In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

In the Attics of My Life, Jerry Garcia Lives

I worked in politics my whole life, always hoping for the perfect politician. The world view I dreamed up included good people who ultimately acted in the best interest of the whole.  Bill Clinton could have been my hero. I loved his rallying cry in the 1992 campaign, “personal responsibility.”

But I had doubts. Could I work for a candidate who was pro capital punishment and unsure of his view on abortion? Those were two issues I thought every Democrat knew to be against and for.

The “personal responsibility” message won me over. In th-11991 I abruptly left Chicago for Arkansas to work as Clinton’s campaign scheduler, a grueling job that required 24/7 attention. One cold January night Clinton and his entourage, George Stephanopoulos and Bruce Lindsey, returned to Little Rock in a small private jet from all-important New Hampshire. I met the plane on the dark, deserted tarmac to give Clinton his next day’s schedule. He descended the jet’s stairs with a big smile, came directly at me, grabbed my coat and ran his hands up and down my long furry lapels. “Nice coat, Regan,” he whispered.

This encounter may be the reason I love Bill Clinton.

When he won, I relocated to Washington to work in his administration. I moved into the first floor condo of an 1880 townhouse on Church Street in DuPont Circle. In 1994 he passed a crime bill I thought went too far. Next he signed NAFTA, an agreement opposed by every Democrat I respected. Both policy shifts were spearheaded by White House insider, Rahm Emmanuel, who decidedly did not have the public good at the forefront of his self-serving mind. But Clinton loved him. Dissatisfaction settled in the space between my bones and muscled me awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for the next seven years.

In the still of an August morning in 1995 NPR told me Jerry Garcia died. I collapsed on the bathroom floor weeping over the death of something I couldn’t put words to. At 49-years-old my idealism had come to an end: my false world of everlasting good died with Jerry Garcia. Reality glared back at me in the mirror as I brushed my hair, seeing for the first time a wrinkled face and rubbery neck. I dressed in a soft yellow, flowery cotton frock and pinned a silk flower in my hair, ready for the grieving day.

My dog Voter squirmed away from my extra long hug and I went out the door to my old friend, Keith Lesnick waiting to drive us to work. As soon as I got in the car tears spilled out. He asked about the sadness, and I slobbered out a few words, “Jerry Garcia signed into rehab last night,” I said. “He died in his sleep.” Keith waited a few respectful minutes, and then, with one simple sentence, he opened a new, naked reality that included the unspoken caveat of don’t take yourself too seriously.

He said, “well, it’s not as if it’s Aretha Franklin.”

Immortality, Interrupted: Lake Forest Eviction

220px-Barat-PereMy lawyering father would make a barrel of flimflam cash, move our family to a gilt-edged neighborhood and drink it all up within a year. He would sneak away on a business trip and a few weeks later my mother would wake my two sisters and I in the middle of the night, pack us into the car and drive to another state, another town, another gilt-edged neighborhood.

In seventh grade I entered my 11th school since I started first grade in 1952, the Academy of  Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, Illinois. I intended to shine in all subjects, especially my nemesis arithmetic, no matter what was happening at home. Experience warned me I didn’t have much time until the next midnight move so I crammed my head with Latin conjugations, algorithms, periodic tables, Romeo and Juliet, diagrammed sentences, the French revolution and the Gospel of Mark. At the end of the year the Mater Admirabilis Award (Mother Most Admired, another name for Mary), an Oscar-like trophy would be bestowed on an eighth-grader for her excellence in academics, sports, religious and civic activities. Her name would be engraved on a bronze plate and permanently fixed next to the previous winners. I prayed everyday for God to keep me in that school through the eighth grade so I could win that prize.

Sacred Heart nuns had been in Chicago since the 1860’s. Bishop Anthony O’Regan brought them from France to open a school at Rush and Illinois Streets, a mile from where I live now. They taught women leadership in society rather than social graces and homemaking. O’Regan moved the school to pastoral Lake Forest when hotels, saloons and brothels flooded the Rush Street neighborhood.

A hundred years later, French still permeated our activities. “Congé” (holiday) was a surprise day when schoolwork was suddenly replaced by a day of fun such as playing Cache Cache, a version of hide-and-seek. Congé ended with “Goûter” (to taste), a roomful of refreshments celebrating the winners of the day’s games. This joie de vivre coupled with the nuns’ love of God appealed to my awakening soul.

My teachers gradually increased my extra credit assignments to include tutoring, public speaking and sports. By the end of the 8th grade everyone knew my name would be forever on display in the trophy cabinet.

In the school bus on the way home from an ordinary day in early May, I thanked God for Sacred Heart and my soon-to-be immortality. The bus driver pulled into our driveway and slammed on the brakes. Furniture, clothes, pots and pans, bicycles – everything we owned clogged the pavement.

