One of my favorite childhood Christmas activities was the annual ride Bob and Barb (my parents) and I took to view lights and other outdoor decorations on Milwaukee’s tony East Side. After Christmas Day dinner, we’d get in the car and head across town to Lake Drive to see all of its coastal mansions done up in displays spanning from the chaste and tasteful (a single spotlight, a mighty fir dressed in a single red bow) to those so gloriously ostentatious that the electricity bill for one night would’ve likely exceeded what my parents paid to keep our entire house illuminated the entire year. All the while, EZ 104 (actually WEZW-FM 103.7) would soundtrack our sojourn, piping nonstop holiday songs from “The Little Drummer Boy” to “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” into our Mercury Monarch.
The ride enabled us to get out of our South Side bungalow and escape into a prettier and certainly more upscale world, if only for an hour. Truthfully, however, we didn’t have to travel all that far to partake in the electric beauty of the season. Heck, we could even experience it from our very own living room via the gorgeous, gigantic white metallic star lit with fat multicolored bulbs our neighbor across the street exhibited every year. Whereas most homes up and down the block strung up their holiday light displays the day after Thanksgiving, this elderly woman who lived alone would wait to decorate until about a week before December 25. One night, the star would suddenly, magically appear; I looked forward to its materialization every year.
Naturally, we did our part to make our own home look festive. Our tree, usually covered in simple white lights would sit in the living room, smack dab in the center of the four windows that faced our street. The windows themselves were decked out in crisscrossing strings of multi-colored lights. Scores of blue lights would dot the three roomy bushes below the front porch, while a wreath sporting older, fatter colored bulbs was always hung on the front door. Next to it, we often replaced the porch light’s white fluorescent bulb with a red or green one, just to be extra festive.
Our display was relatively average, anodyne, even, compared to other homes in the neighborhood. Here and there, one would spot the usual assortment of illuminated, life-sized angels, reindeer, snowmen, Nativity sets and Santa Clauses, both in sturdy concrete and inflated, plastic and more malleable forms. People lucky enough to sport giant conifers in their front yards would cover them with endless strings of lights. Occasionally, a homeowner would go above and beyond to present something unique, like the square, squat one-story home a few blocks away that, without fail, always put up a rather impressive giant neon martini glass (complete with green olive!) on top of their roof—it really stood out among all the other two-story structures surrounding it.
The neighborhood holiday decoration I most fondly recall, however, sat two-and-a-half blocks up our street. In front of a brick house with a terraced roof was a plastic snowman head placed over a lamppost. Painted to include a brimmed hat, red earmuffs, a big red nose and matching patterned scarf, it completely covered the lamp, while the white post was wrapped diagonally with a red ribbon and topped off with a shiny red bow. Simple, cheap and utterly basic, it nonetheless achieved legendary status in my family when I was ten or twelve and Bob first said, “Hey look, it’s Chris-on-a-Stick” once as we passed it.
Every subsequent December, whenever we’d drive by the house, the presence of Chris-on-a-Stick was something he rarely failed to acknowledge. For the first few years, this teasing made me furious which of course only encouraged him to do it more. As I entered High School and put the initial indignities of puberty behind me, I came to accept and embrace the nickname. I even grew to anticipate having a reason to drive past Chris-on-a-Stick, to revel in the joke, comprehending how silly and yet sublime it was to see what had become my namesake—a ridiculous Frosty-the-Snowman-head-on-a-post that would only appear one month out of the year.
When I was 17, I detected a subtle change in Chris-on-a-Stick—he looked a little less faded and possibly a tad jollier. After driving by a few times, I began to think something was awry; upon closer inspection, I discovered I was right—there was a new snowman head on the lamp this year. To the layperson or casual onlooker, it was almost indiscernibly similar, but those aforementioned changes, along with the fact that the plastic head was now two-faced, with an identical visage on its opposite side pitched at the house, confirmed that it was indeed a replacement. “That’s not the real Chris-on-a-Stick”, I’d scoff, adding yet another layer to this seasonal plastic mythology.
That year, Bob and Barb somehow convinced me to pose for a picture standing next to Chris-on-a-Stick (I can imagine its owners’ bewilderment if they were home), even if it wasn’t the real one. Decades on, I’m so thankful they did, if only because I have photographic evidence that it really existed. As for my dad, I got my revenge the following year when, one block over, I noticed a fat plastic snowman placed in someone’s front yard on the ground right in front of a towering flagpole.
“Hey look, it’s Bob-on-a-Pole”, I casually announced as we drove past it one night. Barb burst out laughing and Bob enjoyed the joke as well, knowing that it’s good to both give and receive, not only during the holiday season but throughout the year.
Twenty Thanksgivings ago, I had to come up with a potluck dish for a dinner with friends. I didn’t want to go through the trouble of making a Sweet Potato Pie as I had done the previous year (and whose recipe I first attempted for a Potato Party (no, really) five years before.)
I was out of school and working at my first permanent, full-time office job. In response to my dilemma of What To Bring To The Table, Jane, a co-worker, emailed over a recipe for this Sweet Potato Bake (that could also be made with butternut squash if desired.) I tried it out and it was a big hit with everyone (mostly twentysomething gay men, BTW) at that Thanksgiving dinner.
Boiling and mashing fresh sweet potatoes (or yams, if you prefer, though I can never tell the exact difference) is key—never tried it with the canned variety, never will unless there’s an unlikely shortage of fresh taters. However, I think the real secret to the dish’s success is the crumbly topping: equal parts chopped pecans, brown sugar and flour mixed together with melted butter.
I’ve made this dish nearly every Thanksgiving since. Oh, there was that one year I thought I’d try something different, a similar dish involving maple syrup, but we shall not speak of it again. Because the boiling and mashing takes up considerable time, I only make this once a year, and usually the night before so that I can focus on the Turkey on the holiday itself. Here’s the recipe—if you like sweet potatoes, it will never fail you.
3 cups cooked sweet potatoes mashed
¼ cup sugar*
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
¼ cup butter (softened)
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup milk (or 1/3 cup heavy cream)
½ cup light brown sugar
½ cup flour
½ cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons butter (melted)
(*The recipe originally called for 1 whole cup of sugar (under which Jane wrote in parentheses, “You can tell right here it’s going to be good with a ratio like that!”), which may explain its instant popularity. Over the years, I’ve determined that a ¼ cup is more than sufficient.)
In a large bowl, blend boiled, mashed potatoes, sugar, salt, eggs, ¼ cup softened butter, vanilla and milk.
Place in a greased 1 ½ quart casserole dish (or 9 x 13” pan.)
In a small bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, pecans and remaining butter; top casserole with this crumbled mixture.
Thursday morning, Ewa yells down to the basement, “Chris, are you up?” Half-asleep, I mean to answer “yes” but blurt out, “OK!” We have a six hour drive ahead of us and want to reach Ann Arbor by 5. After a quick meal of Sugar Smacks and Polish peach concentrated drink, we hit the road. Under overcast skies, we enter I-94 South, which will take us all the way to our destination. I pop in The Last Days of Disco soundtrack while Ewa whips out a pack of Kool cigarettes, having run out of our beloved cloves. It takes a few puffs to adjust to a fresher, mint-ier flavor, but as “I’m Coming Out”, “Good Times” and “Let’s All Chant” (the latter’s repeated “WOOP! WOOP!” cries will stay in my head all weekend) fill the air, I get used to the taste.
An hour passes as we crawl through Chicago; by then, we’re knee deep into ABBA, listening to “Waterloo” twice in a row, each lighting up another Kool. We leave the South Side behind for the blast furnace-lit shores of Northwest Indiana. A sign announces the new state as THE CROSSROADS OF AMERICA, whereas Michigan, some 20 miles on, has GREAT LAKES and GREAT TIMES (a slight improvement over the YES! M!CH!GAN tourism campaign of my youth.) Craving more than the leftover bread and tomatoes Ewa brought along for the ride, I make her stop at a Long John Silver’s outside Benton Harbor so I can use the restroom (or “Necessary Room” as they label it) and order some fries and hushpuppies.
We return to I-94, munching on fried food, unceremoniously throwing the trash into the backseat without a care that someday, we’ll have to collect and dispose of it elsewhere. We look for ways to amuse ourselves as we roll across flat, uneventful Michigan. I spot a business curiously called ABBITT, INC., to which Ewa suggests, “Well, some of their typewriter keys must’ve gotten stuck.” We bypass a town called Coloma, which inspires me to note, “I’d rather be in a coma than have to be in Coloma.” Hours pass. We listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland and I read a chapter or two of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All. In time, I recline my seat and nearly doze off to the dreamy African choral sounds of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
We arrive in Ann Arbor right on time. I imagined Teresa, whom I haven’t seen in over two years, would be living closer to the University of Michigan (where she’s studying Behavioral Science); instead, she’s in an ugly, utilitarian 1950s apartment complex on the outskirts of town, not too far from neighboring Ypsilanti and quite close to the Ypsi-Arbor Bowl (one can spot its vintage neon sign, with four pins spelling out B-O-W-L from her sliding glass door.) The unit is decorated with Formica-heavy furniture, tan shag carpeting and thick brown window drapes (with an ancient, equally brown 70s stove)—the kind of place you’d expect an elderly woman to reside in more so than a grad student, but Teresa seems content, as does her brownish-orange cat, Virginia, forever slinking near the door wanting to escape.
