The White Defeatist

24045344372_61a0f7830d_o

A progressive architect is forced to confront his assumptions about himself, his family and his city.

After our mother’s funeral, I flew in a plane, from Little Rock to Los Angeles, accompanied by my older sister Stephanie and her catatonic, teenage son Norman.

Over Arizona, I looked out at the vast, unpopulated desert below and remarked.

“All that space, all that enormous emptiness.”

That comment induced a reaction from Stephanie, who told me about some vacant land for sale in Van Nuys near the house she rented. Perhaps she was trying to distract me from grief.

“I know you don’t like to visit me or Norman or Van Nuys, but perhaps I can lure you there for other reasons,” she said.

I hated their dirty house. It made me feel unclean.

She and her son lived in dilapidation: pet urine, hair in the drain, flies, animal hair, the stink of cat litter.

On rare occasions, I came over, and I numbed myself, on their love and their alcohol.

Often I was just down. I had yet to make a solid living as an architect. I hid out from my family.

But I had plans bursting in my head. Now, when she talked of an empty lot, my sputtering motivation ignited.


Death Money

We had both inherited a few hundred thousand dollars each: a pittance in Los Angeles, a goodly sum in Arkansas. It was just enough to induce the promise of future prosperity without granting it.

“You have to see the property Zeke. It used to be a farm. They grew walnuts and oranges here back in the 1940s. My friend Alisa Grumpfel, bought it from Martin Boyagian, an Armenian who stored stolen vehicles and rented out to illegals. Now she owns it all. An acre. She could build four houses there,” she said.

“Undocumented. Not illegals,” I corrected.

“Yes. So sorry for my use of that word,” she said.

The plane landed at LAX. We walked through the concourse, and onto a conveyer belt, gliding back with luggage, into life without mother.


Working Architect

Three years ago, I lived above a bodega on Temple St. alongside the Hollywood Freeway, near downtown Los Angeles, designing slant-roofed houses for liberal tattoos and social-minded beards of all genders.

In that insular, hilly community of tight jeans and slim shirts, I had a bit of a following. Some of my architectural renderings were framed and sold on Sunset at Marketplace.

The artist Moby photographed a house I designed and put it on Instagram. He later hired me to design a Viennese style doghouse. Miranda July wrote a poem about me and performed it at Intelligensia. Thousands of dollars blew by like winds.

Many late mornings, I went into The Drawing Room on Hillhurst, carrying my laptop, and sliding into a red vinyl booth, prepping and laying out floor plans, ordering whisky, diluting it with ice, slipping, into numbness.


Motherland

After she died, Mom came back in a dream.

She floated, laid down, in an iron bed escorted by angels.

We were in my childhood home on Maple Street in Conway, Arkansas, in the old back room.

Windows were open, sheer curtains blowing. An electric fan pulled in pink scents in notes of magnolia and dogwood.

Her silver hair was tied back and groomed in coconut oil. And a white cotton blanket inched up to her chin. I sat next to her, holding her hand, listening to her.

In her dying voice, still charged by the sputtering, electrified current of motherly love, she asked me about my plans for work, and life and staying in Los Angeles. She had a hard time believing I would settle there.

“You don’t like LA. So why live there?” she asked

“I really don’t know Mom,” I said.

“If you don’t know who does?” she asked.

“Do you want an answer on deadline?” I asked.

“Deadline. There’s a word,” she said.


Erroneous Assumptions

After our parents die we are left alone in silence with own erroneous perceptions.

Mine was always about failure, and fucking up.

My sister saw through me, kindly, empathetically.

She said she had a secret, inside scoop on the property that might benefit me. “You are the favorite architect. I know it. Don’t ask me how,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll come up to Van Nuys and look at it,” I promised.

“Not tomorrow though. I have to go pay some bills that are past due at DWP and The Gas Company. If it weren’t for a lovely friend my water and power would have been shut off yesterday,” she said.


Jardín Olvidado Avenue

The next Monday, I rode the Red Line up to North Hollywood, took a bus west, out to Van Nuys. I got off at Sepulveda.

That gentle morning, nature, after I stepped off the sealed bus, seemed so clean and earnest that it felt like a dirty trick.

I walked in sunshine, past sparkling curbs. The wind and the warm gusts felt so light, so breezy, so unburdened of Van Nuys. The public realm, so often abused, looked fastidious.

I stopped off at CVS on Erwin.

I picked up a bottle of Pine Sol, and a plastic container of bleach wipes. Housewarming presents for my sister.

 


Good Enough

Her stucco workman’s shack beckoned up an unpaved dirt path connecting Hamlin St. to Haynes St.

Stefanie never cleaned. And took pride in it. “We call it good enough, Norman and I. The dogs don’t care if you vacuum. And they love a little pee around the toilet,” she said.

But she had other worries besides housework.

She was chronically short of money.

Until now when a relief pitcher named Death stepped in and left funds.


