By Darlene Resenberg Rzezotarski
September 1969: Wherein late bloomers Lily Swan and Joshua (Blue Jay) Haakens become caretakers of a six-family apartment building just two blocks from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus where both are students. They decide to inhabit the somewhat musty basement apartment where they can live rent-free in exchange for cleaning the halls, tending the boiler, and renting vacant units.
You’d never know it was September, the way the sun beat down. And you’d never know that the young man and woman pausing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the red brick building were anything other than random passers-by. If you looked a bit closer, what seemed a navy blue backpack was actually a canvas and aluminum back carrier with a baby nestling in it. They blended in with the university area crowd—she with her walnut-brown hair parted in the middle and hanging straight below her shoulders, he with his red curls bursting out of his scalp like a white-boy Afro, both wearing various shades of denim.
“Well, the building looks solid enough to me,” the young man observed. “No excess anything. Just a straightforward building. Not much grass to cut, considering it’s on a corner. Pseudo-grand main entryway, tall enough for giants to pass through without stooping. Tannenbaum Arms. Where’d they come up with that name? Six mailboxes. Carpeted stairway visible through the glass. Looks like it goes up all three floors, two apartments on each floor. I don’t think we’re expected to do windows.”
“It doesn’t look like anybody ever does windows.”
The young woman grabbed the foot of the red-headed child she bore on her back, a miniature version of the young man, but naked except for a diaper and a necklace with jingle
bells and beads. “Hey, Hatchling!” She tickled his toes through his sock. “Whaddaya think, Blue Jay? Shall we just keep walking?”
He tugged at her sleeve. “C’mon, Lily! Let’s go for it! Let’s not mention that we have a dog, okay?”
“By the way, do you see The Hatchling’s moccasin anywhere? I wonder where he lost it.”
Because of the oppressive heat, it was almost a pleasure for Lily and Blue Jay to walk down the five musty concrete steps at the rear of the building to the cooler lower level for their interview with the property representative. The apartment had been referred to in the classified ad as an “English Basement Apartment,” creating the image of geraniums and crisp criss-crossed curtains and respite from a bustling city scene. In reality, it definitely was a Wisconsin basement–damp, with small windows running the length of the building overlooking another building twelve feet away—except for the front, where the two windows might prove great for viewing the shoes of anyone passing by on the sidewalk. And it felt so cool—almost like air conditioning.
Because it was September, classes were about to start at the university where Lily was beginning a master’s degree in sociology and Blue Jay, about five years belatedly, was finishing his bachelor’s degree in English. The idea of a building caretakership was Lily’s bright idea after talking to a friend at the Well Baby Free Clinic, and she forged ahead with glib-tongued determination.
Their appointment with the property manager seemed to be going well as they moved through the apartment. After introducing himself and shaking hands with Jay, making momentary eye contact with a forced smile never leaving his face, Mr. Gerhart Dreschler kept a respectful distance from them, as if his tweed sports jacket might suddenly sprout a peace button on its lapel if he got too close. His well-trimmed hair seemed glued to his scalp—was that hair tonic or sweat?–and he kept checking his watch.
“Yes, Mr. Dreschler, we’re fully trained boiler operators,” Lily asserted. “We apprenticed with the Werners down the street.” She gave a warning glance to Blue Jay. Actually, they were trained in nothing, but her baby clinic friend had a friend who was a genuine building super who had said they could use him as a reference. This was a matter of urgency precluding honest responses. Finances were tight, with a combination of scholarships, work-study jobs, student loans, and occasional trips to a blood center, which offered cash for their rare O Negative blood.
As they walked through the hall, Lily pondered, “How can he wear that wooly jacket in this weather?” She was prone to interior philosophizing, even under tense circumstances: “Clothing really makes a personal statement. Twixt Tweed and Denim. It could be an impressively large coffee table book emphasizing the generation gap. We could have a picture of Jay standing next to Mr. Dreschler on the cover. Trendy bell bottoms next to wool trousers with razor-sharp creases….”
She pulled herself back to reality as the tour continued. “Jay, this could be The Hatchling’s room. It would be quiet here off the kitchen. And there in the front under the porch, that could be our study. What do you think? If you need a break from studying, you can always have the view of the sidewalk.”
