Autumn flowers blooming on my deck

September 24th, 2009

So It Goes, Part 18: Separate Ways

September 23rd, 2009

Obsession is a beautiful thing. It focuses the mind wonderfully and stimulates the imagination. It’s better than drugs. It also keeps you from thinking about troublesome things like work, and health, and friends. Such things fade in the background when you are really obsessed with something that is mysterious and can never be resolved, when there is some wrong that cannot be undone or some treasure you can never recover.
I know far more than any human being ought to about the JFK assassination, for instance. I can tell you who the Umbrella Man is, and who was carrying walkie-talkies, and the name of the bystander hit by a stray bullet.
It’s the same with the fate of the Rootweavers. Once the entrance to their world was covered over by the evil bulldozers, monsters that erased history and destroyed life and rendered the world as bland as the wall of a dentist’s office, I became obsessed with finding them again.
First, there was the Affair of the Shovel. The night I discovered the entrance was gone, I went there with a shovel and another case of Juicy Fruit gum. I started just after the sun went down. Each time a car went by, I hid behind the construction sign. Sweat was pouring off of me; after an hour or so I no longer needed to hide because I was nearly submerged, forced to heave each heavy shovelful of wet earth high up to ground level. I dug in this direction and that, but could not find an opening. I began to realize that I had dug myself so deep, I might not be able to climb out. I jabbed an indentation into the earth where I thought the doorway had been and left the gum there. “I’m sorry about this,” I called into the darkness. I also left a note:

Dear Farkus,
I am angry your doorway was bulldozed over. I did not do this! Please visit me and tell me how to get back to you. And keep tying the roots together to keep the trees alive.

I had no idea whether or not the creatures could read, but since they were familiar with brand names from food packaging, I thought they might have learned some words. The next day my hole was covered up again, and covered with large blocks of concrete, making it impossible for me to do any more digging.
I had no use for anyone in my family or any of my friends. They all seemed unimportant now. This outrage tore at the fabric of the universe and no one could possibly comprehend the magnitude of it. A bit of magic, a bit of beauty and wonder, had been removed, and no amount of money could ever bring it back.
The next morning I got up before the sun, barely able to drag myself out of bed for the exertions of the night before. I staggered over to the hole I had left: the hole was there but the gum was gone. But there was no sign the Rootweavers had been around to spread their magic dust over the suburban streets. Dirt and debris began to accumulate in the gutters and on the parkways. People seemed angrier. Cars roared down the street, belching exhaust. I saw a man pick a stogie off the sidewalk and try to smoke it. This town was becoming like another part of Chicago. Perhaps this was not so bad. But I had no refuge, no place to turn for reassurance that the world would be OK.
I lost interest in my schoolwork, in the women I had been thinking about, in food, even. What kind of a world was this now that my little friends were gone? It could not be possible that I was condemned to live my life in it. I thought seriously about ending the torture early, as I frequently did in those days. Perhaps I could bury myself under the earth and they would find me and save me.
I drove out to Woodfield, and walked around the parking lot, looking at the trees. Underneath, I knew, they were down there, hard at work, humming wordlessly. I walked around, looking for sewer grates leading into the earth, but could find none; the place was surrounded by a lake of tar pavement. A security car asked me what I was doing. “I dropped a ring out here somewhere and I’m trying to find it,” I said.
An air of unrest surrounded me and infected the other inhabitants of the six-room house. I returned to find my father complaining about the cups and saucers littering the living room, the week-old newspapers piling up, the antique books on the floor and chairs. “This place is a pigsty,” he said. “I just don’t know how you can live like this.” You realized this was a big global issue and not just a little spat when he added, “I’ve never been able to figure it out, even when I first met you. I knew what I was getting into, but I still can’t get used to it.”
Later, I overheard my mother and father talking about the future in relation to some magazine article he had read about Arizona. I didn’t hear the most important part, but I heard several references to “separate ways.” It won’t be long before we all go our separate ways, I thought. We have no one to tie our roots together. I was sure that, when we all left the house, our parents would go their separate ways. There were only three fragile threads holding them together. On our own, we would wither and waste away in our tiny plots of earth.
This is the state of mind I was in sitting on the front steps at 5 in the morning, sipping a cup of instant coffee, the air absolutely still, except for a faint rustling in the hedges. I suddenly realized I was no longer alone.

My brother growled in my direction, unseen, from the other side of the blanket that divided our halves of the bedroom. “Oh, leave him alone, he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.”

I reflected: Yes, this was true. I was indifferent to everyone, even myself. I only interacted with people to keep me from feeling lonely or bored, or if I thought I could write about them. I felt no tenderness or pity for anyone, especially my brother.

“He’s right, actually.” I put my hands behind my head and fell back on the bed, yawning. “I don’t care about anyone but me. Me me me.”

