Hillbilly Chicago (concluded)

After Jean, in her pretty blouse, went to the country and western bar where her boyfriend Ron tended bar, my own life became more complicated. I was in law school after all. I spent less time with Jean and Ron. Jean, Ron, and I chatted some and occasionally had a barbecue. Everything seemed fine, perhaps too fine, and then Jean started showing. She was pregnant.

The soon-to-be-spouse found out that Jean, although at least three months pregnant, had not seen a doctor or had any other prenatal care, and Jean was doing nothing to get such care. She did not have a regular doctor and she had no health insurance. The s-t-b-s started making phone calls and eventually found a Catholic charity offering free prenatal care and birth assistance. The s-t-b-s took Jean to the charity, where they spent a good part of a day waiting, but Jean was eventually examined and told everything was proceeding just fine.

I was in my last year of law school and, realizing that few legal positions appealed to me, was trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation, an issue that seemed to be even more important because I was going to be married at about the same time. Wrapped up again in my own life, I did not spend much time with Ron or Jean as she got bigger. As her due date approached, however, I became concerned. She was not going to a hospital for the birth. Instead, when her labor began, she was instructed to call the Catholic charity, and someone would be sent to her house to assist. “But what if they don’t come, and I am there?” became my frequent thought, especially since the s-t-b-s was not in Chicago then.

The labor began as Jean was on her hand and knees washing the kitchen floor. I called the charity and waited anxiously. Someone came within a half hour. Again, I waited anxiously. Within a few hours a baby girl was born, and the midwife was gone, promising to check back the next day. Ron was still part of Jean’s life, but he, for reasons I don’t remember, was not there. Jean was on her own. That did not seem to faze her. A few hours after the birth she was up and about. When Ron did appear, he looked thrilled. This was perhaps not exactly the ideal family unit, but one could almost see a cozy domestic situation in the making.

Some months passed, and the now-spouse and I were about to move on. We were going to New York City to start our new life. The spouse had a Dodge Dart, which we were keeping, and I no longer needed the old Ford I had been driving. (My car, which I had gotten from a friend, had one of the most important features for Chicago:  It always started in the frigid winters, although I often had to manipulate the manual choke for the car to spring into life. Ron was then carless, and I sold him mine for $50. He paid me half of the agreed price and promised that he would send me the rest. He probably was sincere when he said it, but I was not surprised that the money never came.

Our lives then diverged. I never saw Jean again, and we made no pretense that somehow we would keep up. On occasion I wonder what happened to her, but she held so many surprises for me—Sherlock Holmes and slashed furniture, home birth and barbecues—that I know that my imagination can’t really envision the life she went on to lead. And shortly before I left that house and neighborhood, she gave me another big surprise. Somehow I found out that she was only twenty-one. My mind whirled, and I tried to hide my surprise. I would have thought at least a decade older, but I realized that if she did not have those bad teeth, she might have looked twenty-one. I tried to calculate how old she must have been when she had had her first child, but since I was never sure which one(s)were hers and I kept forgetting the age of the children, I could not be sure. Maybe fourteen. Maybe sixteen or seventeen. But she was just twenty-one when we parted, and she had introduced me to a lot of life.

Hillbilly Chicago (continued)

 

Jean, who had never been to the bar where her boyfriend Ron worked as a bartender, kept trying to find out what she could about it from the not-yet-spouse and me. Mostly our reply was, “It’s nice.” She would find a way to ask again. And then she began to seem suspicious. “When does the bar close?” “How long do you think it takes to clean up when it closes?” “Do a lot of girls hang out at the bar?” “How do the girls look?” Finally she broke down and told the not-yet-spouse that she was worried that she was losing Ron to someone at the bar. The n-y-s replied that we had not seen anything like that, but continued, “Why don’t you go out and surprise him? He would love that.” Jean replied that she could not compete because she did not have anything nice to wear and, of course, she could not go because she had to take care of the kids. The n-y-s had a solution: She would take Jean shopping, and I could take care of the kids for at least part of the night of the surprise visit.

