Dear Dirty America


63rd Street & Beyond

63rd Street & Beyond
July 08
21:53 2013

1960, I had a summer job at the University of Chicago.  I was 15, probably about 90 pounds, 5 feet, 2 inches tall, skinny as a rail—which I still am. I believe my pay was $1.35 per hour—all of which I saved for college, living in my parents’ house, & eating food they provided.  My only expenses were my “lunch” on the job & bus fare.

I was stationed in a large room with filing cabinets, wall to ceiling, all 4 walls, with drawers packed with 5 x 8 cards, one for each student since William Rainey Harper audaciously sought out John D. Rockefeller at the church Rockefeller attended in Cleveland, where Rockefeller rededicated himself to aggregating wealth at no matter whose expense, 70 years previously, & got him to fund establishment of the school—or so I’ve read, since.

There’s probably some truth & some of it is probably not quite true, or leaves out something that changes the significance.

Each day, about 50 requests for transcripts came in, from across the USA and around the world. I sat at a table in the middle of the room and organized my work, methodically. For a few weeks, in the afternoons, I had as an assistant a thin man in his 30’s or 40’s, who was working on an advanced degree, & who ran an engineering school back in India. Impressed by my otherwise unwitnessed, conscientious efficiency, he kindly volunteered that I was very good at what I was doing, & that he guessed I’d found my calling.

But I didn’t aspire to be a bureaucratic cog, however well I could do what was required of me. I didn’t aspire to fit into what felt radically wrong to me—tho I saw nothing wrong in what I was doing.

Once, there was a bit of drama:  The records of a current student from Taiwan had gone missing. There was nothing I could do about it. I just took the requests, located the card in the drawer, filled out a request for a copy of the transcript, sent it on, & when it came, organized it with the others of the day, & passed them all on to whoever did whatever came next.

But the Taiwanese young man’s transcript didn’t seem to exist, or was misfiled somewhere, & his funding depended on its being transmitted to some agency in Taiwan.  The deadline loomed. Pathetically, he explained it to me—but, as I said, I couldn’t do anything about it—except to report it to the woman who ran the Registrar’s Office—which I did.

At my lunch hour, I would purchase & drink a quart of milk, then read, among administrators & faculty, all older than I was, in an air-conditioned basement lounge, very cold, furnished with hand-me-downs, in a nearby building off the quad. There was a coffee machine of no interest to me (& a can to put coins in, if you helped yourself to a cup), & a stack of fairly recent issues of Punch, a snooty, superficially clever magazine of political & cultural commentary & cartoons, air-conditioned irony, the British equivalent of The New Yorker, favored by the Anglophile logicians & economic libertarians disproportionately represented at the U. of C. in those days, I learned several years later.

It was Milton Friedman’s time in the Economics Department, at the University of Chicago. He celebrated the choices a shopper has, as the ultimate freedom that Voltaire, Washington, Paine, & Jefferson had invested & sometimes risked their lives for. Friedman became world-famous, &, a decade & a half later—once the CIA facilitated the overthrow of the elected Chilean government, headed by socialist Salvador Allende, who died in the coup—advised Pinochet, the military dictator, on how to privatize Chile’s economy, whose trade with the USA & consequent economic growth statistics exploded.

Friedman is still a big influence on economic affairs in the USA & wherever privatization has become the “revolution” favored by the affluent—the USA under various Republicans & most Democrats, too, the IMF, & Britain under Thatcher & David Cameron & the Conservatives, China, & much of the European Union, for instance.

I’m not saying that Friedman was wrong or a bad man, but I’m not saying he was right or a good man, either.  If what he taught had been used by wise & powerful people, as a screw-driver is used by a competent mechanic, as opposed to an ideology applied far beyond where it would do good, he might have had a salutary effect on human affairs—but that’s not how it played out—& he didn’t hesitate to pose as a sage, rather than a technician who managed to see thru some fashionable fallacies.

I’m not saying that Allende was right or wrong or good or bad, either—tho I suspect that he meant well & that his “suicide” was murder—but I don’t know.

Anyway, I had to take the bus to & from work, along (south) 63rd Street, which was the spinal cord of commerce in my little world, with hundreds of little stores on both sides of the street, miles & miles of small stores of many sorts, tho by no means providing all the specialties you had to go downtown (or to Manhattan or London) to purchase, if you could, & if you wanted them.

