September 18th, 2009
I briefly considered writing about the society I had discovered beneath the earth in one of my columns. But I thought better of this idea. Ask yourself: what did you think when you read that sentence I just wrote? Pretty incredible, isn’t it? I was sure I would be laughed off the paper and possibly out of town.
If nothing else, you must be rational in the suburbs. You can’t be different in any way. Once, that year, I drove down Northwest Highway in my convertible past a bar. A young man took the time to step out of the door and yell out at me: “Hey Beany, where’s Cecil?” I was wearing a baseball cap and my shirt and thin tie, heading out for a night with my friends. That’s all it takes to be labeled “weird.”
I also had the idea of writing a fantasy about my underground friends. But I feeling that, if I told anyone about the Rootweavers, they would disappear. It felt like they had revealed themselves to me and no one else. It was like the wing of a butterfly that you must not touch, or the fragile creature will never fly again.
The next time I went to see them, I brought a case of Juicy Fruit. I had purchased it wholesale through the drugstore. Every pack was new and unopened, something they had never seen before. A dozen hairy heads crowded around the yellow box wrapped tightly in cellophane. I was close enough to see ants crawling in one head of hair. “We will save this for the Feasting!” said old Lucas, apparently referring to a special day on the Rootweavers’ calendar—if they had a calendar.
It turned out that, in fact, they were much more informed of current events than I was. They got their news from a television someone had somewhere in their world. Whatever news came from the television was transmitted effortlessly, mind to mind. They took me on a trip to see a project they were working on. On the way, riding in the upside down car, Farkus asked me, “Your President Carter, he’s a good man, eh? What do you think of him?”
“He’s all right, I guess. Better than Ford, or Nixon.”
After a silence, he asked, “Who is Roman Polanski? Why does everyone speak of him?”
“He’s a film director,” I explained.
“Oh. They made a baby in a test tube. What do you think of that?”
I had to smile at him. He was earnest, looking up at me eagerly, with the two yellow eyes of a dog clamoring for attention. “I haven’t really thought about it too much,” I said.
“Why do you not think of these things? Are they not important, if they are on your television?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out. I only thought about myself and my life. I didn’t think too much about politics, or current events. How could I explain Watergate, and Bobby Kennedy, and Dr. King, and JFK, and all the events of my childhood that seemed to dash all hope in government? How could I tell him that things these days were terribly boring compared to what I had seen as a little boy? How could I explain that everyone my age seemed sick, and tired, and disenchanted, even those who were young and supposed to be full of energy?
“They are important, you’re right,” I said finally. I thought this would mollify him. But he looked up at me, truly concerned. I couldn’t think of anything else to do so I patted him on the head. A bit of dirt fell to the wooden bench. He looked down and seemed satisfied.
The project they took me to see was about ten miles away, beneath the great shopping mall, Woodfield. At the time it was constructed, it was the world’s largest shopping mall. Now, of course, it’s tiny compared to the malls constructed today, some of which are like miniature cities with their own zip codes. Hundreds of trees had been cut down to construct this mall and the ocean of parking lots around it.
After leveling an orchard’s worth of trees, the builders had planted a few weak ornamental trees in boxes in the parking lots. These trees had only a few square feet of dirt around them, and nothing else but concrete and tar. All were dying. The many roots of the huge oaks and elms that had been destroyed were being tied together and woven with these young saplings, then out to the forest preserves where a small forest still remained.
Armies of Rootweavers, males, females, and children, sat cross-legged on the dirt weaving roots together, humming tunes in their heads. The children clung close to their mothers. They had little tufts of hair and not bushy heads like the adults. They all seemed happy and calm and secure. I thought of all the stern-faced humans just ten or twenty feet above, shopping, spending, driving, looking at one another, and not talking. There was so much I wanted to know about the Rootweavers: where did they learn their language? Did they marry? Did they have a leader somewhere?
When you were with them you tended not to think of such things. You just relaxed and observed. I thought they would be around a while, that we had plenty of time to talk. But there was one thing I learned early on in my life: time is always your enemy.
September 17th, 2009
At age 21, these were two of my obsessions. Click on image to read more musings.
September 17th, 2009
Trying to look cool on Lincoln Avenue with my 1971 Fiat 850 Spyder in ’78 or ’79.
September 17th, 2009
I began to lead a double life. My nights were spent in the city getting a taste of college student ne’er-do-well independence, my days at home with one foot still in the world of my childhood.
Punk music was thriving then. I borrowed one of my dad’s one-inch-wide ties from the ‘50s and one of his old tie clips and would go out with my college friends, hitting clubs like Neo and Exit and O’Banions and the record store Wax Trax. Every day felt exciting when you had something to look forward to at night. The clouds during the day were alternately black and ominous and fluffy white, racing across the sky pushed by a blustery fall wind, and it seemed and felt as though something was happening, something big was going on.
