Saturday, June 25, 2016

Steps to Lake

This is the second installment in a series about my years living in the city of Chicago.

Looking for an apartment in a big city is an adventure, especially when you're young, with limited resources. You soon abandon the idea of landing a place built within the last few years and hope that you can at least find something built since the advent of electricity. Depending on supply and demand, the pickings can be slim, but sometimes, the sales pitch alone is worth a visit.

The Four Towers apartment building (now known as
Shoreline Condominiums), our first city home
When my wife Karen and I got married, we knew we wanted to move to Chicago. This was a calculated decision based on the idea that since Karen was from Boston and I was from Memphis, moving to either of those places would have provided one or the other of us a certain "hometown advantage." Not that this would have been a problem, but we really wanted to launch our lives in our own place, and since we had many friends from college who still lived in the Chicago area, or "Chicagoland," as it is sometimes called by the locals, we made the decision to move to the city. We had both attended Northwestern, which is located in the leafy North Shore suburb of Evanston, but being in our early twenties, we longed to be more in the heart of things. And so, on one weekend in the spring, we began looking for an affordable apartment down in the city, south of the Evanston-Chicago border.

Even though Evanston is officially termed a suburb, it does not look at all like one. The three and four story residential buildings and storefront businesses flow seamlessly as you head south along Lake Michigan into the north side of Chicago at Howard Street, where a large elevated train or "El" station marks the dividing line. Immediately south of Howard sits the venerable Rogers Park neighborhood, which for many years was home to kosher delis and lots of mom and pop businesses. In those days, Rogers Park was a relatively quiet, established neighborhood, and we looked at a few places there, but ultimately, we ended up heading a bit farther south, to the Edgewater neighborhood, which was part of Uptown. There were many Edgewater apartment buildings in our price range, which at the time was less than $250 a month. These days, that would be unattainable, but in 1978, you could actually find a number of apartments renting in that range. We scoured the newspaper listings and came up with several attractive options.

One of the first places we visited sat directly on Sheridan Road, a major north-south thoroughfare paralleling the lake shore several blocks to the east. This apartment was memorable for its liberal use of red velvet flocked wallpaper. I'm sure there were other wall colors represented in the unit, but after seeing the red, nothing else mattered. Given that, and the fact that the apartment sat above a busy street and had absolutely no character, we opted to continue looking.

Another apartment caught our attention with its tagline, which read, "Steps to Lake." We stopped by and found that indeed, the place was only a short walk from Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan, but that was really its only redeeming value. The front door opened into a lobby which was probably stylish in the 1940's but was seriously showing its age. Many buildings in Chicago open onto a center courtyard, and the leasing agent told us that this one did as well. We poked around looking for said courtyard and finally found what he was referring to: an open-air architectural aberration in the rear of the building which effectively provided a chute from the top floors to the bottom, where discarded cans of paint lay abandoned and rusting.

The agent took us to the apartment, and it was a sight to behold. The walls contained built-in cabinets with drawers which did not slide in and out as intended, but rather sat in the cabinets at angles. The windows looked out on other buildings, and the floors needed refinishing. The place just looked tired. At one point, the agent pointed out a small alcove and said, "This would make a nice sewing room for the ladies." But sewing room notwithstanding, we just weren't interested. We said thanks to the agent and continued looking.

Funny thing, but the perfect apartment turned out to be just around the corner. When we finally stopped in to look at it, we realized it was exactly what we had hoped to find. It was a little one bedroom unit with a Pullman kitchen built into a side wall of the living room, and it had a quiet, comfortable bedroom with a functional little bathroom that must have had about ten colors of tile on the wall. But it was clean and it was livable, not to mention that it was on the eleventh floor of a building called Four Towers, on North Marine Drive, and it sat directly across the street from Lincoln Park. We signed the lease.

We settled into city life quickly. We learned how to walk groceries home from the supermarket, how to entertain on a shoestring, and how to find our way around using only public transportation. In the evenings after work, or on the weekends, we would take our ten speed bikes down the freight elevator and ride them across the street into Lincoln Park and onto trails which led directly over to the lake shore. From our living room windows, we looked out over the north side of Chicago, and at night, we would turn off the lights and let the city illuminate the room. Many evenings, we would sip glasses of Valpolicella wine with friends and just gaze out at the seemingly endless metropolis.

And so, in the end, we had a place to call home, a place without red velvet flocked wallpaper, and with drawers that actually slid in and out of the cabinets. It was clean, quiet, comfortable and, for being on a tight budget, actually rather stylish. We felt like we had arrived, and all for $185 a month (plus electricity). But perhaps best of all, we were still literally only "Steps to Lake."

