Life On the Boulevard


The Genetic Sift – a Necessary Preface

When I was young and first became obsessed with thinking about human behavior, arguments about “nature vs. nurture” were in vogue.  I was very much on the side of the “nurture” advocates.  Now, at the other end of my life, and after everything I’ve learned and observed, I have been forced to completely change my mind.

For a metaphor for my own self-examination I have cited Günter Grass’s best:  peeling the onion.  When I got deep enough into it, the effort became extremely delicate; and did indeed cause tears.  (And if one finishes – if that’s ever possible – is anything left at all?)  For me, it’s been my lifelong habit to continually question my own honesty, and has led me to one of my most firmly held maxims:  whenever I assign myself a noble motive, I have almost surely tricked myself again.  Wearily, I must once again insist:  “Now that you’ve gotten your latest little egotistical sortie out of the way, please tell the truth.”  (Repeat as necessary.)

From my particular version of the gene sift, I received gifts; and, I suspect, a curse.  For years I was unwilling to acknowledge the gifts.  This was largely due to my awareness of what I call my perfidious mind (which I was describing in the previous paragraph) – involving the entwined pair of cardinal sins, self-deceit and self-puffery.  I would not admit to myself that I had gifts, which included high logical, emotional, and verbal intelligence, resilience, and an almost clairvoyant insight into human behavior.

Once I realized that I had these traits, I knew also that I came with them; they were not things I had achieved myself, nor could they have resulted from my upbringing, so they must have been floating in my gene pool and they must be mine, in particular, through luck alone.  This understanding is vitally important to me, because it altogether changes the meaning of the story that I will be telling.

Like all up-by-my-own-bootstraps stories, it implies heroics; and my story is more dramatic than most.  No one’s bootstrap stories are necessarily false, but we, the tellers, deliberately encourage our audience to interpret the stories as heroic, with the protagonist (the self) as the admirable star.

One who does this invariably conceals, probably from himself as well as from his audience, the advantages he has had.  For myself I can name many, which only begin with being born white, male, and in North America, in my century.  In a nutshell, who knows what would have happened to one of these heroes if he had been born surrounded by profound ignorance, black, in the middle of a vast ghetto?  Good luck wid dat.  He’d still be out there in the mire, tugging on his stupid bootstraps.

The pitfall for building community, in all this pretense, is that these arrogant people are very likely to say “I did it all myself.  Let everyone else do the same.”  Just one more form of hypocrisy, a useful fable to enable skipping out on social responsibility.  Once again, the arrogance of ignorance.  (Jesus, on the other hand, was a socialist.)


 I have never been able to decide where the curse comes from.  I think it may be inherited, and inseparable from the gifts; or it could result from my feeble foundational struts being repeatedly washed out when I was young.  The curse I’m talking about is an over-the-top emotional vulnerability.  When I was 20, a psychologist focused on it in a test I took (which indicated that my emotional stability was only in the 2nd percentile), and regurgitated some useless pablum about how to get over it.  Therapy barely touches it.  I am old now, and resigned to living with it for the duration; but it’s been a torment, and the abiding reason I do not entirely resist the idea of dying, since it’s clearly the only way I’ll escape it at last.  Age, though, is at least wearing it down.

Grief and despair are kissing cousins.  I am intimate with both.  I suspect that when one has the other abilities along with this trait, it makes a poet.  It’s why most poets are nuts.  In middle age, they imagine fighting death – Dylan Thomas urging his father to “rage, rage against the dying of  the light”; and Tennyson, in Ulysses: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” which I found inspiring myself in my middle years.  But the same Tennyson when old is acquiescent, in “Crossing the Bar” (another poem which I now love inordinately, and whose beauty brings me tears).  Here’s its end, a virtual lullaby:

And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

And as usual, Miss Emily is fully tuned in to the event.  From “I heard a fly buzz when I died”:

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Watching old age arriving, I realize that my relevance is in slow recession.  The trick is to try to inhibit its retreat.  I think that’s partly why I write – and why I don’t, on days I’m not convinced of its merit.  The other thing, the one I didn’t foresee, is that my spirit is more brittle than it was.  Resilience is harder to kick-start.  There’s a parallel in this to an old person’s skin not supporting stitches – the reason butterfly bandages were invented.  I search for butterfly bandages for my spirit.

