The Kindness of Strangers and...
Today's Quirky Nomads podcast includes my retelling of an old anecdote about "the kindness of strangers and the non-kindness of strangers." (Listen here.) The incident really happened, and taught me a few things about the world.
Despite my lifelong interest in reading and my more recent fiction-writing efforts, I was inexplicably focused on getting a business degree at the University of Illinois. For some reason I took only a handful of literature classes and only two rhetoric classes, one of which was just a generic required freshman writing class.
But one of the more rewarding classes I ever took, I realize now, was that other rhetoric class. It was a narrative writing course taught by Dan Curley, whom--I only learned much later--was a fairly renowned short-story writer. Curley was quite a character. Curmudgeonly, sometimes sneering at the class, sometimes being crusty-with-heart-of-gold helpful. His wardrobe--battered old sweaters, dark wool slacks, boots--wasn't markedly different than that of many of the homeless people seen around campus, a resemblance made even more pronounced by his greasy, unkempt hair.
But he had generally positive things to say about my writing. (You'd think such encouragement would have inspired me to get serious about my writing well before reaching my mid-thirties. But for some reason this wasn't the case.) He particularly liked a line from one of my stories--"Sorry doesn't change things"--and told the class he'd like to have that written on a sign to hang in his office. I actually considered having one made for him, but never got around to it.
What I liked best about Curley was his refreshing, humorous and occasionally brutal candor. I remember him reading one of my classmates' stories aloud. It was one of those self-absorbed memoir-masquerading-as-fiction pieces so endemic to undergrad rhetoric courses. The story consisted entirely of a girl sitting by a lake with her boyfriend, with her talking endlessly of their relationship and future together, and the boyfriend quietly listening. (To the girl/writer, he was listening intently and compassionately, but to everyone else--especially to Curley--it was obvious he was bored to tears.)
After several tedious pages of the girl's monologue, Curley stopped reading, put down the manuscript, and leaned back in his chair. He took off his glasses, rubbed his tired eyes, put the glasses back on, and crossed his arms in deep thought. Then, partly to himself and partly to the class at large, he sighed and said one of my favorite quotations of all time:
"No, no, this doesn't work at all. I think the guy definitely would have been trying to cop a feel by now."
Oh, goodness. This is not going to be an easy day. I woke up to the news that Ray Rayner had passed away, at the age of 84. Ray and "The Ray Rayner Show" were such a vital and cherished part of my childhood that I'm getting a bit choked up trying to think of the right words to say. Ray's smile, his humor, his warmth and his overall goodness made him seem like a close friend to me, a generally lonely child, even through the otherwise depersonalized medium of television. He sent me off to school every morning with a wave and a smile, until we'd see each other again the next day.
So many memories...the hideously colored jumpsuits, with notes paperclipped everywhere...his gloriously inept art projects which were made with three times as much glue as necessary, and which bore little or no resemblance to the prototype, as created by "Mrs. Chauncey"...the visits to the little cottage of Cuddly Dudley the dog, where the wonderfully innocent letters of kid viewers were respectfully read and shared...the one-man parades around the studio, accompanied by canned Sousa marches..."Ark in the Park", the trips to Lincoln Park Zoo ("Dr. Fisher's in the monkey house!")...the chalkboard with the sports scores (for the local pro teams, plus the Slippery Rock football team) and the weather forecast ("Today's Weather: Swell")...chasing Chelveston the Duck around the studio, before the low fence named "Rayner's Ranch" was erected...the humorously pathetic attempts at singing.
One of my proudest childhood moments was the time that Ray and Cuddly Dudley read a poem which my sister Marti and I wrote. I can only remember a few lines of it:
When old Ray Rayner starts to sing
We turn the volume way down low
Though Ray Rayner's nice
And cool as the ice
He sings just like good old Joe Schmoe.
He taught me so many lessons about life. Every kid is special. We all make mistakes. Laugh at yourself. Respect others. Wear your boots and galoshes. And--unintentionally but hilariously--nature cannot be tamed, as evidenced by his fruitless attempts to get Chelveston to swim in that ridicilous little plastic tub.
More often than not, sad news like this seems to arrive on days of foul weather or subzero temperatures. This was already a subzero week, and it just got a little bit colder.
So long, Ray.
"Best Gift Ever"
Jeff Buckley et al
It's fascinating how circular life can be. When I last wrote about Jeff Buckley, I was working on a short story ("Discord") which was partly inspired by him. I finished that story in September, and spent October working on two more stories which are still in rough draft form. Then in November, I resumed my novel-in-progress ("Eden") as part of NaNoWriMo. On Tuesday afternoon I took a break from work and went to a nearby Starbucks to do some work on the novel. And when I walked in the door, I was thrilled to hear the last minute or so of Buckley's "Hallelujah." I'm still quite obsessed with that magnificent song.
