The New York Times
Crossing Californiaby Adam Langer
California Avenue, in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, separates the upper-middle-class Jewish families on the west from the mostly middle-class Jewish households east of the divide. This funny and heartbreaking novel tells the story of three families, and their teenage children, living on either side of California. It follows their loves, heartaches, friendships, and losses during a memorable and defining moment of American history.
Spanning the Iran hostage crisis through the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president, Crossing California is a cinematic and unforgettable look at the end of an era, the turning point when the idealism of the sixties gave way to the pragmatism of the eighties.
The New York Times
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
The day after an estimated seventy Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Jill Wasserstrom paused on the corner of North Shore and California Avenues to contemplate the accuracy of what she had proudly declared to Lana Rovner during recess at K.I.N.S. Hebrew School. What she had told Lana hadn't been quite true. She hadn't given Muley Scott Wills a big old hickey after eighth-grade phys ed at Boone Elementary School. She hadn't given Muley Scott Wills any sort of hickey at all. What had happened was that Muley Scott Wills had asked her if she wanted to go with him to Sun Drugs to pick up some items for his mother. She'd said sure, she had time before she had to go to Hebrew school, so she'd gone with him to buy a heating pad, a bottle of aspirin, two blocks of Neapolitan ice cream, three packs of Now and Later's, and a bag of Warner's spice drops, which they consumed before he said good-bye to her in front of K.I.N.S. But, Jill realized as she continued walking south on California, Muley Wills was unlikely to deny any story that made it seem as if their relationship was more profound than it actually was, which was why it had been a safe bet to tell Lana Rovner she'd given Muley the hickey: If Lana-who was always asking intrusive questions about Jill and Muley's relationship-actually went up to Muley some day in the future and asked if Jill had given him said hickey, no doubt Muley either would say nothing or would immediately confirm the story to conceal the fact that Jill had never given him a hickey. Or anything else for that matter.
At the corner of Albion and California, Jill Wasserstrom turned east and crossed the street. California Avenue was the first of two east-west dividing lines in West Rogers Park. It was one of the only two-way streets in the neighborhood and one of the only commercial ones. On California, there were service stations, synagogues, and small grocery stores, a firehouse, a diner, and a funeral home, the Shang Chai Kosher Restaurant and Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza, Burghard's Egg Factory and the Nortown branch of the Chicago Public Library. West of California were the parks and the single-family houses, the houses with evergreen bushes, maple trees, and underground sprinklers out front, the houses with banisters, stoops, and steps carpeted with Astroturf, the houses whose doors were rarely locked. Here and there were apartment buildings-grim white or sky-blue brick edifices that smelled of senior citizens and their warm lunches-but they were the exceptions. Doctors lived west of California. Lawyers, too. Not the top-of-the-line doctors or lawyers; they mostly lived downtown or in the northern suburbs. The doctors here mostly worked for the county and the lawyers generally worked for the city. Still, for the most part, everything west of California was pristine and white-collar and Jewish, or Indian, Italian, Filipino, or Korean, all of which amounted to essentially the same thing. Lana Rovner lived west of California, on Sacramento Avenue across the street from Chippewa Park, where she sometimes sat on the benches and watched her brother Larry play two-on-two with his musician buddies from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
East of California, there was a discernible change in the light. Here, the red-brick apartment buildings and smoke-gray bungalows soaked up the sun, and the streets seemed just a bit narrower. East of California, there was precious little greenery or open space, save for the playground of the Boone Elementary School and the front lawns of churches. Here, the houses were the exceptions. Jill Wasserstrom lived next to one on Campbell Avenue, on the second floor of a four-story walk-up. She, her sister Michelle, and their father, Charlie Wasserstrom-manager of the newly opened It's in the Pot! restaurant in a shopping mall in nearby Lincolnwood-lived in a one-bedroom apartment; Michelle, a junior at Mather High School, and Jill shared a room.
