North Country Girl: Chapter 45 — That Toddlin’ Town

Formore about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

On my second day in Chicago, James took me in his big Cadillac to see an apartment he was thinking of renting. Newberry Plaza was a brand new high-rise building that looked surprised to find itself towering above the single-story restaurants, bars, and shops of its Near North neighborhood. As we entered the building, we passed a new restaurant on the main floor, and, James, always one to be impressed with celebrities no matter how minor, said, “That’s Arnie’s Steak House. It’s owned by Arnie Morton, the guy who bankrolled Hugh Hefner.”

A man at the lobby desk checked James’ name, made a phone call, and a pretty young thing in a pastel suit showed up and gave us the questioning eye I had almost grown accustomed to. She was like all the people we saw in the lobbies and elevator: youngish, well-dressed, and attractive. I sensed James’ relief that there were no disgusting old people living here.

Newberry Plaza apartments were designed for happening singles, all one-bedrooms and studios, a place within staggering distance of Chicago’s most popular bars and clubs. At fifty-seven stories, it was the tallest building I had ever been in. The rental agent showed us into a boxy, ordinary apartment that was not as big as James’ place in Des Moines; bedroom, living room, bathroom, and a kitchen designed for people who never cooked. James gushed, the woman beamed, and I shrugged till I looked out the window. Down below was a sparkling outdoor pool surrounded by rows of white lounge chairs. A private pool in downtown Chicago seemed improbably luxurious.

“What do you think?” said James, with his tell of a little self-satisfied smirk. I assured him that I thought Newberry Plaza was really cool, and I could see him living there. He agreed, already mentally escaping from his tacky two-story, half-brick half-gabled refuge of the dental assistant and divorced dad, a building that put the plain in Des Plaines. He was moving to the heart of toddling Chicago. James signed a lease that day for a one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor at what seemed to me the astounding sum of $400 a month.

That evening I discovered that the real selling point for Newberry Plaza was that it was three blocks from James’ preferred backgammon den, in the Ambassador West Hotel, which was every bit as posh as it sounds. A uniformed doorman, unsmiling as a Beefeater, nodded at James before allowing us to enter the hotel. James confidently guided me through the hushed, dimly lit lobby, where visiting dignitaries murmured to the concierge. I suddenly realized that I was wearing the same outfit I had on when I was given the bum’s rush out of the El Presidente hotel; I hoped there were no house detectives lurking about as I scurried beside James in my platform shoes and mini skirt like a furtive hooker.

The backgammon club was hidden inside the hotel. There was no sign, only a discreet door in the back of the lobby. When I walked in, I felt as if I had entered a scene from Dickens, a London club frequented by Mr. Pickwick or the three gentlemen who declined to attend Scrooge’s funeral unless a lunch was provided.

Hotel room
The Amabassador West Hotel. (Wikimedia Commons)

The walls and upholstery were all deep maroon, the color of claret. Dark wood paneling was punctuated by sconces, which emitted a golden light that was calming and flattering. Hunting prints depicting horses and dogs and men in pink hung evenly between the sconces. The place was as quiet as a library and smelled like money.

The eight backgammon tables were all occupied, mostly by older white men who looked like bankers, but there was also a man who was even darker than James with a nose like a knife, smoking a black cigarette, playing against a raven-haired woman who was the same age as my mother but half the weight, a woman who sparkled about the neck, wrist, and fingers, her diamonds catching the light like tiny disco balls. James and I sat at the carved mahogany bar, the rich relation of the one at Pracna. Without a word, the bartender placed a vodka and soda, the least fattening of drinks, in front of James. The bartender tilted his chin at me and I reluctantly agreed to have the same.

One of the older gents sighed, took out his checkbook, shook hands with his opponent, and left the club. James walked over to the empty seat, and after an exchange of raised eyebrows and hand signs, sat down to play. I watched James roll the dice and march his men around the board and felt that another rabbit hole had opened up, transporting me to a new Wonderland. I leaned back in my comfy bar chair, yanked down my miniskirt, and tried to talk myself into feeling I belonged there, despite the fact that bets the equivalent of my entire shoe box of tips were changing hands every few games. There was no music, the waiter silently and automatically replaced empty glasses, and few words spoken besides a soft “double”. The loudest noises were the chunk chunk of the dice in their cups and the swish of a cocktail shaker. It was very soothing, being tucked away in this jewelry box, and I started to relax as I sipped my disgusting drink. But Houdini James had other things up the sleeve of his suit jacket, a jacket the backgammon club required men to wear (women were not allowed to wear pants, and my tiny skirt got a few disapproving looks).

