This is where I lived for the last part of elementary school, right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and through my high school years at South Shore. The high school art teacher, Miss Novelle lived in the apartment below us with her parents. I thought that was weird. I never could figure out where teachers belonged back then. Moving to this building put me closer to my friends. Fern lived around the corner and down the block on Jeffrey. My friends Judy and Brenda lived around the other corner to the north on Chappel. We were on 81st Street-on 83rd Street was the famous Carl’s Hot Dogs where a buck bought the most delicious dog wrapped in greasy paper with fries, the genuine Chicago hot dog unmatched by any other. Bliss.
A lot happened while I lived at 2019 East 81st Street. I was eating lunch at home by myself when Kennedy was killed. I walked down to Judy’s to be with people and then we silently went back to school to begin the weekend of mourning. My baby cousin, only 21 months old died of bronchiolitis while we lived there. My older brother and sister were gone, off to the Air Force and college respectively, and we’d become a family of 4 in less cramped quarters.
I was growing up. I kept a diary and then a journal starting at about 11 years old. I still have all of them. Although I wrote about school, current events and family, I spent a great deal of time writing about my friends and frequently, boys. I was somewhat flitty in my feelings, but from 5th grade on, I had a mad crush on a boy named Danny. He had dark hair and soft brown eyes. I remember liking to describe them as limpid pools, a phrase I’d read in some book. I was a singularly loyal person. By the time I was 12, I was sure I’d love Danny for the rest of my life. But I was also pretty calculating. I knew very well that as kids, relationships and love came and went, often so fast that you barely knew they’d happened. I myself had other crushes, even while being internally devoted to Danny. So I decided to spend my time becoming his great friend, hoping to make a transition to love some time down the road when the odds were better that it would stick. And so began my great campaign.
For the most part, high school was fraught with the common experiences most teenagers walk through as they grow. I liked lots of my classes and teachers, but felt insecure and stupid in others. The external world was tumultuous and bled into daily life. I was keenly aware of civil rights issues, Vietnam, music and marijuana, or herb as one friend called it. Sex, too. No one told me much about it, but my body was awake. Although I had a pretty liberal social conscience, I was personally very conservative. No teenaged pregnancies for me. Some of the boys teasingly called me polar bear because I was so cold. On the other hand, my friend Marc with whom I had spirited conversations about the state of the world, said he liked me so much that he’d give me a hundred yard head start before he shot me during the impending race war. Looking back, I’m glad I grew up where I did, in a multi-racial neighborhood which was a microcosm for the issues of the day. Who I am now is a direct result of that time and interchange. Breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding are legacies from that place.
In the meantime, I was trying to do the social thing. My first real high school date was with a guy named Denny that my male friends thought was great. We went on a hay ride where I was huddled into myself to ensure that no part of me ever touched a part of him. I kept a close eye on Danny, finding ways to make myself his reliable friend, to become indispensable. By the time we were juniors, we were pretty close. I dated his best friend and we laughingly pretended we were like TV celebs, The Crusher and The Bruiser, who shared a girlfriend named Lil. I really liked my boyfriend but he knew nothing of my long, secret campaign to win Danny. In that junior year, Danny ran for student council president and I ran for treasurer. We worked together on our campaigns and I reveled in the time we spent alone strategizing. His parents had two cars which was unimaginable to me. One was a silvery blue Chevy Malibu. I stood in the third floor window, waiting for it to pull up in front of our apartment. I still remember the license plate-PD1502. When we won our respective elections, there was a big social event at school during which the old officers would announce the new ones for the following year. We stood behind a curtain, waiting to be called. For a brief second, he held my hand and squeezed it. His hand was dry and warm. One of the exciting moments of my life.
My birthday was at the end of May, right before the school year was over. I turned 16 on a Thursday and that Saturday, Danny, who was attending some school leadership conference, said he wanted to stop by and drop off a present. I got all dressed up for the 5 minute event. Talk about hitting me in my sweet spot. He handed me Sergeant Pepper, newly released and the stuff of my dreams.
