A local university plans to bulldoze and replace parts of a predominantly African American Chicago slum with student housing. But for those who live there, the affordable if run-down homes are havens for creativity and self-exploration, and a setting for developing meaningful relationships. Among the residents are Anna, a teacher; her lover, Rowley, a soul singer; and their friends, documentary filmmaker Leon and the beautiful yet mysterious Caroline. The university may have more money and political clout, but these determined young people aren’t willing to let the wrecking ball tear through their world without a fight.
Their relationships are strained and their convictions are tested as secrets are uncovered and they battle with a changing economic climate that jeopardizes their very way of life. The city has turned its back on them, and they have nothing left to lose. Bestselling author Marge Piercy combines social commentary and her talent for depicting characters’ emotions with unflinching precision in this novel that has as much to say about the consequences of gentrification as it does about the vulnerabilities of the human heart.
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About the Author
Marge Piercy (b. 1936) is the author of nineteen poetry collections, including The Hunger Moon and Made in Detroit, and seventeen novels, including the New York Times bestseller Gone to Soldiers and He, She and It, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. She has also written a memoir, Sleeping with Cats; a collection of short stories, The Cost of Lunch, Etc.; and five nonfiction books. A champion of feminism, antiwar, and ecological movements, Piercy often includes political themes in her work and features strong female characters who challenge traditional gender roles. Her book of poetry The Moon Is Always Female is considered a seminal feminist text. Piercy’s other works include Woman on the Edge of Time, The Longings of Women, and City of Darkness, City of Light. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, radio personality and author Ira Wood, with whom she cowrote the novel Storm Tide.
Read an Excerpt
Going Down Fast
By Marge Piercy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Marge Piercy
All rights reserved.
The four-story building on the corner with bulging spinach green bays was coming down. The crane, taller by a couple of stories, was eating it. With clumsy delicacy the crane grazed, detaching a mouthful of two-by-fours and pipes and walls. A cloud of dust swirling on the wind that smelled of stockyards almost hid the iron ostrich neck. Even on the far side of the street where Leon stood the noise deafened him. Fine dust settled on his sweaty forehead.
The workmen on top had taken off their shirts. A husky Negro straight across from him sat astride a brick wall four floors above the sidewalk and swung a sledgehammer just ahead of the grasp of his thighs. Leon felt the impact in his arm, his thick arm under the faintly damp weight of his one still good summer jacket. Great work. Smash the city. Look at them sauntering over the gaps. Last week in demolition for an expressway two had been killed when a wall collapsed, and they got paid worse than he did.
The crane bit into a shiny yellow room, turned and with a tidy jerk spat the chewed wall in a dumptruck. Swinging back, the crane in passing knocked off a section of facade. Thunderous rubble fell. His legs shook. Chaos inside a fence of tulip colored doors. The crane poked around to the front, seized the fire escape, let go fumbling, then fixed on it again. Groaning, the metal held. The teeth twisted it like an arm till the tension sang and all at once it tore loose and boom, was thrust in the truck. Kids all around him stared, housewives with shopping carts. His attaché case against his leg. He'd miss the interview. All those dim bedrooms opened like cans. On the ground floor, through the smashed front window he could make out the graffiti-scrawled rooms of the bar where one of his early films had been given a showing. Rat-Men of the Jackson Park Lagoon. Bastards hadn't known what to make of it.
Turning he saw that Anna was watching from her room, kitty corner across the intersection, standing a little back from the windows so the workmen would not notice her. Why wasn't she downtown teaching? Summer semester must be over. Was Rowley there? He waited for Rowley to appear behind, touching her. No, she was alone, she looked alone. Naked face watched the walls crumble. She held herself across her full breasts. Her mouth looked as if it might be slightly open. He imagined her eyes melting. Would she identify with the crane or the walls? The walls, of course, or something behind them.
What if he was a little late to the interview? Looking over his shoulder he went back to his car to get his camera. Never knew when you could use demolition footage. The falling bricks rumbled through his body. Down the sidestreets Chicago was a murky late afternoon August green, moist as a swamp.CHAPTER 2
Friday, September 12
Rowley said something and Anna woke confused. She took a moment to understand that she was in his apartment and that his voice was the FM. Then she jumped up to turn the radio louder, annoyed with herself for dozing off during his own special show. His voice came out deep, persuasive and rough in spots like a good rum, talking about some blues singer. Then he played Ma Rainey:
If your house catches on fire and there ain't no water round,
If your house catches on fire and there ain't no water round,
Throw your trunk out the window and let that shack burn down ...
She went into his small kitchen to splash her face at the sink. Sleep still clogged her limbs. Her head felt big. Her dark hair swung forward into the stream of water. She had been up all night on a Greyhound from Cleveland, part of the time preparing lectures for the new class in the family she had been promised, part of the time in the stupefied depression trundling across Ohio and Indiana induced. Seemed as if she couldn't stare at that flat repetitive landscape for long without asking herself, what have I done with my life? where am I going? am I going? Rowley had not wanted her to make the trip using up some of their rare free time together, but once a year she thought she should see her family.
