Thursday, May 29, 2008

Marie's Golden Cue

Photo by Paul Goyette

A couple Sundays ago my husband and I played pool, something I haven’t done in years. I’d been invited to an appreciation party for volunteers of the Old Town School of Folk Music, a Chicago institution that recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. I’ve never attended an OTSFM volunteer party, but this one took place about two blocks from my house, in an old pool hall named Marie’s Golden Cue. I’ve been a volunteer at Old Town for about 3 years off and on, depending on how busy I am at work and how high my tolerance for crowds and strangers is. I’m a secret agorophobe, so having to help strangers find their seat in a concert hall or selling artist merchandise to crowds of people waving twenty dollar bills at me can sometimes be terrifying. On the other hand I’m also a secret extrovert; I sometimes like to pretend that I’m in a rock and roll band, and I enjoy the questionable authority that comes from wearing a name tag that says “Volunteer”.

Volunteering at Old Town, besides being a nice thing to do for a great institution, has its benefits. If you volunteer at a concert, you get to see most of it for free. I was introduced to the music of Alejandro Escovedo through volunteering a couple years ago, and I got to see Tinariwen and Mamadou Diabate last fall, which was amazing.

There’s also a system of points that you earn through volunteering, and after accumulating enough you can register for a free class, I’ve taken a few guitar and dance classes this way. Volunteering can be fun - if you’re at the right concert, and work with a good group of volunteers, it’s not a bad way to spend an evening. It can also be quite taxing, as I discovered when I made the mistake of volunteering for teen open mic night. I spent the evening sitting at a card table next to an angry, barrel shaped man who yelled at the kids like they were delinquents. I kept my nose in a book to avoid conversation, but he wanted to know what I was reading – The Story of French, a fascinating book by Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, but just knowing the title wasn’t enough. The angry man gave me his opinion of the French judicial system, denounced the Napoleonic code as barbaric, and put me on the defensive for a civil code that was written a hundred and sixty seven years before I was born, in a country that I’ve never lived in. I went home exhausted. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I volunteered at Old Town.

My only experience of Marie’s Golden Cue up to now had been as my polling place, I’ve cast my vote within its walls in every election since I moved to this neighborhood, and it tickles me that the site of my civic duty occasionally sports lettering on their 1950’s era astro style marquee sign spelling out things like “we have smooth shafts and the clean balls”.

Marie’s Golden Cue is located in a 1930’s deco storefront with white glossy terra cotta tiles. Across the street is a funeral home, and one door over is the El Gallo Carniceria y Fruteria, and the Clothespin Laundromat bearing a sign that reads “Open at 6am only for you”. Gentrification hasn’t quite made it to this block of Chicago, although it has touched just a few blocks north in the form of Starbucks, and in the countless condos that have sprung up in recent years. The picture window is hand painted with the words “Cue Stick Repair Shop, Professional Workmanship”, and if pool isn’t your game, there are a handful of video games and a coin operated claw machine at the front to keep you busy.

Although Chicago is now officially smoke free, there’s plenty of evidence of Marie’s smoky past – beneath the rails of each of her 20 Brunswick pool tables are dark burn marks from cigarettes smoked long ago. I took a moment to read the signage on the walls, and there was plenty of it; fading signs written in pre-Helvetica script with directives like “Masse shots are not allowed”, “rule of the house – keep your butt and your butts off the table”, and “I once gave up pool, it was the most terrifying weekend of my life.”

The front desk featured a hot dog spit slowly spinning three wrinkled franks; it was the most well lit object in the whole place. The spinning mechanism moved in starts, resting every few seconds, then soldiering on for another cycle. Behind the desk and out of reach on a back shelf were boxes of instant ramen noodles in Styrofoam bowls. Like the rest of the house, there was plenty of signage. A caricature of a chef beamed next to one that read “Snack Bar Special #1 - 2 Hot Dogs, Chips, Sm. Drink $4.50 plus tax”. The price had been written in black marker on a sheet of 8x10 paper and taped over the original price. There was also a Snack Bar Special #2, which advertised “Polish Sausage, Chips, Sm. Drink $4.25 plus tax”.