After a lazy debate as whether to go out or stay in for dinner, we rummage through Teresa’s fridge and find a package of Healthy Choice hot dogs and in the cupboard, a can of generic brand baked beans. Combined with Ewa’s leftover bread and tomatoes, we boil the hot dogs, nuke the beans and have ourselves a poor grad student’s feast. Still, it’s not enough. After a run to the local Farmer Jack’s for a box of Orville Redenbacher’s Redenbutter Microwave Popcorn, we settle in for an evening of The Kids In The Hall: Brain Candy, which Ewa and Teresa have seen repeatedly to the point of being able to recite all of the dialogue. Ewa takes the spare bedroom, while I set up camp on the living room couch. Virginia scratches the side of it for a minute before taking refuge on her cat bed. Worn out from all that time spent on the road, I doze off immediately.
The three of us sleep past noon and hang around Teresa’s place, resting before the evening’s activities: we are to pick up her friend and U of M classmate Nate and then go out to dinner followed by dancing at Nectarine, a gay club. Ewa in particular’s excited to go there with me; it’s not my first gay club, but the first one I’ll attend with friends from my pre-coming out days. I’m somewhat anxious about them seeing this side of me, but I figure that if I’m going to go to a gay bar with anyone from my past, it might as well be these two gals I went to high school with: Ewa, my best friend and Teresa, my Junior year Homecoming date (we went as “friends”, naturally.)
Nate resides in a typical off-campus apartment in central Ann Arbor—well, typical except for walls blanketed with taped-on Abercrombie ads ripped out of magazines featuring muscular young men in their skivvies. If I’m a newbie in regards to coming out, Nate’s unquestioningly gay with a capital G: he has the requisite bleached, cropped hair and wears a V-neck white t-shirt with a rainbow-beaded necklace; he only differs in appearance from the boys on the wall in that his physique’s more that of a (shaved) bear than a jock with a six-pack (or a twink.)
I instantly see why Teresa’s friends with Nate: he’s unaffected and outgoing, especially in his incessant candor regarding his sexuality. To pass time before dinner, he shows us a porno called Comrades in Arms from some former Eastern Bloc country. “All the guys in it are uncircumcised!,” he gushes. I haven’t watched any gay porn at that point and am intrigued for obvious reasons, but the women in our group aren’t impressed. “It just feels like something’s missing for us!,” Ewa explains. Nate then puts in an unmarked VHS of amateur porn (neither made by nor starring himself, thankfully) just because he wants us to witness the moment a women loudly belches after she spends what seems like hours going down on some guy.
I feel no physical attraction to Nate whatsoever, but his openness fascinates me; it’s something I haven’t really encountered on the handful of dates I’ve had with other guys. During dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, he even says to us, apropos of nothing, “I worry I jerk off so much that it’s making me ill!,” causing me to nearly choke on my Mango Chicken Curry.
Like the gay clubs I’ve checked out in Boston, Nectarine is dark, crowded and loud, but the vibe’s a little different—not as intense or as guarded for sure. Maybe friendlier? Or is that just because I’m an unfamiliar face on a Friday night at what’s likely the only game in town for the LGBT community? The four of us get drinks at the bar (I’m sticking to Absolut Citron and Sprite) and venture out onto the dancefloor, Madonna’s “Beautiful Stranger” coursing through the sound system. The boy/girl ratio is at least five-to-one; there’s a few male couples here and there and not too many obvious lesbians.
Maybe it’s the booze, but I feel far less self-conscious than I usually do at a place like this. In the men’s room, I breezily walk up to a urinal, only half aware of the spiky-haired, heavily-pierced guy waiting in line ahead of me. He says, “You just walked right past me… and you did it so well.”
“Yes, I did!,” I triumphantly respond, my back to him. When I turn around, I see he’s probably close in age to me and kinda cute, but I don’t think of extending the conversation any further; I just smile and nod. I’m in town only for the night, I’m here with friends and I’m don’t want to hook up with someone right now. Still, I exit the bathroom more than a little giddy; no guy has talked to me so… flirtatiously before.
I return to the dancefloor, confident, exhilarated, even, worming my way through the throng, finding Ewa and Teresa at the opposite end; I don’t know where Nate’s gone (I’ll later find out that he went off with someone he met at the bar.) Donna Summer’s exuberant version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partirò)” comes on and the whole venue pulsates, seemingly on the verge of exploding.
As we jump to the beat, a tall blonde guy wearing a salmon-colored sweatshirt begins to dance right in front of me, smiling. I smile back. I don’t feel any pressure to make a move on him; perhaps if I were home, I’d feel more inclined to strike up a conversation, but it’s so loud and it doesn’t matter—I feel euphoric, as free as I’ve ever been. I’m doing the very thing that was inconceivable to me three years before when I finally realized exactly who I was and felt nothing but fear and misery about it. At last, I’m being myself and doing it so well.
The next morning, it’s time for Ewa and I to drive back to Milwaukee. My parents are picking me up there in the afternoon and we’ll return to Des Moines by nightfall. As we head West through Southern Michigan (nearly as flat and devoid of life as Western Illinois), Ewa says, “You know, Chris, Teresa and I were talking before we left. We’re impressed—you seem so much more comfortable in your own skin since the last time we both saw you.”
Less than an hour on the United Limo bus from O’Hare, we cross the state line. A rustic wooden sign, WISCONSIN WELCOMES YOU in the shape of said state only hints at an array of tidbits on the other side: Mars Cheese Castle (with its ginormous concrete mouse), restaurants promising “Bohemian Specialties” and a couple of adult video stores. Escape To Wisconsin for Dairy and Porn!
I arrive at Mitchell Airport just after 3:00. Ewa shows up in a red Grand Am and a white T-shirt. Her hair, like Dana’s, is the longest it has been since high school, rendering her slightly less tomboyish than usual. We hug and have so much to say to each other we barely know where to begin. Within seconds, however, she excitedly asks, “So, no pressure, but do you wanna drive out to Ann Arbor to see Teresa on Thursday?” Teresa is a mutual friend from high school that was also Ewa’s college roommate for two years. I wasn’t expecting to go to Michigan, but she really wants to see Teresa one more time before she moves to Poland to begin medical school next month. Ewa’s originally from there, having immigrated to the states with her family when she was seven.
Midway to her parents’ townhouse in the suburbs, I disclose that I have a fresh pack of clove cigarettes in my bag. “Well, Chris, why didn’t you say so in the first place?!” she blurts out. We immediately tear into them and take the long way home so that her father won’t smell anything on her. We drive down Old Route 41, itself shadowed by the adjacent expressway, past ancient motels sparsely dotting the strip with names like “El Rancho” (which Ewa dubs “El Roadshow” because it’s never busy except at lunchtime when customers apparently congregate for a downlow quickie) and the “Knotty Pine” (which I’ve always called the “Naughty Pine” for the same reason.)
After we drop my stuff off at the house, we take a walk along the new bike trail across Drexel Avenue. The late-afternoon August sun dominates the sky. We break out the cloves and I ask about her recent breakup with a longtime boyfriend; I get an expurgated version as she’s already sent me an epic letter with all the details (I’ll see it when I return to Boston.) In turn, she asks me about my sexuality. I’d come out to her the previous year via another epic letter. I am her first openly gay close friend, so she has a lot of questions. She’s curious at how I know what I like, since at that point I’m still a virgin. “What do you think of Harrison Ford?!,” she asks, herself a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones; she’s watched The Fugitive at least a dozen times. It’s hard to explain (I’ve never really thought about Ford, to be honest), but I don’t feel insulted, more relieved to be able to talk so freely with someone about this.
We head back towards civilization and reach Ewa’s house just in time for her father’s arrival. A physician, his thick accent and considerable girth always intimidated me in the past; now, it’s time to have dinner with him and Ewa’s comparably petite mother. We eat in the dining room, amidst upright cabinets displaying Polish plates, butter dishes and assorted knickknacks. On the menu: individual meatloaves, plain boiled potatoes sans any hint of seasoning and green beans one can accompany with a pour of bacon grease. Roughly similar to the kinds of meals I was served growing up, and yet not (potatoes of every variety were always doused in butter and bacon grease was usually poured directly from the pan into an empty can to congeal before its disposal.) I load up on beans (and just a few drops of the grease.) Her dad questions my post-grad school plans and offers some wine. I do as best I can to convince him I know what I’m doing with my life; I decline the wine—before dinner, Ewa warns me never to accept alcohol from her father or encourage him to drink because he tends to gets drunk, and besides, he’s on call tonight!