Backgammon had always been an endurance sport for James. Whole afternoons and evenings would pass in marathon games at the Villa Vera before James would pack away his backgammon board. I was settled in at the bar for what I thought would be the rest of the night when James stood, collected his winnings, finished his drink, and escorted me out of there.

Astoundingly, there was another meal, this one right across the street at the famous Pump Room. This was the absolute cherry on this sundae of a weekend, as my idea what a fancy big-city restaurant looked like had been formed when I first saw a photo of the Pump Room in my mom’s TimeLife cookbook, and it seemed unchanged ten years later. Red-jacketed waiters lifted silver domes, boned Dover soles, cracked eggs and grated cheese over Caesar salads. As waiters pulled out my chair, before me was a wide, empty plate, guarded on both sides by rows of heavy silver knives, spoons, and forks of various sizes. Our waiter whisked away that empty plate and then solemnly opened a bottle of champagne, deadening the pop of the cork with a thick white napkin.

Dining room
The Pump Room. (HB-05666-B, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection)

Over more food (I was starting to feel like a Strasbourg goose) the old James came back. He rehashed the night’s backgammon games, giving himself extra points for his luck, daring, and ability to quickly and logically assess potential dice throws. I was once again in my supporting role as admirer and eager student, James quizzing me on odds, probability, and back game strategy.

The clock struck midnight, and in Chicago as in Acapulco, it was time to disco. James’s new apartment was a stumble away from Faces disco, where a long line of hopefuls stretched down Rush Street waiting to get in. James, of course, was welcomed at the door by a large man who slapped him on the back as James slipped him a folded up bill.

Six months before, Faces would have left me agape. But after the glories of Armando’s, I thought the place looked second rate, like a TV commercial set for “K-Tel’s Greatest Disco Hits.” The crowd was pale-even-in-summer swinging Chicago singles, the men in shiny Huk-a-Poo shirts and the women in dresses made of even shinier synthetics and sporting early variations of Farrah Fawcett’s famous feathered hair. The gaudy clothes were the only spots of color. Faces was all urban greys and blacks, and you had to feel your way down to the dance floor, which lit up in flashes, as if sending out a mysterious Morse code message. A fog-machine enveloped the club regularly, and the dim lighting and the strong drinks probably made for many regrettable pick-ups. Faces had cloned the soundtrack from Armando’s; we were still push pushing in the bush and rocking the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby, which blasted at ear-popping volume. A cute cocktail waitress found her way in the dark to our table. She gave James a hug and kiss and me a side eye that let me know they had slept together.

Faces disco. (Pinsdaddy)
Faces disco with Newberry Plaza behind it. (Pinsdaddy)

I was stuffed to the gills with continental cuisine, but when James stretched out his arm I heaved myself out to the dance floor to join the disco revelry. We danced till closing, then James, a steady hand on the wheel even with champagne and many vodkas in him, drove us back along the empty Chicago highways to his Des Plaines apartment, where we stayed in bed till my plane left the next day.

Chicago wasn’t as glamorous as Acapulco, but that weekend beat the hell out of slinging burgers and fighting with Steve in Minneapolis. And along with the copious drugs and sex, I enjoyed how different James had been with me. He still loved playing Svengali, guiding and grooming his wide-eyed young girlfriend. But for the first time I felt that James had listened to me, asked my opinions, treated me almost like an equal.

James always got a thrill out of kissing and stroking me in public, but our goodbyes at O’Hare were so uninhibited that every time I came up for air I saw another passenger staring at us. James held me tightly in his arms, until everyone else had boarded; I had to push myself away and run down the ramp to the plane, the door shutting behind me. On the flight home, I imagined how cool, how fun it would be if James flew me down Chicago once a month for backgammon, disco, and salami and eggs.

With nothing but this thought in my silly little head, I took a cab from the airport to Steve’s place. I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome. Steve let me into the apartment without a word and went back to his beer and whatever he was watching on TV. With a twinge of guilt, I started to tidy up the debris of what looked like a three-day party. I emptied the overflowing ashtrays and found several different shades of lipstick-traced cigarette butts and roaches. It seemed Steve had also had a fun weekend, although you couldn’t know it tell from his sullen pout.

I finally realized, “I can’t stay here.” I told Steve that I would pack my things and get out, and got a noncommittal grunt in response. I would make Patti and Mindy take me in for a few days, then make my apologies to Liz, hoping she needed a roommate for the fall semester. I walked out the door the next morning with my pink Samsonite suitcases. I didn’t see Steve again for seven years.

