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September 11th, 2009

I have suddenly become interested in this blog, probably because of this story. I am counting page views and noting where people are from. I wish I could get something called Permalinks to work correctly. They are keeping this blog from being indexed by Google and other sites. I would love it if some of you would leave comments and give me feedback. This feels very much like the days when I wrote for my local newspapers. I reread my own words, I get a few comments, I am encouraged to do more.

So It Goes, part 7

September 11th, 2009

Dirt called to me in those days. Not just the dirt in the underground world I had discovered, but the dirt and grit and garbage of the city. Like a sort of urban farmer, I longed to reach into the gutter of a city street an roll the cigarette butts and gum wrappers and shreds of newspaper between my fingers. “Ah, good soil for growing dirty,” I would say. Here was a place one could become filthy and gritty and jaded without anyone noticing. You could surround yourself with things that were old–old brick apartment buildings, twenty-year-old Chevrolets, televisions that still used vacuum tubes–and make a new decrepit life for yourself.

The city of Chicago was everything Des Plaines was not: big, old, crowded, somewhat dangerous, and full of culture, both highbrow and lowbrow. Three or four days a week, I drove to the Jefferson Park stop and took the el into the city, where I was taking college classes. When you got on the graffiti-spattered train and looked out the grimy window blurred by greasy hair, it seemed that suddenly all the houses you saw were made of brick. Chicago passed a law after the great fire of 1871 banning frame houses, and apparently that law was still in effect. “More, more, more,” said the brick houses that were so close together you could barely walk between them. “Come,” said the streets that were jammed with parked cars, lines of which stretched on for blocks, fender kissing fender.

It all seemed so exciting that I seldom studied on the train, but stared out the window, an open book on my lap, watching a series of tableau pass by the glass windows. There was the Gale Street diner, at near the Jefferson Park station, with men slumped over at their stools, humming the song about drinking wine, spodey-odey. There were lines of workers trudging to trains, singing the anvil chorus from Verdi’s La Traviata. There was a tailor, putting a suit in the window, singing bel canto; there a gang of dropouts, intent on avoiding school, singing four-part harmony–the song “Whispering Bells” by the Del-Vikings. There was a construction crew whistling at women, singing the Sonny and Cher song, “I Got You Babe.” The air was thick with music, horns, grinding tires, whining motors, sirens, and shouting voices.

My grades were good enough that I could have gone to school anywhere. But I did not go to school in California, or New York, or some faraway place, at a big university. I decided to attend the Chicago branch of the University of Illinois, and live at home, and commute. In truth, it felt like I had chosen to go far away to college. The city and the suburbs were like two different countries, two continents even, separated by boundaries like rivers, expressways, the el train.

When I left the train and walked up the ramp to Peoria Street all the romance ended. My campus was an uninspiring concrete jungle of pillars, overhead walkways, strange forums, glass, and more concrete. It had been built in the 1960s atop a once-thriving Italian neighborhood, the remnants of which could be found just to the south, on Taylor Street. The Italian lemonade and Italian beef merchants eyed us resentfully even as they took our money.

Once I walked to class I thought not of cars, or old houses, or history, or singing Italian tailors, or anything having to do with my home town. I worried about grades, and homework, and at the same time found my thoughts inexorably turning toward women. Temptresses surrounded me, in every class, calling me away from imaginative thoughts, beckoning to me, singing to me sweetly like the Ronettes dooing “Be my baby, my one and only baby…”, twisting my mind into obsession. With all the time and energy I spent dreaming about females, I could have written 50 novels. That is, if I had had anyhing to write about, because I had done virtually nothing and had no experience yet of anything that might be called “real life.”

I spent my days locked in battle, struggling valiantly to think about history and literature and art and psychology, and continually being won over by this smile, that bulging sweater, that head of bright blond hair, that pair of shapely legs emerging from that tiny miniskirt. The women almost always won. Yet I kept coming back for more because the battle was so sweet. And gradually the battle brought me subjects to write about, in the form of my weekly columns.

So It Goes, part 6

September 10th, 2009

Had we been twins, my brother and I would have fought in our mother’s womb to see who would emerge first. As it was, I was older by a year and a half. He was fire; I was ice. He woke up angry and, though the anger faded, it lurked just behind his taciturn, scowling visage and seemed ready to explode at any moment. It was as though someone did a search around the universe, found the one individual who was different from me in every possible way, and made him my brother.

