For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
To my astonishment, I had fallen in love with an impoverished, unlovely artist. I was equally amazed that I was able to support myself and my elderly Yorkie, Groucho, in a very modest way by modeling, mostly at trade shows and conventions, passing out pens and pins and smiling at salesmen. One weird modeling job, posing as a girl baseball player for promotion material for a men’s magazine, had sent me on a trajectory to my new love, Michael.
I had almost forgotten about my shortstop gig for Oui, when George, the art director who cast me and then introduced me to Michael, told me to come by his office to pick up my baseball card. I was eager to showcase this photo in my modeling portfolio in case another client ever wanted to hire the world’s most unathletic girl to pose as lady baseball player, or any other job that required me to bend over and stick my butt in the air.
Oui magazine was tucked away on a single floor of the intimidating Playboy building. I found George in his cluttered office, bending over a lightbox with a thing stuck in his eye. After moving several stacks of papers and magazines and portfolios he found my baseball card. After admiring my own sporty ass, which the card claimed belong to “Pam,” I turned the card over to read my bio, along with stats about Oui readers, their youth, their salaries, and the impressive amount of money they spent on cigarettes, liquor, and cars.
“Did you write the stuff on the back?” I asked, which George found amusing. No, he told me. They gave the photos to a freelance writer, along with the reader demographics; the assignment was to fill the rest of the card with amusing, sophisticated fluff.
I was baffled how this hoohaw would sell ad space in a magazine, but I knew that I could write better copy than this, an opinion I shared with George, which he found hilarious. I needed to make more money than I was earning modeling. Michael had asked me to move in with him; for some reason he sweetened his pitch by confessing that after paying this month’s rent and child support he was flat broke. If I wanted any more Indian food dinners, they would have to be on my dime.
I argued my case with George. “Look at what the writer made up for me. My name is Pam? Pam? Why not Babe or The Say Yes Kid? Why didn’t he write that I liked to play the field, or that my favorite stadium snack was foot-long wieners? Or since Oui is so European-flavored, that I preferred playing soccer goalie because of my ball-handling skills?”
George, now laughing even harder, took me over to meet one of the Oui editors, John Rezak, who was equally bemused by the Model Who Mistook Herself for a Writer, but who had plenty of time to talk to a cute girl. It turned out that John was also a poet, and I had enough years of English Lit behind me to be able to listen to him discuss in great detail the inspiration behind his epic poem “Laika,” about the first dog to orbit the earth. After he finished reading me several of his verses, the conversation turned to our favorite poets. I won John over with the fact that John Berryman had leapt to his death into the Mississippi River the first day of my freshman winter semester; had I woken earlier (my dorm window faced the fatal bridge), I might have seen him jump.
I left John Rezak’s office with my own copy of “Laika” to read when I had an hour or two to kill, and with color Xeroxes of what was officially known as a pictorial, but which was always referred to as a “girl set:” photos of a willowy blonde, nude in pearls, nude sipping a glass of champagne, nude gazing pensively in a mirror. I was to come up with a hot European name for Blondie and write something cleverly erotic (or erotically clever) about her, using the characters that ran below the photos (called greek type) as my gauge for length. In about 250 words, I had to make the model exotic, but approachable, sexy, but not slutty. If John liked what I wrote, I would be paid $200. If not, I would be back to standing next to refrigerators and running scams at car shows and trying to figure out how to cook dinner for Michael and me in a tiny kitchen with a single pot.
I showed up in John’s office the next day, with three names, three nationalities, and three different personalities. I gave all of them raging libidos and bestowed on each a sexy quirk: “Would you kick me out of bed for eating croissants?” “I like a spicy meatball.” “Kiss me. What’s the wurst that could happen?
“It was fun,” I told John. “It’s like writing a sonnet: it has to be pretty and it has to fit in an exact number of lines.”
John sat me down across from him, swept up the piles of paper that covered his desk, and dropped them on the floor. He spread out Blondie’s photos and my typewritten sheets and explained what worked and what didn’t, pulling together the final copy from all three versions. John admitted that he didn’t think that there was a single Oui reader who would even glance at what I wrote, but we had to pretend as if they did and pretend to take it seriously. No wurst jokes. No Dutch girls putting their fingers in dikes.
When we were done, John signed a purchase order for me and sent me down to accounting to request my $200 check. I was now a professional pornographer.
I was a professional in the sense that I — occasionally — got paid. All my work was on spec; sometimes John would read what I wrote, throw it all in the wastebasket, and hand me a different set of photos.
Even with the thrill of those first paychecks for writing, it became harder and harder to come up with sparkling new personalities and exotic backgrounds for the models, who were basically interchangeable: perfect bodies, dewy skin, pouty lips, big sunhats, eyes cast coyly upward — or downward, as if surprised at what they saw between their legs.
I was one of several freelance writers; every issue had at least four different girl sets, each six to ten pages. All of us freelancers scrambled to get anything out of the ordinary, anything but nude girl in garden with watering can, topless girl biting her bead necklace, girl stroking feather boa. One day I pulled out of the pile of photos something shockingly different: a guy-and-girl set. This was an anomaly, as the male reader was supposed to look at the photos and picture himself with Miss Oui, not some random dude. (This experiment was short lived; a misguided editor thought that couples might want to look at Oui together.)
The photos were sepia-toned, the setting an old time-y photography studio. The male model kept most of his clothes on, including his hat and spats, while the girl model stripped down to a laced corset, garters, and stockings. I took the mocked-up pages home and had a ball making up a funny, sexy little story to go with the photos and brought everything back to Oui the next day. I couldn’t wait to show John how creative, how talented I was. He read my copy, while I gleefully waited for the compliments and the two hundred dollars. John looked up sheepishly at me and confessed he had given the photos to another freelancer and preferred his version. Of course David Mamet was a better writer of girl copy than I was.
John said, “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you. Pick out something from the front of the book pile.” This was a coup for me. Between the salacious “Letter to the Editor” (“Amelia is one hot piece of ass,” was a typical letter from a sophisticated Oui reader) and the first girl set were six to eight pages of short, supposedly witty pieces usually illustrated with a bikinied or bare-breasted girl. There were also funny photos with clever captions and a handful of reviews.
I pawed through the piles of stuff on John’s radiator and pulled out a few I thought might be fun. I struck out with my first submissions, but eventually started getting a few pieces published each month. I wrote captions for photos of topless girls playing volleyball or in a string quartet, a bunch of dancing Arabs, a dog smoking a cigar, and I finally scored my first review on a book of album cover art. Funny was encouraged but titillating was mandatory.
Freelancers who were higher up on the food chain got first crack at the books and records that came into the Oui office, or John would write a review himself if it were something by a favorite musician or author. I was never going to be allowed to write a Bruce Springsteen review; even Boston’s album Boston was reserved for a writer with more refined tastes than I had.
But I was accumulating a small jumble of my published efforts, and a few pieces actually carried my byline. I was most proud of my rave review of an English book of humorous sketches, some of which left me scratching my head. (“Minutes from the Annual Labor Conference at Blackpool”?) But it was not my own witticisms that got my review published; it was because John and George loved the book’s cover, which featured a large black swastika appearing under the title Golfing for Cats (apparently the best-selling book subjects are golfing, cats, and Hitler).
“Keep tear sheets of all your writing,” advised John. “It will help you get other freelance jobs.” I had no idea what those jobs would be or how one would go about getting them, but I took his advice.
Michael was thrilled that he could stop introducing me as “My girlfriend the model” and start saying “My girlfriend the writer.” He never mentioned that what I wrote was deathless prose such as “Giselle’s ideal man is a combination of Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean-Paul Belmondo,” running under a photo of a naked brunette holding a book no one but my editor and I noticed was upside down.
Michael, perhaps a bit oblivious to the fact that his ex-wife was an actress, signed me up for a class on Writing Theatrical Reviews, taught by a red-headed roly-poly jester of a man, Michael VerMeulen (the Michaels keep coming). The class was challenging and fascinating; it was like being back in college. Every week, VerMeulen escorted his six students to small, inexpensive theaters to watch plays, including David Mamet’s “The Water Engine,” and then he reviewed our reviews (still mad that he had beaten me out on girl copy, I gave Mamet’s play a well-deserved panning).
It was almost as thrilling as getting a check to once again be handed a bunch of my typewritten sheets with “Excellent! Well done!” scribbled across the top in red ink. I knew these two Michaels, Trossman and VerMeulen, would get along like a house on fire; from the moment I introduced them they were trading quips, engaging in intellectual one-up-manship, and trying to outdrink each other.
Michael VerMeulen had a prodigious appetite for everything. After watching him hoover up an entire cheese plate, I began referring to him as “The Cheese Engine.” His idea of a Bloody Mary was half vodka and half hot sauce, with a splash of tomato juice. He guzzled these as if he enjoyed them, his pale moon face growing ruddier and ruddier as beads of sweat popped about his forehead. When I saw him after he had spent a week in New Orleans, I didn’t recognize him: “VerMeulen, what happened?” I cried out in shock.
Michael shook his three new chins. “Breakfast, midmorning beignets, lunch, afternoon oysters, happy hour, dinner, midnight po’ boys…” Michael VerMeulen went on to have a successful career in magazines, landing a plum spot as the editor of British GQ; then he was found dead with over two and half times the lethal amount of cocaine in his system.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in 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.
I 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
I started my junior year at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis broker than ever and carrying a ridiculous load of demanding classes, classes that had not yet been paid for, as I was informed by the bursar’s office the first day of school.
I picked up our apartment’s newly installed phone and dialed my dad, resentful that I was going to have to pay for the long distance call.
“Hi Dad. Um, you know, the college hasn’t gotten my fall tuition yet.”
“Yeah, okay. I’ll guess I’ll send a check. But you need to change your major to nursing. That’s the only thing that makes sense. You’ll meet doctors.”
“Dad, I’m not going to college so I can marry a doctor.”
“Well, you’ll marry someone.”
My dad believed that the sole purpose any girl had for going to college was to find a husband. Even if I were unlucky enough to marry someone not in the medical profession, I could put a nursing degree to use tending my own kids through bouts of the stomach flu, pinworm infestations, and earaches.
I hung up, slightly sick to my stomach at this image he had put in my mind, of myself in curlers and an apron, applying a Bugs Bunny Band-Aid to a small disembodied knee.
Every hippie cell of my body revolted at a future as a housewife. I was going to travel to exotic places, have adventures, meet interesting men, and have someone pay me to do it. I could be an airline stewardess, basically a flying waitress, or I could be Margaret Mead and study fascinating sexual mores in tropical climes. I was not about to change my major from Anthropology to Nursing.
Every day after classes I checked the mailbox, which remained empty, except for letters from the University informing me that my fall tuition, $222, had not yet been paid.
I called Colorado, placing a person-to-person collect call to my mother’s dog, who I knew would not accept the call. A few seconds later, my mother called back.
“If I could help you I would. Your father is months behind on alimony. I’ll put a twenty in the mail.”
I went to talk to the bursar, a nice man who was sympathetic but could not really do anything for me. My teary eyes and pathetic sniffling won me a slight extension, but if tuition in full was not forthcoming, I would soon be an ex-coed.
Math was never my best subject, but a quick calculation showed that if I went back to the denim hell of Lancers, at $2.50 an hour, even if I gave up my sanity-preserving White Russian nightcaps and lived on carrot sticks, I would still have to work sixty hours a week to pay for tuition, rent, and books. Which would have been impossible anyway, as the store closed at seven and all day Sunday, not to mention leaving no time for class.
The Minnesota state legislature saved me. Ever since Wisconsin lowered its drinking age, hundreds of Minnesotan nineteen- and twenty-year-olds had smashed up their cars driving home drunk from the state line bars in Hudson and Superior and La Crosse. My on-and-off boyfriend Steve had driven me over to Wisconsin once; I decided that the pleasure of legally drinking in a bar did not make up for the hour of white-knuckled terror spent in a convoy of cars that swerved back and forth across the yellow lines, driven by cross-eyed drunk kids at two in the morning.
Between the desire to keep a generation of kids from killing themselves driving drunk across the state line and the appeal of the extra tax revenue, Minnesota saw the light and passed a law that nineteen year-olds could buy alcohol. And they could also serve it, which meant that instead of folding jeans or dishing out dormitory casserole I could work in a real restaurant, one that served cocktails before, with, and after dinner, and where tips would be folding money, not shiny quarters.
I applied for a waitress job at Henrici’s Steak House, famous for huge hunks of meat, oversized martinis, and according to my friend Sarah who worked there, big tipper businessmen. I was hired immediately and fired almost as quickly. It was a struggle to be my usual perky, overly friendly waitress self because I was so miserably uncomfortable in my Henrici uniform. I looked like a cross between a Playboy Bunny and a French maid from a Pink Panther movie. Starchy, scratchy white crinolines propped up my butt-length black satin skirt, and there was a wide gap between my lace-trimmed strapless top and my actual chest.
I blame that uniform for the fact that my steel trap of a mind could not memorize the mandatory script parroted by Henrici’s waitresses. I knew the dynasties of Egypt, the periodic table of the elements, and every state capitol, but I could not remember to greet people with “Welcome to Henrici’s Steak House, home of the twenty-four ounce filet!” While waiting on my first and last table of customers, I blanked out the entire script, pouring glasses of water, handing out menus, and taking drink orders as silently as Marcel Marceau while the manager glared at me. I finally recalled a single line, shouting out “Here is your piping hot loaf of freshly baked Henrici’s sourdough bread!” to my astonished customers. When I bent over to deliver the steaming loaf a big wad of Kleenex fell out of the top of my dress into the butter. The manager, steaming like a loaf of sourdough, ordered me to turn in my uniform and never come back. The time I had spent training was not on the clock and so I earned exactly nothing for three days’ work.
Waiting for me at home after this debacle was a final warning letter from the bursar, and of course, no check from my dad. I was flat broke. I should have stolen a loaf of bread from Henrici’s, like Jean Valjean.
I wept to my roommate Liz that I had no money and now no job. Liz, like the Minnesota state legislature, saved me.
“Listen, I just heard about a new restaurant opening. They’re looking for waitresses and it’s really close to campus.”
I dried my tears, reapplied my lipstick, hopped on my bike, and rode down to Pracna on Main.
As long as I could remember, when you went out to dinner in Minnesota you went to a “nice” restaurant, with white table clothes, a cut glass dish of celery and carrot sticks and olives set before you, a place where dinner came with a cup of soup du jour or tomato juice as a starter, and hash browns or French fries or baked potato as a side—a place like Henrici’s. Pracna on Main was unlike any other restaurant I had been to. You didn’t go to Pracna to eat a steak, you went there to have fun.
Pracna was an old speakeasy in the warehouse area near the Mississippi River that had been shuttered for years. The original bar had survived, a splendid carved oak specimen fully twenty feet long that was constantly filled with happy drinkers, who started with Bloody Marys and beer backs at eleven in the morning, and partied on until one a.m., when the bartenders told them, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” (Closing was midnight on Sundays; I guess people were tuckered out from church-going.)
There were a handful of tables on an outdoor patio, where people pushed and shoved and acted in a definitely not Minnesota nice way to grab during the few months a year you could drink outside without a parka. Inside, the cocktail area filled up at five with hundreds of people waiting for a table: college students with money, sharp-eyed singles, couples on first dates, lovers who would wait even longer to score one of the two booths with curtains you could close and canoodle behind, young marrieds trying to recapture some fun in their lives. People waited for hours to eat, throwing back gin and tonics and seven and sevens and Harvey Wallbangers, while a vintage juke box blasted rock and roll at a level never heard before in a Minneapolis restaurant. Decades later, every time I hear “Crocodile Rock” I paste a cheery, welcoming, fun smile on my face and reach for my long-gone order pad.
No one went to Pracna for the food. There was a steak, a cheeseburger, chili, and maybe three other entrees, amusingly served on paper plates and bowls that were just sturdy enough to not collapse if you got them to the table quickly. There was an enticing selection of after dinner drinks—grasshoppers, pink ladies, golden cadillacs—but just one dessert: maple nut ice cream with caramel sauce and Beer Nuts, topped with whipped cream and a cherry, and which thankfully did not come in a paper bowl, but in a real sundae glass.
And in an era when grocery stores shut their doors at seven, Pracna served food till eleven o’clock at night. This was exhausting for the waitresses, but brilliant: the folks who were really drunk sobered up a bit over a bowl of chili and then, in true Minnesota style, went back to drinking.
The casually dressed wait staff, mostly cheerful U of M girls and a few cute guys, glowed with youth and good looks. There were a handful of older but still pretty veteran waitresses from fancier joints who were all gob-smacked that they were making so much money serving cheeseburgers on paper plates.
I showed up, filled out an application, was hired on the spot, and headed off to Donaldson’s department store to purchase my uniform: a couple of button down brown-checked gingham shirts to be worn with blue jeans. The gravel-voiced, craggy, alky manager who hired me said, “Make sure to wear your tightest jeans and most comfortable shoes.”
I signed up to work every possible shift at Pracna. In two weeks I had paid my past-due tuition, next month’s rent, and had $600 in one dollar bills stashed in a shoebox under my bed. And I had fun new friends, the other Pracna waitresses. At the one o’clock closing, after we had gently guided the last drunk customers out the door, gleefully counted up our tips, and paid off the bartenders and busboys, they always invited me along to a spot that was illegally serving drinks.
An after-hours bar sounded exotically illicit, a place to meet really, really bad boys. I was dying to go to one of these dens of iniquity, especially under the wings of my new friends. After spending the night perfectly remembering everyone’s cocktail order and making sure they always had a fresh one in front of them, rushing bowls of hot chili to tables before they started to leak all over my hands, and making those stupid sundaes, there was nothing I wanted more than to park my ass on a barstool and have someone bring me a drink.
