lthough I have lived in a number of other places, my life began in the city of Chicago, in the shadow of elevated trains. My family left there when I was still young, and I have not returned often, so it feels inauthentic to identify myself as a Chicagoan. Yet, while a tree’s branches may sprawl out high and far, its roots stay put. So perhaps my trunk still remains, cooling in that same shadow.
Also, both of my parents were raised there. When asked, Where are you from? their answer is unambiguous. They were married in 1965 and set themselves up in an apartment on the west side in 1966, just as my big sister Sandra was born. I came along in 1970. Then, in 1977, we moved away.
So, am I from Chicago or not? The question seems important, because Chicago, as I have seen, is no typical American city. It is situated over another place, a kind of reservoir, like the mossy stones of an ancient well. I want to know if I can claim some of that magic history. Perhaps telling the story now, as I have done only once before, will reveal the answer.
y mother used to take my sister and me on walks through the neighborhood around where we lived, west of the city. I know all those streets in my memory. They were arranged in perfect squares, lined with sidewalks, street lamps of gothic black metal, and huge oak and elm trees along either side that were old enough for their boughs to form church-like ribs over the procession of cars underneath.
Indeed, the whole neighborhood has a cathedral aspect to me in remembrance. The sun would lance in downward shafts through those branches in bursts of illumination, as through stained glass. Each time you rounded a corner to walk up another straight-edged avenue it felt as though you were approaching a mystery.
She’d spent her entire life there, my mother, and she loved those streets with all her heart, all her mind, and all her soul. But even then I think she knew that she would soon depart from them and not return again but as a visitor. It seems in my memory as though we were walking every single day, the three of us, but that cannot be accurate. Sandra would have been in school a lot of the time. Yet it seems like there were thousands of those walks – like it was all we did.
Of course I have a father, but didn’t see much of him: he was at work all the time. I knew by then that he was a scientist. I remember being so proud of that, without even fully grasping what it meant. I knew he had to make heavy use of his brain, and it was funny to mention that because the human brain was his subject. You have to use your brain to learn about your brain, he would say. What I had no notion of at the time, of course, but found out decades later, was that he was a research chemist, and during those years he was involved in a massive grant-funded study on the effects of L.S.D. on human cognitive processes.
He worked at the University of Chicago. The word I would use to describe him during that time is not Tall or Warm or Stern or even Intimidating. The word I would use is Gone.
ctober, 1975. I think all we needed that day was milk. I don’t think it was a Saturday, yet Sandra was with us, so who knows. It might have been Columbus Day. It might have been one of those ‘teacher meetings’ days, where the parent doesn’t realize it’s coming up and finds themselves at home with all their children and no plan.
Either way my mother had resolved to take a walk with the two of us. Within walking distance of our house was a corner convenience store, and it was towards this destination that we set off. It wasn’t a cold day, but in Chicago, autumn afternoons are chilly and windy enough to require some sort of parka. I didn’t need a lot of encouragement to wear my Bears jacket with the hood.
I never paid much attention to Sandra, but for whatever reason I remember that day she had two barrettes in her long and straight brown hair, parted down the middle. The barrettes had these red ribbons with colorful beads on them hanging down on either side.
My mother had thick, brown hair, wavy, cut to about shoulder length. She had always been slight of frame, short, but her body seemed to exude energy; she was one of those rather small women that seem to compensate for their lack of physical presence with superhuman tirelessness. She flounced along those concrete sidewalks at a clip I couldn’t keep up with.
The one thing I can visualize most clearly in hindsight is the poncho she wore. She kept it for years, but at that time it was new. My father had gone on a business trip to Mexico that year, and he had brought her home this handmade garment that she seemed to adore. It had Technicolor autumn tones – red, brown, orange, yellow – in a wild tangle of crooked stripes. The poncho seemed wonderfully suited for that time of the year, draped over my mother’s frame to repel the strafing winds. It was like she had the season itself thrown protectively over her shoulders.
We set off briskly, and I settled into my well-worn retinue of hurdling the cracks in the sidewalk, beaning the lampposts with small stones, and picking up sticks in an infinite quest to locate the perfect sword. Sandra ambled ahead, at pains to put space between herself and her pipsqueak brother. My mother was jabbering, asking questions.
She spent a great deal of time with us already, but these walks seemed to be the times when she would make a concentrated effort to genuinely connect with us. Of course, at that time, it wasn’t her I longed to connect with, it was my father. She seemed to know that this wouldn’t happen, and perhaps the conversation she was always trying to engage us in was intended to distract us.