Mrs. Grumpfel

At Haynes and Noble, I encountered a lumbering, middle-aged woman walking her well-groomed German Shepherd. The owner wore a black parka, men’s cargo pants, work boots and a face full of aggravation.

“I’m Alisa Grumpfel. You’re Zeke Kittridge,” she said. Her de-saturated blond hair was braided in two and pinned down. She had the demeanor of an affable prison guard at Dachau.

“Oh, hi—nice-to-meet-you. How the heck did you identify me?” I asked her.

“Facebook,” she said. “Around here you recognize a white face right away because they’re so rare!”

“Sit Rudolph sit!” she screamed. The dog licked my hand.

“Last night they arrested some homeless men sleeping on my property at 6517 Jardín Olvidado. Mexican scum. Illegals. Like rats in the sewer. Everywhere! Nobody reported it! All the Latinos saw them. They don’t talk to the police. We had helicopters flying over,” she said.

“How terrible for you,” I said.

“My great-grandfather Heinrich came from Bavarian royalty. He ran away from military service. But he came to America legally. He settled in Detroit and invented the windshield wiper! He made a contribution to his country! Now his granddaughter is a landlord for illegals!  Somebody has to speak up. Those animals think they have a right to graze on my land but they don’t! That’s what private property is! They aren’t Americans! But they throw THEIR rights in OUR face!”

“It’s a good piece of land. I could work with you,” I said.

“I’ve seen your Facebook page. I like your houses. I like your likes,” she said.

“Let’s talk soon,” I said, attempting to disentangle.

I walked into the house, leaving Mrs. Grumpfel and dog at the curb.


Mrs. Grumpfel’s Plan

Stefanie fixed me some over-cooked eggs with buttered, blackened toast. She served instant coffee in a red, lipstick rimmed, white mug. Flies circled around the breakfast table.

I sat, and she stood, leaning against the counter and speaking of the local tragedies: a waitress who had bypass surgery, an alcoholic screenwriter next door, a texting plumber crashing his truck into a cinderblock wall at Home Depot. Hers were stories of mediocrity squashed, potential wasted. Rote lives pounded under by the foot of fate.

I wondered if these tales were told to me as precaution or prediction.

After breakfast, we left the dirty plates on the table and walked over to 6517 Jardín Olvidado Avenue and climbed over a cyclone fence.

We beheld an abandoned lot with dead fruit trees, and a hollowed out ranch home with broken windows.

“Depressing,” she said. “I bet this was once a beautiful farm. What is wrong with this country?”

“I don’t know. I can see building a sustainable, lovely little group of houses around a common garden,” I said. “It’s not unique but it could work.”

“The owner might like that. It sounds quaint. But subversively modern,” she said.

“Alisa’s grandfather was the original inventor of the windshield wiper,” she said unexpectedly.

“She told me earlier. It must be quite an honor to come from that lineage,” I said.

She picked up a tree branch and waved it like a scepter. “Be gone ugliness!” she commanded.

“How long have you been friends with Alisa?” I asked.

“Since I moved here. I thought she was a mean lady at first. I had months where I couldn’t pay the rent and she gave me money. I never encountered such generosity and kindness. She was like a sister,” she said.

“She has a lot of friends in high places. She thinks of herself as quite an aesthete. She is a leader in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care at Bel Air Presbyterian.”


An Offer

As we walked back her house, my sister stopped. She turned to me and caressed my face. “You could move up here. Save money. Help me pay my rent. Get work with Alisa building and designing houses. Norman would like a man around here too. Consider it an offer that may expire soon,” she said opening her front door.

I stayed outside for a few minutes, near the front door, alone with my thoughts about the property and my plans. And I had yet another unpleasant conversation with defeat.

Then I wiped my shoes and went into the house, and grabbed a cold can of beer. I went into the backyard and sat down on a fat tree stump.

I decided, right there, to move up to Van Nuys. If I was going to dive in, I had to dive in.

Looking back now, I think I was driven that night more by masochism than ambition.


Movement

I painted my new bedroom in a tentative, non-committal gray-beige (Sherwin Williams’s Crushed Ice).

My days in La La Van were leisurely, lonely, and improvisational.

Norman went to school, Stephanie worked as an administrator at the VA, and I stayed in my room and drew up plans for houses.

I ate dinners with Norman. My sister often ate at McDonalds and went to evening meetings with the Planning and Land Use Committee of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.

She came home with fantastical tales of how Van Nuys Boulevard was soon to be remade by enormous light rail systems, lush landscaping, and organic markets. She spoke of decorative lighting and historic buildings. The rebirth of Van Nuys was prophesised by Reverend John Hainey, a retired postman and ordained minister who lorded over the VNNC.

Clearly, she, along with other spiritualists had some unfulfilled desire to make over the community as Stephanie was making over her brother.