The landscape changed once again at Western Avenue, a sprawling four-lane street that spanned the entire city of Chicago. On Western, there was Bingo City, Fluky's Hot Dogs, the Nortown Theater, and more car dealerships than on any other street in the city. There were no houses on Western, only apartments above diners, pet stores, restaurants, and taverns. East of Western was Warren Park. Once an exclusive country club, it was now a vast expanse of overgrown grass, of cracked tennis courts, muddy soccer fields, rusted charcoal grills, and one toboggan hill, a former garbage heap now known to the kids in the neighborhood as Mt. Warren. The cozy shops of Devon Avenue-with its bakeries, record stores, and Judaica emporiums-stopped at the Western intersection. East of Western were grimy grocery stores, five-and-ten shops, liquor stores, restaurants with their neon lights flickering, bars with Old Milwaukee signs in their windows, the Seconds to Go Thrift Shop, Burger King, and the dingy Laundrytown above which Muley Wills lived with his mother, who shelved books at the Nortown Library and supplemented her measly income by cleaning houses.
Jill had just finished Hebrew school and it was already dark outside, which meant that maybe somebody would be home when she got there, but come to think of it, probably not. Her father had recently started taking extra shifts at the restaurant to pay for the Bat Mitzvah she had already told him she didn't want, really didn't want, and Michelle was probably still at the high school, rehearsing for the winter musical: H.M.S. Pinafore. The echoing loneliness of the apartment, which had once struck Jill as a symbol of her utter abandonment, was now little more than simple fact-something she dealt with every day, like spending the last thirty minutes of Math class waiting for Mrs. Cardash to inspect her homework just because her name came near the end of the alphabet, or going to bed with a pillow over her head to block out the detailed discussions in which Michelle attempted to engage their father about the kinds of boys she liked, the kinds of boys who worked on cars, the kinds of boys who called up WLS and dedicated Boston songs to her, the kinds of boys who played street hockey and ogled her at Blackhawks games.
When she got to the apartment, Jill picked up the mail lying on the tan carpet outside their door-mostly her father's magazines that were too big to fit into the box. She entered the apartment, deposited the mail on the kitchen counter, and walked down the hallway to her room. She dumped her book bag on her bed, hung her coat in the closet, then returned to her desk and picked up the battered copy of Romeo and Juliet she was supposed to finish for Reading the next morning. Actually, she had read it two weeks earlier-the date that Mrs. Korab, who had organized the semester around "Conflicts and Resolutions," had originally indicated on the homework sheet. But by now, Jill had forgotten so much of it that she figured she'd have to start over. She went to the kitchen, looked briefly in the refrigerator-her father's leftovers from the restaurant made her shudder and slam the door shut-then took a breakfast bar out of the cabinet and walked into the living room. She turned on a lamp and sat on the couch, which doubled as her father's bed.
Before opening her book, she briefly considered going to the kitchen and taking one of her father's Millers out of the fridge. She further considered rummaging through Michelle's dresser drawers and finding the green Cricket lighter, the water pipe, and one of those mysterious foil packets her sister hoarded. But Jill quickly rejected both options-not because she'd be caught; rather, because she wouldn't. And then she'd just have to remain there in the apartment all night, drunk or stoned with her dad and her sister, and, really, what was the point of that? She was twelve years old and already her sister had ruined practically every vice for her-braying after coming home drunk from theater parties with a "Don't tell Dad" wink; vacantly amazed by the stupidest TV cop shows after having smoked hash in the alley with Gareth Overgaard and Myra Tuchbaum; chattering nonstop about this guy's hands or that guy's car, when it was patently clear to Jill that all of those "gorgeous" guys would wind up just squeaking by at community college; blasting Eric Clapton and stinking up the record collection with her Merits ("All the cool girls smoke Merits; all the burnouts smoke Marlboros," Michelle once informed her). Jill couldn't smoke, she couldn't drink, she couldn't listen to her sister's albums, she couldn't put anything up on the wall-the entire room, even her side, was plastered with Michelle's posters of Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Who and Led Zeppelin-it seemed nearly impossible to rebel in any way that wasn't somehow secondhand.
It was November 1979 and, to Jill Wasserstrom, time was trudging by so slowly that it seemed as if it would take five decades to get through the next five years. Five years from now, she would have just entered college, and her father would have the whole apartment to himself; he could convert her and Michelle's room into a workshop-not that he knew how to fix anything. She, meanwhile, would be long gone-taking courses in Art History to nourish her soul, and in Law or Medicine so that she'd be able to make enough money to send Michelle anonymous monthly payments to support her drug habit or pay her shrink or bail her boyfriends out of Cook County before they stood trial for grand theft auto.
