Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Willard Swamprats

Imagine, if you will, the year 1973. Paul McCartney was cranking out hit songs without the Beatles, the Vietnam War was still going on even though Nixon had stopped the draft, Oscar de la Renta fashions were all the rage, Watergate was still an unknown entity, and double knit polyester was in full swing. There was a lot to take in, but for me, if was also the year I graduated high school and headed off to college. For many reasons, it was one of my favorite years of all that I remember, and when September rolled around, my life changed rather dramatically.

I left my home in Memphis and headed to my freshman year of college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Evanston is a suburb of Chicago, but it does not look like one in the traditional sense -- it is located immediately north of Chicago, and its border is contiguous with the city. If you've been to Chicago and have taken the El trains, you may know that the Howard Street station marks the border of Chicago and Evanston. These days, it's not such a big deal, but I when I lived there, Howard Street was the "libation destination." Evanston was a much more reserved and conservative community than its urban neighbor to the south; for example, you could not buy alcohol at a restaurant unless over half the tab was comprised of food. This made for lots of unusual orders at local cafes: heaping plates of french fries with a pitcher of beer, for example. And so, it was into this environment that I matriculated. I had family in California and so had done some traveling, but this move was my first time living up North, and it was initially quite an eye opener.

Our dorm was named Willard Hall, in honor of Frances E. Willard, who had served for almost twenty years as president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and was a notable champion of women's rights and labor reform. The WCTU itself battled in her words "the devastation caused by the legalized traffic in strong drink." The cause was admirable and garnered widespread support. For our part, our dorm hosted an annual Frances E. Willard Birthday Party, at which a different beverage was served on each of our six dorm floors. Even though the legal drinking age in those days was 18, and especially because of that, I'm certain that Frances would not have condoned our celebration. (I still remember that time during the 1974 Party when in a state of artificially induced paranoia, Pete Birschbach and I thought we had seen a government spy.)

So, let me bring this back home. Here we all were, tossed from afar into this malaise that we called New Student Week, looking to put down temporary roots and find some direction before classes started. I believe it all started one evening when a group of us started talking and realized that the dorm name was the same as that of the 1971 horror movie "Willard," about a young man who has an unnatural fascination with rats. The theme song of the movie, "Ben," was sung by Michael Jackson and was essentially a love song to a rat, which in itself was weird beyond belief but was endlessly amusing to our young, malleable minds.

And that's when the idea hit.

Looking for something to bind us all together, someone suggested that we call our loose association of freshman males the "Willard Swamprats." One of our group, Rogoff, was an amateur cartoonist, and he sketched a dodgy-looking cartoon of a rat in a trench coat, wearing sunglasses, and that was it: we had an instant mascot. A few days later, my roommate Klein (some of us went by first names, others by their last) and I went to Chandler's stationery shop in Evanston and had custom t-shirts made. Klein's was dark green, and mine was orange. I still have mine, and it is pictured here.

There were seven Swamprats: Klein, Scott, Rogoff, Ron, Cliff, Danny and yours truly. We came from all over the eastern United States and brought our own idiosyncrasies with us, which we happily shared amongst the group. For a few months, almost everything we did was with the Swamprats or some subset thereof. We attended movies, lectures (well, we did have a somewhat genuine intellectual bent), went shopping, greeted the omnipresent Krishnas with "Hare Krishna, Hare Rama" when we would see them, and generally enjoyed each other's company. In many ways, it was like the cast of "Seinfeld," in that we would go off on some tangent and explore it to the point of ridiculousness, then move on to something else.