Beyond her dirty dishes, her unmade bed, the dead mouse on the patio, and the wet leaves at the bottom of the refrigerator; beyond it all, she was a true beautification enthusiast.

 


Interludio Extraño

Alisa Grumpfel invited me to dinner at Interludio Extraño, a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

We ate strange little flatbreads covered in braised sweetbreads, flavored with stewed prunes, infused with weird vinegars, festooned with flowers, dropped atop the plate deliberately, feigning randomness.

Alisa wore a red baseball cap, silver cross, wide-ass denim jeans, and a green Christmas sweater with an embroidered Santa. Her sandals showed off cracked heels and purple painted toenails.

I was petrified other diners might out us as visitors from Van Nuys.

After three highballs, she began to pour seductive compliments on me.

“You’re a good-looking white man. You’re smart. You’re an artist. Let me help you build your dream.”

The dream dialogue came out of a woman’s mouth I had no intention of ever kissing. I smiled, and acted gentlemanly, knowing she might hire me.

After sharing a piece of hot chocolate cake and a melted scoop of almond ice cream, Alisa asked me if I would partner with her to build houses.

We walked, arm in arm, down 7th Street and stopped in front of an old stone and brick building with the name “Van Nuys” carved into a pediment above the entrance.

“I admire the way the old timers built,” she said.

I looked at my suburban benefactor in her Christmas sweater. I tried to separate my low opinion of her tackiness from her high architectural aims.


Walking with Norman

When the sun was hottest, I’d pull down the window shades and nap. I’d wake up for Norman when he got back from school around 3:30.

After cookies and milk, we often walked around the neighborhood conversing.

He was a taciturn boy, tall, thin and slouchy. He strode, looking down, with his hands in his pockets.

His father, craggy Don Paver, was gone for good, a pipe-smoking, wife-abusing, drug-injecting rebel from western Kentucky. When Norman was two, Don broke out of fatherhood like an escaping convict. After he tossed his duties along the road, he never returned, never sent a dime, never dropped a word of love or regret or explanation to his only son.

So here I was, a virtuous stand-in for Don Paver, in the fatherly role, pushed into it, performing like an amateur actor.

I had been just like Norman once: sullen and pissed off, aware of every single hypocrite and mad at anyone who didn’t get me. Somehow, now, the petulance of youth seemed wise to me, untarnished by the fake, cheery opportunism of adults.

“Did you know my dream is to get the fuck out of here? When I’m 18 I am going to move to New York City. Mom doesn’t know it. I’m leaving for good. I’ll wait tables since she can’t afford college,” he said.

We walked past houses with old cars, hoods open, parked in withered and neglected yards full of dogs on speed.

Obese teenagers in black stretch pants sat on the curb smoking pot; their plastic marijuana containers and food wrappers littered the street. Nothing was properly maintained: machine or human.

I looked at the surroundings and empathized with my nephew’s defeatism. But I, as an adult, had the duty, the noble duty, to deny the truth and blow out bromides.

“You’re young. You’ve got time. You’ll get out, but try to study and get good grades. Don’t you want to go to college? I think you’ve got lots of talent in so many things. Math, music, video editing,” I said.

I don’t want to die in obscurity in Van Nuys!” he said.

At Burnet St. we passed a rare sight: an LAPD car with a lone female officer parked along the curb.

It was Officer Samantha Sanchez, black hair tied back, latte colored skin, red lipstick and blue uniform. Her window was open, her manner was languid and disarming, she waved hello and we waved back.

“Hi Norman! Good to see you!” she said.

“Hello Officer Sanchez. Have a nice day,” he said. We walked on.

“That dear, sweet woman with a badge and a loaded gun,” he remarked acidly. “Last year I was drinking beer with a girl in Mom’s car and she busted us. Mom was not happy. I think Grumpfel called the police cause we were parked in front of her mansion.”

“You don’t like Alisa Grumpfel?” I asked.

“I know she has a crush on you. But she’s nothing but a rich cunt. She has everything, all the money in the world. But she has no man. So she’s bitter. Nobody is fucking her. So she hates all the minorities. She takes out her sexual frustration by being a bigot,” he said.

“But she gave your mom help when your mom needed it. She isn’t all bad,” I said.

“She’s like, here’s money for food. Now at least you don’t have to take food stamps. That would be degrading for a white woman. Seriously, she said that,” he said.

“I think she helped us because it made her feel virtuous. And she has this idea that all the minorities are lazy and if a white person is in trouble it must be an act of God. I have a horrible father who walked out on us. And now Mom and I are in debt to Grumpfel,” he said.

I had no answer for him. “I just have to be on good terms with her until the houses get built and we can sell them. I’m going to be fine. If you see her just smile and be polite,” I counseled.


The Next Door App

Grumpfel and I had formed Valley Time Homes, LLC, a name she chose which sounded to me like a bowling league. My whole world of work and family was now confined to a few blocks in Van Nuys.

Nine months into the project, I posted some preliminary drawings of the houses on Monday at 2:40pm.