The only difficulty was getting through those next five years, or more precisely, those next four years and ten months. Four years and ten months ago, she hadn't even started Hebrew school; she hadn't even heard of crazy old Rabbi Einstein or Rabbi Meltzer or, Lord help her, Rabbi Shmulevits. Four years and ten months ago, she had just skipped from second to third grade at Boone Elementary. Four years and ten months ago, her sister had seemed perfectly smart. Four years and ten months ago, her mother had seemed perfectly healthy. Four years and ten months ago, they had been talking about moving into a house west of California.
Jill heard keys jingling outside the door-her father. It always took twenty seconds for him to find the right key. He'd try one, then another, then get the right one but turn it the wrong way, lock the door instead of open it, take two shoves to open the door because he couldn't do it in one try. Charlie Wasserstrom asked if anybody was home. Jill closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. "Oh," Charlie said, loudly shutting the door. "I didn't think you'd be asleep." Jill kept her eyes shut and listened to him tiptoe, hang up his raincoat in the closet, apologize for the clatter of keys when the coat fell to the floor ("Sorry, sorry"), open the refrigerator door, take out a beer, set it down just a bit too hard on the kitchen counter ("Sorry, sorry"), go to the bathroom, shut the door, urinate loudly, flush, then jiggle the toilet handle, stop to hear the coughing and swirling of the bowl attempting to refill itself, jiggle the handle again, then tiptoe back to the living room. He told Jill he was sorry to wake her but he had good news.
Charlie Wasserstrom's good news was never the sort of good news worth waiting up to hear; what tended to excite him seemed so utterly trivial that his happiness usually depressed Jill. Like the time he arrived home, beaming, turning up WDHF-FM loud, and shh-ing her and Michelle each time they asked what was so exciting, finally punching his fist in the air when some guffawing deejay called Captain Whammo ("You're listening to 95-and-a-half, the Whammo line!") announced that "Charlie Wasserstrom of North Campbell Avenue has won two tickets to see the Electric Light Orchestra at the Aragon Ballroom!"-even though Charlie had never heard of E.L.O. and gave the tickets to Michelle, whom he'd dropped off at the concert with some flat-skulled water polo player who pawed her all through the car ride home while Charlie said nothing, except when Michelle confronted him afterward and his only response had been, "I didn't want to interrupt; I thought you kids were having a good time."
Charlie Wasserstrom enjoyed getting things for free-or for half-off-even if he had never really wanted those things in the first place. He would come home with armloads of off-brand cereal, LPs from the cutout bin, liver sausage and Tater Tots, discontinued board games like Numble, Coup D'Etat, and Situation-Four. All this filled Jill with such dread that whenever her father said, "I have some good news," the only thing she could associate it with was the time he returned with her mother from the "routine doctor's appointment" and said they had "something serious to discuss."
Jill assumed the "good news" would concern the Bat Mitzvah, most likely something she'd heard before-Charlie often presented old news as revelation-something about how Mr. Alan Farbman from the restaurant would be donating a deli tray, something about how her rich great-aunt Beileh would not only match the most expensive gift but beat it by at least $10. But Charlie didn't mention any of that; instead, he said, "I bet you can't guess who came into the restaurant tonight." Jill said he was right, she couldn't guess. She asked who had come into It's in the Pot!, knowing full well that the restaurant's clientele was culled from a mere two groups-people who chain-smoked and people on respirators.
"Gail Schiffler-Bass," he said. The name made no impression and the additional information her father offered-"the gal from the paper"-didn't illuminate matters but did make Jill just a touch more intrigued until Charlie explained, "you know, from the Nortown Leader," at which point Jill regretted whatever enthusiasm she might have briefly displayed. The Nortown Leader, part of the chain of Schiffler Neighborhood Newspapers, was little more than a series of coupons-two-for-one dining at the Yenching Chinese restaurant; one free appetizer at Sally's Stage (featuring roller-skating waitresses); a free car wash with a fill-up at the Nortown Standard station-and advertisements ("Devon Bank Salutes Its Loyal Customers," "Rosel Hair Designers: A Cut Above The Rest"), occasionally interrupted by tepid articles about charity fund-raisers and community events ("New Basketball Courts at Lerner Park; Seniors Say It's No Slam-Dunk"), followed by pages of classifieds, display ads, and announcements: Las Vegas Night at K.I.N.S. Synagogue, a screening of The Canterville Ghost at the Nortown Library, free blood pressure testing, a JCC singles disco dance night led by Sandi Hirsch. There was a Lifestyle section with community theater and restaurant reviews, but the only part of the paper Jill ever read was the police blotter, and even it was unimpressive; the only crimes of note took place east of Western and they never involved anyone she knew.