But I always shook my head, thanked them, and headed off on my bike down the quiet autumn streets to my apartment, where I made myself a White Russian and tried to read at least one chapter of a text book before grasping a few hours of sleep, sleep that was interrupted by nightmares of being tossed out of college for not paying my tuition or of being surrounded by crying toddlers with bloody knees.
I knew a slippery slope when I saw one, and I knew that I was exactly the kind of person who would roll down that slope at warp speed. One late night out would be so much fun that soon it would be three or four, and then there would be missed morning classes and crappy, half-assed lab reports and essays, and no chance of getting the grades that would lead to graduate school and eventually to a career quizzing Maori teens about their sex lives, digging around in the dirt for artifacts, and hanging out with Kalahari bushmen. I was grateful for my job at Pracna, but if I did not want to spend my life with aching feet and hands that smelled like ketchup, I had to keep my pert nose clean and to the grindstone.
My life dwindled down to work and college. The letters from the bursar had frightened the bejesus out of me and the lack of response from my father made me realize that at nineteen, I was on my own. I comforted myself by peering into my overflowing shoebox and stroking my Kansas City roll: here was next month’s rent, next semester’s tuition. If I worked hard enough I would never again need to cry and beg on the phone with my father (not that it had done any good), or have to guilt-trip my mom into putting a twenty-dollar bill in the mail.
Every minute I wasn’t at work or in class I spent studying. As much as I liked them, I didn’t want to end up one of the thirty-year-old career waitresses, who already had faces as hard as their shellacked beehives, who smoked Virginia Slims in the changing room as they bemusedly counted up their tips.
So I said no to my hard-partying co-workers, no to Liz when she invited me to frat keggers, no even to invitations for a night of debauchery from Steve, who was still dealing drugs out of his dorm room. I couldn’t go out. I had translations due in French poetry the next morning. I had to find someone to help me make sense of my scribbled notes from organic chemistry that I may have being trying to read upside down. I had chapters in astronomy to read before I could peer through the University’s Tate telescope and get lost in the stars. I sighed in wonder at the canals of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the Horsehead Nebula, all looking exactly like the lurid illustrations from old sci-fi paperbacks, and pondered if I should change my major to the next one in the alphabet.
And best and worst, at eight o’clock in the morning, three days a week, I had to look as if I actually knew what was going on at a graduate seminar on pre-Columbian culture in North America that I had talked my way into. Professor Pearson, eminent in her field and impeccable in her tailored suits, elegant silver topknot, and pink polished fingernails, looked as if she spent her life playing bridge, not digging about in an ancient midden. I had a girl crush on her, and in class had to guard against falling into a daydream of the two of us on a windswept Arizona plateau, fooling around with trowels and dusting off pottery shards.
Unfortunately, the seminar did not just consist of me and nine MA candidates sitting around a table jawing about digging sticks and the earliest possible crossing of the Bering Strait; that was the fun part. Halfway through the semester Professor Pearson made us learn flint knapping. I was as successful at flint knapping as I was sewing invisible hems back in seventh grade home ec. Professor Pearson would cast her chilly blue eyes over my clumsy stone arrowheads and spear points, ignoring the deep and bloody cuts on my hands from flying flakes of rock, point out invisible-to-me flaws with a pink-tipped finger, and hand me another stone core to work on. Flint knapping killed our imaginary romance.
It was hard enough juggling drinks and overloaded paper plates with hands that looked as if they had been in a fight with a cat over a chainsaw; I cursed Professor Pearson through gritted teeth every time I had to dig down into the always half-empty vat of maple nut ice cream to make Pracna’s one and only dessert, trying not to scrape my hand on the crystal-sharded sides and carefully checking the scoops to make sure they were not streaked with blood. God, I hated those sundaes and did everything I could to discourage people from ordering them, even though they added another $1.49 to the tab. To this day, I cannot bear the sight of a can of Beer Nuts.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. This is the last chapter in the series.
Michael Vlasdic’s mother, the German professor, was always obliging; that summer, she taught a full load of classes, leaving Michael’s house delightfully parent-free for hours and hours. I loved Michael. I never wanted to leave his arms. To be with him, I had spent the past six months fretting over my personal monthly calendar — is it safe to have sex this day? The day after? After every “safe” day I was convinced I was pregnant and doomed right up until my trusty body proved otherwise.
Now the 60s made a further encroachment in Duluth: Planned Parenthood came to town. Until then, the only doctor I knew was my pediatrician, Dr. Bergman, who had seen me in my white Carters undies and examined me for pinworm.
The girl grapevine went into full swing. “I heard if you’re sixteen you can get birth control at Planned Parenthood and they don’t tell your parents,” said a wide-eyed Wendi Carlson. I was one of their first customers. I was so desperate to have as much sex as possible with Michael, to be free of the tyranny of the menstrual cycle, that I turned up at their downtown office and bravely asked to see a doctor. I was ushered into the exam room of a very nice woman doctor, another thing I had only seen on TV. I cringed through my first pelvic exam, even though the nice doctor complimented me on my “textbook cervix.” When my legs were back together and on the ground, the doctor handed me a prescription that read “To regulate flow” and told me to come back in a year.
I had drugs and Michael and his empty house and no more worries about being knocked up. It was a fun summer. I tried to be mindful of the time on my work day when I had to punch in at The Bellows at four to make sure that those idiots who showed up for a steak dinner at five would have a fresh crisp salad. But we were insatiable. One afternoon, as I felt Michael poking me in the leg, ready for a third bout, I raised my kiss-swollen face up off the bed and saw to my horror that it was a quarter to four. Michael was pulling me down; of course he didn’t understand why I had to be at The Bellows on time. Unlike everyone else I knew, Michael did not have a summer job. He refused on principle to work for the man. “Who cares if you’re a few minutes late?” he grumbled. “It’s not like you’re doing anything important.”
The real German, I was determined to keep the salads running on time. I threw on my clothes, not bothering to wash. Michael grudgingly offered to walk me the ten minutes down to The Bellows. Walk? I need to go at a quick trot to get there on time.
I was two blocks away from the restaurant, waiting at the corner to cross the busy-for-Duluth Superior Street. Traffic finally slowed as a bus pulled up and stopped. I started to dash across the street, certain Michael was beside me. But he had seen the car behind the bus veer left to go around it. I did not. I felt a bang and landed on the hood of a cab, looking into the horrified face of the driver. The next thing I knew I was on the ground and Michael was standing over me, red-faced and sobbing, as the bus driver and the cab driver both shot out of their vehicles. I assured everyone I was fine, and got up to continue on to work. No one was going to let that happen; I was guided over to the curb by several hands and forced to sit. Soon an ambulance showed up, and even though I was still protesting — who would make the salads and defrost the shrimp? — I was loaded inside. Before they shut me in, I called over Michael, who bent over me for my last words, which were to call The Bellows and explain that I had been hit by a car.
At St. Luke’s Hospital I was X-rayed and palpitated and asked if I knew the name of the president and what day of the week it was. I did, and nothing was broken; when my father showed up (who had called him?) they were ready to release me. I pulled my jeans on over the yellow and purple bruise that covered my left leg from knee to hip, pushed myself off the examination table and fell over. I could not put any weight on that leg.
My father drove me home in silence, then helped me onto the living room couch, the first time he been in the house since the day he left. He stayed until my mother finally bustled in, furious at having been summoned home by some stupid kid thing, and even angrier that my dad got to act the part of the responsible parent. As soon as he was gone, she lit in to me: how in the world does anyone get hit by a car? Couldn’t I see it coming? She was also suspicious of where I had been all that afternoon; it was July, I was not doing homework at Michael’s house.
In a few days I had recovered enough to lean against the big stainless steel sink at The Bellows, peeling shrimp and cracking oysters; and to figure out ways to make love on Michael’s narrow bed without his weight, however slight, on my injured thigh. Michael kissed the bruises, fading into less corpse-like shades, and told me how sorry he was, how he had just been about to warn me when I went teacups over kettles on the hood of the taxi. He did not feel badly enough to go out and look for a job himself; I kept working and kept spending my paycheck on drugs.
Summer ended and that golden age of youth, senior year, started. Saturdays were still reserved for Michael and acid, but every Friday I was with my friends in the White Delight, cruising up and down Duluth, in search of where the action was. Our senior year parties became wilder, more abandoned, with more booze, more drugs, and dozens of kids in various stages of intoxication. We huddled around house-sized bonfires on the lake shore, tossing empties into the flames and laughing hysterically at nothing. We smashed into the Anderson’s basement; the crescendo of “Stairway to Heaven,” still new to our ears, made conversation impossible and unnecessary.
There were a few casualties. Betsy James had a fight with her boyfriend, and took off on his motorcycle; he found her a block away pinned under it, with a broken leg and a large patch of her skin left on the asphalt. Craig Whiteman, one of East’s few greasers, polished off a six-pack of Grain Belt at a party and accepted a dare to break into old lady Congdon’s mansion. No one knew that Dorothy Congdon was a champion skeet shooter who slept with a loaded shotgun beside her.
My band of sisters grew closer together as high school graduation neared. We had forged a sacred bond, at a time when our hearts and souls were soft and malleable, and our feelings strong and blood hot. Our friendship was built on years sharing our teenage loves and disappointments, laughing, drinking, sometimes crying, and always caring deeply. We knew that college and jobs, new lovers and new friends, would soon disrupt the centrifugal force that kept us together, though we vowed not to let that happen.
Michael and I also believed with the fervor of a religion that we were destined to be forever together, the fever dream of first love. But while I had despaired every time my period was half a day late, Michael romanticized the possibility of us having a baby. He longed for an addition to his tiny two-person family and got all misty-eyed listening to Crosby, Stills, and Young’s “Our House.” We shared a dream of a small apartment in Minneapolis, filled with sex and drugs, college textbooks and cats, where we would fall asleep in each others’ arms, but my dream definitely did not include a baby.
While my heart was sworn to Michael, the rest of me was stirring with other desires. Being safely on the Pill turned a key in my mind, which opened up a new world of sexual possibilities. Emily Dickinson wrote “There is no frigate like a book, To take us miles away,” and for years books had been my only escape from my stolid small town life and boring middle-class family. I could get lost again and again in the exploits of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf, Arthur and Merlin, Dorothy and Alice, and all those other plucky young heroines. Then I discovered that drugs could shanghai my mind, transport me to different realms. Now I realized that there was another vehicle that could take me away on adventures: my own body.
I started looking at other boys with a hungry curiosity. What would it be like having sex with them? How would they smell, how would they touch me? Would the sex be better or just different? And maybe just different would be exciting enough. According to Time magazine, which still made its weekly appearance in our mailbox, the sexual revolution was in full swing. I was a willing recruit to any revolt. Even my own mother, still pretty at thirty-seven and post-divorce slim, had seduced a former stalwart of the Catholic Church and father of six, and was busy trying to get him to dump his wife and marry her.
The culture, my body and mind, and the nice people at Planned Parenthood were all encouraging me to expand my sexual horizons; the only reason not to was that Michael, my sensitive, moody lover, would be hurt. So I never told him about the others. I was callow and callous, and from a distance of many years, I can see that I was not the adventuress I thought I was — just an asshole.
There was Jonathan, who had been making me laugh since seventh grade advanced math. He was a behind-the-scenes stagehand for all our aspirational high school plays, painting flats, adjusting the lights, and cracking up everyone in earshot. The plays our high school put on were ancient chestnuts, chosen for their ability not to offend anyone: starting with “My Three Angels” (misspelled on every poster as “My Three Angles”), about a trio of fugitives from Devil’s Island, through “You Can’t Take It With You,” with its cast of thousands.
That play provided my one chance for glory on the stage. I had been trying out in vain for a part in one of East’s plays since I was a sophomore. Our creepy drama teacher Mr. Canfeld had given every single leading role for the past three years to milquetoast Grace Myers; rumor had it that she let him feel her up. On my ninth audition for him, Mr. Canfeld felt sorry for me, ignored my lack of acting ability, and cast me as Olga, the White Russian countess, who shows up in the final act to deliver her three lines. After our second and closing performance, cast and crew gathered in somebody’s parent-less house for one of the epic theater parties. Drunk and high, Jonathan and I were talking, then giggling like lunatics, then kissing. We locked ourselves in a bathroom so we could take some of our clothes off. As I had hoped, it was different and it was fun, like taking a roller coaster ride together. Miraculously, Jonathan and I became better friends.
One sub-zero Saturday night, Michael Vlasdic and Needle both sick with the flu, Roger and I ended up alone, driving aimlessly around Duluth in search of a party. Sitting next to him on the front seat, like boyfriend and girlfriend, I realized I liked his craggy profile and scooted over a little closer, feeling a pleasurable tingling. When Roger put his arm around me, a bolt shot through my body to where his hand rested on my shoulder; we both felt the electricity through our winter woolens. Without saying a word, Roger steered for Skyline Drive, the favorite parking place for Duluth teens. We stretched out as much as we could in the back seat and committed our double betrayal, he of his friend, me of my soulmate. When we were done, we felt a bit bad and swore it could never happen again. But it did, and it was furtive and secret and thrilling.
I had always had a little crush on handsome, sleepy-eyed Jack France, who showed up occasionally at Open Mind meetings to read his angsty poetry. He was like me, a flitter among groups, a smart athlete who got high. Now I side-eyed him in Mr. Burrows’ class, where he sat alone in the back, gazing out the window. I wondered what it would be like to kiss him.
I found out on a yellow Bluebird bus making its bumpy way back from Telemark, Wisconsin, after a day of spring skiing. Nancy Erman had organized a school ski trip, one of the last hurrahs of our senior year. We skied stripped down to sweaters and blue jeans, luxuriating in the sunshine that was almost warm. There was such joy in the day, in our forever young bodies that we sent hurling recklessly down the slopes, again and again, until the lifts slowed and stopped and it was time to go home. Jack and I had skied together that day, and it didn’t take much wrangling on my part to end up sitting next to him on the tot-sized school bus seat. Jack shook out a package of Lucky Strikes from his pocket and lit a cigarette. Then we kissed. I thought I was the world’s best, most experienced seventeen-year-old kisser; I was knocked for a loop. Jack’s kisses shrunk the entire world down to the two of us, nothing but slightly chapped lips and gentle exploring tongues and the taste and smell of tobacco which reminded me of fall’s burning leaves. On the bus, in parkas and long johns and snow-soaked Levi’s, there was nothing more we could do than kiss, and the kisses were everything.
Jack and I never went any further. For years, every time we ran into each other, Jack and I would end up in dark corners where we shared those deep soulful kisses, sometimes for hours, until he took off one autumn on a solo cross-country bike trip to Seattle, where he leapt off the George Washington Memorial Bridge.
Being with Jonathan, Roger, and Jack was fun, it was sex with no agenda, no strings attached. It wasn’t about love, or negotiating a relationship, or even about my desperate desire to be thought of as pretty and sexy and cool.
I was beginning to regret the plans that Michael and I had made, that we’d go off together to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and live happily ever after. I was going to spend my first year in a dorm; he would stay with a friend of his mother’s who had offered him almost free rent and board. Eventually we would find an apartment and move in together. In the pleasant mist of these daydreams, I didn’t think about how we would pay the rent; his mother had no money, I knew neither of my parents would subsidize my living in sin, and Michael had never shown the slightest desire to find a job. I had left the salad and the shrimp at The Bellows behind; my vast restaurant experience got me hired as a waitress at The Flamette, where despite my dropping a full glass pitcher of maple syrup my first day and my inability to carry more than two plates at a time, I was making enough to buy drugs and squirrel away some spending money for college.
East High had no guidance counselors to talk to about universities; the only adult who had spoken to me about college was my grandmother, who offered to pay my tuition if I went to St. Scholastica, a Catholic woman’s school right there in Duluth. No thank you.
I filled out the application for the University of Minnesota, wrote the essay, tore out and filled in a check for $15 from my mother’s checkbook (she had finally gotten her own bank account), and sent the package off to Minneapolis, never doubting that I would get in and never considering applying to any other schools. The housing catalog that came with my acceptance letter featured a brand new, co-ed dorm, the only dorm that allowed 24-hour visitation from the opposite sex — as long as you had your parents’ permission. I checked the box for Middlebrook Hall on my housing form, forged my mom’s name on the permission slip, and fell into a fantasy of unlimited sex with unlimited college boys, with an occasional guest appearance by Michael Vlasdic.
For once the reality matched the daydream. My perky, adorable, All-American college roommate, Nancy Lowe, went back to her suburban home every weekend to work at the local pizza place and have sex with her own boyfriend, leaving me a wonderfully empty dorm room for entertaining. I was sandwiched between boys; at Middlebrook Hall the sexes alternated floors. My new friend Liz Hepper, who I had met in her dorm room closet, where she was chugging a bottle of Southern Comfort, introduced me to a herd of funny, smart boys from her hometown of Rochester, including a pharmacy major who had very good drugs. There were so many boys in my dorm, and they were all so interesting and cute. And out on the huge campus there were 20,000 more, surrounding me in class, eating dinner in the cafeteria, napping or reading or throwing Frisbees on the still-green campus lawns.
Despite all our plans, despite my absent roommate and the 24-hour visitation, despite how much I thought I looked forward to the first time I could sleep with him, entwined and spooned and inhaling his sweet spicy scent, Michael and I never spent a single night in my skinny dorm bed.