Age is also a time of diminishment.  John Donne was old when he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  He had come to realize that the traumas of loss could no longer be backfilled; that they made him less whole.  (“Each man’s death diminishes me.”)

Early in my life, when I was, rather belatedly, trying to demonstrate to myself and others that there was something worthwhile to me at the age of 22, I fell flat on my face after only two years on a new upward trajectory; but then, after that despair, came hope.

The second time I encountered profound despair, when I was 53, I had a young family.  Both hope and necessity forced me to stand up again.  Now, when I fall, only the obligations of affection motivate me to try to rise.  (So far, that still seems to suffice.)  I call this waning motivation the unavoidable attrition of volition.


Stalin said that one death is a tragedy; a million are a statistic.  This is why I believe, for instance, that Anne Frank’s story is vital, and also why I want to tell mine:  they are by no means unique, but they put faces on statistics.

To begin the story, then:  a chronicle of my early life could be called “I Remember Mama.”  I remember her especially because she was initially responsible for screwing up large pieces of my life, and thereafter, periodically, but less and less.  Still, I always kind of liked her.  Some.  Well, usually.  She was intelligent, and often kind.  She was, however, incapable of rational thought.

It was a Little How Town I was born into in 1939 – a small upscale town by the railroad, twenty-five miles west of Chicago.  It’s a lovely old town still, with rolling wooded hills and a lake five blocks from town which hosted state ice skating meets until global warning rendered it unreliable.  A friend who remembers it from that time described it as a Norman Rockwell town with a Dickensian pocket:  the pocket we occupied.  We lived in a four-room apartment above the Frank Goon Chinese Hand Laundry on Crescent Boulevard.  (I can’t imagine why it was called a boulevard, because there was nothing grand about it; and no Maurice Chevalier-like  boulevardiers strutted there.)

I think our building could properly have been called a tenement, because it was dilapidated, and no repair was ever done to it, except that the window frames were periodically painted to preserve its genteel pretense.  Next door was a one-story extension housing the landlord’s office, presided over by Miss Carol.  Its roof served us as a giant kitty litter box for our cats, who could simply jump out a slightly-open window to reach it. A good rain would clean it up.

Even though my mother showed a good deal of compassion toward stray cats, I remember once when she seemed delighted to watch three cats “playing with” a mouse on that roof; but I sensed the mouse’s terror, and went and hid until they had killed it.


The town’s activity seemed centered around the railroad passenger station across the street, which we could watch from our second-story windows.  It was still the era of housewives.  We could watch them drive the men to the station in the morning, maybe take some shirts into the laundry beneath us and pick some up, then go ‘round the corner to the Flour Barrel for some baked stuff for breakfast.

And up on the station platform:  in the daytime, the stationmaster dragging the loaded railway express cart to and from the mail cars.  Steam locomotives whose wheels alone were twice as tall as I was.  The huffing giants themselves, idling in the station, ready to burst forth again in a moment.  And the gateman in his tower, warmed by his potbellied stove, watching down the track, setting the crossing bell to ringing when he saw a train coming, right on schedule – train time! – according to his magnificent watch; and tugging on his giant levers to operate the gates.  Best:  the instantaneous snatch of the mail pouch from its hook by an express barreling through.  Poof.  Gone.

But the nighttime was magical, when the town was asleep.  The legendary stream-liners would go tearing through in the middle of the night:  City of Portland (with the round windows in the last car).  City of Denver.  City of Los Angeles!  Bound for those unimaginable destinations.  (And when they had already gone far beyond our town, out onto the prairie, the far off whistle.)  Railway mail cars, all lit up in the middle of the night, with tiny men inside bustling about.  There for me every night, if I could rouse myself when I heard one coming.