“See?” he said. “I told you. Now get away from me.”

My mother brushed aside the blanket and appeared in the opening. Her wig was slightly askew so she didn’t make an imposing presentation. “What’s wrong with you? You are a really selfish person.”

“Yeah, I know. So why don’t you leave me alone?”

My brother swore in the background, still looking for a gun he had apparently hidden from everyone, including himself.

“Why are you so selfish?” she continued. “You’re supposed to be so smart. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to be nice and help people.”

“No I don’t. It’s not my job.”

“Oh, to hell with it,” my brother said, and stormed down the stairs and out of the house. Mom hurried after him, muttering worry phrases to herself: “Oh, what’s he going to do? He’s going to do something really bad…”

All I could think about was how I felt nothing for these people and seemed to have nothing in common with them. If I could come to understand them and love them I could be a writer. I was only pretending to be one now.

Perhaps half an hour later the car came up the street, skidding to a halt. The door slammed. Heavy steps came up the walk. Swearing: an object was hurled to the ground. The door flew open and slammed shut. Voices rose to a crescendo downstairs. My brother came up and threw himself on the bed, crying.

“He’s hurt! He’s bleeding!” my mother said. “Help him. Do something.”

She had come right into my half of the room and was suddenly standing before me. I thought: I’ll try something different. I’ll be calm. I’ll be mature.

“What is it that you want me to do?” I said. “I’m not a therapist.”

She stared at me for a moment. “A what? Help him.”

“Okay.” I got up, I went into the other room, I sat on the edge of the bed, where he was sobbing. He had a pretty good shiner and blood at the corner of his mouth. I wished I had a pipe that I could suck on and hold, like a young Sigmund Freud. “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Get her out of here!” he yelled.

I turned to my mother, holding my imaginary pipe, and said softly, “I think you can leave us now.” To my surprise, she turned and left. This is interesting, I thought: I’m not bored any more.

“So?” I said. “This can’t be such a big deal.”

“That bitch…” he began. I will spare you the details, you have heard them all before: he went out of town, she ran out on him, she took up with Joe Quarterback, Joe was there when my brother confronted him, there was a fight, just like out of some old rock and roll song.

“Who was hurt here, really?” I said, saying the first thing that came into my head, without any thought. Silence. “I mean, who was really hurt? Was it you? No, you came out of all the better. You don’t have to interact with this odious woman any more, like that other guy does. You’re free of her. You have your self-esteem.”

“Odious?” he said.

“Women are put on this earth to test us, to torture us,” I said. “Are you going to fail the test? No, you’re going to be strong, to move on.”

I had no idea what I was saying, but he was calm, he was quiet. I thought: I’ll experiment. Suppose I was a nice person, someone who cared. What would I say?

“You can do it, I have faith in you. You don’t need her. You’re strong all by yourself.”

“Yeah, who needs that pain in the ass,” he muttered.

I put out my imaginary pipe, I got up. I went downstairs with a dignified air. “He’ll be fine,” I told my mother. “Just give him some time.”

I walked out the door, past all the other houses that seemed quiet and drama-free. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. Perhaps the Rootweavers would know. I walked toward the industrial park even though it was broad daylight. Why not just crawl down in the hole and wait for them to appear? All I wanted was peace and quiet and a place where I never had to open my mouth and say a word. But if I did this, I might give away their home and then the world would know—

I stopped in my tracks: A big sign had been pounded into the earth just outside the door: Under Development. The Maybeck Corporation was offering an industrial site of 10,000 square feet with ample parking and a loading dock on this site. I ran up, in a panic. The hole to the Rootweavers’ land had been buried. It was gone.

[Click here to read another one of my later So It Goes columns, a scathing examination of the underbelly of suburban life.]

A stranger had invaded the tiny duplex on Orchard Street—someone who had decided to inhabit the body of my younger brother and make him bigger, thicker, and more menacing than anyone could remember.

I had come home hoping to find my father, and wishing I could talk to him. He calmed me down. But his car was gone: he had probably gone to the store and then to work, and we wouldn’t see him until he returned at 10 that night. Mom was at work. But I wouldn’t have spoken to her. She only made me nervous: I soaked up her anxiety like a sponge.

When I opened the door, I could hear the high squeal of the TV, and there was my brother watching the Cubs. I turned away, trying to hide my grimace, but he probably saw me. We glared at each other a moment. I went into the kitchen to fix lunch and had a temper tantrum, looking at the dirty dishes lining the counter.

I walked over to the door. “So where were you?”

His face showed no change. Jack Brickhouse was getting excited. Dave Kingman had just hit a double, driving in Ivan de Jesus. Then his face froze in silent aggravation. “Huntsville, Alabama.”