The apartment had the unmistakable aura and odor of basement, yet it was spacious, with worn wood floors running the entire length of the east side of the building. The boiler pipes decorated the ceiling, but were high enough that no one would have to stoop to get past them. Out the windows, perhaps ten feet away, one could peer into the utility rooms of the neighboring building. “I could talk myself into this, maybe hang a spider plant from the pipes in the kitchen,” Lily thought out loud, taking one final look around before leaving the living area. Under her breath, she added, “Free rent!”
They crossed a small courtyard beneath the fire escape and entered the laundry room. “Here’s a bonus,” said Mr. Dreschler. “You are allowed to mark five dollars in quarters with red nail polish for your laundry at these pay machines. When the maintenance people come at the end of every month, your marked quarters will be returned to you. In exchange, you are expected to keep this laundry room in tip-top condition.”
“That seems doable!” Lily said, eyeing the moldy-looking floors that seemed not to have been touched in years. “Just get me some bleach and I’ll shape this up in no time.”
She had been insistent on using cloth diapers, necessitating frequent pilgrimages to a laundromat, so the vision of nearby washers and a pocketful of gleaming red quarters floated like a beckoning angel.
Blue Jay reinforced their air of expertise when the grand tour proceeded across the walkway, past storage bins, to the adjacent boiler room that ran the length of the street side of the building. “Ah, yes!” he smiled knowingly. “You have a Kewaunee boiler!” tapping its side like it was his long-lost friend.
The boiler was an awesome spectacle, rusted in places, with metal patches where there must have been leaks, pipes branching out in all directions like the rays a metal octopus. Jay thought it looked to be a hundred years old. In the far corner was a dingy room that must have once been a coal bin. Jay figured that was the source of the sour smell permeating the lower level.
Lily knew from talking to Ernie Werner, the obliging building super on the next corner, that the important safety measure would be to check the balance of steam and water level in the glass gauge on the side at least twice a day when the boiler was running. Obviously, the boiler was not turned on at this time, and the gauge itself looked filled with rust. The whole thing looked like it needed to be relocated in a dump and nobody would miss it. For a moment, Lily pictured the building exploding in a Vesuvius of steam and had second thoughts. She exchanged a glance with Jay. Reassured by his broad grin, she held her tongue.
Mr. Dreschler looked them over, glancing curiously at the baby boy that Lily was wearing in a contraption on her back, and paused.
Their future financial lives hung in his gaze. Lily surmised that they looked like refugees from another world from the perspective of this gentleman in his well-tailored jacket, this expertly coifed man accustomed to those hand-rolled cigars bulging in his shirt pocket—but she need not have worried. “You sound knowledgeable, and most people don’t want to live in an English basement.” He hesitated, “Oh, not that it isn’t cool in summer and warm in winter, being half underground.” He then offered a further gesture of intimacy and friendship. He lowered his voice. “I had to evict the last caretakers for drunkenness. They seemed okay, but they couldn’t hold their liquor. Tenants started calling me directly at all hours of the night.”
Jay smiled, “Well, you don’t have to worry about us with that problem.”
He continued, “Be prepared for occasional flare-ups. That’s only normal in the caretaking business. This building used to be all sedate older people, but now it’s a mix of all types. The neighborhood is changing, and we can’t leave units vacant too long looking for Mr. and Mrs. Perfection. You’ll have to work out relationships on your own. I don’t want to be bothered with their squabbles.”
Lily quickly picked up the conversation, thinking it best to change the subject. “By the way, this is our son Joshua Peregrine.”
Mr. Dreshler nodded, “Peregrine? As in pilgrim?”
“No. Peregrine, as in falcon. He’s three months old now,” she added, hoping that would work in their favor. “Christmas Day will be his half birthday.”
He smiled dismissively at Lily and nodded at Blue Jay. “That’s a fine little boy you’ve got there. Are you a Wisconsin boy yourself?”
Blue Jay shook his head, “Well, almost. That is, I’ve lived here the past six years. I’m actually a Yooper.”
Mr. Dreschler looked puzzled and raised his eyebrows in an expression that Jay interpreted as alarm. “A Yippie?”
“No, a Yooper. That’s what we Upper Peninsula Michigan folks call ourselves.” He paused. “As opposed to city slicker, you know.” This was Jay’s attempt at a joke. “I traded Lake Superior for Lake Michigan.”
Mr. Dreschler hesitated, as if swallowing this rare tidbit of information. “If you’re really interested in this caretaking business, I think we can work something out. Free rent and eighty dollars a month. You keep the cleaning supplies stocked. Keep the building clean, the snow shoveled, the grass cut, the tenants happy. Also, show any vacant units. I make the final decision on rental, but I take your judgment into account. At present the units are all filled. Agreed?”