My fellow volunteers were scattered about the room, some huddled against the wall in observation, others enjoying a slice of free pizza and a dixie cup of soda near the video games, and some playing lighthearted games of pool with each other. My husband picked up a rack from the front desk, brought a couple of cue sticks down from the wall, and someone at the front desk flipped a switch that lit up our table.

My husband set up the balls and made the break. It had been a while since either of us had played, so it took a few turns before either of us sank one; he took stripes, I had solids. Leaning over the table to get my shot I was transported to a different game played years ago, in a pool hall on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I don’t remember how old I was exactly - nineteen, maybe twenty, and I was home for the summer. It had been a few years since I’d lived in Brooklyn, my mother and I had moved to Pelham – a suburb just north of the Bronx, right after I finished junior high because my mother was engaged to a widowed Catholic man who she met at work, and he lived in Pelham with his four children. We moved to a nondescript two bedroom apartment on the other side of town rather than move into his house – he didn’t want to live with my mother before they were married. They broke it off before the end of the school year, but we couldn’t move back right away because my mother had rented out the brownstone in Brooklyn, so I left home and went to boarding school in Poughkeepsie for the remainder of high school.

Ninth grade is a fragile time to move, and I lost touch with everyone I’d known in Brooklyn. We moved just a few miles away, but may as well have moved across the country. My mother recently sent me a few boxes of my old things, and I found an autograph book with signatures of classmates from the end of junior high at I.S. 88.

“To J,” one begins, “I really had some fun with you, don’t tell my mom. Do not allow weeds to grow on the road to friendship. I love you. Love, Gabby 24 E. 2nd St.” Folded in half along the crease of the page is a late pass dated 6-20-85 for Gabriella Napolitano, she was late for Mr. Neilson’s language arts class. Everything on the slip is written in pencil, in Gabby’s handwriting, except for the time – 9:32 am, written in ink in Mr. Neilson’s handwriting.

There are signatures of the popular girls I idolized – the two Francescas, Amanda, and Abby – whose real name was Almond. Someone named Simon wrote “I already wrote something in the other one”, and Adam Ableman wrote “I hope you have a dandy time in Pelham with all them goyem”.

My best friend Anna wrote “Dear J, Well it’s been 4 years that we’ve known each other. God! Now we’re both going to H.S. It’s going to be hard for the both of us regardless of what town we’re in. But look at the good side – no more Mr. Ashkar or Mme. Winkler! Yeah! So let’s keep in touch. Love, Anna”. In the corner in all caps she wrote “ONLY WIERDOS READ CORNERS”. We’d first met in the fourth grade at the local temple’s after school gymnastics program, we were both latchkey kids and needed a place to go after school before our mothers came home from work.

By the seventh grade she’d blossomed into the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in real life. While I had become more awkward over time – I’d gotten a pair of pink plastic framed glasses in the fifth grade, and braces in the sixth, she’d become lithe and elegant. She went to modeling classes where an instructor taught her how to tweeze her eyebrows, started wearing makeup to school, and blow drying her dark blonde hair. I felt possessive of her, and intensely jealous as all the boys who’d previously ignored us flocked to her, almost helplessly, while I remained in the background with my mass of frizzy hair and lack of social skills. I wasn’t with her when the photographer took pictures for her portfolio; I only saw the slides later. Here, a picture of Anna posing coyly on a park bench, there a picture of Anna leaning against a tree. When I saw her kissing Nico outside the candy store on 16th street where we played Pac-man and hung out after school, it was as if I’d been stung by an electric eel. Nico was my lab science partner, and I’d developed a monster crush on him. With tears in my eyes I asked Anna why she’d kissed him – as if she could give me a reason that I’d find acceptable.