My parents’ little house, on 64th, was a couple of miles west of the Black ghetto. I took the bus east thru those couple of miles of stores, past the American Can Company factory, past Damon, then past the place where I ordinarily got off to go to Harper High School during the academic year, & on into the ghetto, into the perpetual shadow under the elevated tracks, til there were fewer & fewer stores with neon signs, a few pharmacies & liquor stores, one giant coal yard—to 63rd & Cottage Grove, which a television show had informed me was the capital of heroin distribution, & maybe it was.

From there I walked about a mile north, among giant public housing buildings, & vacant lots of weeds & rubble, into the more genteel neighborhood, served again by little stores surrounding the U. of C.—& went to my room of 5 x 8 cards, & got to work.

After work, I walked back, in dread, into the shadow under the elevated tracks, at 63rd & Cottage Grove, & waited for a bus, hoping no one would assault me. No one ever did, or spoke to me, either.  All that I suffered was intense anxiety.

I spent my U of C money, plus money I earned in subsequent summers at the Wabash Fibre Box Company & in the downtown Chicago U.S. post office, attending the University of Missouri. During those summers, again, I lived rent free in my parents’ home, & ate the food they provided.

I continued my formal academic education, very grudgingly, on fellowships, first at the University of Washington, then at the University of Kansas—to avoid being drafted to kill & maybe be killed in Vietnam.

Having embarked on a life of wandering around, hitchhiking, & writing in little pocket notebooks, like the one I’m writing this in—I returned, briefly, to my parents’ home.

From there, I took the 63rd Street bus in the opposite direction, west, past Kedzie, past Marzano’s Bowling Alleys, past Pulaski, past Cicero, to the very end of the line, at Naragansett, where there were many weed-filled lots, & only a smattering of stores & little houses.  I walked another mile or 2 west, past the city limit, to work 29 days in a factory producing plastic film, probably for garbage bags—a job I’ve written about elsewhere (“Men”).

I was saving money to go on, once I could no longer bear my parents’ silent discomfort & disapproval, & because, on the 30th day, several hundred dollars would automatically have been taken out of my paycheck, enrolling me in the union.

I had no objection to joining the union, but I didn’t expect to stay much longer, & didn’t want to lose the several hundred dollars, which represented months of freedom to do my work in the world, without anyone’s approval, sleeping outside & eating almost nothing.

So I left my parents’ house & 63rd Street behind, again, & finally.

There are many stories of the struggles of individuals to emerge from obscurity, poverty, tragedy, til they finally arrive somewhere, in a sustainable position, & become respectable & esteemed, & satisfied with that result—& often famous, too, as a result of successfully marketing those stories.

This isn’t such a story.

I’ve survived this long—so far, so good. I continue to do this work, which I hope will, to some extent, empower my fellow workers—exceptional people, but a critical mass eventually, maybe, I hope, one day—in the cause of true human progress, not just wealth for some, while the rest uphold the foundation of that wealth, or desperately seek opportunities to uphold it, in exchange for enough to struggle on.

I don’t know if what I’m doing will have the intended effect.

And I’m riding back & forth along the equivalent of 63rd Street, between the equivalent of the U of C & the plastic factory.

I’m always an alien on a street corner, in a neighborhood that isn’t mine, anxiously waiting for a bus to my bivouac.

The available, clever magazines, programs, & conversations would distract me from my needs & hopes—& from the effort I keep returning to.

Again & again, I’m told that this or that stop-gap is the calling I’ve found, congratulations.

I’m rarely able to be of any help to people I encounter, who tell me the trouble they’re in, which is a special case of the trouble everyone is in, together—plus the trouble most of us are in, while a smaller number gain from the arrangement in which we struggle & suffer.

Mostly people don’t want to hear about this. They want to be told that, having lowered their expectations & succeeded in attaining them, they’re the good guys, & it’s the bad guys (who should be suppressed) who are responsible for all that’s bad in the world.

There’s some truth to that, too—tho it leaves out some important factors that change the significance.

That’s the soil. I’m a seed. So far, so good.


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