That summer, my parents got kind of flush with cash. I guess that being four instead of six helped. My dad said I could either go to California with my mom and sister to visit family, or take a trip offered through South Shore to Expo ‘67, the world’s fair in Montreal. As if I had to think for a millisecond. Danny was going on that trip. A dream come true. We packed up and boarded a Canadian National train for what to me, was a long ride that could’ve gone on forever. Fern was there and a few other good friends. Even today when I see the CN logo, I’m flooded with great memories.
We had surprisingly little supervision. I think kids must’ve seemed older back then, because we were treated as if we were responsible. At least in my crowd. We stayed in groups of girls and boys in little apartments and all gathered to catch the Metro to go to the exposition. I remember wearing dresses and skirts which seems so impractical now. The metro was always packed and when we arrived at the exhibits we wandered around together in a group, exploring and tasting exotic food. The first time I tasted tandoori chicken was at the Indian pavilion in Montreal.
One morning, we were all jostling to get on the train and there just wasn’t enough room for Danny and me. I could barely contain my excitement. A whole day alone with him. Six years of dreaming and finally, all my imagining was coming true. What a magical day. So innocent and sweet. We wandered around holding hands and never saw anyone we knew. A secret bubble. We walked and talked and by evening were ensconced in a gondola on a big Ferris wheel where Danny actually did the move-a fake yawn and stretch which wound up with his arm around my shoulder. That was it. A tender memory to relive over and over. The trip ended and we went home.
When senior year started, everything went on as if nothing magical had happened. Danny moved from one girlfriend to the next while I stayed with his best buddy for the most part. Then one wintry afternoon, he and I drove downtown to attend another one of those conferences that looked so good on what we still called a resume. The meetings were boring but I didn’t care. I was just happy breathing in the rarified air of just us two. On the way home, the snow fell hard and the trip took forever. We started talking about how strange the next year would be when we’d be apart for the first time in our short little lives. And the next thing I knew, he was telling me he had no idea what he’d do without me and reaching for my hand and confessing that long-awaited word-love. I remember exactly what I was wearing that day, a loden green box pleat skirt with a matching cable knit sweater. Green right down to my tights. We decided that we would attempt a sneaky romantic relationship and tell no one in case it didn’t work out. Our first date was at Due’s pizzeria in downtown Chicago. That involved a lot of staring and giggling discomfort. I was disappointed. I’d been waiting so long for this moment and it was far from memorable. The second date was just driving around and talking but we did make a stop at Carl’s hot dogs for a late night snack. When Danny drove me home, he was walked me upstairs and I stood expectantly at the front door, hoping for the long-awaited kiss I’d imagined since I was 10 years old. I can still see him in the hall light, wearing a light blue shirt under a slightly bluer v-neck sweater and a tan shearling jacket lined with cream colored fake fur. Even today, I’m attracted to those jackets. Anyway, he said goodnight and I realized he was just going to turn around and walk away. I remember thinking, no way I’ve gotten this far and nothing’s going to happen. I grabbed the collar of his jacket and kissed him. It was a sloppy mess of scraped teeth, mushy lips and the taste of mustard, onion and bright green relish that make a Chicago dog a Chicago dog. And that was it. Danny moved back to the friendship chasm without a word and I was too embarrassed and proud to say another word about it. Senior year drew to an end and I went to prom with my same boyfriend while Danny had moved on to someone new.
That fall, I went my way and he went his. We stayed friends through most of college and as juniors finally were able to discuss what he thought was the impossibility of “us.” He told me I was a great friend but a little too challenging for him as a girlfriend. Oops. I could never keep my mouth shut. Yay for me.
We lost touch after college. Once, about 15 years ago, I found him online and sent him a birthday greeting-no way could I have ever forgotten his birthday. We exchanged pleasantries and then fell away again.
This is a before story, before my life with Michael which began at age 20 and is still going on, despite his death last May. Going back into these old memories is a welcome respite from the grief process. Innocence and simplicity. Treasures.