One of the most entertaining memories I have is of a conversation I had with my son several years ago. We were driving to Bed, Bath and Beyond to get his apartment supplies and I was ranting about some political issue or other in my usual growling, aggressive way. He looked at me and said, “Mom, you’re just a little middle-aged woman and no one is afraid of you.” I laughed so hard. I reminded him that my verbal skills were pretty intense and that people should be very, very afraid. But truly, looking at myself through my kid’s eyes reminded me of what a very smart therapist once told me. She said that having a friend or family member attend a client session was always enlightening because patients can often present themselves as only one or two-dimensional characters. Having another person throw a different angle into the mix helped the therapist see the client as more fleshed-out, more three-dimensional. The truth is, my kids see me in the context of “mom” and all that goes along with that. Generally, I think that’s the way things ought to be, with clear boundaries between parents and children. I know that because some of those boundaries were absent during my childhood.
During the earlier part of my life, when I didn’t have kids to worry about, I am pretty certain they wouldn’t have described me as a benign little woman. And they certainly wouldn’t have described their tall, imposing father that way. Many of our peers referred to me as the “angel of doom” and Michael as the guy who “loomed” in a menacing way.
I want them to know some of our ancient history now that they’re in their 30’s. I think the somewhat innocent, non-threatening countenance which they saw in me served me well back in the days when I was a renegade. Yup. I would state with certainty that both Michael and I led quite the renegade existence for a period of time during the 10 years we shared before we had kids. I’m still the same political renegade I was back then and Michael was too, until the end of his life. We each had FBI files that we got through the Freedom of Information Act. They were heavily redacted but very real. We toned ourselves down when we became parents. We needed to be here for our kids and that changed everything. For us, the possibility of going to jail became a deterrent for certain behaviors, different from our political protest days. We took more risks back in those old days.
Finding the impetus that turned both Michael and me into renegades is pretty simple. We certainly came from different political backgrounds. I was raised in a liberal household. My mother attended a socialist elementary school and as a child, marched through the streets of Chicago, singing the Internationale. My earliest memories of political discussions involved listening to my father express support for Adlai Stevenson. He said the American people would be too threatened by an “egghead” like him and that they would prefer someone average, or less than average, someone not intellectually intimidating. Stevenson lost in a landslide.
Supporting underdogs was a strong family tradition. Personal styles were more complex. My dad was a real straight arrow, a rule follower. My mom was devious and a bit slippery. They both felt badly that as kids, my siblings and I grew up under economic duress. Their youths were hard times and finding financial security came slowly. That didn’t really happen until all of us kids were out of the house. My dad plugged away at a variety of jobs and my mom worked intermittently and was mostly stressed and anxious. I remember our phone ringing and hearing her say, “I’m sorry, my mother’s not home-can I take a message?” Her unique way of deterring bill collectors. When we moved from Iowa to Chicago I was just seven but my older siblings were teenagers. They had a hard time fitting into the wealthier more sophisticated world of the big city. I watched their struggles and saw my mom trying to help in her own way. She bent the rules a lot. I don’t really know what my brother and sister thought of her efforts. I remember what I thought. When I was a kid, we’d go down to the Chicago Loop and look around the fancy department stores.
We’d be in a dressing room at Charles A. Stevens and she’d tell me she couldn’t afford the cute cotton skirts I tried on, but that I could easily shove them into my waistband, zip my coat, and walk out the door with no one the wiser. Mom was a kleptomaniac but I didn’t really get it back then. I never had the nerve to do that. She was a little scary but also a funny companion. She blurred a lot of the edges for me in terms of what was right and wrong, who was the parent and who was the child. While in high school, I was mostly a good kid because I worried that my folks were overwhelmed by the trouble my siblings had adjusting to their new lives. But my coping skills evolved into a bit on the edgy side as I got older. One of the worst things I did was cutting 60 high school PE classes, unheard of for an honors student. The school let me keep my student council position and I was still inducted into the National Honor Society, but I had to make up all those classes in my senior year. On swimming days, I swam three times and was soaking wet for hours. When it was all over, I walked into the PE office and dumped my gym suit straight into the garbage can in front of all the teachers. I also cut other classes and wrote fake passes to get my friend Fern out of hers so she could be with me. We borrowed her brother’s black Buick convertible and tooled down Lake Shore Drive, singing along to WLS radio, chomping White Castle burgers before heading back to school. We learned sign language so when we sat near each other we could talk without speaking out loud. That drove poor Madame Audet crazy, but she couldn’t actually punish us because we were quiet.
As student council treasurer I occasionally helped myself to a few spare dollars when I was broke which was all the time. When I was fifteen, I finally got a job working in a file room at Lerner’s department store. That helped. After my senior year, I got a new job at the Cook County Credit Bureau. One of my memorable acts there was to go into the enormous file room and pull all the negative credit reports on my parents and tear them to shreds. Yes, my sneaky, feisty worried mom did have an impact on me. She told me inappropriate stories about the sly stuff she pulled as a kid. By the time I was off to college, my dad was calling me weasel while my mom was calling him Honest Abe. I was primed for trouble, although, thankfully, I was a thinker first, impulse-taker second. By my sophomore year, dressed in a beaten-up brown leather army surplus bomber jacket and black leather boots, I arrived at school, ready to try all new things.
