My Summer Vacation

by rthieme on July 8, 2006

[The line between fiction and non-fiction is sometimes easy to discern, sometimes not. In this case, not. Names are always changed, of course, to protect the not-so-innocent. Someone might note that I had jobs every year with the city of Chicago while attending Northwestern University thanks to Alderman Tom Rosenberg, later a judge, with whom my mother happened to go to school when they were young, and the alderman did live in a high rise that was fifty per cent taller than the ones around, the builders having received a zoning dispensation, and I did think someone meant my precinct captain, Kitty, when they asked if I wanted to be a precinct captain …  but (1) that’s coincidental and (2) Chicago is Chicago, Illinois is Illinois, and what’s so is what’s so. The major difference I note between politics in Chicago and politics in Milwaukee is that the larger city does deals on the top of the table, you put down money and say what you want and negotiate from there, and everybody knows it, while in the smaller city, all that happens under the table, and everybody knows that too, but on top of the table, there is the pretense of a different kind of culture, as if human nature had stopped at the state line.

All that gesturing and stuff under the table distorts what people look like. The more so because they pretend that it doesn’t.

That’s why Chicago was great practice for living anywhere else. One knows how things are done, and if one happens to live where pretending that they aren’t is more important, that just gives an advantage to those who know “what’s so.”

Maybe that’s why Rules for Radicals, written by Saul Alinsky, a community organizer and a great Chicago guy, was so helpful for doing parish ministry. I never forgot Alinsky’s admonition to take moralistic self-serving statements at less than face value because the bottom line is that everyone is self-interested. In parishes, where moralistic statements are often the norm, that advice was always useful. Just because people didn’t know why they did what they did or could not name it out loud if they did, did not mean that they didn’t do it.

This story was published in Timber Creek Review in the summer of 2006 and included in an anthology of “summer vacation” stories by Whortleberry Press in 2008. ]

My Summer Vacation

by Richard Thieme

The summer I was eighteen was hot and humid. We squinted all the time from the sun and from perspiration running into our eyes. Everything looked blurred, and bottom line, we couldn’t see very well. We moved through the world as much by touch as by sight, as much by habit as by design.

Nobody knows at eighteen what is given, what received. Foreground and background interpenetrate one another in indeterminate ways. There was not a whole lot of truth, anyway, so we just did what we could. We had to figure it out by ourselves.

After my freshman year in college, I needed a summer job. The best jobs were real jobs, not summer jobs, so that’s what I applied for.

Even then, we used the Net, but we didn’t know it. We did things the way we did them without awareness of what we did. What we call the internet now, that vast network of truths, half-truths and outright lies, was manifest through a different interface, one made of books, printed pages, and above all, conversation, not through a knowledge engine arranging data in luminous panels. Despite radio, television and a telephone system not yet in orbit, information seemed to move about as fast as we could speak.  Our voices drawled like a record going slower. When we walked, our thighs moved slowly as if in thick molasses. Nobody ran marathons or jogged for fun, nobody rode a bike wearing day-glo spandex. When we had to go downtown, we took the bus.

Jerry Snyder lived in the next apartment. During dinner we listened to his step-father screaming through the thin wall. Jerry once caught my mother with her ear to the wall, doing her version of hacking. A glass on the flowered wallpaper constituted a primitive sniffer.

Jerry said I could get a job at the home office of Community Stores. One of the first discount operations, Community Stores reeked cheap. Jerry was a cashier at the store on Halsted and when we needed cash, I returned merchandise straight from the shelf to his register. If an apprentice was watching, Jerry would give him a fifty and tell him to go get change. Then he refunded the full amount, I cashed in the receipt and we split the cash.

So when Jerry said there were jobs downtown, I went downtown.

I loved riding the bus through the park to the Loop. In summer girls wore short skirts or dresses and sat on the side seats, hands in their laps. their bare legs pale and crossed at the ankles. I sat across from them when I could, helpless and adoring in the white-hot silence of my hidden lust.

