August 1992: Prairie, Pavement, Poetry, and Perpetrators

It is toward the end of my one-month residency at Ragdale, an artists’ colony in Lake Forest where 12 writers, painters, and composers are given space and time to do their work and 40 acres of prairie to walk through. Today we are sitting around the dinner table where we gather each evening for gourmet meals and robust conversation, comfortable in our cutoff shorts, T-shirts, and loose ethnic dresses. We have worked hard all day and are too tired to describe the novels we are struggling with, the paintings that are almost finished, or the poems that refuse to come. Instead we are describing the Lake Forest residents we encounter during our daily outings. We are quoting statements we’ve overheard at the Haagen-Dazs about who wore what dress to a dinner party the night before. Some of us–Jews, African Americans, East Africans–are talking about how the curl of our hair or the darkness of our complexions turns heads on Deerpath Road.

We are describing a perfection that sometimes unnerves us, always amazes us, and during certain moments we find enviable–the tidy lawns next to gargantuan homes, the neatness of the average shopper, the way everyone seems to know everyone else at Starbucks, the variety of cereals at Don’s Finest Foods.

Another poet at the table asks what my neighborhood in Chicago, East Rogers Park, is like. I quote a typo a friend pointed out to me once in an article about Chicago neighborhoods. The writer, intending to say that Rogers Park has a wide assortment of people, wrote “wild.” “That’s the best description,” I say quite proudly. “‘A wild assortment of people.’ ”

I think, silently, about the old man who stands in front of my building talking with his dog all day, holding him in his arms like a child. I forget how his loud monologues unnerve me in the morning. I think about the integration on my block, the Hispanic girls with their high ponytails like I sometimes wear, the black children running home from school everyday at three with their white friends. I forget about the fact that my building is mostly white and the building on the corner, which is Section 8, houses mostly blacks. I think about the yippies and hippies hanging out at the No Exit Cafe, where it is still 1950 or 1960 inside depending upon which day you go, and the groovies and yuppies at the Heartland Cafe. I think about my friends and acquaintances across the street or next door: photographers, ESL teachers, lawyers.

I imagine while sitting at this long table full of congenial people that Rogers Park is an ideal neighborhood. Someone mentions the crime, asks if I feel safe walking alone at night. I am tired of this question. I say I have learned how to walk aggressively, like I mean business. For the moment I choose to forget about the night I ran two blocks from my car to my apartment because I thought someone was following me and how when I came panting into my apartment I wrote seven words in my journal: Who said that we aren’t at war? I forget how when I walk one block home from my friend’s apartment, I call when I get in.

During this conversation I don’t mention the drug dealers hanging out on Morse Avenue, or the shooting at the Morse el station last year. I mention instead that the lake is a block or two from my home, that my rent is cheap, and that my apartment overlooks trees, gets northern light. I say it is a community. I brag about our crime meetings, about the Guardian Angels who moved into the neighborhood last year. (A poet at the table jokes about the Guardian Angels moving into Lake Forest.) I tell about when Elaine’s Bakery still existed, less than a year ago, how every time I stepped in Sylvia would know to put a little cream and no sugar in my coffee. Max, the owner, would discuss the fate of Israel with me during the Gulf War. Old men would argue politics with ignorance and passion. Misfits would gather together and feel at home. People came in for a bit of warmth before leaving for their jobs in the larger city.

I tell about the wonderful Greek tailor on the corner of my block, forgetting how she makes my skirts too long no matter how many times we stand in front of her blurry mirror with pins and tape measures, Greek music and American soap operas blaring at us. Yes–this small neighborhood, Rogers Park, I tell my fellow artists, is the place I thrive on in the city. But like all city neighborhoods, sometimes the noise, the dirt, and the crowded conditions get to be too much–especially on hot summer nights. It makes me long for untouched land. That is why I come to Ragdale, to live for a month in the kind of peace that allows me to finish poems.

When I return from the prairie of Ragdale to the pavement that is my home, I go in and out of this love affair. I rip old pictures off the walls in the room where I write and put up enlarged photos of the prairie. I fill each room with snapdragons, gladiolas, and iris from the Evanston farmer’s market. I put up blinds to keep more of the world at bay. I walk down Greenleaf to the lake at sundown and read poems with my friend Richard. With my back to the city and my heart toward Lake Michigan, I am at peace.

I have only been back from Ragdale two days when I return to UIC to teach. I have been away from this institution for three months and 20 days; the concrete stuns me. My feet are blistered from wearing real shoes. I can’t wait to return home, read my mail, see if any poems were returned to me from friendly editors, or better yet accepted for publication. I can’t wait to go for a quick swim in the lake on this muggy day of 90 degrees. I take my shoes off when I step down from the el platform at Lunt. I don’t care about the urine or the glass. I don’t see anything. I am simply tired. I want to return to my trees, my small haven.