How did we find each other before cell phones and the Internet? (And how can you lose anyone now?) James somehow tracked me down at Patti and Mindy’s. As I dabbed off ketchup stains from my Pracna uniform I listened to James’ husky voice on the phone, telling me he had never met anyone like me and asking me to move to Chicago to live with him in his cool new downtown apartment. He didn’t say anything about love. I didn’t care.

At this point, five years after my first disastrous experience, which I had come to think of as “the moonshot,” I had learned that sex and love did not necessarily go together. They had with my first love, Michael Vlasdic; we were drenched in Lysergic acid diethylamide and teenage hormones, and sex was our souls touching. But with the right guy, sex could be about friendship, a chance to laugh and play and say “I really like you.” With Steve, the wrong guy, bed was a battlefield and sex was about control and craving and power, who was on top, who was under the thumb. With James sex was the floor of the mercantile: my bouncy flesh and boundless curiosity traded for his depth of experience and wealth of knowledge. It was an exchange so satisfactory to both of us that Adam Smith would have approved.

If James’s offer had been to move me to stodgy, suburban Des Plaines, I would have balked. But at that point, I was a gypsy with little to hold me in Minneapolis: I was sleeping on a couch and living out of a suitcase. I said yes.

North Country Girl: Chapter 44 — A Narrow, Naked Escape

Formore about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country,read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

I was tucked up in my old boyfriend Steve’s apartment, drifting along in a haze of pot smoke as the summer slipped by. I roused myself to waitress a few shifts each week at Pracna while Steve’s drug business took off. My roll of ones in the shoebox under the bed grew modestly; when I peeked into Steve’s Folgers can resting on the TV, it was filled to the brim with his unlawful earnings. He had new customers arriving daily and became even more loathe to leave the apartment.

I was reduced to enjoying the great outdoors on Steve’s tiny balcony, no one around except the Land O’Lakes maiden on her billboard. I’d remember another patio, the one in Acapulco, with the blue Pacific to the horizon and the cloudless sky above, broken occasionally by a terrified parasailer. I wondered if I’d ever go back.

The robbers came during one of those twilight Minnesota evenings when the sky is streaks of pink and orange, and the sun hangs out on the horizon as if reluctant to leave the party.

Steve and I were in bed, stoned on very good Thai stick, trying to decide if we should get something to eat or just have another beer. There was a sharp rap at the living room door; the ground floor entrance to the duplex didn’t lock, but opened up to the downstairs neighbors and the stairs to our second floor apartment. Steve got up and pulled on his jeans; we both assumed it was a customer. “Coming?” Steve asked me and I shook my head no. I wrapped the sheet around myself and went to close the bedroom door behind him, when I saw the front door slam open, knocking Steve over as he undid the chain. Two men with guns pushed their way in and stood over Steve.

The guns were huge. As they swung around the living room, the gaping muzzles became the black holes I had learned about in astronomy, an emptiness that could make everything disappear. From the way the guns looked, I realized I was in a badly altered state: my pot buzz was shot through with a sickening bolt of adrenaline that left me rooted to the floor, one eye peering out of the half-inch of cracked door, all my senses reeling. The scene in the living room looked wavy and distorted, as if caught in the fun house mirror at Excelsior Amusement Park.

GunI knew that behind the two cannon-sized guns were men, but they were indistinct, insignificant forms; the guns were in charge, dragging the men around the room. My stoned brain, weaned on Warner Bros., dredged up a cartoon memory of Yosemite Sam holding a big six-shooter that popped and unfurled a tiny flag with BANG! scrawled in comic sans. I mentally pushed that image aside, it was not helping. But there was nothing I could do to help Steve, who was cowering by the front door, skinny and shirtless and the color of cigarette ash.

There was yelling; I couldn’t make out what the men were saying. It was if their voices came from far away, like someone shouting down a well. Then I clearly heard “Your stash, asshole! Where’s your stash?”

Steve sat up and made a croaking sound and the guns swung towards him. He was pointing at the glass-top table in front of the couch, the table where Steve’s wares were always on display. “Bullshit!” yelled one of the guns, and swung upward to crack Steve’s forehead. Why wasn’t he bleeding? Steve slowly raised his hand to his head and not till then did red seep through his fingers. He crumpled to the floor while the other gun swept the table drugs into what looked like but surely could not be a Marimekko orange and yellow flowered pillowcase.