The not-yet-spouse took her to a discount store that sold everything from percolators to screwdrivers to clothing, kind of a precursor to a dollar store. Jean, however, did not have money to buy any new clothes, but seeing that Jean kept eyeing a particular blouse, the n-y-s bought it for her. It was white and satiny and frilly, and it cost under five bucks. (Ok, it’s a long time ago, but you get the point.)

The night came. Jean had no way to get to the bar, but the not-yet-spouse was going to go with her and drive her thee. And then Jean appeared, and I saw her for the first time in her new blouse. The n-y-s and I enthusiastically complimented her. It did look good on her, but more important, Jean liked the way she looked. She was shyly smiling, but also exuded a confidence I had not before seen in her.

They left in the early evening, and I was with the kids. On my front, everything started out just fine. I got my charges some sort of dinner, and the little girl got tucked in. But the deal was that I was to be on call for only the first part of the night, and that a relative of Jean’s–a sister or maybe it was a cousin–was to relieve me at some point. The time for my relief passed. And then more time. The older boy and I continued to play the ice hockey game. More time passed. Normally I might not have cared much, but this was occurring during the final exam period at the end of my second year of law school. I had an exam the next morning at some ungodly early hour, and I was planning to spend an hour or so reviewing notes before going to bed. More time, and still no relief. I did not know what to do, and I finally said to the boy, “I am sure they will be home soon, but I have to go.” A look of panic came over him, and he bolted out the door into the late spring night screaming, “I can’t do it anymore.” I felt sorry for him because of the responsibilities that had been put on him, but I now had little kids asleep in the house, a boy running through the Chicago night, and an exam looming. I quickly ran around the block but did not find him. I went back to the house. He was not there, but the kids dreamed on. I found the telephone number of a non-relief relative. She tried to pretend that she knew who I was as I explained the situation. Within fifteen minutes she came over. I spent an hour, maybe two, looking for the boy, but with my test but a few hours away, I finally gave up. (I don’t remember where he went to hide, but he was eventually found. Physically he was fine. And, of course, this is the main reason I did not become a Supreme Court clerk.)

I was sleeping fitfully when the not-yet-spouse returned somewhat before dawn. She reported that the excursion to the bar had been a huge success. Ron was surprised by Jean’s appearance, and he was delighted. He proudly showed her off to everyone in sight. He was beaming. Jean was beaming. Jean was so happy that she insisted on staying until the bar closed when she came back with the n-y-s. I was still worried about the footloose boy, but pleased about Jean and Ron. And then I went off to my exam.

(Concluded February 11)

Hillbilly Chicago (continued)

 

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)

Hillbilly Chicago

I never labeled Jean a “hillbilly,” but I suppose she was.

I had moved from Hyde Park, site of the University of Chicago, to a working-class Chicago neighborhood. The wood frame building contained four apartments, two on the ground floor and two on the floor above. I lived in the apartment fronting the sidewalk. Jean lived on the ground floor behind me.

She was attractive. She had striking black hair and a pretty face and a nice figure. Her lovely appearance, however, was marred by her teeth, which clearly had been neglected. Some were missing. She did not work but was raising what seemed to be at least three children, sometimes more. I never quite understood her biological relationship to all the kids. I think two were hers, including a three-year-old girl who was pretty and a delight. I got the impression that others were children of relatives who were dropped off for extended stays. She apparently had kin in Chicago who had these children, but I never saw any of the adults. Neither did I understand her family history. She had been born in Kentucky, but I did not know when or why she had moved to Chicago. She never mentioned her parents. I believe she told me that she was raised Catholic, which did not fit in with my assumptions of hill folk, but she wore a religious medal around her neck. How she paid the rent and bought groceries was not clear. When I moved in, there was no man in the house, although I got the impression that one had just moved out.

We chatted some as we came and went from the building, but I was surprised when she banged on my door one afternoon. She was hysterical, and it took a while for me to understand her. I learned that she had just come home, and found her door bolted from the inside. She was understandably scared of who was inside, and she indicated that she believed that it was the former boyfriend whom she had kicked out. “He must have kept a key,” is all she could say while crying.