Before the first week of college was out, I called Michael and broke up with him, in the worst way possible, over the phone.
There was another important phone call that first month of my freshman year. My mother called to tell me that she was moving to Colorado Springs. She did not tell me that she was moving in pursuit of the ex-Catholic father of six, who had finally left his wife; he had also left Duluth to live on a small ranch in Colorado. I was instructed to come back home that weekend to box up anything I did not want sold or thrown out; my mother and sisters were downsizing from a six-bedroom stately home to a two-bedroom apartment.
I wandered through 101 Hawthorne, most of the rooms already empty of furniture. Almost everything was gone from my old bedroom, where I had spent so many nights tripping, transfixed by the golden glow from the streetlight streaming through the trees. A few summer clothes hung in my closet; I put them in my suitcase, looking forward to catching some boy’s eye in my cute Indian-print sundress in the spring.
I went back down to the TV room, where our bookshelves were, and where two large cardboard boxes sat gaping. “Put what you want to keep in one,” said my mother. I pulled from the shelves the books that had been my youthful frigates: Alice’s Adventures, the Tennile drawings only slightly defaced from Crayolas wielded by my sister Lani. The Wizard of Oz. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson, minus “The Little Mermaid” and “The Little Match Girl.” I opened up the books Michael had given me, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, each frontispiece signed “I love you” illustrated by his round smiling face. My heart gave a small twist as I stowed them in the moving box. Next came the never-paid-for plays of William Shakespeare, three heavy tomes, The Histories barely cracked. I added The Guide to Minnesota Fauna and Flora, which had been handed to me by the outdoorsy old lesbian who had dragged me around Duluth’s fields and woods. Here was Angelique and the Sultan, with steamy seduction scenes on every page, never returned to Kathy O’Dell. A ragged paperback sci-fi novel, The Blind Spot, that I had read three times in a row, on that trip to Mexico, lacking any other English-language reading material that was not dental-related. And of course the fruit of my junior year with Mr. Burrows, the two volumes of American history and literature, typed out night after night, with my name printed on the spine in gilt letters.
I sealed my cherished books up in a moving box and told my mother that was all I wanted shipped to Colorado. That Christmas break, in my mom’s ticky-tacky Colorado Springs apartment, I sat in the living room, hemmed in by our old furniture: the mahogany dining table for six, the gold and cream French Provincial sofa and matching end tables, and the immense cabinet TV. I opened a cardboard box identified as “Gay’s Books” in black marker. It contained stained Junior League cookbooks, several years of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, a collection of Harold Robbins paperbacks, a single addendum to the World Book, dated 1960, and a battered Webster’s dictionary. My childhood was gone.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
That day skiing those pristine slopes was magic. But even when real magic touches us, it is as ephemeral as a snowflake. The clock strikes midnight, the three wishes are gone, the genie put back in the lamp, the heroine awakes from what was only a dream.
Before the four o’clock winter violet had darkened the Lutsen ski slopes, Nancy and I were on the bus headed back home to Duluth. As soon as the door slammed behind me, my mother herded me into the breakfast nook, where Heidi and Lani were waiting. She seemed strangely calm, dead-eyed, like a pod person of herself.
“Your dad called. He’s coming by tomorrow to pick up some things and then he’s moving out to a place of his own.” My parents were breaking up. Lani ran off howling, “I hate you I hate you!” and locked herself in her room for three days. Heidi, who was six, shrugged this off as impossible, a silly story, and went back to watching television. Heedless of everyone else’s feelings, I pondered what this meant for me.
Back then, grown-ups and kids led such separate lives that I had no idea this was coming. My father had always been a shadowy presence, making himself known only when something unpleasant was required, forcing me to go to Sunday mass, mow the lawn, or eat those disgusting Brussels sprouts. I only noticed that my father had lately been absent for a good many evenings because Kentucky Fried Chicken and take-out London Inn cheeseburgers appeared regularly on the menu, when for years they had been a rare, delectable treat.
Encased in my own adolescent self-centeredness, I had given no weight to my mother’s sudden interest in going back to college. I assumed she was bored with delivering toothbrushes to rural schools with the Women’s Dental Auxiliary, cooking that damn meat, potato, and two veg dinner every night, and removing sharp objects from my sister’s hand.
It occurred to me that with one parent gone and the other replaced by her pod person, I would have even less supervision than I already enjoyed. I could stay out later, come home drunker or higher.
By the time I returned from school the next day my dad had come and gone. I don’t know exactly what he took from our house besides clothes and cufflinks; nothing at all was missing. It was as if he had never inhabited that big fancy house.
My dad moved into a crappy, barely furnished apartment in a shoddy building erected practically on top of busy London Avenue. It looked like the kind of place you went to score drugs. My one and only dinner there was punctuated with honking horns and screeching wheels and perfumed with car exhaust. We perched on wobbly folding chairs, eating take-out Chinese from Joe Huie’s off of paper plates. Through the doorway I saw an unmade bed, close enough to toss an egg roll on. I noticed there was no TV and wondered what my dad did when he wasn’t filling teeth.
After the “How’s school?” “Fine,” we ate in silence for a few minutes. Then my father began talking, and for once he wasn’t giving me an order. When he was sixteen, the same age I was, he and a buddy had traveled by freighter to Europe, where they spent most of their money on two bicycles, then headed off to explore, sleeping rough, drinking wine, eating at cheap cafes, and having adventures. “I thought my whole life would be like that, traveling, seeing the world,” he sighed. I shoveled in my fried rice, thinking, that does sound great. I felt a new type of longing, wanderlust, which made my feet prickle and my imagination soar: I pictured myself in a miniskirt in London, a beret in Paris, a toga in Athens.
My dad was still talking, interrupting my daydream.
“But first there was college and then my dad insisted I go to dental school. That’s where I met your mom.”
Somehow I knew that already, as I knew about the unplanned and unwanted — but back in 1953, the un-abortable — pregnancy that resulted in me. My birth had derailed my mom’s college education and crushed my dad’s dreams of exotic journeys. For the past sixteen years, the most exciting events in his life were madcap dental conventions and family car trips undertaken with no hotel reservations.
After years and years of being stuck in Duluth, staring down people’s mouths, my dad in true 1960s style, was going to drop out. He would cross the Pacific on a schooner, hike the Alps, go spear fishing in the Keys, eat strange spicy food at questionable restaurants in dusty Central American towns.
He had me mesmerized; I too was dying to get out of our tiny insular town and run off to Haight-Ashbury or a commune full of sex and drugs. Maybe, I thought, maybe dad will take me with him to Europe or back to Mexico. My imagination now pictured me in a Parisian beret, dad next to me in a big glittery sombrero.
When my mom came to pick me up, he gave me a fatherly pat on the back, as affectionate as a Minnesotan gets, and for a ridiculous moment I felt everything was going to be fine.
I don’t know whether my dad was lying to me or to himself. The next week my mother took me aside to confide they were definitely getting a divorce, as my father had impregnated his fat nineteen-year-old assistant, Donna. Either even adults were too embarrassed to buy rubbers or Donna was too stupid or too wily to go on the pill.
My dad was not going island-hopping in the Caribbean; he had sentenced himself to more years of diapers, tantrums, and runny noses.
I was still unsure of my filial feelings — did I feel sorry for my dad? Was I mad at him? — when we had an unexpected visitor. My paternal grandfather, who never left Carlton except to shoot an animal or catch a fish, appeared in our living room and asked my younger sisters to leave. “I think you’re old enough to hear this, Gay,” he said. He puffed himself up like a toad as he put on the mantel of patriarchy and laid down the law to my mom: “You cannot divorce Jack.”
My ultra-Catholic grandmother, a regular at daily mass, was so distraught by the idea of her son getting a divorce that she was unable to get out of bed. My grandfather shook his finger at my mother and scolded, “She even missed her bridge game.”
He said he knew about my dad’s girlfriend, and wandered into some claptrap about wild oats, men’s little peccadilloes, chickens coming home to roost, that left my mother looking as bewildered as I felt. He urged her to be patient, patted both our knees, and sat back, satisfied with his work. My mother said, “So you know Donna’s having Jack’s baby?” My grandfather did not know, and rendered speechless, he picked up his homburg and rushed out of the house.
My grandfather’s weird tirade, my parents’ divorce, the looming baby: I wrote all this off as proof of the insanity of the adult world. They were the straights, the squares, responsible for Vietnam, racism, and everything bad. The future was Woodstock, the Age of Aquarius, Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore East, tune in, turn on, drop out. To hell with them. I had my own world of sex, drugs, friends, and school.
As befogged with love and LSD as my brain would be on Saturday nights with Michael, by Monday I was again the sharp-eyed, clear-headed, serious scholar. I couldn’t smoke a cigarette, I was a terrible dancer and a middling skier, but I could ace a test and write an essay that always came back with a bright red A+ scrawled on the top.
My favorite teacher, everyone’s favorite teacher, was Mr. Burrows, a Hollywood-ready character who had somehow, up in the Northern woods of Duluth, acquired not just an English accent, but a whole British persona. He had the proper squire’s paunch, not quite hidden by his baggy tweed suit. He lectured without notes, hundreds of years of history and literature nestled inside his head, as he almost danced about on his tiny feet, scribbling dates and names on the blackboard.
We smart kids were handed over to Mr. Burrows as sophomores, where we started with the Sumerians. We lucky few memorized many, many facts — ask any former student of Mr. Burrows when Menes united the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Egypt and we will automatically spit out: “3400 B.C.” We learned big chunks of the Iliad and the Canterbury Tales by heart, and wrote many, many papers: on the Fertile Crescent, the birth of democracy in Greece, the fall of Rome. In his deep plummy voice, Mr. Burrows acted out his favorite scenes from history, which in his mind ended in 1900.
As juniors we spent two hours each day with Mr. Burrows, as he insisted that American history and American literature must be taught together. Nancy Erman and I sat with three other girls, surrounded by boys, as it seemed to be an ironclad rule that the ratio of smart boys to girls was 5:1. Michael Vlasdic and Needle sat together at the back of the class; in front of them the quartet of smart jocks sprawled loose-limbed at their desks, in all their nonchalant square-jawed handsomeness; awkward nerds in checked shirts and too-short pants made up the rest of the class.
Along with hours of reading a night, thrice weekly papers, and monthly quizzes leading up to a two day final, Mr. Burrows demanded that we retype the works of American authors from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to Emily Dickinson’s poems (“I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “There is no frigate like a book,” “A bird came down the walk” — all nice and short), ending with Mark Twain and a chapter from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Mr. Burrows believed that retyping all this deathless prose would help us grasp each writer’s style and salient points. By the end of the year, I had an eight-inch pile of paper, American Literature’s Great Hits, interspersed with my essays, all marked with that red A. I took all those typed pages to a print shop where they were bound in fake leather into a pair of two hundred-page books, my name gilded along the spine.
I adored Mr. Burrows even though he was the squarest of the square, the epitome of the conservative old fogey. A devout Christian, he even sang in the Congregationalist church choir, probably the only basso in the bunch. He was untouched by time. The tumultuous arrival of the ‘60s in Duluth did not faze him a bit. He had thirty years of teaching behind him, and behind that, three thousand years of history, which had taught him that this, too, shall pass. He ignored the “Make Love not War” and peace sign buttons Needle, Michael, and I wore, and the five girls wearing minis that barely covered their asses did not perturb him the least. (A decade later, I realized that Mr. Burrows had been the world’s most closeted homosexual.) What offended him was ignorance, stupidity, and ugliness, which was pretty much the entire twentieth century.
When as seniors we finally moved into Modern History, as required by the Duluth School Board, Mr. Burrows’ lectures became less spellbinding; unlike the Crusades or the American Revolution, the horrors of World Wars I and II were still too close to be romanticized. It may have been that Mr. Burrows didn’t care for the subject, or it may have been a brilliant teaching tactic: he actually passed a lot of the instruction over to us. Each student took turns researching a topic in current or recent affairs and presenting to the class. Youth in revolt, I chose the most leftist subjects I could find: the Cuban revolution, the rise of Ho Chi Minh, the election of Salvador Allende. While I spouted my idiotic admiration for these Reds, Mr. Burrows, the most hidebound of Tories, silently sat and stroked his ponderous lower lip.
Mr. Burrows was also the editor of The Open Mind, our high school’s “literary” magazine, filled with the pretentious and god-awful poetry and prose of disaffected, snotty teenagers like me. Supposedly all students at East could submit their work; in reality we never published anything by anyone who was not one of the elites in Mr. Burrows’ class.
The staff of The Open Mind met over tea and cookies at Mr. Burrows’ home, a two-story brick nearly as big as my family’s, which he had inherited from his parents (those were the days). His huge, old-fashioned living room, with scratchy horsehair furniture and ottomans, was clean and neat as a pin except for the books. The walls were lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, yet stacks of books covered every flat surface. We had to remove books from chairs before sitting, and re-pile books on other tables or the floor to make room for Mr. Burrows’ sterling silver tea service. We would pass around the pages that had been submitted that week to The Open Mind drop-box outside Mr. Burrow’s room and pass judgment. The bravest of us read their poems aloud, which we listeners inwardly despised and outwardly praised. Mr. Burrows used these meetings as an opportunity to further mold our impressionable young minds by playing his favorite opera records.
The Metropolitan Opera had long since crossed hick Duluth off its touring company’s itinerary, so once a year Mr. Burrows organized bus trips to Minneapolis to expose his lemming-like pupils to high culture. On Saturday, the Met performed two different operas. We made the three-hour road trip to Minneapolis, arriving at the immense Northrop Auditorium on the U of M campus in time for the matinee. As soon as the curtain rang down, Michael and I dashed over to the wonders of the Electric Fetus record store and head shop. Hookahs and chillums! Lava lamps! Books by Aldous Huxley and Carlos Castaneda! Black light posters! Michael bought strawberry flavored rolling papers and we went to eat.
Between operas I finally achieved my dream date of dinner at a real restaurant, sitting across from Michael at a white clothed table, wearing a pretty, opera-appropriate dress, even if I did have to pick up the tab for both of us. It was a quick date; we had less than an hour to enjoy our meal at Murray’s The Home of the Silver Butter Knife Steak before running back to Northrup for the evening performance. After the tragic death of Tosca or Mimi or Carmen we piled back in the bus and fell sound asleep, waking at three in the morning in the parking lot of East High, groggy and stiff from spending six hours in a bus seat and a day and night at the opera.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
My first date with Michael Vlasdic had a few glitches. Duluth teen culture was car culture. With your friends a car was a party on wheels. With a boy a car was a bubble of privacy, a place to make out, WEBC on low, heater on high, the windows opaque with steam. I, however, had only a learner’s permit; to get that required just a multiple-choice test on road rules, the kind of test I aced every time. I had barely squeaked through drivers’ ed, the instructor constantly taking over control and slamming on his brakes because I was unable to gauge distances between the car I was driving and everything else, other cars, pedestrians, curbs. I also had difficulties telling the brake pedal from the gas pedal. My sweating, pale instructor assured me that all I needed was more practice, but every time my mother let me take the wheel it ended quickly in shouts and tears. I was idiotically optimistic that when I took the road test in December, when I turned sixteen, I would magically pass, but for now taking the family car was verboten.
Michael Vlasdic lacked both a car and a father. His mother was originally from Latvia
(a country I knew only from volume L of my old World Book encyclopedia, which identified it as one of the Soviet Socialist Republics) and had moved to Duluth to teach German at the university. She was stately and Old World polite, with a solid-looking helmet of dark hair, and always in a boxy wooly suit, thick beige nylons, and sensible shoes. The missing deadbeat dad was in Mitchell, South Dakota; Michael once proudly showed me a postcard of a large yellow structure that proclaimed Greetings from the Corn Palace! that his dad had sent him. In lieu of money, I guess.
I had met a few kids without fathers, but a family without a car? Where could Michael and I go on our first date? You could not enter the London Inn parking lot on foot. You’d be a laughingstock.
On the phone Michael said, “Why don’t you come over here and we’ll listen to records?” I did not have a better idea, so that Saturday I walked the twenty minutes over to Michael’s house. His mother was out for the night. His mother was out a lot.
Michael and his mother lived in a small up-and-down duplex filled with books and cracked oil paintings in gilded frames, dark heavy furniture, more books, jewel-toned oriental rugs, potted plants, and more books. There was also the standard big cabinet hi-fi in the living room. Since there was no parent in the house, Michael and I went to his room to listen to music and so Michael could smoke a joint, which he did leaning precariously out the window. He offered me a hit, but I was afraid if I had my usual pot-induced coughing fit while straddling the windowsill I would plummet to the ground and that would be a hell of a first date.
We started talking, about music (we liked the same bands! Of course in 1969 every kid was devoted to Steppenwolf, Cream, Jimi Hendrix) then books (Michael had read The Lord of the Rings three times to my twice). A current of tingly magnetism drew us closer and closer together, and then there was a lot of kissing. Seated kissing, with our arms propped straight as crutches on Michael’s narrow, neatly-made bed, then lying down kissing, with arms wrapped around each other, bodies close enough together that I could feel him harden. Michael reddened with embarrassment, got up to take off his glasses, and we kissed some more.
Time played its elastic tricks: it stopped while we were kissing, then hurried forward, the clock rushing to eleven, my curfew, and I had to leave, with still the twenty minutes to walk home. Michael and I untangled, he found his glasses, but it was impossible for us to part. He walked me back to my house, through the still and silent streets, a thousand stars on a moonless Minnesota night twinkling down at the new lovers. Michael was bookish and shy, a proto-hippie like me, and charmingly unaware of how good-looking he was. On that walk we shared what secrets and history sixteen- and fifteen-year-olds could have accumulated. We marveled that the universe had contrived to bring us together, two pieces fitting into place in the cosmic jigsaw.