He had been away, working on some oil fields in Nevada. Suddenly he reappeared–bigger, stronger, brooding ever more deeply. Heavy steps made the stairs shake. He never seemed to remove his Red Wing work boots, but slept with them on. The room became filled with clothing piled in heaps. A slip of orange paper protruded from one of my desk drawers. It was my Driver’s License, which I had not seen for months. “Great!” I smiled. Then I began to wonder.

Downstairs, Marcus was sitting in the easy chair, plucking his guitar. “Did you put this back in my drawer?” I stood behind the chair, afraid to face him.

“Yeah,” he said, still strumming, not looking up. “It was under your bed.”

“Oh, well, thanks.” I went upstairs and stared at it. It had been deeply folded, as though someone wanted to make it as small as possible. A few grains of sand clung to the folds.

I stomped downstairs heavily but passed him and went into the kitchen. I pretended to pour myself a glass of water. “Did you take it?” I asked finally.

“What would I want it for?” The plucking went on, uninterrupted.

As I stomped back upstairs I thought about the eighteen moving violations he had on his license already. Then I noticed the blob of ABC gum he had left on my desk. I threw it against the wall on his side of the room. I picked up his guitar case and flung it across the room. “Son of a bitch!” I yelled. “What did he come home for anyway? Sits around here all day and eats. Look at this mess!”

By the time our mother came home I had the stereo up loud. “I’ll find some socks for you,” I heard her say to him. He had been sitting downstairs for more than an hour without socks. She came up stairs and opened my dresser drawer. Only then did she notice me.

“That’s it, get more socks for him, out of my clothes drawer,” I growled. “You’re just as bad as he is.”

“What’s the matter with him?” she said to my brother, who had come upstairs as well.

“I don’t know. I find his Driver’s License and he bitches at me for it.”

I turned down my friend Chip, who called wanting to go to a movie. The year Star Wars came out, we had seen 75 movies. I tried to avoid my Dad, but it was difficult to avoid anyone in that tiny house.

“Want to go to Zayre’s?” he asked.

“No, thanks.”

I wanted to be in my head, where I believed I could still communicate with the Rootweavers. I continued to send thoughts to my new friend Farkus. But no words came back to me. I knew I couldn’t possibly tell anyone else about what I had seen beneath the earth. No one would believe it. I wanted to prepare for school, for college, for my life away from this town, and for the column I would write that week. But that night, once again, I found myself unable to sleep. My body was as restless as my spirit. I was no longer here in this house and town where I grew up, but in some new in between place, in the bit of prairie squeezed between the town and the industrial park, destined for relocation.

September 9th, 2009

[Click image to read A Tourist's Guide to Des Plaines]

September 9th, 2009

So It Goes

part 5

In the night the suburban streets that were so quiet during the day became crowded and noisy. The voices of the lonely people called out to one another, expressing their innermost longings: “Why did you leave me?”, “How will I pay the mortgage?”, and “Won’t someone make me a club sandwich?”

The pavement was hot beneath my bare feet. The trees were on fire. I wanted to get away from the world where I was alone, trapped in this body, unable to turn off these thoughts. I stumbled past the hedges, feeling all the sadness of the human realm crowding in on me. I walked to the last bit of prairie, at the edge of the industrial park.

I stood quietly, hardly breathing. The first bit of salmon-colored light from the rising sun crept closer and closer to the hole. There was a shivering. I could feel my heart pound as I heard a rustling: a real perceptable noise, a shape emerging from the darkness. I saw a hand, a hand covered with dirt and with a pale palm, holding a great crystal, a crystal about the size of a softball. When the light came the crystal seem to fill with the light and glow orange. When the crystal had been brightly lit, the hand disappeared.

I did not think. I followed, diving down deep into the hole, closing my eyes, holding my breath. It was more spacious inside than I would have guessed. I hardly had to stoop.

I pursued the light of the crystal, but I was not at all quiet. I stumbled, I fell. The earth was polished, hard, and did not transfer dirt onto you. It was almost like pavement. Was this where the sewers were? No, everything seemed to have been molded by hand, with no harsh corners, only smooth curves that did not hurt when you brushed against them.

I got up and could no longer see the light. I peered into the pitch black dark, suddenly without any bearings or direction, blind. Just as suddenly, the light appeared and two eyes were peering up at me. I gasped, I didn’t say anything. The eyes looked me up and down, the light shone on me, head to toe. The pale hand gestured: come along.

I followed. I heard a voice. I did not hear the voice with my ears, though: it seemed to resound directly within my head. “What have you brought?”