I called the police, and a young officer responded quickly. I explained the situation to him, and he, too, looked scared. (All this gave me a greater respect for the work of the police. He had no idea what was on the other side of the locked door, and he was going to have deal with the situation. The possibilities included a crazy man with a gun or knife.) The Chicago police, at least then, were in single-officer squad cars. He called for backup but thought that he needed to act promptly. I don’t remember how he got into the apartment. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I followed him, although it was at a distance. Jean had just bought one of those living room sets from the kind of furniture store that advertises on late-night television. She was proud of the suite, but now she found her new couch and chair had been slashed again and again. Something like acid had been poured on her coffee table, and the laminate, meant to look like wood grain, had dissolved. But there was no intruder. A window was open in the bedroom. It was only a slight drop to the ground, and he must have fled that way.

Perhaps this gave us some sort of bond, for Jean and I started talking more. I was in law school, and she seemed very interested in that. More and more, she looked at the books I had. In what seemed like an act of courage for her, she asked if she could borrow one. I tried to hide my surprise; if I had thought about it, I would have bet that she had not finished high school. We talked about what she might like to read. I am not sure what she said, but I finally handed her the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. Then, to my further surprise, she returned the book within the week, saying that she had loved it. She looked over at my bookshelves, and she did not have to ask. We went over and found something else for her, and I became a lending library. She, in return, having noticed that I cooked regularly, gave me a cookbook, written by a White House chef for President Kennedy. Why she had such a book remained a mystery. I still use it.

I then started spending more time with her kids.

(continued February 6)

 

Hillbilly Chicago (Part II)

(Continued from the last post)

After Jean, in her pretty blouse, went to the country and western bar, my own life became more complicated. I had an induction date into the Vietnam-era army, and in the ensuing months, I spent less time with Jean and Ron. After I received a medical deferment, I was more in my apartment again. Jean, Ron, and I chatted some and occasionally had a barbecue. Everything seemed fine, perhaps too fine, because Jean started showing. She was pregnant.

The soon-to-be-spouse found out that Jean, although at least three months pregnant, had not seen a doctor or had any other prenatal care, and she was doing nothing to get such care. She did not have a regular doctor and she had no health insurance. The s-t-b-s started making phone calls and eventually found a Catholic charity offering free prenatal care and birth assistance. The s-t-b-s took Jean to the charity, where they spent a good part of a day waiting, but Jean was eventually examined and told everything was proceeding just fine.

I was in my last year of law school and, realizing that few legal positions appealed to me, was trying to figure out what I was going to do after graduation, an issue that seemed to be even more important because I was going to be married at about the same time. Wrapped again in my own life, I did not spend much time with Ron or Jean as she got bigger. As her due date approached, however, I did become concerned. She was not going to a hospital for the birth. Instead, when her labor began, she was supposed to call the Catholic charity and someone would be sent to her house to assist. “But what if they don’t come, and I am there?” became my frequent thought.

The labor began as she was washing, on her hands and knees, her kitchen floor. I called the charity and waited anxiously. Someone came within a half hour. Again I waited anxiously. Within a few hours a baby girl was born, and the midwife was gone, although she was supposed to check back the next day. Ron was still part of Jean’s life, but he, for reasons I don’t remember, was not there. Jean was on her own. That did not seem to faze her. A few hours later she was up and about. When Ron did show up, he looked thrilled. Perhaps not exactly the idealized family unit, but one could almost see a cozy domestic situation in the making.

The now-spouse and I were about to move on. We were going to New York City to start our new life. She had a Dodge Dart, which we were keeping, and I no longer needed the old Ford I had been driving. (My car, which I had gotten from a friend, had one of the most important features for Chicago:  It always started in the frigid winters, although I often had to manipulate the manual choke for the car to spring into life. However, if the temperatures were in the single digits, as they often were, first gear did not work until the car warmed up. I had to use second gear of the three-gear manual transmission mounted on the steering column. I was inordinately proud of the sensitive left foot I developed for manipulating the clutch to start the car rolling in second gear.) Ron was then carless, and I sold him mine for $50. He paid me half of the agreed price and promised and promised that he would send me the rest. He probably was sincere when he said it, but I was not surprised that the money never came.

