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Unearned Chicago Whiteness

I want to be a woman who is not afraid of young Black men. I want to enter the subway platform like an alley cat flic-flac’ing her cold feet into lackadaisical safety. I’m an old woman who wants to love non-Anglo words bouncing off the curve of the tunnel—ping! pow! hitting the pulse of the collective-waiting-for-the-train with differing beats-per-minute.

Imagine if I accepted Black culture the way some accept Chinese culture. I’d stop trying to colonize Black names—it’s Na’Dia, not Nadia! I’d quit harping at the Walgreen’s cashier for her gold-plated elongated fingernails—how can you hit the keys with those? I’d accept rap and hip-hop, stop changing the words or the beat whitening it all up just to enfranchise my fragile birthright. 

I’d walk down Lawndale streets, how-you-doin’, and ‘wassupin’, a welcome visitor looking for friends and food and local art. Next day I’d take you with me sayin’, meet Taneesha from poetry class and oh there’s Damari from tutoring. Hi Fam. Here’s my friends. I’d hear new language poppin’ outta my own mouth. Like they were my own words. Like they have to do when they walk white and talk white on Michigan Avenue, or else. Or else, the judge says, I can’t understand you. Speak proper English. 

We’d gather all together and go to the movies, sit side-by-side transforming ourselves into subcutaneous doppelgängers. We’d be like, oh that’s funny or Girrrlll I feel ya’. All hands would open and close on popcorn from the same bucket. Afterwards we’d crowd the sidewalk two-steppin’ to No Diggity on our way to brunch. Everyone would get served and be safe.

My unearned whiteness is a blessing: I get to go out the door without rehearsing how to react when Macy’s security guards ask to see my receipt. And a curse: When a white woman cried to police “there musta been 40 Black boys down there” crowded in the Red Line, I’m helplessly guilt-ridden when the fact gets reported that night as 50. And 60 the next morning.

I’m an old white woman who wants to cuddle and cry with Black children maligned in that subway—not white women’s cries regurgitating Black boy history of false accusations and lynchings. No. No. God-the-Mother cries with tears that seep under my babies’ skin cleansing them of my control, my denial of their equality, my remarks about their hair.

I thought I was once a curious woman simply eavesdropping on human nature’s racial conversations. The constant banged-out message that my beloved Chicago is the most segregated city in the country woke me to know I’ve been a gagged participant all along.

My vow is to be the old white woman waiting in that subway, with you, emancipated from fear.

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CHICAGO (CBS)–An 18-year-old is among four people now charged in a mob attack on the CTA Red Line.

I Want To Be A Sports Fan But Doink!

I Want To Be A Sports Fan But Doink!

I want to be a woman who knows sports. I want to go to football games and know all the players, where they live, their salaries, their stats. I want to insert myself in men-talk, the world of facts and figures, history and strategy.

My hometown brags about her sports. We have the Cubs, the Bears, the White Sox, the Blackhawks and the Bulls. At Midwest Orthopedics in 2015, a year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, the doctor said, “We do the Blackhawks, you know.” 

I returned in 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series and someone said, “They do the Cubs, you know.” 

A friend who had her hip replaced said, “My doctor is the Bulls ortho.” 

Another who had shoulder replacement, “My doctor fixed the White Sox pitcher.”

When I was a young professional, my office mate, Patrick, told me I’d never get another man if I didn’t know sports. Every Monday morning he’d grill me. 

“Dodgers?”

“Los Angeles.”

“Packers?”

“Green Bay.” 

Patrick’s weekly quiz schooled me in teams, players, uniforms, stadiums and basic terminology. Osmosis had been my teacher until then. I played team sports as a kid and absorbed recurring words like touchdown, foul ball and goalie. My son, who learned to read looking at baseball scores in the back of the newspaper, played baseball, hockey and basketball. I wasn’t as fully engaged as other Little League mothers but I picked up tufts of jargon in the stands while rooting for his little body to get around the bases.

On a Sunday afternoon in early January 2019, I was on the #36 bus headed north to theth-1.jpeg movie theater to see “Vice” for the second time. Handsome, jovial cool cats at the Clark and Division bus stop grappled with grocery bags full of beer and pretzels. They were in mid conversation as they boarded: 

“…a company game between Bears and Packers, then a guy bought the Bears for $50.” 

