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Saturday, January 26, 2013

There's No Place like a Stranger's Floor

by Heather Rick


I was walking southeast on Milwaukee and my tights were slipping down my legs. It was the kind of winter day that feels like a December without a Christmas. The world was wrapped in cold, damp cotton, the fog stinging my pores and nostrils like rubbing alcohol. The advent of winter in Chicago is always presaged by a weight in your stomach, as though your intestines are processing lead. It’s a pressure that makes you hate the scowling streets, makes you want to duck into bars to drink whiskey shoulder-to-shoulder with other denizens of the loosing daylight hours, and to see yourself reflected in the steel walls and concrete bellies of the city, just to know you aren’t a ghost in all this grey and ice.

In defiance of the weather and the city-wide depression, I wore a blue flowered dress with a white ribbon around the waist and a long bouncing skirt, something that Alice would have worn to tea in Wonderland. The blue tights were beginning to puddle around the tops of my Doc Martens. I couldn’t pull them up because I was carrying my entire life in my arms down a wet, hazy half-mile of Milwaukee.

A blue duffel bag, embroidered with my ex-girlfriend’s name and high school volleyball number, bulged with weeks of unwashed socks and panties, crumpled jeans and un-ironed skirts, t-shirts snagged from her closet. They smelled like cigarettes, like her roommates’ pot, and the angry rumpled clothes of her bed, all stuffed into the bag on our last morning together. Her apartment had been covered in vomit and beer cans from a party the night before, and I’d had to dig my things from beneath blissfully blacked-out people. The fact that she hadn’t even offered me breakfast rankled in my stomach, still uneasy from last night’s beer and crying fits. Digging into my hip with each step, a brown paper shopping bag was square with books, records, notebooks, official pieces of paper that had ceased to anchor my life to any semblance of adulthood or normalcy.

I don’t know why I didn’t just put my bags down on the sidewalk, yank the thin nylon fabric up my stubbly legs, and look at myself reflected over vintage cocktail dresses and pearl-embroidered handbags in a boutique window, to watch the ghost of my blue hips and legs dance in fractured light against the ashy wet street. But I kept walking, letting the crotch of the tights work slowly down toward my knees. The strain in my arms and shoulders warmed my stiff muscles and limbs. I was cramped from sleeping on the living room floor with my ex, curled into the crescent wasteland of her body, the sound of boys shouting in the kitchen and the ground-into-your-bones-deep sound of the El trains outside sifting into my body through the cracks in the shifting tectonic plates of sleep.

I passed a group of squatter kids sheltering against the raw edges of the mist in the doorway of an abandoned storefront on Honore. They all had white faces the same color as the winter smog, crust punks in black clothes and combat boots, facial piercings bristling. One girl, with a tear-drop pearl of a face and long black hair, asked, “Can you spare a dollar so we can get something to eat?”

Her words made little vapor puffs on a thin babyish voice. I shook my head, panting under my load, almost limping from the rebellious tights and biting boots. Couldn’t they see I was walking around with my whole transient existence in my arms—my purse empty but for a CTA pass, a Walgreen’s-brand lipstick, and enough change for a coffee? Couldn’t they tell from my pallor and my lips the shade of artificially-colored frosting under 24-hour convenience store lights that I’d had nothing to eat all week but Pop-Tarts from vending machines and spoonfuls of Skippy peanut butter? I had almost as little as they did.

Maybe that’s why she asked me—another poor kid, half-crazy with desperation, would have more sympathy and willingness to split with a dollar than some hipster babe riding through Wicker Park in the diamond-scented arms of a trust fund, to whom shopping was a recreational activity. There was an offer of kinship in the girl’s question, a bond of youth and penury that we both suspected might exist.

I could have set my bags down in the slush like so many useless fragments of an old life, easily thrown away into the maw of winter. I could have yanked up my tights and dug out some quarters and a smile for the girl. I could have stayed and talked, told them about my troubles and listened to theirs. Our laughter would have bloomed through the murk, the kind of belly-quaking laughter that chases away hunger pains and warms the body and spirit like a couple shots of tequila, laughter that teases the beauty and humor out of shared misery.

But I walked on, solitary. It’s harder to shoulder through life that way, but it doesn’t require a sacrifice of vulnerability, the way trusting somebody enough to laugh is always like cutting out a length of intestine and tying one end to their wrist, a bloody mockery of the friendship bracelets we might have worn as girls, she and I, when that half-mile of Milwaukee, gray with the winter-beauty of our fractured youth, was as yet unthought-of. Who knows what I would have given to join her, as I made my way down Milwaukee Ave onto Wicker Park Ave into the tangle of residential blocks, cutting the frozen quiet of Ellen Street, to drop my burden on the concrete outside Mike and Stephen’s basement apartment. I rapped frost-chapped knuckles against the door and waited for people to wake up inside and let me in so the next phase of this failing decade could begin.