The buses were loud; engines roared, brakes screeled, the driver shouted the names of stops. Clouds of exhaust rolled like smoke down the crowded streets. I lived in a second floor apartment overlooking a bus stop, so I never used an alarm clock. I used stopping busses or, in winter, steam pounding through the cold pipes, the buses kind of a snooze alarm.

oak-street-beachThe city was our playground. We didn’t realize that either, then. We just played, all unknowing. Chicago was progressive jazz, the Mayor and Playboy. The Playboy thing was just getting under way. We knew a girl from high school who posed for the cover and lived in the mansion. She told us how Hef invited her upstairs for a ride on his revolving bed. She told us how he liked to do it. She talked about the all-night Monopoly games, Shel Silverstein, Lenny Bruce and how these two sisters, Toni and Sydney,maddox2 would throw ice cream at him when he was high, all of them naked and wild and screaming.

The bus slowly rocked through the waking playground. I was a passenger. I was asleep.

The offices of Community Stores were west of the loop. I found the building and  walked up wide wooden stairs. Street noise and soot through open windows, standing fans stirring the hot air. Everything wood, walls and floors and chairs banging on the floor when you moved them under fluorescents to fill out forms and wait until your name was called.

Mine was called.

I went into an office and sat across from a woman named Gladys. “So you like arithmetic?” she said, looking over my application. “You like working with numbers?” I nodded. She shifted in her blue flowered sack, her large breasts and corrugated chest uninviting. “You finished a year of college. But you’re not going back?”

“No,” I lied. “We don’t have the money. I have to work.”

She looked at me closely. “Your grades are good,” she said. “The job means using a calculator, totaling receipts. Not accounting exactly but if you learn, there’ll be a better job in maybe a year.”

“Sounds great,” I said. “I love working with numbers.”

So the next day I showed up at eight-thirty and crunched numbers on a calculator until five. I did the same the day after that and the day after that. I sat at a desk with a calculator, stacks of paper and a black telephone, totaling numbers all day, every day.

By the middle of the second week, I was going nuts with boredom. My mother said she could call Nate Rose, the Alderman. Years ago, they had gone to school together downstate; he could probably get me a job with the city.

The next day, she called at work.

“Alderman Rose said go to the park district office and apply as a landscape engineer.”

“An engineer?”

“That’s just the title. It’s picking up trash, cutting the grass.”

“OK,” I said.  “I’ll call in sick tomorrow.”

I went back to calculating totals. Ten minutes later the doorway was filled with the short stocky body of Maurice Zayre, my ultimate boss.  I didn’t know his title, only that he stood every day in the doorway in his shirtsleeves, head glistening, smiling at my apparent progress. I guess he was happy to find someone not returning to school. That morning, however, he was not smiling.

“So,” he said. “You’re looking for another job?”

I looked up. I looked around for a lie that might work but didn’t see one. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you’re looking for another job. You’re fired. Get your check and get out.”

I thought a telephone conversation was between the people on the line. I didn’t know that everything you said at work was owned by the company. That’s when I learned they could listen to personal calls. That’s when I learned that the network wasn’t what I thought.

“Those assholes,” I complained to Jerry. “Can you believe they listened?”

“Of course,” he said. “Use a pay phone, always.”

The next morning I took a bus downtown again, this time to the south edge of the Loop, and walked from Michigan Avenue to the huge Park District office building near Soldier’s Field. I trudged up the steps and through the doors to an information desk.

“I’m here to apply for a job as a landscape engineer.”

She handed me a form. “Fill this out.” I did. Then she told me to take it upstairs to Room 22. I did that too. Inside the room was another woman at another desk. On the wall behind her was a picture of Mayor Richard J. Daley, looking prosperous in a blue suit. There was also a picture of John D’Arco, looking tough.

“You want a job as a landscape engineer?” she said, looking over the form. “Have you taken the test?”

“No.”

“OK,” she said, handing me a test booklet and a pencil. “Sit over there,” she
gestured toward a row of chairs with attached desks. “You have forty five minutes. Just do as much as you can.”

