Sweet Home Chicago
c2008 B. Greene
Aside from one personal appearance before my draft board, I made one other trip before returning to Houston to complete my year of service. Larry intended to go home for Christmas to Chicago. Kim would be there for a couple of weeks before traveling to New York to see her family, so I decided to head north. I needed to see if we had any future together. I also wanted to make sure that Kim knew I had no expectation that she would leave the country if need be. I’d been weighing the alternatives and was still unable to make a decision about going to Canada or going to prison. Going to Vietnam was no longer an option. My hope was that we could make a decision and take a stance. Suddenly the draft was complicating everything. I felt cornered. Part of me wanted to go to Canada and be done with the USA. Canadians seemed so sane; images of pristine mountains and rivers tumbled with cosmopolitan cityscapes in my head. I had recently obtained the Manual for Draft Age Immigrants and would read the chapters each night before sleep. I saw myself there, sometimes with Kim, sometimes alone. Each mental rehearsal of escaping to Canada left me torn. I could put an immediate end to all this shit, but then I’d be persona nongratta in my own country. I loved my country. That much I knew.
Another fantasy made occasional appearances in my mind. This one involved the totality of my life up until the moment the draft board would decide my fate. If they were not moved by my work in VISTA or my academic and spiritual influences, certainly my formative years must have some weight. I was the Boy Scout who made it all the way to the top of the mountain. An Eagle Scout at twelve, I could document my community service. I was the one with perfect attendance in school. I adored baseball and hot dogs and helped raise the flag in elementary school. I was a Knight, (men’s honor society) in high school, and senior class president. I won an Ephebian award for service and an American Legion scholarship. How could my integrity be questioned?
In order to take a leave, I was required to follow proper procedure. I needed to obtain official approval, fill out pages of government forms, secure some bureaucrat’s OK and sign a contract committing myself to finish my year of service. All this was to be done in Austin. Larry encouraged me further by offering to drive me to there that afternoon. Four hours later, with all tasks completed, Larry dropped me off at the airport in Austin. My Braniff Airlines flight would originate in Corpus Christi, make a stop in Houston, pick me up in Austin, and then go on to Kansas City and Wichita before arriving in Chicago by daybreak.
I had about 4 more hours to kill before my midnight departure time. I read, I watched others arrive and depart; I ate something, read some more, and thought about Chicago’s brutal winter weather. By 10:00pm the airport was empty. By 10:30, the custodial staff had vacuumed, and all sound, save the Musak disappeared. I was completely alone in the airport. The ticket clerks had vanished, there was hardly the security presence of today’s airports then; it was lovely albeit a bit daunting. By midnight, I saw and heard a plane land. As instructed, when it taxied up to within walking distance of the window near my seat, I walked out to the tarmac. From my left appeared a portable stairway rolling behind a small tractor. Securely in place, the door opened and the Braniff flight attendant, appearing more like a go-go dancer in her orange and fuchsia shorts, called my name. I sighed. I boarded. Within minutes I was part of the November sky, listening to Led Zeppelin on the preprogrammed stereo channel. The flight never could land in Kansas City because of a blizzard. As luck would have it, I was sitting next to an excited G I on leave from “Nam” and eager to see his family. I was only 22, but he seemed so young to me. I wanted to tell him about the November Moratorium or at least feel him out on his views about the war, but a skidding plane in a snowstorm is hardly the time. We made casual conversation about the storm and laughed together when a rattled businessman kept screaming “I have to be in Kansas City tomorrow morning at 9 a.m.” He smiled and exited coatless into the blowing snow in Wichita. Early the next morning, after circling O’Hare airport for 45 minutes, I landed in Chicago.
I have often thought of that evening in Austin’s airport. I felt like I had hitched a ride on a passing airplane back then. With all the changes in airport security since then, what are the chances of boarding a plane like that ever happening again?