"She's gonna give us a write-up," Charlie continued, then repeated her name for emphasis. "Gail Schiffler-Bass is gonna do a write-up. She talked to me for maybe fifteen minutes. She wanted to know everything I knew. Mr. Farbman said it was okay. So I told her everything I knew."
Jill wasn't certain why her father was so excited; he'd only been at It's in the Pot! for three weeks, and though managing that restaurant was a step up from his previous position (counterman at Fannie's Deli on Touhy: "We Specialize In Lox!"), until today Jill had not heard him say anything positive about it ("They water down the matzo ball soup; you're not gonna attract repeat customers that way," "They don't keep the chopped liver covered, and they come to me, angry 'cause there's flies," "Mr. Farbman said he doesn't believe in overtime; the hours are the hours"). The worst of it all was his obsequious tone whenever he referred to Mr. Farbman, as if Farbman were worthy of this sort of respect, as if he weren't ten years younger than her father, as if he didn't have a bad mustache, slick, black hair parted down the middle, a thick gold bracelet, and a gargantuan high school ring, as if he hadn't completely humiliated her father the one time she'd met him at the restaurant, calling him "Hey, Charlie," as if her father were retarded-"Hey, Charlie, where does toothpicks go?" "Hey, Charlie, where's the ashtrays?"-all the while, her father with that same obsequious tone: "Yes, Mr. Farbman; sorry, Mr. Farbman; I'll get right to that, Mr. Farbman; right away, sir, right away."
No doubt her father's excitement derived from some twisted idea that once the restaurant got reviewed it would attract more customers, then maybe "Mr. Farbman" would credit the restaurant's success to his loyal employee. Or maybe her father just wanted to see his name in print: "'We also serve an excellent variety of soups,' effused Charlie Wasserstrom, manager of It's in the Pot! and noted Thousand Island dressing enthusiast." "'We really hope to give Lincolnwood an eatery they can be proud of,' thundered the bumbling Wasserstrom, manager of It's in the Pot! and owner of Chicago's largest collection of Frank Sinatra records." It was all too grim to consider further. Jill told her father she had homework and went off to her bedroom, taking Romeo and Juliet with her, leaving her father to the couch, his beer, his leftover brisket, and his dreams of fame.
Jill was sitting at her desk and just about ready for bed when her sister Michelle burst breathlessly through the doorway, her oversized red-and-white plaid flannel shirt reeking of cigarette smoke, her blond hair stiff, brittle, and tousled. "Stay there. Don't move. I've got a bulletin," Michelle said. She dashed out of the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Jill hadn't done much work before her sister's arrival. She'd breezed through Romeo and Juliet, her lab book was in acceptable shape, her Latin vocabulary was memorized. She had exited the bedroom once, only to find her father still in his black pants, white shirt, and clip-on black necktie, snoring on the couch with the TV still on-the sports reporter on the Channel 9 News yammering about Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears' 35-7 trouncing of the Detroit Lions. The rest of the time she had spent thinking about nuclear war and the end of the universe. There had been a field trip to the Adler Planetarium the previous week, and she and Muley Wills had spent most of the time making fun of the Sky Show narrator, who imbued every syllable he uttered with great importance: "Perhaps [pause] there will come [pause] a new [deep breath] Ice [pause] AGE. Perhaps [pause] the Earth's [pause] gravitational PULL [pause] will draw the moon ITSELF [pause] to its SURFACE."
