Positively Chase Avenue
In the early 1990s, years before I became a father, I lived in a neighborhood called Rogers Park, on the far North Side of Chicago. The neighborhood held a dozen blocks north to south that were lined with wide, shady trees. Thick-grained Lake Michigan beaches made up its eastern border. But despite its natural advantages, Rogers Park wasn’t one of the fancier parts of Chicago at the time. We didn’t get the upscale retro diners, loft condos, or bars that catered to Indiana University graduates who seemed to spread throughout the city as if hatched from pods. Instead, the streets of Rogers Park dripped of mild neglect. This made them interesting but not particularly dangerous.
The apartment buildings in my neighborhood looked a little ragged, but you often heard guitars playing from inside them as you walked. No major trend had touched the neighborhood in decades; the people who lived there deliberately defied trendiness. The nightlife tried but failed. Hip-hop DJs, start-up rock bands, and small independent film societies ran up against the same frustrations. No one in the neighborhood could afford to go out, unless they could, and then they went out in other neighborhoods. My cohabitants were poets and drunks, low-end shop owners and itinerant musicians, union organizers and shifty-eyed permanent graduate students who slept on the floor. At the time, I described the people of Rogers Park as the sediment left over after you put the city of Chicago through a sifter. It was a neighborhood for people who didn’t belong in any other neighborhood.
I lived on Chase Avenue, at the far northern end of the city, in a quasi-communal apartment with a female construction worker from rural North Carolina named Rachel. We shared the apartment with a thin- fingered graduate student who possessed a bad temper and a cat whose name, Trakl, will be obscure except to those familiar with Norwegian philosophy. I had the room off the living room, which was separated from the rest of the apartment by a plyboard wall painted with a mural depicting lush greenery that somehow also managed to be ugly. Previous residents of the apartment had constructed it during a drunken party, and it looked like something that amateurs slapped up during a weekend fund-raiser at an elementary school. They’d included one nice feature, a window from which I could peek out onto the rest of the apartment, like a guest star dropping in on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I got an actual window view as well, of a parking lot and beyond that a concrete pier and a gray swirl of Lake Michigan surf.
Rachel was a hippie, albeit one who spent her nights reading Russian novels. She hung out with a loose coalition of assorted weirdos. Some of her friends even had children, or were in the process of making children, which I couldn’t believe.
Her best friend had a little daughter, about four or five. The girl seemed perfectly happy. She ran around barefoot and dressed like a princess, as a little girl must. But she also colored and read books in a dingy café while her mom smoked cigarettes and did her own homework. Sure, my mom had gone to graduate school when I was a kid, and sure, she’d smoked a lot of cigarettes back when that was socially acceptable in the suburbs, but hanging out in a café? That was crazy. My parents only took us to Chinese restaurants. The little girl’s parents attributed her conception to a bottle of wine, a lack of birth control, and a Hawkwind album. They lived in an apartment and were marginally employed! How, I wondered, could people like this possibly have kids?
In Rogers Park, it seemed impossible to be any kind of parent other than an eccentric one. One couple I got to know, Brian and Sue Kozin, owned the No Exit Café, a place that had existed in several shades of brown since 1958 and practically screamed Leo Kottke Slept Here. They raised three kids in a world of folk music, bad poetry, and men with food in their beards who played backgammon and Go for money. I hung out with them from time to time because I liked them, but also because I had trouble believing they were real. I wanted to say, You’re parents? But you make your own jewelry and attend Native American coming-of-age ceremonies in South Dakota! It’s not possible. My father is president of the Phoenix Rotary Club and eats hot dogs at Costco. That’s what dads are supposed to do.