We kissed as long as possible in front of my house; I was just beginning to put the horrors of July 21st behind me. If my mother should have appeared in the doorway and started yelling, I felt I would die. I pushed Michael away, slipped into my sleeping house and floated up the stairs. In bed, I wrapped my arms around myself, imagining it was Michael who held me, I thought of the dirty books hidden away underneath me; the pages I had carefully dog-eared didn’t begin to describe the sweet ache I felt, a longing I knew Michael felt too. I wondered how long it would take us to go all the way.
It took a week. The following Saturday, up in his room, his mother attending another university faculty beanfest, our clothes half off and “Whole Lotta Love” urging us on, Michael told me he loved me. “I love you too,” I said, and it turned out those really were magic words, words that made it imperative that we get rid of the rest of our clothing immediately. It was Michael’s first time and I wished it were mine too. “Making love” and “having sex,” are such awful phrases for what we did. We were two young animals, playful, tender, funny, considerate, with wildly responsive teen-age bodies we smashed together as closely as possible. It was as if the two of us had invented sex, sex that was as transcendent and addictive as any drug.\
Adorable, innocent Michael did not have a condom, since he was even more unwilling than I was to go into a drugstore and ask for a package of rubbers, which in those days were kept locked up on a high shelf in the back of the storage room to extend the embarrassment of the foot-shuffling, eye-averting teenage boy waiting at the counter. (One particular wisenheimer druggist liked to yell out, “What size, buddy?”)
After our first time, I called an emergency sex consultation with my girlfriends, held in Linda Laurence’s basement. While taking sips from Linda’s parents’ collection of Bols after-dinner drinks (crème de menthe, crème de cocao, peach brandy, cherry kirsch, and other stomach-churning flavors) and everyone but me smoking cigarettes, we discussed how I could have as much sex as possible without getting pregnant. Alternative methods were suggested and met with peals of laughter, some real, some forced; these ideas were quickly discarded. Some of my gang did have boyfriends who braved the druggist’s stink-eye and the wait of shame at the Tru-Value Pharmacy, but you don’t ask your boyfriend if he can spare a rubber so some other guy can get laid.
We pooled our collective knowledge and misinformation about the female reproductive system. Linda plucked a calendar off the wall and we huddled over it, guessing at those days that might be safe and days I should definitely keep my panties on.
Pregnancy was the dark looming cloud that hung over rapturous teenage sex: everyone knew of the senior girl who had been sent off to a home for unwed mothers, returning after six months thin and wan and without a baby or a boyfriend. But despite regular scares, no one in our gang got pregnant or had any tragedy befall us. While we had scrapes and accidents, heartaches and breakups, for the three years of high school we lived in a teen fairyland, where we could have sex and not get pregnant, drive drunk in cars with no seatbelts without going through the windshield, and hop on and off moving freight trains without losing a leg.
Besides being considerate enough to go out almost every Saturday night, Mrs. Vlasdic thoughtfully taught class two afternoons a week. If it were the right day of the month Michael and I would dash from school to his house for the world’s quickest quickie. When Mrs. Vlasdic walked through the door at four o’clock, she’d find Michael and me at the dining table, fully clothed, surrounded by homework, and drinking tea. She had to have known what was going on.
My own parents had briefly met Michael and felt no reason to be alarmed: his mother was a university professor and Michael seemed too painfully shy and nerdish to be any threat to my already sullied honor. And at that point, my family was spinning apart.
After buying the big, impressive Hawthorne Road house, my dad spent less and less time there. My mom was taking a full-course load at the university, her youthful dreams of being an actress whittled down to a prospective career as a speech therapist. My younger sisters Heidi and Lani would have been latchkey kids, except we never locked our doors in Duluth; after school they walked the three blocks home together, let themselves in, and headed straight for the TV.
But even at its emptiest, my house was firmly off-limits for sex. I was haunted by the horrifying memory of Doug Figge trying to cover his balls with his hands, like Adam suddenly aware and ashamed of his nakedness. I wouldn’t feel safe having sex in my own home if both my parents were in Idaho.
On the Saturday nights Mrs. Vlasdic selfishly stayed home, we hopped in a car driven by Roger or Needle, Michael and I clutched together smooching in the back seat. We’d drive around Duluth for hours, the guys smoking pot or searching for someone to sell them pot.
I luxuriated in my membership in two high school groups: my gang of loyal, funny, raucous girlfriends, and the druggies of East High, whose numbers increased daily. We proclaimed our allegiance to the counterculture with long hair, fringed jackets, wire-rimmed glasses, beads, and bellbottoms. My pal Wendi Carlson became a fervent pot smoker and made it her life’s mission to teach me to inhale. She was even more disappointed than I was that I was still unable to draw the tiniest puff inside my lungs.
A member of the druggies was cute Stan Lewis, a year behind me, who showed up at all the parties with weed. Stan and I would find each other at these parties and swap what little we knew about psychedelics. Could you really get high from morning glory seeds or nutmeg? What was the difference between LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin? When you’re tripping, do you need someone straight around in case you freak out? How much did these drugs cost and where could we get them? I thought of Joe Sloan, who would soon be back in Duluth for Christmas, which reminded me of Doug Figge and the astronaut, so I lied and told Stan I didn’t know anyone who had those kind of drugs.
Stan, a determined guy, went out and found someone who did, and for my sixteenth birthday he gave me a small blue pill that he said was mescaline, supposedly not as mind-blowing as LSD. He handed it to me in the parking lot of the London Inn. I immediately popped that pill in my mouth, washed it down with watery Coke, and thanked Stan with a friendly kiss on the cheek, which I now suspect was not what he was hoping for. I jumped into the White Delight on to Wendi Carlson’s lap and whispered in her ear what I had just done.
There were no empty houses that night so my sixteenth birthday celebration was a three-hour auto tour of residential Duluth with six of my best friends. It was early December, pre-broomball season, but there were frequent stops for peeing in the snow and return visits to the London Inn to see if any cute boys were around. Wendi kept pinching me hard and asking, “Are you tripping yet? How about now?” and I kept shaking my head no.
I was somewhere around Hawthorne Road, on the edge of my front lawn, when the drugs began to take hold. I was sober as Judge Erman when I climbed out of the White Delight and headed into my house; I had not a single drink on my birthday, waiting for the mescaline to kick in and transport my mind to Peter Max world.
Just as I was thinking that poor Stan had been swindled, I opened the door to my house and was blinded by the hot-as-the-sun kitchen lights. I stumbled and braced myself up on the wall, which was wildly tilting, while a galaxy of neon geometric shapes swirled around me. It took me a minute to realize that the low frequency rumble I was hearing was my mother asking me how my birthday was. I slid into the living room doorway and made small talk to the elongated monster with snakes for hands that was sitting on the TV couch. I finally escaped and made my way up to my room and tripped for hours, staring out into the night, where twinkling snowflakes and yellow streetlights and the deep blue of winter created a hypnotic tapestry. I twirled the dial of my melting bedside radio, WEBC having signed off for the night, searching for music and unfortunately hit on a horrible station out of Chicago that chose to play “D.O.A.” by Bloodrock at 2 a.m. I listened to the whole thing, perched on the edge of madness, switched the radio off, and hid under my blanket until I stopped hallucinating horrible, bloody car wrecks and finally fell asleep.
I couldn’t wait to trip again.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
I spent most of ninth grade imagining myself flitting about Haight-Ashbury, swinging my love beads and my perfect, shiny, Michelle Phillips hair, ingesting an interesting variety of drugs, and being fawned over by boys who looked like Mick Jagger or Jim Morrison. But my sad reality was that I was a plain girl with glasses, wearing clothes picked out by my mother, a girl who had never even sipped a beer or smoked a cigarette.
The swinging 60s, the youth revolt, consciousness-raising, be-ins and sit-ins and rap sessions were all happening very far away. Duluth was still country clubs, bridge parties, scary greasers from the West End with pomaded hair, black leather jackets, and white tees, useless home ec lessons, Sunday church dresses, dads driving while drinking a can of Grain Belt beer and then chucking the empty to the side of the road. We were so far out of the mainstream we hadn’t even gotten the Keep America Beautiful message.
No Duluth tradition was as firmly welded into the past as Cotillion. Every year, twenty fourteen-year-old boys and twenty fourteen-year-old girls were invited to take part in Cotillion, or in plain English, ballroom dancing lessons. This was a privilege reserved for kids from “better” families: we were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, who lived in the big houses in the prestigious neighborhoods. Never mind that the rest of the country was doing the frug, the pony, and the monkey. We chosen few were learning to fox trot.
Cotillion was held Thursday nights, from seven to nine on the second floor of Northland Country Club, and if that was a ballroom I’m the Queen of Spain. A long bench ran along all four sides of a drab, drafty room, half occupied with sweating, dweeby boys in ill-fitting jackets and strangling neckties, and half by anxious, overdressed girls. Girls were required to wear white gloves, god forbid our hands should touch sweaty boy hands. Dancing was taught and decorum maintained by two elderly, overweight matrons, who had been annoying the golden youth of Duluth for years untold.
For most of the dragging hours, the boys asked the girls to dance. Who knows what was worst: waiting, waiting, waiting, until I was the only girl still sitting on the bench and short, pimply Tom Gunderson, after examining the ceiling and the floor, just in case there was another girl hiding there, grudgingly asked me to dance; or on the rare occasion, when the planets aligned, of a girl asking a boy dance, when I had to decide how high to aim and how quick to move. A boy couldn’t turn me down, but he could make a face letting me know that he was hoping any other girl would have gotten to him before I did.
I hated Cotillion. It reinforced my lowly standing in the ninth grade boy-girl Olympics: only if a spelling bee broke out would I ever be any boy’s first choice. And it was impossible for me to learn to fox trot or cha cha or waltz, being literally unable to tell my right foot from my left. My unlucky partner and I would be shoved to the side of the room by one of the dance mistresses, who would then loom over me, glaring at my feet and shouting “ONE AND TWO AND CHA CHA CHA.”
My mother was thrilled to supply dress after dress for Cotillion; but it didn’t matter how cute my dress was; no boy cared about a dress. This was a lesson I was unable to get through my head; at the ninth grade graduation party my adorable Dr. Zhivago-inspired dress and fancy beauty shop up sweep failed to entice a single boy to ask me to dance.
Cotillion did teach me how to keep my tears of embarrassment and shame damned up those nights when the boy-girl numbers did not match and I was left alone on the bench, dance after dance, until some unfortunate boy was forced to come over and offer me a sweaty palm. I learned that when it’s whispered through the ballroom that Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the dance mistress is still clapping her hands and telling the boys to hurry and pick out their partners, that something is severely screwed-up.
After being chosen last at every Cotillion and left holding up the wall at the ninth grade graduation dance (I finally retreated to the girls’ bathroom where I had a good cry and then washed my face so my mom wouldn’t know that her choice of dress and hair do had not worked a miracle) I was convinced that I would never have a boyfriend.
Then one warmish June day, right before the end of school, I received two gentleman callers. My mother, down to one of her last nerves, had thrown all three of us girls out of the house. Heidi and Lani had gone off in search of other kids; I was slumped on the front steps engaged in my favorite outdoor activity, reading a book, when down Lakeview Avenue lumbered two gangly teenage boys, looking, shockingly, for me. It was Joe Sloan and Wesley Baggot.
Wesley was in ninth grade at Woodland, though not in any of my classes, and definitely not a member of Cotillion, having the longish hair and scruffiness of a would-be greaser. He was cute enough, though, and he was a boy. I had never spoken to Joe Sloan, who was taller with longer hair, and an air of mystery. The Sloans, a family of seven or eight children, lived in an immense robber baron mansion, a house with an unknowable number of rooms built of ominous black stone blocks, complete with gatehouse and a quarter-mile of winding driveway, set back on acres of dark piney woods. I had been delivered several times to this house to play with a girl my age, Jane Sloan, a musical prodigy who eventually went off to boarding school. I don’t remember if we played Barbies or board games or hide and seek in that huge house, my memory is stuck on the concert grand piano, ebony black and the size of a car, smack in the middle of a living room as big as a tennis court, and on the industrial-size chrome milk dispenser in their kitchen: you’d lift the heavy lever and milk would run from a clear tube into your glass. I also remember glimpses of Jane’s brother Joe, who had a reputation for borderline juvenile delinquency, and who attended not a fancy pants boarding school, but one intended to correct the waywardness of rich boys.
Of my two suitors, of course I preferred Joe Sloan, especially because when they stopped at my front sidewalk, he lit a cigarette. I managed to not hyperventilate and to actually make small talk with two boys, discussing the merits of East High, where I was going, and whose students were regarded by all other Duluth teens as Cake Eaters, and Central, the other side of the track school, whose sports teams regularly thumped East, and where Wesley was headed. Joe did not comment on his school, but lit another cigarette and said he had to go. Joe and Wesley gave me a “See ya,” ambled off, and I rushed back into the house to call Cindy Moreland and tell her that I had just talked to two boys, one of whom was a year older and really, really cute, then spent the rest of the day imagine Joe reaching for me and sweeping me up in a passionate kiss that tasted like Lucky Strikes.
It took a few more visits from the two boys before the semi-awful truth came out: I was not the object of Joe’s desire. It was Wesley Baggot who asked me out on my first date. I can count on the fingers of one hand how often a boy has asked me to the movies, so every moment of that event is etched into my brain.
What I wore: black elephant bells of thin-wale corduroy with a pink and green rosebud print. I wish I still had those pants. The bell bottoms were so wide, Wesley Baggot asked if I were wearing two skirts. We went to a James Bond double feature, Dr. No and Goldfinger, very racy stuff for fourteen-year-old me. At some point after the appearance of Odd Job, Wesley’s hand crawled over the arm of the seat to search for mine. Caught in his death grip, I proceeded to lose all feeling in my right hand. I tried to ignore the pins and needles shooting up my arm and the intense embarrassment of watching Pussy Galore and James Bond going at it in on the big screen in Technicolor so I could memorize every detail of my first date, which I poured out to Cindy Moreland the next day, as we wrapped album covers in tin foil to use as reflectors and basted ourselves in baby oil in an attempt to woo a California tan from the pale Minnesota sun.
She sympathized with me over losing out on Joe Sloan, but a boy was a boy. Wesley
Baggot had paid for my ticket, bought me buttered popcorn and a waxy cup of Coca-Cola, and that was an official date. The next step in the Duluth dating ritual was dinner at Somebody’s Place, a small teen-friendly restaurant where no liquor was served; you washed down your choice of thirty-six different hamburgers (ranging from the Italian with red sauce and mozzarella to the “sundae burger” with chocolate syrup and whipped cream) with Swamp Water (a mixture of coke, root beer, and 7-Up), or a pretentious pot of orange and cinnamon Constant Comment tea.
I spent hours waiting for the phone to ring or for Joe and Wesley to show up again on my front lawn, hours in front of the bathroom mirror, applying a pale pink Yardley Slicker to my lips then attempting a sexy Honor Blackman pout, taking my glasses off, thinking I couldn’t read the Somebody’s House menu without them, putting them back on, realizing that I knew all twenty-eight hamburgers by heart, taking them off again, peering under my lashes trying to see what I looked like when I closed my eyes and puckered up for a kiss…all in vain. Joe Sloan and Wesley Baggot had vanished. The phone continued to not ring and I descended into the horrors of the teen girl mope.
In 1967, my eighth grade summer, the sixties finally trickled up to northern Minnesota. Up till then, we had existed in our own little insulated pocket of intact families, nosy neighbors, regular church-going, casual drunkenness, and a sincere belief in the virtue of conformity. Children were seen but not heard, teens were just big kids waiting to become adults, God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world.
Somewhere in the South people were marching for civil rights. Duluth had virtually no black people. We had a few grizzled Indians hanging around the liquor stores, waiting to buy booze for teen-agers in exchange for a few bucks or a can of beer. We had a handful of Jewish families, who were regarded suspiciously by my mother, although she had jumped at the chance to dump her two youngest kids in a half-day preschool at the Jewish Educational Center, where Lani, and later Heidi, learned to play the dreidel and build Sukkot tents.
Men were burning their draft cards in Berkeley and New York City; Walter Cronkite led off the news with stories of the war in Vietnam. But the college deferment was still in place, which meant that no boys who grew up in my neighborhood were at risk of being shot at by those awful Viet Cong.
Teen culture had started to seep in with the Beach Boys. But the California world of surfing and woodies seemed as exotic to us as an Indonesian dance troupe on Ed Sullivan. Our one and only radio station, WEBC (AM of course), played Top 40 music in an indiscriminate scramble: on a 15-minute drive to the store, we would hear “Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Monday, Monday,” and “Born Free.” When the Rolling Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” came out, WEBC beeped out the title line every time, in the interest of public morality.
But cracks were opening up. Time and The Saturday Evening Post, which arrived weekly at our house, increased their coverage of civil rights and anti-war protests, and I began to tilt left. The TV shows Hullabaloo and Shindig! moved away from Petula Clark and Bobby Darrin and towards the Doors (sex!) and Jefferson Airplane (drugs!).
Drug culture took longer to reach us, too damn long as far as I was concerned. I had never succumbed to Beatlemania; the unwashed, sneering Rolling Stores were much more exciting. But it was mandatory that if you were between the ages of 13 and 21, you went gaga over the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I happily joined in, hoping that by listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” I could get an aural contact high.