Lily and Blue Jay nodded at each other. “Agreed.” Their sighs were audible.
Mr. Dreschler extended his hand, first to Lily and then again to Blue Jay. They solemnly shook hands.
“When would you be able to start, assuming you pass the background check?”
“Well, we could move next weekend,” Lily said, trying not to appear too eager, visions of extra money dancing behind her green eyes.
They walked him to the front of the building and watched as he pulled away in his gleaming black Buick.
“Let’s walk around the building and have a look out here,” Jay suggested.
“Sure. And then let’s go to the Ben Franklin and buy red nail polish!”
The semester began three days before they moved. They borrowed a car from a member of Jay’s poetry group, rented a U-Haul, said a happy goodbye to the one-room efficiency over a head shop on the Lower East Side, and packed and lugged and juggled baby care and classes. The not-so-trivial matter of the boiler operator’s license would have to be faced soon enough. Classes had started and moving, studying, and settling in was an all-consuming task, not to mention that The Hatchling was off his feed in this new place and was waking up nightly around 2:00 AM ready for action. Lily drifted through the days in half-sleep. “At least this place doesn’t reek of patchouli oil seeping in through the floorboards. Don’t worry about the boiler operator license. It’s a long time before it’s gonna be cold enough to turn on the rusty dragon,” she advised Blue Jay
Boiler procrastination was fine with him. He was already begun composing a lengthy poetic drama, The Tragedie of Joanie Fist, for his advanced creative writing class, in addition to his other sixteen credits. “Ich spreche Deutsch!” he said aloud, then cleared his throat and repeated the phrase with an exaggerated guttural sound on the letter R. “Ich Spgrgrgrgreche Deutsch!” He sighed, a bit insecure about his latest attempt at linguistic acquisition, a required six credits of a foreign language for the liberal arts diploma—three per semester. He had dropped a Spanish class during his sophomore year, showing little aptitude for foreign tongues. Now he needed the German class to fulfill the requirement before his targeted June graduation. “June!” he smiled to himself. “Just around the corner. Sure.”
Six years of student loans were piling up. Graduating in June had become urgent and serious with the birth of his son; although he was the type of person who could have remained a perpetual student, could have been happy, happy, happy as a raven, evermore. Of course, perpetual studenthood was no longer an option.
~ * * * * * ~
On Monday morning after the weekend move, Lily posted a handwritten notice beside the mailboxes in the front hall:
Notice to the Tenants of Tannenbaum Arms:
This is a message from your new caretakers. We live in the English Basement apartment across from the laundry room. We are students at UWM and have arranged our class schedules so one of us will be in residence at all times. Please leave a message in the box by our door to notify us of any special building concerns. In case of a building emergency, please call us. As soon as we get a phone, we will post the number. (Of course, if it is a serious emergency, just call the fire department or police department, which is just what we would do anyway.) Our son Joshua usually naps between 1 and 3 PM when we are lucky, so please do not disturb during those hours unless you are reporting an emergency. We try to get him to sleep by 7. We look forward to meeting all of you and taking care of this building.
All the best for good days in a good place,
Lily and Joshua, AKA Blue Jay
As she was standing back to admire her work, a tall woman who looked as old as Mother Time herself came walking up the front steps, propping herself with two canes, the handles of a bulging shopping bag looped through her right arm. Her gray hair was pulled back in a neat bun and she wore a gray sweater to match.
Lily stepped forward to hold the door open and reached for the bag to help her.
A look of disdain came over the woman’s face and she raised her cane at Lily, as if to strike her.
“No, thank you! I can take care of myself,” she half snarled.
“Well, sure,” Lily said. “You must be one of the tenants. “I’m Lily and I’m half the team of your new building caretakers.”
“Pleased to meet you.” She paused and forced a little smile. “I’m Mrs. Davis. Mabel Davis. Apartment 4. And now I must be on my way. As you can see, I’m carrying quite a load here, and I don’t want my ice cream to melt.” She made circles in the air with her cane, waving it in Lily’s direction.
“Yes, I have to get back downstairs anyway. I left my son in his crib. You might want to read the notice when you’re not so loaded down,” Lily said, stepping out through the door and almost skipping around to the back.