The test was twenty-seven pages of questions related to every aspect of landscape work. Botany questions, chemistry questions about fertilizers and soils, landscape architecture, how to maintain lawn mowers and care for tools. I was maybe half way through, guessing at answers, when she told me time was up.

I gave her the booklet and asked what happened next.

“We’ll call you if you get the job.”

But they didn’t call. I waited most of the week and finally my mother called the alderman and asked why we hadn’t heard. He asked for me.

“This is Alderman Rose,” he said. “Did you tell them I was your clout?”

My heart sank in the ink of its own stupidity as if a ballpoint pen had exploded all over. “No. I didn’t know.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Go back down there and this time, tell them Alderman Rose is your clout.”

So I went back downtown and up the same steps to the same woman at the same desk.

“I’m here to apply for a job as landscape engineer,” I said. “Alderman Rose is my clout.”

“Fill this out,” she said.

“I already did, “I told her. “Friday.”

“Do it again. It’s probably thrown away.”

I filled it out again and she told me, “Go upstairs to Room 22.”

In Room 22 the same woman, the same photo of the Mayor with the flag, the Ward Committeeman staring hard.

“I’m here to apply for a job as landscape engineer,” I said. “Alderman Rose is my clout.”

“You’ll have to take the test,” she said.

She pushed back from the desk and went to a corner of the office where some tools were leaning. She held one out.hoe1

“What’s this?”

“I don’t know. Some tool.”

“Close enough,” she said, standing it back in the corner. Returning to her desk, she stamped PASSED on the form. “For future reference,” she smiled, “it’s a hoe.”

She initialed the form and told me to expect a call that afternoon.

So I took the bus back home. After lunch a voice on the telephone asked if I was big enough to haul garbage, lift those big metal cans up to the truck.

“Sure,” I said.

“It’s good pay,” said the voice, “$414 a month less union dues, taxes. If you want, you can work every day until you go back to school. Then they’ll keep sending checks. Some kids never take a day off and get paid until Thanksgiving.”

He told me to report to the Grant Park barn on 11th Street and Columbus in the morning.

I rode the bus downtown again and walked over to the huge barn. Garbage trucks, machinery, lawn mowers, were lined up like artillery for battle. Guys in work clothes lounged around. My boss was a short guy with bright yellowish hair named Wally who, we later discovered, kept an immense plastic dildo in his pickup truck under the front seat (“I wasn’t looking for it,” Harry said, the kid from the south side who found it. “I dropped my candy bar, is all.”)

Wally gave me and Tiny, my partner for the morning, an orientation session.

“Tomorrow you’ll ride the garbage truck,” Wally said. “Today we need you to cut grass.”

We helped him load mowers into the back of his pickup truck and bounced on down the gravel path to a large meadow near the baseball fields. We unloaded the mowers and he gave us our orders.

“Cut this meadow,” he said. “Start on the far side, over there. Take half an hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. We leave the barn at three thirty. Capice?”

“What?”

“Do you understand?”

“Sure,” we nodded. Then Wally took off, and we revved up the mowers and got to work.

lincoln-parkIt was hot in the meadow and by the time of our first break I was soaked. Sweat filled my squinting eyes and made it difficult to see. I didn’t mow straight but I did mow hard, pushing across the huge meadow and back in crooked lines while Tiny – who was, of course, anything but Tiny, he was a huge smartass kid from Woodlawn – made parallel tracks. The sun rose high over the lake which burned like a sheet of flame. People passed on the walks like apparitions, distorted by perspiration. From time to time we paused, leaning on our machines, and people walked by as if we didn’t exist.

We sat in the shade at lunchtime and lounged in the tall grass. There were benches along the walk where girls from offices on Michigan Avenue ate lunch and we lay there and looked at their legs and listened to their chatter.

Tiny never stopped talking. He said how he fucked every girl he knew, what he would do, how he did it. He described how cool he was at getting them into bed. He talked about money too, how much he made on the side, things we could do, ways we could make some extra bucks.

one-brass-knuckle1“Take that guy Red,” he said, meaning this guy we met that morning at the barn. “You know what Red does, weekends?”