I became friends with a guy named Lou, a Vietnam veteran and computer animation specialist in his early fifties who liked to drink, and had therefore met all the women in the neighborhood under thirty who went to bars. He threw Sunday potluck dinners at his condo, which he shared with a rotating roster of young roommates, a pit bull, and an utterly horrifying hairless twenty-one-year-old cat. The dinners were like a halfway house version of Brigadoon. Every poet, freeloader, harmonica player, and semi-insane drug fiend in the neighborhood showed up, sometimes as many as a hundred a week, only to disappear until the next dinner. This went on for years and eventually led to the cancellation of the dinners because Lou had a taste for the finer meats and couldn’t afford the filchers anymore. I went nearly every week and filched as well, though I was one of the few people who at least brought a bottle of wine or a six-pack.
Lou had two children, late-teenage variety, that hung out at the potlucks. His daughter sang folk songs, played the guitar, and sometimes kissed girls. His son dropped in and out of college and seemed to like to hang around his dad all the time. Then there was another son, a little red-haired kid who was ten when I met him. Lou would drive to South Carolina every summer to fetch the kid from the kid’s mother. He and the kid did a lot of normal things, like go to the beach and roller-skate and play basketball, but the kid also spent a lot of time at restaurants with bars, where Lou drank beer.
Lou didn’t seem like a worse parent, or a better one, than any other I’d known. It had never occurred to me that kids would choose to hang out with their parents. I would no sooner go out drinking with my dad than I would go skydiving with him. And while my folks had always been very generous about throwing parties, I really couldn’t imagine them, or want them to consider, smoking pot with my friends.
I grew up in high-upper-middle-class suburban Phoenix. When we moved there, in 1977, my father was a marketing executive for a large corporate hotel chain. His employment situation, and our material circumstances, went up and down throughout my childhood. But we were never forced to abandon our house, which had an unobstructed view of Camelback Mountain and its adjacent two acres of uncultivated desert brush. We had orange, lemon, grapefruit, and fig trees, a kidney- shaped swimming pool, and a cool, inviting back porch. I got my own shag-carpeted bedroom with built-in bookshelves, a desk, and corkboard; it was the size of an average Manhattan studio apartment, with a connecting bathroom that had a glass-stalled shower and Saltillo tile floors. My parents planted us in a pretty exclusive neighborhood. My first Arizona playmate, a neighbor from down the road, was the heir to the Campbell’s Soup fortune.
This was a land where parents were named Diane and Ted. They coached baseball, ran bake sales to raise money for the eighth-grade cheerleading squad, and had closets bigger than most people’s garages. Several friends of mine practiced on personal tennis courts. On the other hand, the father of the kid whom I’d carpooled with to Hebrew school went to jail for some naughty legal work he did for Charles Keating. The dad of one of my co-editors on the high school paper suffered a similar fate for running a corrupt S&L. Those kinds of things never happened to parents in Rogers Park.
I knew a young Rogers Park woman who’d worked in every café in the neighborhood. When I learned that she had a little daughter, it just seemed impossible.
“But she sleeps with guys!” I said to Rachel.
“So?” Rachel said.
“She has a kid!”
“And what’s your point?”
I really was that naïve. But suddenly, parenthood no longer seemed like something exclusive to stable adults in boring suburbs. It seemed like everyone I knew suddenly had kids. Maybe, I thought, a guy like me could become a dad after all.
About a year and two roommates after I moved in with Rachel, her friend Ned came to live with us. Ned had a lot of problems. He got really depressed. Sometimes he thought that vampires were hovering outside the apartment and that they wanted to eat his brain while he slept, neither of which he could objectively prove. He wasn’t capable of working a normal job, or of waking up before noon, but he was quite sweet and funny, played bass reasonably well, and could draw brilliantly, though to no end other than filling sketchbook upon sketchbook.
Ned was kind, almost guileless. He was also a dad. Years before, he’d gotten his high school girlfriend pregnant. She’d kept the baby, and he’d left town. He knew his daughter, a little. Sometimes he’d visit his hometown for a week or two and come back with pictures of his smiling girl. He became the star exhibit in a Museum of Weird Parenthood that existed only in my mind. When my parents came to visit, I liked to show him off, as if to say, “See, not everyone lives in bourgeois comfort like you do.” My mom, who’d spent much of her teenage life hanging out with actors in Greenwich Village, and my dad, who’d grown up in the Bronx with Jewish parents who’d left Germany, not by choice, in the mid-1930s, weren’t impressed with the bohemian authenticity of my circumstances. I, on the other hand, looked at Ned as a piece of living, breathing outsider art, and couldn’t believe that my life had moved in such a fascinating direction, or that it contained such original people.