She hadn't listened carefully to the narration, only enough to mock it with Muley at lunch in the cafeteria, which may have been immature but seemed far more civil than Connie Sherman's approach. She'd spent the whole Sky Show passing a joint back and forth with Dvorah Kerbis and saying "Decent." At any rate, any deep meaning in the Sky Show eluded her as she and Muley entertained each other at their own lunch table: "Perhaps [pause] this sloppy [pause] JOE is [pause] the most REPULSIVE [pause] thing the UNIVERSE [pause] has ever KNOWN." Until Shmuel Weinberg asked their Science teacher, Dr. Bender, something no one else had considered.
What did it mean about the moon being pulled down by the Earth's gravity, Shmuel wanted to know. Dr. Bender said it was a good question. He said it meant that one day, "a long time from now," the Earth would pull the moon down to its surface and there would be a gigantic explosion. Then the Earth would get its very own set of rings, "just like Saturn."
Shmuel contemplated Dr. Bender's response. "Wouldn't that destroy things?" he asked.
"Oh, don't worry," said Dr. Bender. "We'll all be dead by then."
"That's right," Connie Sherman blurted out cheerfully. "From nuclear war."
Jill had rolled her eyes during the exchange. But ever since, whenever her thoughts wandered, invariably they settled on these two images: the destruction of the Earth by a crash-landing Moon; the destruction of the Earth by nuclear war. And then an image of her mother would come to her, an image of the conversation they'd had after the first week of Aleph at Hebrew school. Rabbi Einstein had discussed an old Jewish legend about the end of the world-he said it was referenced obliquely in the Adon Olam, the prayer that terrified Jill because of the one line of it she remembered, "And in the end, when all will cease to be, he will remain the eternal king," and didn't that seem odd, that God, or G-D, or Hashem, as they were supposed to refer to him, would want to remain the eternal king after all would "cease to be"? Wouldn't that just be devastatingly lonely, wouldn't God just want to start the world over and eliminate some of the mistakes he'd made in the first go-round? Death, for example? Or evil? Rabbi Einstein said that Jewish legend held that at the end of the world, all the dead would rise and celebrate together. The story had seemed incomplete, unsatisfying-if they were supposed to celebrate, what would they be celebrating? The end of the world? And did this mean all the dead or just the dead Jews? And if it meant just the Jews, then what would happen to everyone else? Would they have a party too? And what would happen after the party, Jill wanted to know. Would everybody just go back to being dead? Would the party go on eternally? And if so, wouldn't it just be better to end the world now, so everybody could come back? What was G-D waiting for exactly? Was any of this true, she asked her mother, that at the end of the world, everyone would come back?
"I hope so," her mother said. "There are some people I'd sure like to see."
Which was the phrase that was jackhammering Jill Wasserstrom's skull when her sister returned to their bedroom and told her she had misspoken. She didn't have a "bulletin"; she had a "news flash." Michelle flopped down, then bounced briefly on Jill's bed-a girlish habit that seemed rehearsed to appear sisterly but to Jill seemed simply patronizing. Michelle jumped off the bed and sat on the desk. "Maybe it's not a news flash either," Michelle said. "Maybe it's really a white paper." Finally, she decided: "No, it's not that either. Actually, it's an edict."
Issuing an edict was as serious as it got. Michelle reserved the issuing of edicts for life-altering decisions. Breaking off relations with boys-or inviting them to "taste the salty brine in Davy Jones's locker," as Michelle referred to it-was rarely accorded edict status. When she relayed that sort of information, it only received the label of "bulletin." The last edict Jill recalled Michelle issuing concerned vowing to lose her virginity to the unfortunately named Eddie Pinkstaff. More recently, in a fit of rage, Michelle had issued another edict, declaring she would refuse to take the PSAT practice college entrance exam since she wasn't planning to go to college at all. Later, Michelle retracted that edict, declaring it, in the words of a Watergate-era White House press secretary, "inoperative."
"And you will witness this," Michelle said. "I am hereby resigning from all extracurricular drama activities. I am quitting the show and the club-I don't care if it sabotages them. That is it. Edict declared. Edict witnessed. Edict issued."