I saw a punk show at the old Ivanhoe Theater with my friends from the suburbs. We stood gaping in our flannel shirts and blue jeans at people covered with makeup, wearing leather boots, hats, and vests; one woman with clear plastic boots; men with safety pins piercing their ears and slogans written on their bare chests. Everyone had come to see a band from the UK called The Stranglers. But I remember the opening act called Tough Darts. The singer had shiny gold teeth. He jumped and gyrated and tried hard to impress the crowd with his fake air of edginess and nastiness. He sang:
Your love is like a nuclear waste
Your body is a danger to the human race
They should stamp contaminated right across your face
Your love is like a nuclear waste!
My friends were disgusted, but I loved every bit of it. I began to hang out more with my college crowd, driving the Fiat 850 Spyder convertible that I had put together from pieces of three cars. I had painted it silver for $50 at Earl Scheib’s. I loved to drive at night with the stereo up as loud as possible without blowing out the expensive Jensen speakers I had installed. The headlights peering into the dark streets looked picturesque at night, like something out of a movie, and you felt you were guiding the car through the blackness like a suit of armor. The engine rumbled appropriately as you thrust the wooden ball handle of the stick shift into one gear, then another. I bought a black leather jacket, and put a black pin on it with the logo of one of the new ska groups: Madness. On the stereo the Talking Heads sang:
Mommy daddy come and look at me now
I’m a big man in a great big town
Years ago who would believe it’s true?
Goes to show what a little faith can do…
And the group called 999 sang “I believe in homicide,” and we felt evil, and dangerous, and angry, even though we were nothing of the sort.
But when the day came I was back at the little house on the suburban prairie. I wanted to make cookies for one of my college friends’ wild parties to be held that weekend. I spread out the ingredients in the kitchen. My mother and sister sat in the living room watching the Miss Universe beauty pageant.
“Why did they pick Miss Venezuela?” my mother said.
“She’s cute,” Laurie responds with the all-encompassing word still used by women to describe virtually anything they find positive. She was polishing an old pot with copper cleaner. Outside was the clang of a steel wrench hitting the pavement and the angry voice of a young man swearing; no one took any notice, it was the sort of sound you heard nearly every day on the driveways of the suburbs. The antique writing table my mother found at one of her garage sales was piled with papers and boxes of valuables she planned to sell at a flea market.
In the kitchen I attacked the pots and pans that were stinking with dried-up food. Bags of garbage littered the floor. Mom came in to help me cook. Her usual worries and complaints dropped away as she instructed me. This was clearly her domain. I noticed, without any feeling or curiosity, how clumsy she was with arthritic fingers that were already growing swollen and misshapen and making her work hours as a stenographer painful. She used a magnifying glass to read the cooking recipe. Like my father, she now needed reading glasses.
She also gave me about twice as many instructions as I needed, just like my father when he was showing me how to change the oil or solder a circuit board. “Make sure the butter is soft,” she said. “You might want to put it out on the counter beforehand. You can even warm it in your hands—” the butter slipped to the floor and I picked it up.
The phone rang. It was my Aunt Willamae, calling to talk about antiques, as she did perhaps ten times a day. “Can you believe how much that woman was asking for that chicken coop?”
“I’m in the middle of a cooking recipe, I’ll call you back,” Mom said. But then: “How much did she say they were?” These two activities, cooking and antiques, were the whole of her life. It seemed “cute” to me.
But in my newspaper columns I did not write about her, or about the angry young men, or the beauty pageant, or my nights in the city, or the women I pined over. I wrote elaborate fantasies about life in Des Plaines and the trials of getting through the fall and winter. I recorded the everyday moments of my life in my notebooks, where they would sit for the next thirty years.
September 16th, 2009
In case anyone is just tuning in for the first time, I thought I would collect the 11 parts of the So It Goes story in one place, as well as links to my newspaper columns. The two go together: the story supplements and builds on the columns. I notice that the links on the right side of the page no longer include links to the entire story.
So It Goes, the story (2009):
September 16th, 2009
Here are my top tips for selling on eBay:
September 16th, 2009
I was used to writing only for myself, in notebooks, but when the editor of the Times received a letter from prison concerning me I knew somebody must be paying attention. I have since learned that 90 percent of the time people write in to newspapers or book publishers when they have nothing better to do and something to complain about. This description fit the author of the letter from Marion Correctional Center.
He had been an elected official. As often happens, he had been convicted of tax evasion or some other financial crime. He wrote:
It was with great interest that I read Greg Holden’s new column “So It Goes” in your paper the other day. I, in fact, wrote a column for a local paper in downstate Illinois that was intended for the edification of my constituents. It was also called “So It Goes.” Upon my release from this institution, I hope to resume writing this column. So I would ask that Mr. Holden stop using this name as it is an obvious attempt to do something literary, when in fact he’s plagiarizing my original inspiration.