Walkable, sensitively sited, each home was solar-powered with water saving plants. I thought, from my vantage point behind my laptop, I would be showered with compliments.

“Where is the parking?” was the first comment by Becky Shlockhaus.

“I hope not on my street!” added Mark Holdupp.

Kellie Barfolo complained about little houses as a drag on property values.

“You put this up in the middle of the day? My son and his wife work two jobs and have no time to post on Next Door at two in the afternoon! Maybe you need to work at a real job. Try Target or Costco!” Miranda Beagle-Pinscher wrote.

Tam Sinkdrayne said organic gardens attracted rats. She did not like the idea of planting orange and walnut trees. “First you plant fruit trees and the next thing you’ll want pigs and we’ll have a hog farm around the corner!”

Yves Dropper-Hopp, a “Deputized Government Monitor”, whose avatar was a smoking cigar, said zoning law required bigger homes with “at least three car garages.”

Martin Guerrero, a self-described “traditional Hispanic Catholic working man” said it sounded like a liberal commune and “anti-family.”

Rhonda Peevosky and Jackie DeZay objected to the idea of a communal area. “If you have a bunch of people sharing a garden who is going to pay for the gardeners? And where is everyone going to park? What if there is a party? You’ll have cars spilling out everywhere!”

After all my months of working, planning, and designing, my first foray into public comment was demoralizing.

Stefanie, tired, red-eyed, back from work, walked in the house and looked at my face. “What’s wrong?”

“A lot of angry comments about the houses on Next Door,” I said.

She threw her backpack on the couch and took off her shoes.

“I’m not surprised. Nobody is happy these days. They all hate their work. Even if a project benefits them they want to destroy it. Especially if they think someone else can make a profit. Did you hear from Miranda Beagle-Pinscher? She is the worst,” she said.

“Didn’t people, I mean Americans, used to believe in making things better? Better houses, better schools, better communities?” I asked.

“Now you just sound naïve brother,” she said.

She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

 


Bulldozers and Champagne

“Tonight I have a little green something for you,” Alisa told me as we sat on the patio around her pool drinking champagne.  She handed me an envelope with my name on it and poured more champagne into our glasses.

We had started construction of the houses, and, per our agreement, she had paid me a few thousand for design. I was now acting as general contractor, hiring out electricians, plumbers, carpenters.

“Let us toast to the progress we are making. And let us sell some homes!” she said.

“I finally feel like a real Californian. Building houses, putting down roots, it feels good,” I said.

“Nobody really knows what makes a real Californian,” she said wistfully. “It used to be you knew a real man, a real woman, a real Westerner. Now it’s all muddled,” she said.

“They usually are beautiful and disturbed. At least in Los Angeles,” I joked. But it was nervous laughter.

It was windy that night.

The air was desert dry, and somewhere someone was burning wood.

Distant sirens rode in on the wind.

A premonition of danger, disquieting the evening, hit me with unease.

Old reckless me, younger, had been through nights like this before, when I went out drinking, and came home thirsty, passing out and awakening to broken glass and some woman screaming out in the alley.

Alisa sensed me. She looked at me. So I looked away at the swimming pool, at the underwater lights, at the pumped-in bubbles.

“I’m worried. I don’t think we’ll sell these houses,” I said.

“I’m rich. So I’m used to worrying about money,” she said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“There is a terrible fragility to privilege. You think it’s a breeze to be born into money? It isn’t. It has its own kind of suffering,” she said. “You might have money in the bank but you don’t have love at home.”

I hoped this was not leading to a proposal. My instincts to degrade myself kicked in.

“What do you see in me?” I asked her. “I think I’m inconsequential. I’m surprised you wanted to hire me.”

She folded her arms and shook her head.

“You want to screw up. You want things to turn out badly. That way you confirm that you aren’t any good. You have been a defeatist all along. You believe any rotten thing people say about our homes. You don’t defend the good ideas you have. Now you come to me and tell me you think nobody will buy them,” she said.

“If you think I’m a negative person, why did you come after me and lure me into our partnership?” I asked.

“I lured you? You were lost. I’ve befriended your sister for years. I saw her rotten marriage crumble. I saw her cry. I saw her struggle. And I never once saw you visit her. You didn’t come out to comfort her, you never thought about her troubles,” she said.

Her charges were exasperating.

“All you women! All you do is call out men for what they are!” I said in a fit.

“I’m just speaking the truth,” she said.

She went over to the barbecue, opened the hatch, removed the grate and dumped a bag of charcoal in. She poured on lighter fluid, poked the coals, lit a match, and stood back from the flames.

And then she handed me a plate of raw hamburger patties.

“You do the grill,” she said.


 You’re the Enemy!

“You wonder why I sound racist. Even though I’m the most tolerant woman on Earth,” Alisa said the next morning.