“Brought?” I said aloud. “Who is that?” No response. I thought to myself: Is this fellow talking to me? Then the thought came: “Of course I’m talking to you. What have you brought us?”

I reached into the pockets of my jeans. Luckily there was a pack of Juicy Fruit gum, half empty. “Gum,” I said inside my thoughts.

“Good,” said the voice. “What kind: Chiclets? Spearmint? Bazooka Joe?” When I thought the words “Juicy Fruit,” I heard the response: “Excellent!” and laughter resounded inside my skull. I had not heard laughter since the last sitcom I had watched on TV: a rerun of All in the Family. Then laughter sounded and echoed inside my head, seeming to come from multiple directions. Shapes came forth into the orange light: I had discovered the home of the Rootweavers.

September 8th, 2009

[Click image for part one]

[Click here for part two]

September 8th, 2009

So It Goes
Part 4
The drugstore delivery boy is a mixture of Mercury and Sherlock Holmes for a suburban town. When you go out on deliveries, you get the chance to keenly observe your fellow townspeople.
From the front stoop, you might hear a child crying from an earache in an unseen bedroom. At another home, piles of newspapers and magazines and the tinny sound of old 78 big band dance music. At another, the pink silk nightgown of the housewife who smiled at you and looked you right in the eye, leaving you unable to speak or move, and smelling, after the door had closed, the faint scent of lavender.
When you returned from your journeys you were greeted by the huge metal sign, rusting at the edges, painted orange, black, and white, that hung over the street, buzzing. Its neon tubes lit up the word Rexall to guide weary husbands. A glass display window twenty feet long lined the sidewalk. I sometimes got to help Mrs. Aulert, a sweet and perpetually cheerful lady who was the mother of my childhood friend Mike, create seasonal displays. She happily arranged elves and Santa Claus for Christmas, bunnies for Easter, and so on. The huge expanse of sidewalk was something we stock clerks had to maintain religiously lest someone slip and sue the store’s owner, Frank, for negligence. The pavement was my continual nemesis. It had to be salted and shoveled so the walkway was bare each winter day. I was required to sweep it clean of leaves in the fall, and to clear away those maple tree “helicopter” seeds, which seemed to cling tenaciously to the concrete, each spring.
Once you were done you had time to hide in the storage area and do your homework. If there was no homework, you could stand by the cash register and look out over the landscape—the auto repair shop across the street, the real estate office, the Italian beef eatery.
If this had been a small town, and if this street had been called Main Street, the Rexall would have been the place to congregate. There would have been a soda fountain and benches outside for people to loaf—a term you never hear any more because no one knows how to do it correctly. The sound of voices, and gossip, and laughter from bad jokes would have been heard outside. People would have asked, “What’s going on?” or “What’s the good word?” and stayed to smoke a cigar or chew a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint.
But Oakton Street was four lanes of fast-moving traffic. People stood on the corner of Oakton and White only to wait for the bus. When the door opened with a hiss and the exhaust belched as the big vehicle lumbered away, they were gone without a word. Women talked only to ask what cosmetics were on sale. Men might have inquired about how the Cubs were doing. But they were inevitably losing, so there was no need to ask. People always seemed to be in a hurry. They accelerated madly at the green light. It seemed they were either late or worried about being late. One young man in a Bears jacket would run in and ask the way to the expressway. He was not moving quickly enough already; he wanted to move even faster. A man in a suit might poke his head in the door–no more than his head–and begin to ask, “What time is–?” but then see the big clock on the wall behind the cash register, and say “Never mind” and disappear before I could even open my mouth.
I took notes as I stood and watched, and jotted down observations and thoughts for my columns. I noticed that shoppers seemed to want to scour the aisles for petroleum jelly or first aid cream or suntan lotion without having to ask where it was. They handed over their money with a curt “Hi.” I counted the change, then looked through the coins for any rare ones to add to my coin collection at home. Once or twice, I found an Indian head penny or a Buffalo nickel or a Mercury dime. That was the high point of the evening.
Ernie, the pharmicist, would stroll the aisles with nothing to do, a Camel with half an inch of ash dangling at the end perpetually hanging from his mouth. “Price controls,” he would say. “What is Ford thinking? Roosevelt tried that and look where it got us. Nothing but debt.” He looked at me as though he expected a response, as though I was familiar with the Roosevelt administration.
But Mrs. Aulert would say something harmless—“Oh, you wouldn’t want to go back to those days—“ and he would be appeased and shuffle back to the prescription area, stoop-shouldered and muttering, surrounding himself with the controlled substances we were not allowed to touch.
At 10 o’clock we would close up, and I would get on my bike and ride the six blocks or so through the silent streets with a chorus of crickets for company. I looked out of the corner of my eye for the gnomes. They were never visible, though the traces of their work were everywhere.