After dinner, I crave that hometown delicacy, Frozen Custard, so we swing by Kopp’s on 76th Street for a scoop. Then, we take a rather impromptu trip to my old neighborhood on the South Side. I haven’t been back home in over a year, but my anticipation diffuses as we drive down my street—it feels overly familiar, but tired rather than inviting since my parents no longer live there. We swing through the alley in back; our neighbors have replaced their junky old swing with a slightly newer, but still second-hand (and fairly junky) one; everything else is pretty much the same.
I awaken the next day around 11:00, racing up two flights of carpeted stairs from the basement and poking my head into Ewa’s bedroom. She’s still asleep under her cow-print blanket, arms at her sides like a mummy, her little grey cat, Taro, curled up on her pillow. Her father sits in a front of a computer screen in the next room, looking for a good deal on a used computer Ewa could take with her to Poland. His back to the door, he doesn’t notice me. I return to the basement, sprawl across the sofa bed and stare at a wood-and-brick paneled wall, pictures of Ewa’s older brother (now living in California) and his many framed accomplishments staring back at me.
In time, I walk back upstairs to find Ewa sitting in the living room, a bowl of Sugar Smacks in her lap, a mug of Turkish-style coffee at her side. We go downtown in order for Ewa to visit the Citizenship Office to get her status straightened out before going back to Poland. Once there, we empty our pockets before passing a security check—a novelty in the days before 9/11 made this mandatory for air travel. At the other end of a spacious marbled hallway, the Citizenship Office is so packed, Ewa has to take a number. She picks 10; they’re on 69, somehow. As we sit on an oak bench, I pour through copies of local alternative weekly paper The Shepherd Express and The Onion, which one can only read online in Boston.
Thirty-odd minutes later, I need some air, so I go for a walk. Compared to Boston at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon, Milwaukee’s almost a ghost town. I head west on Wisconsin Avenue towards the Milwaukee River, past Wok N Roll (a Chinese takeout place, obviously) and Grebe’s Bakery. I wonder into Walgreen’s, craving chocolate. A bum stands outside the store, selling something indiscriminate—candy, perhaps, or crack. Upon exiting Walgreen’s, I slip my Butterfinger into my jeans pocket and avoid eye contact with the street-salesperson (who is now talking to an immense, bearded man.)
I take the Riverwalk, passing under multiple skywalks until reaching Wells Street. From there, I revisit all the institutions I grew up with: The Pabst Theatre, City Hall (forever immortalized in the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley), Marcus Center For The Arts, Cathedral Square. As with my old neighborhood, everything feels overly familiar, not thrilling like I’d expected or hoped. I think back to a few years before, when I’d walk all the way from Marquette University to the Lower East Side, rummaging in one used record or bookstore after the next, blissfully bored but satiated. In Boston, I can more or less do the same thing there, so the idea of tracing this route again no longer has the same appeal.
When I return to the Citizenship Office, the front door’s locked. It had closed at 2:30, but Ewa was presumably still inside. She emerges fifteen minutes later, her status closer to being sorted out but not entirely (to her chagrin.) Ready for lunch, we drive over to The Gyros Stand in Bay View, which still has the best gyros I’ve ever consumed. I order the titular treat, along with super-thick-cut seasoned home fries and a bright green lemon-lime slushy that comes, as always, in a short, fat plastic cup.
We take our food over to South Shore Park, eating at a picnic bench overlooking Lake Michigan and the beach. Ewa only finishes half of her gigantic gyro, so she throws a piece of meat towards a seagull nearby. Seconds after this gesture, a swarm of twenty or so additional gulls materialize; they all caw and screech whenever Ewa throws them another piece of gyro meat. We take delight in this display of hunger and greed amongst the gulls, although I question whether they might start attacking us, having now developed a taste for flesh. Fortunately, as soon as Ewa runs out of meat and pita bread, the gulls quickly disperse.
By the following evening, we’re both chronically bored—contrary to what some Milwaukeeans might claim, you can only consume so much frozen custard or smoke so many cloves while driving through the outer suburbs or spend so many hours slugging down cheap coffee and frozen French fries at a George Webb’s (a local greasy spoon chain frequented by slacker college students and the elderly.) This is how I generally felt two years ago when I decided to move to Boston, hungry for disruption and change. Fortunately, Ewa and I were heading to Ann Arbor the next day.
I’m on a Greyhound Bus, en route from Des Moines to Chicago, back in the Midwest for about a month to visit my parents (who moved to Iowa from our hometown, Milwaukee, the previous year) and a few friends dispersed among three other states. Having just finished grad school in Boston and very much burned out on academia, I’ve spent “A Summer Wasting” (to quote a then-recent Belle and Sebastian song), filling my days writing in coffeehouses, biking along the Minuteman Trail and methodically weeding my way through Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I never finish.) I have no real prospects or cogent ideas as what to do next, so I’m living off my dwindling savings, prolonging the real world for as long as I can.
This six-hour express route has one stop along I-80 just outside Davenport at a large facility frequented by truckers and fellow travelers. I sit in a white plastic booth amidst the bleeps and blare of a nearby video arcade, sipping an Orange-Mango Tang juice box, eating fresh grapes from a plastic baggie and a cinnamon bagel generously spread with Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves. My bus driver’s in the booth behind me, downing black coffee and greasy Wendy’s potato cakes. After popping in my contacts in the men’s room, leaving the sink a saline-soaked mess as others line up behind me, eager to take my place, I return to the bus. It’s muggy outside and also unseasonably cool for mid-August.
Crossing the Mississippi River, a sign proclaims THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS WELCOME YOU. From there, the road stretches on, the landscape pancake-flat with endless fields of nothing, flanked by the occasional tree, decaying farmhouse, string of power lines, crop duster or road sign like NEXT EXIT 36 MILES. With Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions on my headphones, I attempt to write in my journal, but it’s too bumpy a ride, my pen involuntarily jerking all over the page.
Eventually, cornfields give way to strip malls and subdivisions. Off in the distance, I make out the faint visage of the tall, thin, severe Sears Tower. We pull into downtown Chicago a half-hour ahead of schedule. I look around the crowded station for Dana, a friend from high school; she’s currently working on her graduate degree at Loyola. I don’t see her, so I schlep my luggage outside onto Harrison Street, along with a dozen other folks also waiting for rides. A lanky, 68-year-old black man insists on divulging his age repeatedly to an uninterested eight-year-old white boy. I’m not certain that they actually know each other. The man then does a few push-ups for him, showing off his impeccable-for-his-age strength, I guess.
Finally, I spot Dana down the block walking towards me. She wears bulky denim overalls and her braided blonde hair’s far longer than it was the last time we got together, about eight months before when we met up over the holidays.
“Hey old person,” I call out.
“I’ll never be older than you,” she replies, deadpan. She is a year younger than me, but we maintain this running joke.
Pleased to see each other, but not overly excited, we don’t hug (we never do.) The punishing late afternoon sun, along with the concrete-heavy surroundings somewhat casts a pall on our reunion. We walk for two blocks, then enter the subway deep into Chicago’s bowels and take the L outbound to the far North Side. Her neighborhood consists of long rectangular blocks dense with five and six story pre-war apartment buildings. It’s also close to Lake Michigan, where there’s a number of post-war high rises along the coast (one of them was likely Bob and Emily Hartley’s in the 1970s.)
We take a manually-operated elevator up to her fifth-floor studio, during which I had to follow one rule, due to Dana’s fear of elevators: Stay Still. Her studio apartment is cramped but cozy, densely packed with her canine figurines and an assortment of Pez dispensers. Not wanting to be cooped up in this shoebox on a hot August night, we get in her Blue Tercel and drive out to the ‘burbs for an early dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Although we have our pick of an array of cosmopolitan cuisine in this mighty city, we’re both poor grad students and it is our tradition to dine out on reasonably priced Navajo Chicken Sandwiches at our favorite chain restaurant.
Returning to her neighborhood, we look for a parking space, circling her block (and adjacent ones) over and over until something opens up. We spend at least 20 minutes completing this task, which, according to Dana, is less time than usual. After a quick freshening up, we hop back on the L inbound to Wrigleyville. There, among all the other people in their 20s and 30s enjoying a Friday night out on the town, we check out an immense store specializing in leather jackets, Doc Martens and other “alternative” clothing. Curiously enough, it also sells plenty of unpainted stone gargoyles.
We head up North Halsted over to Boystown, a “gayborhood” flanked by rainbow beacons. Lots of guys out that night—we see one young man wearing tight leather pants. This prompts Dana to ask me, “I don’t get it – why would you wear something just to show off your package when you don’t really have much of one to show off?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that. She’s still fixated on it as we consume two-and-a-half pots of coffee and a slice of cherry pie each at a nearby IHOP (this one still in its classic A-Frame design.)