“Cubs came after the fire. Always played Wrigley; Bears used to play Wrigley.”

After the fire? Was he referring to the 1871 Chicago fire?

One of the fans shouted out the words on the billboard as we passed the Weiner’s Circle: “It’s The End Of The World As You Know It. So Eat Hot Dogs!”

“Hope that’s not an omen!” shouted a passenger in the back and I realized the NFL wild-card round between the Bears and the underdog Eagles was about to kickoff.

After the movie I boarded the bus with a pack of  jostling men who kept shouting Doink! and fuck Cody! I looked in my iPhone. The Bears lost due to an errant field goal by Cody Parkey. Doink! The boozy herd bobbed and weaved, nearly falling on those of us sitting in the front seats. th

I fear I’ve forgotten most of what I learned from Patrick, since I’ve had no occasion to use the information. I want to be a woman who knows sports but life on the #36 bus confirms what I’ve always known—I don’t want a sports fan for a man.

Sex in the Art Institute

Sex in the Art Institute

On my first visit to “Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces,” I was so mesmerized by the dazzling patterns in the robes of the geishas that I did, indeed, float around the gallery.

R_UP_129R2_85-27_web“My god, a whole exhibit devoted to prostitution,” my companion whispered halfway around the showcased Japanese beauties.

I dragged back-to-back out-of-towners to The Art Institute of Chicago to see the paintings of Japan’s “metropolitan amusements to life,” as the curator describes it. The Weston Collection of concubines and geishas were painted between 1600-1850, the Edo Period, dubbed by the Japanese of the time as the “floating world”. 

My visitors were as entranced as I was with a particular part of the exhibit. Behind Japanese-style slatted-wood walls, long scrolls were rolled out flat in climate-controlled glass-topped tables. Moving sideways foot-by-foot in silent walking meditation, I peered down at the cases to study the painted images: depictions of men and women flirting and kissing, men and women embracing, then men and women in the most preposterous coital positions. Colorful garments wrap around their legs and arms, leaving the genital areas fully exposed. It had been a long time since I’d seen an erect penis. I had no idea there were so many ways to use it. The Manasquan High School gym teacher in New Jersey didn’t cover positions in 1960s sex education. Edo Period Japanese parents, however, bequeathed these scrolls to their newly-wed offspring for their sex education. How grateful I would have been had my mother given me the modern equivalent, The Joy of Sex.

My friend gasped. “I didn’t realize Japanese males were so well-endowed.”

I shrugged. “Well, don’t forget, all the artists were men.”

My cousin Therese came to town for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t wait to get her to the Art Institute. I resisted briefing her as we ascended the stairs to the exhibit, stopping first to see American Gothic and Georgia O’Keefe. I left her at the Floating World entrance and pointed to the sign for the Member’s Lounge.

“I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”

The Member’s Lounge sets out catalogs for every exhibit. I grabbed a coffee, the Floating World book and settled into a chair at a corner table scrunched up against a wall crammed with dozens of other cafe tables and chairs. I was deep into searching for the scrolls of the erect-penis paintings when I felt the rustling of a neighboring body. A man with Asian features was squeezing himself into the adjacent table. I resumed my search. A jolting woman’s voice interrupted my task asking to sit at the Asian man’s table. I resumed my search.

“What do you think of acupuncture?” The woman asked the Asian man.

“I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

“You’re kidding?” said the woman.

“I was in Chinatown yesterday for acupuncture,” she said her voice reaching the third octave.

What was going on? Was she so charged up after seeing the erect-penis paintings of Asian men she had to create stupid pick-up lines for this guy? The two of them carried on as if they were in a bar drinking sake. I abandoned my search for photos of the erect-penis scrolls and grabbed my notebook to record their conversation.

Just then Therese came through the door of the Members’ Lounge, caught my eye and burst out laughing.

“Wow. No wonder you left me by myself—so I could blush in secret!”

“Therese,” I mumbled, letting her in on the conversation at the next table, “there’s so much writing material here. I could sit in here every day during this exhibit and come up with a whole book, “The Overheards in the Members Lounge.”

