by Andrew B. Hurvitz
In a tense time of academic purges and social media bullying, a newly fired, nearly retired professor from Northwestern University is befriended and taken in by a wealthy young benefactor hungry for a father figure and style muse.
Note: This story contains a racial term which is considering insulting but is necessary in the telling of this fictional tale. There are also documented historical events which may be painful for some readers.
Sunday, weekend of Labor Day, Professor Steven Goodman walked at dawn down the driveway alongside his small ranch house in West Evanston, IL. He pushed a metal clothes rack, hung with garments, and a “$10” sign, taped on end.
It was the third day of his four-day estate sale.
Items included a cherry wood glass cabinet and six dining room chairs arranged around a Queen Anne table covered in stacked piles of folded towels and linens.
Down near the curb, on a large Oriental rug, was a seating arrangement from the 1960s, a rust-colored tweed couch, brown vinyl recliner, and three Giotto Stoppino orange stackable plastic tables.
Board games of Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Monopoly, Lost in Space and The Game of Life sat on a scuffed, steel-legged card table.
There were LPs of Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Stan Getz, Henry Mancini, and Bill Evans (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”).
Parked on the back end of the driveway, headlights facing out, was a gold ‘75 Buick LeSabre with a $1,900 or Best Offer sign taped to the windshield. Doris and Gene had driven it for 25 years.
An ebony wood Baldwin Grand Piano sat on the asphalt, its closed keyboard lined with caps from Chicago sports teams: Cubs, Sox, Black Hawks, Bulls.
“A boy who plays the piano also has to play sports,” his German born father had instructed him.
He watched the sky, crowded with fast-moving clouds, traveling with their shadows east to the lake.
His father liked to watch the skies, observing light.
Gene Goodman, born in Nuremberg in 1933, had once dreamed of becoming an artist, but, more practically, sold restaurant supplies for 50 years.
Gene’s surviving paintings were out here, framed in gold, surveys of locations never visited: Yellowstone, Eiffel Tower, Fiji, and Jerusalem.
The oils were copied from torn out National Geographics, subjects chosen for his Oakton Community College night classes, homework painted in the basement under bare bulb, near the washer and dryer.
Painting was a hobby to his late father the way acting had been for Steven.
Professor Goodman took some photos and posted on Instagram with the hashtags: #garagesale, #vintage, #clothes, #estate, #Evanston, #Skokie.
Then he went down to the curb to survey.
The yellow brick house was homely, pitiful and plain: squared hedges, straight walk, and scallop edged shades in the front window. Gene and Doris bought it new in 1958 for $14,000. A steel fence in the backyard neatly divided the property from the alley in back where the garbage cans lived.
He was 61, alone, orphaned, nearly as old as his house, wounded and demoralized since his firing last year from Northwestern, his alma mater and lifetime employer.
On Redfin he found his new house, a 950 square foot stucco ranch in Tuscon near the Catalina Foothills. He would join all the other old Chicagoans, retired exiles in the desert, kept cool, fresh and alive on air-conditioning and prescription pharmaceuticals.
Farewell to snow, winter coats, ice, chapped hands, rain, fog, and overcast weather.
Home had always been Lincolnwood Drive. He thought of Doris, dish towel in hand, shouting from the side door to come in for dinner. Meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, lemon bars, ice cream sundaes, Hi-C.
“Lincolnwood Drive is wonderful because it dead ends before Church St. You boys can play ball in the street and no cars will come down here. That’s why we moved here. It’s safe and closed off.”
People trickled in, perused, browsed, left.
In late afternoon, an older Black woman, cardigan and denim, banded gray hair, librarianlike, walked up the driveway.
She stopped at a table to inspect the Kodak projector and boxes of slide carousels. Some were labelled in magic marker: Miami, 1967, Door County, WISC. 1971, Michigan, 1973.
“Don’t sell these. This is your family history,” she said.
That night, he pushed the piano back into the garage and dragged the furniture and dry goods behind the gate.
He went inside, made a bologna sandwich, poured a glass of milk, sat down, opened his phone.
There was an email from Erica McCarthy, a colleague at Northwestern, an eminent and esteemed professor of English.
Her NY Times bestseller, “Our Eternal Debt”, about white culpability in the failure of Black contentment, was the talk of the nation last year.
“For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it. You didn’t say that disgusting word. A student in your class said it, a word used so often by Twain. The student who said the word was not expelled. And you were. I know it was unjust. You are too honest. This is no time to defend great authors or freedom of speech. You should have gone public to say you would stop teaching that book. That would have calmed it,” she said.
Her words were safe, curated, bullet proof.
She was still employed, she still had her salary and her title, her agent, her royalties, her fellowships. Her husband, Hubbard Woods III, was an investment banker. They had a large house in Lake Forest. She was good until death, and beyond.
One time he Googled her address and saw her 2018 property taxes: $92,000. She was rich and beloved, privileged and adored.
By contrast, he was a pariah; condemned, rejected and reviled. The haters had come after him for many months. Nobody defended him. All the administration joined in the phony piety, alliances of parents, students, faculty and strangers online standing up for social justice.
Thirty years teaching. Once loved and respected, honored, tenured. Now an old, white, male oppressor.
Twain, James, Wharton, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer. Some of the authors he loved and assigned, now enemies of the university, purged from the curriculum.
It seemed the happiest people lived in white rooms without books, sparkling empty ones, ones with the most likes on Instagram.
Labor Day he awoke for work before the sun.
He made coffee at 5am, went out, unlocked the gate, opened the garage. For two hours he wheeled, carried, and pushed all the merchandise back onto the driveway.
Today was selling.
Tomorrow was the reinvention of life.
No more school, no more semesters, no more students, no more talks with young and open minds, no debates, discussions or stimulating talks.