Our lives then separated. I never saw Jean again, and we made no pretense that somehow we would keep up. On occasion I wonder what happened to her, but she held so many surprises for me—Sherlock Holmes and slashed furniture, home birth and barbecues—that I know that my imagination can’t really assess the likelihoods for her. And shortly before I left that house and neighborhood, she gave me another big surprise. Somehow I found out from her that she was only twenty-one. My mind whirled, and I tried to hide my surprise. I would have thought at least a decade older, but I realized that if she did not have the bad teeth, she might have looked twenty-one. I tried to calculate how old she was when she had had her first child, but since I was never sure which one(s)were hers and I kept forgetting the age of the children, I could not be sure. Maybe fourteen. Maybe sixteen or seventeen. But she was just twenty-one when we parted, and she had introduced me to a lot of life.

Hillbilly Chicago

I never labeled Jean a “hillbilly,” but I suppose she was.

I had moved from Hyde Park, site of the University of Chicago, to a working class Chicago neighborhood. The wood frame building contained four apartments, two on the ground floor and two on the floor above. I lived in the apartment fronting the sidewalk—no front yard although there was a back one. Jean lived on the ground floor behind me.

She was attractive. She had striking black hair and a pretty face and a nice figure. Her appearance was only marred by her teeth, which clearly had been neglected with some missing. She did not work, but was raising what seemed to be at least three children, sometimes more. I never quite understood her biological relationship to all the kids. I think two were hers, including a three-year-old girl who was pretty and a delight. I got the impression that others were children of relatives who were dropped off for extended stays. She apparently had kin in Chicago who had these children, but I never saw any of the adults. I never understood her family history. She had been born in Kentucky, but I did not know when or why she had moved to Chicago. She almost never mentioned her parents. I believe she told me that she was raised Catholic, which did not fit it with my assumptions of the hill folk, but she wore a religious medal around her neck. How she paid the rent and bought groceries was not clear, but she did. When I moved in, there was no man in the house, although I got the impression that one had just moved out.

We chatted some as we came and went from the building, but I was surprised when she banged on my door one afternoon. She was hysterical, and it took a while for me to understand her. I learned that she had just come home, and her door was bolted from the inside. She was understandably scared of who was inside, and she indicated that she believed that it was the former boyfriend whom she had kicked out. “He must have kept a key,” is all she could say while crying.

I called the police, and a young officer responded quickly. I explained the situation to him, and he, too, looked scared. (All this gave me a greater respect for the work of the police. He had no idea what was on the other side of the locked door, and he was going to have deal with the situation. Certainly the possibilities included a crazy man with a gun or knife.) The Chicago police, at least then, were in single-officer squad cars. He called for backup but thought that he needed to act promptly. I don’t remember how he got into the apartment. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I followed him, although it was at a bit of a distance. Jean had just bought one of those living room sets from the kind of furniture store that advertises on late-night television. She was proud of the suite, but the couch and chair had been slashed again and again. Something like acid had been poured on her coffee table, and the laminate, meant to look like wood grain, had dissolved. But there was no intruder. A window was open in the bedroom. It was only a slight drop to the ground, and he must have left that way.

Perhaps this gave us some sort of bond, for Jean and I started talking more. I was in law school, and she seemed very interested in that. More and more, she looked at the books I had. In what seemed like an act of courage for her, she asked if she could borrow one. I tried to hide my surprise; if I had thought about it, I would have bet that she had not finished high school. We talked about what she might like to read. I am not sure what she said, but I finally handed her the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. Then, to my further surprise, she returned it within the week, saying that she had loved it. She looked over at my bookshelves, and she did not have to ask. We went over and found something else for her, and I became a lending library. She, in return, having noticed that I cooked regularly, gave me a cookbook, written by a White House chef for President Kennedy. Why she had such a book remained a mystery. I still use it.