Sunday, June 19, 2016


It dawned on me a few days ago that I hadn't written many blog posts about my years in Chicago. I moved there in the fall of 1973 to attend Northwestern, left for a year after graduation to return to Memphis, then came back to the city and lived there until 1982, when I was offered a corporate transfer to Atlanta. This is the first installment in a series about my time there.

There's this one thing you need to know about Chicago. No name can stand on its own without a corresponding, highly abbreviated nickname. Even people who go by the initials "J.R." will find themselves addressed in Chicago as simply "J." The paper is not called the Tribune but "The Trib." In this spirit, locals often refer to Chicago's major lakefront thoroughfare not as Lake Shore Drive, but rather "LSD." And this is where our story begins.

LSD with very light traffic
It's not every day that someone drives away from their wedding in a U-Haul truck, but such was the case for my wife Karen and me on that warm summer evening in August, 1978. We had a little one bedroom apartment in a high rise waiting for us in Chicago, and although I had moved my possessions there a couple of months earlier, we still had to transport Karen's things from her family home in suburban Boston -- hence, the U-Haul. I hadn't driven a stick shift much, but since the trip was mostly on the interstate, it wasn't too bad. We found some good radio stations and made a nice trip out of it. After driving for two days through New England, across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, we finally found ourselves on the third day, breezing north on Lake Shore Drive, ready to settle into a new life.

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, and I was probably driving about 40 miles an hour, when suddenly, I saw the lights of a police cruiser in the driver side mirror. Thinking that the policeman must have been on someone else's tail, I continued to motor north, when out of the blue, he appeared immediately to my left and yelled into a megaphone, "Truck, pull over!" Without hesitation, I pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, wondering what in heavens name I had done.

The officer walked up to the window, and this was the exchange which followed:

Police Officer: Sir, you're driving a truck.

Richard Brooks: Yes, officer, I know.

PO: But this is Lake Shore Drive.

RB: Yes, I know.

PO: But Lake Shore Drive is a boulevard.

RB: Yes, and...?

PO: Commercial vehicles are not allowed on boulevards in Chicago.

RB: Is this a commercial vehicle?

PO: Yes, it is. May I see your license, please?

At this point, I realized that I was out of my element. I had driven so-called "boulevards" countless times, but as with many big cities, Chicago has its own rules, and I had apparently violated what the officer considered to be an obvious one. The problem was, I had a Tennessee driver's license (which at the time had no picture), Karen's was from Massachusetts, the truck had Arizona plates, and we were driving in Chicago. The officer obviously didn't like what he saw, and the dialog continued:

PO: Sir, may I have your bond card?

RB: What is that? I don't have one.

PO: OK, then...I need to have you follow me to the police station.

And off we went, following the cruiser to the 39th and Prairie police station on Chicago's South Side.

Let's just say that the police station was not in the best part of town, and as we walked in, we noticed that the walls were lined with posters of America's Most Wanted and Chicago's Most Wanted. In all seriousness, the Chicago group looked much more threatening. We walked up to a police desk like the ones you used to see on television, with tall lights topped by round globes on each side. A rather jovial policeman then explained to me that they would have to keep my license and that I would have to appear in traffic court in a couple of weeks. Also, he explained that a "bond card" was Chicago's term for a proof of insurance card. After all the business was done, the officers escorted us back out to the U-Haul, and since Karen had been a stick shift driver for some time, she took over the driving.

Since we couldn't take LSD, we had to meander through the streets of the Loop to get to our north side apartment, and Karen piloted the U-Haul like a champ, making our way under the rattling overhead CTA lines and tons of pedestrian traffic. She handled it as gracefully as could be expected, and when we finally got to the apartment, we wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, but trucks don't unload themselves, and our apartment was eleven floors up. We made good use of the freight elevator that day.

And so began life in the city of Chicago. Four years in the rarefied air of Northwestern on the North Shore had not really prepared me for this, but somehow, we thrived in the city, and in the next few posts, I'll tell you how it all worked out and how by the end of my time there, I was shortening names with the best of them.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Dropoff

It wasn't a long drive from our house, maybe ten minutes or so, but it was long enough for me to build up anxiety for what was about to happen: I was going to be dropped off at a new place with lots of people I'd never met, and although I was a reasonably social high school junior, this wasn't what I had bargained for on that Sunday night.