Heather Rick is a New England-based writer with a Midwestern heart. An art school drop-out, she is currently churning through the bowels of community college in the cultural wasteland of north-central Massachusetts. She is suspicious of writers with fancy degrees and believes in the power and importance of fucking up. She is currently working on a nonfiction book about her own fuck-ups.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

In Passing

by Eric Torgersen


I’m out walking, three quarters of a mile from my house, breaking in the hiking boots I’ve just bought because, at sixty-five, I’ve signed on to go backpacking, for the first time since the early 1980’s, and almost certainly the last time in my winding-down life, with my daughter Elizabeth, who’s forty years younger. We’ll be doing just a couple of nights, nothing all that strenuous, on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, near Munising on the Lake Superior shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but one reason I’m going is that Elizabeth says she’d otherwise go alone, and there are sheer cliffs, black bears and unknown human beings up there. I’m in decent shape and have only a couple of minor physical issues (right shoulder, left foot), but the truth is that besides breaking in the boots, which are cheap but seem to have good fit and support, I’m trying to make sure no part of this aging body is going to give out. I haven’t started carrying a pack yet, but I’m covering more distance each day.

As I reach the bridge over the Chippewa River, I notice two people coming toward me, on the same side of the road, starting down the hill I’m about to start climbing, almost a half mile ahead. As they come closer I can tell that they’re girls, and closer still, they’re something like fourteen and wearing only bathing suits. I’m sure they notice soon that I’m an old guy, not the boy they may have imagined, and I’m gray and unshaven and wearing a funny old-person hat no boy would risk being seen by girls in. Reasonably, about then, they cross to the other side of the road, as if they’re aware of some possibility or risk or, against all outward signs, want their privacy. Just as the imperative to stop looking—I don’t want to embarrass or bother them—overcomes that primary impulse to look, I see that the suit on the one on the left, the taller of the two, is nothing much more than three small patches of cloth over a body lean but ripening, and that the girl’s walk is that body-conscious adolescent walk of a girl who’s being looked at. As they pass I shoot them, while studiously not looking, a quick, awkward smile, intended to be grandfatherly and benign, which I’m almost sure they don’t see because they too are carefully looking away. I keep on climbing the hill and don’t look back.

Every couple of minutes, on this country road, a pickup goes by, doing sixty. I imagine some of them slowing down a little as they pass the girls.

And I’m puzzled. They must live up there somewhere where the houses are spread out, not concentrated in anything like a neighborhood, where taking a walk like that wouldn’t seem quite so out of place. Some kids go tubing on the river, but no one was there on the bridge to meet them as I crossed, and the girls aren’t carrying anything with them. They’re just out for a walk in those new bodies, but Jesus, dressed like that? That’s flat dangerous out here. As a parent, I wouldn’t have allowed it, and if I found out my daughter had snuck out and done that, she’d have been in big trouble. (I was too much of a pushover, to tell the truth, but my wife would have laid down the law.) We had big enough arguments over where she could go out running—we wanted her to go back and forth on our half-mile cul-de-sac, at least when it was either early or late, but she wanted to head out on the road I’m walking now, and a lot of the time, I’m pretty sure, she did.

I remember next that, when my daughter had a sleepover in junior high, five or six friends tenting in our back yard, we learned much later that two of those Catholic school eighth graders had snuck out in the middle of the night and walked to the Soaring Eagle Casino,  a couple of miles away. We never did find out what they did there. But there’s something about junior high girls I may have forgotten, if I ever knew it.

Then I remember the two girls who used to walk by the house I grew up in, not in bikinis—it was the fifties—but in very tight and very short shorts, with that I-know-you’re-looking walk. We, the boys, would watch them as they passed, calling them tramps to ourselves but getting a good look. I think I remember they came over and talked to us once, but I at least was too young for that to go anywhere. But those girls seemed to want to be seen, and there’s ordinarily no one at all on this empty stretch of road for these girls to be seen by. Still, I can’t quite believe they’re unaware of what the world makes, at a certain point which surely they know they’ve passed, of those bodies when it sees them.

Then I think: Poor kids. They go out for a walk where they live, where possibly in their own minds they’re stuck living, and in bodies they’re stuck living in too, and even a benevolent old guy like me gets all worked up about it. That’s a load they’ll carry on their backs for years.

So, okay, it’s still kind of puzzling, and making only this much sense so far: the girls in their bikinis were working on how to do fourteen-and-growing-up-fast, making a mistake I still think, that day, as I was working on how to do sixty-five-and-fading, climbing that hill in hiking boots, getting ready for one last long walk in the beautiful, dangerous world.