“No, what?”

“He collects loans, that’s what. He hangs with those guys over on Rush Street. You look at his knuckles when we get back. You’re big enough, he could get you some.”

The girls returned to their offices and we returned to cutting grass. Around three we started to walk back, pushing the mowers slowly down the gravel path toward the barn. In the distance we saw Wally’s pickup truck careening through the shadows. He braked up clouds of dust, stopping before us.

“Where the hell you guys been?” he stormed. “We got worried.”

“Where have we been? Cutting grass, that’s where.”

He stood there a moment. “Jesus Fucking Christ,” he said. “Show me what you did.”

We walked back to the meadow. Wally stood there wiping his forehead with a handkerchief, looking out over the lawn. Then he turned and said:

“You kids did the work of six men for a week. You do that again, you’re fired.”

He gave us a ride back and explained how it worked.  A fifteen minute break could last an hour or more so long as you took the starter cord and covered the mower with leaves and branches. Hide it in bushes so photographers from the Sun Times didn’t put you on the front page.  Cut just enough, he said, and go slow. Then in the afternoon, you walk back in at two thirty. Two forty five is putting away your machine. Three o’clock is washing up. Three fifteen, getting ready to leave. Three thirty, we go, but not a minute sooner. Reporters sit outside sometimes trying to catch us leaving early.

Newspapers were big, then. Television was relatively new and didn’t tell us much. I didn’t have a father so there was no one to ask. My mother worked, played cards, saw some men, but never said anything real. We had to figure out everything for ourselves.

As the summer passed, I came to love riding on the garbage truck. I loved being out on the streets of the near North Side. I loved looking up at the buildings and looking at girls on Oak Street beach. I loved hanging out with kids from all over the city, all of us trying to figure it out together.

One day a bunch of us went for lunch at Boss Burger on Cermak. We were running late and Harry turned left against a sign. Naturally a siren screamed and a cop pulled us over.under-the-el

He looked at Harry’s license. “Where you kids coming from?” he said, handing it back.

“The 11th Street barn.”

“You work for the District?”

“Yep.”

“Well, watch the signs,” he said, getting back in his car.

We roared into the parking lot and went inside and got a booth.

We ate a lot of fried in those days. Greasy burgers and great big hot dogs and French fries and fried onions. Real cokes and real ice cream. Real delicious food.

While we ate lunch and talked, I became aware that in the booth behind us, two older guys were talking about a friend. The guy was facing hard time in Joliet. The rest of the kids were laughing and talking loud, but my attention was back toward the guys behind me. I listened on the edges to their angry voices.

“I mean, it’s no fucking joke,” one said. “Those fuckers in the DA’s office are taking scalps. They want headlines before the election.”

“Can’t we do something?”

“Shit, they talked to everybody all the way up. It’s too fucking hot.”

“Jesus!” the other cried out in despair, “Joey could get maybe five six years.”

I didn’t know who was talking or who they were talking about. I focused in front again and saw Tiny slowly come into focus, heard him talking about two women he banged last night, sisters. The Italian kid was listening with his funny smile, Harry was telling Tiny how full of shit he was, then telling about parley cards he was going to make big money, once football started. The Italian kid asked who was the connection for the parley cards? Preston, Harry said, this kid he knew, and behind me, the conversation suddenly froze into a stained glass window with sun pouring through it, illuminating the entire city.

Whoever they were, politicians, the mob, businessmen, bigwigs in the Church, it didn’t matter. They all worked together, one like another. They were everybody and nobody. And no one cared.

garbage-truckThe rest of the summer is lumped in my memory like wax from a melted candle. The days were a white-hot haze and the nights were dreams of sex and sleep. I was invisible and didn’t mind. I cruised on the truck high above Michigan Avenue, holding on when the truck bounced up and down curbs. Up there in the truck, you took trash baskets thrust up by the guy below. You dumped them and bounced the basket on top of the garbage, packing it down, then pushing it forward so you could sit. I was stained and smelled like the garbage, a kid up there in the truck, big enough to work but too small to be seen.