His commute had been a leisurely, dreamy, leafy way east, biking for fifteen minutes on East Prairie Rd and Emerson, across the Sanitary Canal, under the El, over Green Bay Road, into University Hall.
One word, spoken by one student, one day in class, ended his life.
Serena Chan, Lululemon influencer, biking instructor, owner of a popular yoga studio, Chanfit on Dempster, jaunted up the driveway with her infant girl and $900 UPPA baby stroller. She lived in the fiberboard house with solar roof, orange door and electric charging station.
He had seen her on morning power walks many times. She wore high waisted seaweed yoga pants and midriff top.
She took off her sunglasses, exposing a thin, strained face.
He smiled back.
“Good morning, nice day, huh” he said, wincing a look at one-year-old Pela, wrapped in baby blanket.
Pela Chan, Pela Chan. Like an exercise bike.
“I haven’t seen you in years. Hardly recognize you,” she said.
“I’m old. Now I regret never having a child. Your daughter is gorgeous,” he said, wistfully.
“Maybe you are childless for a good reason,” she said.
She broke into malice and anger.
“You are a low piece of shit. I came down here to tell you that to your face. I know your story professor! I grieve for your wounded students. You’ll do all right. You inherited this little house. You won’t be out on the streets. I’m happy you’re suffering! Happy you’re leaving this neighborhood. In our community we don’t tolerate intolerance! I say that as an ally of all who are oppressed,” she said.
Then she turned around, mission finished. Her confidently sculpted ass, muscular legs and toned arms strode back onto Lincolnwood Drive pushing the stroller in workout.
She had blackened his day.
After she left the afternoon lasted a long time.
He distracted himself on Instagram and posted his 1984 acting head shot, longish hair gelled and combed back when he was 21, taking classes at Second City, having fun, meeting people, joking, and creating.
His parents advised against his “hobby” and had refused to come to any of his performances.
“Nobody makes money in that,” his father said.
“You’ll be poor and struggling,” his mother said.
“Working at night in a smoky room and begging for applause in Old Town? Miserable. Where will you be at 35?” his father asked.
“And where will we be when you’re 35?” his mother asked.
He followed their fears and gave up. He went back to Northwestern and earned a master’s degree in English Literature.
Decades flew past. The ones who urged practicality were dead.
Now he was the white-haired man on the driveway selling their old junk.
Near sunset the air was thick with barbecue smells, chicken, ribs, burgers, music, laughter and the thumping of speakers. People walked from cars into houses and yards.
It was time to wrap up.
An Uber arrived.
A white man, model handsome, got out, holding a rattan picnic basket. He had close cropped brown hair, athletic body. He wore purple shorts and pink t-shirt, striped knee socks, unlaced high tops.
He stumbled and seemed intoxicated with a goofy, funny, lost expression, headlight wide eyes, angled, thick eyebrows two or three inches long.
He walked up the driveway, bewitched, staring all around, entranced.
He said nothing.
Then he grabbed two blankets off the table, a sheet and a pillow, and he walked over to the grass and made himself a bed on the front lawn, shaking out the sheets, taking a nap.
“Hey, hey, what are you doing?” Steven asked, rushing over to apprehend the miscreant.
“Hey Pro! I’m Wrigley McCormick and I’m fucking exhausted. Let me nap. Please? I’m so tired. I know you were about to close up, just let me rest,” he said.
“I follow your gram. I want to buy everything. Everything. I have, cash. I love your style too. Just let me chill out here and sleep. I’ll get to you in like 30,” he said, closing his eyes, curling up under the blanket, on the grass.
A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc rolled out of his rattan basket.
Steven watched, thought to call the police, decided not to. He moved the sale items off the driveway, back into the garage, working deliberately, continually, as if his last customer asleep on the grass were not there.
Now it was dark. The lawn lights went on. Wrigley dozed. Steven went over, bent down, gently jarred and awakened him.
Groggily, innocently, he sat up like a child, blanket clenched under his chin.
“Are you OK? Should I call your parents?” Steven asked.
“Parents? Father lives overseas with his wife. Mother killed herself,” Wrigley said.
“Can I get you water or coffee?” Steven asked.
“I need to use your bathroom,” he said, standing up, grabbing his wine, insouciant.
Steven guided him into the side door near the kitchen. He slipped into the bathroom like a lumber board, enviably thin, hard, lean.
He came back out, face washed, shaking his wet hands.
“I had to shit. Sorry. I opened the window, though, sprayed Lysol. Here’s a couple thousand,” Wrigley said, pulling a wad of bills out of his shorts and slapping his rubber-banded money on the counter.
“I’m buying everything Prof. I’m summoning an Uber now. I’ll see you mañana with my crew and our U-Hauls,” he said.
He had come here, slept, woke up in the dark, said he was buying everything. It didn’t make sense.
“Do you want to take a second look?” Steven asked.
“I had my eye on your posts Professor. Didn’t you see all my likes? I want it all. Aren’t you delighted I showed up here?” Wrigley asked.
“You work? Go to school?” Steven asked.
“I work from home. I’m not going to college. You don’t learn anything there,” he said.
“Perhaps you’re correct,” Steven said.
“All of my friends love you, love your hair, your vintage sweaters. And those light blue poplin pants, green Izod shirt and red whale belt. Stunning. Your 1980s are what we aspire to: your jackets and your smile, your boat shoes,” Wrigley said.
He had made a study of the professor.
“That picture of you in August 1986 with your hair blowing in the wind on the dock at Montrose Harbor. And the photos Suzanne took of you at Lighthouse Beach that fall. We all wish we lived back then. I’m buying your whole life and putting you and your looks online, that’s my plan,” Wrigley exclaimed.
Wrigley had learned the historical dates, memorized the places, devoured the throwaway snapshots, curated the images, like an archaeologist discovering and cataloguing the treasures of a long-buried Etruscan tomb.
