they were doing. My mother  taught me to lie to creditors on the phone and steal groceries for the family, sins to the Catholic school nuns. Lying and stealing were secret family virtues, no worse than my imitating her back-slanted handwriting, which the nuns proclaimed a sin of rebellion. Getting these secretEDB4E413-7562-45A6-80E9-337258CF464C_4_5005_c family virtues right forestalled soul-crushing parental recriminations.

My sisters and I never talked about the night terrors, the midnight moves, previous friends, schools or neighborhoods. Each time we were evicted I knew we’d never see our classmates again. There was no virtue in displaying the feelings evoked from such abrupt separations. Talking about the past violated some adult moral code beyond my understanding.

Scrunched up in the back seat with my sisters on the road to a new town, I overheard my father tell my mother more than once, “this will be the last move, this school the best, this house the snazziest.” I believed him. My mother did too.

Until she didn’t.

While my father was off on another prolonged toot, Agnes jerked us from our Midwestern roots and moved us to the East Coast. My sister Gael and I moved in with Aunt Joanne, Uncle Bill and their seven children in southern Maryland.

My eighth grade class at St. Mary’s of the Assumption had memorized one poem each month that school year, and in order to graduate, I had one month to memorize all nine poems. Not only did I rebel against this arbitrary standard, I became hysterical over it. But who could I talk to? Agnes  had taken my other two sisters to New Jersey to live with another relative. For the first time in my life I absolutely knew she had gotten it wrong. I needed her with me, to defend me against the injustice of those nuns. I had sacrificed a lot for her, and it was time she helped me. My pleadings on the phone did nothing to bring her back to intercede.

Every night after dinner Uncle Bill taught me the meaning of the poems so I’d easily remember their words, O Captain! My Captain!, Annabel Lee, The Tyger, The Chambered Nautilus. This love sang out words of comfort.

I never trusted my mother again.

 

Soft Serve Summer

One teenage summer I was hired to sell soft-serve ice cream on the corner of Eighteenth and Main in South Belmar, New Jersey. I opened the stand in mid-morning and closed my shift at four. I had just enough time to get home, shower off the sugary goo and get to my other job counting out cash drawers at a popular saloon on the beach. The legal age for working at the bar was twenty-one. I was eighteen.

On the east coast the common name for soft serve was carvel after the brand that invented it. Learning to dish it up was the easiest gig to master. I started the day pouring gallons of ice cream mixture into the top of a big aluminum tank, replenished the cones, cups and toppings and waited to pull the lever of creamy goodness for the crowd.

Most summer businesses wisely set up on the boardwalk or Ocean Avenue where the action is. The carvel stand opened a mile and a half from the beachfront as a gamble, a beacon of delight beckoning vacationing families. George the owner gambled himself a bit at Monmouth Park Racetrack during the day and at all-night card games. In the 1960s the Jersey Shore had its share of mobsters conducting illegal poker games in summer cottages up and down the Atlantic coast.

I spent a lot of time perched on a stool reading books and magazines that summer. Very few customers came for carvel during the day. The crowds were seaside, swimming, surfing and sunning. A little boy popped up and down at the window one day. I heard him giggling under the ledge where I couldn’t see him.

“I think I hear someone,” I said out loud, “I wonder if I should make a chocolate or vanilla cone.”

“Chocolate!” Came the response loud and clear.

I held the cone out the window without saying a word. A head full of tight black curls slowy pulled up the thin shirtless brown body of Perry. He reached his hand out for the cone.

“Twenty-five cents please.” I said.

“Don’t have no money,” said Perry. “It’s already made so jus’ gimme it.”

I tried to tell him I couldn’t do that but his persuasive smile matched his logical entreaty. I cautioned him not to tell anyone. He did tell someone, of course—all his friends. One by one they appeared below the window in the same way Perry did, as if bobbing up and Unknown 2down was the normal way to get a free cone.

At one point George told me the reason we didn’t have customers was because too many Black kids were hanging around. We both knew that wasn’t true. He loved those funny bobbers as much as I did but that’s what he told his white friends and family to justify his failure.

Between George’s lifting cash from the till and my give-aways to Perry and his friends the post Labor Day accounting showed two thousand dollars in the red.

George, curiously unconcerned, laid plans for his next scheme.