My mind finally snapped to attention and my thoughts raced forward. I closed the door softly, but I couldn’t shut out the voices of the men yelling at Steve for drugs and money. The drugs were in the freezer and the money was…in the bedroom with me, in the coffee can perched on top of the TV. The guns knew where there were drugs there was money, and Steve, for all his rugged outdoorsman skills and feigned urban swagger, was about to send them into his bedroom, where I crouched naked behind the door.

I dropped the sheet and dashed out to the patio, which was littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. I threw one leg and then the other over the balcony rail and dangled over the side, the metal edge cutting into my fingers, my feet scrabbling in the air. It was a pretty big drop from the second floor and I was nude, but the surface twelve feet below me was grass, the scraggly untended lawn that surrounded the duplex. I looked over my right shoulder at the Land o’ Lakes Indian maid, who looked back, as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa, and I let myself drop

Land O'Lakes logo
The Land O’Lakes Maiden. (Shutterstock)

I hit hard then clambered to my feet. I ran around to the front entrance and banged on the door of the downstairs neighbors. The young couple who lived there cracked the door, took one look, and hustled me into their front hall where they threw a coat over me. I was scraped up, splotched with grass and dirt, naked and crying and hyperventilating, but they heard me sob “Men and guns and Steve is up there” and the husband picked up the phone to call the police.

Footsteps crashed down the stairs and we all froze. A car started up and sped away. I ran upstairs and found Steve black-eyed and bloodied on the floor. I told him the police were on the way and he began screaming at me then threw himself down the stairs shouting, “Don’t call the police! Don’t call the police!”

The downstairs people were newlywed high school sweethearts from a town down by the Iowa border. He was a serious but dopey-looking med student, she young and pretty with some kind of daytime job that required blouses and skirts and panty hose. We had passed a few words going in and out, introducing ourselves and exchanging pleasantries on the summer weather.

They were always quiet and polite and never mentioned the suspicious characters showing up at Steve’s apartment at all hours or the constant pot smoke in the stairway, nice Minnesotans who minded their own business and didn’t complain, even when their bloodied, roughed-up neighbor was cursing and yelling and his girlfriend was cowering naked underneath the husband’s raincoat.

Somehow Steve and I convinced them not to call the police. Maybe they had had enough excitement for one August night already.

In my version of the break-in, I cast myself as both the damsel in distress and the plucky heroine. In Steve’s version I was the idiot who had almost cost him his Outward Bound scholarship by getting the police involved. I expected Steve to comfort and console me — that could have been me with the black eye! — and then admire my courageous getaway. But Steve was pissed at being robbed and as pissed at me as if it were all my fault. I slammed the bedroom door, kicked the empty Folgers coffee can, and quietly bent down to look under the bed. My shoebox of dollar bills was safely where I had hidden it.

Along with Steve’s stash, the robbers stole away our rekindled romance. Steve was done as a dealer; I guess there was no lesson plan on “Re-Building Your Business After Your Money and Your Drugs Have Been Jacked.” Steve descended into drinking and meanness. He stopped driving me to work, and I started sleeping on the sofa and tried to plan an escape.

Steve and I were slumped together in mutual dislike one night, watching TV, when the phone rang. Steve sighed, braced to disappoint another customer, then handed me the phone. When I hung up, I took a malicious delight in telling Steve, “That was a rich guy I met in Acapulco. He’s flying me down to Chicago for the weekend.” My ticket was paid for, all I had to do was pack my cutest clothes and call a cab to take me to the airport, away from sulking, penniless Steve.

James was waiting at the gate as I stepped off the plane; he swooped me up in an R-rated kiss that scandalized the passengers trying to get around us, then took me out to his gigantic brand new blue and white Cadillac El Dorado that he had just driven off the car lot, priced a few bucks above cost and paid for in cash. I snuggled down into the sweet-smelling, glove-soft white leather seat, but I missed the rented red jeep. This was the biggest damn car I had ever seen; the Cadillac medallion proudly mounted on the hood looked to be about three blocks away. It was like riding around in an ocean liner.

Car interior
The interior of a Cadillac El Dorado. (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a quick drive from O’Hare to James’s place in Des Plaines, a low-rise red brick building that looked an awfully lot like an old U of M dorm. James knew that living in the pokey, middle class suburb of Des Plaines did not go with his man of the world image. He made a point of telling me that the only reason he was there because it was close to the Cadillac dealership where he used to work, but now he was planning to move to downtown Chicago, where the action was.