When I get to Greenleaf, my street, I see it is empty of cars, as it has been all week. They are paving the road. Without cars, I imagine, we live on a small island surrounded by the crime of Estes and Morse–rougher streets. On our island, I imagine, we are safe.

But my peace is shattered when I enter the foyer to my building. Someone got to my mail before I did. All of the mailboxes have been busted open. My bills have been ripped open along with all of the other neighbors’ and tossed on the floor. The thieves left my advertisement from the Jewish studies program at Brandeis University and my Discover bill. I am afraid to imagine what is gone. I call 911 and tell the grumbling cop the story. I feel my world has been broken into. I’m a writer. I live for the mail. The cop says he’ll connect me to the nonemergency line. “Nonemergency!” I exclaim. I tell him the story again, thinking he failed to hear me correctly. He transfers me to nonemergency.

Within ten minutes two women cops–one white and one black–arrive on the scene. They talk about property damage–i.e., the breaking of mailboxes. “Property damage!” I exclaim. “This is a federal offense. They’ve opened my mail. They’ve probably stolen half of it.” The cops say we have no proof. I become melodramatic. I say I am a writer and the mail is my livelihood. They tell me that it happened across the street last month. This is a common occurrence. They don’t understand the magnitude of my loss. I suggest fingerprinting the remaining letters. They say it wouldn’t hold up in court. I imagine they don’t want to do the paperwork. They are in a hurry.

At the sight of the cop car, the janitor arrives on the scene. Tony knows how to make light of any situation. He offers to write me a check for five thousand dollars to cover any stolen checks. Like the cops, he isn’t surprised by the event. He’d seen two suspicious characters going in and out of foyers that afternoon. He says they were so fast. He agrees with the cops that it is useless to make a “federal case” out of it.

The cops fill out forms. They ask my profession. I say I teach English at UIC. From then on they refer to me as “professor.” It rings false in the foyer on Greenleaf with the wild assortment of people. They ask Tony for his title. He says janitor. We have never been divided into these categories before. They ask him his age. He says 57 and laughs. We offer to give them our weights as well. They take us seriously and say that because we aren’t perpetrators they don’t need such information.

I ask one of the cops if she thinks the intruders would steal poems if they found them in an envelope. This is too much for Tony. “If we are talking poems,” he says, “I’m leaving.” The cops say the perps probably don’t read poems.

While the women fill out the forms, a formality we all know will lead nowhere, I look at the newly paved road. I think about my father leaving my apartment the other day with a drill in his hand. I joked that it was a good weapon for him to carry on his way to the car. My mother asks, after five years, if I feel safe walking in my neighborhood. I say yes emphatically. I think about my friends asking me the same question, with more frequency of late. I always insist that this is the place I want to live and that it is safe for them to park here for extended periods.

I return to my small haven on the third floor, above the street. I imagine the intruders sending my poems out and publishing them under their names. I draw the blinds, leaving just enough space to let the light in.

I imagine taping this to the outside door:

“Dear mail thieves,

“The residents of Greenleaf are armed with drills now. If you return our poems, checks, and love letters we’ll let you off the hook.”

June 1993: I’ll Live Here if I Have to, or I Give Up–Sort Of

I have just returned from the Middle East, where I did not have my own home for a month. My small apartment on Greenleaf suddenly feels light and airy. The buildings don’t seem as close together as they did before I left. Summer arrived while I was gone. The trees are dense and green, blocking my view of the buildings across the street. I am still overwhelmed by culture shock, by driving an hour and a half in rush-hour traffic to teach a poetry class to suburbanites in Arlington Heights. My students are nice enough. But I am so angry about the small amount that English instructors are paid and my long hot car ride that my current pastime has become Arlington Heights bashing. One day when the traffic is particularly slow and the air more humid than usual, I arrive in the classroom and ask my students, “Do you really live out here?”

On this humid evening, three weeks into teaching this course, I am excited about returning home. I think about how vibrant my neighborhood is compared to Arlington Heights, where the streets are silent, the houses lack character, and the people seem to live in their cars, traveling from strip mall to strip mall. When I get home I climb the steps to my apartment, thinking how nice it will be to spend some quality time with my computer. But when I reach the top of my stairs I see that my door has been forced open. I turn immediately and run back down the steps into the street. I consider running over to the apartment of one of the few friends I still have in this area–but I don’t have to. The street is filled with cop cars. Choose a cop, I mutter to myself in order to avoid hysteria. I lean into the first cop car and tell the cop that my door was busted open and that someone could be inside. You too, he mumbles. He tells me there have been many other cases on the block that night. It’s because the Bulls won the other night, he explains, as if that is an answer.

He enters my apartment and I follow him. No one is there. Everything has been dumped over–drawers, shelves, purses. Letters, photos, and Israeli coins are strewn across the floor. As I stand there while the cop takes notes, I am stunned by the disarray. I am not sure what is gone.