I started spending more time with her kids. I thought of them as her kids, and she seemed to treat 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. I no longer remember, and I think the number fluctuated. My apartment was one bedroom; hers had two. The wood-frame building did not have central heating, just 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 used to walking barefoot even in winters wherever I had lived. Not in this place though my heater kept the room that contained it–what I thought of as my combined kitchen, dining room, living room (also my study)–warm, 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, however, may have seemed crowded, with a crib set up in the living room, and many 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 wanted a break before studying, he would bring out a game for us to play on his kitchen table. Quickly this became ice hockey with the slots and handles to move the figures up and down the “rink” and that 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 her life. I never learned any of his back story or how they met. He was friendly and good with the kids. He was comfortable with me. But he 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). 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 before generated such conversation! And then there was what chips to buy, and should there be watermelon.

I am not sure that Ron was working when I first met him, but if so, his unemployment ended soon thereafter. He 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 there was something else. The most memorable was in the funeral home around the corner. He was hired as sort of an apprentice, and after his first day he found me to babble on about every facet of the place. But then the next few days when I saw him 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 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 that may have only indicated my limited knowledge of this world.) 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 a discussion. Although we were in a crowded place, we were, in essence, alone, but 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.

Jean, who had never been to the bar, kept trying to find out what she could about it from us. Mostly the reply was, “It’s nice.” She would find a way to ask again. And then she began to seem suspicious. “When does the bar close?” “How long do you think it takes to clean up when it closes?” “Do a lot of girls hang out at the bar?” “How do the girls look?” Finally she broke down and told the not-yet-spouse that she was worried that she was losing Ron to someone at the bar. The n-y-s replied that we had not seen anything like that, but continued, “Why don’t you go out and surprise him? He would love that.” Jean replied that she could not compete because she did not have anything nice to wear and, of course, she could not go because she had to take care of the kids. The n-y-s had a solution. She would take Jean shopping, and I could take care of the kids for at least part of the night of the surprise visit.

The not-yet-spouse took her to a discount store that sold everything from percolators to screwdrivers to clothing. Let’s just say that Kresge’s and Walmart would be several steps up from this place. Jean, however, did not have money to buy any new clothes, but seeing that Jean kept eyeing a particular blouse, the n-y-s bought it for her. It was white and satiny and frilly, and it cost under five bucks. (Ok, it’s a long time ago, but you get the point.)

The night came. Jean had no way to get to the bar, but the not-yet-spouse was going to go with her. And then Jean appeared, and I saw her for the first time in her new blouse. The n-y-s and I enthusiastically complimented her, and it did look good on her, but more important, I could tell that Jean liked the way she looked. She was shyly smiling, but also exuded a confidence I had not before seen in her.

They left in the early evening, and I was with the kids. (I don’t remember how many were then in the house.) On my front, everything started out just fine. I got my charges some sort of dinner, and the little girl got tucked in. But the deal was that I was to be on call for only the first part of the night, and that a relative of Jean’s, perhaps it was a sister or maybe it was a cousin, but someone I had never met, was to relieve me at some point. The time passed for when my relief was supposed to arrive. And then more time. The older boy and I continued to play the ice hockey game. More time passed. Normally I might not have cared much, but this was occurring during the final exam period at the end of my second year of law school. I had an exam the next morning at some ungodly early hour, and I was planning to spend an hour or so reviewing notes before going to bed. More time, and still no relief. I did not know what to do, and I finally said to the boy, “I am sure they will be home soon, but I have to go.” A look of panic came over him, and he bolted out the door into the late spring night screaming, “I can’t do it anymore.” I felt sorry for him because of the responsibilities that had been put on him, but I had little kids asleep in the house, and a boy running through the Chicago night, and an exam looming. I quickly ran around the block but did not find him. I went back to the house. He was not there, but the kids dreamed on. I found the telephone number of a non-relief relative. She tried to pretend that she knew who I was as I explained the situation. Within fifteen minutes she came over. I spent an hour, maybe two, looking for the boy, but with my test but a few hours away, I finally gave up. (I don’t remember where he went to hide, but he was eventually found. Physically he was fine.)