I found Kim working as a social worker on the Southside in a neighborhood that rivaled the 5th Ward for danger. It was Blackstone Ranger territory. The notorious street gang made their presence felt daily. Turf wars, muggings and shootings, not to mention ice covered streets made the area extremely dangerous. But Kim took particular delight in helping her clients beat the system. I’d accompany her now and then to find an elderly person living in a small apartment with no heat, or surviving on cat food until the next small welfare benefit arrived. Eventually, the Chicago winter and the constant threat of being victimized took a toll. She wasn’t particularly happy there. Kim is a water person and everything was frozen. I knew if I spent a couple of weeks with her and constantly reminded her of the warmer Texas winter, the proximity to the Gulf coast, and the horses, she might consider returning to Houston. Not as a VISTA, however. That part of her life was over. But Kim still had many friends on the project and with the new year came another opportunity.
The U.S. Census Bureau put out a call for census takers in Houston; that helped to seal the deal. The work was temporary but paid well. She knew the neighborhoods where undocumented workers were least likely to answer their doors. Her youth, energy, and charismatic personality would all contribute to her effectiveness. Besides, I could tag along now and then and use my Espanol if she ever got in a jam. Perhaps the local authorities could now tolerate her presence in poor communities working for this branch of the government rather than the Office of Economic Opportunity. Census workers never got questioned.
Chicago Blues:Playing harp on the Illinois Central Platform
The time in Chicago passed quickly. Fortunately, Larry’s friend Tony and his family took me in on Christmas day and my time alone in Chicago wasn’t too bad. I rode the El and the Illinois Central systems and thoroughly explored the city. Between the University of Chicago, the museums, and the blues scene, there was plenty to do. I even looked up Bruce Grossman, a friend from UCLA, who was doing substitute teaching there until his draft status was finalized. The thought of remaining and working as a sub seemed attractive until I began the process of application. I took some sort of placement test, and filled out a sheaf of forms. Getting to daily assignments during the Chicago winter would be daunting. I tried a few practice runs during my last few days there and it soon became apparent the combination of distance, weather, and dicey neighborhoods would take a stiff toll. I picked up my pace while walking through a particularly dangerous stretch and slipped on an icy street corner. The heels of my leather boots were like mossy rocks on those south Chicago streets. Slamming my elbow and butt simultaneously on the slick cement, I decided to rethink winter in Chicago.
By New Year’s Day, Kim had returned. When the temperature dipped to -14 a few days later, I knew it was time to return to Houston. I had never felt bone-chilling cold like that before. I put on nearly every shirt I had and we went for a walk down by Lake Michigan. Even with layers of shirts, a sweater, a scarf, and my heaviest jacket, the wind blew right through me. The day before I left, I went for a walk in the Hyde Park section near the University of Chicago. Head down, breath steaming in a whorl before me, I heard a voice from a side alley. Stopping to listen, I caught a glimpse of a panhandler.
“Hey buddy,” the weak voice called. “You gotta a dime or a quarter for some coffee?”
I took my ungloved hands from my jacket pockets and tried to pry them inside my front Levi pocket where I knew what little money remained was hiding. As I jerked my hand out to retrieve a quarter, it caught on two rumpled dollar bills also present. They tumbled to the ground and rested right in front of the beggar. Goal!! Game over. His eyes blazed with unexpected delight.
“Go on,” I said. Clutching tighter to the quarter, I turned around and walked back to Kim’s apartment. Dean Martin’s voice singing “Goin’ back to Houston” filled my head. I hated that song. Somehow it fit perfectly in the moment.
Chicago, in my view, has always been the quintessential city. My time there cemented that notion firmly in place.
With Kim near frozen Lake Michigan
We made a tentative plan for Kim to join me by March and shortly thereafter I headed back to O’Hare airport and the wait to fly standby. On the return flight I mulled over all the things I hoped to accomplish before my year was up. I wanted to leave the University of Thought a viable educational alternative. The Issue was growing in size and importance and I also wanted to make sure that my role as poetry editor continued. We were getting more letters from VISTAs all over the region who were questioning their motives and needed to talk about what kind of organizing might best serve their projects. I was anxious, too, to see Amber. Julie had tossed out the idea of breeding her and I certainly didn’t want to miss that. Returning to Houston was invigorating. Exiting the aircraft that afternoon, the temperature read 72 degrees. I unwrapped my scarf from around my neck and hurriedly took off my heavy winter coat. I never wore either again for the remainder of the year.