“My crew is Dylan Wieboldt, Carson Field, and Saira Pirie. And the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon. We talk about you constantly. And we all adore John Hughes movies: Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Pretty in Pink. And Tom Cruise in Risky Business! Chicago in the 1980s is our kingdom. And you are our king!” he said.
The professor was made adjacent to trivia and pop culture, connected to John Hughes and Hollywood films set on the North Shore. He was flattered yet befuddled.
“My windblown hair and 1982 Members Only jacket was not how I expected to earn kudos,” Steven said.
“Members Only was 1983. July 23rd. You and Suzanne were at Comiskey Park at The Police Synchronicity Tour,” Wrigley said.
“Oh man. Stop,” Steven said, laughing.
“Uber is here. I’m outta here. We’ll get some German pancakes at Walker Brothers. I will give you a tour of my house, of what I plan to do with your furniture, your piano, and, of course, all of your clothes. You are going to die when you see it all in my house! Bye,” Wrigley said, running out.
Left behind: an unopened bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
Next morning, several young men and women arrived with three U-Haul trucks. Under Wrigley’s direction, they went up and down the driveway and moved everything into the vehicles: piano, furniture, books, clothes, kitchenware, textiles, rugs, linens, glassware, LPs and Steven’s clothes. They were strong and fast and packed up quick.
Wrigley knocked at the side door.
“Morning Professor. Here is another three grand. I want to get the car too. Do you have the papers? I’ll go up to the DMV in Waukegan tomorrow and we can transfer ownership. My friends will die to see me driving a 1975 Buick LeSabre,” he said.
“Do you want to come in and see the house? Maybe there is something else in here to buy? Please call me Steven. I’m no longer a professor” Steven said.
“Sure Steven,” Wrigley said.
They walked through the tiny rooms carpeted in beige, stripped of furniture. The scalloped shade in the living room picture window caught Wrigley’s eye. He went and pulled it up. Light came into the empty space and he saw a still functioning white dial telephone on the floor, 312-DA8-3020.
“Know how to use that?” Steven asked.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” he said.
“You don’t know how to use a rotary telephone?” Steven asked.
“No,” Wrigley said.
Now he felt old.
A week later, Steven sat in massive dark paneled library of a mansion off Sheridan Road, a 1911 Tudor pile of stone and brick with seven bedrooms, wine cellar, servants quarters, and a 70-foot-long terrace overlooking Lake Michigan. There was a verdant, green backyard with many native American Basswood trees, a type of Linden with heart shaped leaves, fragrant and shading.
The library with its empty bookshelves was now a studio for Wrigley and his friends, furnished with the Goodman Family couch, dining table, vinyl lounge chair, and racks of 1970s and 80s clothes from Steven’s youth.
This was Juicy Fruit Productions, a filming studio, with muslin backdrop, softbox lights on stands with sandbags, and Fuji GFX camera on tripod wired to a laptop. There was a floor length mirror, a director’s chair for makeup, and grooming products scattered on the floor.
A 10-foot-long, yellow, painted sign of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum endowed the room in corporate identity.
Howard McCormick, Wrigley’s father, lived in Singapore and ran a property development company there with his second wife Julia.
Goodman met the crew: multi-racial, wealthy, liberal youth who were performers, assistants, gaffers, writers, comedians, influencers, stylists, cooks and cleaners. They drank beer, got high, ate sushi and frozen popsicles, and chuckled at their phones.
Whatever they felt like doing, or not doing, was okay at Juicy Fruit Productions.
All around the room were reminders of Lincolnwood Drive scattered like shabbily dressed interlopers at a black-tie affair: the rust-colored sofa, the Oriental rug, the Queen Anne dining table and chairs, the vinyl recliner, Doris’s floral pillows and macrame blanket.
But high respect was accorded Steven’s old clothes, revered and worshipped by Wrigley and friends. The vintage garments were neatly hung on hangers on metal racks. T-shirts and sweaters were folded and stacked on the mahogany bookshelves. Dress shirts had been pressed and starched. Iron and ironing board were on duty.
It was 90 degrees, humid, torrid, summer. The opulent estate had no air-conditioning. Floor fans blew hot air around the house.
Six French doors in the library were wide open to the terrace and the garden, the sight and sound of Lake Michigan; waves, seagulls, foghorns; accompanied by the scissor-grinder mashing of the dog-day cicadas, an unending drone of faint noise.
Wrigley had asked the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie to dress up in Steven’s clothes, and film Steven reacting to their looks.
Wrigley and Steven went out to the terrace under threatening skies. One-by-one, the three kids came out for the video. Saira was in Steven’s sweatpants and madras shirt.
Then the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon, two handsome, preppy Black twins about 20, came out in Harvard and Yale t-shirts, and 1980s jeans.
“Professor was skinny. These are so tight,” Brandon said, tugging at his waistband, choking his own throat.
Steven sat on a stone bench. He remarked how good the burgundy shirt looked on Brandon.
“Good line Steven. Keep going,” said Wrigley filming and directing.
“You can come on to me, anytime,” Saira Pirie said to Tyler.
Brandon threw his arms around her. Tyler did too. They all fell down on the lawn, laughing and acting for the video.
“Cut. Take a break,” Wrigley directed.
They were hot and sweating, drinking cold bottles of water, wiping their foreheads with paper towels.
Out in the distance there was the rumble of thunder. Leaves blew off the trees. The atmosphere was charged. The yard was cast in greenish light before the impending rain.
The thunder got louder and nearer, but only Steven seemed to notice. For the cast and crew were oblivious to the weather, immersed in their activities, prime age beings supreme.
“We should move inside,” Steven advised as he walked into the house.
The merry makers followed him into the house. Wrigley hurried to shut the doors and push their brass steel floor locks into place. Steven sat back down on his parents’ rust sofa.