The Swamprats were a diverse group: among us we had pre-meds, pre-law students, journalism majors, radio/TV/film majors, and even a philosophy major, so honestly, we could, and did, discuss just about anything, and it was indeed a learning experience, albeit a casual one. Northwestern did not offer food on Sundays, so we were left to our own devices, and one Sunday, my fellow Rats decided that we needed to visit Askkenaz Deli on Morse Avenue in Chicago. This was only a 20 minute train ride, so it worked out perfectly. That first night that I went to Ashkenaz (there were to be many others), I had to study the menu. All the other Swamprats were raised in Jewish families, and since I was the lone Protestant, I was not familiar with many of the items offered on the menu. My fellow Rats were more than helpful: they steered me away from dishes they knew I would not like, and suggested that I stick with corned beef, which to me sounded perfect. Our waitress, a sweet older lady, presented me with an interesting beverage option:

Waitress: "So what would you like to drink, honey? Have you ever had a phosphate?"
Richard: "No, ma'am...what is a phosphate?"
Swamprat Member: "It's like syrup with fizzy water."
Waitress: "I'll tell you what, order it, you don't like it, you don't have to pay."

Perfect. I ordered my first chocolate phosphate and was both intrigued and delighted. The sandwich was one of the best I'd ever put in my mouth. Ashkenaz became a fast favorite of mine.

We went through the fall quarter, an inseparable bunch, attending movies, talking until all hours, and making runs to Howard Street for cheap beer. We all went home for the holidays and returned in January to an ice cold dorm that always took a day or so to heat back up. This Swamprats thing was quite the life, and unlike anything I had experienced in my only-child upbringing in Memphis, but it was good.

One afternoon in February, 1974, we decided to go to the movies in downtown Chicago. We wanted to see "The Exorcist," which had only been released a few days prior. Scott had a friend in town, so we took him along. I remember waiting in line outside the theater when suddenly, out of nowhere, a Chicago Police paddy wagon came down the street with its siren blaring. Within seconds, a group of policemen emerged from the van and approached an older black man. For what seemed to us no apparent reason, they began striking him with billy clubs, then threw him into the back of the paddy wagon. I was startled and upset by this, because he reminded me so much of one of one of the older men who hung around my dad's store in Memphis, carrying home groceries for the ladies. Within a minute or two, the van had driven away, and we moved on up in line to take in the trials of Father Damien Karras, but the incident we had witnessed was unsettling.

That night, we came back to the dorm and talked about the movie. Some of us had been scared out of our wits, and others had been amused, but it had made an impression on each of us. We stayed up until about 3:00 AM, imbibing and talking by the weird glow of a single desktop fluorescent light, and as we sat there, I began to notice that I didn't feel quite right.

The next morning, I awoke with a searing sore throat and headed to Searle, the student health center. Searle was always staffed with a group of physicians who looked as if they'd rather be anywhere else, but on this occasion, it made no difference to me -- I just needed a doctor. I was admitted immediately to the infirmary and shortly thereafter diagnosed with mononucleosis. I missed three weeks of classes, and even though I tried to keep up by getting notes from friends, staying in touch with my professors, and reading all the assignments, those three weeks hurt my grades, and it took a while to catch up.

When I returned to the dorm after my ordeal, the Swamprats were of course still there, but the wind had been taken out of my sails, and the group as a whole had frayed a bit as we all started to assimilate ourselves into college life. Danny had friends way up on North Campus, Scott had debate team gatherings, and others, including me, were going this way and that. We continued to get together for dinner or the occasional movie, but the Swamprats as a group had served its purpose, and I think we were all ready to move on.

In this age of social media, it's interesting to see where everyone has landed: one of the Swamprats is a public relations executive and published author, another is a teacher, and two are attorneys. One, sadly, passed away several years ago. I've seen a couple of the guys in recent years, and we still have that bond that came, strangely enough, from being a freshman Swamprat (although I would have to say, I think we've cleaned up fairly nicely).

Ashkenaz suffered a destructive fire in the 1980's and is no longer a presence on Morse Avenue, but I still think about that chocolate phosphate. I ended up paying for it.

Oh, also...we attended classes.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Imitation Game

I have this thing for accents. I love listening to them and imitating them, sometimes in my own head, sometimes out loud. I have to be careful when I use them in the latter context, so as not to offend anyone, because that is never my intention. I simply find speech patterns a fascinating subset of sociolinguistics. I've done this for so long now that our daughters call it "doing The Voices."