I sat in the steel office chair with sweaty palms, but Burns just smiled. “You didn’t get the title from this guy’s column, did you?” I explained that no, the phrase came from a book by Kurt Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Burns composed a letter in response stating that this worthy man didn’t actually own the phrase “So It Goes,” and added that he should be focused on improving his own situation.
I left there feeling like a star. Someone I never met had actually taken notice of me and something I wrote. It didn’t matter who he was or where he was from. I was a journalist. Just as Mayor Daley regarded Mike Royko as his nemisis, I had someone who disliked me, too. I swaggered down Prospect Avenue past my old Catholic grade school, St. Euthanasia’s, and I wanted to open the door and shout, “Somebody hates me!” No one was safe in this town now. I was free to explore the political intrigues, the societal tensions, and the criminal underworld of this seemingly sleepy suburban town. I would dissect the population with the unwavering, incisive eye of a Nelson Algren.
September 16th, 2009
September 15th, 2009
We boarded a car that hung upside down but that had right-side-up seats bolted to what had been the roof. All of the machinery seemed to have been discarded by the humans above ground and re-used by the beings down below. Farkus put the light crystal on the side of the car, in a special container, to light our way. He pushed a button and we began to move through the network of tunnels they had built. Everywhere there were groups of the little hairy creatures working. You saw a bushy head of dirt-colored hair, a big nose, big pale hands, and big bare feet. They were constantly molding the sides of the tunnels and shoring up the roofs with chunks of wood or building materials found upstairs.
Like ants, they moved in groups, gathering garbage from the storm sewers, cleaning it, and finding uses for it. The tunnels had the same rich, fertile, loamy smell of my grandmother’s pantry. Above, we sometimes heard a rumbling as a truck or train lumbered overhead, which caused the Rootweavers to stop what they were doing and hold their collective breaths. The air was mostly clear, and only occasionally bore an unpleasant tang, when our paths grew close to the storm sewers.
I was taken to areas where the roots of the trees were being worked on, the little creatures tying the tendrils together, crammed in a tiny muddy crawlspace where the light crystal did not reach. A constant hum of voices filled my head; the Rootweavers were never quiet, but in constant communication. After a while my eyes failed to register anything in the light. “I can’t see!” I called out. A light was brought to me. I heard a growling. Then all was quiet again.
When meal time came, we all crouched in a circle, a pile of nuts and root apples and a few tubers—carrots and turnips—that had been yanked downward from gardens above. There was also one discarded Swanson TV dinner tray that I refused to touch. All around me voices grumbled and spoke at once. “Don’t you have anything but apples and nuts to eat?” I asked.
“No,” said Farkus. “But you could return to your world and bring us some of those date bars.”
In my memory, I could taste the date bars. But rather than return home, I decided to stay with them through the evening. I began to feel trapped by enclosures of dirt constantly surrounding me like so many giant closed hands. I longed to feel the open sky above me, to see the sun, the stars. “I have to see the light,” I said. We crouched, creeping for what seemed like miles through networks of tunnels. We opened a makeshift wooden door. On the other side was light: a storm drain pointing up to the sky. I stood there for perhaps five minutes, drinking in the open air.
“Do you still want to stay with us?” Farkus asked.
When the little people came out in the middle of the night, I emerged with them. It felt like diving into a pool of cool clear water on a blistering August afternoon. I came up the street to discover the flashing lights of police cars illuminating my block. There were two cars in front of my house. I hurried over, thinking (as I usually did) that my father must have died suddenly in the night, a recurring fear.
“What’s going on?” I asked. My mother came down the steps. “Greg! Where have you been? I was worried sick about you.” She hugged me even though I was covered in dirt.
“This is the one who was missing?” said one of the cops, looking me up and down scornfully. “Where were you, playing in the mud?” I was speechless, realizing that they had all been looking for me. I had thought we were all separate, never thinking about one another, but like the trees that seemed to be so isolated, there were roots, woven together.
My brother came up the sidewalk from the other direction. “Where the hell have you been? Mom just about had a heart attack over you.”
“You were looking for—me?” I asked him.
“Of course I did, I couldn’t stay in that house while she was so worried. I only did it ‘cause she told me to.” He went indoors without another word. The cops left. Things got back to normal quickly. My father and sister returned after taking down the “Missing” signs they had already been putting up around the neighborhood. When they asked where I had been I told them I wanted to sleep in the woods, under the stars, and that was why I was covered in dirt. We all went back to our separate orbits and pretended not to notice another once again. I thought for a moment I could all perceive their thoughts; I heard voices in my head. But all was silent.
I went inside, asking, “Are there any more of those date bars?”