Somewhere along this important voyage of personal discovery, I got my own place. Rachel moved back to North Carolina with a boyfriend. Ned became the senior resident of the apartment on Chase Avenue, which was by now so far removed from the original lessees that it had become a de facto squat. I started hearing stories. Hanging out at the No Exit Café, Ned met Jill, a sophomore journalism student from Northwestern, my alma mater. They drove around in her car all night, talking. For days they talked and talked and then they were in love. I went over to the apartment for dinner one night, and it was a lot cleaner than it’d been the last time. Jill had moved in.
They got a little careless with the birth control. Jill wasn’t feeling so good one evening. The next day, she and Ned took a bus to the doctor on Western Avenue, who told them the news. They went to a diner and gazed at each other over their favorite sandwich, which they shared because they could only afford one. The next time I saw Ned, he said, “Jill and I are having a baby.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s great.”
“I’m gonna get a job.”
“Good for you.”
“I want to be a real dad this time.”
“I think you’ll be a wonderful dad.”
In reality, I had no idea, because I didn’t know what it meant to be a wonderful dad, or any kind of dad at all. Here were a college student and an unemployed, mentally ill musician, and they were about to bring a child into the world. My head nearly exploded at the thought. I had to understand. One night, I went over to the apartment and sat them down.
“I want to do a story about you guys,” I said.
Soon after moving to Rogers Park, I’d been hired as a reporter at a weekly “alternative” newspaper. It wasn’t a typical job. I never had to go into the office unless I wanted to, and I usually didn’t want to. My editors gave me few deadlines and even fewer assignments. I was completely free. On days when I didn’t have anything else to do, which were frequent, I’d hop the El and ride it to a stop I’d never visited before. I covered whole wards with my notebook and tape recorder, hanging out in taverns and junkyards, on piss-stained Lake Michigan piers and in strangers’ basements. Every experience seemed important and precious. I conducted four-hour interviews with coffeehouse owners and popcorn-stand proprietors and played beach volleyball with drag queens. Among my friends I counted a Colombian cab driver, a Korean liquor-store owner, a flamboyantly gay black barbecue entrepreneur, and an eighty-year-old former exotic dancer who illegally sold used furniture from her front yard in the shadow of Wrigley Field.
But I wanted to write a story that, to me, exemplified the neighborhood I called home. Ned and Jill were it. I approached my editor with the story idea.
“It’s about hippies having kids,” I said.
My editor wasn’t impressed. She had two children herself.
“No, really,” I said. “It’s a good story. It’s emblematic of the culture of the neighborhood.”
Every editor has his or her weak spots, and writers who don’t want to work very hard need to discover those weak spots if they want to survive. I’d hit on one of her tics. My paper, like many urban weeklies, specialized in amateur urban anthropology, and I was a leading practitioner.
“All right,” she said. “But keep me updated.”
That meant “call me in three months.”
“No problem,” I said.
I went to the doctor with Ned and Jill. We got a sonogram. Jill and I went shopping for vitamins. Once a week, I attended birthing classes, which were conducted on soft pillows in the den of a late-nineteenth- century house in Evanston owned by a young, good-looking couple to whom the Clinton years had obviously been kind. We sat for hours in Ned and Jill’s apartment talking about their dreams and possible baby names. Jill would go to school part-time, and also work part-time. Ned would work part-time, too, and take care of the baby when Jill was busy. He really wanted to be a hands-on dad. Theirs, they thought, was the perfect setup. It was hard for me to keep a reportorial distance, so I got excited along with them. I felt a little bit like a member of the third gender in Stranger in a Strange Land, though I hate it when people use the verb “to grok.”