Wrigley looked at his phone. He was ecstatic.
“I checked your gram days ago and there was like nobody. Now it’s exploding! I think they just love looking at me in your clothes. Okay let’s shoot something else. Nelson Brothers change into Steven’s pajamas! And put on his hunting slippers!” Wrigley said.
Brandon and Tyler stripped down to their underwear and changed into two vintage Brooks Brothers pajamas, one blue, one white.
Saira changed into Steven’s 1982 red flannel men’s nightshirt.
Steven spoke about his first sexual experience in the nightshirt as Wrigley recorded.
He recalled its quick sexual convenience, his first time wearing it, losing his virginity to Suzanne at her uncle’s condo in Northbrook, the easy way he could slip into the nightshirt with no underwear and fuck away on the fur bedspread at the brown-bricked Villas Salceda on Willow Road. He remembered the balcony that looked out to the artificial lake with the fountain, the mowed mounds of lawn, the parking lots sprinkled around, the spindly developers’ trees that never grew up, the lifestyle of the 1980s: malls, office parks, tennis, movies, sex anytime.
As he talked, the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie came and sat on the couch, next to him, intimately, suggestively, looking at him as he commented on his 40-year-old carnal milestones.
The young, gathering on the couch, talking sex with the old teacher, it was salacious, exactly what Wrigley wanted.
The rains came, the thunder and lightning exploded, the showers pounded the glass doors. To the English professor pathetic fallacy had joined the party.
Now was that seminal Midwestern moment, that great cleansing glory in the storm’s release, that summer moment when the temperature drops and blood pressure rises through anticipation and fear; fear of hail and lightning; fear of tornadoes knocking over trees, shattering windows, ripping off roofs, hurling cars through the air; storms of decapitation and electrocution, bodily injury and death; storms to hide and cower from, storms like this.
The players watched the weather, went back to their phones. Wrigley shouted to get back to shooting.
He fetched an ancient bottle of English Leather cologne, buried inside its original wooden box. He opened the fragrance and splashed it over the Nelson Brothers to elicit their reaction and revulsion.
“That shit is nasty!” Brandon said.
“Professor you say you wore this back in the day?” Tyler asked.
“Yep. We thought it was sexy,” Steven said.
“Cheap and trashy, smell like a whore’s bedroom,” Brandon taunted as he stood up and unbuttoned his pajama top and threw it on the floor. Tyler grabbed the English Leather and doused it onto his brother. Wrigley’s phone capturing it all.
“No way. Nigger get that off me! You a dumb fucking nigger piece of shit!” Brandon screamed at Tyler.
Saira laughed uproariously.
Steven stood up.
“Don’t you dare you put that online with me in it!” he screamed.
He grabbed Brandon by the shoulders and shook him.
“Don’t ever say that word in front of me! Do you hear me? I despise that word, it’s the worst thing you can ever say. It destroys lives. When you speak it you bring calumny onto others!” Steven screamed.
He stormed out of the library.
“What the hell was that?” Brandon asked.
“What you said homie,” Tyler answered.
“The N word,” Saira said.
“What’s calumny? I need to swallow that word,” Brandon said.
“Why does that white ass fool care?” Brandon asked.
“Shut up Brandon,” Wrigley said.
The storm knocked the lights off and on. Wrigley left the room to find Steven.
Steven sat on the carpeted entry hall stairs next to the carved wood banister and newel post lamp.
Face down, hands behind head, all was quiet.
The weakening rains fell against the stained-glass Tiffany window emitting a dreary light onto the staircase.
He was tired and angry, enraged at these ignorant, reckless, careless youth who fired off words like deadly weapons.
This house added to his futility, for he found himself there without direction, recruited by an accident of fate and chance, a participant in juvenile nonsense, performed in his honor, disgracing his honor.
He laughed bitterly. He was played, again.
Wrigley came over and sat on the stairs next to Steven.
“Are you OK?” Wrigley asked, rubbing Steven’s shoulder.
“Yeah, I’m all right. I guess the Nelson Brothers hate me,” he said.
“No. The Nelson Brothers love me. And they love you too,” he said.
Steven told him about the incident that got him fired. Now Wrigley understood.
“Feel better?” Wrigley asked.
“Take my clothes and everything you bought and do what you want. But please don’t put me on camera. You don’t need to make me an internet star. You bought me out at the estate sale. That should be enough. Perhaps I need to go home now,” Steven said.
He stood up and stretched.
“Looks like the rain stopped. I might even walk home,” Steven said, peering out a front hall window into the clearing light and water dripping from the trees.
“Let’s go outside. This hall is haunted. This is where they carried my dead mother down the stairs for the last time. I never come in here,” Wrigley said.
They opened the front door to the freshness and stood out on the brick stoop between the two pots of drenched geraniums.
“My father and I chatted last night. He is worried about me. He and Julia want me to move to Singapore, to their mansion in Bukit Timah, work in their property development company,” he said.
“Abandon Juicy Fruit?” Steven asked.
“Yeah. Give up production and become a responsible son. Wear a necktie and marry a rich girl and work for my father. I hate the weather over there. Julia is bossy. They both expect too much. I asked if I could stay here. He said he would consider it if I presented a plan. Father said education is vital. I suggested you as my live-in tutor,” Wrigley said.
“I would work for you? Become your personal tutor? How could I live on that hourly wage?” Steven asked.
“You’d be exceptionally well-paid. We are tragically rich. You could teach literature and writing. Maybe we could have classes outdoors, under the Basswoods, a few days a week. With my crew. I found a photograph. New Trier High School in 1950. Students and teacher studied on the lawn,” Wrigley said. He opened his phone to show it.
“I was planning to move to Tuscon,” Steven said.