As with most of my Midwestern friends, I came out to Dana in an email the year before. She wrote back, “Frankly, Chris, I was more surprised when you said you were dating a girl.” (Yes, that was a thing only two years before, and a story for another time.) Presently, I hadn’t dated much or even slept with another guy; Dana, on the other hand, was actually engaged, having met her fiancé Marc while attending the U of M in Minneapolis. It was clear our lives were heading on divergent paths. Dana, oddly enough, was who’d encouraged me to check out Boston for grad school, her having visited relatives there. I’d secretly hoped she’d even come out there for school as well. Instead, after getting her master’s in social work the following year, she’d move back to Minnesota and get married. We talked about all of this and seemingly every other little thing that came to mind, from our waitress’ hot pink lipstick to how neither of us had ever found a scone as buttery and moist as those we use to regularly get at Gil’s Café, our haunt of choice back in Milwaukee.
The rest of that weekend passed by unremarkably: we watched movies, walked along the Lake and all over the Loop, had the requisite Chicago style hot dog (topped with seemingly every condiment except for ketchup, of course) and sought occasional breaks from the relentless late-Summer heat (contrary to the popular expression, it was not all that much cooler by the Lake.) Monday morning, we took the L all the way out to O’Hare so I could catch a United Limo bus to Milwaukee. This trip took ninety minutes—roughly the amount of time it would take to drive from her apartment to Milwaukee. Our parting mirrored our meeting: no hugs, just a pat on the back, a “Stay outta trouble” and a “Maybe we’ll met up at Christmas”; we’d next see each other at her wedding.
As much as I enjoyed spending a weekend with Dana, I admit I was seeking something in Chicago that I did not find—a sense of direction, perhaps, a reason to relocate again and reconnect with the region I came from. All I felt was ambivalence, a city that was essentially a supersized version of my hometown, less than 100 miles north.
Freshman year at Marquette University, I commuted from home (having grown up less than a twenty-minute drive away.) Quickly becoming fed up with that, Sophomore year, I lived in a dorm; Junior year was spent in a residence hall (more like a glorified dorm for four with two bedrooms and a common space.) As for Senior year, I made the coveted but not at all uncommon transition from on-campus to off, having secured (along with three friends from the residence hall) a unit in Renee Row, a modern apartment complex where I’d have my own bedroom, an outdoor deck, and plenty of space for all the curious belongings of four male undergrads (in our case, a neon Zima sign which hung on the wall above the TV; you can’t make this shit up, it was the mid-90s.)
Since our lease at Renee Row began in June, I would also be spending the summer before Senior year in my first apartment—a welcome change from the previous summer, when I had to move back home after nine months of dorm livin’. However, I couldn’t afford to take any additional credits outside the fall and spring semesters, so I had to work. I was already a desk receptionist at another residence hall (this one exclusively housing graduate and non-traditional students), but that was only 10-15 hours a week. Too lazy to have found an internship of any kind, much less one remotely related to my Journalism major (a field I was losing more interest in with each semester), I needed a second job to fill the time, and more crucially, make my rent. I figured another University job was the way to go and hoped to secure a position with the Grounds Crew. During the warmer months of the year, I’d spotted them out in the sun, mowing grass or planting flowers. Planting flowers! I could do that! It’d be an improvement over the crappy, entry-level retail and food service jobs that comprised my work experience to date.
Like the Jewish Theory and Practice course that always filled up instantaneously because it met a required Theology elective (and was also rumored to be a fun, blow-off class at a Jesuit school, of all places), that summer’s Grounds Crew was complete by the time I thought to inquire about it. Fortunately, the General Maintenance department was still looking for seasonal help. With five other students and ten adults, I spent the next three months walking from dorm to dorm, and within each dorm, from room to room fixing desks, bureaus, bunk beds and other cheap, Formica-heavy furnishings. It was almost like an informal assembly line—checking every screw in every handle of every desk to ensure it was sufficiently tightened, doing the same for each bed frame, testing all curtain rods so that they opened and closed properly, etc.
Compared to another summer of dealing with customers and stocking shelves, this appeared to be a pretty sweet gig. My uniform consisted of worn jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and a mint green t-shirt with the words “Marquette University Summer Crew” in purple print on it. This was boring, mundane work for sure. We often got everything done ahead of time, then ambled around the building pretending to look busy but not really doing much of anything. Occasionally, a few of us found a room, closed the door and played card games for an hour or two. I could handle Go Fish or Crazy Eights but could never master the adults’ favorite game, Sheepshead—once becoming so frustrated with it that I simply threw my cards up in the air and walked out of the room.
Such petty emotional injuries paled in comparison to the physical ones. I suffered two accidents that summer. The first involved a long, narrow window spring getting stuck in my near shoulder-length hair as I attempted to tighten it; luckily, it just took out a follicular clump and I had enough extra hair at the time to mostly cover it up. The second injury was more serious: a mere ten days after the window spring incident, the metal bottom of a window screen crashed into my chin as I fumbled to extract it from its frame (a laborious process that required squeezing little doodads in opposite directions to both extract and secure the screen in place.) After I was led over to both the campus infirmary and the HR department (to secure a Worker’s Comp form), I was driven to a nearby hospital (coincidentally, the one I was born in!) and received a few stitches, which I had taken out two weeks later. It was more bloody than painful, and they weren’t even the most stitches I’d ever received (that would’ve been after my forehead collided with a folding table a teacher’s aide carried on a stairwell the first day of Fifth Grade.)
Mishaps aside, as with most jobs, the sheer monotony festered into something toxic in no time at all. One day blurred into the next as my co-workers and I wandered through those immense, uniform buildings, massive living spaces entirely devoid of life for one-quarter of the year. This surrealness carried over to my leisure time: here I was, trudging through all ends of campus every day, (temporarily) no longer a student. Unlike two of my roommates, both enrolled in summer classes (the third was all the way back home in Oregon and would join us in the fall), I was at school exclusively to work, and it felt off.
One day, about six weeks into this routine, I was walking back to Renee Row in the early evening, the sun still blazing, the air deeply humid (I wasn’t regretting not getting an outdoor job at that point.) With the old Jesuit Residence coming up to the sidewalk at my right, I spotted a throng of people to my left, filing out of the library across Wisconsin Avenue. Like a thundering mob or perhaps a heard of cattle, they ran in my direction, twenty or thirty of them, all my age or younger, possibly teens present for some sort of conference or summer program.
Not only did they come directly at me, they didn’t seem to register that I was an object in their path. They smiled and laughed while also seeming vacant and oblivious. Approaching from both my left and straight ahead, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught. I slid up against the brick wall of the Jesuit Residence, my hands grasping it as one tall boy of about seventeen or eighteen crashed right into me, his eyes lifeless and glazed as if I didn’t exist. My two left knuckles bled a bit from the force of this collision as they scraped against the brick. And just like that, it was over—the boy and his mob moved on, as if an uncommonly violent breeze just passed through.
I wasn’t physically hurt (as with the stitches, I had suffered worse scrapes), but the incident left me utterly bewildered. How to explain this out-of-nowhere teen mob in such a euphoric state, decimating anything (namely, me) in its path? Had I just turned invisible, all of a sudden? Slightly dizzy and also exhausted by the heat, I made my way past the Alumni Memorial Union, over to Wells Street, around the Campus Town Apartments and up another block before arriving safe and sound at Renee Row. I heated up a frozen dinner, popped open a wine cooler and gradually put the surreal incident behind me as another day of tightening screws and card games awaited.
I call in sick the next day; I often do with this job. It’s never a big deal, it just means I won’t get paid for the day. At $5.50/hour, my funds won’t deplete that much, and I still have a few shifts of desk receptionist work to fall back on every week. I feel a bit guilty about forgoing employment for idleness every once in a while; looking back, I’m thankful I exercised that rare freedom a 21-year-old with a low stakes job retains.
One Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, I blow off work and spend the afternoon hanging out with my mom (whom often has Fridays off from her retail job.) We drive out to Southridge Mall, eat lunch at the food court and then go over to Half Price Books where I pick up a handful of used vinyl records from the dollar bin. By that summer, I’ve amassed a minor collection of the stuff, ranging from such staples as the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and peak early ’70s Elton John to somewhat forgotten ‘80s works from the likes of Yaz, Missing Persons and New Order. That day, I purchase Everything But The Girl’s 1986 LP Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a title that would soon prove prophetic.
That evening, my friend Jen calls, wanting to go out. I’ve just spent the previous day with her—the entirety of it, in fact, attending Summerfest and the Violent Femmes concert. After all that, I’m kind of tired of hanging out with her, dealing with her mood swings and her intensity, but she’s still my friend. Besides, I have nothing better to do than sit around with my roommates and watch a cable-TV documentary about the History of the Bikini. I’m still some distance from coming out, but confident that I have no interest in this particular subject.
Within an hour, Jen picks me up. We are to meet Diana, another friend from high school at Sunset Blvd., a newly opened coffeehouse on the East Side. We ramble along the misty streets, windows rolled down all the way because the A/C’s broken. We listen to Jen’s Stabbing Westward CD. Like a lesser Nine Inch Nails, the music’s all minor key arpeggios and industrial dead-beats. Track three, their big alternative radio hit, keeps skipping. Jen pounds the steering wheel with her right fist in time to its insistent stomp. She’s mostly lost in the music, at one point even flooring her burgundy Toyota Camry and running a red light at a deserted intersection. The mist is so light Jen rarely has to use the wipers, though still concrete enough to feel as my right hand dangles outside the passenger seat window.