If this turned out to be true, it would doubtless prove to be the defining edict of Michelle's high school career. She had been involved with every Mather High production since she had arrived two years earlier, scoring the part of Anne Frank as a freshman, then nabbing virtually every lead role thereafter, except in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for which the director-a former TV actor now serving a jail sentence-insisted on an all-male cast and required each actor to slowdance with him during their audition. Michelle had played Eileen in Wonderful Town, Portia in Julius Caesar, and Emily in Our Town. This year, as a junior, she had served on the executive drama board for Coolshow!, the annual student-written musical variety show. And now she was just three weeks away from opening night for H.M.S. Pinafore. She was to play Buttercup. She had been offered the role of the Captain's daughter Josephine, but gracefully stepped aside so that her friend Myra Tuchbaum-a senior who had never been in a musical despite having auditioned for every single one, and who provided her and their mutual friend Gareth Overgaard, also a senior, with free pot-could play the part. As Buttercup, Michelle would sing a duet with the ladykilling Millard Schwartz, who had allegedly never been turned down for a date; Michelle's intent had been to provide him with his first no-a task she, no doubt, could have performed had she not wandered in late one Saturday night to Eastern Style Pizza right when Millard was getting off work and happened to have a jug of apple wine in the trunk of his rusted, olive-green Opel Manta, which, for once, wasn't in the shop.
Jill asked why Michelle was quitting. Everything had been cruising along just fine, Michelle said. Even Millard had been taking a surprisingly professional approach to rehearsals; he had vowed not to get high until the first cast party. Today had been the first rehearsal with orchestra, and Michelle had been eagerly anticipating working with the conductor, Douglas Sternberg. Sternberg was a Mather legend. He had graduated in 1972, and seven years later his pictures still adorned the walls outside of the auditorium. He had founded Coolshow! He had gone to state four straight years with the speech team, taking top honors at the state tournament in Normal, Illinois, in 1971 in Humorous Interpretation (inhabiting twelve characters in his edit of The Comedy of Errors). Little had been known about what had become of him. There were rumors he'd gone to Hollywood, that he was writing nudie musicals off-Broadway, that he'd written the original score to The Way We Were but had argued with Barbra Streisand, who insisted all his music be removed. Whatever the truth was, now he was back-subbing for Milner Geist, who had conducted every Mather musical since 1954 and, now that he was at home recovering from cracked ribs, had called upon one of his most celebrated students to replace him for Pinafore, after which Geist promised to return for Coolshow 1980!
At rehearsal, Sternberg had seemed brusque, standoffish, but that had been his reputation. And Michelle had rather enjoyed the way he'd dressed down the orchestra, which had gotten used to taking advantage of hapless Mr. Geist. She particularly enjoyed how Sternberg ended every sentence with "shall we?": "Let's take that from the top, shall we?" "Let's try that the exact same way, but this time in tune, shall we?"
"But then," Michelle said, rummaging through her dresser drawer and pulling out a pack of Merits. "But then," she said, flicking her lighter, holding the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger and inhaling ("I'm sorry," she said. "I know you don't like it when it stinks up your clothes, but sometimes you just need it-it's like having an orgasm"). "But then," she said, opening the window, letting a gust of autumn air whoosh into the bedroom, "he starts in on me." She was standing with her back to the window, cigarette hand against the ledge, smoke drifting outside. What had happened, she explained, was that they had been rehearsing Act I. She'd memorized the entire operetta weeks earlier, but she was smart enough not to show that off immediately; that only made people think she was "superconceited." So when she rehearsed, she'd always say, "Let me try that off book," and make a couple of mistakes and laugh about it and say, "Sorry, I screwed up, can you hand me the script?" just so people would know that she was human and not some nutcase with a photographic memory, even though she did have one. So Myra Tuchbaum had assayed "Refrain, Audacious Tar!" and it had been a really "strong effort." Michelle was proud of her, even though she had been slightly off-key.
"Then comes me," Michelle said. She explained that she had no intention of showing off all the work she had done prior to rehearsal. She wasn't going to do that whole juggling trick again. There had been the time when Myra wanted to be a juggling serving wench at King Richard's Faire, had made a big deal about how tough juggling was, and she had made everyone in Anne Frank gather around her as she took three tennis balls and juggled them, woofing with each throw-woof woof woof. The spectacle had infuriated Michelle, so she went up to Myra right in front of everybody and said, "That doesn't look hard, let me try that," and juggled flawlessly for five minutes straight while Myra stood gaping at her until Michelle handed the balls back saying, "Nah, that's not that tough," whereupon Myra called her a bitch, then Michelle called Myra a whore, and soon they were best friends. So anyway, Michelle sang "Buttercup's Song," but didn't attempt the working-class British accent she'd perfected, didn't belt, didn't embellish with any tremolos. The only flourish she added was a wink on the line "Sailors should never be shy," which was just a private joke between her and Millard-something he'd said to her when they had been "finger-fucking" ("Oh, I'm sorry: virgin ears," she said to Jill) one night in Warren Park.