Glen Ellyn.  Our Town.  At the end of the Age of Steam.  Years later, my wife and kids and I would live there, at 340 Cottage Avenue, in a storybook house, like normal people.  And I would pretend to be one of them.


 In our apartment, the five kids (I was number four) occupied the front bedroom.  Our parents slept in a kind of loft in the back.  They were irremediably defective, my father a deeply addicted alcoholic, my mother a paranoid-schizophrenic; so although they were from reputable stock, we lived in squalor.  Still, I think there was a time when I, like most kids, would have described my life as good, since it was the only life I knew.

But I was precocious.  I came early to understand that we were low down.  I felt like we were actually different in kind from kids we knew.  Others didn’t even know what a kerosene lamp was, had regular meals, and didn’t steal from grocery stores.  Their parents had teeth; and were home nights and weekends, while ours were sometimes institutionalized (or Daddy was on a bender).  Others lived in houses and had cars; but I had already seen my own father in town, guided home by a cop, blind drunk, and bloody from falling, in the town.

It was the infamous Mr. Rumsfeld who said:  “You go to war with the army you have, not with the one you might wish you had.”  Just so with family.


I suppose it was predictable that this life could not last.  On a winter morning when I was seven, and my mother was “away” for electro-shock treatments at the Elgin State Hospital, Mrs. Ketcham from the County came to take us to St. Vincent’s Orphanage.  We were surprised.  I imagine it was thought necessary that we not be forewarned because parents in this spot are likely to not cooperate (likely to hide their children.)

We rode for a hundred miles out into the country, across two broad rivers, to a farming community called Freeport – a disorienting experience, more so because we were not used to traveling anywhere at all.

We were never to live together as a family again.

I remember my early childhood in Glen Ellyn as sunny, but I always think of the orphanage in gray tones.  I will tell the story briefly, in snapshots.

Kids were separated by age.  My brother Paul (a year younger than I) and I were in attached dormitories.  His was for “wet-bedders”– room for 86.  Mine held only 21.  The beds were lined up end-to-end.  Schoolrooms held two grades each,  so he and I were together every other year; but so different:  he, Peck’s Bad Boy; me, Goody Two-Shoes.

Sister Judy, one of the majority of German nuns, presided in the dorm.  Her main job, as far as I could tell, was to keep us from “touching ourselves.”  She wielded a toilet brush, and swung for the ankles (in the shower, at the toilet).  God knows what her beliefs about small boys’ sexuality were, or how she acquired them.  She was often jolly, though, and essentially likable.  “Empty kettle rattle the most” she’d say – about a talkative kid.  Every newby was asked whether he was a wet-bedder (German syntactical confusion).  I never once heard a kid admit it – I doubt, first, if they even knew what it meant – so a  little extra trauma was added to most newbys’ first night, when they failed that test.

Once at Christmas, the local Lions Club gave us presents.  I got a ruler, compass and protractor.  Another kid got a doctor’s kit.  We traded.  We sanctified the deal irrevocably with the standard vow:  “white white no fight; black black no trade back.”  Then the little bastard changed his mind, and went whining to Sister Carmella, who demanded that we trade back after all!  Just not done – a serious violation of diplomatic protocol.  I explained the sacred vow to Carmella.  She ignored it!

I took off from the playroom running through the night, with her hot on my trail – across the front of the orphanage, past the chapel, past the old people’s home, and all the way back past the rear of the buildings.  When we reached the playroom again I stopped.  While I was running it sank in that I was doomed.  So the apostate and I traded back!

We never, by the way, called any of them “Sister.”  The title was “Str.”  “Str Judy, can I get a drink?”  Str Carmella was a humorless woman.  She was also the martinet who would corral me when I ditched choir practice.  “Achtung!”

Demonstrated affection wasn’t part of the deal (it was 1946), but most of the nuns were not mean.  (My brothers used to tell fanciful stories about their meanness, but the stories were grandiose fabrications.)  Sister Cecilia, though, was a memorable exception.  We all had morning chores.  Mine was peeling potatoes, which five of us did for Sister Salvatore, a sweet, simple, bovine woman.  We sat around two big tubs, and she joined us when she could.  As far as I knew, she was the only nun with ankles.  I remember Cecilia, who ran the kitchen, slapping her once, and screaming at her.  Salvatore just stood there hunched over, arms dangling down, weeping.  I was impotent, of course.   All I could do was hate the little bitch.  I still do.  No doubt she’s died and gone to hell by now.  Good on her.