“Overheards?”

“Yes, you know. Things you overhear. Write it all down.”

“Is that legal?” Therese asked.

 

Wish I’d Saved Those Dead Bodies

I open the drawer to a pile of dead bodies—naked GI Joe and his headless pal, Ken, with his pants around his knees. Small plastic green soldiers had been flung willy-nilly into the drawer’s mass grave. Their weapons, swords and shields, were buried with them, $_3just like their human predecessors in the ancient world. I had not opened my low-slung coffee table drawers since my grandchildren stopped overnighting several years ago. I kept them in tact as a mini-shrine to time standing still.

How I yearn for those little boys to come flying through the door one more time, go straight to the coffee table, plop down on the floor and do battle on the table top with their action figures.

In another drawer I discover my granddaughter’s mini stuffed bear dressed like Betsy Ross, her hat half chewed up by one of my now-dead Scotties; a tiny red plastic car from Monopoly Junior; and, three red plastic cups in the shape of Shriners’ hats. I reach to the back of the drawer and feel around for the little monkey that goes with the cups. All three grandchildren loved this old-fashioned shell game. They set the three hats on the table top, hid the monkey under one and spirited the hats round and round, in and out. I would guess which hat hid the monkey. I always got it wrong. One of them would jump eff347a9d7e47ddeb8669a526ce39fbain to help me, their old grandmother with her limited sense of place. Another would whisper, “pick the left one” knowing the hat on the left was empty. They thought juking me was hilarious. I did too, but for different reasons—my delight was simpler: I loved hearing them laugh.

Perhaps the shell-game scammers on the L trains started with the Shriner monkeys when they were kids. Chicago visitors huddle with their suitcases on the O’Hare Blue Line, get sucked in, throw their dollars down, win once, then lose over and over. The scammer fools them like my grandchildren fooled me. And they all laugh too.

I clean out the drawers and throw all the bits and pieces of remembered joy down the garbage chute. I disinfect the coffee table as if it were a crime scene. This is what we do, after all. Clean things out. Throw them away. To have space for more stuff. I don’t need more space though. If I can’t hang it on the wall, wear it or stuff it into my bookcase, out it goes. So now I have two empty compartments in my small apartment I’ve no use for. Oh, I could store little Christmas ornaments there, but I already have a place for those. One drawer is a perfect place for the two TV remote controllers I all of a sudden need. But I’d never remember I put them there.

I really wish I’d saved that monkey shell game.

For now, these drawers of time past remain empty.

Writing the Body with Beth Finke

Last Friday night author Beth Finke and I participated in an event called “Body Language—Reading and Discussions about Writing the Body.”The event was held at Access Living, a non-profit advocacy organization in Chicago that delivers programs and services to people with disabilities.

As a writer in one of Beth’s memoir-writing classes, I’m included in her latest book, Writing Out Loud. The book tells Beth’s story about teaching memoir to older adults, and I gladly accepted the invitation to get on stage with Beth and interview her about her writing and teaching. After introductions, I asked some of the obvious questions most people want to know:

  • What was it like to get fired from your job when you lost your sight?
  • How did you get started leading memoir-writing classes?

The shocker came when I asked, “What other jobs have you had since going blind?” Beth answered by “reading” a passage from her book about auditioning to pose in the nude for an art class. She pulled out a phone-size gadget with her passage teed up, put in earplugs and flipped the switch that talked the words in her ear as she perfectly mouthed these words out loud to the audience:

My robe was still on when I backed up to the table and hitched myself up. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop’s edges to be sure I wouldn’t fall off, then stood up and unbuttoned my robe.

I’d been told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position. Had I been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with coming up with six different poses that I forgot I was naked.

I posed.

The department must have been pretty desperate for models, especially ones middle-aged or older and willing to work mornings. Most models are students who liked sleeping in.

I passed the audition.

Access Living is a leading force in the national disability advocacy community. The audience included people from their extensive list of volunteers, clients, personal assistants, board members and friends. Executive Vice President Jim Charlton even brought students from his classes at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development.

