Back to School


End of summer it was back-to-high-school time. It was see-old-friends-and-maybe-make-some-new-ones time while hanging out on the corner in front of the drugstore to see who there was to see. In that neighborhood, a thrift store and a place where you bought dangling Indian earrings were across the street from the old movie theater, a landmark with red velvet seats and a balcony where you saw foreign films, Bogie and Bacall and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There was the drugstore where everyone knew you, where you could get anything from Vaseline to a hammer to clove cigarettes that you tried because you didn't care about looking beautiful, but you sure as hell cared about being cool. If you ran out of clean clothes before laundry day, you could buy socks and a t-shirt there.


Inside at the opposite end of the pharmacy window there was a small diner where old people sat at the U-shaped Formica counter eating eggs and toast. Maybe they weren't old. Maybe they looked like you do now, and you're not old, not quite yet. Down the block on the corner, the most popular place: a 24-hour restaurant where you went on weekends with friends in the early morning after a night out, drinking a cup of coffee and eating pancakes or, if it was before midnight, french fries with malt vinegar before heading home to sleep, sleep right through the rumbling of cars driving by on the street below your apartment window.


Your older sister became your confidante and sometime defender, bringing you into the safe fold of other high school Juniors and college women who'd shove someone to the pavement for messing with you. She helped you get your first steady job when you turned 15 at the sandwich and ice cream shop on the other side of the block. Your goal: to make enough money to leave that city, never stopping to think you'd look back and know you would never again feel as hopeful as you did then. Nights after mopping floors before closing, you walked home while watching the shadows for movement. The next block was taken up entirely by a warehouse. You were grateful you lived close and didn't have to take the bus, grateful for the frigid nights when it seemed no one would bother with you because a tall girl with a long stride would surely fight back.


At Hooligans bar you danced to the local R&B of Marvin and the Dogs. At Century Hall, before it burned down, you witnessed the Chicago blues of Koko Taylor, red hot rhythms and spoon-fed wisdom of what it meant to be a woman, as if to say: listen and learn, girls. Your sister got you in without being carded and you all danced and sang and smelled of smoke when you woke the next day, but you didn't care.



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