Somewhere, out in the real world, people were smoking marijuana and banana peels, ingesting morning glory seeds and LSD, expanding their consciousness in all kind of ways. But I was in a basement in International Falls, sitting around a tinny hi-fi system, with Sgt. Pepper on repeat and repeat, the record coming to a scratchy end and then flipped over, while the boy who lived there was dissolving Bayer aspirin in bottles of Coca-Cola, in an attempt to get himself and his pals, which included me but not my disapproving best friend, Wendy, high. We all claimed to feel something, although what I mostly felt was sick to my stomach.
I was huddled on that basement floor because that summer I was a long-term guest at Wendy’s grandma’s house. I had outgrown camp and the Northland Country Club pool. After the mandatory visit to Aberdeen, where I spent two weeks reading and sulking, my mother gratefully sent me north and out of her hair. International Falls was a small town, a lot like Aberdeen, but smellier, thanks to the paper mill. Wendy and I were regarded as sophisticated big city girls — “Wow, you live in Duluth!” —and welcomed everywhere. The day after the aspirin experiment, we were invited to a taffy pull at a neighbor’s, something I thought existed only in the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. My hands were buttered to the wrist, as if I were to be part of an adolescent orgy. The taffy was white and ropy and smelled of vanilla, and when finished was tooth-achingly sweet and tooth-shatteringly brittle. My father would have been horrified. I was annoyed at this wholesome party activity; I wanted to be back down in that basement, listening to records with boys and figuring out ways to get high.
I also participated in a bizarre experiment in reversing Down Syndrome. Wendy’s best friend before me had a baby sister with Down’s. I didn’t quite understand what was going on with this big-headed kid who couldn’t talk. The mom, searching for a cure, had fallen under the influence of a crack-pot theory that held that crawling was the basis of all subsequent learning. The mom spent hours manipulating her baby’s arms and legs in a swimming/crawling motion. When she got too tired she recruited anyone within shouting distance to take her place. I have no idea whether it helped or not. It was horribly creepy, moving the baby’s right arm and left leg for ten minutes, then switching to the left arm and right leg, while the kid made noises somewhere between a chortle and a howl. I hated going over to that house of sadness and madness.
The kid with the basement and the aspirin and the Sgt. Pepper’s album was International Fall’s leading Bad Boy. Wendy and I adored him. Several weeks into my visit, all of us 13-year-old aspiring juvenile delinquents were hanging out on a street corner, trying to be much cooler than we actually were. Bad Boy was smoking a cigarette (oooh!) and started lighting matches and tossing them into a red and blue mailbox. Of course, we found this, as everything Bad Boy did, hysterical. At about the twentieth match, smoke began seeping through the mailbox slot. All of us stood gazing horrified as the wisp became a serious plume, a “Yeah something is really burning” smoke signal. One of Bad Boy’s friends helpfully noted that we had probably committed a federal crime, setting the U.S. mail on fire. As the smoke darkened and streamed out of the mailbox, we fled in all four directions. Wendy and I bamboozled her poor grandma with some story about why we had to be back in Duluth immediately, and pooled our money for bus tickets, hoping to stay one step ahead of the law.
I got back to Duluth to find the entire teen universe abuzz. The Duluth auditorium, which had opened in 1966 and been home to hockey games, Ice Capades, and the Ringling Brothers Circus, was to have its first rock concert: Herman’s Hermits.
Wendy and I were speechless with joy. While Herman, aka Peter Noone, the lead singer, was almost a little too preciously adorable for my tastes (always a smile, never a sneer), he was undeniably cute. And I, like everyone under 25 in the country, had fallen under the perky, head-bobbing spell of “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am,” which was played by the radio station at least once every hour, causing pre-teen girls to squeal, hop on one foot, and shout out “Second verse, same as the first!”
For weeks before the concert, I was lost in a whirl of daydreams where Peter Noone looked out in the audience, saw my adoring face, and fell madly in love. He would send someone out to escort me backstage, take me in his arms, kiss me, gently remove my clothes…and then stuff would happen that I was still having a difficult time imagining. I would get to that crucial point, sigh, and rewind my daydream back to the beginning.
There was only one problem. I wore glasses, thick, hideous glasses which could kill the sex drive of any boy at ten paces. I could go to the concert without wearing my brown cat’s eye with sparkles (an improvement over the baby blue ones I had worn for years) but then I wouldn’t be able to see a thing onstage. How could I catch Peter Noone’s eye if he were just a fuzzy object? I wouldn’t even be able to tell him from the lesser, unnamed Hermits.
Shindig!, the TV music show, saved me. It was on during a school night, so Wendy and I had to watch it at our own homes, one ear glued to the phone, discussing which bands and boys we liked. Shindig! had a troupe of cute girl dancers (now there was a career!). One of these dancers wore, along with her mini skirts, Mondrian-inspired dresses, and go-go boots, a pair of perfectly round tortoise shell glasses. Thanks to some mysterious seismic movement or an alignment of the stars, a pair of those exact glasses showed up at my eye doctor’s, where before my choice had been between the baby blue or shit brown cat’s eyes with sparkles. My mother, the slave to fashion, was always delighted when I paid attention to what I wore and how I looked — which was still, with my badly cut mousy blonde hair, not good. But at least with my outrageously stylish new glasses, I commanded some attention from boys, most of it a startled reaction of “Weird.”
With my Shindig glasses and my own Mondrian color block mini dress, I was ready for Peter Noone to sweep me off my feet. I don’t remember what Wendy was wearing. It didn’t matter, she was only there to report back to all of Woodland Junior High that I was not in ninth grade because I had eloped with Herman.
My dad, who had been known to whistle “Henry the Eighth” himself occasionally, scored us seats a few rows from the stage. We had to sit through an opening act before Herman’s Hermits came on. That band was The Who. I had heard “I Can See for Miles” on WEBC a few times the winter before, enjoyed it, but relegated The Who to the category of British Bands I Kinda Liked: The Kinks, The Animals, The Zombies.
Seeing The Who live rocked my little Duluthian world. There I was, nicely dressed, waiting to see that sweet young man who politely told Mrs. Brown she had a lovely daughter. I got Roger Daltrey’s unhinged vocals (ooh, he was really cute!), Keith Moon’s spastic flailing over his drums, and Pete Townsend smashing his guitar on the stage floor over and over (and John Entwhistle noodling about in the background). The Who killed off any residual Minnesota nice girl in me and I was pitched head first into full-fledged Youth in Revolt. At the end of “I Can See for Miles” Townsend stomped offstage with the splintered neck of his guitar in hand while everyone around me politely applauded while muttering “Were they on drugs? What was that all about?” I knew what it was about, it was about smashing the old to make way for something completely new, whether the world or Duluth or Woodland Junior High was ready for it or not.
The crowd stood and roared when Herman’s Hermits took the stage; I was still in a daze; sorry Peter Noone, you are no longer my type.
My dad would shake his head over the Cs on my report card from gym and home ec, ignoring the As in math, history, science, and English (Bs in Spanish); did he not know who I was? I had always excelled at anything that required brain power; ask my fingers or legs or arms to do something, and I was as helpless as an earthworm.
My grades were good enough that my parents had no compunctions about pulling me out of seventh grade for a week. A dental convention in Mexico City was the tax-deductible impetus for a tour through Acapulco, Taxco, and Cuernavaca. My dad thought the exposure to a foreign culture would be good for me. Heidi was not yet two, and Lani, as usual, was the middle child afterthought: they got left at home with the sitter. I, the smart one, the lucky one, the anointed, flew south with my parents and grandparents.
My father’s favorite thing was to travel without hotel reservations. I was not on the trip to the New York City where my parents had to spend the night in a second-floor walk-up hotel in Harlem, back when Harlem was Harlem. I was on the family skiing trip in Wisconsin over a holiday weekend, when we drove for hours in the dark, passing one neon NO VACANCY sign after another. In the middle of the night we finally stopped at a hunting lodge that had closed for the season, but whose owners had stayed on. By a miracle this lovely old couple were awake and felt sorry enough for the exhausted-looking family to let us spend the night in one of the unheated cabins. They even made us breakfast.
This, however, was an American Dental Association trip, which meant fancy hotels, bus tours, and meals at restaurants where the most Mexican item on the menu was a margarita. In Acapulco my parents and I were given a luxury two-bedroom suite at the El Presidente hotel, as evidently the roll away bed had not yet been introduced to Mexico. Floor to ceiling windows looked out over the famously beautiful Acapulco Bay, a vision I thrilled to again while watching the first season of I Spy, and then, eight years later, from the balcony of a high-rise condo, while making out with a playboy from Chicago who was twenty-two years older than me.
My first day in Acapulco I was pulled sputtering and floundering out of a fierce undertow by a sharp-eyed dentist while my own dad was getting drunk at the bar. Heavy drinking Minnesota dentists plus cheap Mexican booze equaled a non-stop party that started in the morning with Bloody Marias and ended when someone got hurt or sick. Dentists were jumping off roofs into pools, getting into fistfights, laughing so hard on burro rides they pissed themselves. I was the only kid in this group, and as I was small and quiet (even when drowning) I went as unnoticed as a salt shaker, even by my own family.
I finally piped up during a drunken dinner at a fancy restaurant when I saw a flaming baked Alaska cross the room and was struck that here was the height of sophistication. Cake, ice cream, meringue, and a fire! If only I had a baked Alaska of my own I could die happy. I was certain that my request would not be granted: the usual answer to “Can we have dessert?” at a restaurant alternated between concern for our teeth from my father and “We have ice cream at home” from my mother. But my dad was tipsy and in a benevolent mood and my mom was too busy worrying about what drunken dental hijinks were in store that night. I felt like a princess when the waiter set the blue-flamed baked Alaska in front of me. It was Neapolitan ice cream set on a slice of chocolate cake, surrounded by hot, sticky, marshmallow-y goo, and it was delicious.
The last day in Acapulco the dentists who were not too hungover and their wives gathered around a open space between the hotel and the beach to watch three men dressed as Aztec warriors fling themselves off a 40-foot pole, anchored by vines knotted around their ankles. While I watched agog as they twirled around the rotating pole, I overheard two dental wives discussing the night before. Little pitchers do have big ears. A taxi driver had offered to take some of the dentists and their wives to see a “show” at a whorehouse.
During the show, one of the group, in a perfect storm of drunkenness, decided to participate. But it was a not a dentist, but Mrs….here the woman’s voice dropped to a whisper, so I’ll never know which of the wives, hiding behind the cat’s eye sunglasses and under ugly straw hats purchased for way too many pesos from the voracious beach vendors, women who were sun-burned or coping with Montezuma’s revenge or hungover or all three, which of these demur ladies had ripped off her clothes and jumped on to the stage at the whorehouse and into the arms of the leading man.
Once away from the Acapulco nightlife, the dentists dried out and recuperated in Taxco and Cuernavaca, pretty colonial towns with pastel houses covered in bougainvillea, that featured boring tours of silver and pottery stores. In Taxco my father stepped off the tour bus and, instead of heading for the air-conditioned hotel for lunch, took me into the most flyblown, dingy restaurant on the plaza. We sat by the greasy front window at a table as sticky as flypaper, even though miraculously the 500 flies buzzing around our heads seemed able to resist setting down there, preferring to wait till the food arrived. As my dad was ordering the enchiladas suizas (how did he even know what that was? The only Mexican food I had seen in Duluth was in a Swanson’s Mexican Style TV dinner, where every brown component in the foil tray tasted the same), my mom and grandmom appeared at the open doorway, afraid to step inside in case germs clung to the soles of their shoes. Both moms ordered us to get out of there and not touch anything. I dutifully obeyed, but my dad just grinned and tucked into a huge platter of green and white something, while the waiter stood behind, waving off flies with a menu. My grandmother turned bilious just looking at the enchiladas; my dad finished the whole thing, burped, gave the waiter the equivalent of 90 cents, and felt absolutely fine.
My mother was not so lucky. She not only got sick from almost everything she ate, she had a terrible reaction to the smallpox vaccine the Dental Association recommended she get before traveling south of the border. She spent the night of the big formal gala at the actual convention in Mexico City puking and watching her arm swell up to the size of an elephant’s trunk. I was sent off to find my dad at the party, which was held on the top floor of our fancy hotel. He refused to leave, being several margaritas in and, never having experienced any illness himself outside of killer hangovers, didn’t believe anyone could get sick from a shot. I grabbed some food off a tray and went back to our room, my book, and the scary sounds emanating from the bathroom.
I was now a sophisticated world traveler. I had been out of the United States! I never missed an opportunity to mention my travels, until even my best friend Wendy finally asked me to shut up about Mexico. But summer camp provided a whole new audience. I embellished my travelogue for my bunkmates, giving myself a handsome 16-year old Mexican boyfriend, Andres. In this new version, it wasn’t a balding orthodontist from Edina who pulled me out of the undertow in front of the El Presidente hotel, it was Andres, who then fell instantly in love with me, a reverse Little Mermaid. I spun a tale of Andres sneaking into our suite when my parents were out; how we would make out passionately on the sofa overlooking the lights of the bay. I confessed that Andres tenderly tried to stick his hand under my shirt, but I held him in check, despite his protestations of undying love. I told and retold the story of my imaginary romance so often that I almost came to believe it myself. For the two weeks of camp, I was the most popular girl in our bunkhouse, and even the counselors looked at me as if I might be interesting.
I came back from camp that seventh grade summer, basking in my fraudulent role as resident boy expert and sadly aware that I didn’t want to go to camp anymore. What if all of those camp girls who boasted of boyfriends and their extensive knowledge of sex were just big fakers too?
I had just gotten home when Wendy called to tell me that she had overheard Rick Bryers (one of my heartthrobs) and Steve Puloski talking about me. Two boys who knew I was alive? I couldn’t imagine what they had to say. Could they possible think I was cute? Wendy in all her innocence or malice, told me “Rick told Steve he had seen you at the Northland pool” (my racing thoughts: I did look adorable in my first two-piece suit, a red and white Hawaiian floral, what was Rick Bryers doing at Northland Country Club and….HE NOTICED ME AND KNEW MY NAME) “and Steve” (who was universally despised by the entire seventh grade for many reasons, including putting Fizzies in the biology teacher’s fish tank and showing up at all of our houses trying to sell Grit magazine or packages of seeds or greeting cards) “Steve said to Rick…flat as a board, huh?” After that there was a roaring in my ears. I hung up the phone and vowed I would never go to school again.
But I did, and eighth grade followed seventh as if it were Ground Hog Day: I was the star pupil in English, math, science, and even boring Minnesota state history. I was still chosen last when sides were picked for volleyball (why couldn’t the gym teacher simply divide the class in two?) and still regularly forgot to bring my gym uniform to school. I endured a second year of being taught useless domestic skills in home ec. I forgave Wendy for squashing my dreams of true romance with Rick Bryers and spent as many weekends as I could at her weird dorm apartment. We’d flip through that month’s Seventeen magazine, debate the merits of Napoleon vs. Ilya, review every comment made to us by a boy during the past week for signs of infatuation (“When he asked me what the caf had for lunch, did he want to sit with me?”), and try to figure out what the popular girls had that we didn’t (which was, in the end, their popularity, which made everything else — their clothes, their hair styles, their manner of speaking — admirable and something to emulate). We were two glasses-wearing, violin-playing nerds, but we had each other.
Wendy and I were the epitome of pre-teen girl best friends: we spent hours debating whether boys we had crushes on even knew if we were alive, slept over every weekend, in Wendy’s tiny apartment or at my house (bigger TV but annoying little sister looking for an audience for her “Let Me Entertain You” strip tease), and talked on the phone for hours about nothing until my dad, infuriated, would stomp over to the kitchen phone and click down the lever, hanging up on Wendy, without even giving me a look or a chance to say good-bye.
On Saturdays, Wendy and I took the bus downtown to cruise through Glass Block and Orech’s and Maurices, looking at the clothes in the Junior Department, which were usually the exact same ones that were there the week before. We would drop in at Woolworth’s to paw through the racks of cheap makeup, once in a while pulling a crumpled dollar from our pockets to buy a Yardley Slickers beige lip gloss or Evening in Paris talcum powder.
We ate cheeseburgers and French fries at the counter of the Carib, even though that yellow-and-green Formica and tiled diner gave me the creeps. Driving back one night from a gargantuan Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents, I looked into the glass front of the Carib, which was garishly lit from within, the only light on a block where every other business was dark. There were few grey men spaced evenly apart on stools along the counter, each hunched over an equally gray plate of food, and I was struck with a pang of loneliness and despair no 10-year-old should feel. I never could really enjoy my burger there; the ghosts of those solitary men sat around me.
Unlike Becky Sweet, Wendy did not demand a monogamous relationship. Junior high kids flowed and reassembled like amoebas in the halls and classrooms of Woodland. Wendy and I had only one class together, where we were constantly under threat of expulsion. I’m sure Mr. Peleski’s orchestra would have sounded better if Wendy and I had been allowed to whisper instead of scratching away at our violins.
I met Kathy O’Dell in art, where three times a week we perched on high stools next to each other and made charcoal drawing after charcoal drawing of an apple, a pear, and a water jug. Kathy was a willow blonde as pretentiously egg-headed as I was. I am positive that by eighteen she was stunning, but back then she was like me, a smart girl who wore glasses, and therefore a seventh-grade pariah.
