So It Goes, Part 14: A 30-Year-old Letter to Myself
Coming back from class I trudged into the teeth of the cold north wind. If I could find a window seat on one of the El trains I could stay warm, because a trickle of heat oozed out of the space between the wall. I could take off your gloves and trap my body towards the stainless steel wall of the car to trap all the heat.
I would find my car parked on the street, and head home, thinking every moment of the student with the bright blond hair and the silver motorcycle jacket and who wiggled as she walked, as the song says. I listened to Graham Parker singing “Help Me Shake It.”
I stopped in the house and called my friend Chip, but he was not home from work yet. I was too pent up to eat or sit around. I headed to the newspaper office to turn in my column. While waiting in the reception area, I filled out an application for the Chicago Tribune, which was looking for copy clerks. I felt like a real working man. There was a nice-looking girl sitting at the desk. I tried to indicate to her that I actually worked on the paper, and was not just anybody, but when I was called in, she gave me a free paper and waved me off. Burns was well dressed and impressive: a real editor. He seemed fatherly as he gave me instructions on an article he wanted me to write.
On my way back I stopped at the drugstore. “Your column this week is really good,” said Laura, one of the cashiers, who rarely spoke to me. I switched some days with the other stock clerk, and avoided a long lecture about the state of the economy from Ernie the pharmacist. It felt good to walk into and out of the store when I didn’t have to work there.
Then I took the pittance I made at the pharmacy, got dressed up, and spent it all in one night. I took the girl with the blond hair to a fancy French restaurant on Halsted Street called L’Escargot. We sat high in the uppermost level of the Lyric Opera and squinted, trying to see The Barber of Seville. Then we went to Water Tower Place and had ice cream. As we walked back to my Fiat in the cold there was a little Italian woman ahead of us whose shawl was as garish as JoAnn’s. “Button up,” she told JoAnn. “You kids, I swear, I was just the same when I was your age.” We laughed, and held each other close for warmth.
The next day there was the magical feeling of the first snow of the season. I lay in bed and knew it had snowed even before looking out the window, feeling the thick, cottony air and the muffled sounds of footsteps. Then the unmistakable sound of a shovel scraping along the sidewalk, like something remembered from long ago. Looking up, I could see nothing because fingers of frost covered the window. Outside everything was white, even the trees, except for the gray slush of the cars in the street and the dark shapes of people struggling to clear away the still-falling snow. I wondered what the Rootweavers did in winter: they probably had it easy and were warm, living off what they had gathered in the fall.
I tried my best to capture some of this in my columns and in my notebooks at the time. But today I cannot recapture the feeling of freedom, of hope, of excitement, of being 21 and wanting to do so much, and not yet having lost very much. Now the girl with the blond hair is dead, and others are dead, and the paper and the drugstore and L'Escargot are gone. But it’s not painful looking back. And I don’t laugh. I am just happy to be alive.