I could go for a hot fudge sundae with double the fudge and triple the whipped topping, but The Chocolate Factory closed at 10, it’s now almost 11, and we have to pick up Diana. Jen wears a pink XXXL Budweiser shirt and a denim blouse, while I’m in my black Snoopy World War I Flying Ace tee and olive cargo shorts. The mist prevails but the temps have dropped a few degrees since we left my place. Jen goes on about her three-month-old pet rabbit which she acquired at a rural roadside stand that was giving the damn things away for free.
We walk into Sunset Blvd. It looks thrown together with kitschy 1950s-style tables, walls done up in bright green paint and exposed brick and amateur artwork. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love echoes through the brightly lit café. I order a Lime Italian Soda, Jen gets a Chocolate Malt. Diana sits in the right corner with ten other girls and guys on chairs and a couch arranged in a sloppy circle surrounding a table littered with Friends-style oversized coffee mugs and cobalt blue highball glasses. A cloud of sweet clove cigarette smoke wafts above them; within a few years, the place will close, unable to survive a citywide indoor café smoking ban.
Diana’s group is deep into Vampires, a D-and-D style role-playing game, with cards spread out everywhere. Most of them consult strategy-filled notebooks and scan as “Goth”, decked out primarily in black and dark red clothing, Manic Panic’d hair and a panoply of Doc Martens, chain mail jewelry and unusual piercings. So intense is their discussion that Diana doesn’t even register our arrival at first. Waiting for our drinks, we walk over to them. Upon our presence, Diana, tiny with her long brown hair put into a ponytail, suddenly jumps up, hugs us and yells, “Hey guys! I missed you so much!!!,” interrupting the pudgy bespectacled guy with the jet black hair going on and on about how Lollapalooza in its sixth year had lost its sting.
Allowing our friend to finish the game, Jen and I grab the only vacant table and proceed to play five games of Connect Four. By the third one, I’m getting tired of dropping red checkers into plastic slots, but Jen remains oblivious to this. I think her meds are taking hold; she seems preoccupied, her face lost in some faraway state of “Jen-dom”. As we finish our fifth game, the gathering of Vampires begins to disintegrate. When closing time arrives at Midnight, Jen and I head out with Diana and fellow Vampire player Alice, whom she knows from Dance Camp. Alice has the requisite blood-red lipstick with matching hair, but also a breezy, floral-print blouse, cutoff jeans and a giddy, almost wide-eyed demeanor. Up and down Murray Avenue, the streetlamps glisten with moisture from the mist and everyone wonders what to do next. No one’s ready to go home or walk two blocks over to Ma Fischer’s, a diner that’s the only place guaranteed to be open this late apart from bars that all card (I’m the only one of legal drinking age in our quartet.)
We leave the café and drive a few blocks to Lake Park, where we park illegally on the street. The park and the adjacent golf course closed hours ago, but everyone goes there after dark anyway. I take in a clearing sky peeking out through the cityscape and the suddenly sweet summer air. We stroll past Bartolotta’s Bistro, down the ravine, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and over to Lake Michigan. We arrive at the beach’s northern end where the sand’s overtaken by rocks.
Jen and I are a bit paranoid—no one’s allowed here this late at night and we keep looking over our shoulders for cops; however, Diana and Alice do not seem to share our concern. The four of us wander onto the rocks, which extend North along the shore for what seems like miles. We aren’t entirely alone, hearing other voices in the dark and the occasional car zipping along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The vastness and stillness of the Great Lake ahead of us and the increasingly starry sky holds our attention.
We sit on those rocks for at least an hour. In time, we impulsively begin singing Tori Amos songs, mostly from Little Earthquakes: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter” and “China”; Diana admits she once thought the latter was corny, but now, she likes it. Actually, what we were doing was pretty corny in itself, the four of us warbling, “Why do we / cru-ci-fy ourselves /ev-er-ry day” under the stars, waves gently crashing against the rocks, Lake Michigan before us devoid of any perceptible boats or ships. Still, for one hour, my frustration with my job, with Jen, with feeling like I was in a continual state of limbo just dissipates. Such things suddenly feel petty and unimportant. Although I have another six weeks of working in the dorms ahead of me (including the two injuries I mentioned above), this night somewhat cleanses my soul. It reminds me what magic (or perhaps a better word would be beauty) one can discover when one’s not even seeking it.
Our family had no cabinets in our kitchen. The room where we ate breakfast and lunch (but usually not dinner; we had a dining room for that) did have a perfectly round wooden table with four chairs, a white upright refrigerator with the freezer on top, a 1970s harvest gold four-burner gas stove (it stuck around well into the ‘90s) and an old-fashioned exposed white sink with a short, rectangular radiator underneath. Eventually, we’d also acquire a wooden cart with wheels upon which our first, relatively massive microwave sat.
Mom decorated the cabinet-less walls with various copper and metal molds; apart from those for making curiously bland Bundt cakes, we rarely if ever used them (one was in the shape of a fat fish.) A row of painted ducks later joined the molds during a stenciling phase Mom went through in the late ‘80s which nearly extended to my bedroom: “Chris, I could draw something more masculine like bicycles on your walls,” she offered before I put my foot down and respectfully declined her services.
We didn’t need cabinets in our kitchen for we had them in our narrow, walk-in pantry off to the right of the sink. They sat along one of the longer walls, down to the floor beneath deep built-in shelves. The opposite wall was bare; between them at the end of the room, a skinny window overlooked the backyard, our garage and the alley. When visiting the homes of friends or relatives or watching TV sitcoms such as Who’s The Boss? or The Golden Girls, I couldn’t help but notice how seemingly everyone else had kitchen cabinets instead of a walk-in pantry.
These days, I often think about that pantry fondly. Despite its window facing east, I remember it as a predominantly dark space chockablock with hidden treasures. Upon entering it was a long, vertical cabinet spanning from the lowest shelf to the ceiling: it housed spices and baking supplies, but also decorations such as a rainbow assortment of sprinkles and sugars used exclusively for Christmas Cookies. On another shelf sat a variety of condiments, some of them ubiquitous like the Open Pit BBQ sauce that accompanied nearly every meat and vegetable my dad cooked on our red circular Weber charcoal grill; others were more obscure like the A-1 Steak Sauce whose ingredients listed in miniscule print forever intrigued me (it had raisins in it!) A higher, barely reachable shelf held items I don’t remember my parents ever touching, like the dusty bottle of Blackberry Brandy that was apparently purchased for (or given to us as a gift from) an elderly relative.
Our pantry, however, was more than a repository for dry goods, flatware, pots and pans and daisy-patterned china; it was a singular space, as much of an individual room to us as any other in the house. As a toddler, it was an ideal place to play Hide and Seek; as a pre-teen, when both my parents were at work and I had the house to myself, I reclaimed the room as one of exploration, browsing deep into the less-used cabinets to see just what I could find (often boring items such as a rusting muffin pan or a forgotten box of Saltines.) The pantry even had its own myths and legends, such as the time (often recounted by my mother) that a portly adult friend of my folks supposedly wedged his bulbous frame on the shelf above the bottom cabinets, scarfing down Hostess Ding Dongs during a party I’d been far too young to remember myself.
When I was ten, I stood in that pantry one September evening, searching for a metal ice cream scooper in the utensil drawer beneath the window. My fingers brushed over an apple corer, assorted teaspoons, a steak knife with a dulled blade. The distracted clinking of flatware filled the air. Glancing up at the window, adorned with a bejeweled hanging ornament (framed by popsicle sticks!) I’d made in Second Grade, I spotted an unusual, almost inviting glow beyond our garage in the dark of night flanked only by a fluorescent white alley light. Within seconds, I could make out flames. Was that our garage… on FIRE??!!
Before I could even think to call out to my parents, a figure whizzed by so rapidly across the alley, I initially couldn’t discern whether it was human, animal or even of this earth. I then caught a flash of nylon jacket, a skinny frame and thinning hair. It screamed “FIRE! FIRE!” as it ran left to right, not doing anything constructive except making the entire block aware of the developing inferno yards ahead of me. Somewhere between confused and delusional, I plainly thought, “This isn’t real; our garage is NOT on fire.”
I was half-right, for it was the garage directly across from ours in the alley that was ablaze. By that time, my mother noticed it too: “OHMYGOD!,” she shouted, running up to me in the back of the pantry. Putting her hand on my shoulder and gazing out the window, she saw what was actually going on. We were then silent, almost awestruck—we could feel the force of the blaze from there, if not the warmth.
A crowd began to form, mostly in ours and the neighbors’ backyards. Mom walked away from the pantry, calm as I’ve ever seen her, not worried about our proximity to the fire. She returned with my denim jacket and her pink windbreaker, leaving Dad in the living room on his tan corduroy La-Z-Boy recliner, obliviously snoring away as St. Elsewhere blared from our 19-inch Zenith.