Kathy was a romantic who was obsessed with a series of French novels: Angelique, Angelique and the King, Angelique and the Pirate, Angelique and the Sultan, and a bunch more. These were ur-bodice rippers: the unworldly beautiful Angelique, blonde and green-eyed (like me!) has rapturous sex with her husband, and, after she thinks he is dead, with a few other special men, and semi-rapturous non-consensual sex with man after man, all of whom are overwhelmed with a throbbing, not-to-be-denied passion for her. One of her captors was a dashing pirate with an eye patch who stars in my sex fantasies to this day. Kathy thrust these books in my hands and we discuss every one with the intensity of Talmudic scholars. Kathy generously shared with me her daydream of being Angelique, feted at the court of the Sun King, captured by Mediterranean pirates, wed to a Sultan, forever being torn from the arms of her swarthy, handsome husband and true love, and then joyfully and sexily reunited. I would read those books all over again if I could find them, and I have looked.
My other friend, Karen Ringwald, was calm, quiet, smarter than me, and unaffected by any teenage madness. Karen and I were the only girls in advanced math, where we were treated as if we were just funny-looking boys. For an hour each day, I was in the blissful state of feeling accepted by a junior high group, the smart, funny boys. Unlike other classes, in math we all rushed to sit at the front of the room, where we could be first to jump up to the chalkboard, yell out the answers, and entertain the rest of the class. Our teacher, Mr. Abrams, was as smart and funny as we were; he didn’t mind the wisecracking as long as all the work was done, and since we were all a bunch of nerds who loved math, that wasn’t an issue. Two of the smart boys in math, the handsome Steve Olson and Rick Bryers, were also jocks in training. All of us seventh grade girls sighed over them, drew hearts with our initials joined by a plus sign (quickly scribbled over so no one could see), and fixated over which of us they liked. Steve was blonde and friendly and quick to smile, Rick was dark and serious and had a baby Burt Lancaster chin cleft. If either of them spoke to me in class, (“What did you get for problem C?” “Do you have an extra pencil?”) I would repeat their exact words to Wendy, and we examined them like the entrails of a chicken, searching for hidden meanings. The other boys in math were funnier, but most of them had yet to outgrow the oversized noses and Adam’s apple of preteen boys. Some, like the appropriately nicknamed Turkey, never did.
Math class was where I had my first period. Between my mother’s vague hints about where babies come from and the mythology imparted at summer camp, I was aware that eventually I would start bleeding from somewhere between my legs. I had seen the mysterious Modess vending machines in ladies rooms, and ads in Seventeen boasting that with Tampax you could swim and horseback ride all month long. I didn’t grasp the reality of this until I was sitting in math, wondering why my seat felt wet. I hoisted myself up a few inches, looked down, saw a tiny pool of dark red blood, and sat back down. Mr. Abrams was scrawling something on the chalkboard and all eyes were on him, as my own had been only seconds before. I was wearing a wool plaid skirt in black, red, and green. I squirmed in my seat, yanking up the skirt’s waistband and twisting it around, while furtively wriggling my butt. I kept doing this, wiping up the blood with my skirt every time I felt it seep through, until the bell rang for the end of class. I jumped up, made sure there was no blood on the light laminate wood of the chair, and ran for my locker and coat. I went to the nurse’s office, told her I felt sick, and asked her to call my mother.
My mother hated it when the school called. It was always on her day to deliver toothpaste to the wilds of Hermantown with the Women’s Dental Auxiliary, or to take my baby sister to the pediatrician, or to fill little cups with nuts and chocolates for her bridge party. She was not pleased to have to stop what she was doing and pick up a sick kid from school. (My mother did not approve of any of us being ill, ever. When we did get sick, we were banished to our rooms with green jello and a glass of lukewarm Seven-up on a tray until we saw the error of our ways.)
I waited in the dim nurse’s office, scared to sit or lie down, until my mother finally rushed in, dragging a crying baby Heidi by one arm, and ready to bawl me out for catching the stomach flu. I burst into tears; the nurse patted my shoulder and whispered to my mom. Once home, mom gave me a ridiculously huge pad, a sanitary belt, which was an elastic band with two sharp grommets to hold the pad in place, and minimal instruction, then left me alone to figure out how to keep that wad of cotton from migrating north to my ass crack.
It’s too bad I couldn’t have gotten my first period in home economics. It might have earned me some sympathy from the teacher, who looked upon me as hopeless and helpless. I got the first D of my life on invisible hems: the concept escaped me completely. I had to be safety-pinned into my A-line dress (two seams, no collar, no sleeves, no trimming, all too visible hem) for the home ec fashion show or it would have fallen apart on the gym floor.
We moved quickly past basic sewing to embroidery, learning dozens of decorative stitches that have certainly been lost to the sands of time by now. We crocheted scarves, a simple enough task that I got a B- (I couldn’t figure out what to do when the scarf was long enough). Knitting was a disaster for me: getting the yarn on and off the needles, casting off, dropping stitches, and what is a purl anyway?
I did not fail so spectacularly at cooking, as it did not require small motor skills and we were not making Beef Wellington, Chicken Cordon Bleu, or even the humble Minnesota hot dish. Our home ec teacher took us through biscuits (beat the hell out of them), muffins (gently fold the ingredients together), and Rice Krispie Treats (in those pre-microwave days, try not to inflict first degree burns on yourself or your classmates while melting butter and marshmallows together on the stove or pouring the boiling hot mess over the Rice Krispies). We worked, and were graded, in groups, and as long as we didn’t burn our biscuits or overbeat our muffins, we all passed.
The home economics curriculum must have been created in a prelapsarian age, preparing us for an adulthood where we would spend our days monogramming tea towels and whipping up baked goods. The message was clear: girls were meant to be decorative and pleasant, as shiny as a skein of embroidery thread, as sweet as a Rice Krispie Treat. Boys had their No Girls Allowed shop class, where they used real tools to make useful things out of wood.
Junior high gym class was also segregated by sex. It was as if the terrifying apparatus in Congdon’s gym had followed me to Woodland: once again, the horse loomed up ahead of me, daring me to approach. I managed to haul myself up to the top of the climbing bars, where I dangled from a wooden rung, unable to do a single pull-up, while the gym teacher looked at her stopwatch and shook her head.
Each gym activity went on for interminable weeks and weeks. Gymnastics was followed by basketball, then swimming, then volleyball, in an endless cycle of despair. Our gym grade (which so unfairly counted in our grade point average) was also based on the presence and condition of our gym uniform. This uniform must have been created by a monster who hated preteen girls: it was a blue button-up one-piece romper, like a toddler would wear, made of the world’s scratchiest, most uncomfortable synthetic. We were required to take our uniforms home once a week to be laundered. With my mind on higher things (Will Rick Bryers talk to me today?) than remembering to bring my gym suit back to school, I got a lot of zeros in clean uniforms.
But thanks to swimming lessons in the frozen lake at Camp Wanakiwin, I managed to boost my gym grade to a B during the weeks we spent in the school’s over-chlorinated indoor pool. I loved swimming, because I could do it, and because it drastically truncated our gym hour. First, every girl, even those unfortunates who still had the physique of a nine-year-old, claimed to have her period, and had to be personally vetted by the gym teacher, who did everything short of checking for Kotex to make sure they weren’t malingering. We then changed into hideous black wool swimsuits that fit no one, and white swim caps, making sure that every strand of hair was tucked inside the rubber, a process again checked personally by the gym teacher as we entered the showers. We had to shower again after getting out of the pool, and change back into our school clothes. I think we spent about five minutes in the pool.
One muddy grey spring afternoon, I was trudging home at the back a gaggle of Congdon fifth graders when a man approached us. In the early sixties there was no “stranger danger” (thus so many kids being dropped off in toy departments while their moms shopped). Duluth children were raised to be polite and helpful so we stopped and listened to him when he said “Hey kids, do you like movies?” He had a special offer, just for us. Every Saturday, there was going to be a matinee for kids at the Norshor Theatre: a cartoon, a serial (whatever that was), and a movie. He had strips of tickets printed up with the dates and the names of the movies. Each ticket was a dollar, but you had to buy the whole series of eight movies. Of course, none of us had eight dollars, I doubt if we could have come up with 80 cents among us. Not a problem, he was going around to all the elementary schools in Duluth and would be back in a few days. We could buy our tickets then.
I was giddy with excitement. I was almost too old for Disney movies, those once-a-year treats. I would have willingly sat through any movie just to go to the grand old Norshor, a vaudeville theatre that had undergone only slight renovations to show movies. There were hundreds of scratchy maroon seats, extending up through a never used balcony, seats that released with a loud “thump” when you stood up, annoying everyone around you. (My sister Lani would spend the entire ninety minutes of the Disney movie going up and down, up and down.) The ladies’ room had floor to ceiling mirrors, chrome stand ashtrays, leather ottomans with brass studs, and Art Deco wallpaper of green and pink bubbles my grandmother would have swooned over. Best of all was the snack bar, which I had always viewed as Moses did the Promised Land. I pictured myself at the kids’ movies, standing in line at the snack bar, fondling a dime liberated from the ashtray in my dad’s car, pondering: buttered popcorn? Jujubes? Sno-caps? Maybe an ice cream bar? Or a hot dog, ketchup only, plucked from its rotating metal bed. There was also a barrel of pickles for those misbegotten souls who wanted to eat a pickle while watching a movie.
I wheedled the eight bucks from my dad and along with most of my classmates, eagerly awaited the “movie man” on the day of his return.
The surprising thing is that there actually were movies. Well, for a while. The girls spent the week before the movie discussing who was going and who we would sit with. Would there be attempts at hand holding or even kissing? Then there was the rare thrill of mixing with kids from other schools. Would the tough west side greasers-in-training pick fights with the well-bred east side boys?
For a few successive Saturdays, hordes of kids, jingling with pocket change, boarded the bus downtown. Crabby old ladies learned to stay home those afternoons. We took over the entire theatre; they even opened the balcony to accommodate us.
The cartoons were the same black-and-white Betty Boops and Merrie Melodies I knew and loved. The serial turned out to be The Lone Ranger (with a different Lone Ranger and Tonto from the TV show) and the movies were marvelous. I saw Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Lost World, The Boy and the Pirates, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I came home as if waking from a wonderful dream, slightly sticky from spilled pop, which was served in dissolving wax cups with no caps. And then it was over. The movie man skipped town, or the Norshor got tired of having to clean up after 300 kids had spent two hours having popcorn fights and pelting one another with Jujubes. The last straw many have been when Billy Shaw got the brilliant idea to smuggle in a can of Dinty Moore beef stew to the first row of the balcony, lean over while making puking sounds, then dump the contents of the can on the kids below. I looked at my four unused tickets and thought again what a cruel world this was.
The summer after fifth grade my family took the train to Seattle for the World’s Fair. It was a last grasp at the golden age of train travel. We had our own sleeper car, with a tiny bathroom and narrow bunks that miraculously appeared each night, thanks to a red-jacketed porter. We ate our meals in the dining car, at tables with heavy china and silverware, white tablecloth, and a single red rose in a cut glass vase, which vibrated gently as we sped along. We spent our days in the dome car, where the towering grandeur of the Rockies compelled me to take my nose out of a book for once.
It seemed that what my father, who unilaterally controlled the money and the agenda, enjoyed most about this trip was denying my sister Lani and me anything we really wanted. Scattered throughout the World’s Fair were “Pick a Pearl!” stands with tanks full of oysters. For a dollar, you selected an oyster out of the tank, which would be opened on the spot, not to eat, but in hopes of finding a pearl. I pressed my nose against the glass display of lustrous white and pink pearls big as marbles that had been found in the oysters (by whom? And why didn’t they keep their pearls?) and begged in vain for a go. My father, a gambler who had lost thousands of dollars playing poker badly or investing in sure thing oil wells, refused to part with the buck. That there was one of these stands around every corner was a constant irritation to me, like a grain of sand that had snuck into my shell.
I was also poked in the eye by the Space Needle, unavoidable from anywhere at the fair. I knew that at the top of the Space Needle was a revolving restaurant, a ride that you can actually eat on! But the Haubner family could not eat there or even take the elevator up to look at the lucky diners going round and round: my father said the line was too long. We couldn’t see the puppet show at the French pavilion, “Les Poupees de Paris”; my father thought it might be inappropriate for kids (it was a puppet show). I told Lani it was actual poops on stage and she threw such a fit at not being allowed to see this wondrous thing that we had to leave the fair immediately. Dinner at the Chinese pavilion ended in a universal family melt down, complete with tears and shouting when Lani and I spotted entire bags of fortune cookies for sale, which my father refused to buy on the grounds that we didn’t want the cookies, just the fortunes (that was true, but still: a bag of fortunes!). After Seattle we went to Vancouver Island, where I got to look at other people enjoying afternoon tea in the rose garden of the Empress Hotel. These fortunate few sat at wicker and glass tables covered with china pots, gilt-edged teacups, and tiered silver trays lined with paper doilies that held gleaming pastries and tiny frosted cakes and sandwiches with the crusts cut off. No tea for me. (Dad: “You won’t like it.”)
After the vacation of forbidden treats was behind me, I spent the next two weeks of the summer at Wanakiwin, hoping to bask in my status as a returning camper, only to find myself once more relegated to the beginners´ group in tennis, boating, and horseback riding. But there was a new crew of bunkmates who were eager to share a fount of sexual misinformation, including the news that you could get pregnant if you French kissed a boy. When another girl (not me, I was too embarrassed to reveal my ignorance) asked what a French kiss was, two girls volunteered to demonstrate at length. Lani was at camp again too, but I only saw her on the far side of dining hall, refusing to eat anything but plain spaghetti noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The minute my parents picked Lani and me up from camp, we began our “Can we go to the pool? Can we go to the pool?” chant. My mother was a hundred months pregnant, and maternity swimsuits had not yet been invented. She was not going to the pool. Somehow my parents wrangled special dispensation from the lords of Northland Country Club, and found a 16-year-old girl to drive Lani and me to the pool, where she completely ignored us, spending all her time perfecting her sunburn and attempting to attract the attention of the lifeguard. He was too absorbed in trying to never have to go in the pool (“Get back in the shallow end or get out!”) and keeping his whistle in a perpetual twirl.
On August 21st, to my father’s distress, a third Haubner girl was born. Girls I barely knew showed up at my house to ooh and aah at the adorable pink bundle that was baby Heidi (who had a narrow escape from being named Hedda), and begging to hold her. Shortly after Heidi appeared, Nana flew in from Aberdeen to take over baby care, shooing away girls who might have become my friends (“No you can’t hold this baby! The idea!”). Lani went into hiding for six months.
Somehow we all knew there would not be a Jack Haubner Junior, so at Heidi’s birth I was immediately elevated into lawn maintenance, the traditional realm of sons. My father had tried one experiment to see if I would be an acceptable substitute for a son in other areas, like fishing. In early spring, when the ice first starts to thaw, was the annual smelt run. The small silvery fish, which were more bones than flesh, were so thick in every stream and river that you could scoop them out of the water. It was the duty of every male Duluthian to go out with a net and a bottle of Seagram’s and return with 80 pounds of smelt for the freezer, where they would remain until they were thrown out to make room for next spring’s catch.
I was lying on the ratty couch in the basement rec room, knees tucked up, nose in book. My father yelled down the stairs, “Gay, we’re going smelt fishing!” I had been smelt fishing once before and had spent the entire time in the car listening to the radio and punching Lani. I had no desire to go again and my legs were curled under me for a reason: “My stomach hurts.” My father had no patience for such malingering. He rousted me off the couch and into several layers of non-waterproof clothes, and we were off to the Knife River. If you don’t feel at all well, it’s not a good idea to stand around in three feet of snow, watching fish being killed. After several netfuls of fish had been sloshed into the huge bucket beside me, I threw up. “I told you I feel sick,” I moaned as my father gazed at my puke in disbelief, as if I had just come up with a new talent for barfing at will. Then I shit my pants and got to go home.
Every Duluth organization met over a breakfast or lunch (if not at the clubhouse bar), as parents and kids were expected to dine en famille. If it wasn’t Friday, dinner at the Haubners had a large meat component, along with a starch and at least two veg. Gravy arrived at the table often and in a barge. Even though I was a picky eater, I had my favorites: Beef tomato, which my mom had learned to make at a Chinese cooking class she took in Hawaii, and which resembled no Chinese dish ever. It was tinned tomatoes, strips of steak, and green peppers that had to be prepared in an electric skillet for authenticity. It made a brownish soy sauce gravy and was served over huge lovely beds of overcooked Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice. Chicken and dumplings boiled away for hours on the stove; it made a bland white gravy often served with egg noodles for extra starchiness. There were a few non-gravy menus.
Mom rubbed the outside of immense pork roasts with a mixture of spices that made eating the salty crispy fat bits the best part. I failed the see the charms of the boiled dinner — ham or corned beef simmered with potato, cabbage, and onions into a uniformly grey mess, but I adored the required accompaniment of brown bread that came in a can — bread in a can! — thickly sliced and thickly covered with butter. In summer there were hamburgers, hot dogs, and steaks on the barbeque, overseen manfully by my dad (until he moved out and I was assigned to the grill); ketchup was the only condiment although there was usually a jar of sandwich pickles somewhere.
There were homemade chocolate chip cookies and banana bread and a crisp and flaky apple pan dowdy that was made with a pound of lard. I tried not to think about what exactly lard was even as my heart rose every time I saw that blue box peeking out of the brown paper grocery bag. Baked goods were washed down with milk from glass bottles, which appeared a few times a week in the silver Springhill Dairy box on the side of the house, a box adorned with a drawing of a cow who looked very contented.