“Tuscon is even hotter than Singapore. And the food isn’t even as good. Let me set up a Facetime with you and father,” Wrigley said.
With a potential job and his home empty, the plan to sell went on hold.
Steven found himself, like a royal, set up in a wing of the McCormick Mansion, in Howard’s bedroom suite with its own adjoining private library and gentleman’s bathroom of monogrammed towels, tartan covered toilet seat, and etchings of Scottish barons and noblemen.
He slept in the master’s bedroom for a night. He woke up and borrowed the master’s robe as he awaited a call from Singapore to discuss matters impending.
Wrigley knocked at 7am. He came in and put a cup of tea on the desk, opened the drapes, turned on the desktop computer in the adjoining library to connect his father and Steven, and left the room.
In the early morning light, the beaming, bald, smiling man in dark plaid sports jacket and light blue shirt came up in living color.
“Good morning Steve! How are things in Evanston?” Howard asked.
His accent was like an old friend; flat, nasal, familial; true to Chicago.
“Oh, fine. Very kind of you to be so hospitable,” Steven said.
“My pleasure. My son is ebullient about you. And I am tickled pink. I’m a Northwestern man myself, on the board. I heard about your troubles. And my hearty condolences on your job loss. But I hope you will consider our offer,” he said.
“Go on. I’m open to ideas,” Steven said.
“Wrigley does not want to live in Singapore. I understand. My wife Julia is Straits Chinese, her extended family is here, our development company is here. It’s an adjustment. I can’t even legally chew gum here. Imagine a Wrigley under that law! Our projects take us all over Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Hainan Island, Bali and Vietnam. I haven’t been to Chicago in five years. And the god damned property taxes ensure I’ll never move back. I need a pedagogical and parental rector for my son. I wish to assign his care to you,” he said.
“I am pleased Howard. But for how long? Under what conditions? Who will decide the curriculum? I only teach literature. That’s not a fully rounded college education for your son,” Steven said.
“I don’t want him in college. Ever. He’s not going to invent the grain reaper or start a theological seminary like his great-great grandad. But if he can write well and think logically by studying classic American writing, and he’s not exposed to all these leftist, multicultural, gender ideologies, he will have a free mind and a mind freed,” Howard said.
The proposal was for a year contract, $200,000 to teach Wrigley and his four friends American Classics. And to live, rent free, at the house. And to work three days a week, four days off.
The offer was irresistible, tailored to make it impossible to say no.
“Do you think, without having met me, without references, I have all the necessary qualifications?” Steven asked.
“Come now old sport. You are thoroughly vetted. Last year I told Wrigley about you and the cancel culture that came after your hide. Multiculturalism, leftism, racism, gender, capitalism, colonialism, diversity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, LGBTQ. These crazies only teach victimhood. I’m fine with my son un-polluted by modern radicals who run these schools,” he said.
“I thought your boy followed me on Instagram because he liked my 1980s pictures,” Steven said.
“If that’s what he told you, go with it. I’m the one who first heard about you last year. He probably looked you up and got hooked on your fashion. He’s got that influencer business and I think he’s determined to be the next Ralph La Wren or Paris Paltrow.”
“Can I think it over and give you an answer in a few days?” Steven said.
“Of course. My chief concern and my constant worry is my son. I fret that he will turn on, tune in, drop out in that Timothy Leary way. Drugs, moping around, self-destruction. I won’t have it!” Howard railed.
“I can assure you he is not on that path. He’s very industrious and self-directed,” Steven said.
“I will give him freedom only if he obeys my rules. That’s what they do here in Singapore. I’m trying to be a responsible long-distance parent. Please help me, Steve,” he said.
The screen went dark. Only the halo of his words remained.
Howard had supported the Professor because he saw a fellow dissenter, an antagonist fighting political correctness, an insurrectionist whose teaching of old, white, male writers was anathema to the progressive sanctimony of liberals.
Steven never aspired to ideology, he really did not have a side, yet, once again, a faction had chosen him as their representation of their ally or their enemy.
Through Wrigley’s embrace, Steven had gone on a brief hiatus, escaping the debacle and the shame, reappearing as an old version of his young self, a 20-year-old preppy with great hair, in Brooks Brothers clothes, all hope and potential vested in him.
He was a student again, in changed and charged times, embraced by the young for a strange reason: his sartorial style. But his ascension to deity was accidental and artificial, so he pondered leaving, rejecting Howard’s generous offer.
But tethering him to stay, to accept Howard’s proposal, was young Wrigley, another victim of circumstance, manipulated by parent.
Steven recalled how the approval of a parent was the foremost pillar of self-esteem or the foundation for futility, resentment and bitterness.
Here was an opportunity to correct Steven’s mistakes by freeing Wrigley from parental entanglements to pursue his own path.
Wrigley made Steven feel better, wanted, redeemed, that too was inarguable. Not a son, not a friend, not a lover, not anything one could name, yet from the time he walked up the driveway he brought hope and transformation.
Steven was made a hero through an accident of Instagram, put on a pedestal by McCormick, father and son, who built him back up into paternal, pedagogical, and ministering roles.
“Well?” Wrigley asked, biting his lower lip, fists clenched.
He stood in the bedroom doorway, in Steven’s light blue cable knit sweater and gray New Trier sweats.
That was the sweater Steven wore on that day in 1988 when he told his mother he loved acting, wanted to make a career of it and she told him it was killing his father, he had to quit, get a master’s degree or a real job, so he weakly capitulated.
That sweater had shame and surrender in its fibers yet worn by Wrigley it was cleansed in forgiveness.
“I like your dad. I think he’s concerned. But I think you and I should do what we want. And I want to teach, and you want me to teach, and this could be fun,” Steven said.
“Hooray! I’m so happy!” Wrigley shouted and ran into the room and threw his around Steven. And then broke into sobs.