September 5th, 2009

So It Goes

Part 3

With the chutzpah of youth, I dashed off three columns about absolutely nothing. It was one of those rare, unseasonably warm days that sometimes occur in January–days that trick you into thinking winter is over, after which the cold and snow clamp down harder than ever. I got on my bike and rode through steaming slush to the newspaper offices. There behind the Arby’s Roast Beef and across the street from the 1,000th McDonald’s Restaurant was the Suburban Times. I picked the Times because the editor, Bob Burns, had his own weekly column, one with a terrific name: While Burns Roams. And because the paper was green. Green was my favorite color.

I left my bike by the door–but not too close to the door. I didn’t want anyone to see that I didn’t have a car, or at least, a car that actually ran. You didn’t have to lock your bike then; the fact that nothing happened in Des Plaines meant that no one stole bikes off the street.

When I opened the door I left the world where doors were closed and nothing happened. Inside this anonymous Pepto-Bismol-colored building there was a hive of activity as reporters, printers, and other functionaries scurried around openng doors and finding out everything they could about the Land of Grim Faces. Perhaps, I thought, something did happen in this town; I just didn’t know about it.

The receptionist wore clear tear-shaped glasses with sparkles at the corners. “Please have a seat,” she said when I handed her my sample columns. “I’ll take these to Mr. Burns.”

To my surprise and consternation, the receptionist came back to say he was in the office, and he would see me shortly. I had expected to hand the columns over and slink off on my bike, unseen. I waited, watching reporters hurry out in rumpled shirts and ties loosened at the neck. Others, probably advertising people, came in with suits, belching after their big business lunches. It all seemed terribly exciting.

There wasn’t a splinter of wood in that building. All was hard, and modern, and cutting-edge for the 1970s. The chairs in the waiting area were hard metal, the floor linoleum cracked and with dirt triangles at the corners. The walls were green cinder block, the desks brown steel, the cubicles metal covered with cloth. it seemed I sat in the reception area for an hour or more. I memorized the dirt streaks left on the flesh-colored linoleum, which was cracking in some of the corners. The cinder block walls were colored green, the same as the newspaper itself.

The receptionist’s phone rang. “Mr. Burns will see you now.”

Burns did not get up, but motioned me to take a seat. To my consternation, he proceeded to read my work right in front of me. I sat, pulling my fingers, twiddling my thumbs. Good editors, I know now, are like that: they read quickly so they can move on to other things. They also an’t resist checking out copy that seems even remotely interesting. I looked around a the bodies scurrying to and fro in the office, answering phones, standing, talking about news, laughing cynically. Those in the front were in shirts and ties or dresses and pantsuits. In the back, where the presses loomed like great green monsters, burly men climbed up on machines wearing dirty coveralls. an acidic smell gave a tang to the air. The clacking of typewriter keys, the ringing of very loud desk telephones, the whirr of hot wax machines, all took my mind off the fact that someone was reading my words right in front of me. Newspapers in those days were noisy, violent places, places where ink was smashed onto paper, paper was physically glued onto other paper, paper was photographed and etched with acid and burned onto metal plates, and the plates were squeezed under enormous pressure and webs of newsprint were rolled between them. Then the rolls were sliced and folded and bound into bundles. It was a brutal landscape, a sort of blacksmith’s forge where words and pages were pounded, baked, and forced into shape. I never wanted to leave it.

Burns let out his breath quickly all at once and I snapped to attention. I couldn’t tell if he was sighing from amusement or disgust. Then he picked up a pen and started marking up my writing, like one of my college professors. The pen danced, slashed, and then stabbed the paper, which he was still holding suspended between the desk and his face. I dared not speak.

Finally he handed the sheets back to me. “Pretty good,” he said in a surprisingly soft and boyish voice. “Fix them up and bring ‘em back, and we’ll get them in there some time when we have room.” There was no talk about money. I think I shook his hand. I don’t remember leaving, getting on my bike, or riding home. I do remember that the stores, the streets, the cars, and the few pedestrians no longer seemed so foreign to me. Now that I had a role to play, a job to fulfill, I was one of them.