I was sleeping fitfully when the not-yet-spouse returned somewhat before dawn. She reported that the excursion to the bar had been a huge success. Ron was surprised by Jean’s appearance, and he was delighted. He proudly showed her off to everyone in sight. He was beaming. Jean was beaming. Jean was so happy that she insisted on staying until the bar closed when she came back with the n-y-s. I was still worried about the footloose boy, but pleased about Jean and Ron. And then I went off to my exam.

(To be continued.)

First Car. First Day in Court (concluded)

 

I was quick to find injustice in those days, and a ticket for an unsafe vehicle because my car did not have a bumper struck me as a major injustice. No one else of Chicago’s Finest apparently saw a dangerous car when I drove past them. What was it with this one cop who viewed my beloved transportation differently? I was not wimpishly going to pay the fine. No! I was going to fight. I sent the ticket in with an angry slash across the not-guilty box, knowing it would mean a trip to traffic court.

I was a law student after all, and I knew how to do legal research. In these pre-computer-research-days, this required hitting the books and took some time. I could not find any case that said a car without a front bumper was unsafe. On the other hand, I did not find a case that said such a car was kosher. I started to look for legal definitions of “unsafe vehicle” in cases and statutes. I read all legal decisions that had any mention of a bumper. Using what legal writing skill I had obtained, I wrote a memorandum explaining why I had not violated the law. A car was unsafe, I said, if some condition made it unreasonably dangerous for the driver or passengers of the car or for other drivers, passengers, cars, or pedestrians and cited cases to that effect. The absence of the front bumper did not increase the risk to anyone or any other vehicle. Mine did not meet the definition of an unsafe vehicle. The point to a bumper, an insurance case suggested, was to protect the car from excessive damage, not to protect others. Q.E.D.

Taking public transportation, I went off to traffic court on the appointed day. I found a huge, packed room with a judge upfront, a court officer hovering near him, and a prosecuting attorney off to the side. Cases were called. People moved forward. Things were said at the front of the room that I could not hear. Stuff was happening, but I had no idea what it was.

I heard something like a reasonable facsimile of my name announced. I went forward and stood in front of the bench. The judge asked me how I was pleading. I said that I was not guilty. I continued that I was charged with driving an unsafe vehicle because my car did not have a front bumper and that, after research, it was clear that a car sans fender was not legally unsafe. I started to hand up to him my legal argument that I had worked on for a couple days. He looked not so much bemused as condescending and told me to hand my only copy of the papers to the prosecutor and that we would discuss my argument after the prosecutor had a chance to read what I had written.

After a recess, my case was called again. The prosecutor said he had read my pages, which he held, and continued, “I think this young man has a good point.” I tried not to smile, but I am sure that I beamed. Being a lawyer was going to be great! Visions of future, momentous victories flashed before me. Then the judge, without lifting his eyes from whatever was occupying him on the bench and without asking either the prosecutor or me anything, said, “I don’t. Guilty. That will be a $75 fine and court costs.” And my first episode of legal advocacy ended.

Shortly after this day of ignominy, I drove three hours to the ancestral home. The father, although clearly not pleased with my car purchase, came up with a solution. He got a 2 x 6 piece of lumber, cut it to the width of the car, and bolted it to the front of my beloved VW. Before doing so, he even lovingly put on a coat of varnish that gave the wood an orange tint that almost made it blend in with the many rust spots on the car.

I never again got stopped for driving an unsafe vehicle, but when I looked at that bolted-on hunk of solid wood, I would think that if I ever nudged a pedestrian with it, he or she would more likely need an ACL repair than if it were not there. Without it, the pedestrian would have come in contact with the sloping “trunk”—the engine was in the rear and storage went up front (although it could not have held more than a half-filled duffle bag). The trunk’s lid was made of such thin sheet metal that it looked as if it would crumple if sneezed on and that hypothetical pedestrian would have had the impact cushioned. The car was more unsafe with that board.