We were standing, with LAPD Officer Sanchez and Hector Garbanzo from Councilwoman Felicia Romero’s office, in front of our construction site, looking at spray painted gang signs (“BVN”) on the fence.

Young, stocky Hector was dressed in a tucked-in blue shirt stuffed into poly-cotton khakis, black hair slicked over his tanned head. He spoke apologetically and officiously.

“We don’t tolerate this. You are building some fine homes. We completely support you. And now, you have to deal with destruction and vandalism. I’m ashamed, quite honestly as a community leader and as a Hispanic. This is not what Van Nuys represents,” he said.

“You said you have a security camera video that may have captured the incident?” Officer Sanchez asked Alisa.

“Yep. I sure do. I know this happened last night sometime before dark. I drove by here at 6pm on my way to eat dinner and it wasn’t there. Then when I went past at 8pm it was up here,” Alisa said.

“Can I look at the video?” Officer Sanchez asked.

“I’ll email it. Right now,” Alisa said pounding her mobile.  “After you identify the garbage I hope you march right over to his house and arrest him. No doubt he is an illegal! And I’m sure his parents are too and they can all be deported! I’m not racist! I’m a law-abiding citizen. I’m sick of all the crap they bring here.”

Officer Sanchez’s phone beeped. “Ok. Let me go over to my car, sit down and look at the video.” She walked back to her squad car as we waited.

“Once again my apology. I’m going to talk to Councilwoman Romero and see how we can protect property owners from this. You shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Hector said.

He extended his hand to me and we shook.

Alisa turned away, folded her arms and ignored him.

He left and waved at me and made a thumbs up gesture.

Alisa eyed him with malice.

“Sanchez, Garbanzo, Romero! A lot of good it will do having them on our side. I remember when the only time you spoke about Garbanzo was when you were opening a can of beans,” Alisa said.

Officer Sanchez walked back and rejoined us.

“I am quite certain I know the boy who tagged your fence,” she said. “As a matter of fact he lives a few houses from here. Would you like to come with me to talk to him?”

“Oh you are the answer to my prayers! I want to press charges. If possible I’ll bring a lawsuit against his parents if he has any! I’ll make them pay for this!” Alisa said.

We walked down Haynes Street, with Alisa leading the way, and walked like vigilantes, ready to pull the suspect out, and hang him up, by rope, on the tree.

My heart beat faster anticipating a confrontation with the lawbreaker.

And then we stopped in front of my sister’s rental home, my current home. Officer Sanchez turned to me and Alisa.

“That boy on the video is Norman. Do you want me to proceed?” Sanchez asked.

Alisa gasped and covered her mouth in horror.

“It can’t be! Let me hear it out of that boy’s mouth! He’s a good kid. He has had a little trouble but he is no gang member!” Alisa protested.

“Let me bring him out,” I said.

I went into the house, alone, and found Norman sitting in the dark, on the living room floor, looking out the window, watching Alisa and the cop.

“Fuck both of them! I hope they arrest me,” he said.

“Why did you do that? Why? Don’t you know you’re hurting me too?” I asked.

“I’m trying to hurt everyone! Especially bigots, and especially cops! You shouldn’t be pals with them. You aren’t your own man! You build houses with a Nazi. And I am fighting gentrification, fighting people who want to improve Van Nuys and throw me and Mom out on the streets!” he said.

“You and your mom are going to be the new owners of one of the houses! You are the beneficiary of my good fortune. You God-Damned, spoiled, ignorant brat! You are luckier than 99% of all the people in Van Nuys!”

Alisa walked into the living room. “Norman Kittridge. Get up. Stand up and tell me why you vandalized and ruined our fence! Get up and answer me!” She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up, pushed him against the wall and whacked him across the face with a furious slap.

He started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I have my reasons. I am fighting for justice and against developers. You’re the enemy. I’m sorry to say it,” he said.

And then he ran out of the room.

Alisa looked at me and shook her head. “This is what happens when you take God out of the public schools. I’m just going to pray for him. And let his mother take a leather belt to him,” she said.


My Own Epitaph

Stephanie and Norman bought into one of the four houses, and the other three eventually sold.

It was a drawn out couple of years, an experience that thrust a single, childless, semi-employed man into a family drama that yielded something some call progress.

I went to see Stephanie one Sunday after she had moved into her new house. My sister was living in my architectural creation. I was proud. But I knew how she lived. She was no rendering. She was a slob.

And in the high ceilinged room I saw spider webs on the beams above. The bamboo wood floors were caked with mud and there were French fries crushed underfoot. The 30’ long seamless white countertop was cluttered in newspapers, sliding glass doors were filthy with fingerprints, and window screens torn by dog paws.

I tried to suppress my architectural imagination and enter into reality.

“Are you happy here sis?” I asked

“Oh, it’s so wonderful. Look at it. It’s a dream. So clean and modern and functional,” she said.

“What else is new?” I asked.

“Well Alisa is in love,” she said.