Next up after Beth’s interview was a reading from artist Riva Lehrer’s upcoming memoir, Golem Girl. Riva read a riveting account from her magnificently written manuscript about growing up at the Condon School for Crippled Children in Cincinnati. A slide show moved from photo to photo behind her as she read. It showed lovely old black and white yearbook pictures of the school, the students and the teachers.

Riva works at Access Living, is an adjunct professor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University, and was born with spina bifida. Her paintings focus on physical and cultural representations of hers and others disabilities. Golem Girl will be published by Penguin/Random House next year.

The most startling part of the evening came as questions from the audience started flying. An audience member said she’d read Beth’s book Writing Out Loud and asked if she was writing another. Jessica said she writes, too and asked if Beth ever would start a class for younger people near where she lives, in Skokie. Then, Kapow! Someone asked Riva how she was able to accomplish so much after being ridiculed relentlessly as a child because of her disability.

“I’ve been called crip, gimp, freak, retard, midget, you-name-it,” she acknowledged. “In the Condon school, because we all had something, I felt safe, not so different. Outside of school I was always scared.”

She said that when she first started working alongside so many other people with disabilities at Access Living, she felt safe at work like she always had at school. “I was afraid to go out the door at the end of the workday.” She credited Susan Nussbaum, her friend and colleague at Access Living, for helping her navigate the outside world. “You just have to rely on others.”

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Jessica, Beth Finke and Whitney

Afterwards I walked around the room to chit-chat. When I returned to Beth she was leaning into Jessica showing her how to work the reading gadget so Jessica, who uses a wheelchair and has limited sight, could read her own stories out loud to her own audience.

Just before we left, Beth’s guide dog, Whitney, uncharacteristically stood up and lifted her head high enough for Jessica to pet her.

 

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

 

When my first husband, labeled Madman Kelly by his Princeton colleagues, came to the end of his Sociology degree in 1968, the campus uncharacteristically fire-cracked with small anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations and teach-ins on avoiding the draft. Memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr. ignited embers in the Ivy League gentleman conscience. Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed by Princeton Junction as I watched with our toddler son Joe hanging in an Army surplus knapsack. I campaigned for the poet-senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy in nearby Trenton with Joe on my back.

Madman Kelly graduated and we partied through the summer at the Jersey Shore. Kelly lifeguarded, Baby Joe and I frolicked on the beach, and we delighted being together in the light of day.

At night Kelly and I took turns going to bars with our friends, and I started smoking pot and getting in arguments over the Viet Nam war. Jersey Shore barflies had nothing on me—I’d been schooled by Princeton peace activists and Ramparts Magazine.

President Lyndon Johnson did not seek reelection. That left Eugene McCarthy, the intellectual standard-bearer of peace and justice, to shepherd the world toward a frenzied utopia in his campaign for President.

After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June, I started tutoring a young cousin for cash to buy stationery and postage stamps and took to writing letters to Kennedy delegates asking them to vote for McCarthy at the Democratic Convention in August. I’d pontificate daily to friends and strangers on the beach and in the bars to test out new reasons to support McCarthy over the late-arriving establishment candidate Senator Hubert Humphrey. I fully expected my work to pay off at the Convention in Chicago and longed to be at the youth festival planned in my hometown during the Convention to celebrate my candidates’s victory.

By the time I joined friends at a neighborhood saloon to watch the Convention on TV, news accounts of the protests and riots were interrupting coverage of the political speeches inside the Convention Hall. But that didn’t matter to me. Soon all would be well. McCarthy would clinch the nomination and beat Richard Nixon in November. No doubt about it.

The unthinkable startled me out of innocent political bliss. The TV flashed back and forth between white men bullying peace delegates inside and police beating peace activists outside. Mayor Daley ordered the police to shoot to kill. People who looked like me were dripping in blood.th-6

What was happening? Eighty percent of primary voters were anti-war. We won the battle and I was sure we’d beaten back the war machine. The delegates rejected McCarthy and his peace plank, nominated Hubert Humphrey and iced out Democratic activists. 

And me? I added martinis, LSD, mescaline, speed, librium and cocaine to my diet. I could see no future. By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 1972, AA meetings monopolized my time and I did nothing but slap a George McGovern bumper sticker on my VW.

Father Hungry

Father Hungry
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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.