In the eighth grade she started dating Drew, a kid from the neighborhood. He was older than us, probably only by a couple years, but he seemed like a grown man to me. One night we all hung out in Prospect Park with two 40 ounce bottles of Olde English 800 that Anna and I had bought from a corner store, the clerk didn’t even ask to see our I.D. Drew’s friend Stan was there, and Anna had said that Stan liked me. Where Drew was tall and mysterious - a man of few words, Stan was a little thick around the middle, wore Cazal glasses like D.M.C., and talked a mile a minute. We drank too much, and Stan offered to walk me home. Anna took me aside and whispered:

“Don’t let him take advantage of you!” She was kidding, but I was terrified. I’d never gotten drunk before, and had heard about boys who took advantage of situations like this. I practically ran home, looking over my shoulder every few paces to make sure I wasn’t being followed. When I got home I threw up, lay down on my bed, and watched the ceiling spin until I fell asleep. A few months later my mother and I moved to Pelham.

The summer when I came back, I ran into them again – Anna, Drew, and Stan. Anna and Drew weren’t dating anymore, and the four of us began spending evenings on the stoop of my mother’s brownstone. It was deep summer, too hot to stay inside. My bedroom was on the top floor of the house, and at night I’d put a fan in each window – one facing out, the other facing in, for maximum air flow, and took a quick shower to cool off before trying to sleep through the sticky Brooklyn night. Gradually it became clear that Drew had become interested in me. My years away had given me the advantage of disappearing for most of my awkward phase, and I had returned appearing more comfortable in my own skin. I wore contact lenses, the braces had been removed from my teeth, and I had figured out how to tame my frizzy hair.

One evening someone suggested a game of pool, so we all headed for Brownstone Billiards on the corner of Flatbush and 7th Avenue. Drew was wearing a purple silk shirt that made his plum black skin look iridescent under the streetlamps, and when he looked at me I felt like I’d been hit in the chest with a bb gun.

It was a weeknight, and not many tables were in use. I didn’t know how to play, so Drew taught me how to line up a shot, standing close to me and reaching around my waist to adjust the cue stick in my hand.

“You gotta line up the shot”, he said, his breath tickling my ear, “and then follow through.” I was entranced.

It was still early when we finished playing, so we walked back to my mother’s house and sat in the kitchen, sipped ginger ale, and traded stories. After a while Anna left, and then Stan, and it was just me and Drew. We talked, leaning forward on our elbows, faces getting ever closer.

“Can I kiss you?” Drew asked, looking right into my eyes. At nineteen years old I had kissed exactly four boys: Dan, the Jewish kid from the suburbs of Philadelphia who I met at summer camp; Paul, the boy from Pelham High School who tricked me into kissing him one day when he walked me home - I avoided him for the rest of the school year; Mick, the troubled kid who I met in upstate New York at a Quaker youth retreat; and Mark, my high school sweetheart, who was the most non-threatening boy you could ever hope for. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this moment.

“No,” I said, surprising us both, “But ask me again sometime.”

After that I got a job, so I couldn’t hang out as much. I remained awkward, Drew remained mysterious, and eventually the summer ended.

Back at Marie’s, I won a game and lost two. There were cardboard boxes full of t-shirts that had a drawing of a guitar and a banjo leaning against each other, and the word “Volunteer” printed in capital letters underneath; if you won a game, you got to take a t-shirt. My husband didn’t want one but I did, so I sifted through the pile until I found one in my size in a mustard orange color. We left the pool hall, walked home in the unseasonably cool weather, and settled in for the evening.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

All paths lead to Whole Foods

Why is it that all paths lead to Whole Foods? I got on my bike today to yet again search for the elusive trail that I’ve heard exists on Lawrence, just north of my house. My husband called me at 1:50pm to tell me that it was beautiful outside, and that if I didn’t go out and enjoy it I’d regret it. Good weather is hard to come by in Chicago, and I’d already spent the entire morning playing online scrabble. A friend of mine introduced me to scrabble a few months ago, and I’ve quickly become an addict, sometimes playing as many as half a dozen online games at a time. I’m not that good, but that doesn’t stop me.