We stepped out onto our back porch; not one of the twenty or so assembled onlookers noticed us at first. Not everyone was as intently focused on the blaze as we were in the pantry: an trio of old men held longneck bottles of Miller’s Best in their calloused hands, while a quartet of kids ran through ours and the adjoining yards, deep into a game of tag, their mothers barking at them not to get too close to the fire. The blaze didn’t frighten me, exactly, but its sheer force reminded me of what destruction was possible. Still, its cackling insistence almost had a soothing effect.
There’s nothing like a fire to bring a neighborhood and its inhabitants together (no block parties for us, thank you.) A year or two before, there was a small one at the house on the corner of the next block; my parents and I heard the sirens and walked over, becoming part the considerable mob lined up and down our street. Now, it was our turn to partially “host” the Gathering. People eventually came up to us and said hello. Millie, an older woman who lived two doors down, engaged in a bit of neighborhood gossip with Mom of the kind that didn’t require any special occasion—the fire raged on across the alley almost as if it was an everyday occurrence, although it most definitely was not.
It felt like hours standing there on the back porch, although the fire truck arrived and completely doused the blaze within minutes. The neighbor’s garage was a lost cause, a smoldering hunk of concrete and debris. It belonged to an elderly woman living alone, which seemed to account for at least one-third of the residents on our block. I can’t remember the exact cause of the fire—something to do with leakage of gas or some other chemical, perhaps. Anyway, the only damage to our own garage were black marks across its wooden door, which would be replaced with an off-white and rather ugly (but more durable) aluminum one. Our neighbor across the alley, meanwhile, would have an entirely new garage built within weeks.
I’d often think of that fire whenever I stood in our pantry, looking out that window. Nothing so exciting ever happened in that alley again, apart from the pig roast (!) our upstairs neighbors had next to the garage over a decade later as part of their backyard wedding reception that I refused to have anything to do with. In all the apartments I shared with roommates in my twenties and thirties, two actually had walk-in pantries, but they just weren’t the same—they held no intrigue, no crevices where hidden treasures lurked perhaps because I was an adult and therefore directly responsible for all the items I kept in them. The closest thing to a discovery I ever made in these later pantries was a forgotten banana placed on a high shelf. When I next spotted it after a couple of months, it had not only turned entirely black, but had somehow shrunken to the size of a large jalapeno pepper—a far less profound pantry experience for sure.
An April Friday, my Sophomore year at Marquette: I had no classes that day and I’d opted to spend a long weekend at home twenty minutes away instead of on campus in my dorm room. My mom had evening plans to attend a going-away party for a co-worker. She was even getting a ride from someone, so I had her car all to myself. She was a bit fanatical over that white four-door Pontiac Grand Am. I never had much of a curfew as a teen unless I borrowed her car.
Coincidentally, I also had a party to attend that evening; it was being thrown by my English Lit professor, a thirtysomething redhead who once began a lecture by saying to us, somewhat sheepishly, “Would you guys feel at all cheated out of your tuition if we didn’t have class today?” She lived across town in the tony suburb of Shorewood, and my original intent was to stop by. I’d know some people there, including a girl I’d recently, rather unsuccessfully tried to date (I was still a few years away from coming out)—not an emboldening reason for me to attend.
An evening before me with a car in my possession and absolutely nothing better to do, I left our South Side bungalow a little after 6:00 and got on the freeway in the direction of Shorewood. When I reached Downtown, however, I impulsively turned onto the West exit ramp. As I left Milwaukee County, I felt a little rush. When I passed the yellow barn with the giant smiley face painted on it at the Highway 83 exit, it suddenly was possible that I could keep going and going, another sixty or so miles all the way to Madison. I could make it there and back without Mom ever finding out. I often spent afternoons and evenings driving all over Milwaukee, putting mileage on the Grand Am but usually remembering to fill up the tank. I had more than enough cash on me for gas and food.
Crossing over from Waukesha to Jefferson County, I started picking up Madison radio stations (much to my chagrin, Mom would never splurge to install a tape deck or a CD player in her car.) I found a channel that only played hits of the 1970s, something of a novelty in the mid-90s. Passing through the flat terrain typical of Southeastern Wisconsin, all cornfields and the very occasional leafy tree, the sweet disco groove of Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel (Part 1)” filled the vehicle and I was positively giddy—I was drivin’ all the way to Madison by myself!
I arrived in in less than an hour and a half. After passing through a succession of strip malls, chain restaurants and freeway exits with unfamiliar names (“Fish Hatchery Road” always stood out—did it, in fact, lead to the titular destination?), I left the interstate and headed directly towards the sprawling UW-Madison Campus. I found a parking spot a few blocks away from Sellery Hall, a typical 1960s-built ten story cinder-block accented dorm; this was where two of my high school friends now lived.
I walked up to Sellery’s lobby and rang Ewa’s buzzer, but she wasn’t in. I left a message and tried ringing Sam; he wasn’t in either. Where were my friends? Didn’t they appreciate me driving all the way up there, unannounced, just to see them?
I thought of another high school classmate I knew, Aimee (who happened to be Sam’s ex-girlfriend); she lived in the all-girls dorm Chadbourne (which Sam crudely dubbed “Chastity Chad”.) Luckily, she answered her phone. A petite, blonde Biology major, Aimee was ecstatic to see me although I’m sure she sensed she wasn’t the first person I tried contacting, given how close I was with her ex. We sat and chatted in her cramped room, complete with loft beds and plastic milk crates full of boxes of Cheerios and store-brand pasta. Using Aimee’s land line, I left additional voicemail messages for Ewa and Sam.
After 15 minutes, we had to get outside. It was unseasonably warm for April and not yet dark. With a comfortable breeze in the air, we walked a few blocks to State Street, a mile-long stretch of restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores, and the occasional apartment complex. It was closed off to vehicular traffic apart from city buses and led towards Madison’s epicenter, the mighty, imposing State Capitol building.
We stopped at Steep and Brew for some herbal tea and caught up on how we were each doing in school. At the time, unhappy at Marquette, I was considering transferring to Madison, but did not disclose this information to Aimee. In retrospect, I probably should have uprooted the comfortable life I was used to in my hometown, though if I did, I might not have had the gumption to move out to Boston for grad school two years later, which was the best choice I ended up making—to leave Wisconsin and escape my comfort zone for something entirely new, to truly be on my own.
As things stood at the time, I was afraid of change, of even moving less than one hundred miles away. An hour-and-a-half joyride was all I could handle.
Aimee and I finished our tea and we walked toward the student union, where the setting sun rippled over Lake Mendota. We stood for a minute on the vast patio dotted by ‘70s-vintage yellow and orange canvased umbrellas and lights. I found a pay phone and tried Ewa again; this time, success! She was purposely waiting for me to call back. “Chris – WHERE ARE YOU???,” she yelled.
Within ten minutes, Ewa joined Aimee and I on the student union patio. As we hugged hello, I noticed her brown hair had grown out a bit since the last time I saw her (at a They Might Be Giants concert in Madison five weeks before), but she still wore her standard outfit of jeans, flannel shirt and dark green Chuck Taylor hi-tops. I’d known her for nearly five years; we’d met in a theology class Sophomore year at our Catholic high school. On the first day, we were required to introduce ourselves by listing some of our hobbies. Before the beginning of the next class, she came up to me and said, “So, you play guitar? That’s cool, I’ve been wanting to learn.” We were pals from then on; our friendship just developed naturally, never requiring any effort—we just had an instant rapport, one that felt like it had always been there.
The three of us strolled down State Street as the sky gradually changed from orange pink to dark blue. We browsed in a used CD store, briefly looked over the previously worn wares at Ragstock, and picked up some takeout at one of the numerous cheap Chinese joints littered up and down the thoroughfare. Aimee, having eaten at the dining hall earlier, said she had to go back to her dorm to study; we hugged goodbye and Ewa and I continued walking towards Sellery carrying bags of takeout cartons brimming with Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Lo Mein, Spring Rolls and White Rice. Ewa’s roommate had gone home for the weekend, so we had plenty of room to spread out our cheap, mostly fried bounty.
I tried calling Sam again and got his voicemail. It was a recording of Barry Williams as Greg Brady, excitedly talking about The Brady Kids, the band he and his siblings were part of and how excited they were to record their brand-new album. Sam’s own voice was nowhere to be heard on the message, which is how he preferred it. Even today, he eschews social media—my only contact with him in the past two decades has been through our Spotify accounts, which should tell you how much we’ve actually kept in touch since I moved to Boston.
As was our tradition, Ewa brought out a package of clove cigarettes, and we smoked a few. I then called home and left a voicemail for Mom, notifying her that I was “staying at the party late.” We listened to Rubber Soul three times in a row and chatted about our classes, our jobs, what new music each of us was listening to. She mentioned her upcoming summer trip to Poland (where she and her family emigrated from to the States when she was a young child), while I told her my plan to get a summer job on campus as a residence hall desk receptionist.