Dinner was eaten in the dining room at 411 Lakeview (the banquette table in the remodeled kitchen was for breakfast, lunch, and the rare occasions my dad brought home take-out Chinese food). Memorable events at that long, highly polished mahogany table include my projectile vomiting as a result of my dad forcing me to eat a boiled brussels sprout (it took years for me to try one again, and even today I prefer them burnt to a crisp). Then there was the dinner party when our long-legged neighbor, Joe Kraft, who habitually teetered on the hind legs of his dining room chair, pushed his balancing act so far that he cracked the legs off the chair. He went sprawling to the floor and my mom flew into such a rage that I fled upstairs to my room.
Dinner parties were regular occurrences; Duluthians were great socializers. My mother held weekly bridge parties, setting up card tables in the living room, fixing a special dessert, and arranging tempting tiny nut cups at each place filled with cashews or waxy chocolate Brach’s Bridge Mix (“Don’t touch anything!”). My parents, those madcaps, had learned the Twist so they could show off at a dance party they threw in our basement after it had been de-ratted. My parents went out almost every Saturday, leaving Lani and me in the hands of a bored teenager who spent all evening on the phone. Only on those nights were Lani and I allowed to eat in front of the TV, dining on actual TV dinners. I loved the turkey one, even though when you took it out of the oven the cinnamon-y stewed apples were so hot they singed your tongue, while the so-called stuffing nestled under the paper-thin slices of white and dark meat remained ice cold. The upper right compartment of the tin foil tray contained whipped potatoes with absolutely no taste at all, so they were mixed with an equal amount of butter. The sitter reappeared at 10 to pick up the half eaten trays and shoo us to bed, where I lay awake, convinced that I’d never see my parents again.
When Lani passed the stage where she was enjoyed throwing fits so rabid that she sent everyone around her into fits as well, our parents started taking us out to dinner. There was the Fifth Avenue, with spindly tables and pink and black wallpaper depicting people carrying baguettes, riding bikes, and wearing berets. Every meal there began with a basket of popovers right from the oven, steam rising above the white cloth, so hot that butter melted immediately on them; a burnt tongue was a small price to pay for such loveliness. There was the Flame restaurant, down by the harbor, where they announced the names of ships that were crossing under Duluth’s “famous” aerial bridge. The Flame had a short man in a bellhop uniform stationed at the door and an immense and frightening lobster tank. There was the Pickwick, long and dark and medieval, with stained glass windows on the side and a view of Lake Superior from the back. I loved their chicken, with its salty blackened skin, ignoring my mother’s “You can get grilled chicken at home” stink eye. Starting about two months before Christmas, the Pickwick bar offered Tom and Jerry’s. A drink named after a cartoon! A Tom and Jerry was warm, heavily spiced eggnog fortified with brandy or rum. I was allowed small swigs; it was the nectar of the gods.
The swankiest restaurant was the London House, with cut glass dishes of celery and carrot sticks and black olives, tri-part stainless steel salad dressing servers with Blue Cheese, Thousand Island, and French (I used French by the teaspoon as it was the only one that didn’t make me puke to look at it), and baked potatoes the size of cantaloupes, that came with their own servers holding sour cream, bacon bits, grated Cheddar, and diced onions. Everyone got steak or prime rib or lamb chops or fried shrimp. We ate ensconced in huge red leather booths; my parents knew everyone who passed by our table. We girls were supposed to order something not too expensive, eat all of it, and shut the hell up.
Every once in a while a tinkle of piano and song would drift up from Tin Pan Alley, a mysterious basement piano bar where children were strictly forbidden. This joint was the favorite destination of my mother’s pals Karin Luster and Gloria Hovland, who imagined themselves glamourous chanteuses making a pit stop in Duluth on their way to stardom. Gloria also wrote songs, which she sent out to agents, hoping one of them would catch the ear of Tony Bennett or Perry Como. She was convinced that the music publishers were stealing her melodies and would cock her head like a robin anytime she her a few bars of Muzak.
In Duluth’s bustling downtown there was The Chinese Lantern, which had huge portions of blandly delicious Cantonese food and the best prime rib. There was also the dreaded Jolly Fisher, permeated with a nauseating smell of fish, which made me so ill that I couldn’t swallow as much as a french fry. Not wanting to repeat the brussels sprout episode, my parents stopped taking Lani and me along when they ate there, leaving us at home to enjoy our TV dinners.
I think our favorite meals were the ones we ate when my dad wasn’t home. Pretty much everything tasted good in Duluth in the 1960s: there weren’t a lot of artificial flavors or preservatives, no microwaves, and the only sweetener was cane sugar. At drive-ins (it wasn’t fast food then as it wasn’t especially fast) everything was prepared fresh right when you ordered it. We’d sit and wait for our Kentucky Fried Chicken (we would have been mystified by the initials KFC): watching the fry cook in the little paper hat take the pieces of chicken we ordered (Lani and I liked drumsticks), dredge them in batter, and sink them in the Fryolater. We took the waxy bucket home, almost too hot to hold, perfuming the car interior with eleven different herbs and spices. The mashed were real potatoes, the pallid gravy slightly floury, the biscuits were buttery, light, and fluffy, the cole slaw uneaten. I have no idea when everything went so terribly wrong.
For my mom to buy Kentucky Fried Chicken we needed ready cash, which was always in short supply at our home. But if we went through all our coat pockets, the couch seats, and the bottom of my mom’s purse, we could come up with enough change to go to the London Inn and get 15 cent hamburgers, fries, and onion rings. The London Inn’s parking lot was always filled with cars and teenagers and blasting radio music, all tuned to the same station, WEBC.
The onion rings were even better and the burgers grilled over an open flame at Nick’s, but Nick’s was in the West End and my mother was loathe to drive the 20 minutes. If the London Inn counter was eight deep in teenagers, we would head to the A&W, where a brown-and-white costumed carhop took our orders and returned with a heaping tray of food and once in a great while, root beer floats, which she perched precariously on the half-opened car window. More than once, my mother got splattered with root beer, melted ice cream, and ketchup when she upset the delicate balance created by three heavy glass mugs.
The A&W’s floats were good, but there was really only one destination for ice cream: Bridgeman’s. A dime bought a single scoop cone. A Tin Roof Sundae, with chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts, was eighty cents. Bridgeman’s had fresh peach ice cream, studded with pale pink chunks of frozen fruit, but only in August. The shakes and malts came straight from the blender in a tall, heavy glass and topped with whipped cream, along with some extra in the silver blender jar to make sure you achieved maximum ice cream freeze head. An evil second cousin had showed me how if you dipped the end of your paper straw end into the malt, you could shoot it up to the ceiling and it would stick. (This was the same distant relation who also gave me a lit firecracker to hold.) I would not have dared to so sully the pristine white and stainless steel interior of Bridgeman’s.
My sister Lani and I arrived home to the big news that my dad had switched country clubs. For years he had played golf at Ridgeway Country Club, a mysterious place with a ramshackle clubhouse that I had only glimpsed from the outside when my mom dropped off my dad and his club. Ridgeway members golfed, drank, smoked, and played cards; there were no Ladies’ Days or children’s programs.
Now my dad was a member at Northland Country Club, about as waspy a place as could be in Duluth. No Jews of course, and the inclination would probably have been to exclude Catholics as well, except that Duluth had a deep base of Norwegians who were local business and government bigwigs, as well as supporters of the Church.
Northland’s clubhouse was a gleaming white pseudo-mansion that would not have looked out of place on an antebellum plantation, complete with porte-cochere in the front and a two-story columned patio on the side. There was even a guardhouse at the turn off of Superior Street where you had to stop to have your name checked against the membership roll before proceeding up the long driveway. At the top, nestled beside the clubhouse, was a (semi-) heated pool. After being frog marched into the frigid water of Hanging Horn Lake for swimming lessons at camp, Lani and I took the Northland pool as if it were the Caribbean. The only other pool I had been to in Duluth was the indoor one at Woodland Junior High, where I was forced to take swimming lessons year after year, never passing into a higher category than Minnow. It was impossible to learn to swim in that over-chlorinated, dimly lit Woodland pool. It had a ledge all around it made of concrete mixed with pumice and bits of sandpaper that would take the skin off your legs and arms, and was surrounded by tiles so slippery that anything faster than a trudge resulted in immediate expulsion from the swimming class. And since the pool was inside the school, it was thought not necessary to heat it.
Thrilled with the chance to swim in water that was over 70 degrees, Lani and I spent the rest of the summer begging, “Can we go to the pool? Can we go to the pool?” from the time we woke up. When we got to Northland, Lani and I (always having to wait the mandatory thirty minutes if we were there after lunch) gleefully plunged into the pool, tossing beach balls, playing water tag, having breath holding contests, going off the diving board (only allowed after you proved you could swim the length of the pool) and staying in the water all afternoon, emerging at five when the pool closed, blue-lipped and prune-fingered.
Oddly enough, none of my classmates’ families belonged to Northland and most of the kids who were regulars at the pool were younger than I. Lani’s best friend Julie Luster often joined us while her mother golfed or drank at the club bar on Ladies’ Day. Children were not allowed to be at the pool by themselves. Your mother or another member had to sign you in and stay there, so there was always a circle of trapped moms trying to get a hint of a tan from the weak Minnesota sun while regularly being drenched by kids cannon-balling or getting in a forbidden game of chicken while the lifeguard’s back was turned.
Northland’s pool, snack bar, hamburgers and fries served on the patio — along with family Fourth of July parties with sack races, hot dogs, and fireworks — was heaven enough for me. But my parents wanted me to enjoy all the benefits of Northland membership, which included golf and tennis lessons for kids. I had learned to hate tennis at camp, but golf brought me to new levels of wishing I never had to do anything besides sit on the sofa and read. Mini-golf was fun; colored balls, little windmills, a chance to hit your sister with the putter. Golf lessons were ten weeks spent just on my stance, swinging the club at an imaginary ball, then having my body manipulated by a creepy assistant golf pro so I could swing at nothing again. When I was finally given a real golf ball, I managed to sideswipe it, knocking the ball off the tee onto the grass. I was ordered back to stance school, at which point I put my club and feet down and refused to go to golf lessons ever again.
In fifth grade I was one of the white mice in another of Duluth’s experiments in education. As a result of all that testing the year before, it was determined that five Congdon fifth graders — me and four boys — deserved “enrichment education.” We would spend our mornings in a special class at Endion Elementary and afternoons at Congdon. I have no idea how my Congdon teacher, the huge Miss Johnson, felt about this. During all my previous elementary school years, there was never any schedule for the day. After we said the Pledge of Allegiance, we might have math or social studies or reading, whatever the teacher felt like teaching. We would go weeks without taking out our music books and then sing for an hour every day for three weeks. But because the five of us would receive “enriched” instruction in English and social studies, Miss Johnson was forced to structure her day to cover those subjects in the morning. In the afternoons, when we were back at Congdon, Miss Johnson would teach math, a smidgen of science (none of those spinster teachers cared about science at all), art, music, and whatever else needed to be taught.
Since there were five of us, the five mothers each took a day of the week to pick all of us up (two kids in the front, three in the back, and please please please don’t let me be squeezed between two boys) in the morning, then shuttle us back to Congdon in time for lunch. It was kind of a requirement for our enriched education, as no other form of transport was offered. My mother bitched — as probably the other four mothers did — every time her day to drive came around.
I loved the Endion Elementary enrichment classes, and I adored our teacher. Miss Steinbeck, a classicist, took us through ancient history, from Egypt to Rome. We wrote stories set in those eras, acted out Greek myths, built a tiny Acropolis, studied sculpture and urns and pyramids. It was a geek’s paradise.
It was also the perfect way to make a socially awkward girl like me even more so. Just being out of my regular Congdon class half the day made me an oddball. When I had nothing more exciting to report to my classmates about the mysterious doings of our morning enrichment class than “We looked at hieroglyphics,” I went back to being ignored and then even further alienated from fifth grade girls’ society.
The educational powers that be weren’t done yet. Several students were also pulled out of Miss Johnson’s room one afternoon a week for a special creative writing class, including Nancy Erman, the one friend I had left. I was consumed with jealousy, as it was universally accepted that I was the best writer in fifth grade. Being told that the only reason I didn’t get to go to creative writing was because I was already pulled out of class half the day did not make me feel any better, and I am afraid I was a snotty little bitch to Nancy for quite a while.
Because I was not enough of a weirdo, there came the afternoon when Miss Johnson escorted the girls out of the classroom and down to the gym. Everyone, she announced, “except Gay. Your mother didn’t sign the permission slip.” Every eye, boy and girl, turned towards me as I tried to will myself invisible. Two hours later, the girls returned, giggling and pinching each other. I was too humiliated to ask what I had missed.
I finally got Nancy to tell me. It was a movie about menstruation, sponsored by Modess sanitary pads, starring a caterpillar who turns into a butterfly. Obviously all the other girls would now metamorphose into butterflies while I would remain a lowly caterpillar. I held back my tears till I got home, where my hysterics were poo-pooed by my mother, the cause of my shame. She had received the letter from the school about the movie, decided I was too young to learn about these things (I had kept the info shared by the Applebaum cousins to myself), and tossed the permission slip into the garbage. “I didn’t know you’d be the only one,” she shrugged.
My sex education was complete enough to be equally thrilled and embarrassed when my mother announced that she was pregnant. To me, my mother always seemed much younger than other moms; Nancy Erman had a brother and sister who were in college and her grey-haired mother seemed as old as my grandmothers. The year before my parents had been photographed for the Duluth Tribune learning to do that new dance craze, the Twist. The world had not yet been turned over to teen-agers; thirty-year-olds could still be cool.
Around the time my mother’s pregnancy began to show, other women started asking with suspicious frequency how old she was. Mom, who had always been paranoid about revealing her age, thought they were hinting about getting pregnant at her advanced age, and refused to answer. I heard her constantly griping, “Old biddies, why do they want to know how old I am?” Someone clued her in to the fact she was being vetted for the Junior League, a club that believed itself to be the pinnacle of high society among Duluth women. My mom had been nominated for Junior League but there was a hitch: you had to be under 35 to join the Junior League. But no one came out and said that why she was asking about my mom’s age, I guess in case my mom got blackballed, so she wouldn’t have hurt feelings.
Duluthians of that time loved joining things: churches (everyone belong to some church, Catholic, Lutheran, Congregationalist, even the mysterious Jewish temple), country clubs, Elks, Moose, Rotary, Lion’s Club, the weird Knights of Columbus and the even odder Masons. My mother was a member of the Women’s Dental Auxiliary and drove around the county distributing toothbrushes and toothpaste to rural schools. My Carlton grandmother was a member of the hoity-toity Kitchi Gammi club, where I was once invited to lunch with her in its cavernous, echoing dining room.
I must have done something wrong — pushed my soup spoon the wrong way or stained the snowy table cloth — as the invitation was not repeated. Grandma Marie was also a member of the Women’s Club, the mother organization to the Junior League, a bunch of do-gooders who were best known for the Duluth Women’s Club Parade of Homes, a chance to poke around in other people’s over-decorated houses for charity.
Why my grandmother Marie couldn’t have just shepherded my mom into Junior League is a mystery. Maybe she was too much of a snob and thought a house painter’s daughter from Aberdeen, South Dakota, even if she was her daughter-in-law, wasn’t good enough to raise money for the Duluth Symphony or the Leif Erickson Park rose gardens.
Alas, my mother never became a Junior Leaguer. Even in an organization composed entirely of women, the husbands had to be considered. My father missed the mandatory Saturday breakfast meeting where my mother was to be interviewed for inclusion in the club; he was too hung over. The Junior League gave him a second chance, he missed that one too.
The August before fourth grade, when we returned from a back-to-school Minneapolis shopping trip, there was the letter from Congdon with my class assignments. “You have Miss Ritchie again for fourth grade,” reported my mother.
A miracle! In the age-old tradition of Congdon Elementary, teachers picked a grade and stuck with it. They taught the same grade in the same classroom until they retired or dropped in the harness. But I had a second year with Miss Ritchie, another year of being singled out for my excellent work and good behavior, of having my book reports and stories read aloud, my clumsy shoebox dioramas given pride of place.
Perhaps Miss Ritchie, with her seniority, had been allowed to cherry pick among the students. All the smartest kids were in her fourth grade class, and none of the unruly boys.
But the post-Sputnik changes in education finally began to creep into our 1930’s style schooling, into those sickly green painted plaster and chalk boarded school walls.
Early in the school year, we were escorted one by one into the library, where a serious young woman administered IQ tests. I was thoroughly enjoying myself until we got to the section on spatial thinking. These questions had no words or numbers; they were a series of connected squares. The multiple choice answers were four shapes: pick the one the squares would make when put together. I got the first one, which was a plain six-sided cube, after that it was pure guesswork. It felt like there were hundreds of these stupid problems, pages and pages of squares becoming more and more complicated with ever more terrifying, hundred-sided completed shapes to choose from. I was sure that this stone-faced lady thought I was an idiot.
Our fourth grade classroom boasted the latest in educational technology: a brand new SRA Reading Lab and a box of color-coded “cards” (actually four-page booklets). As the smarty-pants class, we all started a few shades up from the bottom, assigned a color based on our Iowa Reading Test scores from the year before. During “reading” or whenever I had free time, I selected a card from my assigned color. I read the little story, or more often, fairly boring non-fiction article, and then answered questions about it. This measured my reading comprehension at each level. I tore through those booklets, heading for the twinkling silver category at the top. To my disappointment when I got there, the silver cards contained the dullest readings of all. I recall slogging through a biography of Roger Bannister, the man who broke the four-minute mile, and only slightly more interesting, an article about how the movies used subliminal advertising to get people to eat more popcorn.
Math was still done out of battered textbooks, long division and decimals solved on the blackboard and on smudged blue mimeographed worksheets. Social studies and science were also taught directly from the textbooks. Miss Ritchie was still not overly fond of either subject.