This interesting coincidence is roughly analogous to my "Algren Nickel" experience.
Today I happened to think of my childhood friend John. John was a free spirit, reckless, fearless, wild, the exact opposite of what I've always been. His youthful vandalism, which occasionally bordered on the criminal, always kept us laughing: shoving a tree-sized branch down a neighbor's chimney, flinging bluegill over his backyard fence at cars passing on the highway, blowing up footbridges with improvised gasoline grenades. He was the kind of guy who could mis-grab a hot line drive in a game of Chicago softball (no gloves), have it shatter his thumb, and coolly reply "Damn, I broke my thumb," as if he was commenting on the weather. He played on the rugby team at Wisconsin, which fit him perfectly: ceaseless, manic, bone-threatening action, with no concern whatsoever for the lack of both padding and scholarships.
The last time I saw him was shortly after we graduated from college. He had just taken a job with a civil engineering firm, dredging harbors. His job would take him place to place: Chesapeake Bay to San Juan to Puget Sound, working three weeks at a stretch with one week off, which he spent at his adopted hometown of Steamboat Springs, skiing, undoubtedly flinging himself down the side of the mountain at breakneck speed, thirsting for adrenaline with no thought of his personal safety. During his interview he said that what the company needed was "a gypsy, someone who lived out of a backpack," and that he was the man for the job. Standing at the bar in a dive in our hometown, he had just finished regaling us with stories of firefighting in Yellowstone with the National Park Service.
The reason I thought of John this morning was that the conductor on my train vaguely resembled John, albeit a balding, paunchy, 50-year-old version of him, and I was sobered at the thought. I know we all have to grow up, mature, settle down, buy a three-bedroom house with two-car garage, but please, not John. I want to think he's still out there, a vagabond, a ski bum, living on the edge for the pure thrill of it. In my mind he will always be exactly the way he was the last time I saw him, garrulously talking about the Yellowstone forest fires.
Days of Moderate Glory
1973; the tiny gym at my grade school is the biggest room in the whole world. I was still moderately well-behaved at the time, and the classroom hours passed uneventfully, with a low undercurrent of hyper tension pervading the effort of book-learning. Studies simply marked time until one was finally freed, springing from our desks to gym class or recess, a flurry of dodgeballs in the gym after the lunch tables had been folded away, and performing just adequately enough during annual evaluations to get another National Physical Fitness Award, which was notable for the signature of President Nixon. It was just a facsimilie, and he had yet to so precipitously fall from grace, but to a third-grader it was most impressive.
But gym class, for all its enjoyment, was the mandatory, official portion of our physical release. Nirvana was recess, thousands of games of kickball, its stars including long-limbed Steve and squat, flame-haired Josh. But most prominent was John Gappa, tall, blond and always a captain, who knew me via a friend of mine who lived in his neighborhood. John lived in the richest part of town, high on a hill in a house the size and shape of a Hudson River ferry boat with an Olympic-sized pool in the basement. The fact that the pool leaked down the hillside into my friend's yard made no matter to those of us who regarded the Gappas with quiet awe. By virtue of my tenuous connection to him, John always picked me for his team--even though I doubt if he consistently remembered my name; my face must have been just familiar enough--and though I kicked far at the bottom of the order, this daily honor validated the existence of a small, skinny eight-year-old.
I climb from my cocoon, soon to face reality. Having been nestled in my narrow upper-level seat, hunched inside my winter scarf which has prematurely become essential, sipping homebrewed coffee, reading the rollicking and effortless prose of Dave Eggers and being somehow grateful for the sinus congestion which dulls my senses to a pleasant stasis. But the train arrives at its destination far too soon, and I step into the chill, shuffling slowly with the crowd, trying to grasp a last sip of coffee while not drinking too deeply and ingesting the gritty grounds, and I realize that my congested head and the lack of sleep I've fought for the past few nights will sap my energy for the coming day.
Walking down the plaza, I also realize how much my field of vision has narrowed. I make this same two-block walk every morning, and I likely won't see the outside world again until it's time to get back on the train and go home. Lunchtime strolls have become rare, and mid-afternoon coffee-and-writing sessions even more so. I have the outside world amply reported to me at my desk, during my lengthy Internet sessions, but direct contact is becoming increasingly infrequent. Just something that I need to fight through periodically.