I told my sisters to stay on the bus, as if something dangerous was happening, until I saw my mother sitting on the couch with my 3-year-old sister Stacy. I needed to save her from a reality I didn’t understand. A sheriff blocked the front door. We were not allowed to enter. A family friend arrived to drive us to a downtown Rush Street hotel. A week later I was in another school, another town, another state.

 

Doubting: Tutoring

Doubting: Tutoring

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself.

He was my 7-year-old charge in the weekly volunteer tutoring program at church. During our first getting-to-know-you session in October we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him, an aunt or grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details. I eased off to save him from having to make something up. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. I wanted to help him straighten other things in his backpack, but he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized. I committed myself to years-long care and support of Tyrone, with whom I’d connected in the church’s summer program. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but guns-in-schools is an issue that I can’t bear alone. I told a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver and contacted her. The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. A few days after that Tyrone dropped out of tutoring.

Benign doubt can slip seamlessly into fearful caution and consequential actions. Did I do the right thing in reporting Tyrone’s confidence? I doubt it.

Film School with Vivienne

Film School with Vivienne

 

The elevator opened to a lit-up scene of human statues in the closed-for-business City Hall lobby.

“Cut! Close that elevator door!”

I slinked back into the elevator, up to the 4th floor Elections Department and flew to the telephone in my office where, in the Saturday morning quiet, I had just finished the 1993 voter registration plan.

I called my high-rise neighbor, Vivienne de Courcy. “You have to come down here right now!”

“Ach. Can’t possibly. Bogged down. Writing,” said Vivienne, a frustrated 9-5 insurance lawyer who spent Saturdays grinding out movie scripts.

“You must — they’re shooting a movie in the lobby. We can get access with my I.D.”  Vivienne and I loved sifting through the credits at the end of movies trying to figure out what everyone did, but we’d never been on a movie set.

Chicago’s City Hall squats on one city block with doors at Randolph, LaSalle, Washington, and Clark Streets. I hurried to the Washington Street side of the building down the stairs to the lobby. Flyers were posted in the stairwell: Lobby Closed Saturday Noon for Filming of The Fugitive. When did they put those up?

I ran down the hallway, shoved open the polished brass doors and caught my uninhibited, garrulous sidekick swinging her long legs out of a taxi on Washington Street.

Vivienne’s knockout looks never suffered from uncombed hair and no make-up. Flinging her camel-hair cape over her shoulder she shivered in the March wind, grabbed my arm and skipped inside. I muttered quick instructions: don’t embarrass me, don’t say a word, don’t make me laugh, do not get me in trouble.

Crew Only signs sat on food tables along the corridor. Perched at the table near the rotunda we hawk-eyed bowls of popcorn. Vivienne whispered her intuitive movie-credits knowledge. That’s the Director. Production Assistant. There’s the Script Supervisor. Which one is the Grip? Dunno.

A crew member gestured to the popcorn, assuming we were extras. Vivienne helped herself. What? Don’t do that!

And then, Action! Harrison Ford came running down the circa-1911 polished marble staircase across the wide rotunda zig-zagging through the crowd of extras I had witnessed by the elevators. Cut! He walked back upstairs. Action! He came running down again chased by Tommy Lee Jones.

Oh my god, he’s coming this way. “Vivienne! Say something!” Harrison Ford sauntered over to munch popcorn. I shoved Vivienne toward him. He said hello and she asked him how he liked Chicago.

“Is that an Irish accent?”

“’Tis.”

“How do YOU like Chicago?”

“I love it.”

“Well, I love popcorn.”  He smiled and strolled away.

My starstruck legs wobbled. Back at my side with a handful of popcorn, Vivienne shimmered. Turning toward the exit we faced crew and extras gathered for the catered lunch behind us.

“Are you two extras? What’s that I.D. around your neck?”

We skedaddled down the hallway, fluttered out the doors and whooped it up all the way home.

 

Vivienne de Courcy’s first feature length movie. “Dare to be Wild” is premiering at the Palm Beach Film Festival in April, 2016. She currently resides in Ireland and London.

You read that out loud in class?

Safe & Sound blog

Regan-Burke That’s Regan, today’s guest blogger, peaking out of her hood at a Chicago bus stop.

It was a lucky day for me when Regan Burke turned up for one of my memoir-writing classes. A civil rights activist, Regan was a White House staffer during the Clinton presidency and has colorful – and moving – stories to tell. She files away unusual words she hears and cleverly shoehorns one or two of them into each essay – you’ll find one here in her guest post about the value of honesty in memoir-writing.

