You never know what small thing will set off a cascade of memories. I was driving along, running an errand, when I went right by this construction site. The first thing I noticed was that the external rigid insulation wrap on the framing was green instead of pink. It’s the type of thing it would be normal for me to notice, as I spent over thirty years as an assessment official, specializing in commercial properties. I measured and examined them, ultimately determining their market value for the purpose of property taxes. Where I live, those values are critical for generating revenue for local taxing districts like schools, parks and municipalities. This particular location touched a nerve with me. The building that used to be there was once the home of the Prairie Dispatch, an alternative community newspaper I worked on with Michael and some other friends in the early 1970’s. We were legit. We had real press passes. This is how it’s listed in the University of Illinois Library System.
Title: Prairie Dispatch (Urbana, Ill. : 1973)
City: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois Country: United States
Here are some photos of Michael and me in the office with another friend. We did everything, wrote columns, took and developed photos, designed and ran ads, and did layout. We even covered Richard Nixon in Pekin, Illinois. I wrote articles and shot and developed photos. Only one year into our relationship in 1973, Michael and I had many a frolic in the darkroom on the second floor. We all ate so many doughnuts from the Mr. Donut across the street. We kept long work hours, this volunteer newspaper being a sideline activity, not our day jobs. Sugar rushes and coffee kept everyone going. This was almost 50 years ago. Soon no one will associate these memories with that street corner. Here’s another new building going up in another part of town. Like muscle memory, my brain still notices them, along with other building changes that are going on in our community. The countless hours I spent driving through every nook and cranny of my hometown streets was referred to by assessment officials as viewing. I spent most of my time viewing either by myself or more frequently with Joanne.
Joanne and I have quite a story. My apartment in 1970 when I was a junior in college was in the house on the right side of this photo. Joanne rented a house located directly behind me. We were living in the midst of the alternative community, active in the anti-war movement, and trying to live outside “the establishment.” When we met, we became instant friends. She was a year ahead of me in school. She was also a much better student than me. I was always flying by the seat of my pants – Joanne, the fastest typist I knew besides my friend Fern, would invite me to her kitchen where I’d dictate papers straight out of my head and she’d tap away until they were finished. A lifesaver. She told me she just liked hanging out with me. How lovely. In those days, Joanne was, and actually still is, a wonderful cook and baker. In her spare time back then, she prepared food for a hundred or so at Metamorphosis, the community restaurant where we ate soup, rice and vegetables, lentils and the like. I can still see Joanne coming out of the kitchen, with a steaming bowl of something that was tasty and cheap.
In the summer of 1971, I met Michael. What I didn’t know at the time was that Joanne and Michael had attended the same high school in a suburb of Chicago. Although just friendly acquaintances, they got along well. She told me that he was so skinny back then that if he was standing sideways the only way you knew a person there was because he had a nose that marked his spot. She remembered that he played tennis, swam and was generally a really nice person. This little bit of history added a new layer to my friendship with Joanne. Nice. The following April, when Michael and I transitioned from friends to partners, she was one of the people who really believed we were going to be successful together, unlike some others who thought we were a mismatch, a disaster waiting to happen. Around then, Joanne introduced me to her friend Janet, a journalism student who was taking a photography class at the time. It was Janet who took these wonderful black and white photos which thankfully, still hang in my home 47 years later.
In the fall of 1972, Michael and I moved but we always stayed in touch with Joanne. In a matter of a few years, she had a job working for our local county government, while I went from working at a bank to managing several hundred campus apartments for a family firm. We were smart women who didn’t have a specific career path. We had jobs. Her work led her into understanding that our local assessor’s office was badly in need of reform. I was detesting my job, working for people who were sorely lacking a moral compass as they took advantage of their captive university student tenants, by building shoddy apartments with steep rents. In the spring of 1977, Joanne ran for township/city assessor and won. She called me and said she knew absolutely nothing about commercial property. I said I only knew about apartment buildings and she said that was good enough for her. On January 1st, 1978, she took office and immediately appointed me auditor/appraiser which eventually became chief deputy assessor. I hurriedly took 60 hours of classes, several exams and by mid-year, attained my professional designation as certified state assessment official. For all the decades we held office, we took classes every year to increase our knowledge and further the professionalism we felt the positions required. We had two other staff members, a deputy assessor and a secretary/receptionist. The four of us were to bring our township office into the modern world, eliminating backroom deals for taxes and establishing real fairness in the burden of taxation throughout our city. We administered a program for tax relief for senior citizens and made it our business to find them all and take care of them. Our aim was to become the model government unit in our field, in our state. And we did.
It was a heady business. We computerized all our records and updated every piece of property in town. We went “viewing” which meant driving around, measuring buildings old and new to make sure we had correct records. We learned our city street by street, alley by alley. We went from the office to the car to the office. We’d both gotten married. But basically, we spent more time with each other than anyone else in our lives, including our husbands and ultimately our kids. This was our little office building. We used one half of it while the other was used by the township supervisor whose primary task was to minister to those people who came upon hard economic times, and who didn’t qualify for other social services. We started out in a small space and eventually built an addition. All four of us shared one room with a side office for Joanne. Later, she moved into the addition and I got her space with a door for privacy.