Eric Torgersen, born on Long Island, has spent the last 42 years in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He is Professor of English, emeritus, at Central Michigan University. His newest collection of poems is Heart. Wood. (Word Press, 2012). His essays have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review and other places. His website is

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


by John Palen


I had my own newspaper for a while, a one-man monthly in a small town halfway between Detroit and the Mackinac Bridge. I exposed racial discrimination in rental housing and the diversion of a third of a million dollars from a local non-profit. I wrote about conversion of landfill gas to electricity, and about a golf course that should have paid its way but didn't. Once I wrote about a school superintendent who used a district truck to move furniture from his house. I wrote a couple thousand stories over 10 years, and then I folded the paper and moved away.


“You must not have a very interesting personal life,” the city engineer commented pityingly one winter evening in the paper's early days. Others were less sympathetic. “I don't want to see that in the paper,” a board member snapped after saying something controversial in a public meeting. “Sorry, Frank,” I told him. “It's too late.” School board members reddened when I walked into a planning retreat in the Mandarin Room of the country club. Legally they couldn't throw me out, so they offered to feed me. I said no, took notes and wrote a story. In ensuing years they never got all the way to transparency, but at least they stopped meeting in the Mandarin Room.


A couple hundred people paid $35 a year to get the 24-page, digest-size paper in the mail each month. There were no ads. I made about $3.25 an hour. But I was able to share fresh accomplishments and frustrations with my college journalism students, and I kept current with how public schools and cities were governed and financed. At the time I started the paper, I had not written a news story for 16 years.


The genesis lay in a rash decision by a popular children's librarian to mail a sarcastic card to her boss. The boss always initialed memos with a squiggle resembling a fish hook, so the librarian taped a hook to the card—a No. 8 or 10 short shank, I believe. She covered the barb safely with tape, but the city manager saw a threatened assault and fired her. The local paper, a daily hollowed out by years of Hearst ownership, did little with the story, so I started researching a letter to the editor. Hours of digging unearthed a sad situation—steady decline in the library's services and circulation, and an angry exodus of trained librarians. I began to wonder why I was doing the local paper's job.  


The first issue of my paper went in the mail in December 1999. Page one described a program to build modest homes for low-income families. An inside page reported the library's problems, with a sidebar dashed off after a hugger-mugger board meeting: The boss whose initials resembled a fishhook had resigned! The local daily carried nothing on either story. From that day until it folded, my little paper ran in the black. 


The ricky-ticks were the best, the zoning board, park board, housing commission. I learned at aviation board meetings of ballooning subsidies for an airport used by only a few hobbyists. I learned at a neighborhood association gathering of plans to replace low-income housing with a fancy parking lot. Late one night around a table piled with stale pizza, I heard a planning commissioner propose rezoning for property he himself owned. 


It was artisanal journalism, and I loved it. Working alone on self-imposed deadlines, I could make the extra phone call, interview the additional source, polish the story until it shone. The only limits were my skill and energy. I scooped the local daily, whose editor knew more about The Book of Revelation than about the city budget, with a regularity that surprised even me. 


But I also got under some people's skin, and they didn't like that. Sometimes they reacted with anger; more often they simply pretended I didn't exist. Some of my best stories—about evidence of racial discrimination in rental housing, for example—were largely ignored. 


There were other downsides. The paper required a lot of work, often at night after a day of teaching. As time went on, with no one to answer to but myself, I didn’t always go the second mile—sometimes barely the first. My skill and energy had limits. So did my hearing. As it worsened I made mistakes and relied more on written reports, background papers and news releases. With less of the salt and pepper of real speech, my writing lost some of its savor.    


Toward the end, the school district hired a search firm to find a new superintendent. The process had a clubby feel, and I mentioned one day that all the finalists were white. “In a community like this,” the head hunter said, “we wouldn't have brought in anyone who didn't fit that profile.” It was a casual, one-on-one response in a hallway, but I could have gone after it. A few years earlier I would have. But I rationalized that I was tired and getting old and nothing would change. I let the story drop.


I kept the paper going a while longer, and then I sought a buyer, for a dollar. “I'm flattered,” one young journalist told me, “but you know, I just don't want to work that hard.” So I refunded outstanding subscriptions, said my goodbyes and shut the paper down. For three months I suffered pounding rebound headaches from self-medication for bruxism. Eventually my teeth stopped aching. I moved 400 miles away, to a larger city that was closer to grandchildren and vibrant with music and literature. 


I meant to attend local government meetings in the new place, just to be a good citizen. But I haven't, not a single one. Journalists say you're only as good as your last story. In my case, a story I no longer had the fire to write told me it was time to quit, time to seek that more interesting life in places other than City Hall.


John Palen’s poems have been published in little magazines and journals for more than 40 years. Mayapple Press brought out his Open Communion: New and Selected Poems in 2005 and his first collection of short fiction, Small Economies, in 2012. A retired journalist and journalism educator, he lives in Central Illinois.