On the "Host" and "Join" tables people post their stats, and their preferred dictionary (TWL, the standard American dictionary; SOPWODS, the standard British dictionary; French, or Italian). Your stats get posted automatically – I’m currently 1294, and I can’t tell you what that means. When you request a game, you must ask for either a regular or challenge game, and dictate the speed – fast, moderate, or slow. You also have to chose “yes” or “no” to the question “Is this request for Adult users only?”, because, amazingly, people troll the scrabble boards looking for someone to talk dirty with. At any given moment you can read game requests like:

“**** PLZ READ **** scrabulous is 1st & foremost but open 2 NAUGHTY CHAT (women only). no cheats or i will delete. similar ratings. *** TYPE 2625 TO LET ME KNOW THAT U'VE READ THIS OR I WILL DELETE.*** thx”

I’ve lost as many games as I’ve won, partly because I’m foolish enough to try playing French games occasionally. Judging from the comments on the Join Table, people must accidentally start games with French speakers all the time before realizing their mistake, typical French requests read like this:

“Partie RAPIDE et EN FRANÇAIS SEULEMENT avec joueur +1600 SVP **************** FRENCH FRENCH FRENCH *”

The trouble with playing scrabble in French, besides the fact that it’s not my native language, is that people communicate with their opponents via instant messaging, and I don’t understand French texting. I sweat it out, trying to look up incomprehensible abbreviations on, only to reply with meek statements like “Jai trop de voyelles” (I have too many vowels), or “je suis encore vivant” (I’m still alive). I never fess up that it’s not my langue maternelle, but I have a feeling they figure it out – I typically lose by about a hundred points. So far on the French boards I’ve lost to Richard D. 250 to 338, Sylvie D. 221 to 333, and to Marc G. 267 to 356 – even after scoring 43 points for EX, and, inexplicably, 45 points for FREAK – who knew it was a French word?

Panicked by my husband’s warning that I would regret it if I didn’t get outside to enjoy the weather, I stopped what I was doing on the scrabble boards, and jumped on my bike without any real destination in mind. I headed north a bit, looking for the elusive trail I mentioned earlier, and ended up at Granville, then headed east to the bike path along the lake. The bike path is great, but on sunny Saturdays it can be treacherous – everyone was out: rollerbladers, bikers, and couples strolling hand in hand, it makes for some of the most dangerous biking in the city. I navigated my way south to Belmont, and turned off into boys town because the wind was getting to me, and I was feeling a bit peckish. I biked up Broadway looking for a suitable spot; the neighborhood was teeming with Saturday traffic. Outdoor seating had sprouted up everywhere, but I didn’t want to stop at any of the bustling cafes – an unshowered 37 year old woman seated alone at a cafe in boys town is a tragedy; but at Whole Foods its par for the course.

I worked at Whole Foods years ago as a cashier, and as a result the grocery chain has created in me a sense of familiarity and safety that I’ll never shake – like a grown bird might find comfort in its fledgling nest. And so I found myself perusing the salad bar at the Whole Foods in boys town on a Saturday afternoon. I chose my greens, and proceeded to the front end, where the cashiers are located. My cashier was a young man with spiky dyed black hair, copious amounts of black eyeliner, and black nail polish. He had a pallid complexion, and was reedy as a bamboo stalk. Next to him was a copy of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, one of my all time favorite reads. As a former Whole Foods cashier, I feel compelled to make conversation with others of my ilk. I once went shopping at the Whole Foods in Cambridge with my mother, and after observing the exchange between me and the cashier, she asked:

“did you know him?”

“No,” I explained, “I’m just nice to cashiers.”

There’s an understanding between cashiers, an understanding that you too have had to memorize long lists of PLU codes for fruits and vegetables – both organic and conventional, numbers that mean nothing to the customer but are vital to charging them correctly. After a few months I had the entire produce inventory memorized; it was like learning the vocabulary of a language that had no grammar, no native speakers, and no practical application in the outside world, and yet it adhered to my brain quicker than any other language I’ve studied.

“Reading ‘In Cold Blood’?” I asked my new friend, stating the obvious.

“Yeah, it’s going pretty slowly,” he said, opening the book and fanning through the pages to where he’d inserted a bookmark, “but it’s starting to pick up.”

“Once it gets going you won’t be able to put it down,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard. This is the first true crime novel I’ve read.”

“Have you seen the movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman?” I asked, hoping to engage in mutual admiration of PSH.

“You know,” the cashier said, cocking his head slightly and putting the book down, “that movie was like white noise to me.”

“Really?” I asked as flatly as possible.