Brattle Book Shop
I'm easing back into reality after a lengthy driving vacation, sitting at home for the past two days of incessantly gentle rain. I used to welcome the rain as a respite from boredom, most notably when I lived on the second floor with no basement. But now rain makes me uneasy. I want to get just enough to keep the lawn from turning an unsightly brown, but not enough to overwhelm the sump pump and flood the lower level. Maybe this is what maturity is all about--acquiring a new batch of things to worry about.
The drive out east, to New York for a wedding and then on to Boston and back through the Berkshires to visit old friends, before returning home with only a surprisingly pleasant stopover in Erie, PA, was long but enjoyable. Last Wednesday (Shutesbury, MA to Erie) was endless--over six hundred miles of interstate highway leavened only by the rare sight of wild turkeys foraging in the shoulder, south of Buffalo. But the lengthy drive was the only negative. Julie and I scoured what seemed to be every single used book store (now sadly rare in Chicago) within walking distance of Boston Common, scoring most notably at Brattle Book Shop, with William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways, a Jim Thompson collection, a rare old needlework guide and a book on Martin Luther that I'm sure my mom will appreciate (and if not, it was only three bucks). Brattle was quite unique--it had the only "book alley" I've ever experienced, with its most heavily-discounted titles shelved outdoors, next to the building. Julie was able to recognize that distinctive used-book smell from two doors away. Literary experiences like this are becoming increasingly rare in this age of megastores, and I was very glad to enjoy this opportunity.
If I lived in the Boston area, my bank account would be dramatically leaner and my house even more clogged with books. Plus, I would undoubtedly suffer the neck problems which used-book store patrons must surely develop from so many hours of reading titles off of book spines, with one's head permanently cocked to one side. But I would gladly welcome any such financial, logistical and physical maladies.
One Life Becomes Two
I left the deafening bar, exiting onto Wells Street into a warm and welcoming drizzle. I realized that I had, finally, had enough of this. Endless standing, shouting meaningless pleasantries inches from a companion's ear, music too loud to converse normally, and drinking mechanically for want of anything better to do.
That stroll up Wells in the rain, towards a spot more favorable for taxis, was in retrospect rather cinematic. Seen from overhead, my drenched reflecting could easily have passed for a lovelorn John Cusack. But while he would have been desperately longing for some specific, dark-eyed waif, my longing was more general. For something calmer, someone to talk quietly to and do low-key everyday things. For the serenity of domesticity. Not the clamor of superficial, fake sociability. Someone real. I found her not long after.
Caught in the Rain
I like being prepared at all times, but this morning I failed. I knew rain was in the forecast, but thought nothing of it. It was raining ever so slightly, barely a mist, when my train left Joliet. I lost myself in a book, but when I finally looked out the window as the train approached the South Loop, I could see it was raining much harder. As the train pulled into the LaSalle Street Station (not my regular station, as I missed my earlier train, thus giving me a considerably longer and more exposed walk) and I packed my book away, I reached into the side of my bag where I keep my umbrella. Nothing there. I instantly realized it was sitting back home, in a corner of the garage where I had left it to dry after the last time it rained.
Chicago is only a fair place to walk in the rain without an umbrella, probably because it rains here so rarely. Many of the newer buildings do have open-air covered walkways which offer precipatory protection, but the older buildings come right to the edge of the sidewalk with solid walls of masonry. I decided it wasn't coming down too badly, and I could make a run for it. An unwise decision, as it turns out.
I cut through a building which has an indoor corridor running all the way from Van Buren to Jackson, at the end of which was a CVS drugstore. I stopped in, intending to buy a cheap umbrella. But the umbrella stand was conspicuously free of price tags, which makes me wonder if their umbrellas have flexible pricing based on the weather. Yesterday, when it was sunny and 95 degrees, I'll bet they were going for eight bucks a pop. The lack of price tags felt a bit unseemly, and I decided to forego my purchase. I had no appetite for discovering that today, in a steadily increasing downpour, the going price had leaped to, say, twenty bucks.
I exited CVS and cut across the street to the Sears Tower parking garage, where I could walk under cover all the way from Wells to Franklin. But when I reached the other side, I was stuck. On the other side of Franklin was the Sears Tower, with a concrete retaining wall looming next to the sidewalk for an entire block, and across the street were older buildings with no overhang whatsoever. It was really pouring now, but I had no choice. When the walk light changed, I bolted from the garage and ran hellbent up the sidewalk next to the retaining wall, getting drenched within seconds. I cut across Adams, gaining the shelter of a Northern Trust branch office. It was then I decided it was futile to keep wiping off my glasses, and finally looking down, I saw that the dregs of my coffee mug had splattered my jeans with dark brown spots. What a lovely fashion statement.
