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 what I foolishly thought would be a soft, cushy life, an escape from serving cheeseburgers on paper plates, fretting about money, and living in run-down, under-heated student apartments. I imagined my days would be nothing but reading novels, my head resting on the warm chest of my handsome, wealthy lover, James, while he studied the stock reports. Our glittery, glamorous nights we would spend in Faces, the proto-Studio 54 of Chicago, or in the elegant backgammon club hidden away in the stately Ambassador West Hotel.
What I got was a job as a coat check girl and a half-crazed James watching the value of his stock portfolio circle the drain. I was sorry to see the money go too, and I cared about James, but his black Heathcliffian moods terrified me; he seemed to want to smash things or kill someone.
I love roller coasters, but the one my life with James had turned into was all in the dark: I couldn’t see when the thrilling ascents or stomach-dropping lows were coming. I couldn’t even tell if the ride was over and I needed get off. After only a few months of living with James, was it time to go?
Just when I had mentally packed my suitcases, there outside my coat check jail was James with a wolfish grin and glittering eyes and announcing “I’m hungry. Let’s go eat.” His stocks had rallied, and James was clawing his way back up to his rightful place in the universe.
The market and James’ mood continued to improve. Now he had to cope with his firm belief that only schmucks, putzes, and losers spent the winter in Chicago. Every night at the disco or backgammon club, another of James’s acquaintances came over to say goodbye, off to Miami, Montego Bay, Scottsdale. My backgammon partner held my hands in her bejeweled ones, gave me two quick air kisses, wished me luck, and took herself off to her winter home in Palm Beach.
Despite his reduced fortune, there was no way James was going to be seen in Chicago after January 1. He would rather have hidden in an underground bunker for three months. He had lost a lot of money, but his unsinkable belief in himself made even the slightest gain in his portfolio proof that he was a winner, a winner who was getting the hell out of Chicago.
We were going back to Mexico. But we were not going back to the expensive, gorgeous condo on the beach; James prided himself on being an old Acapulco hand.
“We’ll get a great deal on a place that hasn’t already been rented for the season. I know how to bargain them down.” And to save money on airplane tickets and jeep rental, James and I would drive the Cadillac from Chicago to Acapulco.
I decided not to cash out quite yet. I’d roll the dice with James once more. I happily quit my coat check job and packed up my bikinis and disco clothes in my pink Samsonite. James locked up the apartment, got the El Dorado out of the garage, and we drove off to Mexico.
The James I had moved in with five months ago always had a thick roll of hundred dollar bills on him. I don’t think I had ever heard him say the word bargain. This new cost-conscious James was going to take getting used to.
On the first day of driving, as the sun was setting over Missouri, I pointed out neon “Vacancy” signs. “We don’t need to spend money on a motel. I’m wide awake,” he assured me. We drove through the night, as we had the day, with James chain smoking and declaring that he wasn’t tired or hungry. As always, eating was something to put off as long as possible.
Despite the lack of regular meals and nights spent slumped in the bucket seat that was not quite comfortable enough for sleeping, I felt a glow of happiness growing with each mile that sped under the white walled tires. I was having another adventure, my own version of the movie where the dark and dangerous guy and his blonde girl are on the lam, the two of them against the world.
James was locked behind the leather-covered steering wheel: he couldn’t read catastrophic stock market reports, phone death threats to his broker, or have to face an unlucky run of the dice. The romance of the road relaxed him, too. He was looking forward to cheap and legal Quaaludes, deepening his tan under the Mexican sun, and fleecing suckers at backgammon. Cradled in the cocoon of the Caddy, we sped through the Midwest, chasing AM radio stations that weren’t country or church or squabbling about which of the six cassettes we should play for the hundredth time.
James drove and drove and drove. He was unsure about my driving — almost as unsure as I was. He could pack in a lot of hours behind the wheel, amped on nicotine and his own jumpy energy and his relief over ditching wintery Chicago. I was not eager to switch seats; I had never driven the Cadillac and only held a driver’s license by purest luck: I passed the road test in Colorado Springs by successfully making three right turns.
Finally, even James had to admit that he was human and pulled off the highway, red-eyed and jittery with lack of sleep. It was my turn to drive. I waited until the closest oncoming car was a mile away before pulling out on the Interstate. I glanced over at James, who was already out cold. Had he been awake, it would have been impossible for him not to take over as my driving instructor; James was as proud of his expertise in cars and driving as he was of everything he did. He could have found a lot to criticize in my overly cautious style of driving. But James was sawing logs, oblivious to my re-setting the cruise control to five miles under the speed limit.
As the day slipped by on the unvarying highway, a thin black strip across the brown and dreary plains, I began to feel more confident, since all I had to do was hold on to the wheel and point the car south. I steered that big wide boat of a car down that never-ending blacktop into Texas, feeling as safe as if I were inside an Abrams tank. But I did not have James’s stamina; after a few hours, I pulled into a motel parking lot and woke him up. I was almost in tears; I needed to sleep in a bed and use a bathroom that wasn’t in the back of a gas station.
