Volunteer Bomb Squad

Last Friday morning Beth Finke, Whitney the Seeing Eye dog, and I met at one of Columbia College’s Michigan Avenue buildings in Chicago to volunteer for this year’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam. In the elevator, DJ Ca$hera gave us a hearty hello. She’s Louder Than A Bomb’s famous house DJ, working the entire six-week competition.

Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) is Chicago’s annual youth poetry slam. Sponsored by Young Chicago Authors, the slam hosts over 1,000 youth poets in tournament-style bouts, all open to the public. Students representing Chicago area high schools stand on stage performing their own original poems to an audience of spoken word coaches, teachers, peers and strangers.

LTAB requires an army of volunteers for the events to run smoothly. Beth and I could have been check-in/greeters, merchandise sellers, timekeepers, social

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DJ Ca$hera in action #LTAB19

media ambassadors or judges. Judges! What could be more perfect for Beth, who teaches writing by listening to student recitations in her five weekly classes, than to be a judge for a spoken word competition? When I offered to be at her side for the first round, she agreed to sign up.

So there we were Friday morning, seated ten feet from the stage in the front row with lap-size white boards and markers. This was one of the first rounds of the five-week competition. Before the bout began, MC Tim “Toaster” Henderson briefed us on how to judge.

“Write numbers on the board from 7-10. Use decimals,” he said.

“A ten means the student is so good you’d pay their college tuition.” Translation: don’t give tens out too freely.

I sat next to Beth thinking I’d help her write on the board. But guess what? Beth didn’t need help. I was at least able to handle the eraser, cleaning Beth’s white board for each new poet.

On stage, DJ Ca$hera fired out bouncy hip-hop tunes. I even recognized a few. A “sacrificial” poet came first to get the ball rolling, make the room competition-ready, and give the judges a practice round. Then one after the other, poets from five different high schools kicked up onto the stage, introducing themselves by giving their names and the name of their poem before starting their reading. Many poets read from their phones, beating out words that particularized a slice of their lives: hard-bitten parents, bullies, sisters getting raped, and “fear of falling off a mountain of success.” One girl pushed through tears throwing down bars about her mother’s drinking, “her cheeks deflated like old birthday balloons.”

DJ Ca$hera turntabled tunes that artfully reflected the poets’ words. MC Toaster shouted out the numbers we wrote on our boards, and his playful comebacks to some of our scores encouraged the audience to shout LISTEN TO THE POEM whenever a poet got a score of 9.0 or lower.

Next we judged the entire team of poets from each school. Each group performed one poem together, succinct, snappy and sophisticated.

In the end all of the young poets hopped onto the stage to hear the winners. While waiting for their scores to be tallied, they hugged and jammed to DJ Ca$hera’s rousing wind-up. When the winners were announced, they all cheered for each other.

Whitney, unharnessed, made friends with the high schoolers sitting behind us,

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LTAB Judge Beth Finke and Whitney

squirreling her way under Beth’s chair, encouraging them to rub her ears. We had to dig her out from under there when it was time to leave.

On the way out we met Eric Coval, a suburban high school spoken word coach. Eric’s brother, Kevin Coval, Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate, created LTAB 19 years ago.

It was only 1:00 in the afternoon when we breezed back onto Michigan Avenue, fully entertained and far too stimulated. Now we’re checking the online schedule to see if we can find a time slot to come back and judge again.

#LTAB19 is still looking for volunteers, no experience necessary, The slam continues through March 17, 2019.  2-hour shifts are available weekdays and weekends, and you can sign up here.

Tickets still available for the final rounds of Louder Than A Bomb at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Look for me there.

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

 Part 1 Skateboarding

In high school a new boy arrived at the Jersey Shore from California with a skateboard. Someone made them for all of us using old roller skates and plywood. We skateboarded Skateboarding in New York City, 1960s (19)downhill in forbidden cemeteries until dark. It was the 1960s. Skateboards were outlawed, not because they were dangerous but because they were unknown, not a part of the mainstream and somehow subversive. We hid them in car trunks and behind
old tires in the garage. None of us had standard-issue parents so we formed our own family. Our family stuck together, laughed a lot and listened to each other. The police chased us out of the graveyards, creating a deeper bond of secrecy and protection. We vowed to call each other, not our parents, if we ended up in the police station. Later on, one did, with a bale of marijuana. He didn’t call. He went to jail. Another drank too many beers, drove himself  into a telephone pole and died.

Part 2  Abortion

I thought I should have an abortion. The boy I loved said I had to decide on my own. If I kept the baby we’d marry. If not, he’d never be able to see me again. How could a 20-year-old college student know that? He had more confidence than I, seemed less emotional, but had the same love for beer and the beach and rock & roll. She wasn’t hard to find, this illegal woman in Newark, NJ. When you reached a certain age in the ‘60s, everybody knew someone who knew someone. I drove alone.The three-story house had a small front porch. I climbed the wooden stairs, knocked on the rattling screen door. She answered and asked my name. Nothing came into my mind. Nothing came out of my mouth. She suggested I come back when I’m ready, but “don’t wait too long.” I drove to the boy and we started a family.