A souvenir picture from our OWS 2010 reunion
My mom had become interested in this church halfway across town in East Memphis. She had heard that it was a growing congregation with great youth activities, and I guess she felt it was time we found a church again. We'd left our previous church several years before, and we hadn't really seriously looked anywhere since. My uncle was a Methodist minister in California, so it only seemed appropriate to maintain some level of religious involvement. My dad, owing to the recent lifting of blue laws, spent most Saturdays and many Sundays working at his grocery store down on Lamar Avenue, so my mom and I were pretty much on our own on the weekends. And so, one gorgeous Sunday morning in the fall of 1971, we packed up and headed to Mullins United Methodist Church, at the corner of Walnut Grove and Mendenhall.

From the moment we walked in, we liked the place. It was a bit more modern in appearance than our previous church, and it didn't have a stuffy feel, which appealed to both of us. The minister, Reverend Tom Wilson, was a friendly fellow who seemed to wear a perpetual smile and was genuinely engaging with members of the congregation. We liked the music, and we liked the fact that lots of people greeted us and made us feel welcome. We called it a wrap and decided we'd come back the following week, but my mom went one step further: she decided that I would attend Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) that same night. I guess she figured that if you were going to jump into something, it might as well be at the deep end of the pool. That being said, I wasn't much of a swimmer in those days.

Anyway, there we were, with me sitting in the car, saying I was not going to get out. I was adamant. However, my mom in her youth had been a fiery redhead of strong opinion, and her tenacity had not dissipated over the years. In short, I lost the battle and with an air of obvious resignation, I headed into the church to attend the meeting. I was 16 years old, and here I was, sitting among a very large group of kids roughly my age, none of whom I had ever met. You remember how it is at that age: you're hypersensitive about anything you do or say, fearing that you might be labeled an outcast, but in this case, that never happened. On the contrary, I found that people actually appeared to want to talk to me, and somehow, it was natural to reciprocate.

The theme of that night's MYF meeting was the recently released album "Jesus Christ Superstar," and although I played multiple instruments and listened to music constantly, this was something I had never heard. I lived and breathed Grand Funk Railroad and could sing Creedence in my sleep, but I knew very little about "Jesus Rock," as it was called in those days. But I was somewhat taken by it. We listened to a few songs from the album, and then our youth leader Richard asked if any of us played instruments. Since I had played guitar for about five years in a series of garage bands, I tentatively raised my hand. Richard wondered if, given the size of our church, we might be willing to start our own "group." He offered to serve as director, but he didn't want to call this a "choir," because that sounded very uncool to us early 70's types. We did some thinking and came up with a name: The One Way Singers.

Almost from the beginning, everything just clicked. At its peak, we had well over 100 singers, some of whom came from other churches just to be part of the group. There were six of us in a band that accompanied the group: a keyboard player, drummer, lead guitar (yours truly), rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and percussion. We rehearsed diligently, meeting every Sunday afternoon about 4:00, after which we would have dinner in the church basement, followed by our regular MYF meeting. It seemed that everything at Mullins took on a new flavor, and the group gained momentum.

By the next summer, despite a change of directors, we were ready to embark on our first tour to Louisiana and Texas. Our outfits were amazing and so totally hip for the time: lime green jumpers for the girls, lime green polo shirts for the boys, with white pants, white belts and white shoes. Every day of the tour was a new experience. We played in churches large and small, and one night, we even played at an orphanage in New Orleans. Each evening except for one, we split up and stayed overnight with church members. We had some of the kindest hosts: they would give us tours of their communities, talk to us about our experiences and interests, make big breakfasts for us, and even wash and fold our laundry. We hung out with families at their pools, talked about whether the universe had an end, and made midnight snack runs. The tour was an unqualified success.

The next year, we changed up our outfits and broadened our geographical horizons, heading north to play in Indiana, Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio. We spent a day at Greenfield Village, got to explore Toronto's Yonge Street when our bus broke down there (a frequent occurrence), stayed overnight with a hippie musician, and spent a wonderful, memorable day at Niagara Falls. Since I had just graduated from high school and was headed to Chicago in the fall to attend Northwestern, I realized that this trip would really be my last hurrah with my Mullins crowd. I'm not exaggerating when I say that to this day, that week remains as one of my best memories, a time when everything seemed to come together to prepare me for launching into whatever life might deliver.

I headed to college in the fall, but I would make a point of stopping back at Mullins to visit whenever I was on breaks, and each time, it would feel like I'd never left. Back in those days, it didn't seem that I was completely home until I had strolled through the peaceful little cemetery that separates the parking lot from the church door. A few years ago, the One Way Singers held a weekend reunion, and on that warm Saturday night in late July, as I walked into the church with my friends from so long ago, my black and white Stratocaster over my shoulder (I didn't end up playing it), everything came flooding back, and I silently thanked my mother for making me get out of the car all those years before. If she could have been there at that moment, I know that she would have been smiling from ear to ear.