I had that car for another six months. On a trip to visit a friend in Madison, thick black smoke started billowing out of the engine in some godforsaken part of Wisconsin—the first of a succession of cars that went kaput in highly inconvenient places. I limped into a garage/service station and sold it on the spot for $25 and called my friend to pick me up.

But that first day in court did teach me a lesson that I was to carry forward to the time when I was an actual attorney: Never trust a judge.

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First Car. First Day in Court (continued).

 

My first car, bought to get me from my inexpensive neighborhood to my Chicago law school, had some problems. The inside handle on the driver’s side did not work. I would have to lower the window and open the door from the outside to get out. It did not have a radio. I bought a small transistor radio and propped it on the dashboard so I could listen to the great Larry Lujack. That soon got stolen, and I learned to hide the radio when I parked the car. The heat could not be turned off, which was a considerable defect in a sweltering Chicago summer. It did not have a gas gauge. It had a reserve tank. A lever needed to be turned when the car was filled up and then flipped back. When the main gas tank emptied, the lever would be flipped back for more gas. The first time I drove the car, I ran out of gas, but nothing happened when I engaged the reserve tank. It had not been filled. I coasted to a stop in some not entirely safe place and trudged to a filling station for a can of gas. I learned to note the mileage when I filled up so that I could determine when I needed gas. The car was underpowered. On the highway, it was pedal to the metal, but even so, that VW could not make seventy. To pass a truck on the interstate that was going a few miles an hour slower, I would have to channel my NASCAR and get as close to the semi as possible to draft it, and then pull sharply to the left to slingshot myself around it. Scary, but, hey, I was young. The girlfriend—soon to be the spouse—did not appreciate the skill and derring-do of the maneuver. I learned that the road surfaces in Wisconsin and Illinois must have had slightly different compositions, because the car went a tad faster in Wisconsin. When the temperatures hovered near zero, as they often did in those Chicago winters, the car might not start, but if I could get the car rolling down even the slightest of hills or from pushing, I could pop the clutch, and the car would spring (an exaggeration) to life.

The car, however, had positive qualities. The steering and brakes worked, and it took me to many parts of Chicago I would not have otherwise experienced. I loved that car.

But it had one other flaw: It did not have a front bumper. This seemed unimportant. It had no effect on my driving. The steering was not affected. The brakes were not affected. But one day driving in perhaps a part of Chicago that was the farthest away from the university campus and my apartment, I was pulled over by a police officer. I had not been speeding. I didn’t think that I had run a light or a stop sign. I lowered my window, and the officer did that slow walk over to my car. (Are they taught not to walk quickly to a car they pulled over? Is this done to increase the pulled-over driver’s tension? Does that tension serve a purpose or do the cops just like increasing the driver’s concern? Is it merely a little power play?) “Your car does not have a front bumper,” the uniformed man said. He imparted this wisdom as if the fender must have just fallen off and I had not notice or that I had not otherwise been aware that in the bumper department the car was deficient to the tune of one. I said, “Yes.” He said, “You are driving an unsafe vehicle,” pronouncing that last word in three distinct syllables with the last one sounding like ‘kill’. I had run my course of snappy comebacks and was quiet for a bit but finally responded, “I wasn’t aware that made it unsafe.” This was the truth; I had never before contemplated this particular issue. I waited; he pondered. He broke the silence. “I am just giving you a warning. Get it fixed.” I thanked him. He walked more quickly back to his vehicle and drove off.

I didn’t know where to get a bumper for an old VW or who would attach it. I did figure that it would probably cost more than the car was worth–money I did not have. By then I had driven the car for more than half a year all over Chicago. The car, no doubt, had been seen by many police officers who apparently had not considered it a death-dealing or maiming missile. I had only been in the Chicago neighborhood where I had been stopped by happenstance. I determined that it would be easy to avoid it in the future where that one cop was stationed. So, I did; I stayed out of it.

