For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
I moved to Chicago and into the kind of big-city sophisticated life I had invented as a child growing up in Duluth to explain why my Barbie doll needed such extensive wardrobe changes, a life that somehow had miraculously found me. My new home was a 57-story skyscraper in the heart of the Near North party zone; from my tenth floor apartment window I looked down on Newberry Plaza’s sparkling outdoor pool and marveled at how lucky I was.
James, my suave, much older lover, assured me that I did not have to work, but I had grown too accustomed to having a thick roll of dollar bills squirreled away. While I was happy to have James pick up the rent and the bar and restaurant tabs, it seemed weird to ask him for money to buy contact lens solution or Tampax.
I put on make up and a cute dress and took the elevator down to apply for a job at Arnie’s Steakhouse, a new restaurant on the ground floor of our building. I was interviewed by Arnie Morton himself for all of two minutes while he smoked a huge cigar and stared at my unimpressive chest. I was hired, but unfortunately Arnie thought a classy joint like his should have male waiters. I couldn’t even cocktail waitress, as the bar area was literally one huge shiny black bar, overseen by gruff, older bartenders in bowties and black vests.
Arnie pointed his cigar at my breasts and said “Coat check” and I found myself nodding. I remembered trudging through the snow to my waitress job at Pracna and thought how nice it would be to commute to work via elevator.
It was a horrible job. I sat on my ass in the tiny coat check room for hours, with absolutely nothing to do. The second day I brought a book, but the manager reached into my little nook, tapped me on the shoulder, and shook his head.
Eventually, as the weather cooled, the coat room filled and emptied several times a night. It was good that my expenses were so minor as the tip jar overflowing with one dollar bills did belong to me but was collected by the manager at the end of my shift. I was a sharecropper; I only got to keep a tip if the customer put the dollar bill directly in my hand. (To this day, even though not a single person I know who’s worked coat check has ever heard of such a policy, I always hand the coat check girl my buck.) I should have quit, but instead, wallowing in a stew of resentment and self-justification, I began dipping into the tip jar when no one was looking, and I amused myself by trying on the furs that were left in my care and pawing through coat pockets.
When I wasn’t at work, James and I were together almost constantly. He didn’t have a real job the way the men I knew had jobs. Today James would be a day-trader; in that pre-computer age he had to rely on the newspaper and the one TV station that had a rudimentary stock market ticker running on the bottom of the screen. James called his broker several times a day, buying and selling or just trading tips and market gossip.
I did not so much as make coffee in that brand new kitchen; I don’t think I even ran the dishwasher once. James and I had our coffee and an occasional omelet while reading the Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune, and the previous day’s New York Times in a booth at the Oak Street Diner. James focused on the business sections, patiently decoding the stock market quotes for me. Unfortunately, this was one part of my Jamesian education that didn’t stick. Then it was back to the apartment so James could watch the ticker and call his broker. Saturdays and Sundays, when the market was closed, we went out for bloody marys and eggs benedict and the Times crossword. I resented having to share the puzzle, but I always let James fill in the easier squares, which he did with a self-congratulatory “Aha!” before finishing the job myself.
On my nights off from Arnie’s, James took me out to eat, favoring restaurants in Greektown, a short cab ride north. It turned out that Rogers was taken from some longer Greek name, and even though he couldn’t speak a word of the language, James acted as if every chef and waiter in Greektown were a long lost cousin. I took me a while to get over my dislike of the piney-tasting Retsina James insisted on ordering, but I couldn’t get enough of the saganaki, melty cheese dramatically set on fire at our table by an always mustachioed Greek waiter. James never took me back to the Pump Room, though I made a point of looking longingly inside every time we passed.
At night when I was finally sprung from my coat check prison, my purse filled with dollar bills I believed rightfully mine, along with a few pilfered from coat pockets, I walked down State Street, turning right on the always mispronounced Goethe Street, to meet James at the backgammon club. The overwhelmingly masculine atmosphere discouraged me from sitting at a backgammon table myself. I watched from the bar for weeks before the dark-haired be-diamonded older lady who was always there beckoned me over for a game. She graciously allowed me to lower the stakes to a dollar a point. We were evenly matched, and most evenings I ended our games with losses too small to be mourned or wins not worth getting excited about, which was fine with me. James, on the other hand, reckless and wild-eyed on coke, was not satisfied with less than a crushing victory over his opponent, or he chased his losses until the bartender politely blinked the lights to show this was the last game of the night.
Like everyone young and fun, James and I went dancing at Faces on Friday and Saturday. Chicago wasn’t enough of a toddling town to have a riotous midweek disco crowd.