Red never said anything even though I asked twice.

In late September I was back in school, getting checks just like they said.

Then it was time to pay back.

“I need you to do some precinct work,” the Alderman said. “Stop by tonight and meet with Kitty and get your stuff.”

chicago-waterfrontThe alderman’s new apartment was in a high-rise a lot taller than anything around. He had recently moved from a nineteen twenties buildings just off Lake Shore Drive;  the street was two-way to his driveway, then turned into a one-way going west. That way he could come out of the driveway and go straight to the Outer Drive. Anybody west of his building had to go all the way to Broadway and come around.

I asked how come the high-rise was so much taller. He smiled, opening a briefcase and taking out campaign literature and precinct lists.

Kitty had been our precinct captain as long as I could remember. The precinct was one block square. People on the Drive required subtle enticements. The Alderman sold insurance and handled those at his office. The people over on Broadway were simpler. My job was to take envelopes with money in them or liquor to different ones and say, no matter what time of the year, Merry Christmas from Alderman Rose and the Democratic ticket. Thank you for your support.

Otherwise, we did doors. Hello, I represent the seventh precinct, how do you do, paying attention to what they wanted, making notes of complaints, letting the Alderman know. When people got what they needed, they lined up. If they didn’t, then they didn’t.

The Alderman was pretty good. People would sometimes attack him from what sounded like principled positions. If they kept it up, he invited them to his office. What do you need? he asked. Whatever he said, it translated to, what do you need? Then, a little later, OK, but what do you really need?

Republicans turned into Democrats, liberals into conservatives. It all worked out, and he lived in a great apartment, high in the sky.

At that meeting I sat in a deep flowery chair looking out at the lake and the lights of cars crawling down Lake Shore Drive. The lamps along the walks in the darkening park below were pale, the sky darkening behind the trees. It always felt hushed under the dark leaves, and after I left, I walked home under a metallic sky shining above a canopy of leaves. The days were growing shorter, and I was thinking how everything dies or turns into something else. How the city was enchanted, masked with a magic spell.

“You want to be precinct captain?” Alderman Rose said abruptly. “You talk well. You’re good with people.”

“Me?” I puzzled. “I thought you had to be twenty one. I’m only eighteen.”

“Not a problem,” Kitty laughed. “We can make you twenty one.”

She was eating peanuts compulsively from a plastic dispenser, thumb depressing the lever and her fingers cupping the nuts and scooping them into her mouth. Nuts were all over her lap and the floor.

“Are you retiring, Kitty?”

She looked at me. “No, why?”

The Alderman laughed, “We’re not replacing Kit. We want you to be the Republican captain. That way you can keep us posted, work inside.”

The Alderman wore a monogram shirt and his tie was open on his thick neck. He was the only man I knew that had manicures and wore lots of rings. He wasn’t much fatter than his friends, and as I looked at him, broad, solid against the twilight sky, I thought,  if he had four ways of doing a thing and three were legal, he’d do it illegally just to maintain his integrity.

I’m surprised I didn’t say that, then. I was a slow learner and often said the wrong thing. Later on when I had a car and got so many speeding tickets I was going to lose my license, the Alderman sent me to a lawyer in his office. We walked across the street to traffic court. Inside benches were crowded with black people waiting for their names to be called. My lawyer bounced up to the bailiff and pinched her cheek.bailiff

“Hey, tootsie.”

“Hey, Frank,” she said. “Who is it?”

He told her my name and she leafed through a stack of court documents until she found it. “Have a seat.”

“Thanks, sweetie.”

We sat in front and as soon as the judge finished with the case, he asked the bailiff for the next. She called my name and we stood before the bench.