I felt more at ease sitting and chatting with Ewa in her room at Sellery than at home or even in my Marquette dorm, where I spent very little time. I had a packed schedule that semester, with most of my days and nights hunkered down in the library or the photography lab, and I went home most weekends to work a part-time retail job in the suburbs. I didn’t have a roommate, and I didn’t make much of an effort to hang out with the other guys on my floor. I’d moved on campus that year because I hated commuting from home, which during my Freshman year had the effect of college feeling like a supersized version of high school.
Living on campus didn’t magically solve all of my problems like I hoped it would. I’d later realize that the problem was me and my unwillingness to reveal much of myself to other people. I was deep in the closet and not yet ready to deal with or admit to myself whom I actually, honestly was. Hanging out with an old friend in Madison didn’t exactly bring me any closer to working through this issue, but it made me feel temporarily good, uplifted by spending time with someone I knew well.
11:00 PM turned into Midnight, and the next time I looked at my dark tan leather-banded Fossil watch, it was almost 1:00 AM. I’d given up on the possibility of Sam calling me back; later, I’d find out he was at his girlfriend Beth’s dorm room the entire evening. When I next glanced at my watch, it was nearly 2:00 AM. I knew what I had to do—get the car back home before sunrise and get some sleep before I had to go to work. Dragging my feet from the floor, I said my goodbyes to Ewa and headed out of Sellery over to where I parked the car. Thankfully, it was still there—no tickets or attempted break-ins. I pulled out of the UW-Madison campus and headed for the highway.
Driving on I-94 in the middle of the night, there were few other cars. Everything seemed much darker than usual, although it was probably no different than if I’d been driving at Midnight like I should have. I was completely sober (I was not a drinker yet) but miserably tired. I had the volume on the radio turned up loud to keep me awake.
Halfway home, I stopped at a Mobil to fill up the tank. Back on the expressway, I could sense my eyelids getting heavier by the minute. I switched from New Rock 102.1 to Classic Rock Station WKLH and cranked up the volume further. “It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me” came on and I began singing along. I wasn’t the world’s biggest Billy Joel fan; at my auto parts store job (yes, really), someone put a copy of the entire Piano Man album into one of the display auto cassette players and we listened to it on an endless loop—it was a perpetual hell of people putting bread in jars and microphones that smelled like beers, but still preferable to the country/western station one manager liked.
I still believe Billy Joel saved my life that night—singing along to his punchy, sarcastic, faux-rockabilly/faux new-wave number one hit from the Glass Houses album kept me awake and sharpened my focus. “HOT FUNK, COOL PUNK, EEE-VEN IF IT’S OLD JUNK!,” I shouted along, keeping my eyes as wide open as I could, never daring to take them off the road. The song ended with its jazzy final chord, and orange sodium lamps began dotting the expressway again. I was nearly in Milwaukee County and almost home.
I pulled into our alley around 3:45 AM, drove up to our garage, put the car in park, got out and turned my key in the garage door, slowly lifting it up and trying not to make too much noise (we didn’t have an automatic opener.) I eased the car inside, got out and pulled down the garage door as gently as I could. I opened the back door to my parent’s house in a similar manner, nearly walking on my tiptoes as I stumbled into my bedroom, took off my shoes and jeans and plopped into my childhood bed. As usual, I could faintly make out my dad’s snoring from the other bedroom. As far as I knew, I’d managed not to awaken either him or Mom.
I never told my parents about my joyride, and they never asked. Given what a goody-two-shoes I was all through high school, I felt a slight thrill at having gotten away with something forbidden, unexpected, a little gutsy. In a way, I was a step closer to being an adult, to making my own decisions and facing the consequences (I sure was tired at work that next day.) I’m not saying a joyride never hurt anybody, but for me, it pointed the way towards a road I desperately needed to take.
A sound immediately followed by a sharp pain at tip of my left index finger. I had opened the screen to my tent and placed my hand on my sleeping bag. It was the last night of a week of Boy Scout camp in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Northeastern Wisconsin.
I never actually saw the bee, or fully determined how it invaded my tent; it probably snuck in earlier in the day when Dan or I had opened the screen (which might’ve had a hole in it.) However, the quick procession of buzz-then-sting confirmed it. Thirteen years old, and one of my worst fears had finally come true.
I knelt there for a few seconds, a little dumbstruck. My tentmate was a few yards away, helping to put out the campfire along with Mr. Runkle, father to Bill Runkle, a scrawny eleven-year-old who had joined our Troop last year. His dad was one of four who’d come along on the trip to supervise us dozen Scouts.
I walked over to Dan and Mr. Runkle. “I think I got stung by a bee,” I announced.
Mr. Runkle asked, “Has this ever happened to you before?”
“Nope”, I replied.
“How are you feeling? I don’t see any hives or puffiness.”
“I think I’m fine,” I said. “It just hurts.”
“Well, you need to go to the infirmary. We don’t know if you’re allergic or not.”
An allergy to beestings had never occurred to me; however, given my long-festering hatred of the insect, I wasn’t all that surprised one existed.
Mr. Runkle grabbed his flashlight and ordered me to fetch mine. It was after 10:00 PM, and we were off to the camp’s infirmary. At least half a foot taller than me, broad shouldered and sporting a walrus mustache, Mr. Runkle in his lumberjack red flannel shirt led the way through the woods along a series of paths I barely recognized in the dark. As a city kid, the forest always seemed immense to me—you looked up and all you saw were impossibly tall, towering trees in every direction. If a clearing was anywhere near, you couldn’t sense it.
My finger throbbed a bit, the pain still present but contained, not necessarily getting any worse. As we walked for ten, fifteen minutes, I thought about my long-standing fear of getting stung. Ever since a bee flew into our dining room one summer when I was four or five, I’d been deathly afraid of them. Much of that had to do with the buzzing noise—like the roar of the titular weapon in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, just the sound indicated the possibility of something going horribly wrong. From an early age, I was taught by my mom to stay away from them. For years at my pediatrician’s office, the waiting room, amongst all the wrinkled back issues of Highlights, there was kind of a faux Golden Book with a story where some kids got into trouble for poking a beehive. One illustration portrayed them running away from the swarm, their faces covered in welts and sores as the bees followed, their stingers pointed directly at them. That would never be me, no sir.
Blame Fear of the Unknown: as a kid, you’re told not to mess with bees because they’ll sting you and it’ll hurt. I suppose some kids take that information in stride, not actively seeking out a swarm of bees to mess with but not caring much about encountering the insect either; I did not fall into that category—the possibility of suddenly getting stung was for me a phobia right up there with fire alarms, angry barking dogs and neighborhood bullies.
Thus, when this first bee sting finally arrived, so quick and finite, it almost felt anticlimactic. Sure, it hurt, but not nearly as much as the horsefly bite I’d received on the back of my neck two summers before. As I did my best to keep up with Mr. Runkle in the woods that night, I couldn’t help but think, “That’s it? This is what I was afraid of?”
By the time we reached the infirmary, the pain in my finger had lessened considerably. Mr. Runkle rang the doorbell and the Camp Medic, a wispy, white-haired man let us in. I followed him into an examination room towards the back of the cabin while Mr. Runkle waited in the entryway. From a large metal cabinet lined with rows and rows of pill bottles, the Medic selected one and from it gave me a capsule to swallow, along with a glass of water. “This is for just in case you’re allergic,” he instructed.
I don’t remember exactly what I was given, only that it was *enormous*, much larger than anything I’d ever been told to swallow before. It easily could’ve been a Horse-Sized Pill, although I didn’t yet have the language to describe it as such. Swallowing this behemoth capsule took some effort; it felt as if I were consuming a pinky finger (even though it couldn’t have been that big.)
Having downed the pill and the entire glass of water, Mr. Runkle and I said Goodnight to the Medic and made our way back to our campground. Everyone was in their tents, asleep or feigning sleep by then. I thanked Mr. Runkle for taking me to the infirmary and he responded, “You’re welcome; just let one of the dads know if you feel sick during the night.” The pain in my finger had pretty much disappeared, replaced by a nagging itch that would stay with me all the way home to Milwaukee the next day.
After my first bee sting, I still steadfastly avoided the insect but no longer feared it. I now considered them a mere annoyance more than the Insect Antichrist I’d previously made them out to be(e). I’d get stung again in my early thirties after trying to move a large opened bag of apparently bee-infected potting soil that had been left on the ground for hours. It happened as rapidly and unexpectedly as when I reached for my sleeping bag two decades before. It hurt like a motherfucker, but the pain gradually lessened and once again, I survived.
When I was young, I loved browsing through the elaborate, backroom display of colorfully glowing, completely trimmed artificial Christmas trees at Stein’s Garden Center and Gifts. However, to actually bring one of those imposters into our home was entirely out of the question—we required the vigorous smell of pine wafting through the air, a splintery trunk dabbed with sticky sap and a ring of fallen, brown needles gradually accumulating all over the vintage Lionel train set I’d inherited from my Great Uncle Eugene. A real tree was as essential a Kriofske Holiday Tradition as iced and decorated sugar cookies in dozens of shapes, strings of multicolored lights criss-crossing the front windows looking out on 12th Street, or even presents from Santa on Christmas morning.
