Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life in the Middle Lane

Just So You Know

I was born in Chicago, but please don't hold that against me. I wasn't there long enough to get involved in any Chicago politics and I never met any Chicago politicians. My earliest memories of those days are foggy recollections of visits to my grandmother's apartment somewhere on Paulina Street and the interior stairways of the apartment building where we lived until we moved to a suburb called Morton Grove.

I have some less vague and a few vivid memories of the Morton Grove years. I remember that my dad had our house built there and gave himself an ulcer over keeping track of all the subcontractors who he had hired to do the work. He was on a bland liquid diet for awhile while he de-stressed and healed from the ordeal. I have a photo of that house, but all I remember first-hand is that it had a driveway made of sharp white stones which I managed to fall on a couple of times. I fell hard enough and did enough superficial damage that it alarmed my parents sufficiently to warrant a trip to the emergency room for x-rays of my knees. The x-ray table was cold and the knee did hurt, but I've had worse falls since then and I've never bothered to do much more about them than clean myself up and keep moving. I also remember my mom getting her car stuck in that driveway after it had been raining. I think the car must have sunk into the underlying mud that was all that supported the gravel. There was something sinister about that knee-crunching, car eating gravel. I know that my mother used to curse the stuff and try to talk my dad into having the driveway paved. Eventually, I believe he did. I have a vague recollection of hanging around with the concrete finishing crew, but that could have been some other driveway in some other town.

I remember walking to school in Morton Grove, but I don't recall actually attending. I remember my parents taking evening walks around the neighborhood with me in tow, and I remember insisting that they pull me in my little wagon when I got tired of walking. Other than my parents and my brother who showed up after I turned three, I only remember two other people from that neighborhood, a girl my age and her father. The girl's name was Florence. My mom's name is Florence, too, though I've never called her that, but I'm sure that's why I remember the neighbor girl's name. The girl, Florence, had webbed toes, just a couple of them of each foot, and I recall her being very reluctant to let anybody see them. I was among the privileged few that got a sight of them, and I was disappointed to find the little webbed digits not at all grotesque, but actually kind of cute. I had dinner with the young lady and her parents a few times and what stands out the most about those occasions is the coaching I got from her father on the subject of my table manners. He was nice about it, but it is obvious to me that at that age I had no social graces whatsoever. It took a long time for me to learn to impersonate a well-behaved human being, and I still struggle with the concept on occasion. I have never developed the automatic social machinery that most people seem to have. I don't recall anyone every explaining to me the necessity of having social graces, or even that there were such things. It just wasn't something we talked about in our family. I imagine I was just supposed to absorb it from the environment. Unfortunately, I was a non-absorbent kind of guy and without any idea of how to grease the social machinery I was doomed to be awkward, strange and defenseless throughout my childhood. I eventually developed an ability to interact with other humans, but it's not something that has ever come naturally to me and I didn't get a firm grasp on it until after I had been married for a several years. Given my lack of facility in human interaction, it's a wonder that I ever found anyone who would be willing to live with me, let alone marry me. The fact is, I got lucky. My wife, Carol, has done a magnificent job of socializing me to the point where it is almost safe to take me out in public. Plus, I found an explanation for manners and polite social interaction while reading a Robert Heinlein book. One of his characters, Lazarus Long, said that manners are the grease that keeps the social machinery working. That makes sense to me and bearing it in mind has helped me through some sticky situations over the years.

From Morton Grove, we moved down-state to Peoria, Illinois. The word "peoria" means "fat lake" in some American Indian language. Peoria Lake is a wide spot in the Illinois River, it is full barges, flotsam, jetsam, dead fish and pleasure boats. The City of Peoria is on the west side of the river. East Peoria is on the other side of the river. We'll talk about East Peoria later.

When we first moved to Peoria, we rented a house with a swimming pool. I almost drowned in that pool once. That didn't deter me from jumping into the pool whenever I could, even though I didn't know how to swim, it just taught me to stay in the shallow water. We had a dog at that time named Patches. I used to wrestle with him in the yard. He was a great dog, but very hyper. He liked to run, and my parents thought that was a fine thing for him to do, since when he was tied up he barked all day long. So, Patches would eat breakfast at the house and then run all day all over the neighborhood. Eventually he ran in front of a car. That's one of the days I remember while we lived in that house, the day Patches died. I also remember having some trouble with my penmanship, or at least being in trouble for having illegible handwriting. I spent countless hours copying from storybooks in an attempt to improve my handwriting skills. It didn't do much good. My handwriting is still very hard to read, even for me. If I'm making a note that I want to be able to read later, I usually write it in block letters.

Being the new kid in town, I didn't really have friends while we lived there. My parents made some friends in that neighborhood, but this was all before I developed any sort of skill at interacting with other humans, so I road my bike around the neighborhood, hoping someone would notice me. Mostly, they didn't, or at least not in a way that inspired anyone to welcome me into whatever kid group there might have been at that time and in that place. I suppose that if we had stayed longer I might have acquired a friend or two, but, for some reason, we moved to East Peoria.

We weren't the sort of family that gathered around the dining room table and had discussions about our future plans, so I never knew why we moved to East Peoria, all I know is that the move proved to be a big mistake for the whole family. Well, maybe not for my dad, but the rest of us were destined to be pretty miserable in East Peoria. My dad is one of those people who seems to hit the ground running no matter where he lands. He was, is and ever shall be a salesman, and he had that salesman's gift of being able to talk to anyone about anything. He could, and, no doubt still can, walk up to a total stranger, introduce himself, talk with that person for awhile and then walk away knowing that person's name, occupation, address and phone number. He's got the gift, I tell you. He can sell anything to almost anyone. It a shame that none of that ability rubbed off on me, but if there is one thing in my repertoire of skills that is missing, that thing is salesmanship. Of course, being a salesman is dependent upon the ability to interact with other humans, and, as we have already established, I was severely deficient in that area. Ah, but no time to worry about that now, we were moving to East Peoria, a fresh start, an open book, new opportunities. Yeah, sure.