5-presiding-justice-cardona-listens-to-an-argumentThe judge looked at me sternly. “That’s a lot of traffic violations,” he said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I don’t –“

“Shut up,” said my lawyer. “Your honor, my client deeply regrets his propensity to speed. Perhaps if you are inclined to be lenient, he would profit from traffic school.”

The judge glared at me. “You deserve to lose your license,” he said. “But …”  his expression relented. “Perhaps he would learn from school, as you suggest.” He hammered the gavel. “Four weeks at traffic school,” he announced. “You can keep your license this time. But I don’t want to see you here again.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

The lawyer stopped to chat with the bailiff and then we left. As he turned to go back to the office, I said, “Excuse me, but would you mind? I mean, what exactly happened in there?”

He turned and playfully slapped my face. “Look,” he said. “You’re having your appendix out, you sit up on the table and asked the doctor what he’s doing?”

“No.”

“Then shut the fuck up,” he said. Walking away, he turned to shout over the traffic, “I’ll send a bill.”

He did, and I paid, and we paid for votes one way or another and they listened to our telephone calls and we listened to theirs. The net was transparent. We already lived in a world without walls only most people didn’t know. We infiltrated one another and sandbagged one another and lied about one another and then the election was held. It was a big election for my generation, a choice between a young prince on a white horse and a used car salesman. We wanted the prince. He was young, idealistic, charismatic and smooth. And we believed in him. Yes we did. We believed him.

Election night was tense. It was my first time working the precinct and being down at headquarters waiting for results. Every time numbers went up we cheered or groaned. Precincts reported one by one and the night wore on. Some precincts had trouble counting. Results were delayed. I remember sitting there half asleep late at night.  Most results were in but plenty of votes still had to be counted downstate and in the city too.

Kitty was asleep on an old sofa, spittle on the corner of her mouth. Next to her a guy named Paul who worked in Sanitation, a big guy, his belly buckling out his belt, his hand holding a bottle beer. Every time a new total went up he took a swig.

“It’s looking better,” I said when votes from the fiftieth ward were counted.

He laughed. “This is exciting for you, huh, kid? Your first one?”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “It is exciting.”

“After you done it a few years, your job on the line, you’ll see it different.”

“Oh? How?”

He looked away. “You’ll see. Anyway, this one isn’t so tense. Some elections, you can’t be so sure.”

I looked up at near-even numbers. “But it’s neck and neck.”

Paul smiled a crooked smile. He wore a stained tee-shirt under a green plaid long-sleeved shirt. His pants were tan and wide on his thighs. His hands were never without a beer, and his eyes behind his glasses were hard to see. “Kid,” he said, “this one’s in the bag. We just gotta wait it out.”U1340863INP

I said nothing.

joe-kennedy“When the old man delivered West Virginia and the guys in the Outfit lined up, even with the Teamsters going to Nixon we knew we had it. We just got to wait. Once we know what they’ll take downstate, we’ll know what we need.”

The night wore on, and the downstate results trickled in. Nixon was ahead by hundreds of thousands of votes. Then votes started coming in late from the city precincts, tilting the total toward Kennedy until by morning he was ahead by a few thousand. Illinois was one of the states that put him over. The next day, the Mayor proudly accepted an invitation to the White House. He was the first person to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.

Monday, I was back in school. The autumn winds when we walked across campus were bitterly cold. Then snow started to fall and never stopped, snow fell through the winter, burying everything, voting machines, mowers and the bushes that hid them, everything. Winds blew, snow piled up in drifts, darkness fell, and you thought the sun would never bounce. But it did. It always does. Days began to lengthen, and sooner or later, you knew, spring would come. You just had to wait it out.

The snow finally melted, crocuses blossomed, dog crap and cigaret butts stank up the lawns and got cleaned up by kids like me and then the summer called us out like a fanfare of trumpets announcing the start of an opera. White-hot heat obliterated everything. Once again, we lived in a haze, we didn’t even think of the snow, once it was gone, or what it covered. We lounged in the tall grass and watched the girls eat lunch on the benches in the park, their pale legs out to catch the sun, and all unknowing, all unknowing, we helped one another figure it out.

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