What are you going to do with it when you find it? she asked that day.
The right stick.
I’m not looking for the right stick. I’m looking for a sword.
When you find the right sword, then. What will you do with it?
Stab me, probably, Sandra offered from ahead.
I dunno. Whack things. It’s just a game I like to play sometimes.
How are things going with Miss Richlick? She shifted the subject, agonizingly, to my kindergarten teacher.
Do you like her?
Yeah. She’s nice.
Do you still like the reading unit?
Yeah. I got in trouble for reading ahead two chapters.
Well, not every child in the class reads as well as you do.
I just wanted to know what would happen next.
Don’t we all.
t was called The White Hen. I never knew why, and didn’t become aware until later that it was a chain and that more of them existed elsewhere. I thought there was only one, and that the name was a tangled mystery for me personally to unravel. But I never did.
I can still see that white silhouetted figure on the sign rising high above the corner, like some kind of sentry at the gates of the world of wild fowl. It was painted in profile, facing towards its left, my right, over the top of the store towards the back. It seemed to guide the visitor towards the door. This struck me as a proud hen, and otherwise I never would have had much occasion to consider whether a hen had anything to be proud about. In fact I would never have taken hens into any consideration whatsoever. I hadn’t even known what a hen was before we started going to that store.
The White Hen faced a busy avenue, snarled with traffic no matter what time of day. But behind it was a different story. There was a small parking lot with a dumpster, and behind that, my all-time favorite spot: a playground. These days I get the feeling that every park is an elaborately engineered, exorbitant affair – with six or seven big lakes, a fitness trail, volleyball and tennis courts, lawn bowling lanes, parking for pregnant mothers, a place to land a helicopter, and so on. Back in the 70s, they seemed to be stuffed in wherever they would fit. All you really needed was a set of monkey bars, a couple of swings, and a slide or two.
This park, which I considered my own personal stomping grounds – even though it was always overrun with kids, sometimes tough ones – had the essentials, as well as a tether ball pole, some of those metal horses mounted on thick springs that you could buck back and forth on, a see-saw, a steel merry-go-round that creaked agreeably as you rode it in circles, and a drinking fountain.
I can’t bring this park back from the annals of my memory without mentioning the steep grass hill behind it, the kind you could roll or sled down, as long as you didn’t climb all the way to the top. Because what was on top of the hill was definitely off-limits for children. My father had told me once to stay away from the tracks of the El train because of something called the third rail. If you stepped on that particular rail you would get zapped by a massive bolt of electricity, like lightning, and probably die. This is why as long as we had been coming to this park I never really went close to the top. However, like most small boys, I never got tired of the spectacle of big metal cars whizzing by at dangerous speeds. They were a large part of why I loved that park in the first place.
I never knew what my mother did in there, aside from buying whatever it was we’d come for. But she always gave me time to play. Parental oversight, even though we were living on the outskirts of the third largest city in America, was a little more relaxed then. When my sister was with us she would keep an eye on me until my mom came back, but in an extremely half-ass manner. Even if we didn’t have Sandra, my mom still sent me back there to run around. It wasn’t fenced in or anything, and God only knows who was coming through that park or what transactions were going down. Yet nothing untoward ever happened. To me, it was just a place to play, with an El train stop on top of the hill.
From time to time a train would come to a screeching halt and disgorge a stream of weary-looking passengers, men and women with shopping bags and briefcases, dressed in nursing outfits, hard hats, suits and ties. They all seemed to get off in a hangdog manner and trudge off towards their separate homes without saying anything to anyone. It seemed to me like the exact opposite of the way in which my friends and I disembarked from the school bus. It amounted to a none-too-subtle discouragement from ever reaching the age of adulthood.
On the day I’m talking about – in one sense, the only one from my Chicago days worth remembering – we were dispatched to the back of the store as usual, and Sandra, none too pleased with anything, especially the prospect of baby-sitting for me, grabbed my hood, yanked my neck and head back abusively, and growled, Don’t. Go. Anywhere.
I wriggled free from her grasp. Release me, tyrant! I shouted, using a line I had come across in a book. Hadn’t she figured out yet that there was nowhere else I wanted to go? Sometimes Sandra was just plain dumb.
She then set out to separate herself from me, showing me her back, her long hair, and the clicking beads. I watched her go without misgivings. She’d post herself on a bench somewhere if she couldn’t find kids her age, and I was free to explore.