The thought that my brother had gone across the country for an extended period of time and I had not known about it disturbed me. But all I could think to ask was, “How was it? Was it hot?”

“No, it was fine. Well, it was hot because I was working.”

“What were you doing?”

“What I’ve been doing for the past year and a half.”

I sighed. “What have you been doing for the last year and a half?”

“Selling pool tables.” He got up—he didn’t just get up, though, he burst forth from the recliner while the footrest was still out and brushed past me. “I’ve got to make a phone call. Could you get out of here?”

“In a minute, I’ve got to finish this sandwich.”

He clicked his tongue and did the traditional thing when one wanted privacy on the phone—dialing the number and then directing the extra-long phone cord out the back door, and sitting on the back steps in the cold. I have often wondered if we all would have gotten along better if we had had a bigger home and not been forced to rub shoulders all the time. Or if my father had been around.

I could still hear his voice outside, though I couldn’t hear all the words. By the sudden friendliness, even tenderness, I guessed he was talking to a girl. I imagined it was The Girl He Left Behind and was now catching up with. I cut tomatoes and put them on my spongy Wonder bread, wishing we had some healthy wheat bread in this house. But wheat bread was a novelty in those days.

Then a sudden explosion of pain, an actual wailing from the back porch. I hurried up cutting my sandwich, knowing there would be trouble. The voice outside rose, growled, and the yelling started. I hurried upstairs with my lunch. Then the back door slammed and the damage started. The phone was slammed. Something hit the floor. I retreated to our shared bedroom and closed the door. “I’ll kill her!” I heard from the kitchen. “How could she do this to me?”

Women always do these things to you, I thought as I turned the TV up, loud, hoping not to hear.

At that moment our mother came home. She had a knack for walking in at the time of greatest tension and intensifying it the way a magnifying glass focusing the sunlight starts a fire.

“What’s wrong?” I heard her ask.

I turned up the TV, hoping not to hear the answer. I was trying to think what I would write for my next column. I only heard yelling, pounding, banging downstairs. It would be something about bingo. Then heavy steps ascended the stairs. “I’m gonna get my gun.”

This got my attention. The door, which always stuck when you closed it, opened with the violent reverberation of vibrating wood. “Where is it?” Then there was the sound of clothes being hurled this way and that—clinking belts, banging shoes. I had put two large sheets across the room as a sort of temporary divider. I could not see what he was doing. But I could practically feel him panting.

“Um, is there a gun in this room?” I asked.

“Mind your own business,” he growled.

Our mother, who always ran toward the fire instead of letting it die down on its own, followed him upstairs. “Don’t do anything stupid!” she cried, her voice rising in a sudden crescendo of fear. “You’ll ruin your life.”

I was about to mutter something to myself but then she said, “Greg, you’ve got to do something. Talk to him.”

My college girlfriend

September 20th, 2009

This is the only photo I have of the “girl with the blond hair” described in Part 14 of my memoir. It was taken outside her home on Dickens Avenue. She is wearing a Borsalino hat I got in Florence in ’76. According to several records, she died around 1996. Does anyone know what happened to JoAnn Tamburrino?

Men in their teens and twenties today seem mellow compared to those the ‘70s, who always seemed on the verge of an explosion: a temper tantrum or fight or orgasm. Sometimes all three seemed ready to occur at the same time. Look at a young man the wrong way, or bump into him too hard, or accuse him of being a ____ (fill in the blank; just about any word would do), and all you had to do was stand back and watch the show.

Who could blame them? For many, the only prospects after high school were junior college, manual labor, or a low-level job in one of the big corporations that were relocating to the suburbs. After 13 or more years of school, a “real” four-year college was like an extended prison sentence. The recession dragged on, and prospects were slim.

The other stock clerk in the Rexall, Frank, was cool simply because he was quiet and not plagued by any original thoughts. Placid, yet menacing, he lived for his car, and driving, and dating the new young cashier Maria. He had aviator glasses, and a droopy moustache, and the laid-back air of someone who had been smoking weed. He hardly spoke. He stared at people. The moment work was done, he would put on his leather jacket, grab his car keys, and head out of there in his blue Dodge Charger.

You would find the young men of the area in the parking lot of the community college, smoking, polishing their rides, playing Thin Lizzy or Grand Funk Railroad on their car stereos. If you listened very closely you could hear them, muttering in unison, “I hate this place…I hate this life.” Then they trudged off to class, to learn radio, or electronics, or automotive technology, anything they could do to afford car parts and gas and smokes.

I watched them, sitting in the book section of the auto parts store, always researching some add on, some new turbo or exhaust, something to give them more power, to make their car thrust, to explode down the street in a combustive spasm of manhood. I saw them lounging outside the Town Tap, or the Beacon Tap. It seemed they all sang the same song:

What will we do?
Nowhere to go
Lookin’ for you…

“You” was inevitably a woman who would redeem everything, who would be “some kind of wonderful,” as Grand Funk yelled, someone you could “Dance the Night Away” with, as Van Halen screamed. In lieu of this, they fought, they argued, they called people like me “geek,” and this was long before it was cool to be a geek.