The professor found his face buried in the wool sweater, a pounding heart, warmth and gratitude, held in the arms of one who needed love and guidance.
“Oh, thank you. You are saving me. I don’t want to leave Evanston! I have been praying for this. You won’t leave me alone in this house. I need you. And this is the greatest gift. You will stay here, in father’s room, won’t you?” he said.
“Yes. I have to. No furniture at my old house. No clothes either. I have one favor to ask of you,” Steven said.
“Take me off social media. I want to live for myself, without sharing it with the world. I want to walk in the rain, eat warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and never post about it on Instagram. I don’t want strangers to comment, condemn or control. Nothing is more precious than privacy and freedom and they go together. When you give up privacy, you give up freedom. In time you will understand,” Steven said.
“Yes, yes. Delete! Delete!” Wrigley said.
“My only hope of escaping death is to get offline,” Steven said.
“Let’s go out and get breakfast. Walker Brothers on Green Bay Road. I’m starved for pancakes. I’ve been so worried. And now it’s just utter relief. Have you had their German Pancakes?” Wrigley asked.
One by one Steven wiped away all presence of his online life. He took down Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. It was liberating, walking into enlightenment, freed of ignorance and prejudice and all the harm and stupidity of virtuality.
The morons, who counted their wisdom by counting followers, were all banished to hell.
He paid a service, ClearName, to clean up his reputation, and all the hateful online commentary about Professor Steven Goodman went missing.
He put his house on the market and sold it in a few days to a young Korean American family.
Freed at last, he walked out of the ranch house for the last time and rode his bicycle down Lincolnwood Drive, and pedaled out of the neighborhood forever.
There was now a healthy amount of money in his account from his $476,000 house sale, a $3,800 a week teaching salary, rent-free accommodations, and his retirement investments.
No longer constrained by the rules of school administrators and post-modern censorship he could teach as he wanted.
He chose Elizabeth Spencer’s short story, “The Business Venture”, a tale set in a 1970s small Southern town riveted by racial fears and sexual promiscuity.
In the tale, Eileen, the protagonist and narrator, is a young white woman, recently married, who describes the promiscuity and casual sex of her husband Charlie who sleeps with Nellie Townshend, an unmarried white woman who owns a dry-cleaning business with Robin, a Black man.
But the town scandal is not her promiscuity, or Charlie’s, but the fact that Nellie has a close professional and business relationship with a Black man.
Steven and his students discussed Spencer’s story, as they sat on the grass, under the trees, just like Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs of New Trier High School in 1950.
To Wrigley the South was like his father, cordial and polite but full of hate. The Nelson Brothers wondered how Black people like them put up with treatment from white folk, how they kept their rage under control while enduring dehumanization and cruelty. Saira Pirie thought modern day America had progressed even as racism persisted. Others disagreed with her, but everyone spoke their mind respectfully without fear of offending.
They read and quoted that noxious word which described Black human beings, but they did not recoil from that word but understood it as a gruesome part of language that had to be spoken in an honest confrontation with the American experience.
Before enrollment, all had signed a contract with Steven in which they agreed that what they said would stay within their “classroom”. They would not post about Steven’s class, or him, or discuss any of it online.
Their protected, private discourse would open their minds to explore the world in a way that the internet had denied, that social media-controlled schools would never sanction.
Thanksgiving was nearing, they had just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” a play about a Black family in segregated Chicago who buys a house in a white neighborhood, igniting family conflict.
Steven, Wrigley, Saira, Dylan, Tyler and Brandon went for a drive in the Buick LeSabre on a field trip to the city.
They stopped first at the University of Chicago, near 55th and Drexel, to hear the story of the Manhattan Project, where on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, Harold C. Urey and Leo Szilard built a radioactive pile that yielded the first nuclear chain reaction.
“Do you know what month and year the United States dropped two atom bombs, one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki, effectively ending WWII through the surrender of Japan?” Steven asked.
There was dead silence. Nobody knew.
They went for a walk along historic Greenwood Avenue, past the Obama Family Home, which the future president and his family purchased in 2005.
They walked to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, a premier example of prairie architecture, and they strolled into the University of Chicago down to the Midway Plaisance, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1871, the year of the great Chicago Fire.
The students were impressed with the Gothic buildings on the campus.
“It feels like England,” Dylan Wieboldt remarked.
“Harry Potter!” Saira said.
“Yes exactly!” Dylan said.
Steven educated them on some ugly history.
In the 1920s and 30s, the school had barred Black students from living on campus, Black fraternities were illegal, even the barbers in Reynolds Hall refused to cut Black hair, and as the Black area expanded, the school furiously bought up private properties around the campus to preserve it as a white enclave.
They finished their walking tour at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.
Here, in 1938, Carl Augustus Hansberry, father of 8-year-old Lorraine, purchased a house in the white section of town, an act which brought out violent mobs. He fought for his family’s right to live here, to own property in spite of racial covenants, a case which he eventually won in the Supreme Court of the United States.
The fiction class took their history class on location. And, abiding by their agreement with Steven, nobody took photos, nobody posted on Instagram, they just listened and learned.
“This is torturous, having my phone shut down all afternoon,” said Brandon.
“Nice photos all around. But we have to go cold turkey,” Tyler said.
“No exceptions?” Brandon asked.
“Nope. Honor your agreement. Keep your word,” Steven said.
“Harsh!” Brandon said laughing.
They ended their adventure with a walk across the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River. The festive season was here. Up and down the boulevard thousands of white lights bedecked the trees in a magnificent display of civic grandeur.
In the cold dark night the electric lights shone all around.
The white terra cotta of the Wrigley Building was illuminated in its ornate, classical glory, shimmering in the sky, across from the Tribune Tower, another lit up landmark erected in the early 1920s by publisher Robert McCormick, Wrigley’s relative, a conservative isolationist who was also a free speech champion and founder of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.