After she was done and she knew she'd nailed it ("It's an instinct," she said. "You know when you've nailed something"), Sternberg approached Mr. Linton, the pudgy, snowy-haired director who'd cast her in every show he'd directed, and all Sternberg said was, "I thought you said you had people who knew how to sing, Hank." The two of them had gone out into the hall while the cast sat silently, straining to hear Sternberg's voice. Michelle stood up in front of the cast and said that this was "bullshit." If this guy was such "hot shit," what was he doing here? What they should do was walk out in protest when Sternberg returned. Everyone said yeah, they'd do it. But when Sternberg and Linton returned, she was the only one who stood, and when she walked to the door, nobody joined her, so she kept walking right out of the auditorium, out the front door of the school. She briefly considered going back, but she had her pride, and besides, the door had locked behind her.
"So," Michelle said, flicking her cigarette butt out the window, "there's the edict."
Jill was never really sure if Michelle wanted her to interject or if she just wanted her to listen, because whenever she agreed, Michelle invariably contradicted her and said Jill didn't really understand the complex predicament she was discussing ("But I kind of led him on," she would say whenever Jill would say Michelle was right, the guy she was talking about sure was a jerk, "But you have to see it from his point of view," "But I was being kind of a bitch, too," "But you've never really been in that situation, Jill, no offense"). Disagreeing with Michelle was even worse; she'd lash out furiously, apologize later, then hold a grudge for days. And if Jill remained silent, Michelle would say, "Well, what do you think? Why aren't you saying anything?" Therefore, Jill was more than a little relieved when the telephone's ring filled the silence. Michelle leapt up, saying, "I'll get rid of whoever it is; I want to finish this conversation." But an hour later, she was still talking to Millard, saying, "I'll think about it; that's all I can promise. I made a vow to the show, but I made a vow to myself, too." And as that phone conversation droned on into the early morning, Jill Wasserstrom lay wide awake in bed, trying to think about anything aside from her mother, the end of the world, and the Adon Olam.
from Crossing California by Adam Langer, Copyright © 2004 Adam Langer, published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (US) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Adam Langer has worked extensively as a print journalist, film producer, and playwright, and has been featured on NPR, CNN Headline News, Fox News, and E! Entertainment Television. Langer is a former senior editor of Book magazine and a recipient of a National Arts Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University.
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Read the review in People magazine and was intrigued. Got the book a week later and could not put it down. This was the best book I've read since Eugenide's 'Middlesex.' A great debut; hope it receives more of the critical acclaim it deserves.
For those of us who grew up in an urban setting from the '60s through the '80s this book is tremendous. For those who grew up in West Rogers Park it is way more than that. Langer expertly captures the mood and nuances of the times and the characters are right on. I swear I knew several of them personally! This is a tremendous read.
Crossing California is a fantastic book which involves many characters and stories, mainly focusing on the friendship between two young teens, Muley and Jill. However there are many other characters, all with very complicated lives. The story is set in a Jewish community in Chicago and deals with many racial, financial, and societal issues in a very upfront way. Every chapter is told from a different point of view, and is often a very different story. I loved this book. It was such a great read and as soon as I started it I couldn't put it down. I really enjoyed how all of the characters stories came together and grew apart. In a way, being able to always see everything from every point of view, was nice. There is no specific 'villian' or antagonist so to speak, because the reader gets inside of every person's head. I felt very connected to the character of Michelle, Jill's older sister. Michelle is supposed to be a junior in high school. She is an actress who really doesn't care for anything or anyone. I felt very connected to her because she knows what she stands for and will go to extremes to get her point accross. Michelle is an extremely strong character who helps to push the whole book along and support it in many different ways.