Bobbie McGurk and I had one more chore to do at morning recess.  Sister Salvatore loaded two red wagons with two 10-gallon cans each of freshly-pasteurized milk, which the older boys had brought raw from the farm early in the morning.  Our job was to tow them down to the kitchen of the St. Joseph’s old people’s home on the other side of the chapel.  Our occasional reward was to look in the window of an adjacent room where they put old people who were dying – or so we believed.  (If they weren’t dying, they were clearly at least in big trouble.)  We called them “deaders.”  They always slept on their backs, with their mouths open wide.

An associated benefit:  my brother Paul and I were in the boy soprano choir, and sang the Latin Mass every morning in the chapel; we also sang the Requiem whenever one of the old people died.  We sang in a loft at the back of the chapel, and the practice was, at the end of the Mass, to wheel the casket to the back, where the entrance was.  Next, the choir would file down from the loft – and past the open casket!  (I notched 49 funerals before we left.  My father’s was number 50, and for a while I tried to attach some mystical significance to the fact, but I couldn’t work it out, and had to walk away from it.)

There was a kid named Raymond Lackey whose brain had shorted out, and who appeared to have a flat head.  (He was schooled with the other mentally handicapped kids in the Star Class.) It was said that he had been dropped on his head from the third floor balcony when he was a toddler.  For a couple of days once, a Mother Superior from somewhere else lay in state in our chapel on a casket cart.  Raymond wheeled her up and down the aisle as though she were a baby in a buggy, and made unmentionable investigations under her habit.

I still have trouble thinking of nuns as entirely human (my wife actually saw one in a bathroom once!), and at that time I think they seemed somehow especially other-worldly.  It really was unimaginable to me that Raymond did what he did.  Raymond apparently had no inhibitions, but it scared me so silly that I cleared out of there as fast as I could run.  I don’t think I imagined any particular consequence; it was just something beyond my comprehension.

I went back years later to prowl around and remember.  There in the choir loft, on the back of a pew, were two little trenches my brother Paul had dug with his front teeth by constant gnawing, during the grinding boredom of the daily Mass.

Paul was no dummy, so I never understood why he and Robin Roberts so lacked creativity when they ran away together.  They’d go straight to Route 20 that led out of town and hitch-hike, where the state police would promptly find them and haul them back.  Their penance was always the same:  after the priest gave them a caning, they had to wear a dress for a week.  (Paul seemed to take it in stride, dancing and making jokes about it.)  He was so un-tamed that I used to look around for him from time to time just to see what he was up to.  His behavior may have offered a clue as to why my mother hated him.  She probably shouldn’t have had any; but she’d had five, and he was last, and a wild child too.  ADD, I’ll bet.


 At home, just before we left, I’d gotten two plaid flannel shirts from Sears.  They were mine, and I was proud of them.  But with the nuns, nobody kept clothes from week to week.  On Saturday morning we went to the “clothes room,” where a nun with a practiced eye rummaged in a heap of un-pressed clean clothes to find something she judged would fit.  The trouble was that no one owned anything beyond his face and name.  The effect was similar to what is achieved by the Army deliberately:  to strip away one’s identity so that he can be re-formed into a “fighting machine.”  There, identity was not deliberately stripped away; it just vanished.

The feeling of abandonment would not have been as intense as it was if we had some regular contact with our parents, which did not happen.  It wasn’t that they didn’t care about us; but my father, I suppose, was preoccupied with his addiction, and my mother’s psyche was ruinously scattered.

The result was that they only visited us once (which I remember as formal, awkward, and brief); and marking a birthday, even with a card, did not happen.  Even at home, it had happened rarely.  When my birthday came around I knew it, but it was just a mental milestone to be noted.