The students and the professor huddled on the sidewalk bridge over the Chicago River. Steven told them how engineers had reversed the flow of water so sewage from Lake Michigan would go into the river and keep the drinking water of the lake clean and pure.
Two cops on their beat walked past and the Nelson Brothers moved aside to the railing to let them through, in tandem with fear.
“What are those two awesome buildings?” Wrigley asked pointing to the two which gave him his names.
“Name them,” Steven said.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” Wrigley said.
“These are yours! These two crowning structures, erected by your ancestors! The Wrigley Building and McCormick’s Chicago Tribune! Didn’t your father ever bring you here?” Steven asked.
“He was afraid to walk downtown,” Wrigley said.
“Emma from the Shorefront Legacy Center called me,” Wrigley said.
“Who?” Steven asked.
“They record, document, and archive Black history in the North Shore. She wants to meet me, invited me to her home. Weird. She said my family and hers are connected. Can you go with me? Impart your academic credentials?” he asked.
“Do you think it’s about me? My classroom scandal?” Steven asked.
“The n-word meltdown? I don’t know. She sounds old, like she wouldn’t know how to use the internet. She lives in West Evanston near Church St. practically in your old hood but on the Black side of town,” Wrigley said.
Steven seemed worried.
Wrigley looked online.
“It looks like they are involved in that reparations movement. Probably angry about my family. My mom’s grandfather was a bank president. He kicked Blacks off this very street in the 1920s. He built houses for rich whites on land they confiscated from Blacks. Pushed them all over to that area near the sewage canal,” Wrigley said.
“And you inherited a mansion. Funny how events from 100 years ago benefit you today,” Steven remarked.
“I know. I’m kept alive by enterprising, devious, exploitative, bigoted robber barons and their spoils,” Wrigley said.
Steven was lost in thought.
“We once knew an artist, Emma Floyd, who lived nearby. She was a friend of my father’s. Beautiful Black woman, stylish, artsy, painted. She had a little boy I played with a few times. Then we stopped visiting, I don’t know why. I don’t think she could still be alive,” Steven said.
“Let’s set something up. You can borrow one of your tweed jackets to make you look more professorial,” Wrigley said.
They sat in the blue walled living room of the little ranch home on Leland Avenue, like the one Steven grew up in, a yellow brick number with a postage stamp sized lawn.
On every wall hung framed art, Modigliani like portraits of Black men and women, painted 60 or 70 years ago.
Sprightly, trim, 88-years-old, Emma Floyd carried herself like a ballet dancer, serving beers on a silver tray, set out on a spider legged brass coffee table.
On either side of the plastic covered tan sofa were two dark green table lamps on blond wood tables stacked with books.
Wrigley and Steven waited politely as she flurried about. Then she carefully sat down in an armchair.
“For a long time, I wanted to tell someone who made movies about my life. And then I found you, Dear Wrigley,” she said.
“Crazy. How did that happen?” Wrigley asked.
“I was looking online for the mailing address of my friend Millie who lives in an assisted living facility on McCormick. That’s McCormick, the boulevard, not you,” she said.
“I understand,” he said, suppressing laughter.
“I do know how to use a computer,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Wrigley said.
“When I moved back to my hometown with my boy Andy, it was right after King died ‘68 or ‘69. We were down in Hyde Park and I loved it, with the art community, music, university and the creative fervor of that time. But then things got chaotic, burning down, riots, so I moved back here. And I became a quiet, studious mom and librarian in Evanston. Yet I never quite stopped hating this hypocritical town,” she said.
“You grew up here?” Steven asked.
“Yes. My parents came up from Clarksville, Tennessee during the First World War. Papa had a successful plastering business here. You know they built a lot of houses in the 1920s. He built us a house a few blocks from the lake. We were doing well, this was before I was born, so I heard. Then Evanston came and rezoned our land for commercial buildings. Black families were only allowed to live in the 5th Ward. My father paid $130 and they moved our house over here where there were unpaved streets, far from everything, near the sanitary canal. No water, no electric, that came later. But my father never recovered. The Depression came. No business. He drank. We had no money. We had to take in colored soldiers and students for rent. Excuse my outdated words, I’m just going back in time,” she said.
“This happened to your family, here, in Evanston?” Wrigley asked.
She nodded yes. She put on her glasses and read from a printed document.
“According to my research, Wrigley’s great-grandfather on his mom’s side, John F. Hahn, was Evanston City Clerk from 1899-1925. He was president of Commercial Trust and Savings Bank of Evanston. Not only did he facilitate discriminatory zoning laws but his bank financed many Black homeowners and charged us higher interest rates for inferior housing. He was a man responsible for herding us into a zone. And ripping us off when we could least afford it,” she said.
“What can I do?” Wrigley asked.
“Just listen and learn,” she said.
“I went to Foster, a segregated school. In the 1940s, they wouldn’t let Blacks into theaters, stores, restaurants, even Marshall Fields was off limits. We had our own YMCA. We had our own hospital, our own doctors! Apartheid, here! Can you imagine an intelligent, exploring, curious, questioning child like me coming up against a system of hate like that? After we just won the war against Nazism? Why even Black soldiers and their families were kept out of houses built for all GIs in Evanston,” she said.
“I never knew this,” Steven said.
“I loved painting. Moved to Hyde Park. I exhibited at 57th Street Art Show for 20 years. I was very pretty. I was independent. I did what I wanted. Then I met a man at the art show. He was a German Jew, blue eyed, sensitive. He painted, he was well-read, a pianist. We fell in love. But it had to be secret. He was married. Then I had a child named Andy with him. And I moved back here to be closer to him. Isn’t that a story?” she said.
“Was the man you loved Gene Goodman?” Steven asked.