“Yeah, it just – I watched it, but I was like… it just…”

“It just wasn’t for you?” I interjected helpfully.

“Yeah, it just wasn’t for me.”

“Catherine Keener was in it,” I said, hoping that this would salvage the movie in my new friend’s kohl-rimmed eyes.

“Yeah, you know, she’s great. I loved her in ‘John Malkovich’. Have you seen the original ‘In Cold Blood’?”

“No,” I replied.

“It’s from the 50’s, Robert Blake is in it, it’s great.”

“Wow,” I said. “I’ll have to check that out.” He told me what I owed him for the salad, and I paid him.

“Enjoy the book,” I said.

“Okay, thanks, enjoy your lunch.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blue line, 8:30 am

On the el this morning two women, one sitting directly behind the other, applied makeup as the train barreled towards the loop. The one in front patted powder onto her face with staccato movements while her counterpart held a mirror in one hand, and imprisoned an eyeball with a lash curler in the other. Several people watched them, two women engaged in unintentional synchronized grooming. Morning theatre for the nine to five crowd.

It reminded me of a moment in Boston years ago when every person who walked past me giggled, or made some inexplicable facial expression as they passed. Finally someone stopped me and said “look who’s following you.” I stood in my tracks as a couple, deep in discussion, approached – the woman wearing the exact same floral print dress as me. I was amused and disgusted – only in Boston, I decided, would strangers make a point of letting me know that I was wearing the same dress as the next woman.

The woman with the powder was quite pregnant – at least six months. The eyeball woman, having completed her ablutions, watched as the powdery woman in front of her began applying lipstick.

We got off at the same stop – the powdery woman and I, and in the moment after she stood from her seat, but before everyone exiting the train made a mad crush for the open doors, I saw that the eyeball woman was pregnant too – and at about the same stage in her pregnancy.

Once off the train, everyone headed for the same exit, and began forcing their way up the stairs like spawning wildlife. I stopped at the elevator bank – the door was open, and while I’d have to pay for this shortcut in the form of inhaled piss molecules, it would be worth the price to bypass the teeming masses on the stairs.

I stepped inside and pressed the button for the street level. Just before the door closed, the powdery pregnant woman stepped in, and we shared a short, silent, aromatic journey.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Saturday morning

“Hello, have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” They looked so unassuming, three teenage girls who walked up the front steps of my house and rang the doorbell on the first truly nice Saturday in Chicago in recent memory. I wasn’t expecting this, we don’t get a lot of foot traffic out where I live – nobody even knows the name of my neighborhood. I always tell people I live near Albany Park, and even then most people don’t know what I’m talking about. Generally I say “end of the brown line”, which prompts the question “how far west is that?” “About thirty four hundred west”. “People live that far west?” The kicker is, I don’t even live west of Pulaski, and if you ask any true West Side native, they’d tell you my house is on the North Side.

I felt sorry for the girls, and couldn’t bring myself to be rude to them. Maybe that was the point in sending out young girls to do the business of old religion – how could I do anything but politely smile, nod, and as tactfully as possible explain that I have no true religious beliefs. “Well,” I finally said, “I’m not religious, so I don’t really think about Jesus.”

“Oh”, the lead one – the only one who’d spoken, said. “Well, do you believe in the bible, or…”

“I wasn’t raised religiously”, I said.

“Oh. Well . I was, so it’s… you know – different.”

“I’m sure it is,” I thought, but held my tongue.

“Well, we’d like you to at least take this,” she said, extending a pamphlet titled “How can you be sure you won’t go to hell when you die?”

“Okay”, I said, and took the pamphlet.

“Have a good day” the lead girl said.

“Thanks, you too. Good luck,” I said, and I meant it. I walked back inside and heard my upstairs neighbors’ doorbell ring. I knew they were gone for the weekend – although they are practicing Christians. I opened the door again.

“My upstairs neighbors are gone for the weekend.”

That’s all I can think of to say about that particular incident. There was another time when someone tried to sell us a home security system, and the occasional alderman, but other than that, we really don’t get much foot traffic out by us – south of Albany Park, east of the West Side, north of fashionable addresses everywhere, and too far west for most people to know about.