The American Dream — A Home of One’s Own


I would have thought we had reached our bottom, our Personal Worst, while we were living in squalor and bedlam above the Chinese hand laundry, after the periodic institutionalizing of my parents, after the orphanage, and after the Man of the House had died, but.

My mother operated a punch press in a factory in Chicago.  She lost the tip of a thumb to the vagaries of the punch press (or perhaps deliberately), and got $1,000.  We didn’t recognize it as a curse.  We used the money as down payment on a $7,500 house in the next town over, Lombard.  The house had 3 rooms with an enclosed front porch, and was covered in asphalt stamped to vaguely resemble gray bricks.  It was an old, tiny, troubled house, not so much a starter house as an ender house, but it did have a couple of frills:  a furnace and a hot water heater.  (No window screens, though.)

The landlords had built a tacky new house on the left front of an acre of land.  We were buying their original house which was on the right, way in the back corner, as far from the new house as possible.  To facilitate our new life as homeowners, we bought a 1930 Olds coupe, with a rumble seat (but no heater!), for $30.  (Fun in summer, otherwise not so much.)  It was 25 years old.  We used it to move, which required a lot of trips.  Our biggest task was to move my mother’s many huge stacks of newspapers. (She still meant to read them: a hoarder.)

There were four of us left: my mother and three boys. Among us I think I had the best chance of thinking things through, since my next older brother’s attic was somewhat dimly lit, and my mother was nuts (schizo).  Since I was youngest but one, though, I had only modest influence.  We resembled the crew of Lord of the Flies, with no concept at all of home ownership or civic responsibility.  We never did own a lawn mower.  When the furnace stopped, and the water heater, we just gave them up.  We operated completely by caprice, but also in total ignorance. We quickly abandoned the idea of bed-sheets, which were superfluous, even silly.

For a while we kept the pot-bellied stove going with coal we stole from the railroad-crossing guard’s shack (a delicate business with him inside it), but eventually I began carving up the abandoned outhouse on the property; and then a chicken coop; and then the garage.  That was the state of affairs when, after a couple of years, the house mercifully burned and ended our adventure.

In the attic once, in summer, I lifted a random piece of flotsam and beheld a momma mouse with teeny pink babies.  I right away covered them back up so as not to frighten them, and thought briefly about their plight – something like “well, guys, I’d like to help, but sadly, here it’s every man for himself,” and resolved not to think about them any more.  But I failed.  I tried to imagine their world, and could not feel very hopeful for them.  This contributed further to my certainty that the idea of a benevolent God was completely preposterous.  It soon sank, irretrievably, into the deepest trench in the sea.

In winter, we all dragged our mattresses near the stove, as we had learned to do back in the apartment.  But in cold snaps, I can’t forget the visceral, abject terror I felt.  It was completely absurd, since I imagine everyone else in that whole town had warm houses we could somehow have gotten into if we had reached a panic state, but at that time I thought of us as verminous; as a lower form of life, completely separate from the others.  I’m sure we were despised.  There were good reasons for it, starting with the hay field that was our front yard, and the scattering of junk in it.

Robert Burns thought it would be a gift from God to see ourselves as others see us.  Not always the case.

Every night of my adult life, when my head meets the pillow, I am grateful for the clean smell of the pillowcase; and in winter mornings, for the dependable warm draft from the furnace.  In that house, I would cover myself with several army surplus blankets, which lay on me like a slab of wood.  I tried to arrange them so that only my mouth was exposed to the cold air.  Fleas were a problem.  If one was biting me, I wasn’t about to get out in the cold to wage war.  I would just scratch where he bit me, and hope he’d soon get full and leave me alone.

Many people are subconsciously frightened by people like we were then, living close to the bone, because they know in some part of their minds that such disaster could befall them as well.  (I think of naive victims of the Depression – especially the jumpers – who had no idea of the fate that was approaching; and of victims of the Shoah, and the Gulag.)  And always on the other side of the coin from fear is hate – something else for the low caste to shoulder, and wonder at in dismay.  This fear is part of why people choose to believe that the poor are simply lazy: it lets them think poverty is easy to avoid, and so they are safe.