I've tried to remember when this habit started. I don't recall imitating accents as something that I did in my high school or college days; rather, I believe it began when I was traveling for business in the early 1980's. In those days, I was the information technology manager for a Chicago company with five regional offices across the country: two in Chicago and one each in Boston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. I spent significant time on the road, typically visiting each location several times a year for the better part of a week at a time.

My job was very interactive. Unlike today's IT jobs, which are largely defined by remote access to servers, cloud-based applications and toolsets, much of the work in those days was done on site or over the phone. I was in charge of the company's systems development and operations, so I spent tons of time talking to people, and aside from the knowledge I gained by sharing in the day-to-day experiences of my fellow employees, I also began to appreciate the stories they would tell at lunch or after work. The essence of some of their stories simply could not be communicated without occasionally using their own words, with their own inflections.

I learned that every region has an accent and cadence that is particular to its manner of speaking. It's actually quite humorous to witness those situations when the speaker denies that he or she has a regional accent, because we all do. There's nothing wrong with it, because truly, there is no right or wrong in speech patterns. But I still marvel at the fact that people in some parts of the country believe themselves to be accent-less, while many others, although fully appreciating their own lingual specificity, believe that there is one bonafide Southern accent. I mean, we must have over a hundred Southern accents, dag-nabbit.

Back when our daughters were younger and we were taking extended car trips to places like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Vermont, I would occasionally lapse into an accent typical of the region to which we were traveling. I saw it as my bounden paternal duty to give our children a taste of what to expect so that they wouldn't arrive at their destinations as strangers in strange lands. This technique alternately delighted and horrified the girls.

On one particular trip, as we drove through central Mississippi on our way to New Orleans, I began speaking with a Justin Wilson accent. Wilson, as you may recall, had a long, successful career on public television as the host of "Louisiana Cookin'," a show that we watched almost every Saturday. His favorite expression was, "I gar-on-tee." I spent the larger part of our drive to "Nawlins" that afternoon sprinkling my language with faux-Cajun talk, which came to me somewhat easily, since a) it was something my dad used to do, and b) I had watched so much Justin Wilson. Anyway, Sarah, who was 16 at the time, finally had enough of it and said, "Dad, stop it. They don't talk like that down there." I knew better, but I acquiesced.

Several hours later, we pulled into New Orleans and checked into the Pontchartrain Hotel, road-weary but with still enough energy to do some exploring. Our younger daughter Hannah and I went one direction, while Sarah and my wife Karen headed the other, and after about an hour and a half, we reconvened at Jackson Square. Sarah pulled me aside and said, "Dad, I apologize for what I said earlier...they do talk exactly like that down here." I laughed and for a moment felt that rush of endorphins that accompanies every successful parenting effort.

Hannah also has a regular line about my habit, and it never fails to make me laugh. We'll be walking somewhere, or maybe sitting down to dinner in a remote location, and I'll break into an accent. She'll say, "Stop it, Dad! People actually talk like that here!" This causes me to either immediately cease or continue at an accelerated pace, depending on the situation and/or local population density. I do try to exercise discretion in these situations, however, because Hannah has a very good sense of timing and has probably kept me out of many a sticky and potentially life-threatening linguistic confrontation.

Probably at no time did this habit of mine provide more delight to my family than one Christmas season about ten years ago, when the girls, Karen and I visited the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. After a grand tour of the beautifully decorated mansion, we opted for dinner at a local Carrabba's Italian restaurant. Although we were in an artsy town in the middle of the mountains, something made me use (unconsciously, I might add) my Old Jewish Man accent, which I learned from my friends in college at Northwestern, many of whom were Jewish and would lovingly imitate their older relatives all the time. Every time the waitress would stop by our table to ask how the food was, I would answer with phrases like "Such a lovely meal" or "It's unbelievable...I can't get enough of it," always intoned in the style of Jackie Mason or Henny Youngman.