After the celebratory reunion sex, James asked, “Are you hungry? Do you like deli?” Once I got over the astonishment of James bringing up the subject of food, I said, “I don’t know. What’s a deli?” This delighted James, who couldn’t wait to introduce me to the world of salty, cured meats. We drove to a small bright restaurant filled with older couples eating at formica tables. I was not impressed and I couldn’t identify a thing on the menu outside of the turkey sandwich. James gave his Mephistophelian chuckle and ordered for both of us. That day I became a convert: I slurped tangy beet red borscht, thick with chunks of beef, followed by a plate of salami and eggs with a toasted bagel that I sullied with strawberry jam.

A bowl of borscht
Borscht. (Wikimedia Commons)

As I washed everything down with my first Cel-Ray tickling my nose like champagne, I spotted Mr. Des Plaines, my old admirer from the Acapulco condo, sitting at a table of alte kakers smoking stogies. He didn’t seem to recognize me with my clothes on. I went back to shoveling it in, emptying the breadbasket of rye slices and Kaiser rolls, and plucking the last cherry pepper from the pickle tray. Knowing James and his eating habits, this might be my only meal for the next twenty-four hours.

James had a whole seductive weekend plan. He had bought a baggie of pot for me, and for himself some coke and Quaaludes, which made for a fun afternoon. James also had dinner reservations for us, which was a shock. In the weeks we had been together in Acapulco, we never had meals that were less than twelve hours apart.

The restaurant, Des Plaines’s finest, wasn’t jet set Acapulco, but anyone from Duluth, Minnesota would have thought it the height of elegance: there were huge brocade covered slabs of menus bound with gilded, tasseled twine (no prices on my menu of course), a fountain with a replica of Brussels’ Manneken Pis tinkling away in the center of the room, and red and white flocked wallpaper which I had not yet realized was more floozy than fancy. The evening wasn’t quite spoiled when the maitre d’ mistook us for father and daughter; we were in Des Plaines, Middle America, after all.

Manneken Pis. (Wikimedia Commons)

James said, “I want to recreate our first night,” and I felt a little romantic flutter. Once again the steak Diane was set on fire and the Mouton Cadet uncorked. A weird difference crept into our conversation; it turned serious, like a conversation two grown-ups might have.

“I never got to go to college,” James said, leaving unspoken his belief as a self-taught man, he had the best teacher possible. “Tell me about what classes you enjoy the most, how you picked your major.”

My inner nerd stirred from the grave I had buried her in and I launched into why I believed the accepted date for when wandering Asiatic hunters first crossed the Bering Strait to settle the Americas was much too recent, and why a crossing in 10,000 BC was more likely, a topic no one but me and my old girl crush Professor Pearson gave two shits about. James’ eyes glazed over but he managed to look interested for a generous three minutes before launching into his own crackpot ideas on the biological imperative that made men want to screw and women want to breed and how it affected stock prices, that old chestnut about the market rising and falling with skirt lengths. He boasted that his insights into the intersection of sex and economics made him a genius at picking stocks.

I knew that James didn’t go to college because he had been too busy running away from the girl he had impregnated (talk about your biological imperative!). He prided himself on being a self-made man and he had done a hell of a job, making a bundle selling Cadillacs, which he invested in the market, where that money had made even more money.

The wine was finished, James made a trip to the men’s with his vial of coke, came back bright-eyed to order coffee and cognac, and manically jumped into politics and the dastardly deeds of Richard Nixon. We talked and talked, James listening semi-respectfully to my opinions and lecturing me on subjects he thought he was an expert in, until the dirty looks from the busboys became impossible to ignore.

Me and James. (Gay’s photo)

The evening had been romantic, exciting, and unsettling — who was this guy? — and I was ridiculously flattered that James actually wanted to talk to me. Most guys I had been with regarded the first sign of a serious conversation as a cue to stand up and go look for a beer. My tropical romance with James had been flighty, gossamer, a six-week one-night stand; our conversations had been about waterskiing, backgammon, whether James looked fat, the crowd at the Villa Vera, and the latest adventures of the French Canadian girls. I hadn’t had a semi-deep discussion like this since the drug-fueled all nighters in my freshman dorm. But that was with a bunch of still pimply, geeky 18-year-olds, huddled on the floor amid piles of dirty boy laundry. This was in a fancy restaurant with a handsome, sophisticated older man, a man who seemed to be as interested in my mind and my ideas as he was in my young blondness. It felt like a step into adulthood.