 ***

One spring following a winter during which I wore the same clothes, unwashed the whole time, I was desperate enough that I gathered all the clothes I could find, including what I was wearing, and pitched them into a great tub.  I boiled water, added soap, and scrubbed things by rubbing fabric against itself.  Eventually my knuckles hurt, and I found that I’d rubbed holes in them, which ended my scrubbing.  I wrung the whole mess out and strewed the clothes around the house to dry. And so my innovative entrepreneurial spirit was born. Or something.

We once played a game in the church basement, in which the first step was for everyone to throw a shoe into the center of the circle.  That set off an alarm in me that sent me out of the room in great haste.  Problem was the large holes in the heels and toes of my socks.  I ran first, thinking up an excuse on the fly.

***

 In eighth grade I ate the free lunch for poor kids.   The meal seemed almost unimaginably grand, because it was so up-market for me.  When I reached high school (back in Glen Ellyn, the town we’d moved from), I only attended when it was cold out.  I was intently focused on a single goal, to quit when I turned 16 and get a job.  Mr. Miller, the assistant principle – whom I visited frequently because around puberty I’d turned self-aware, and so, disagreeable – would tell me how smart I was, and that I should go to college.  He had no conception of how absurd that advice sounded to me – that seeing salvation – a job – almost in my grasp, I should postpone it indefinitely.  Anyhow, I didn’t believe the part about being smart.  I suspected it was just part of his shtick.

I knew nothing about the school bus.  Feeling an outcast, the idea of it made me uncomfortable.  So I walked the railroad tracks to the other town.  I passed a tiny factory, and fixed on it as the place that might give me a job some day.

***

 Not too long after we moved there, when I was thirteen, my concern for my younger brother Paul kicked in.  I don’t know why my mother hated him and my sister.  I do know that it was a horrible taint that survived through several generations of mothers in our German lineage.  Even though my mother had been her own mother’s chosen victim, I sensed that when she screamed maledictions at Paul she was  somehow performing to get her absent mother’s approval at last.

What I’m saying is a pathetic description of one way humans can go tragically awry:  my grandmother modeled wickedness; and my own mother, who had yearned for her mother’s affirmation but never received it, was still subconsciously seeking it by abusing her own children.  Still others will hate the way they were treated, yet still re-enact it – why?  Because, perhaps, of an inherited compulsion?

Her curses were certainly above normal standards – “insufferable whelp”; “misbegotten spawn of the devil” – and she took after him with a wooden stick to “thrash him within an inch of his life” – until that day I at last felt guilty about letting it happen, so stood between her and him.  She hit me over the head a couple of times, but got no satisfaction because I was not Paul.  (He didn’t help his case by mocking her, which totally enraged her.  He was a spunky little guy.)

Soon after that day he blatantly stole a purse, which I believe he did because he chose to take his chances with the judge, rather than stay any longer within range of my mother.  Her other victim, my sister, when given the option, chose to remain in the orphanage.

Alice and Paul were grievous alcoholics all their adult lives, like their daddy, and died young, gaunt, toothless and ravaged.

***

 We were heedless of the idea of preserving the house’s resale value.  After the cats had pooped in the house for a while, I thought it would be better to give them a way to get outside, since we also had never tried kitty litter.  It seemed to me that a hole in the front hallway floor would be best, so I made one, with a hatchet and a railroad spike.  (The spike was to break the wood’s will when it resisted the hatchet.)  Since we also lacked the concept of sharpening a blade, the going was slow; but I got it done and it worked fine.  When my mother got home that night she saw the wisdom of it.

The Company We Kept

 We attended a Baptist church, also in our previous town.  I had friends there, and adults who gave me minor attaboys which were no doubt good for me.  But two of my friends’ fathers were such destructive abominations that I think, in spite of their being solidly middle class, I ended up psychologically better off than they did by the time we reached adulthood.  Actually, I’m quite sure of it.

My third friend’s dad was outstanding.  He and another guy were our scout leaders.  I used to review the list of badges to see if there were any I could earn that didn’t require money, and hit on one for writing up a hobby.  I had none (a ridiculous idea in my house) but it occurred to me to describe reading as my hobby.  I described it as something that might give me a hint of how to escape my undesirable life.  I knew that was a good idea (and it turned out to be remarkably prescient).  So I wrote it.