So I had a sheltered reprieve, but again I was stuck. To the north on Wacker was a construction zone, and to stay on Adams meant a long sprint across Wacker's broad expanse, and then another block to cross the river. I decided on the latter, and eventually made it to South Riverside Plaza, where the newer buildings mercifully have broad overhangs which run the entire length of the block. I damply walked up to Monroe, waiting at the edge of the overhang for the walk light before sprinting to the other side, gaining cover from an identical building. The process would repeat itself at Madison, just across the street from my office. While waiting under cover for the walk light, an enterprising young guy was offering some sort of umbrella shuttle to the taxicab stands on Canal Street.
The walk light changed, and I made my final sprint across Madison. I avoided a shortcut through the Osco on the corner, figuring I couldn't get much wetter than I already was. I pushed my way through the revolving doors and headed towards the elevator, looking like a sodden stray dog.
It's 11 A.M., and I'm still quite damp, and probably will be all day. I've learned my lesson. I hope.
Happy Anniversary, Booga J! Four wonderful years, and counting!
No Good Samaritans...
Years ago, while driving home from my first post-college job, I happened to blow out a tire making an ill-advised u-turn in Highland Park, an affluent suburb north of Chicago. I was just able to pull the car into a self-service gas station at the corner of U.S. 41 and Route 22, and set about changing the tire. The car was already six years old at the time, and my college-era budget had left me with little cash for maintenance. I quickly discovered, to my chagrin, that six years of sitting outdoors had left the lugnuts securely rusted in place. They simply would not budge, no matter how I threw my weight into the lug wrench.
No problem, I figured. There were plenty of cars coming in and out of the gas station. Somebody would stop to help me. Car after car, BMW after Mercedes, pulled into the station. Every driver, undoubtedly unimpressed by my 1982 Chevy Cavalier and sensing that I was just passing through town, made only the briefest glance of indifference as they drove by and proceeded on their way.
After twenty minutes of this, I gave up and headed towards the pay phone to call my auto club's road service. On the way, I noticed a gasoline tanker truck idling, refilling the station's tanks. The driver was a large, burly man who would have been even more lowly-regarded by the locals than I was, had they bothered noticing him at all. At least I was wearing a suit. He was clearly not from the area. I decided to give it a shot.
"Excuse me," I said hopefully. "I've got a flat tire over there. Do you think you could give me a hand?"
"You've got a flat? Sure, I'll help you out," he replied amiably.
He strolled over to my car and picked up the wrench, and with the easiest twist of his hefty forearm loosened the first rusted lugnut. He quickly loosened the others in mere seconds, without expending even a single drop of sweat. He handed me back the wrench.
"There, you should be all set," he said with a smile.
"Thanks, I really appreciate this," I said, reaching for my wallet.
"No, no," he said, holding up his hand, stopping me. "No problem at all."
He walked back to his truck while I removed the flat. I put on the spare tire, and was soon on my way.
My conclusion to all of this? The only Good Samaritans in Highland Park are from out of town.
The Algren Nickel, Redux
Nelson Algren is my literary hero and role model. In 1998, I wrote the following:
The Algren Nickel
I'm holding an old nickel in my hand. It's very worn, and fairly dirty: small hunks of dark matter are wedged into the letters on the heads side (especially in "God", oddly enough) and along the edges of Monticello on the tails side.
I got the nickel in change somewhere, but didn't really take notice of it until I happened to fish it out of my pocket one morning while pumping gas. In that awkward time when the tank is filling and about the only way to keep busy is to watch the numbers zip past on the pump as the gallons add up. It was the only coin in my pocket, so I looked at it absently, only to be struck by the date on it.
1951. Algren was in his prime then. Chicago: City on the Make was published that year, and he was halfway between his twin triumphs, The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side. City was published, only to be panned by happy-sunshine, Chamber-of-Commerce Babbits like the Mayor's Office and the Tribune. Some do-gooders managed to get it banned from the Chicago Public Library, somehow claiming that it presented a distorted view of the city. What made the Babbits uncomfortable was that it presented, in gritty detail, the very underside of the city that the Chamber types, in promoting the city's virtues to business owners and upper crust tourists, didn't want to admit existed.
And just yesterday, as I happened to be just finishing another re-reading of Algren's classic 1947 short story collection, The Neon Wilderness, I came across another very worn nickel in a handful of change. The date on this one was 1947. Strange, isn't it, the way this world turns?