In 1973, after recognizing that we wanted to live alone, Michael and I moved from the communal house on Washington Street into the first floor apartment of 705 East California Street. Just blocks away from our shared home, we’d found a neighborhood where we were comfortable. Our landlord, a graduate student, lived in the attic apartment above us.
But we made one more stop. Before we moved to California that fall, we spent the summer in a house on East Delaware. Our lease on California Street didn’t begin until fall. Some friends who were traveling that summer, sublet the Delaware house to us for next to nothing. I remember they had a waterbed which made me nervous, always worrying that one of our dogs would poke a hole in it. Our private time didn’t work out as well as we hoped as we always seemed to be hosting old friends, or relatives of friends most of the time. The company wore me out. We looked fairly organized in comparison to many of these aimless people who were moving from place to place, looking for a life. One came with a stray collie he’d found, appropriately named Wander, as he was always getting lost. The amount of hair he shed almost cost us our relationship with the folks who let us use their house as we couldn’t keep up with his mess. The arrival of August couldn’t come too soon.
When we started our life on California, we’d known each other for two years. We were platonic friends for the first eight months. I’d been in Europe for almost three of those, although we, mostly me, had maintained a feverish correspondence during my absence. When I returned, I had to disentangle myself from the only other person I’d ever loved, my first love Al, with whom I’d spent almost three torturous years of being together and breaking apart. That took some doing. Michael, who’d had multiple involvements with women, and was infinitely more experienced than me, was in love for the first time. During that first real year together we were surrounded by roommates. When we were finally alone, we began to discover the realities of each other, aside from the initial magnetic attraction that stunned us both the first night we met.
We were both taking classes at the University, trying to finish our degrees after dropping out of school to pursue activism instead of academics. We both worked part-time at Record Service, an independent music store begun as an alternative to higher priced chains, which was started out of the Illini Union by people with whom I went to high school. Ultimately as business expanded, the store had moved from the Union, to the basement of the University YMCA, and ultimately to a few locations in the heart of campus town. I had another part-time job as an office worker at a commercial bread baking company.
We were working to raise money for a community health center which honored a woman named Frances Nelson, whose home was its initial site. I was on a committee called Medical Aid to Indochina during the Vietnam years. Both of us joined with a collective of people to produce an alternative community newspaper called the Prairie Dispatch.
We learned how to do everything to publish a newspaper except for the actual printing which we farmed out to a local press. Both of us wrote articles and learned lay-out. I think my first two columns were about the ERA and the campus health center. We had press credentials and covered Richard Nixon when he delivered a speech in Pekin, Illinois. I learned how to develop pictures in the dark room on the second floor of our building. Michael would sneak in when the red light was on, knowing we’d have privacy for awhile.
We worked with a Vietnam vet named Tom who came back from the war in bad shape. He was arrested for stealing computer equipment from the University through an underground tunnel system. We raised money to get him an attorney who managed to get him a reduced sentence at a minimum security prison in southern Illinois. We were both engaged with activists from the Vietnam Vets Against the War, which we saw as a moral obligation.
We were working on lots of different issues, one of which included the environment. Michael initiated a feature called the “Junk of the Week” photo which he found by prowling around town with a camera. We hoped that highlighting the messes would raise consciousness. You might search for him in the photo below.
Neither one of us had any real idea of what we wanted to do with our lives. Michael ultimately became a full-time employee of the Record Service, which in time became his first career for 27 years. A political science major with a love of music, carpentry and fixing cars, he was a long way from the future his parents had envisioned for him. His family relationship was toxic and I discovered that he had a well-protected inner hiding place where he retreated at the first ding of trouble. He lacked intellectual confidence which I found confusing. And he was a non-confrontational introvert with a hot temper. As much as we agreed on key issues, our styles were a total mismatch. I was well-loved by my family, certain of my mental prowess, extroverted and always ready for verbal joust. With no one else around, we developed friction and did a lot of bickering. I kept trying different jobs as we weren’t exactly financially stable. I worked at a bank for a time, first as a receptionist and then a foreign currency specialist. One of the officers told me I didn’t really belong there and to head back to more education. I also worked part-time as a social work aide at a middle school which was a tough go for me as the kids’ problems seemed insurmountable. A stint at the park district had me developing an employment program for teens along with a youth center. In my journals I write about being tired a lot. Little wonder.
We were really young. I was 22 and Michael was 24. Al had come back into my life after a few years to say he’d matured and wanted another shot at our relationship. I said no, but that was hard for me. I never didn’t love him – he just broke all my trust and I knew there was no way back. That in turn, hurt Michael who would alternate between withdrawing or being aggressively snotty and jealous. One day I was going with a male friend to hear a speaker who used to be head of SDS – on my way out the door Michael slung some verbal arrow at me which was so maddening I turned around to go back and yell at him, accidentally putting my hand through the glass door. Volatility had entered our cocoon. That scared me because I was done with that rollercoaster emotional life. Michael was defensive and insecure, saying if I wasn’t happy, I should leave. We lived in tumultuous times and we felt out of sync with everything. Luckily, that bedrock of friendship we’d built in our beginning, emerged in those dreadful volcanic times, and one or the other of us managed to re-center us again.
We’d each brought our own dog to our relationship. In those days there were no leash laws so we’d just let them out in the morning. One day, animal control found them. Our very strange neighbor, Jerry, owner of a doberman, pulled a shotgun from his house and tried to stop the arrest of our pets. We arrived to the news that the dogs were in the pound and Jerry was in jail. Michael lost that famous temper of his and with an equally crazy friend, broke the dogs out along with all the other dog prisoners in the middle of the night, whereupon they created havoc at a neighboring chicken farm. Michael smuggled the dogs to Chicago where my dog Herbie was on the lam with my parents and his dog Harpo stayed with a friend. I was left to confront the police who figured out who must’ve done the deed as our dogs were the only ones who weren’t strays. I was left to talk my way out of everything as in truth, I’d done nothing wrong. Mellow Mike. Oh my.
So we went through a lot of our first growing pains as a couple on California Street. I painted the bathroom a hideous shade of pink. I started cooking and trying to knit. I made a scarf for Michael that somehow was nine inches wide on one end and three at the other. We traveled together and separately to prove we were whole and equal individuals. I still like that we did that. We never said the other one was “our better half.” We camped in Indiana and swam naked in cold lakes. I went fishing with friends in Minnesota while he went whitewater rafting in Wisconsin. Once when his father broke his leg, he went up to Chicago to help his dad in his advertising specialty business. It was lucrative but soul-deadening. I wrote him support letters and missed him desperately when we were apart, even when I wanted to strangle him sometimes. He was slow and I was fast. That never changed. We were always tangled together in our bed and sometimes I woke to find we were making love in our sleep.
I think the worst thing that happened during that year was that after we got the dogs back, Herbie bit our paper boy. His parents served me with a summons to appear in court. After wrangling with Herbie’s issues we decided that she wasn’t a safe pet and decided to bring her to the humane society. I couldn’t go because I was so devastated. I made Michael go. But I was beyond inconsolable and he went back the next day to retrieve her. When he came home, he told me she’d already been chosen as a watch dog for a farmer in a community about 30 miles away. I never really believed it – I thought he was trying to assuage my grief although he swore up and down that he was telling the truth. That was 1974. My younger sister had moved here to go to school. We were about move again in the fall and I had another part-time job coming up. I knew I was going to get a new puppy after I let some time go by. Michael and I were still exploring ourselves. We’d been living together for two and a half years. We still weren’t ready to make a lifetime commitment. Goodbye California Street. Upcoming for fall of 1974 was 909 East Oregon.