“No kidding. Well some man is going to be very well taken care of,” I said.

“Man?” she laughed. “Alisa is gay. She has a new girlfriend!”

“No way! The whole time we worked together I thought she was after me. I thought I knew her!” I said.

“You are so naïve brother. There’s more to people than just surfaces,” she said.


Everything Once Looked So Ideal

I was driving in my convertible in West Los Angeles last October around dusk. And I passed a new white school not far from the light rail along Olympic. The building was smooth and glossy, low and long, and punctuated by a tall, rectangular tower.

There were solar paneled overhangs installed over the parking area. And graduated, curving paths for the disabled slithered into landscaped mounds wrapped around water fountains and polymer illuminated bollards.

It looked so ideal.

My project in Van Nuys was long completed and I had moved to Venice. I met a blond woman who wore chambray shirts. She owned a hair salon near the beach. She needed a lover and an architect so I was hired.

I drew up plans for her place and proposed a photo studio, a coffee bar, and a garden in back. It was going to be so chic and so private, and so exclusive. I was in a new place, professionally, geographically and romantically.

We lived together for a few months and then we had a falling out. We broke up over sushi.

Everything once looked so ideal.

I was recruited for work, saved from indolence, promised rewards.

But here I was again.

In the car, and looking out.

END

3/17/17

 

 

 

 

“Post-Men”

Fort Sheridan, IL

When did American men stop being men? Once upon a time, they strode this continent with inviolate manhood. Conquering the West, they killed and hunted and cut paths through forests and grasses. On top of horses, or on the rails, they rode unopposed by lesser mortals in a vast march to the Pacific. They built cities of stone and iron, dams to stop the mighty rivers, and took to the air like eagles. Men hung heads of animals they killed on walls, and drank jugs of whisky until they passed out. From Boston Harbor to Death Valley, they built the most noble and valorous civilization that history ever created.
* * *
The Mall is the place where they gather every weekend. The young and affluent North Shore of Chicago converges on Northbrook Court. Like a cattle drive, hordes of SUV’s pour down Edens Highway and head for the vast, untamed parking lot on Lake-Cook Road. Hungry for adventure, seeking trophies and displays of wealth, the suburban hunter-gatherers and many who make their killing at the Board of Trade, put down their credit cards and walk away with the greatest assortment of riches available in the world.

These lucky Americans are the inheritors of those who laid down their lives at Omaha Beach, in Korea and in the swamps of Vietnam to preserve freedom. The beneficiaries of these soldiers of democracy are often seen on weekends making their way into the cozy and bland confines of the apparel smart “Banana Republic” store.

Inside the well-merchandised bi-sexual emporium little Emily and Zoe and Max and Dylan romp around the bleached blond wood floors as their parents try on solid colored robot garments in every shade of black, grey and dark brown. Scented candles in vanilla and lavender fill the air with a calming aroma. Soft lights flatter men who are persuaded and cajoled and belittled into wearing ribbed and solid crew necks and v-necks and flat front trousers and dark shoes. The guys, for the most part, have short trimmed hair, with just a dab of gel. The wives are aerobically thin, hydrated and slick. The Banana Republicans wear a uniform: prosperous, understated, cyber smart. These folks, are no longer very young, not quite middle aged. This store is a state of mind. It embodies a state of corporate caution.

Charles and Diana Spence belong to this club. Married seven years, the couple has one 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. They live in the town of Fort Sheridan, a former military base on the shores of Lake Michigan that has now been sensitively redeveloped for the Land Rover and Volvo set in shades of muted green. Residences are carved out of old officer’s quarters in homely yellow Chicago brick now lushly planted with elms, maples, hostas, and ivy. Ornate cast iron lampposts stand like sentries on curving streets paved in cobblestone. The train station is but a walk from the homes, and like the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a privileged few are allowed to live in exurbia with all of the commuting conveniences.

Charles has been out of Notre Dame for almost 15 years now. He played fullback at the fightin’ school and took his testosterone and Celtic manliness to the Board of Trade where he managed to build a successful career as a commodities broker. Six feet tall, 205 pounds, green eyed and auburn haired, he has a sharp jaw that could slice a sirloin steak. Yet his manner is as convivial as his practical jokes. He likes people, likes to kid around and if he had his way would probably just go fishing in Oshkosh every weekend rather than walk around Northbrook Court.

He met his wife when he went shopping for a suit at Marshall Fields on Michigan Avenue. He walked into the men’s department and was immediately confronted by a blonde, confident salesperson. Diana Jakowski was only 26, but she was already the highest grossing employee in her area. She had green eyes, and a navy woolen suit and took him by the arm to the 46 regular suits. She had already sized her future husband up.