Joanne was a few years older than me as I’d skipped a year of school early in my life and she, like Michael, had graduated a year ahead of me. In a way, transitioning from a friendship to the additional roles of being coworkers, was similar to what Michael and I had done with our relationship. Again, I was so lucky because the change was basically effortless. We worked really hard in our first few years and we got along well. But we were also getting into our 30’s and tit felt like it was getting to be the time to think about babies, not just work. We two revolutionary young women were moving along into the next stages of life. Joanne had the first kid. I was with her at the hospital and at her house the day after her son was born. She and I were so different. I knew I’d want a private space around me when my turn came but she had a different attitude and that was fine. Thinking back, it’s remarkable how we approached life in such different ways. She was very relaxed and not one who was constantly plunging around in emotional spaces while I was intense and fiercely probing all the time. Once when we’d taken a number of our continuing education classes together, she told me she couldn’t sit next to me on test day because my vibes were too palpable and distracting. Hah! Our work goals were similar as were our intellects, but we had crazy-different styles. I think it’s magical how we worked together. I handled a lot of the confrontations that work required and almost all the letter-writing. She was the statistician and planner for tackling the mathematical issues. Numbers were never my strong suit although I improved over the years. We complemented each other without knowing that was how things would work before we started.
When I got pregnant, Joanne threw us our baby shower. I think the only real conflict we ever had was that she was eager for me to return to work faster after my baby was born, while I wanted to hunker down and be absorbed by my new little universe. We got past that. Eventually I returned to the office and the viewing and the sharing of our life together.The years passed quickly. We had more kids. We attended their birthday parties. When she had her kids, I came to the hospital or watched the older ones until she came home. As we drove along, doing our job, we talked about politics, our families and our personal issues. We went through our parents’ aging, failing and eventually dying. The year after my father died, I took my mom and my kids on a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia which had been a lifelong dream of my mother’s. We were also going to see some Civil War sites, which was my dream as I’d spent years reading and studying about what was to me, an unfathomable moment in history. We did the Williamsburg part and then it was on to Richmond. We’d no sooner arrived when my mom attempted the impossible, a walk up three flights of stairs on a bad knee. By the time she descended, she was so crippled she couldn’t walk. I was devastated. The next day, we piled into the car and headed home.
Joanne felt awful for me. The next year she offered to take a Civil War road trip with me. She said I could be in charge of all the planning and that she’d be happy to go along and listen to me talk. Oh, and that she’d pay for all the accommodations and food while I could pick up incidentals and gas. Who does that kind of thing? Joanne does. We took our trip and had a fantastic time. We threw in Monticello and she ate George Washington’s peanut soup recipe at a Williamsburg inn where we stopped for more history. I think that trip was the most selfless thing anyone outside my family has ever done for me. A mere thirty years ago.
We were getting older. Our different styles were beneficial in our personal lives. I was good at the emotional stuff. If her kid was driving her crazy and she was at the end of her rope, I could step in and help by taking on some of those conversations. When my sister had an accident out of state, and was coming home temporarily disabled, Joanne, a better money manager than me, had her house cleaned from top to bottom. When Joanne and her husband needed a getaway, her five year old daughter came to live with me. When my washing machine broke, she bought me a new one. Joanne hosted multiple fundraisers for political candidates. I always made my special and popular chicken liver pate as a contribution for the buffet. I remember bringing my daughter to one of those where we met Barack Obama when he was running for the Senate. I made him a plate of food after he spoke. Joanne always sent me home with a fair share of leftovers. We traded recipes. Her family liked my sausage-potato-broccoli bake with cheese. Mine was partial to her blueberry spice cake. I also remember a wild New Year’s Eve when Michael and I stopped by her house before heading to Chicago. I tasted her fabulous chicken drumettes in plum sauce which were unforgettably delicious. Decades later, I prepared them for my daughter’s law school graduation party. And by the way, you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a slice of her cheesecake. Joanne’s had more surgeries than me and I’ve been with her through all of them. After back surgery, she called me way too quickly from the recovery room. I dashed to her hospital room to join her and asked how she felt. She replied, “ I’m just sitting here being totally catatonic.” We both roared. After a particularly rough knee surgery she was hooked to a machine that promoted circulation in the wounded leg. It was driving her crazy and she was in significant discomfort. I sat there, pushing her pain button for the morphine drip every ten minutes because she just couldn’t do it.Our kids were growing up. When my daughter got married, Joanne was there, as she’d always been from the beginning. When my kid was laid up by knee surgery and Michael’s cancer required me to be with him, Joanne helped out by driving my girl around town. Her generosity to my family was unending. Here’s a lovely photo of the two of them at my daughter’s wedding. And of course there’s one of us as well.
I attended her son’s wedding, too. We loved giving each other’s kids presents. Eventually they started having their own babies. Because her house was bigger, Joanne hosted my daughter’s baby shower. When her grandchildren were born, I sent them gifts as if they were mine. The truth is, all of our kids and their partners and their children belong to both of us. Sounds strange but it feels that way – an emotional investment that extends to all of them. Somehow or other, over thirty years went by. Because I was a few years younger than everyone else in the office, I had a longer time to go before I could finish up. What a traumatic experience when everyone’s retirement time arrived. We’d spent a lifetime together. So much had happened between us, especially between Joanne and me. The final day came, we had the requisite party and cake and then I went back to work.
It was awful. I lasted 10 months. My daughter was pregnant and I offered to provide day care if they could pay my health insurance. They agreed and I took early retirement. That was a decade ago. In the ensuing years, Joanne and I have seen less of each other. How could it be otherwise as we’d gone from essentially being together for 40 hours a week to now being in our own spaces? Still, we were viewing in a different way. I’d do my driving and she’d do hers, but we’d call each other to compare notes on anything interesting that we’d noticed. We remain fast friends. Seeing each other or not doesn’t matter. She’s still thoughtful and generous, dropping off treats from her trips to Chicago that remind of the tastes and smells of my childhood. There’s some inexplicable, ropey, psychic connection between us that’s hard to describe. It’s unbreakable intimacy which is steady and reliable whether I see her or not. When I start feeling her or hearing her in my head I reach out and invariably she’s feeling me too. Neither one of us is religious but it is a powerful force. I think it’ll last forever. One of life’s gifts to me.