She found herself staring into the shelf of cookbooks over his stove, loose recipes stuck in unsorted, useless. The night coming through the open windows smelled of trees and cars. Strange, his voice in the livingroom talking not for her but for anybody with a radio, and yet as if it were the man, worked on her, coaxed and teased. Twice as disconcerting since it was a tape unwinding tonight. He might have left the studio already, might be drinking with pals, playing a session, listening to some group.
Making a face she took an armful of cookbooks down and began to sort the stray pages. Now he had with him an Irish girl who sang pleasantly but dwindled away in shyness and he was flirting gently, drawing her forward into the mike. Rowley was talented but not ambitious and that gave him an ease, a natural shaggy courtesy with others: he admired, he enjoyed, he wanted to share. This recipe for veal in sour-cream had been used at least once, for one corner was splashed and the paprika measurement corrected. On the back what record had she entered?
She turned and without thinking closed the nearest window. The first time Asher had invited Rowley over. Was it, come over Saturday and have dinner, my wife's a good cook? No, that wasn't Asher's voice. Only the intonation of my wife, gray word signifying possession and function. My wife, my broker, my dentist. They must have played some game. Indeed. Joan was a fairhaired British secretary Rowley had picked up at the Art Institute, taken to bed, forgotten as she had that game. She had not liked Rowley that first night. She was proud of that. Loud and arrogant she had told Asher and he had protested her quick judgment, judging her. Because Asher classed people by their opinions and competencies, he imagined himself free of prejudice, but he ... Stop. The long argument called marriage was broken off. She thought of Asher as permanently wounded, but he was digesting his steak and airmail edition of the New York Times together not a quarter mile away. She sighed, combing her hand through the weight of her long thick hair, and folded the loaded recipe into her purse. She could not throw away scraps of the past even if they cut her fingers.
Rowley's voice came through like a heavy hand falling on her shoulder. Singing, oh god. He had been backing up the girl with tactful inventive guitar — he played powerfully and well and she liked him singing blues. But his voice suffered like a beaten hound, in dialect yet. Bellowing away, the overbearing bulk pranced out through all those radios:
When I go to the kirk on Sunday
Many's the bonny lass I see
Sitting by her mother's side
And winking over the pews at me
Ha ha ha banged the guitar.
Now I can drink and not be drunken,
I can fight and not be slain,
I can lie with another man's lassie
And still be welcome to my own!
Like those signs shops used to hand out, fish-shaped for the fish-market, shoe for the cobbler: a great neon phallus, here lives Rowley the Rod, Satisfaction Guaranteed.
He was playing backup again beautifully when she heard him whistling outside. Hearing him too the cat Yente woke hanging over the top shelf of the bookcase. Someone ran down the front steps. Yente leaped from the shelf with a loud graceful plop and making for the door with his splayfooted gallop, set up a welcoming yowl.
As Rowley pushed the door open, Yente rose hugging his knee until he lifted him. "Hey Annie! Where are you!" He came toward her with the cat walking on his shoulders, leaning to lick the ends of his buffalo hunter moustache. On his big frame, six feet and broad as a wall, objects were slung: red and black hunter's jacket looped over his shoulder, records in a shopping bag, the Sun-Times, mail that had come at the studio, and the worn overnight case he used as a briefcase bulging through all its cracks.
Behind him in midsentence came his landlord Harlan Williams, who lived above him on the first floor. Though Harlan was about Rowley's height and age he looked younger, because of his quick nervous gestures, because of the hard neatness of his body, and because his dark redtoned mahogany skin was smooth and unlined except for one fine wrinkle that ran up from the top of his nose like a decoration. He was brandishing a newspaper and the line showed. "This is the end, man, I can't believe it. They're going to seize our land and throw us off!"
"The University can't seize anything. Keep your cool."
"For married student housing. They can't call this a slum, but these are black blocks and that's enough. We can move back and sleep in the ghetto streets." He let out his barbed laugh.
Tossing his stuff on the kitchen table Rowley took the neighborhood paper from Harlan and sat down to scan it. Harlan leaned against the sink drumming his fingers. She was glad she had straightened. Rowley and Harlan were bound in a sparring friendship from years before she'd met him. Harlan, a minor official in welfare, seemed to like her, but wafts of his wife Shirley's disapproval chilled the basement from time to time.
Handing her the paper Rowley pushed to his feet. "Their real estate lobby put through legislation downstate that lets them move to prevent slums. But I can't believe they expect to ride over so many people without protest. This announcement is to open the bargaining."
"The University doesn't bargain, not with us. They're South Side slumlords, at the same time they've set up dummy organizations to keep their backyard white. You think I didn't try to buy a house over there? Every time I found one it would mysteriously go off the market."
She looked up from the map. "Surprise number two. I notice on the big renewal plan that my own building's been added. I'm getting evicted too. It's not a fancy building, but it's solid cheap housing of a sort that's getting rarer and rarer —"
They both looked at her blankly and Rowley mumbled something about, So move in, and then they turned back man to man and resumed. As if there was room. As if Shirley would put up with that. She had been about to make a point about new construction, anyhow. Most of the women Rowley had dealt with, and they'd been many, had been casual lays and he was not above treating her that way in front of old friends, though if she challenged him about it he claimed she was imagining.