Their fathers, the men of the World War II and Korean War generation, had no such anger. They were placid, tired, satisfied. You saw them at the Carpenters Hall next to the Rexall, wearing white shoes and beige plaid pants and polyester shirts with three-inch-wide collars, walking slowly, always calmly, smoking Camels, draping their leisure jackets over chairs, drinking Campari and soda, complaining about the kids these days, the very ones they had spawned and condemned to work in the auto parts stores and salvage yards of the world, surrounded by their cast-off junk, scrounging for bits of self-esteem.

I would lurk in the back of the drugstore, reading Ulysses and War and Peace, or remembering Debussy’s “La Fille aux cheveux de lin,” and recalling the great walled city of Carcassone to which I had hitchhiked in France, and I would sing to myself:

Lonely, lonely
What will I do?
Nobody knows me
I’m not like any of you…

I’m starting to revise my book Starting an Online Business for Dummies. I’m looking for tips about how to publicize your business, your blog, or your Web site. Pass along some ideas or useful thoughts, and I just might quote you in the 6th edition, which should appear early next year.

September 20th, 2009

[Click on image to read one of my later columns.]

After a while I got busy with schoolwork, girls, and angst, and my columns started to lose focus. I became a sort of twenty-something phiosopher, spouting off about anything that crossed my mind. But is that any different than what newspaper columnists do today?

It’s interesting to read a message to yourself written 30 years ago: “Will it be painful looking back on these memories some day? Or will I laugh?” Both, I can say now, with the wistful grin of the middle-aged man looking back on his youth. Some of it is sad, some of it wonderful. Some of it I can’t stand to read. I can’t bring back the exact feeling because I would have to be 21 again, and in love, and doing everything for the first time.

Coming back from class I trudged into the teeth of the cold north wind. If I could find a window seat on one of the El trains I could stay warm, because a trickle of heat oozed out of the space between the wall. I could take off your gloves and trap my body towards the stainless steel wall of the car to trap all the heat.

I would find my car parked on the street, and head home, thinking every moment of the student with the bright blond hair and the silver motorcycle jacket and who wiggled as she walked, as the song says. I listened to Graham Parker singing “Help Me Shake It.”

I stopped in the house and called my friend Chip, but he was not home from work yet. I was too pent up to eat or sit around. I headed to the newspaper office to turn in my column. While waiting in the reception area, I filled out an application for the Chicago Tribune, which was looking for copy clerks. I felt like a real working man. There was a nice-looking girl sitting at the desk. I tried to indicate to her that I actually worked on the paper, and was not just anybody, but when I was called in, she gave me a free paper and waved me off. Burns was well dressed and impressive: a real editor. He seemed fatherly as he gave me instructions on an article he wanted me to write.

On my way back I stopped at the drugstore. “Your column this week is really good,” said Laura, one of the cashiers, who rarely spoke to me. I switched some days with the other stock clerk, and avoided a long lecture about the state of the economy from Ernie the pharmacist. It felt good to walk into and out of the store when I didn’t have to work there.

Then I took the pittance I made at the pharmacy, got dressed up, and spent it all in one night. I took the girl with the blond hair to a fancy French restaurant on Halsted Street called L’Escargot. We sat high in the uppermost level of the Lyric Opera and squinted, trying to see The Barber of Seville. Then we went to Water Tower Place and had ice cream. As we walked back to my Fiat in the cold there was a little Italian woman ahead of us whose shawl was as garish as JoAnn’s. “Button up,” she told JoAnn. “You kids, I swear, I was just the same when I was your age.” We laughed, and held each other close for warmth.

The next day there was the magical feeling of the first snow of the season. I lay in bed and knew it had snowed even before looking out the window, feeling the thick, cottony air and the muffled sounds of footsteps. Then the unmistakable sound of a shovel scraping along the sidewalk, like something remembered from long ago. Looking up, I could see nothing because fingers of frost covered the window. Outside everything was white, even the trees, except for the gray slush of the cars in the street and the dark shapes of people struggling to clear away the still-falling snow. I wondered what the Rootweavers did in winter: they probably had it easy and were warm, living off what they had gathered in the fall.

I tried my best to capture some of this in my columns and in my notebooks at the time. But today I cannot recapture the feeling of freedom, of hope, of excitement, of being 21 and wanting to do so much, and not yet having lost very much. Now the girl with the blond hair is dead, and others are dead, and the paper and the drugstore and L’Escargot are gone. But it’s not painful looking back. And I don’t laugh. I am just happy to be alive.