The remaining winter days were filled with teaching my class, getting out the latest version of The Issue, and offering assistance to other VISTAS throughout the city. Of course, there were other minor emergencies that erupted from time to time. I recall a phone message asking all VISTAS with government cars to meet in a parking lot near a grocery store. One of the local VISTAS was being seriously hassled by some folks who resented her presence and work with poor people. It was time for a show of support. Something we referred to as “a full scale poverty alert.” Our detractors seemed to lose their nerve with the presence of U.S. Government cars around. The theory was that if a whole shitload of those cars showed up all at once it served as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Somehow that “official use only” under the U.S. Government got people thinking in the direction of G-men? FBI? Some authority I never heard of? Before our colleague exited the grocery store we had assembled no less than 20 government vehicles around her car. The bullies got the message and took off through a rear exit. All further taunting ended that night.
Every now and then we’d take the mystique of the government car to another level. Texas had no shortage of car with Confederate flags, gun racks, or KKK stickers. If we happened to roll alongside one on the freeway, whoever was riding shotgun would slowly reach for the glove compartment while eyeing the occupants of the vehicle next to us. There, in each GSA car was a small black binder. Used primarily for receipts, it also contained information about servicing the car and some do’s and don’ts. We’d pretend to write in the black notebook while staring at the passengers in neighboring cars. Usually the brief sense of freight that resulted was enough to satisfy our abuse of power.
One evening in the midst of those busy days almost changed the course of everything. David asked me if I’d accompany him to a small club in downtown Houston to see a musician he’d recently met. He’d been taking some photographs at Herman Park and had a conversation with a woman called Sally who invited him to see her perform.
“She sings and plays piano at a small place a few nights a week,” he told me. “Let’s go down there and see one set, I think you’ll like her music.” Down there turned out to be skid row and the club looked more like a seedy dive, but the crowd was friendly and overflowing. At the far end of the bar sat a small piano. Before David’s friend was introduced, I noticed a heated discussion between two fairly inebriated guys on the other side of the room. Whatever their disagreement, it seemed to dissolve when the music started. No wonder, the main attraction was outstanding. Sally played a mix of standards and her own material with a silky, soulful mastery of the keyboard. The audience adored her. After two encores, David went to the rear of the club to say hello while I remained at our small table. A new Beatle album, Abbey Road, had just been released and when it came on during intermission I was captivated by the music and lyrics. Soon after “Here Comes The Sun,” David and I exited the still packed club and walked toward our GSA Dodge Dart parked about four blocks away. We crossed a fairly well lit street and then continued up a dark side street half a block where the car was parked. Out of the night a figure lurched forward from between two parked cars. Taking a stance about three feet in front of us and directly in our path he snarled, ”Aw right, what do you motherfuckers want?” Between my racing heartbeat and my eyes focused on an object he held in one hand, I could barely speak. David remained silent. What was he holding? It was too small to be a gun, yet its silver gleam in the moonlight was near blinding. A straight razor. He produced the blade and repeated the question. “What the fuck do you want with me?” In my mind, I instantly saw blood. Our blood, lots of it. But we were still uncut and maybe there was a way we could defuse this guy. Like Spanky and Alfalfa of the Little Rascals, we stammered and then blurted, “Us? We don’t want nothin’ from you. You must be looking for someone else.”
“So you ain’t mad no more?”
“Naw, we weren’t ever mad.”
Finally, it hit me. This was the guy that was arguing with someone before the music started. He obviously thinks I’m that guy. I realized his adversary had dark curly hair and a moustache like mine. If it was dark in that bar it was even darker where we now stood.
“I think you might have the wrong person,” I suggested. We don’t know you, and you don’t know us.” He looked quizzical, if not relieved.
“I think I might look like the guy you were talking with a while ago.”
Lowering the razor to his side he blurted, “All right pass on.”
David and I stole a glance at each other. Neither wanted to be first, but someone had to move. Heartbeats pounding, we slowly walked past this dangerous, drunken fool. He followed us for about 50 feet. When he saw the GSA car with the sign on the door “US Government, For Official Use Only,” he took off running.
David and I wanted to laugh, or congratulate each other for keeping our heads under pressure but we were still too scared to say much. All the way home we muttered nothing but inaudible phrases or lengthy exhales. By the next morning I was ready to joke about not going to downtown music clubs with him again. It took at least a month for me to get the sight of that chrome straight razor out of my head. That could have been one messy night; fortunately it remains only a passing memory.
No laughing matter