(I dreamt once that I had gone home on the train.  As I climbed down from the train car Daddy met me.  I said I felt like I was dreaming; he suggested I pinch myself and see.  What a disappointment:  bad idea; dream’s end.)

It must have been at that time, because I was presented with insoluble puzzles, that I became a silent watcher, trying to distill some understanding out of the puzzles:  to find answers to questions nobody else seemed to be asking – like “what makes them do that?”

I now feel unabashed sorrow for that bereft little boy (who was me) and his siblings, because we lost something irreplaceable in those years; there were holes left in our souls.  I know now that to be unshakably grounded from childhood is a precious gift.


Riffing:  I am completely open to accepting, and embracing, self-pity, in myself and others, although I prefer to call it self-grief, to avoid some of the stigma that burdens it.    We are still in thrall to a strong taboo against self-pity, and seem almost totally unaware that we are, because it’s planted in us so deeply.  Google “self-pity” and you will find mostly two things:  lots of advice on how to escape it, and the phrase “wallow in self-pity.”  “Wallow” seems to be the only verb we know for describing our dealing with it.

I suspect that in prehistory it was indeed maladaptive; that the distraction of extended grief was intolerable when survival was so precarious.  But that was then.  As civilization creeps in, it overrides many of our atavistic instincts with more sophisticated understanding:  applied ethics.  (The comparable instinct that comes most readily to my mind is fear of the other, which engenders group chauvinism and bigotry.  Our better civilized minds step in to neutralize it:  to make us more human, less reptilian.)

Here’s a story that, at its root, is also about the wash of civilization:  In “The African Queen,” when Bogart’s character asserts that it’s only natural for a man to get drunk sometimes, Katherine Hepburn as the Missionary Lady (who has pitched all his booze into the river!) says “Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we’re put in this world to rise above.”

In our world, we endure grief, but wallow in self-pity, which is simply grieving extended  beyond its allotted duration.  We can do better than this.  It’s time.  As it is, this attitude is a lagging indicator for the advance of the civilizing process.

Grief has a natural life cycle of its own.  Some grief lasts a lifetime (for instance, that of an old man for his dog – his best friend).  We encyst it, slowly shove it out of the central focus of our vision, and shut up about it as required by our culture; but it’s just more of our hubris to imagine we can interfere with it, or shorten it.  We do, indeed, need help with how to think about it, and how to deal with it, but we should first learn to simply accept it.  This journey of living is hard enough without out beating ourselves up about stuff we’re stuck with.  I think.


 My father died at Easter, just after I had turned ten.  He was 70, had metastasized cancer that originated either in his prostate or his lungs; but it was his heart that gave out.  He’d had a pretty good run, considering his habits.  His death was especially bad luck for Paul, because he had protected Paul when he could from my mother.)

We were sent home for his funeral, but were expected to return after the festivities.  So during the spring season when the spirit of resurrection and rebirth were abroad in the land, he was headed in the wrong direction, into the earth.

Richie Edwards’s mom gave a kind of reception where friends could gather to console my mother.  I knew I should mourn, and I tried to cry.  I screwed up my face and pushed; but I had to give it up.  I could barely remember him, and the bond of affection just wasn’t there.  I had nothing to work with.

I had money questions.  Why was there no life insurance?  He “didn’t believe in insurance.”  (I sensed a bad smell in that.  First, if we sometimes couldn’t pay the electric bill, how would we ever have paid an insurance premium?)  Why did we have to pay the doctor and hospital bills, if he died?  I didn’t realize then that big bills like those were indeed a worry to my mother, but were never actually paid; so his lack of insurance resulted in costs being distributed among other patients — a form of socialism after all.   The Law of Unintended Consequences struck again. And we were the ultimate big-time losers for this mindless ideology.

My oldest Brother Bill and sister Alice, aged 16 and 15, were tightly bonded though, and agreed between them to return to the orphanage after the funeral.  My mother sent the rest of us to live with her sister Elizabeth and Uncle LeRoy downstate, until the county lost interest in us.  They had five kids of their own, and it was made clear that we were not entirely welcome.  At summer’s end we returned to our place above the hand laundry.