I took the essay to the other leader – who accused me of plagiarizing it.  (He would one day become my father-in-law, which led to a difficult period of adjustment for him.)  I was wounded by that, of course, but beyond what you might imagine:  I felt ashamed, I think because I realized I was the kind of person it was easy to think so little of.  After a while, I brought the essay to my friend’s dad, who generously praised it.  I’ve never forgotten that, and was able to tell him so before he died.  It’s the first thing I can remember that helped me to begin to hope.

***

 If you ever have to sit through a sermon based on text from Habakkuk, God help you.  For a while we had a part-time preacher whose full time job was teaching Old Testament at Wheaton College, and he inflicted all the Old Testament prophets on us.  There were a lot of things wrong with the guy, like that his meek wife seemed afraid of him, and he was clearly fond of pre-pubescent girls.  He once got his hands somehow on a big batch of 2-foot-square wooden flats which, it seemed top him, would make a great sidewalk for the Macafees.

He liked his idea, but not the idea of the work.  That was for me to do.  My mother readily agreed.  Easy for her.   The scheme was for me to dig a 200-foot trench down our “yard,” and stick these marvelous flats in it.  Which I did, with him supervising, but knowing the whole time that the idea was idiotic:  a crooked, uneven wooden sidewalk through a hayfield.  He must have started with receiving the flats, and then tried to think of something to do with them.  He was not good at this part.

***

 Old Mr. Temple was a nice man who worked in a stone quarry, so he brought a load of stones for our driveway.  (The driveway was ugly, I suppose, but worked fine.)  We would have much preferred a pound of hamburger, but that’s not what they had.  So they brought flats and stones.  We seemed to slip quickly from their agenda,  however, and they soon left us once again to our misery – for which I, at least, was grateful.  I was not ungrateful for the stuff they had brought.  It was just plainly ridiculous in the circumstances.  I wished they had noticed instead how skinny we were.

***

 Deacon Roy Peterson, another sweet man, did do something useful for us once, inadvertently.  He came with his wife and kids after church one Sunday to visit me because I was sick.  I had a cold, so I had heated up chicken soup, which seemed like a proper idea, and poured it into a cheap plastic bowl – which emitted a loud cracking noise.  Startled, I dropped it – in my “lap.”  That burned me, and it hurt; so I was running around the kitchen table cursing when nice Mr. Peterson showed up.

We went to the hospital ER, with me wearing my mother’s bib overalls to reduce the friction.  A woman met us – “What’s up?”  “The boy burned himself – there.”  She wanted me to take my pants off.  Roy wanted the doctor.  (This was the ‘fifties.)  She said, “I’m the doctor.”  Oh no!  Well, Roy wasn’t going to face that with me.  He beat it, and she began inspecting my “junk.“  [“Oh, God, don’t let it start to grow.”]

Later, a friend who was in med school told me that when that happens (inopportune swelling), they just smack the wanton member with the blunt end of a scissors.  No biggie.  (Not after that.)

Roy took me home, and probably switched to delivering Meals On Wheels.

 ***

 On days when the landlady wasn’t at work, feckless Mr. Kirby, her husband Martin (who seemed to be a cipher in his family) would go padding past, with his flask and newspaper, on the way to his chicken coop – from which the chicks were long gone.  It contained a chair, and was warmed by a wall of south-facing windows.  How long can you prolong reading the paper?  He spent many hours back there.  Maybe he took naps.

 ***

 I have written elsewhere (“Fat Ogga”) about our own personal hebephile.  A rich kid.  He was “student manager” for the Wheaton College basketball team, where I imagine him handing out post-shower towels and ogling the naked players.  He would come sailing his yellow Ford convertible like a prairie schooner through our suburban hayfield, to about halfway down the long driveway, and stop where the hedge gave best cover.  He’d wait there to see which of us my mother delivered up to him for counseling.  (He only counseled one of us on each visit.)  Of course my brothers both left home eventually, so variety for him ended, and only I was available for his delectation.

I imagine that after his obsession had been mollified he could return, more diligently focused, to his studies.

I know other kids have been permanently traumatized by his lot, but I just thought of him as a pest.  His pleasure was crank-yanking – me first, after which he would assault his own silly stump.  (That‘s mean, I suppose.  But he’s dead now, and took his secrets to the grave – where the worms mercifully ate ‘em.)  My mother’s rotund friend Marjorie – Large Marge – from her long-ago college days, was a school teacher in Chicago, and she sniffed him out; wanted to know if he was a “pansy”!  I didn’t have to figure out what that was, or answer her, because my mother was hugely offended and hollered so loudly that we quickly moved off the subject.