While I wait for the detective to come and dust for fingerprints, I call my boyfriend, Steve, and my two closest friends. They have either moved out of the area or were smart enough in the first place, I suddenly decide, to choose a safer place to live. Steve tells me, from the 20th floor of his high rise downtown, that he will be over in a flash. Recently he suggested moving in together in a safer neighborhood. I wonder if this is a sign. I call another friend and tell her that now I know I must move.

When Steve arrives, he becomes my hero. He comforts me and we go downstairs to comfort the others. There’s a 17-year-old Korean girl who has just graduated from high school. She’s still wearing her black graduation robe when she breaks down crying to us, strangers, about how the thieves have taken her mother’s jewelry. Soon everyone in the building who was out during the break-in gathers on the hallway steps between our apartments in support. Another man, a graduate student, tells about a break-in that happened on the first floor in January. “Why didn’t you move out?” I ask, and the young man answers, “Is it safer anywhere else?”

The next day the Korean high school girl and her older brother move to Skokie, the place I was born. Tony comes up and fixes my door. He assures me it wasn’t his fault.

I am strong in the face of adversity. I have inherited this from my grandparents, who learned it from the cossacks. I drop my anger within days and look inward. My door has been broken open, but nothing was taken. Everything has been touched, turned around. I gather up pieces of my life: The white mother-of-pearl necklace that an old boyfriend gave me in 1982 on the day he finally told me he loved me. A lease from the same time, broken when I left at the end of the semester.

I had been in Arlington Heights talking to my students about turning their dreams into poems while someone was turning over my most valued possessions: my books of poems, letters I sent home from Israel in 1984, photographs. Everything remains. These strangers found no value in what I hold most dear.

And all day I had made fun of the placidity of Arlington Heights. I wonder if this is punishment. I call my friend Sandi and ask her what I’ve done to deserve this. She says not to be Hasidic about it.

Steve says, “Terrible things have happened in the night and the morning is beautiful and deceitful.” He helps me put everything back in its proper place–books onto shelves, old poems into the file cabinet, foreign coins in drawers–and the blame on the people who broke into the apartment, rather than on myself. I try to forget everything. The door is fixed. Although I can’t sleep alone at night anymore, I decide to stay.

A month later, when I decide to get an apartment with Steve, he can’t believe I want to stay in Rogers Park, or at least near it. I say this is where we can get the most space for the least amount of money. I suggest moving onto the water; it feels safer there, or at least it’s easier to pretend. Greenleaf is no longer an option. I am having trouble breathing. The litter in the street is getting to me: bashed-in beer bottles, used condoms, candy wrappers. It has become a crowded street; it no longer feels like an island. The boom boxes are so loud I can’t hear myself think. The car alarms wake me up in the morning. The dis-ease has spread. The Jewel on Morse Avenue has closed down. The Guardian Angels have left, and so will I.

December 1993: A New Paradise–At Least When Facing East

Our new home on Eastlake Terrace overlooks Lake Michigan. Technically we are still in Rogers Park. We are as far east and as far north as we can be while still living in the city. We are on the edge. I live with my back to the city and my heart facing east, toward Lake Michigan and Jerusalem. The park we live across from is noisy in the summer, but there is a curfew. Eastlake Terrace is still an island. When we look down at the water from our window we can imagine it is the Mediterranean. At night the waves lull me to sleep. Just west of us, along Howard, it’s drug- and crime-ridden. We simply don’t go there; that’s how we live in peace. When skeptical friends ask if I feel safe here I say yes. We have an intercom system and a padlock.

Today I’m driving down Greenleaf for the first time in months. The streets are quiet and littered with garbage. People are indoors because of the cold. Every parking space seems to be taken. There is no sign of the man with the dog. Usually he stands outside in winter as well. I wonder if he is OK. Olga the tailor sold her store and moved back to Greece. Foodworks on Morse is closed down, boarded up like the Jewel. The diner on the corner of Morse and Glenwood, a target of arson last fall, is slowly being rebuilt. Five months ago I lived in this neighborhood. Today I don’t feel safe enough to stop and park my car. Now that all the leaves have fallen I can see how close we are to the tracks and the “traffick” on Morse. I see Tony but I don’t stop to greet him. I am embarrassed that I got out of this neighborhood, and I feel guilty that I gave up. It’s over.

In the 50s, many of my relatives left this neighborhood for the suburbs. In their new homes in Skokie, Wilmette, and Glencoe, each has been the victim of a burglary at one time or another. But those times are few and far between. In the 80s many of my friends moved into Rogers Park. We could run across the street to borrow salt or cry on someone’s shoulder at a moment’s notice. This was a community. Most people I knew here were broken into at least once. Everyone’s car window has been smashed at some time on Greenleaf. No one I know has ever been physically harmed on this street. But we have heard screams. We have called the police during early hours of the morning. And now, during the past few years, most of us have left for other enclaves of false security. Everyone has left because being a victim gets tiresome, like watching the same dull northern light seep through the window for too long, knowing it will only come so close but that sometimes even that is too much.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Alexander Newberry.