 My father must have lent some stability to our lives, because after our return to Glen Ellyn worse chaos descended.  More snapshots:

I immediately noticed and was fascinated by the fact that I was now tall enough to see the top of the four-foot-high Frigidaire.  I had not previously been aware that I didn’t know what it looked like, but was delighted when I did see it.  (We had once had an icebox, serviced by an iceman who regularly toted a great block of ice on his back up the stairs and stuck it in the icebox.  The ice had been cut from the town lake in winter and stored in the Jefferson Ice House until warm weather returned.)

When freezers were introduced, the company that sold Amana freezers offered an upright one pre-filled with frozen food – on a time payment plan without, evidently, doing a credit check.  For once, we ate like royalty – until they came back to repossess it.

We had a very grumpy gray, gaunt, short-haired cat called Muffy.  If you petted her she growled.  I have never been able to decide if her story is sad, objectively, but I still remember it, and for me, it is sad.  In mid-life, she got pregnant for the first time, and had three kittens.  As she nursed them, she purred loudly.  I had never heard her purr at all.  I was so happy for her.

But one by one, the kittens died; and soon, she died.  I petted her, and she continued to purr gently until shortly before she stopped breathing.  I couldn’t even come close to comprehending that. Now I choose to attribute it to the mega-dose of oxytocin that is triggered by birthing

My mother went to a county agency to see if there was any help for widows and orphans.  They said we could all go to live at the County Farm – at time the “poor farm”.  It seemed to be an opportunity designed so that no one would take it unless they were in a late stage of desperation.  We didn’t try it.

We bought a wood-burning stove from Sears because we didn’t always have money for kerosene, whereas we could usually find something to burn in the stove.  My mother remembered stories from the Depression about train engineers periodically throwing shovels-full of coal on the tracks where destitute people could find it, so she sent us out with a sack to try our hand at it.  We didn’t find much at all on the tracks, but we quickly found a lot at the railroad gate guard’s shack, and began to steal that – and then later, larger amounts from the lumber yard in town.

In the winter we all moved to the living room to sleep near the stove.  Periodically, early in the morning, we would accidentally set the trash on the floor on fire, which would inspire us all to jump out of our blankets and run around stomping out little blazes; then, silently, we would return to our slumbers.


I had a morning paper route.  At 4:00 I would ride a couple of blocks through the eerily dark and silent town to the news agency workroom, which was warm and lively.  Kids were industriously folding the Chicago Tribune, and then waiting for a turn at one of the tying machines.  But eventually it was time to face the music:  back on the icy street for two hours to, in my case, deliver 120 papers to the mansions in the part of town where the toffs lived:  Park Blvd.

I remember once, at dawn, all the birds stopped singing; and I could see no human activity.  I decided Jesus must have come again, and taken everyone but me.  I froze in place holding my bike, and waited.  Remarkably, all it took to break the spell was for me to see a single car moving in the distance.  The Baptists had certainly instilled the fear of something in me.  I had already begun to get over my belief in the supernatural, yet that could happen to me.  The big idea needed more work.

On Saturday mornings I was paid $4.00, which I was supposed to bring home; but instead I followed Johnny Wold, the guy who ran the agency, to Johnson’s Restaurant where I ordered whatever he ordered.  He must have been a kind man to let me follow him around; or maybe he was flattered to have an acolyte!

I also kept back money to buy raspberry sweet rolls during the week.  I would go to the back door of the bakery before it opened, buy one for a dime, take it back to the news agency and eat it.  My stumbling block was that I would go back to the bakery, as often as four times; so that usually by Tuesday I had spent my week’s treasure.

That paper route was not normally enviable — so many papers, such wide lawns between the fancy houses — except at Christmas.  Johnny Wold at the agency gave us really cheap calendars, and we revisited our customers after they were awake, handed them a calendar, and wished them a merry Christmas.  They mysteriously understood that they were then meant to give us our Christmas tip, which was almost always a dollar.  When I reached $100, I went home, resolved not to tell my mama.   This amount was beyond my imagination, so more would have been meaningless to me.  On my way home I stopped at McAllister’s and bought myself a blue serge suit for $35.