“I’m looking for a 44 regular dark gray suit,” he said.
“Take off your coat. You’re a 46,” she said.
“OK. But I’m not a 46,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” she answered, “Here this is a Hickey Freeman. It’s a little loose in the shoulders which is just fine for you.” He put on the dark gray pinstriped jacket. She walked around front and grabbed his lapels and slid her hands down to button the top of the coat. He felt like a little boy getting dressed by mommy.
“See, I told you lady. I’m swimming in it.”

“Did you ever hear of a tailor? We have the best in the city. Mr. Piaggi. Your waist is about a 33, and your jacket is definitely a 46. Your traps are pulling your shoulders.”
“OK,” he said. “Bring out Mr. Piaggi. I want a man’s opinion.”

She wasn’t insulted. She liked his assertiveness and refusal to be pushed into buying a suit. “Mr. Piaggi!” she yelled. Piaggi– a short, older and elegant Italian gentleman– walked out with a tape measure. He stuck the numerical string at the back of Charles’ shoulders. He opened the coat and measured the waist again.

“Perfecto. Now please try on the trousers,” Piaggi said.
“If you’re wearing boxers sir,” she instructed, “Please remember that you cannot wear briefs if we measure you for boxers.”
He looked at her directly. “I’m not wearing any underwear today.” She looked down at his crotch. “Yes. I can see you’re right.”
He bought two suits that day. He also purchased three dress shirts, five neckties, and some socks. Diana asked him for his driver’s license when he got ready to pay. “Oh, you live on North Avenue near Clark. We’re neighbors,” she said. “Give me your number Diana,” he ordered.

They went out and discovered that they had a lot of things in common. They were both Catholics. She was part Irish and Polish and he was Irish and German. He grew up in Arlington Heights and she came from Edgebrook, on the Northwest Side of Chicago. She went to school at a small Catholic girls college in Kansas but dropped out and became a retail sales clerk at 21. He attended Notre Dame on a football scholarship and barely graduated due to his poor grades. They both loved sports. He had season’s tickets to the Cubs. She was a big Bulls fan. They loved beer. He drank Becks and she liked Kirin. They took showers two times a day and kept their cars scrupulously clean. They believed in the Church, but disagreed with everything the Church advocated. He wanted to succeed very badly in business, and show up his older brother. She wanted to make lots of money and show off her success to friends. They were aggressive, motivated, honest, hard working, athletic, clean minded, sexually driven. They married only six months later, honeymooned in Hawaii and moved back to Chicago and rented a two-bedroom apartment on Fullerton and Broadway near Lincoln Park.

In the early years of their marriage, they fought a lot. What interests they had in common were opposite to how they lived in private. She was organized. He threw his clothes on the floor. She had all of her receipts in files, he crumpled bills in his pockets and never cleaned out his wallet. He liked to dress in t-shirts and torn jeans after work. She was forever after him to dress up nicer. He never cleaned the house. She dusted every day.

More than once she had threatened to leave him. He had answered that he would rather live alone than be bossed around. She often burst into tears, and he would hug her, and then she might slap him, and he would get angry, and they would slam doors, and he would sleep on the couch, and then he’d wake up and enter the bedroom and crawl under the sheets with her and they’d end up making love and making up.

Friends like Sari Garentz, a sweet Jewish girl from Skokie who worked with Diana at Fields, adored Charles. He was just so sexy, so masculine, so playful, so funny. Diana’s stories of their fights and problems didn’t ring true with Sari. One Wednesday, Sari and Diana went out to lunch and were walking along Michigan Avenue when Sari suggested they stop off at Banana Republic.

The ladies eyed a table full of solid colored ribbed sweaters in such colors as black, dark gray, dark brown and dark blue. “Every guy looks great in one of these,” said Sari. Diana picked up a brown one. “My husband is too buff for this. Even XXL is going to be small on him.” Sari picked up a blue model. “Well, I’m going to buy Andy one. I hate it when he wears those horrible Western Shirts. He still has a closet of those awful rhinestone and embroidered Gene Autry shirts. Boots, Stetson hats, bandanas—in Chicago! Coming from Colorado he thinks he has to dress like a rodeo cowboy. Well he’s gonna wear Banana Republic from now on!”

Diana picked up the sweater again and pulled and stretched it. “I just don’t know. It’s so conservative. I think he’ll look just like every other guy in his early 30’s.” Sari rolled her eyes. “If you let him dictate what clothes he wants to wear, he’s going to dress like a slob. Your husband is gorgeous. I wish mine was half as sexy as yours. But you have to dress him up. You have to make him into the man you want him to be.” Diana bought the advice and the sweater.

The Lure of the Suburbs

They had been living on Fullerton Avenue for four years. One evening, Charles came home with a real estate magazine. There had been vague talk and rumblings almost inaudible of children and schools and “more space.” The double income couple lived quite well, their industriousness and energy had been marshaled into moneymaking and now they had the resources to choose where to live.