“Yes. And so here we are. I am Gene’s mistress. Or maybe I’m just forgotten, or perhaps I will die and nobody will care about anything I have accomplished or endured. That’s why I need a movie” she said.
Wrigley clenched tightly Steven’s hand.
“Did you know Gene was my father? Or that I would be coming here today?” Steven asked.
“How would I know that? I saw your car outside and it was just like one Gene drove. I thought it was my old mind playing tricks, because sometimes he would come here on the pretext of fixing my plumbing and we’d be together, Sundays usually. You must have come here too, a couple of times,” she said.
She opened a photo album and showed the men a photograph of teenage Andy, about 16, an athletic boy with blue eyes, curly light brown hair, milk coffee complexion.
“Handsome boy. Where does he live now?” Wrigley asked.
“Live? He was killed. Shot dead after he raked the leaves in the front yard. I had been on him for weeks to tidy up the garden. Halloween 1990. All the fallen leaves were tied up in plastic bags, and he put them up along the curb for trash collection. A car drove by for no reason shot him in cold blood,” she said.
“Did they catch the killers?” Steven asked.
“Yes. It was bad people who hated him for looking white. Andy wasn’t white. Not really. The ache of it. My child taken. I don’t know how I talk about it. I should have taken my last breath a long time ago. Just to get some peace and rest. Can I get you two more beer?” she asked.
The second round of beers were not refreshment but sedation.
After meeting Emma, Wrigley found another vocation.
Juicy Fruit Productions went into documentary film production.
The subject was the life of Emma Floyd.
Emma came to the mansion with mountains of scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, family movies. These were added to the already existent Goodman Collection. Connections were established with the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Evanston History Center.
The Nelson Brothers, Dylan Wieboldt, and Saira Pirie were now $1200 a week segment producers.
They amassed oral transcripts of Black residents, many now deceased, who spoke about their lives in 20th Century Evanston. B-roll was shot, all around Evanston, and once the police were called when the Nelson Brothers walked Sheridan Road shooting video. But they had business cards from Juicy Fruit to show cops so they were left to wander like free people.
The life of Emma coincided with the 1950s jazz scene, she had worked at the Blue Note, knew and befriended Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing. She dated singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine.
There was music to license, for surely it also had to be in her film.
Wrigley hired a production accountant and editor.
He set up $500 a month donations to Shorefront to cement good will and cooperation.
With money all things are possible.
For Steven, the revelations about his father and Emma were startling, yet, strangely comforting.
His father was more human than he knew, less severe and dogmatic, open to vice, pleasure, sensuality, danger. The autocratic and prescriptive Germanness defanged; replaced with tenderness, adventurism, romanticism, repainting Gene into a man of love and non-conformity.
But Steven mourned for Andy, a brother he never knew, a younger sibling who lived only blocks away, who might have lived on the other side of the world, who died before Steven could know or love him.
He and Howard Face Timed, their first meeting in many months.
Howard’s face was even redder, his mood even brighter, his talk more emphatic, garrulous, sparkling, enthusiastic.
“Hello from Taman Plastik! Yes, we are here on an island, on the east coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea, with beautiful coral reefs, beaches and tropical sunshine. Don’t mean to torture you enduring late winter in Chicago!” Howard said.
“Are you there on holiday?” Steven asked.
“Oh no. Our company is building a resort property here. It’s going to be gorgeous: five-stars, gourmet food, three swimming pools, shopping mall, championship golf course, brand new highway from the airport, all on an ecological preserve with indigenous plants and native creatures. As I finish my almond croissant, I’m watching FedEx deliver two handcuffed orangutans,” he said.
“Sounds marvelous. I wanted to ask you about my contract. What is my role now that your son is producing a film? Should I stay on? Do you want to pay me as an advisor or in some capacity?” Steven asked.
“Absolutely! You are the force behind this project. I’ll keep paying you for at least 12 more months. Wrigley must finish what he’s started, and you need to manage or cajole him! It’s going to be quite a story” he said.
“This dynamo was a gorgeous artist, jazz aficionado, painter, sexpot from the 1950s. And your father and Emma, well, that’s quite a story,” he said.
It was jarring to hear a family secret, punctuated by tragedy and loss, aired so glibly.
But that was Howard, a promoter.
Steven was pleasantly surprised at Howard’s reaction to a documentary exploring a Black woman and her life within the prickly confines of race, segregation and Evanston history.
“I think you have to stress the positive changes for the Black people in Evanston. They got a raw deal, that’s for sure. But we live in different times. This movie is going to create a new image for West Evanston, always a shitty part of town. I think you have to get Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and the big money in Chicago involved. Promote the film online,” he said.
Howard emerged, unleashed.
“Do you know Michael Sacks, CEO Grosvenor Capital Management? Graduated Niles West, lives in Glencoe, worth billions. I’ve met him socially. He is a kind of force to get developers interested in that area, tear down the shabby houses, put up lofts, live/work spaces, glass towers, Starbucks, yoga and even a film studio. Evanston can work with private developers. Show it off as an example of how enterprise and innovation can transcend racism,” he said.
Steven listened in silence, aghast, then spoke.
“This is a documentary about Black life in Evanston as seen through the life of an accomplished Black woman who experienced discrimination, who lost a child shot dead in her front yard, who lived the whole history of racial upheavals in the last 88 years. It’s not a happy tale,” Steven said.
“That’s where you’re wrong! It’s a marvelous story of endurance, determination and grit. You can either make it sad and nobody will watch it. Or you can jazz it up, pun intended, and make it a journey of hope and redemption with a happy ending. Because happy endings are the only endings that sell in America,” he said.
Pathetic Fallacy: “The assignment of human feelings to inanimate objects, as coined by the Victorian literary critic John Ruskin.”-Poetry Foundation