My older brother John evidently had a friend who gave him a stripped version of what we then called an English racing bike.  After the normal threats to keep me away from it, we went to school the next day, and I got home first.  I immediately took the bike on a spin through town, where I was shagged by a town cop.  It turned out the bike was stolen.  After my mother and John were collected, I emerged from under the cloud and John went in under it.  It didn’t bother me that the family’s reputation was further sullied,  I was glad to be free.  John had clearly not thought the whole thing thru ahead of time, but I was not surprised.  He was growing into a Barney Fife equivalent.


 While we were in the orphanage my mother had gotten a job operating a punch press at U. S. Rubber, in the city, so she was gone all day.  Many evenings Mrs. Mallon, from the other end of the hall, came to report that she could hear the most awful yelling, screaming, and cursing coming from our apartment during the day; but since nothing changed, she shortly gave it up.

Mary Lothian, our nearest of three neighbors in the hallway, had had her head run over by a milk wagon as a child.  Her head was lop-sided, and one cheek was paralyzed.  She called the kitchen the “kitchee”.  She was our friend.

While we were living there, I lost faith in another truth — that if you stepped on a crack, you broke your mother’s back. But I wasn’t altogether sure — so I once came home from school, got all the way to the entrance to our building; I stepped on a crack and ran as fast as I could up the stair and into our apartment.  There she was, good as could be, just I was (almost) sure she would be.  So I didn’t have to worry about that any more.

Our church friends did not notice the blight.  They loved coming to our place because we had hundreds of comic books, which they were not allowed to have at home.  I don’t know how we acquired them.  They cost a dime back then, and we didn’t have dimes, so I assume we stole them.  (Stealing was in our blood by then.)  We also could escort those friends to the pool hall and bowling alley in the basement beneath the movie house down the street – a smoky foreign and forbidden land.

Marguerite Higgins was a garish fat woman my mother had befriended down at the plant.  Sometimes she came home for dinner, with the understanding that this time there was no bottle of Four Roses in her purse.  There always was, though, and she furtively nipped away at it until she was roaring.

She got mad at me once for some infraction, and came after me, surprising me by clambering right onto my upper bunk, with her dress disgustingly riding up exposing her fat legs and her girdle and garter belt.  In that apartment there was an opening from the entryway into the living room where the bunk bed was, but we’d filled it with a cardboard clothes closet.  I crawled across it and jumped down.  The large one followed suit, but under her weight the closet collapsed and down she fell.

With some difficulty she stood.  My older brother John was immediately dragooned to accompany her to the train station, and he returned with two tidbits:  she had told anyone who would listen that John was intent on violating her person – “trying to fuck her” she had said, actually (unimaginable to me, mortifying to him); and he had learned a new wicked expression from her – “shit-ass.”  We loved it, and must  have overused it for at least a month until we added it to our permanent repertoire and moved on.


In Truman Capote’s autobiographical “A Christmas Story,” Buddy (Capote) and his elderly childlike cousin Sook are an odd couple of companions.  When I read the story it reminded me of life with my mother.  She was unimaginably naive, so I began sometimes to play the part of a totally inadequate parent:

We were on a train, on our way back to Freeport, where the orphanage was, for my oldest brother Bill’s wedding to his pregnant girlfriend.  My mother was insisting that she wouldn’t sign the papers that would enable the wedding.  “Why are we on the train, then?”  (Years later we discovered that she had herself been pregnant – eight months pregnant – with this same Bill when she made it to the altar.  My father had had trouble getting divorced from his first wife.)

She once found a large two-car garage in town that she thought would make a nice house.  We would remodel it.  I hid around the corner, ashamed, while she put the proposition to the homeowners.


 Eventually, we kind of fell into home ownership – the biggest disaster yet, and the occasion of our family remnant’s final diaspora – although  I’m sure it had seemed like a good idea at the time.


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