“Well, Hatchling,” she said when she returned to their lower level, “isn’t it super, being a super! Did you know that your mommy is a super-duper super? And Mrs. Davis is so-o-o friendly!”
Blue Jay had made it a habit to take an early morning walk this canine pre-nuptial contribution to their union. Procured during his Poe-infatuation Phase, Lost Lenore was a Humane Society dog of indeterminate origin—perhaps some mixture of beagle and poodle, with a little goat thrown in. (The beagle part would account for the floppy ears, black spots, and talent for putting her head back and howling at the sound of every siren, no matter how distant. Further speculation informed them that a poodle ancestor might have given her the wiry coat, and somewhere back in the lineage, a remote goat had instilled a penchant for chewing all pillows and shoes left near her nose.) “She’s fifty-seven varieties, just like every other red-blooded American,” Blue Jay had pontificated. “Why should our dog be any different from the rest of us?”
On the first day in their new apartment, before leaving for class, Jay took the Hatchling and the bounding beast on a quick morning constitutional. A block away, he ran into two people, one of them vaguely recalled from last spring’s European History class, but who now wore his hair long and sported a chest full of protest buttons. “Jay, Man! Remember me? Peter Thomas. We’re meeting tonight at the fountain for a little action.”
Lenore tugged at her leash, eager to move on. Jay shrugged.
“They’re trying to impose a curfew, but this won’t happen. It’s a revolution. We won’t be fucked with!” he continued. “A little bit of Chicago in Milwaukee, but pigs are pigs.”
“I had enough of Chicago in Chicago, Pete,” Jay countered. He pushed back recent disturbing memories.
Lost Lenore tried to jump up and lick Pete’s face, but Jay pulled her back.
“This here is my friend, Krazy Wayne.”
The bespectacled man in the army jacket covered with peace signs nodded. “It will be a night to remember.” Lenore tried to embrace him, “Whoa, Beast! Maybe leave your dog home, Dude.”
“Krazy Wayne earned the stripes on that jacket. He served in Nam, but he came home hating that hell hole,” Pete continued.
Krazy Wayne bowed mechanically three times and squinted, reminding Blue Jay of the movements of a cartoon character. “I’d rather not talk about it right now. Almost got ground up in the big meat chopper. Lost too many brothers. Up with the fuckin’ revolution!” he rasped, his voice taking on a noticeable edge. Abruptly, his temperament changed as he focused on the Hatchling. “Looks like you took the married-student-fatherhood route to dodge the draft. Not too shitty, except it’ll take eighteen years to get out of that deal.”
At this change of tone and attention to her human baby brother, Lenore’s hair began to stand on end. Jay pulled hard on her leash, backing off.
“Uncle Sam doesn’t care about my paternity. Up with academia and down with Lost Lenore. Time for me to get back to work. Can’t make it this time,” Jay shrugged, remembering how just a couple years before, the gathering place around the fountain next to the tall water tower was a place people could actually go to for respite. He and Lily used to sit there and gaze out at Lake Michigan and contemplate the fate of the cosmos. Lily had made up a story about a wizard living in the water tower, looking out protectively over the East Side. Now this park had become a small battleground. “What happened to the wizard?” Jay checked himself as he almost spoke these words out loud.
“Peace, brother!” And they continued on their way.
When Jay returned, he did not mention this meeting to Lily. The activities around the fountain had begun to escalate nightly, but there was enough to deal with right here, even more than enough. Even too much. Let this phase of the revolution be fought outside their small domain, was his opinion. He embraced Lily in a big bear hug, grabbed his backpack, and was off to class. “Here’s hoping for a quiet afternoon.”
As he walked the five blocks to campus, his thoughts went back to his dues paid marching on the raucous streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention. “A nightmare of societal break-down, all the way around,” he thought. “Worthy of a poem, but how to express the indignation and taunts and rocks of the protesters, the indiscriminate clubbing by officers going into blind rage, the helicopters hovering overhead like noisy pterodactyls. The fear of death by drubbing.” He paused near campus and contemplated some cumulous clouds with dark underbellies breezily sailing along towards Lake Michigan. “I need to get back to Grant Park someday,” he mused, “to see it again, to get over the memory of being blinded by teargas and crawling along on the grass like a centipede to hide in some bushes.” The germs of a new poem infected his brain.
- * * * * “Dress the Hatchling, leash up Lenore, walk them both, buy some food, unpack some boxes, find my Psych text, feed the Hatchling, read the assignment, line up supper, get ready for class….” Lily sang the morning agenda as she pulled the child from his baby seat and spun him around in a little dance.