Texas went on forever, as if it were its own country. We would wake, drive, and sleep, wake, eat a plate of eggs, drive, and sleep, and we’d still be in Texas.
We made one unexpected (by me) pit stop in Dallas. We cruised off the interstate and into a weirdly vacant downtown. I started pointing out hotel signs, thinking: a hot shower! A room service club sandwich eaten in bed in front of a TV! A toilet with that reassuring sanitary strip!
“We’re not staying here,” James side-eyed me. “I just have to pick something up.” What that something was became evident when we pulled up in front of a single story brick and glass store, bordered by alleys on both sides. Above the door was a single word: GUNS. The streaky windows had peeling paper signs announcing: “We buy used guns!” “Ask us about ammo!” and other disheartening phrases. Behind the windows, dusty headless mannequins in camo clothing held rifles in their chipped hands.
I was trying to figure out why all the blood was rushing down from my face and my stomach was clenching, and then my memory flashed on the pair of guns that had robbed and beaten my ex-boyfriend Steve and sent me plummeting naked off a second floor balcony.
James said, “Why do you look like that? It’s not for me. It’s for my doctor, the one who writes me prescriptions for Quaaludes. He said if I brought him a handgun, he’d give me all my scripts for free.” Apparently in Mexico, a much more sensible country, it was easier to buy drugs than guns.
I was spooked enough — unblinking, unthinking — to follow James into the gun shop. A bell rang as we pushed open the door, but I do not think any angels got their wings. The shop, like the street, was deserted. James and I wound our way through the racks and racks of big guns to the back, where a fat, slowly masticating man stood behind a glass display of smaller guns, hand-sized I guess.
Fat Texan took a good long look at the two of us, spit something into a cup, and said “Help ya?”
“Yes sir,” said James, “I would like to purchase a hand gun.” I wandered off to the front of the store, where there was a display of those camo hunting clothes and tried to find something in a size 5. I took one glance back to see James sighting down the barrel of what looked like a prop from Bonanza, my grandma Marie’s favorite TV show. He swung the gun around; the fat Texan had vanished.
I clinked the clothes hangers about and tried to articulate to myself first, so I could then convince James, why this was a Very Bad Idea. I looked out of the smudgy window and watched a black and white police car pull up behind the Cadillac. I didn’t know that I could feel any sicker. I tried to make myself very small and hid behind a rack of XXL neon orange vests.
The doorbell dinged again, the two cops entered the store and made a beeline for James, and I, a child of the sixties, cheesed it, the tinkling of the bell as I threw open the door announcing my getaway.
This is when I learned that it is always a bad idea to run from the police.
I ran without looking across the thankfully carless street, to an abandoned, unfinished office tower. It was fronted with thick cement columns; I ducked behind one that gave me a perfect sightline to the Cadillac, cop car, and gun store. What seemed like an hour passed. Then the cops came out, with James in the middle, thankfully not handcuffed. If they took James to jail and impounded the car, what was I going to do? Could it be illegal to buy a gun, I wondered?
Not in Texas. But transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes was. The fat gun store owner had called the cops. He had taken one look at James’s swarthy Greek complexion and realized here was a nefarious foreigner bent on despoiling a flower of American girlhood. James carried an outlaw air, and the two-decade difference in our ages made me look younger than 21. Fat Texan told the cops that I had escaped the evil grasp of my white slaver, who was buying a gun to control me.
I watched from my hiding spot. James lit a cigarette and handed over the car keys to the cops as nonchalantly as if he were handing them to a valet. He leaned against the Caddy and a cop popped the trunk, took out my pink Samsonite, rummaged through it, and held up a pair of white lace panties, evidence that there had been an innocent young girl in the car.
The cops searched James’ luggage and then the rest of the car. “I wasn’t worried,” James told me later. “I knew there was nothing in the car. The problem was you.”
It seemed another hour went by, or at least five or six cigarettes worth of time. Somehow James knew that I had not kept running out to the highway to hitch a ride back north. He threw a cigarette butt down, stomped heavily on it, and hollered, “Gay! Gay! Get yer ass over here!” almost to the admiration of the two cops. He repeated it a couple of times before I was convinced that I had no alternative but to come out.
“Ma’am,” said one of the cops, and I turned around thinking he was talking to someone who had suddenly appeared behind me. “Ma’am! Yes you. Are you okay, ma’am?” I nodded, unable to separate my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “And this is you, right?” He held my driver’s license in one hand, my purse in his other. Again I nodded.
“See sir, she’s free, white, and twenty-one, sir!” cackled James and put his arm around me. I managed to find a weak smile for the two cops, who were obviously disappointed. James shook their hands and apologized for wasting their time. We waited outside the car till they drove away, and then I flopped into the bucket seat, leaving sweat marks on the white leather. James lit another cigarette, started the engine and we pulled gunless out of Big D and headed back south.
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?