I thought of all the kids in Jean’s place as hers. They weren’t, but she treated them equally even if they were not all her biological children. I never got the relationships straight. There were three, or four, or maybe sometimes five.
My apartment was one bedroom; hers had two. The wood-frame building did not have central heating, only a space heater in each apartment, and there was no basement, just an uninsulated crawl space. The winters were cold. The floors were freezing. I was accustomed to walking barefoot even in winters wherever I had lived. Not in this place. My heater kept the room that contained it–a combined kitchen, dining room, living room (also my study)–warm, but the areas behind the heater, the bathroom and the bedroom with a mattress on the floor, seemed to hover at just above the freezing point in January and February.
Her place was crowded, what with a crib set up in the living room, and several beds in each bedroom, but it always seemed comfortable and clean, much cleaner than my place. I started becoming friendly with the oldest boy who was perhaps eight or nine. I’d ask about his sports and hobby interests and about school. He went to public school not too far away, and he indicated that it was fine, except he said too many blacks were coming into the school, although he did not say “blacks.” I could see that he often had responsibilities around the home, mostly looking after the younger kids. After we became friendly and I was coming back after classes and wanting a break before studying, he would bring out a game for us to play on his kitchen table. His choice soon became ice hockey with the slots and handles to move the figures up and down the “rink.” These could be twisted so that miniature Bobby Hulls and Stan Mikitas could pass or shoot the puck. He would invariably get it out because he could beat the pants off me. If I scored one goal, I was thrilled. He would have ten or more.
Then Ron entered Jean’s life. I never learned any of his back story or how they met, but he was friendly and good with the kids and was comfortable with me. He often seemed as if he was surprised to have become an adult. I have never seen someone so excited about doing a back yard barbecue (where I was the only guest). He was like a kid waiting for Christmas. Before it happened, he would talk about what he was going to cook and how he was going to cook it. Hot dogs and hamburgers have never generated such enthusiasm. And then there was the question of what chips to buy and should there be watermelon.
Ron always seemed to be in some new job. Each appeared to be the first step in a possible career, but in a week or two, he would move on. The most memorable “career path” started in the funeral home around the corner. He was hired as a sort of apprentice, and after his first day he found me to babble on enthusiastically about every facet of the place. But after a day, he looked green. Apparently he had now been introduced to embalming and preparing bodies for viewings. Within a week or two he was looking for different work.
Ron may not have been good at keeping jobs, but he was good at finding them. In short order, he was tending bar at a place on the southwest outskirts of Chicago. He again was enthusiastic. He would go on and on about how great the place was. The staff was wonderful. The customers were friendly and distinguished. And there was music. Chicago may be known for its blues, but this was a country and western place. I was not aware that Ron listened to country and western, or any other music, but he would list names and assure me that these were stars.
This time the job and the enthusiasm continued. Every time I saw him, Ron talked excitedly about the bar and his job. He would list important people who were there. (I never knew who they were, but he was certain of their fame.) Then he kept insisting that my girlfriend (the not-yet-spouse) and I come to the bar. After many entreaties, we went.
It was a nice place. An ample bar with tables ringing a good-sized dance floor and a stage at that far end. It was clean; it was modern. The patrons were largely under forty and nicely dressed, although the fashions were different from the ones I saw around the University of Chicago. Still, it was not my cup of tea. Too loud, too smoky, too crowded. But Ron was thrilled to see us there. He introduced us to the other bartender, to every waitress, to patrons, to performers. “Meet my friends” was said over and over, and each time Ron looked thrilled that the others could see his friends. Neither we or the ones he had us meet were introduced in a way that might have led to a conversation, and in any event, the noise was too much for any kind of chit chat. Ron seemed relaxed and in his element, something I think did not happen frequently for him. I could understand his excitement about the place, but after what we thought was a decent interval and after telling Ron again and again how great the place was, we left.
(continued February 8)