I’ve never felt like a proper Californian, and I don’t know that I ever will. I moved here in my early 30’s, a bit too late in life to shake my upbringing. I do have some credentials now- our daughter was born on up at Parnassus, overlooking the Golden Gate, both park and bridge, but the fact of the matter is, I’m a born and bred Midwesterner.
I should note that I’m the only one in my family able to stake a claim on this, although the privilege is dubious. My parents are immigrants, on both sides of the British Raj, dad from Calcutta, and mom from the Cotswold’s in England. Even my brother was born in London. Me though, I’m Midwest from the get go, and I’m having trouble adapting to these West coast ways, particularly the whole ‘find a job’ ‘pay the rent’ and ‘raise a child’ ones.
I grew up in Michigan, but most recently was living in Chicago. It’s on Lake Michigan, and only a few miles from the MI boarder, and the weather is equally as foul, so it’s all the same to me. I suppose it feels like home because it is where my adult life was born- my first real job as a teacher, two long-term girlfriends that I believed would end in marriage- and didn’t- and all the other merit badges of adulthood. It was during my first year of teaching, when I met Bob.
Now, Bob is hands-down one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He’s of Nigerian descent- his parents are also immigrants- but he, like me, grew up in Midwest suburbia. He, like me, doesn’t look the part- he has very long fingers, and not an ounce of body fat. He has a physique like a marathon runner, and if you look closely, you’d see that he is covered head-to-toe in tattoos, although his skin is so dark it is not immediately obvious. He has his nose pierced and had, throughout the time that I’ve known him, dreadlocks, a shorn-to- skin scalp, and a Mohawk. He manages to look both polished and thuggish at the same time. He also has cadence to his speech that is animated, enthusiastic, and decidedly un-urban. He has a Masters degree in psychology, believes it is possible that extra-terrestrial reptilian overlords have infiltrated the government, spent some time drinking his own urine for ‘therapeutic effects’ and has worked restraining behaviorally disruptive kids, counseled Vietnam veterans, and moonlighted as an uncertified massage therapist. He is, in short, a hodge-podge of contradictions. He was also my roommate for most of the time I lived in Chicago.
We met at a housing co-op in Hyde Park, a tony part of town boasting of a world class University, the mansion of Louis Farrakhan and the parks that hosted the 1893 Worlds Fair; where Cracker Jack, the Tesla Coil, the Ferris Wheel and the tune from ‘there’s a place in France, where the naked ladies dance” were all introduced to the world. It is also bordered on three sides by some of the poorest ghettos on Chicago’s south side. It is an island of academic and cultural idealism, and the riff raff regularly infiltrates its borders to remind the residents what ‘multiculturalism’ really means.
The co-op consisted of two apartment blocks side by side. We all had ‘units’- apartments really- but we still acted as a functioning cooperative with all-house meetings, shared meals and chores, and common space. The co-op didn’t last. It, as an entity, was trying to expand the amount of space and the number of residents by planning to convert each unit’s living room into an extra bedroom.
“How will (we) pay for this?” we asked.
“Well, (we) thought we’d use security deposits for the initial funding-“
“WAIT, what?!? Who decided this? And where will (we) live while construction was being done?”
The treasurer was an authentic flower child named Star who was dodging student loans from the 70’s. Whether or not this had anything to do with the budget being slim and unaccounted shortfalls- who can say for sure. All (we) knew was that (we) were pissed, and the most vocal opponent was Bob.
“Goddam it!” he shouted off our back stairwell. “ I’m having an anti-commune party! Who’s with me?”
Chicago buildings are blockish deals, crammed together like rows of dominos. The need for recreational space was solved- no doubt by savvy urban planners- by adding wooden stairwells and covered porches on the outsides of buildings. Since all units in a building need access to the porches ‘o’ fun, each level is connected by a zigzag staircase, the result being that in most residences, you can creep up and down the stairs and watch your neighbors have sex, cook dinner, clean the cat box, whatever, as long as you are discreet and the stairs don’t creek. During daylight hours, it also lends to a sense of community among residents- you all have to use the same stairs threading through your patios, and so you are forced to socialize.
In the housing co-op, the effect was multiplied. We all knew each other anyway, and had no reserves about just shouting to each other from whatever level we were at. It became an unofficial ‘relax’ zone, a place where you could say whatever you wanted without worrying about ‘group dynamics’ or ‘consensus’ or ‘meeting protocol’.
“Who wants a fucking beer?” Bob shouted to both sets of stairwells. “They’re free, here at the anti-fucking-commune party!”
I should note that Bob doesn’t drink all that much- the line between super-fun tipsy guy and puking in the gutter is very thin for him- but when he does, it’s always great fun.
“Yessir, beers are free here at the anti- commune!” He gathered a crowd of 20+ dissidents, no short order for a commune of 50.
(We) had our evening, bitched and moaned, and called it an evening after a pleasant skinny-dip in Lake Michigan. Still, the next morning, someone still had our security deposit, and things weren’t looking good. It was time to start the apartment search.