I’ll admit that I was, and still am, a bit of a loner. Being by myself has never been troublesome. I ignored the other kids. They usually seemed iffy anyway, and as far as I was concerned, there were better things to do than to get amoeba’d into one of those globules of city kids.
The reason why I loved going to that park behind The White Hen in the first place, though of course I could not have explained it at the time, was that it was an ideal grounds for both my body and my mind to run around simultaneously. Even back then, I loved having the space and time to let both of them romp around uninhibited. The playground seemed to provide the right backdrop for creativity and imagination to take over the helm of my existence.
There were countless props and triggers in the park that could inspire make-believe scenarios. The monkey bars were a castle; the metal horses my cavalry; the tetherball tower a monolith; the sloping grass hill the untamed landscape that fell within my realm; the El train a cosmic transport, or a huge metal serpent, or a dragon; the disembarking passengers invading hordes.
And then there was the lion.
knew in the bottom of my gut, from the first moment I set eyes on it, that there was something else to it. It wasn’t only an artificial lion, and it certainly wasn’t just a drinking fountain. Over the years I have wondered whose brainchild it was to make a large plastic or fiberglass lion’s head, paint it red for some reason with a brown mane and yellow eyes, and plop it over the top of a standard-issue city drinking fountain. So that in order to take a drink you had to stomp on a foot pedal sticking out from the base of the lion’s neck like an arrow, and then shove your head into the beast’s jaws. Oh, and if you were going to do it at all, you may as well make it the fiercest, meanest-looking fake lion imaginable, with oversized white teeth bearing down on the vulnerable flesh of a young child’s neck, and an aspect of eternal malice on its painted face.
Because today I have small children myself, I know that at the age of five, or thereabouts, they’re big enough to read and explore and go to kindergarten and all of that, but they’re still young enough to have unrestrained terrors. That lion, for me, was one of those. It was located to one side, fortunately, isolated in a kind of imaginary ring of doom, as though it had wandered in off of some killing plain in the realm I’d created and decided to station itself there to watch. One day, I was sure that the thing would simply come alive and attack, even though it was only a head and neck; it would attack disembodied, thereby making the inevitable about ten times scarier.
I kept to the right side, avoiding the beast on my far left. I didn’t want to even look at it unless I had to. Eventually it might come to the point where I would require a drink, but I found that if I didn’t go too crazy in the time I had, especially during the fall, I could get by without one.
I don’t entirely remember what I did first. In my memory I see only a smattering of other kids there. Sandra, near the swings, had engaged in conversation with three boys that seemed older. I think I sat for a while on the creaky merry-go-round, the cold metal no doubt freezing my buttcheeks right through the corduroys.
Owing to my semi-contemplative side, I was capable of occupying myself longer than most kids simply by finding a quiet but interesting place to sit and mull things over. I don’t know if this made me an introvert or anti-social or what. To me it just means I like to look and listen and think. It doesn’t feel anti-anything.
Whatever you call it, this quality was as true of me at age five as it will be at fifty-five. That’s why it’s no surprise that I ended up seated about halfway up the sloping grass hill, towards the El stop, looking down at the park with my back towards the rails. The hill was steep enough that it gave you a kind of towering perspective, at least to my perception, and that was agreeable. It spoon-fed the imaginative process I so loved to engage:
Here sits the King, high on his Judgment Seat, surveying the breadth of his lands, when suddenly—
The lunatic screech of metallic brakes behind and above me shattered whatever waking dream I was having. I had my elbows on my knees, and was painstakingly pulling apart a dead maple leaf that crumbled to flakes in my chapped and grimy fingers when the train arrived. For some reason I hesitated before looking over my shoulder. I figured the train was disgorging passengers into the autumn gusts, a displacement of moody people from one corner of the city to the next, like some depressing riff on cross-pollination. Yet I remained fixated on the destruction of the maple leaf. I can still see that desiccated thing in my fingertips, piffling away to nothing.
Then I heard the whistle blast, screaming out across the city, as the cars slowly propelled themselves forward, blue sparks crackling between wires, steel wheels grinding on the rails. No longer able to hold back, I turned around. I watched the train pulling away, but instead of the usual stream of melancholy workers heading towards parking lots or sidewalks, chased by the wind, I saw only one figure: a very tall man. He was not walking away. Standing on the top of the slope, somehow on my side of the tracks, he was staring straight down at me.
Once the train was completely gone, the man stepped off in my direction down the hill.
Part 2 of “A Hen, a Lion, a Passenger & a Pachyderm” is coming up tomorrow.