Michael grew up in a conservative, wealthy suburban household. Privileges were doled out based on how well the kids toed their parents’ line. His mom and dad had a scripted view of how their kids would turn out, discounting their personal traits in favor of what they planned. The classic recipe for disaster. Michael was a born rabble rouser who was constantly pulling pranks and getting into hot water at school and with his parents. I think he was really creative. However that creativity was coupled with a hot temper and a relentless desire to prank virtually anyone. He put a garter snake into his teacher’s desk as fifth-grader. He liked throwing rocks a lot and those, along with baseballs, had him paying for broken windows frequently.
He and a few friends slit the tires of the assistant principal’s car in high school – he reported his sister for that crime. Unsuccessful blame-tossing, I might add. He put excrement on teachers’ car windshields. Oh my. A wild child. Michael was older than me. My classmates who knew him told me stories of his escapades when they lived in a fraternity house with him for a brief time. The most infamous tale involved his fraternity brothers piping a telephone conversation between Michael and a girlfriend into the house so everyone could hear them. His response was to go into the basement and tear out the entire phone system. A mutual friend of ours told me that the first time he ever saw Michael, he was throwing bottles at the basement wall of that same fraternity. He moved out of there pretty quickly.
We were living in parallel universes in those years from 1968 to 1971. We had mutual acquaintances. Both of us were deeply opposed to the Vietnam War and were demonstrating, exploring and thinking. I was hanging out with a pretty intellectual crowd and read a lot of philosophy and political theory. My dog Herbie was named after Herbert Marcuse, a prominent philosopher whose rejection of capitalism was popular among the US student left. Michael was reading Abbie Hoffmann’s “Steal This Book.”
Neither of our approaches precluded the other’s. We were both living in “the alternative” universe, us against the establishment. In college, I finally did shove things into my waistband, although I was collecting books for my personal library instead of cotton skirts. I thought books should be free. After moving into an apartment with a mattress so infested with fleas that I was covered in bites from head to toes, a few friends and I slipped into an apartment building site and grabbed a mattress, still wrapped in paper, balanced it on the roof of a car and toted it home. Flea-free at last. Mattress free too.
Aside from those adventures, I was a pretty serious scholar, especially outside of school. My habit of cutting classes stuck – I skipped them all on my first day of school. I can’t say I’m proud of my habits but I was certainly pleased to be traveling to the beat of my own drum. Michael was busy practicing guerrilla theater. When our Senator, Ralph Tyler Smith came to visit campus, Michael was in the group of hippies who presented him a cake on the steps of the student Union, with blazing joints in place of candles.
In 1971, I went off to a massive anti-war demonstration in DC, avoided capture by the Capitol police and returned to campus to get myself arrested for obstructing a Marine recruiting station in my own student Union. Meanwhile Michael was arrested for running an American flag upside down on a pole in front of the Auditorium on campus. He was also arrested for punching an Illinois State Police officer who hit him in the back with a billy club as he was walking away from a demonstration. His mom found out about that one in the beauty parlor when someone under the dryer next to her showed her the Chicago Tribune with Michael’s name in an article. I always told my parents about my political activities. Again, we came from very different places.
Neither one of us suffered long-term consequences from our arrests. My case was tried by both the university and a civil court. The university allowed each student a few minutes to make a statement on our own behalfs. My dad wrote me a letter stating that he’d learned from me and my peers that the war was wrong and that he supported my actions. Michael’s parents told him to get over his hippie days and move on like so many of their friends’ kids had already done. Eventually all our charges were dropped.
We both sampled a variety of drugs. The first time I ever smoked marijuana I did it alone in my dorm room, making sure I could handle myself and not be out of control. Michael was imbibing things called Grey Thunder and purple dippledomes. I have no idea what they really were. I decided that I should introduce my younger sister to drugs in a safe place before she left for college. My inappropriate mom wanted to try as well. My dad said we had to stay home where we’d be safe and not in danger of getting caught by the police. When Michael’s parents found his stash during a visit they flushed it down the toilet and told him to never bring anything home again.
In 1971, our paths finally crossed and we made an instant connection. By April of 1972, we were living together. One of the first things political things that happened was that Michael and his crew were going to try to blow up the little federal building in our community. He sent me away from their planning meetings so I wouldn’t be implicated and wouldn’t know anything if he got caught and I was compelled to testify. I was petrified. Ultimately the whole thing fizzled but at the time it was pretty intense.
We called our neighborhood “liberated territory.” Everyone seemed to have dogs who roamed around freely. We lived across the street from a drug counseling center called Gemini House. That place was for the people who had serious drug issues. We reached out to Vietnam vets and tried to help them readjust. A block away was an alternative commercial complex called Earthworks which sold foodstuffs, had a garage run by “peoples’” mechanics, and at different times, housed a bike shop and a restaurant called Metamorphosis. Down the block in the other direction was a print shop that was the resource for printing radical newspapers and posters for alternative events. That shop eventually turned into Salsedo Press which relocated to Chicago and is still in business.
In the midst of that bustling neighborhood was convenient store called the White Hen Pantry. I don’t really know how they stayed in business as the surrounding residents freely lifted virtually everything from their shelves and meandered right out the front door.