Part 3  Jesus

The poet pastor wandered around church saying hello to people with his Shrek voice, usually on his way to and from the courtyard. Sneaking cigarettes. I saw him frequently at the bar in a neighborhood restaurant. Sneaking scotch. As a former drinker and smoker myself, I had th-2a familial attachment to him. When a spiritual crisis befell me, I found him outside, lurking among the Gothic arches of the colonnade. I told him I have  something serious to discuss.  

“Sure, how ‘bout this afternoon?”

Tears got in the way of explaining myself any further until later, in his office. 

“I don’t believe in the Resurrection anymore,” I confessed.  

“Huh? Most people don’t even think about this stuff, Rrregan,” he confessed.  

“Do I have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian?” I asked.  

“Well, it’s the main tenet of our faith,” I thought he exclaimed, but he probably just said.  

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Wait it out!” He definitely exclaimed.

“You will always be in the church family no matter what you believe. Just. Wait. It. Out.”

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.

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Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead. Again. And again. And again.

The Fresh Coast

The Fresh Coast

When some people speak of the Midwest

They talk as if she’s the jilted cinderella 

Whose prince neglected, and I must defend her,

Not always cold, no oceans or mountains, sister,

But 600,000 sandhill cranes wade in her water.

The east coast comes to play sport, play act, pay 

To play, play around, play the innocent, put in play.

The west coast comes to run by, run. 

They say nothing eventful happens to her.

Then they blame her for Trump.

 

 

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

We stood in the street in front of my mother’s house five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean for what Walter Cronkite called the Eclipse of the Century. My 3-year old son Joe hippity hopped atop a bouncy ball clinging to the red rubber handle between his legs. Stacy, my 13-year old sister huddled on the frosty curb with her friend Billy. They had those cardboard gizmos with pinholes. I thought they got them at school but Stacy said Billy made them in his garage.

My mother never got chummy with her neighbors. A group of them came out from under the trees lining our sidewalks for an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. At one end of the house across the street, a construction tarp hung from the roof to the ground hiding a big hole. The mangled house was under repair after my mother pushed the wrong button on her 1959 Chrysler push-button transmission, slammed on the gas instead of the brakes, shot straight out of the driveway, jumped the curb and punched the house in its face. Unharmed, she passed out but not from the impact.

Billy reminded us earlier in the week that we needed a filter to look at the sun or we’d go blind.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you just have to look through the dappled sunlight under the trees,” my mother said. It was March. We didn’t tell her there were no dappling leaves.

The eclipse moved along the east coast from Florida to Maine. In her 1972 song You’re so Vain, Carly Simon memorialized the once-in-a-lifetime 1970 total eclipse of the sun. Cronkite and others reported that we wouldn’t see another eclipse like this until 2017, an absolutely unimaginable future time.

As the umbra started to move into position for the brief period it would black out all sunlight, my mother appeared on the darkening street carrying a can of Budweiser. Our long-haired white male cat, Mae West trailed along. He abruptly mounted a passing 308px-Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR.jpgtomcat prompting my mother to kick the cats and scream, “You queers! Cut it out!”

Joe stopped bouncing and looked toward the shadowy sky. Stacy bolted toward him. “Cover your eyes!”

I gawked at my mother, already relishing the laughs I’d get acting out this scene to my friends. They loved her. One of the neighbors hurried over to my mother, “Stop kicking the cats!” The others, distracted by the commotion on our portion of the boulevard neglected to look up. The dark cloaked us but we missed gazing at the Eclipse of the Century.

Billy, unfazed by the street theater, peered at the solar system event through his homemade cardboard pinhole filter for the entire three minutes the moon passed in front of the sun, his Eclipse of the Century. He lived to tell the tale for another five years before a drunken driver took his life.

Anonymous Prayers

Father Long asks to meet on the wrap-around porch of the 19th century worn-out resort hotel in Spring Lake, NJ. I just left my husband and live at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming he wants to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hang an emblematic roach clip on an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year old neck to compound my defiant hippie ensemble. He talks about my marijuana use.

Give it up for your mother’s sake.

Are you talkin’ to her about givin’ up drinking for my sake?

He once had a job as the disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys school. Realizing I’m no match for him, I make a fast exit scrambling out of the painted-wood rocking chair as I hear over my shoulder.

I’ll pray for you.

My mother’s cousin, Jesuit Arthur Long Jr. spends a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I live during my spiritually-sick adolescence and young adulthood. This summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is interrupted by my mother’s cry for help—help for me, her addict. Her lips never part for the word pray nor do her thoughts ever enter the prayer realm. How drunk must she have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God?

I wonder if Father gets dispatched to other wayward children sprung from his very wayward relatives. 

A few years later I make it to Alcoholics Anonymous and after six months sober I’m the speaker at a large meeting in Montclair, one of Manhattan’s bedroom communities. I talk about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs, until I get to AA. I’m happy to be sober and tear up at gratitude for my father who brought me into the Fellowship. My father sobered up five years before me in Town’s Hospital Manhattan and started his sustained abstinence in meetings on the Upper East side during the time I was dying, way out there in some other dimension. We hadn’t seen each other for five years before he arrived at the public mental institution I overdosed into at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds.

After my six-months-sober talk at the Montclair meeting, a petite pearly lady stands back from a line of well-wishers before approaching me.

I pray for you everyday.

What? Do I know you?

I go to meetings in New York with your father. We helped him when he went to see you unknownin the hospital, told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now, and suggest you go to meetings—like we do with any
other alcoholic. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.

And here I am.