“Honey,” he said, “Look at this house in Evanston.”
She walked over to him and looked at color photo of a 1920’s Tudor home for 2.5 million. “Nice. If we move to Evanston, that wouldn’t be too far from downtown,” she said.
“Oh,” he said jokingly, “You do want to move. Last week you told me that Sari and Andy and Steve and Lisa loved it downtown and that you would never move to the dull suburbs.”
“I want to move to a nice town. But I don’t want to commute for two hours every day and raise a child. That’s why I like living here,” she said.
“Then we won’t move.” he said.
“We can’t raise a child in this small place?” she protested.
“What the hell! First you say we could move then you don’t want to move. Make up your mind,” he said.

Fort Sheridan

It was Sari who told Diana about an old army base that had closed down and was now being redeveloped with “exclusive homes.” Fort Sheridan, named after Civil War General Phillip Henry Sheridan, was going to preserve the historic architecture and landscaping of the “prairie style” while adding stylish and upscale new homes.

One Saturday afternoon, Sari and Charles and Diana drove up to Fort Sheridan home so they could scout it out.
What Diana saw was not only the beautiful grounds, and historic buildings, but her kind of people: white, pretty, thin and rich.

Two months later, Charles and Diana moved into Fort Sheridan. Sari and Andy chose a “Parade Ground” home with five bedrooms, approximately 5,400 square feet of living area and an attached three-car garage. Charles and Diana bought a “Deluxe Parade Ground” model that featured a fireplace in the master bathroom. What luxury!

Diana and Charles had a longer commute, but they had their best friends to keep them company way up in the burbs.

Baby Time

One humid June Saturday , Andy and Charles were driving back up Edens Highway after attending a Cubs game. At the Willow Road, Andy pulled his Explorer off the road. “Hey, Chuck. We’re going to have a baby!”

“That’s great news buddy!” Chuck said. He smiled broadly but in his heart he dreaded the consequences of this announcement and Diana’s reaction.

Diana reacted politely when Andy and Charles told her the news a half hour later. Andy left and Diana was free to tell Charles that she resented that her best friends had beaten her to conception. Diana had a fine house, a great job, a socially acceptable husband. The baby was next.

Saturday night Charles was at home but his mind was at Wrigley Field. He was still thinking about Delino DeShields hitting his game-opening homer and Moises Alou with that double that drove in two runs. Diana was cleaning, her usual behavior when she was preoccupied. The 10pm WBBM sportscaster was reviewing the game when Diana turned on the vacuum.

Charles shouted, “Turn off that damn thing Diana!”

She pulled the plug out of the wall and started winding the cord tightly around the Hoover. “You saw the game this afternoon. Can’t you pay attention to me tonight?”

“OK. Let’s go out Diana,” he said.
“Fine. Where should we go at 10 pm in the suburbs?” She asked.
“The lake. Let’s take a walk down to the lake,” he answered.
The night was balmy, the summer humidity still hung in the air. They walked outside, not even locking the doors behind them.
The moon cast its glow over the waters and calmed their nerves. “Do you still love me?” Diana asked. He looked her in the eye. “Sometimes.”

Later that night, they returned home and made love. Diana is convinced that her elevated hormones that June evening were the reason Elizabeth was conceived.

March of Time

Sari Garentz had Jayson (with a y) Ariel on February 5th. Elizabeth Montgomery Spence was born on March 30th (the middle name honored Montgomery Ward, the first store Diana had worked in).

Jayson looked like Sari, dark haired with “knowing eyes”. The son would seem to emulate his mother in looks and love, and the boy, as Charles said, “is being smothered.” The spelling of the name annoyed Diana, but she told Sari that it was unique and kind of cute.

Elizabeth was chubby and blonde and laughed a lot. Sari told Andy that Diana fed her baby too much and that the “kid was going to be obese.” Andy was bored with both his own baby and Elizabeth and longed to go back to Colorardo to ride in a rodeo.

It was a secret life and fantasy that Andy Garentz had. He was outwardly a prosperous Chicago dentist, but inwardly he hadn’t left his Western upbringing behind. His dad had been a Jewish cowboy in Durango, Colorado and Andy grew up with horses, dust, saddles, mountains and steaks on the campfire. It was a soft and constricting adjustment to live in the polished confines of the suburban North Shore of Chicago where barbecue flames were delivered by natural gas and steak came from Dominicks wrapped in plastic.

He had met Chicago girl Sari Sethbart at the University of Colorado. She was the only Jewish girl he had ever dated, because he was the only Jewish boy in his high school. He thought he would marry her, move back to Illinois temporarily and then set up practice back in Colorado. Yet luxury and malls and family and passivity glued them, like so many, to the Land of Lincoln.

Diana and Charles continued to live with their new baby in Fort Sheridan. Sometimes Charles would conjure up a secret fantasy life, where he was back at Notre Dame and just hanging out with the guys. He had no responsibility, and no schedule, no nagging expectations. He just did what the hell he felt like. He imagined a life where he never married and never had a daughter and remained a free spirit. But it was just a thought, that’s all.
# # #