Marjorie had a problem with girdles.  She told my mother how she huffed and puffed to get into one – after which, if you ran into her, you’d bounce off like a ball from a brick wall.  We often visited her at her old Victorian house in Wheaton (in which we later lived for a short time after we lost our House from Hell), but sometimes on the way home from Chicago she’d stop by – although coming no closer than the front sidewalk.  It’s easy for me to sympathize with her second girdle problem: fleas.  They love tight places, and would get from our yard under her girdle and bite her.  (Flea bites can drive you nuts, and are hard to scratch when they’re under a girdle.)  She had to wait until she got home and burst from her confines before she could get at them.

The Burning

 By the time we lost the house only my mother and I still lived in it, the family’s diaspora almost complete.  The oldest two kids had wisely decided to remain in the orphanage. My next older brother had joined the Navy, and the County had carried off my younger brother after his purse-snatch.  When my mother and I drove down the long driveway to the house at the back of the lot on the night of the fire, we knew nothing about that day’s fire department activity.  Nothing seemed amiss except strange black streaks rising under the eaves.  The interior was fire-gutted, though, and all the pets were dead.  For me, this was the unbearable loss.

There was no insurance.  Since we paid the mortgage payment only sporadically, the landlady, a scrofulous thing who resembled Mother Teresa with smoker’s teeth) paid the insurance sporadically, and then, after awhile, not at all.  So, maybe worried about the unpaid insurance, she told the cops that I had said a week earlier that I intended to burn the house down to get rid of the cats.  They hustled me down to the station to browbeat me into confessing, like they’d seen on TV.  But you’d be amazed at how eloquently self-righteous an emaciated little delinquent can be when, for once, he’s innocent!

I was never sure why the house burned.  (It was a mitzvah, though, except for the pets.)  The Fire Department said it was an electrical fire, which is what they say when they have no clue.  We might have done it; or a neighbor might have done it to help us make up our minds to clear off.

By the way, in the course of my life, I have figured out a kinky truth about my conscience: back when I was a kid I stole things regularly with abandon, and without a drop of guilt.  Anyone who’s known me at any time in the last 60 years, though, will know me to be scrupulously honest; yet if I were to fall again to that destitute state, I would be no more well-behaved than when I was young, and feel no more guilt.  (I would have to adjust my style; I couldn’t outrun a turtle now.)  Natural ethics.  Surrounded by abundance, in my inborn catechism, one is not required to go hungry.  One would be a dummy, and my mother didn’t raise no dummies.  (Well, actually she did raise one, but it wasn‘t me.)

 ***

We would be bottom-feeders for a little while longer before things began, ever so slowly, to change for me.  A psychologist could have made one prediction about my future at this point with total certainty:  that I would not be normal.  I had acquired an affliction of the spirit that would not heal.

Preacher used to quote Saul of Tarsus (a.k.a. “Saint” Paul of  the burning bush hallucination) that God wouldn’t stick us with more than we could bear.  Well, I’m here to tell you that Saul was a silly nit, and that idea is a load of crap, as were many other ideas of his.  (Imagine! A burning bush telling him how to act!  He just made that up, to burnish his credibility  “Hey, listen, I didn’t just make this stuff up.  A Burning Bush told me.”)

The immortal Studs Terkel, at the end of every program, used to quote the equally immortal Pete Seeger:  “Take it easy, but take it.”  (Couple of God damned socialists, by the way.)

Selah.

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A sprout from this soil, an old man’s nocturnal vision:

 Choreography – Dance of the Cripples  (All of us, of course – all)

Here are flawed, moribund  people in shrouds, dancing, crashing into one another but doing their best…

Quietly sung:  “Dry Bones” chorus –  “Them bones them bones  them – dry bones”;
old bones quietly, slowly, gratefully collapse into the ground;
but then, after a terribly long pause, a tiny voice, infinitely weary:  “oh mercy…”

Slowly, the song and dance begin once again.
The shrouded ones are driven by their earthly obligations to go around once more,
and then again, and then again… infinitely weary still… round and round… dancing…

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