We finished our dinner shortly before the restaurant closed, and our waitress made one last loop around the dining room to pick up everyone's check. As she stopped at each table, she said, "Merry Christmas!" Finally, it was our turn, and as she approached the table, she paused for a moment and, obviously thinking twice, said, "Happy Holidays!" The girls looked at me with this "Oh, my God" stare, but all I could do was laugh. The story has since become a classic in the annals of our family history, and I have to admit to being somewhat proud of myself for sounding so convincing.

At any rate, I have this habit, and I don't know if it will ever stop. When Sarah brought her new boyfriend Tom to our house for dinner one night in 2008, she asked me to do The Voices. I was a bit hesitant, because I didn't want to do anything inappropriate, but she assured me that Tom would like them, and he did. They've now been married almost five years, so I guess I'll keep doing them. Besides, my own accent is somewhat distilled and needs a little spicing up now and then.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Biltmore House

I wish I could say that the neighborhood has weathered the years well, but it hasn't. This morning, I used Google Maps to find my grandparents' old house on Biltmore Street in Memphis, and then I zoomed in for a street view. I almost wish I hadn't looked. I'm certain that the "Beware of Dog" sign affixed to the chain link fence surrounding the front yard is there for a reason, and from the looks of things, I'm thinking that these days, having an aggressive canine in that neighborhood is not so much an option as a necessity. But it wasn't always like this.

In the early 1960's, my grandfather Leslie, a grocery store owner, suffered a massive stroke which left him confined to a wheel chair. Five years later, he would suffer a second, even more serious stroke. It was sad, because Leslie was a rather quiet, calm man who always had something nice to say and was something of a practical joker. Some aspects of his life were quite interesting; for example, he had married his wife Estelle when she was 14 and he was 26. I didn't find that out until years later, when my grandmother told me that 14 was, in her opinion, just way too young to get married.

Because of my grandfather's condition after his first stroke, he needed to move back into Memphis from his country house to be closer to good medical care, so he and my grandmother (with some financial assistance from my father, I believe) moved to a tidy white frame house on Biltmore Street in North Memphis. The house was typical of many in the area, three bedrooms, a bath, a generous kitchen, and a big front porch that spanned the width of the house. Swings hung from each side of the porch, and an array of comfy chairs were placed alongside them. We spent a lot of time on the porch.

It seemed that everything happened at the Biltmore house. Whenever my aunt, uncle and cousins would visit from California, Biltmore was their headquarters. On one of their visits, my uncle, a Methodist minister, baptized me, since I had only been christened as an infant when we lived in California and was still left religiously hanging, so to speak. It was also the house where I "gently" persuaded my grandfather to surrender the TV to me for a few minutes so that I could watch The Beatles in their American TV debut on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Biltmore was where I would play with the next door neighbor Billy, at least until that one day when we were exploring under the house and Billy, in his words, "broke" his head and therefore became somewhat wary of any future associations with me.

It was the house where I played with my dear friend Sandy when she was visiting with her family from the West Coast. Sandy died from leukemia in her mid-teens and was one of the sweetest people I have ever known. I still remember the afternoon we spent spinning Duncan tops on the sidewalk on Biltmore.

Not only had I first seen The Beatles at Biltmore and collected John/Paul/George/Ringo trading cards with my cousin Debi during one of her visits from California, but on one memorable day, the daughter of my grandparents' next door neighbor, a girl six or seven years my senior, spontaneously donated to me all her Beatles albums. I hadn't asked for them, but she just did it. I thought that was amazing, and I still have all those albums in my collection.

It's funny how a house, a place built of bricks, wood, and mortar, stitched together with plumbing and wiring, can mean so much and carry so many memories, but truly, a home is of course much more than a physical structure, it's what we make of it. I would have to say that given their limited means, my grandparents kept a pretty nice house for us all. They sincerely loved us, and we sincerely loved them, and that's what the house on Biltmore was all about.

So, it may not be the prettiest house at the moment, but then again, I don't know the whole story. I'm just glad I own a piece of its history, and I hope that its current residents are making memories of their own, because that, my friends, is what seems to me to constitute living.