I continued to drive it to school and many other parts of Chicago, Illinois, and Wisconsin without a problem. Then months later I saw the bubble light of a cop car behind me in the university neighborhood, and I pull over. Wondering what I had done wrong, I looked at the rear view mirror to see a cop slowly, slowly approaching me. It was the same friggin’ one who stopped me before! He immediately said, “I see you didn’t get it fixed. You’re getting a ticket for an unsafe vehicle.” And he immediately wrote it out.

(Concluded on October 22)

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First Car. First Day in Court.

My first car led to my first day in court. I loved that car. I had different emotions about that court appearance.

I was in law school in Chicago. Part of the reason I was in law school there was because I had wanted to live in a big city. I had grown up in a small Wisconsin town and gone to a New Jersey college that seemed, and in many ways was, isolated from the world. Even so, that college had been good for me. My high school education had been adequate at best, and the college presented, through its professors, courses, and classmates, new intellectual frontiers. I learned much there, including that I could more than hold myself with the “best.” In our self-congratulatory way, all of us at the college–students, faculty and administrators–placed ourselves in that “best” category. We were the elite.

The school also exposed me to new social settings. My town had only public high schools, but now I encountered a prep school culture. My father was a janitor, and almost all my classmates came from higher, often much higher, economic circumstances. I learned not to be intimidated by money and social standing.

After a while, however, the conformity and the political and societal apathy the place generated began to weigh on me. There was a bigger world. I spent quite a few college weekends taking the bus into New York and walking its streets, which, to me in those days, meant the streets of Manhattan. I felt drawn to the bustle and energy and was convinced that I needed to experience big city life. Law school presented that opportunity.

My classmates who had their choice of law schools overwhelmingly opted for the one in what I thought was in another isolated spot. I did not want to be in New Haven, but I thought Boston would be ok. Even though I had become fascinated with New York, almost no one, if they had other choices, opted for what was then the law school there, and I, too, fell into that category. The feeling about Chicago was even stronger, not because the law school did not have prestige, but because it was in Chicago. While I admit that I had absorbed some East Coast snobbery, I did not fear the Midwest. After all, I had grown up there.

After the admission letters arrived, twenty-one of us could choose between New Haven and Boston. Nineteen picked Connecticut; one chose Massachusetts. I was the only one who picked Illinois.

Money was the deciding factor. Chicago was certainly a city, and in those days, I also put Boston in that category. But I wasn’t going to law school just to get out of small-town life. I actually did want to become a lawyer. However, I knew that I was not going to be the kind of lawyer who would make much money (some predictions turn out to be true). I was going to be the kind of lawyer who fought for civil liberties and civil rights, for the downtrodden, against “the man,” be that corporations or the government.

I did not have the resources to pay for law school. I needed financial aid. The new Haven and Chicago schools offered respectable aid packages, and I thought that along with part-time work, I could manage. The Boston school, however, dangled a package that was half scholarship and half loan. If I matriculated there, by graduation I would have what a sizeable debt. I did not want loan payments to be a determinant of what kind of legal position I would have to take upon graduation. So off I went to Chicago with its scholarship offer. I wrote to the other schools explaining the reasons for my Chicago choice, hoping they would up their antes. New Haven responded with a gracious congratulatory note. Boston wrote, in effect, that it did not have to buy students and that it was not unhappy to see me go elsewhere.

I started to experience Chicago. It was scary and exhilarating and had many places to explore and experience. All of that excited me; I belonged in a big city. At first, I lived in the university neighborhood, but while it was in the city, it did not truly feel part of the city. It was its own enclave, and I wanted more of the real Chicago. Besides the apartment was terrible. I found a cheap apartment (no central heat) several miles west of the campus in one of Chicago’s many ethnic neighborhoods—this one was primarily Polish-American. But now I needed a car to get to my classes. I went to used car lots and found a VW beetle. The odometer said something like 50,000 miles, but that I am sure was misleading. Either it meant 150,000 or it had been turned back. The dealership did not seem high on the integrity scale. The spare tire, which was in the car when I first saw it, had disappeared when I bought it, which I only discovered some time later. It cost $300, which I did not have, but the brother lent me money.

(continued on Oct.19)

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