Our student teacher that year specialized in music appreciation. She took us through each section of the orchestra — strings, reeds, brass, and percussion — instrument by instrument. She had it easy; most of her lessons were playing records that featured different musical instruments and trying to get us to identify them. This request was met by shrugs from the male half of the classroom, who were disappointed that the lights remained on, unlike last year’s art studies, when they could misbehave in the dark until the looming shadow of Miss Ritchie rose from her desk to end their hijinks. For her final class, the student teacher finally got around to playing real music; she played “Peter and the Wolf” and “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for us on Congdon’s crappy, tinny record player, urging us to name the instruments in our head while we listened.
In my ongoing role as biggest geek in Congdon, I was enthralled and decided I loved classical music. The soundtrack at home was non-stop Broadway show tunes; my father was a frustrated Robert Goulet. My sister and I marched around the house singing, “The Rain in Spain” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” I had watched Music Man and Bye-Bye Birdie on TV, but the plots of the other “Original Cast Albums” I had to figure out from the one-paragraph synopsis on the back of the record sleeve. I was stunned when I finally saw My Fair Lady that “I Could Have Danced All Night” wasn’t about Eliza’s night at the ball. One of the few Original Cast albums my father didn’t have was Gypsy, which might have been too racy for his Catholic upbringing. When NBC in a daring move ran Gypsy on Saturday Night at the Movies, my sister and I, faithful weekly viewers unless it was a Western, were spellbound. For weeks after seeing Gypsy, Lani, who weighed about 40 pounds and vanished if she turned sideways, practiced stripping down to her panties in front of our bedroom mirror, while belting out “Let Me Entertain You.” My mother was amused, but I don’t think she ever told our dad about these performances.
Around the same time I discovered classical music, my mother’s best friend, Karin Luster, had her brush with fame, Duluth style. In those years, the touring company of the Metropolitan Opera made it all the way up to the high northern latitudes of Duluth to do two performances in the Denfeld High School auditorium. That year it was La Bohème, and the company was in need of a local poodle for Musette. Karin volunteered her chocolate toy poodle, named, of course, Fifi. Karin longed for stardom; she was always the first and the loudest at the piano bar. She was thrilled that Fifi would be appearing on stage with the Metropolitan Opera. Karin, my mom, and I went to the Friday night performance, my first exposure to opera. When Musette swanned on stage in Act I, ready to launch into her song, there was little Fifi towed behind her on a leash, frantically scrabbling away from the stage lights, and finally showing his displeasure at being there by peeing all over the floor. The next night Musette entered sans dog.
My mother was delighted to cater to my highbrow inclinations. “I always wanted a daughter who played the harp,” she sighed. She truly believed that behind the book, behind the glasses, there lurked inside me a germ of talent for something. I took piano lessons from a grey old lady whose house smelled of lavender and cat piss. I hated sitting next to her on the bench, her sticky, wobbly skin touching my arm, the metronome ominously ticking away, and I hated practicing at home even more. I managed to forget to go to enough lessons (which had to be paid for anyway) while showing so little improvement (never advancing beyond the first John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano with its bright red cover and charming line illustrations) that I was finally allowed to quit.
I have vague memories of being dragged to dance lessons as a four-year-old in Hawaii with a bribe of shaved ice afterwards, and of quitting in a snit when a twelve-year-old was cast as Cinderella in the big recital, a part I thought belonged naturally to me. My mother did not give up hope that I could be taught to dance. A few years later she found yet another older, overweight spinster who once a week moved all the furniture in her living room aside and gave tap dance lessons. Again, I failed to thrive, having constant doubts about which was my right foot and which my left. The teacher believed that the solution was to stand next to me in the line of tiny dancers in black leotards, grab my upper arm in her iron claw, and shove me back and forth while howling either “Shuf-fle STEP! Shuf-fle STEP!” or “WAY down UP-on the SWAN-ee RIV-er!” I manage to soon escape that hell, although not without considerable bruising.
I was not going to be a talented wunderkind like Pamela Nishus, the pork-faced, noxious, same-age daughter of one of my mother’s friends who went to Holy Rosary, thank goodness, so I heard about her a lot more than I had to actually see her. Pamela sang, Pamela danced, Pamela was always the star of any play or recital, her proud parents beaming in the front row. Didn’t I want to go see Pammy’s show? No. Pammy could go to hell.
Despite my complete lack of talents, thanks to the student teachers who dropped down on us for a few weeks at Congdon, I became an art appreciator. I could identify the artists, name the instruments, recognize the composer. I liked going to museums and concerts; didn’t performers need audiences? (With the exception of Pamela Nishus.)
Summer after third grade was spud games in the street, wandering by myself along Congdon Creek, trips to the neighborhood library and occasionally after much begging, to the awesome Carnegie Library downtown, where thousands of books basked in the golden light from the glass dome, reflected back by a floor of pale yellow glass bricks.
A few weeks before school started, my mother, my sister, and I made our annual shopping trip to Minneapolis, the big city, staying downtown at the Radisson or the Dyckman Hotel. On one of these trips the elevator doors at the Dyckman opened to reveal my Aberdeen grandmother, dolled up in a jaunty hat, a fox stole, and too much rouge. We were astonished to see her: grandma had left Duluth three weeks before, but was in no hurry to return to the charms of South Dakota and had settled in at the Dyckman indefinitely without telling us.
We had two main shopping destinations: Dayton’s, which was scented with eucalyptus and had rackety but thrilling wooden escalators (escalators were unknown in Duluth) and the dull as dishwater Donaldson’s, the other big department store. These trips were never on a weekend, as stores were closed on Sundays.
I wasn’t interested in clothes unless they were Barbie-sized. My mother loved clothes; she would sigh when I came down to breakfast in a flowered shirt and plaid skirt and send me back upstairs to puzzle out what a suitable combination might be. Lani and I played hide-and-seek in the racks of dresses in Dayton’s Girls Department while my mother searched for appropriate school clothes that were also on sale in August. Before moving on to Better Ladies or Shoes to do her own shopping, my mom would send my sister and me off to wait for her in Dayton’s Toy Department. Once riding the wooden escalator up to Toys, Lani clutched my hand so hard and looked so unhappy that I was certain she had to poop. An enormous man in faded blue jeans jeans and plaid flannel shirt had followed us up three flights of escalators, positioning himself directly behind my six-year-old sister and rubbing her buttocks all the way. We didn’t say a word to my mother. A few months later, when my mom dumped me in the toy department at Goldfine’s so she could look at carpet samples in peace, a man snuck up and began fondling me as I stared pop-eyed and slack-jawed at the extensive display of Barbie outfits. I sidled away to the baby doll section and didn’t report that incident either: it seemed too shameful, like Lani and I had done something wrong. Pedophiles must have come out in droves to toy departments the weeks before Christmas, waiting for parents to drop off new victims.
I loved the exotic eating adventures Minneapolis offered. We lunched at Dayton’s Skyroom, perched loftily on the eighth floor with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the modest downtown and the Mississippi River. The Skyroom was the most lady-like restaurant imaginable and to me the height of sophistication. I don’t think I ever saw a grown man there. Glamorous models strolled through the restaurant, stopping at each table and displaying cards identifying the designer. There was a separate children’s menu, with each dish named after a nursery rhyme character; fitting, as it was all nursery food, with no flavoring, not even salt, food that you could swallow without chewing. I always had the Little Boy Blue, creamed chicken on mashed potatoes. It was delicious. The Skyroom also had that heaven on wheels, a dessert trolley. We were allowed one dessert to split; my sister and I would fight over whether to get chocolate cake or apple pie until my embarrassed mother would pick something else entirely (“Not the rice pudding! Not the rice pudding!”), which we would sulkily share.
When the department stores closed we dined on bland corn, starchy chicken with almonds and piles of white rice (the only Chinese food my picky eater sister would tolerate) and almost too sweet almond cookies at the Nankin restaurant, and then returned to our hotel room with a big bag of warm caramel corn to snack on while we reveled in the wonder of four TV channels.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the Forum, an art deco cafeteria. My mom doted on their fried corn meal mush, a dish whose appeal escaped me. We did a bit more shopping at Dayton’s or Donaldson’s or at Harold’s, a snooty upper end dress shop, where Lani and I were strictly forbidden to tear through the racks. We waited while my mom tried on clothes, sprawling on tastefully upholstered armchairs and kicking each other. We then got back on the train and consolidated our few purchases into one or two shopping bags so my father wouldn’t be able to tell how much we bought. It was never all that much.
It is one of the pleasantest things about childhood, going back to the same places and doing the same things, year after year, as if the world would never change. It didn’t seem possible that all that could disappear: the wooden escalators at Dayton’s, the little silver domed dishes scattered about our white clothed table at the Nankin, the Forum’s black and silver mirrored paneling and the pleasure of resting my chin on the cafeteria tray as I pushed it along the endless railing and never once being allowed to get one of the gleaming sundae glasses brimming with cubes of Jello and topped with a dab of whipped cream (“We have Jello at home.”). But they’re all gone now.
We would make another trip to Minneapolis, usually with my father, in early December. This trip was not as strictly choreographed as our fall visits. We drove, instead of taking the train, always beseeching dad to stop at Tobies in Hinckley for cinnamon rolls the size of our heads. My father hated interrupting the trip; he liked to travel straight through, fueled by chain-smoking Old Golds. Once a decade we got a single cinnamon roll to share (always eaten in the car). Mostly we sped past the crimson and white Tobies sign, whining “Tobies! Tobies!” until requested to shut up. In Minneapolis my father would go to a Vikings game, or take us to the Cinerama where I gave myself a headache trying to look out of the opposite sides of my eyes to take in the enormous movie screen. We’d stay at the Ambassador Motel, a glass-domed two-story building that enclosed a huge indoor amoeba-shaped pool ringed with dozens of half dead palm trees. The air inside was steamy, with the slightest tang of tropical mildew beneath the pucker of chlorine. The pool was ridiculously overheated; swimming in an indoor pool, especially when you could see snow landing on the glass roof above, was pure luxury. Lani and I would spend as long as possible in the hot greenish water, until we were scooped out before our bodies melted into primordial soup.
Our chief destination in Minneapolis on those trips was Dayton’s Winter Wonderland in their seventh floor auditorium. We had Santas in Duluth, sad specimens ringing bells on the street, or somebody’s drunk dad in a fake beard and red suit giving away crappy gifts at the Elks Club Christmas party. Dayton’s Santas were naturally endowed, with fluffy white beards, and they didn’t smell. The ordeal of waiting to sit on Santa’s lap was transformed into a thrilling trip to the North Pole. Who wouldn’t stand for hours in a slow, snaking line, when surrounded by acres of enchantment: set against sparkling snowy hills were dozens of miniature mechanized elves, hammering and sawing away in the toy workshop, hitching Rudolf to the sleigh, and packing wrapped gifts in bags. And there was Mrs. Santa in her kitchen, pulling a tray of gingerbread men out of the oven again and again. We were a polite if closely packed line of moms and kids, at least half of whom would be squirming the other way, in desperate need of a bathroom (“I told you to go before!”). Finally we would reach Santa’s inner chamber, where my sister and I, in matching coats, were hoisted onto Santa’s lap; a sadder but wiser photographer quickly snapped our photo in the millisecond before my sister started screaming. I had to quickly convey to Santa the importance of receiving every single item in my exhaustive list, before being handed a Made in China plastic trinket, and herded offstage to where my mom was ordering Christmas cards.
Imagine my horror when in 1964 we arrived at Dayton’s to find that Santa had been shunted into a corner of the Toy Department and the auditorium had been taken over by the Dickens’ London Towne. Gone were the elves, replaced by life-sized automatons of Dickens’ characters, in scenes that faithfully reproduced 19th century London, complete with antiques sent over by the crate from England. Grown-ups oohed and aahed over the elaborate Victorian dresses and hairdos, Lani and I yawned and hit each other. All I knew of Dickens was Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. But over the years, Dickens’ London Towne grew on me, its insane attention to detail and authenticity luring me in, and I was saddened when Dayton’s finally realized they didn’t need to spend millions of dollars to get people to come to the store to buy Christmas gifts. Dickens’ London Towne was no more.
TV, board games and toys, and school were indoor activities. But year-round, with the exception of raging blizzards, my mother ordered me to put down my book and go “play outside.” We had enough kids on Lakeview and Vermillion for a good game of Spud (very few cars went down our single-block-long street) or freeze tag. I had a particular fondness for “Mother May I;” little prig that I was, I delighted in sending kids back who forgot to ask permission. “Red Light, Green Light” was too prone to cheating, and always ended up as “I saw you move!” (a lie) countered by “I didn’t move!” (another lie). Once a summer, the ice cream truck magically found its way to our block to interrupt our street games, and I would lose my mind with desire for a Nutty Buddy only to by informed by my mother that if I wanted ice cream we had some in the fridge.
My mom was stingy with treats, doling them out occasionally and always one at a time. Each year we went to the Norshor theater to see the annual Disney feature, missing only “Bon Voyage” as it was condemned by the Catholic church for having a scene where the harried American dad is accosted by a Parisian hooker. Going to the movies was treat enough. Getting popcorn or Junior Mints from the snack bar would be gilding the lily.
It was the same at the Northland Country Club pool. Once in a great while I would be allowed to buy a frozen Snickers or Milky Way at the snack bar, at the exorbitant price of fifteen cents, five cents more than the going rate. Mostly we arrived at the pool after lunch and were forced to exist on grapes from home. But once or twice a summer my mom, my sister Lani, and I would sit up on Northland’s gracious veranda, looking out over the pool and first tee, and order divine hamburgers and golden French fries with brown crispy ends. I would slather everything on my plate with ketchup; Lani would leave most of her food for my mom and I to finish up. I later found out that my mom was afraid my dad would be mad about her minor country club charges; he was too busy losing hundreds of dollars in the never-ending Northland poker game to even notice our once a month lunches on the bill.
We were allowed hot chocolate when skiing at tiny Mount du Lac, but that bordered on a life saving measure when we came out of the zero degree cold with soggy wool mittens and frozen-over ski boot laces. The Mount du Lac “chalet” was a squat square concrete building, with window seats overlooking the three ski slopes (beginner, with the jerky tow rope that yanked me forward, landing face in the snow; intermediate, with the impossible to balance T-bar that dumped me on my back; and advanced, where I never managed to set ski on). The chalet had a jukebox and a pinball table, both of which I was dying to play (probably to postpone my return outside). Putting a dime in either of these machines was regarded by my mom as the height of wastefulness. When I finally got to play pinball, with my own dime, I was astonished at how quickly and surely the silver balls tumbled to the bottom and down the hole, failing to set off even a single bell of pinball success.
Why anyone would put money in a jukebox baffled my mother. “You can hear the same songs for free on the radio!” Pinball was even worse in her eyes: not only did you throw away a dime that could have bought an ice cream cone, candy bar, or bottle of pop, your brain cells curled up and died when you played such a stupid game.
Since all my mother’s efforts to transform me into the outgoing, cute, popular girl that she had been had failed, my mother turned her attention to protecting and improving my one asset, my smarts. She regarded comic books (except for the tedious Classics Illustrated) and Mad magazine as insidious destroyers of children’s intelligence: “If you read comics it will make you so stupid you won’t be able to read anything else.” I couldn’t get enough of that forbidden fruit. A neighbor girl stopped asking me over to play because I could not be budged from her older brother’s breathtaking collection of Mad magazines.
My preferred reading was definitely lowbrow, but I would read anything. When I ran out of library books, I resorted to our World Book Encyclopedia, or the lavishly and gorily illustrated children’s bible (heavy on the Old Testament) that somehow washed up on our living room bookshelf. There were also a few ancient children’s books that I read over and over: The Story of Live Dolls, The King of the Golden River, The Five Little Peppers, and Alice’s adventures both in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass. Eventually my mother realized that I was not to be bullied off of the couch and into the clique of popular Congdon Elementary girls. If I was going to have my nose in a book every waking hour, it should be a book that would improve my mind.
One glorious day I came home from school and found a brown box from the Classics Book Club addressed to me. Getting anything in the mail with your name on it was thrilling. I had long pleaded for my own subscription to Highlights for Children just for that reason, but that was not going to happen while my father could bring home the torn, scribbled-on old Highlights from his office. Inside this book-shaped box was a book, Shakespeare’s Comedies, the plays printed in mouse type on tissue thin paper nicely bound in gilded imitation leather. I started right in on The Tempest, reading the Miranda part out loud and understanding maybe a tenth of what was going on.
The next month brought the Tragedies. I had figured out how to skip the boring parts of the plays, which were everything except the lead female role: I dragged my finger down the page until I found lines for Juliet and Cleopatra and Ophelia, which I declaimed aloud from my sofa stage. The following month the Histories arrived which I barely cracked. Henry, Henry, Henry. Where were the good female roles?
Then came the dunning letters. Which were also addressed to me. My mother had thoughtfully put the subscription to the Classic Book Club in my name, but she had never bothered to pay for it. According to them, I owed $36.00 and my membership would be revoked and I would never receive the next book in the series — Plato’s Republic— unless they received payment in ten days. Where was I going to get the astounding sum of $36? I went to my mother in tears. She looked at the letter, crumpled it up, and tossed it in the garbage. Even more than she hated wasting money, my mother loved getting something for nothing; we had the books already, so why pay for them? But the letters kept coming, informing Miss Gay Haubner that the Classics Book Club was about to take legal action to recoup their money. For months, I expected someone to show up at the door and arrest me.