In summer we slept on the beach. We would park our cars on a side street and hike through the trees to the ravine and then down to a secret little shore that only we knew about. We would get a fire going and drink red wine and look at the lights winding along the north coast and, to the south, at the haze above Chicago. Out on the lake, we could see the red hazards of ships, and sometimes a speedboat splashed its tiny wake onto the rocky sand. Jamie told stories about the lake, which he said was over a thousand feet deep, and about the ships that had gone down beyond the horizon, voices vanishing in the cold water. When the wine was gone, we sat talking about girls and fights, or what we would do next week or next month. Who could see beyond next month?
There were a lot of us on the beach, the usual crew. Tom Pistone, who wished he had been a teenager in the fifties, drove a '61 Pontiac GTO, walked with a swagger, and dated girls in polka dots. Ronnie Flowers, who tagged after us like a mascot, was simpleminded and easy to fool and knew just one way to deal with people–as the butt of a joke. Tyler White, a genius or a fool, spent hours watching construction sites.
Of all those friends, the one I remember best is Jamie Drew. Looking back, I see that Jamie was the true hero of my youth, the most vivid presence, not only of my childhood but also for kids up and down the North Shore. Words he said, gestures he crafted, swept our school like a craze, imitated, in the end, even by the teachers. He was quick and dashing and honestly the smartest person I have ever known, and yet he seemed to hold his own talents in mean regard. My mother called him a lost soul. For a long time, I saw him as a tricked-out racer rusting in the garage–that part of each of us that did not survive the rough transition into adulthood.
When the fire burned down, we buried the embers and settled on the sand, which stayed warm for hours. In the morning, the sun appeared across the lake and, one by one, we climbed the hill to our cars and drove home to top off our sleep in our warm beds. Jamie and I often dozed late on the sand and then swam up the shore to the public beach, where our friends, showered and shaved, were waiting.
This was in the middle of the 1980s. It did not seem like it at the time, but that decade, as odorless and colorless as a noxious gas, came to inhabit every part of our lives. On the radio, we listened to "Scarecrow" by John Cougar Mellencamp, each of us worrying, in his own way, about the plight of the American farmer. In the fall, we wore jean jackets and chewed tobacco–Skoal long cut. On the weekends, we disappeared on end runs to Wisconsin, where the drinking age was eighteen, returning with a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Point beer. Jamie's favorite beer was Mickey's Big Mouth, which he drank in noisy, head-clearing slugs. We would hide the beer in my backyard, bringing it inside only when my parents left town. A six pack might make a half dozen trips from the yard to the fridge. When a can was finally opened, it fizzled and foamed with the sweet skunk taste of summer. On television, we watched David Letterman, who was then still funny, and Ronald Reagan, whose smiling face beamed down on us. We knew that Reagan also was from Illinois, but his state and our state seemed far apart in time and place. My father called him the man with the very old face and the very young miracle hair. In school, Jamie and I studied all this in Popular Culture, a class where we also learned stereotypes from entertainment history. Our favorites were the Old Nat stereotype, which resulted in courtly black gentlemen dancing on white movie screens, and the Fu Manchu stereotype, featuring Oriental tyrants hellbent on world domination. Sometimes, as we sat on the beach, a Japanese kid would walk by and Jamie would say, "Think he suffers from the Fu Manchu stereotype?"
Most days ended with a dozen friends back at my house, sitting around the kitchen. I was at first flattered by the appeal I had for my friends, until I realized it had nothing to do with me; my friends were coming to see my father. My father was different from the other fathers in town: men in gray suits, newspaper under an arm, waiting for the train to the city. My father wore dirty brown pants and T-shirts crossed by lines and a watch on each wrist. "A man with one watch thinks he knows the time, "he would say. "A man with two watches can never be sure. "He had a job that kept him on the road. If not working, he was at home weeks at a stretch, wandering the house in reading glasses and boxer shorts. He often wore a suede cowboy hat, which, he said, identified him as a High Plains drifter. When a friend of mine, accustomed to the routines of his own father, crinkled his nose and asked, "Mr. Cohen, what is it you do?" my father wiped a plate and said, "Son, I am what you call a house husband."
A few years before I met Jamie, his father had been killed in one of those pointless high-speed tragedies that stain our national highways. Now and then, when Jamie mentioned the accident, he would curse under his breath. For this reason, he developed a special attachment to my father, who, rather than advise or instruct, simply treated him like a man. More than anything, Jamie was a boy raised by women, by his sister and his mother and his grandmother. I once warned him that a boy raised by girls had a greater chance of going fag. It was a stupid thing to say and a joke, but it turned into a big fight. I guess I was oblivious to the great fearful need in Jamie, the need for authority, someone to guide him. It was a need I would come to recognize in so many of my friends, kids who came of age during the divorce boom, in a nation seemingly without adults, a nation dedicated to the proposition that nothing counts except celebrity; it was this need that would later send us flitting from mentor to mentor, party to party, scene to scene, never resting, never settling, never satisfied with ourselves. For a time, it was a need Jamie and I filled in each other. One night, when he was lying in the twin bed across from mine, after we had each gone through the list of the girls in school we wanted to sleep with, Jamie said, "I wish I could be more like your father: you know, a High Plains drifter."
I laughed. "Jamie, it's just a fucking hat. He's from Brooklyn."
Jamie said, "Yeah, but still, I wish I could be that way."
In the autumn of 1972, my family moved to Glencoe from Libertyville, a farming town in northern Illinois. We were the only Jewish family in Libertyville. When I asked my father if he had met with much anti-Semitism, he smiled and said, "Are you kidding? When we moved in, the neighbors shook my hand and said, 'Thank God, we were afraid they would sell to Catholics.' They hadn't even worked their way down to us yet. "Before Libertyville, my parents, newlyweds out of Brooklyn, had lived in New Jersey and Long Island, moving as my father was transferred. As a result, we came to have that special closeness of families on the go. I was four when we left Libertyville. My only memories of that town are of a sunny main drag of car dealerships and Dairy Queens and of the Des Plaines River, which wound by our house. Once, to convince my brother it was safe to walk on the frozen river (in school, my brother had been warned of black ice), my father jumped up and down, breaking through the ice into the swift current. The other things I remember are from stories later told to me: myself, in a red snowsuit, floating face down in a sewer of runoff, where my sister had dropped me; being crammed up the shirt of Tracy Hawkins, a neighborhood girl who wanted to pretend she was birthing me; driving with my mother to see a house she liked in Glencoe, which, in my mind, plays like a fancy movie dissolve into the next scene.
Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago. It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around. It was founded in the early 1800s by a blacksmith named Taylor, who walked out of the city, dark buildings and foundry flames at his back, into the great silence of the north, forests of oak and elm, Lake Michigan appearing and disappearing beyond the trees. He waded streams and passed through Indian settlements teeming in the open fields–settlements remembered today only in the names of country clubs that, until recently, did not allow blacks or Jews. In a flat place between the lake and the swamps to the west, he cleared trees and built a house and a dock and invited his friends and family to join him. He called the town Taylorsport, a name later changed to Glencoe. For a time, it was an industrial center, where lumber and coal were stacked on barges and towed down the lake. By the 1880s, it was a bustling country hamlet of unlit dirt roads. At night, the sky above the lake was a canvas of stars. In 1892, the town was destroyed in a cattle stampede, a thousand head of raging beef bound for the slaughter yards of Chicago. Ten years later Glencoe had reemerged as a prosperous village of feed stores, blacksmiths, and schoolhouses. When the railroad was built, with a station in Glencoe, the town was yoked to the city. The president of the railroad built a mansion in town.