I didn’t do much during the day. In the beginning, desperate to keep my golden tan, a shade my skin had never before achieved, I chased every last bit of sun and warmth basking by the Newberry Plaza pool. During the week it was deserted, a lonely shimmering blue amethyst thrown down among the hulking low rise buildings of the Near North. I spent hours stretched out on one of the comfortable lounges, unread book in hand, wondering how I had got here and what would happen next.
I knew no one else in Chicago, and James didn’t seem to have any close friends, just people he knew from the backgammon club and Faces. There were no other women working at Arnie’s, no potential girlfriends to joke about the customers and complain about the manager with. I was teetering on the verge of loneliness, when the gay waiters at Arnie’s took pity on the captive of the coat room and adopted me. When the crabby manager’s back was turned, my waiter pals snuck me the bottles of wine that had a few inches left unpoured; every swig I took encouraged me to transfer a few more dollars from the tip jar to my purse.
My new friends dragged me along to their dance clubs, which unlike Faces, were wild and raucous every night of the week, strobe lights slashing through air thick with amyl nitrate, cigarette smoke, and the pong of male sweat. At this point, hanging out a in a gay disco while my waiter friends thrust their hips about, cast their eyes lustfully over the crowd, and exploded poppers under each others’ noses did not seem any weirder than anything else that had happened to me.
As Chicago’s bracing, exhilarating autumn made its inexorable way into chill grey winter, James’ portfolio began dropping faster than the thermometer. A major (and highly margined) part of his investments was in Highline, a company that made prefab houses, like the ones in Oklahoma trailer parks that are always being blown away by tornados. Months ago, when he was boasting about his financial acumen, James had taken me through some happy horseshit about Highline stock and sex, as for James everything came down to sex. A ham sandwich was about sex.
“A rising stock market makes people instinctively want to reproduce, to take advantage of increased resources. Combine that with the ongoing sexual revolution and there’s going to be even more people getting married and having babies” (here James gave an involuntary shudder) “so you take a growing population colliding with a tight housing market, and bingo, increased demand for prefab homes.”
This great insight was the story James told himself and me while the price of Highline stock was going up, up, up; when it juttered and headed south James distinctly remembered that the only reason he had bought this piece of shit stock was because his idiot broker recommended it.
A rich James was a happy James; a James watching his fortune evaporate was no fun. His moods followed the shifts in the price of Highline stock. Every tick downward meant more cigarettes smoked, more meals missed; his face became leaner and more feral. I filled up at breakfast at the diner, shoveling eggs and potatoes in while James threw back black coffee, angrily crumpled up the newspapers, crushed out another cigarette, and assured me that he was not going back to selling cars. I wasn’t sure what the alternative was, bank robbing maybe? What would be worse, living with a car salesman or a bank robber?
Then there would be a reprieve, Highline would recover, end the day a few points higher than where it had begun, and James would remember that it had been a while since we had eaten. He’d scoop me up and take me out somewhere nice, where after he had devoured every bite of steak, he relaxed with a cognac and his box of Dunhills and me, the young blonde trophy girl friend, back on top of the world, ma.
Even when I first moved in with James, he had spent most evenings and large chunks of the weekend in the club in the Ambassador. Now, as Highline stock zigzagged up and down, James grew even more obsessed with backgammon. He needed to prove to himself and to the world that he was not a nobody from Winnipeg, he was a man who rightfully belonged in the best restaurants, who was always seated at Faces’ VIP table, a man who played — and won — high stakes backgammon in an exclusive club. He wanted to look in the mirror and see a self-made, self-educated winner, a genius at picking stocks and knowing when to double. Anything approaching self-doubt turned him into a monster.
I couldn’t cope with James’s alternating rage and despair on days when both the market and the dice went against him. I started taking long walks along the lake front or in Lincoln Park, dead leaves gusting about my feet, while my mind worked at shutting out unpleasant thoughts. When Chicago’s hawk wind had blown the last leaf away and turned the outdoors against me, I took refuge in Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor, spraying on perfume, fingering dresses, and stroking shoes until it was time for me to be safely shut away in Arnie’s coat check. I swigged leftover wine, pocketed ones, and hoped my gay friends would keep me out till late. Even if James were already asleep when I slipped into bed beside him, his body was taut as a wire; I could hear his teeth gnashing.
Had my own amazing luck, my best good fairy gift, run out? I needed an escape plan. Should I pack up and go back to Minneapolis? Stay in Chicago and try to get a real job, find a roommate? Go out to Colorado, smash in with my mom and sister in that tiny, tacky, sad apartment?