During the first or second week of December, usually on a early weekend afternoon, my parents and I would drive to a nursery or garden center—not local chain Stein’s, but usually somewhere out in the boonies to look for and bring home the Perfect Christmas Tree. Often these places would crank up the charm to justify their lofty prices. You’d walk in the front door and be gobsmacked with the smell of cinnamon and spice and the sound of carols and hymns; within seconds, you’d spot a dispenser of free hot cider to sip out of tiny styrofoam cups. I recall one place even had a real life nativity out back: a wooden enclosure housing a donkey, a foal and perhaps a Saint Bernard or a Golden Lab one could pet, pose and take photos with on a bed of hay.
Eventually, my father had it all figured out: the best tree to get was a Fraser Fir. It appeared full and robust, but its chief attribute was its most practical: firm but not too stiff, it had branches practically tailor-made for hanging ornaments onto them. Every year after our first Fraser Fir, we settled for nothing less. It cost more than the average balsam or spruce you could pick up at one of those parking lot tree emporiums that seemed to pop up all over town every November, but such durability and dependability was worth the extra scratch.
If my mom ever suggested, “Bob, maybe we should spend less on The Tree this time?”, my father would only have to remind her of the Christmas when I was in third grade. I have many fond memories of this year: I still sincerely believed in Santa, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever aired on ABC for the first time and A Christmas Story had premiered in theaters (to a generally muted response, but after that first viewing, my parents and I thought it was the Best (and funniest) Christmas Movie Ever.)
Still, not everything that year was as magical as fresh fallen snow or piping hot mugs of cocoa teeming with mini-marshmallows. For one thing, we’d waited a little longer than usual to pick up The Tree. Christmas was less than two weeks away and rather than make the trek out to one of our preferred places, my parents opted for a nursery closer to home. It was altogether fine for tree-shopping, cider and carols intact (but no living nativity); their selection might’ve been sparser than usual, but I can’t entirely blame that for what we picked out; I can only assume my parents wanted to get a tree right there, right then and not spend a fortune on it.
Nothing about The Tree we purchased looked especially askew in the nursery’s outdoor lot; it was only after we brought it into our home that we noticed something was off. Sure, it was slightly crooked, but my dad could easily fix that by sawing a little off the top or bottom. Only in the artificial light of our living room (extensively rearranged, by the way, so we could make space for it) did we notice The Tree seemed a little… barren. Not a pathetic “Charlie Brown Tree” by any means, but certainly something less hardy than we were used to.
“Maybe that’s just the bad side,” my mom suggested. “Let’s turn it around.”
If anything, the other side was even worse, with wide gapping spaces fully noticeable throughout the towering, triangle-shaped conifer before us. Undeterred, my dad turned it back around again and with my mom’s assistance, began stringing the lights—an annual ritual I knew to stay away from. As they wrapped each subsequent string around The Tree, my parents’ frustration with each other would mount and seethe until one of them would verbally explode at the other; from there, the arguing would persist until the last string was strung.
Hundreds of multicolored lights improved the tree somewhat but any sense of satisfaction dissipated upon the hanging of the ornaments, for this is where we discovered this tree’s fatal flaw: with such weak and flouncy branches, the heavier ornaments just slid right off. You’d put one of the wooden Three Wise Men or a miniature picture frame enclosing one of my baby photos on a branch and could practically hear the descending slide whistle sound as it immediately fell off and onto the floor.
We exhausted the ornaments small and light enough to remain hung in no time at all. Even with these and all the lights, the tree seemed only slightly less barren than when it was unadorned. Fortunately, my mom knew more than one way to decorate or fill out a tree, having crafted a majority of our ornaments herself. The answer that year was GARLANDS. Not strings of popcorn, as she had tried the year before, her fingers left pricked and raw by the laborious process of threading one piece after another with a needle and a string; no, something simpler and more colorful.
Armed with abundant rectangles of shiny paper probably purchased from LeeWards, she strung together one looped garland after another, always alternating green and red, green and red ad infinitum. So easy to make, she even recruited me to help out. We wrapped them round and round the tree and made so many we even had a few leftover. We proceeded to put them up all over the house: along the front windows, over the archway separating the living room from the entryway, around the latter’s sole stained-glass window. Practically everywhere one looked, red and green chains accented the interior of our South Side Milwaukee bungalow.
So much red and green, it brought to mind colors from the Mexican flag—at least it did for my father. When he first saw all the garlands that had materialized, he couldn’t help but start singing the chorus of the ubiquitous Jose Feliciano standard “Feliz Navidad”. It became a running joke up through and long past Christmas Day: years later, whenever the song appeared on the radio, in a TV commercial or in a store, we still associated it with those plentiful, chintzy-but-admittedly-festive green and red chains.
The Tree might’ve been that year’s definitive Christmas memory if not for what happened on the holiday itself. Rather than getting together with my aunts, uncles and cousins, the three of us elected to spend that Christmas Day with only my Grandma Clara. Rather than cook a big meal, my parents decided we would eat at their favorite restaurant, Jake’s, a steakhouse across town they had frequented since before I was born. With its elegant but homey atmosphere, baked potatoes accompanied by a Lazy Susan brimming with chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, scrumptious piles of onion strings (not rings – you could order a “Hill” or a “Mountain” of ’em) and divine Shirley Temples (we always called them Kiddie Cocktails), Jake’s was one of my favorite restaurants as well.
The previous Christmas, the temperature in Wisconsin somehow reached an abnormal 65 degrees; this year’s frigid, windy, well-below-zero weather was clearly payback for that rare, good fortune. The four of us piled into the ol’ Mercury Monarch, wrapped in layers of sweaters, coats, scarves and earmuffs and around 5:30 arrived at an unexpectedly empty, darkened Jake’s. Somehow, my dad had not thought to make reservations, or even call to see if the restaurant was in fact going to be open on the biggest holiday of the year.
As we sat in the car, dumbfounded, we had to think of a plan B: if Jake’s was closed today, what fine dining establishment might actually be open? Unlike Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, Chinese food was not an option for us as my dad refused to eat Asian cuisine of any kind after serving in the Army in South Korea in the late ’60s and having gone through an apparently traumatic kimchee mishap.
Mentally running through a list of reputable places likely to be serving Christmas dinner to the public, my parents came up with the Hoffman House, a restaurant inside the Best Western Midway Motor Lodge up on Highway 100. We’d had Sunday brunch there before, and it was surely open for business today, being inside a hotel and all. In about twenty minutes, we arrived to a packed parking lot, which should’ve tipped us off to the harsh reality that, without a reservation, there was up to a two-hour wait for a table for four.
We all got back into the car and onto the nearby expressway, driving to the other Best Western with a Hoffman House, this one five miles away in Brookfield; sadly, the wait there was no shorter.
Cold, hungry and getting desperate, we returned to the expressway in the opposite direction towards home. On the radio, EZ 104 played the umpteenth version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we’d heard that year, its numerous mentions of “a partridge in a pear tree” and “five golden rings” (onion strings!) not doing much to curb our appetites. Nearing the airport, we swung by Country Gardens, a picturesque little supper club on the off-chance that they might be open, but no dice. Having exhausted a short list of desirable options, including a home-cooked meal (far too late for that), it was time to be sensible and succumb to whatever was available and close.
With resignation but also a hint of relief, my father pulled into Denny’s parking lot.
My dad tends to revisit the same four or five restaurants again and again (a proclivity I increasingly recognize in myself as I age.) For awhile, Denny’s was one of them, the place we usually dined at after church on Sunday morning (and plenty of Saturday mornings as well.) Earlier that year, en route to said restaurant in the backseat of our car, I once complained, “Argh, we always go to Denny’s for breakfast; Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, Denny’s, DENNY’S!!!” Back then, my parents soundly ignored my rant; now, we were having our Christmas Dinner there. Given how hungry we all were, I knew to keep my mouth shut.
I no longer recall exactly what I ate at Denny’s that Christmas. I imagine my dad, sensing the utter disappointment in my face, told me to order whatever I wanted on the menu, so I probably had the Fried Shrimp (as fancy as the restaurant chain got.) I’m sure someone at the table ordered a Turkey Dinner and perhaps slices of Pumpkin Pie with whipped topping for dessert. The four of us sat in our circular, olive-vinyl seated booth overlooking Mitchell Field, the icy wind howling outside as yet another version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (this one instrumental!) played overhead, occasionally interrupted by the resounding Ding! of a sign dotted with lit-up numbers, notifying waitstaff whenever an order was ready.
We didn’t dare try to eat out on Christmas Day again until my parents visited me in Boston decades later (and you can bet we made reservations well in advance.) We still reminisce over the year we had a crummy tree and dinner at Denny’s and yet—like all the Christmases of my youth, we were together and in the end, we didn’t go hungry. This particular Christmas was far from perfect, but in retrospect, it was still pretty great.