September 4th, 2009

One of the first So It Goes columns I submitted:

In the end, there was nothing to say

By Greg Holden

I usually go to work hoping that the day will pass peacefully, without problems, and that I can simply go home and not have to think about it until the next day. But that seldom happens. Just when things seem to be quiet—too quiet—and you begin to relax, then trouble sneaks up behind you and jumps on your back.

It had been one of those quiet days until I came back from a delivery. The cashier hurried up to me, wringing her hands. “I just caught a boy shoplifting,” she said. “Frank’s really been yelling at him.”

Before I could think or speak, there was my boss Frank pulling a limp tousle-haired boy by an elbow. “Drive this boy back to his home,” he commanded. “Tell his parents he was caught shoplifting and I don’t want to see him in here again.” That was all. He pushed the boy at me and stalked off.

The boy stood there sniffling and wiping his nose. He was so thin his clothes seemed about to fall off. “Where do you live?” I asked. He did not answer. He stared at the floor, a picture of humiliation. I had received some of Frank’s tongue whippings myself and knew how he felt. I led him gently out the door.

When he sat next to me in the car I saw that he was Spanish and that there was a ring of dirt around his neck. “Tell me where you live now, and I’ll take you home.” He mumbled an address and I hurried off, anxious to be rid of him. He was making me nervous.

The drive over was agonizingly silent. I longed to speak to him, to cheer him up, but could not find the words. Suddenly he looked up at me with perfectly round eyes. “Are you going to tell my Mom and Dad?” All at once I wanted to let him go and avoid a scene with his parents. Nobody would be the wiser. But I kept driving.

We pulled up before a large, rickety frame house, with peeling paint, scraggly vines, and bicycles and naked dolls scattered on the lawn. The boy ran ahead and I followed him to the backyard. A fat woman holding a dishrag leaned out of an upper window, yelling to the boy in Spanish and gesturing with her arms. Then the father came out and walked toward me, looking angry.

I told him the story and his anger faded. “I apologize for my son,” he said. He turned and began yelling at the boy. Then he began hitting him behind the ear. He picked him up by the neck and dragged him over to me. “You take us to the store. We apologize.”

All the way over he hit the boy and screamed at him in Spanish. The boy wailed “No, no.” I tried to tell him to stop. But I didn’t know what to do. Was I on the side of the store or the boy?

In the end there was nothing to say. There are times when you feel outraged, but there’s nothing yo can do. I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day. When it was time to go I hurried home and tried to forget about the boy or of what kind of future lay in store for him. I’m still trying.

September 4th, 2009

So It Goes

part 2

It was 1978, the winter of my sophomore year in college. I was a twenty year old virgin. As I dusted the shelves at the Rexall Drugs on Oakton Street, gently removing the Doan’s Pills and positioning them in neat rows, I knew with certainty that every customer was staring at me in my blue stock clerk jacket and thinking, “That’s right, he hasn’t done it yet; it’s so obvious. Look how neat and restrained he is.” The boxes of Ipana toothpaste mocked me. The old woman on the bottle of Lydia Pinkham’s elixir grinned knowingly. The bus driver, letting people off at the White Street stop just outside our front door, chuckled as he told the debarking passengers, “Go say hi to the twenty-year-old virgin for me.”

I won’t go into the many reasons why I was in this state. But suffice it to say, as I wiped my hands and stared out the front door at all the happy non-virgins driving by the store, I wanted to mark my territory in the world in some way. There by the door were all the daily newspapers; at the time we carried six or seven. In those days, the newspapers were full of columnists. It was obvious none was a virgin. They all spouted forth confidently, spewing out their opinions and making their mark on society. Jack Mabley and Richard Christensen wrote for the Daily News. Bob Greene wrote for the Tribune. My own hometown papers, the Suburban Times and the Journal, played out the competition between the local giants on a smaller scale.
The king of all the columnists was Mike Royko. I read his column religiously–first in the Daily News, and then (when that paper folded) in the Sun-Times. He was known for skewering Chicago’s longtime mayor, the Boss, Richard J. Daley. He invented a fictional character named Slats Grobnik who commented on the political intrigues that were always at play in the big city.
My town, Des Plaines, had not a bit of intrigue. We had no boss. We had no downtown; it was split in half by the commuter train tracks, and then much of it was erased by an obnoxious parking garage. Half of our residents could not name our mayor at any given time. Having no experience myself and having done nothing of significance, I was just the person to write about a town where nothing happened.