There’s a Lacuna in My Story

by Regan Burke

Sometimes I email the essays I write for my memoir classes to a good friend.

She tends to find my work imprudent and irresponsible.

”You read that aloud in class?” she’ll ask. “Yep,” I answer. “I did.”

I have a strong motivation for writing the truth. A book by Dr…

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Hippies At Thanksgiving

Ode to Thanksgiving

th-2

Vermont with Tricia Thack and our children in her ’62 Ford
To escape husbands and dull lives at the Jersey Shore
Route 100 Pittsfield apartments at the Village Green
A four-bedroom apartment on the ground floor
With sheltered hippies, ski bums, drop-outs, in-betweens
Divorcees, dharma bums, dogs, cats and a runaway queen
Working snow season ten miles up the road
Bars, restaurants, ski lifts, tourists by the busload

California hippies made yogurt
We ate it plain no mediocre
East Coast hippies found health food stores
Raw cashews, unsulphured raisins, no carnivores
Steam the vegetables
Sunflower seed salad incredible
Eat brown rice
Don’t eat meat, except bacon

October 1969
Friendships accelerated deeply on pot and wine
Music-fueled astral planes
Snowshoes with children in tricky terrains
Thanksgiving dinner hearkened merrymakers from the mountain
Mishmash beans soaked in apple-cider-vinegar foamy fountain
Simmered four hours with smashed garlic cloves
Vegetables landed willy-nilly into crackling oil skillet on the stove
Chopped tomatoes, peppers, onions, zucchini, squash, mushrooms, celery
Washed brown rice seethed unstirred roguishly
Cool beans hot rice folded into vegetables simmering glimmering
A bland bowl for the children fingering
Honey dollop, crushed marijuana, basil, jalapeños, paprika, ginger, pepper, ever so
Settled on low heat emitting brewed fragrance of Old Mexico
Aroma announced time to eat Mishmash and pour sauternes
Apple wine and marijuana released the kitchen from worldly concerns

Cool cats appeared extra marijuana added to Mishmash haplessly
California hippies topped off stew with yogurt joyfully
We relished the sweet and savory peace of our groovy family

La Dolce Vita in Cinque Terre

It took six months in 1998 to organize our jitter-filled lives around a two-week vacation in Vernazza, a thousand-year-old fishing village in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera.

Vernazza RoccoRooco, Kristina, Mark and I left the 19th century train station and rolled our overstuffed suitcases 20 minutes up a cobblestone switchback twined in purple morning glories. Our home abroad sat 1300 feet above the Mediterranean Sea and overlooked a village of 1000 happy Italians. We arrived at LaTorre midday, when the sea is dark turquoise and the sun swells the nose-tickling lemon and olive trees.

LaTorre is a 13th century pirate lookout with a galley kitchen, a modern bathroom, a luminous living-dining area and an alcove captain’s bedroom. Three other beds were lofted into stacked platforms in a stone tower, and the only way to get to them was by rope ladders. We staked out our sleeping arrangements and headed back down the path to the village.

Like bloodhounds we followed the scent of ground basil and garlic around the village into a ristorante on the piazza at the harbor. Our first meal was homemade bread dipped in fresh pesto,Vernazza’s culinary legacy to the world.

Some days we hiked the village-to-village trail along the sea, returning to Vernazza by water taxi. Other days the train took us to Le Spezia, Portofino, Pisa Vernazzaand Lucca. At night we lounged on LaTorre’s heirloom terrace in front of the twinkling lights of passing boats on the navy blue horizon.

And then the phone rang.

John Funderburk  was on the line frantic to let me know that a journalist was about to call me wanting information about Monica Lewinsky. John was a fellow political appointee in the Clinton Administration and he recommended I consult with a lawyer before taking the call. Perfect vacation bliss was now teetering at the cliff of a darkened sea.

My D.C. job occasionally had me organizing publicity and logistics at events for the President’s appearance. In the Spring of 1997 I’d been advancing a small fundraiser in a Washington hotel when an old friend from Indianapolis came into the room through the metal detectors right after Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was known among advance people as a Clinton stalker, so I asked my Hoosier friend to shield the President from her potential clutch as he passed by.

A half a year later news broke about a Grand Jury investigation into Clinton’s relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky. Back in Indianapolis my friend panicked that he would be hauled before the Grand Jury. So he held a press conference about his brief encounter with Lewinsky – and mentioned my name.

The sudden jolt of reality stirred our Dolce Vita quartet in Italy to hatch hilarious mad scenarios to confound the intruding journalist. When the call came, Rocco answered. “Prrrronto! Si? Si? Sorry. No Inglese! Ciao!”

Che finito, we returned to our intermezzo between the acts of the crazy world.