Rowley was pacing. "A university is a sensitive body. Can be embarrassed. Pressured."
"A university, man, is a biggish corporation. If it acts like General Motors or U.S. Steel, why be surprised? Who are the trustees, anyhow?"
"Look, I'll ask around the station and see if I can find out what this means. I can't see how a private corporation can get eminent domain over people's homes."
Harlan unpropped himself from the sink. "Depends on who the people are, looks like."
"You want to leave me the paper?"
"No." Harlan smiled at his own truculence but took it anyhow as he left.
Involuntarily she took a breath and braced herself. Whenever they were alone she felt her internal balance shift, she drew together more compactly. He smiled from his wideset tilted eyes and stooped to kiss her. She tasted beer and the remnants of spice on his tongue, leaning into him and holding tight. Good to be back. Um, tired. She felt like curling up in his arms and being loved.
"Annie —" He tilted her head back. "Want to go to a party?"
"Nothing much. Just Caroline Frayne is back from Europe."
She shrugged. "I didn't expect her to turn up again around here. I though she'd gravitate to more glamour."
He tangled his hand in her hair. "Leon called, said we should drop over. I said we would."
She pulled free. Without asking her, again. "How is he?" She went into the bedroom to put herself together.
"How is Leon ever? The same jagoff. He's on a rampage about his exwife. I don't know what he thinks she's doing, but he's sure it's his business." He lolled on the bed stroking the cat. "Feed Yente?"
"Sure." She combed her hair. "You're friends with Leon only because you roomed with him. If you met him cold at a party you'd think, there's a loudmouthed operator."
He shrugged evasively, tumbling Yente. "You're too hard on him."
"I hardly know him," she said equably. As she reached for her purse, he pinched her behind, and she cried out. "I don't like that!"
"Then you shouldn't have such a sweet ass or wear tight skirts."
She tugged at her striped overblouse. "Is my skirt too tight?"
"No, Christsake, come on." He steered her out. Rowley's apartment was on the ground floor, a couple of feet below the dirt line. They left by ducking around the broad staircase that went straight up to the Williams' front door.
As she climbed in her side of the VW, she noticed his guitar in back. "Are you going to perform tonight?"
He shrugged. "You didn't say how you liked my show?"
"It was very interesting."
"Interesting — what does that mean? Did you like it?"
"Your selections are always first rate."
"What are you getting at, Annie?"
"Nothing!" If only she had told him right out she had missed half his program, but he had Harlan with him when he came in. He had called her in Cleveland to ask her if she would be back Friday in time, and it was unlike him to fuss so much, and puzzling. They had left the predominantly black blocks where Rowley lived and drove through the campus, quiet between terms.
"All right, damn it, what are you not getting at?"
"I don't know why you will sing that sort of thing!"
"I see. You're having a bourgeois puritan hangup about a fine old song, The Barnyards of Delgatty."
"You'll say a lot of people like it." Something knocked in her stop, stop, but she could not. "Well, some of your friends would encourage you to eat glass if you took that into your head. If you started stripping at parties, they'd say it was wonderfully earthy."
He stepped on the gas and burst into the thing again loud as he could, which was loud. Looking sideways at him with his black hair rumpled, his moustache waving, his big head flung back, she smiled and could not believe they were quarreling. He was taking out his annoyance at her leaving town. Through the brick leafy streets of faculty houses as he stomped on through the song she cast about for some way to signal her apologies.
But he said loudly, "So lady sociologists find me vulgar. I wouldn't offend you for the world, baby, but I'm just naturally offensive. It's all those yes-men stoking my ego." He parked and hopped out to cross Leon's, between a secondhand bookstore and a closed-down coffeehouse. Leon had lived for years in one of a row of faded red concession stands put up for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and used ever since for shops or artists' studios or apartments.
He strode ahead and she trotted after. His rambling, loose-jointed walk. She wanted him. If only she could take a deep breath and start over. "Why is Leon giving the party? Is Caroline his girl now?"
"Back when he was married I think he screwed around with her. Used her in a film."
"Which pray god he doesn't show tonight."
But Rowley would not smile, rapping on the door. Leon let them in, framed in the lit door with his bulky hirsute body and massive head like a chimpanzee. He grinned at Rowley who gave back the same calculating grin as they sidled round each other.
"How are you making it?" Leon said in his high harsh voice. As if contemptuous of height he slumped, leaning to look up at Rowley out of narrowed eyes.
"Not busted yet. How's the single life?"
They spoke and looked at each other with the same mixture of distaste and curiosity and warmth. Leon shrugged. "Doesn't make much difference, my marriage was never what you'd call a fulltime thing. It wasn't something all-over demanding like going steady or being engaged — hey, Caroline?" He turned toward the couch — a piece of Danish modern that looked as if an unclean elephant had nested there. Caroline sat beside another, younger girl, thin and black. When Caroline caught their gaze, she held up her hand with the diamond.
Excerpted from Going Down Fast by Marge Piercy. Copyright © 1969 Marge Piercy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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