Aside from the fact that she couldn’t find a book required for her Population and Social Interaction course, therefore could not do her homework, the morning passed exactly as planned. The tenants seemed to be sequestered in their quarters; and the sky, not visible through the windows of their basement apartment, began to darken into rain. “I can get used to this,” she thought. The ground itself was ear-level, and as raindrops splashed and splattered outside, they created an unlikely symphony of water-weather sounds. She snuggled next to the Hatchling on the big bed and was lulled into dreamless sleep.
At noon, Blue Jay trotted through the door and was greeted with a quick kiss and a few words: “Be sure to hang around for the phone man and do some unpacking if you can.
We still have a mess here. Let me know if you run across the Ehrlich book, The Population Bomb. It has a gray cover with dire messages about dead babies on it. It’s got to be around here somewhere. I’m supposed to have it read by next week.”
Blue Jay threw his soggy jacket over a kitchen chair. Lost Lenore bounded up to him as he sat. “It’s raining cats and DOGS, Lenore! Dogs!”
“ Oh, and I made you a ham sandwich, and there’s orange banana Jello in the fridge. Love you!”
Lily grabbed her umbrella and sloshed her way to the university.
Blue Jay propped his book on the table, hoping to cover a chapter before the Hatchling would wake up.
In theory, beginning on this day with their boxes almost all unpacked and the building set to right, life was to settle into a routine. Blue Jay had scheduled his classes for the morning, since he was a morning person; Lily had the afternoon slot, except for her “Impact of Puritan Morality on American Society” seminar, which met Wednesday evenings. In theory….
- * * * *
Wednesday afternoon began serenely enough. Blue Jay snuggled The Hatchling in his arms and sang him poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, until The Hatchling fell asleep in the midst of “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” Ever so carefully, Blue Jay carried his little bundle into the nursery off the kitchen and gave a silent cheer as his son remained asleep. Retreating to his study, Blue Jay resumed work on The Tragedie of Joanie Fist.
Both father and son were jarred back to reality by the urgent ringing of the doorbell, which resounded from some undisclosed location deep within the anteroom, its harsh ring more like the alarm on an elevator stuck between floors than a self-respecting English Basement domicile’s doorbell.
“Yes?” Blue Jay called, rushing to the door.
“It’s just me. Moisette from Apartment 5. I’m locked out. I’m wondering if you have a key….” She stood in the doorway, her love beads hanging to her waist, her black dress clinging to her from the rain, which had already moved out over the lake.
“Well, sure. Hang on.” He grabbed an impressive bunch of keys from the kitchen table. “C’mon in while I find out how to do this. You’re the first one to need a key.” Since the doorbell had awakened The Hatchling, Blue Jay picked him up and unceremoniously put the screaming child into his bouncy seat, as he ruminated over the keys. Mr. Dreschler had not informed them about which key went to what, although they had noted that the apartment keys were double-locked in a metal box in the anteroom, just next to the fuses.
The Lost Lenore, having heard the commotion, roused herself from her spot on the front windowsill and scampered in, greeting Moisette as a long-lost friend.
“Your dog is very presumptuous. It assumes I want to be kissed.”
“Well, kisses can be wonderful, but not from a dog.” In a manner she was sure many admirers perceived to be coy and winsome, she smiled at Blue Jay, who didn’t notice. “My hair is a little soaked from that cloudburst. Sorry if I am not presenting my best image.” She shook her head, sending her mass of dark strands swirling in all directions.
“Sorry. Down, Lenore.”
The dog reluctantly backed off.
“She thinks everybody loves her.”
“Well, I’ve always been a cat person. In fact, some people say I resemble a cat, with my slanted sloe eyes.” She smiled at him, edging closer. “What do you think?”
“I think I better go check for your keys before The Hatchling gets hungry. You know these babies. Always demanding something. Milk. Burping. Diaper duty. Biscuit break. German lessons,” he began ad-libbing as he tried various keys. “Bingo!” He opened the case. “What apartment did you say you were in?”
She sighed in mock frustration, “Apartment 5. At least the rain stopped. Come up for a drink whenever you need a break from the baby-and-dog scene. We’re all grown-ups living up there.” With a toss of her head and a wink of her eye, she flounced out into the musty hallway.
He handed her the key. “Thanks. Just shove this key under the back door when you’re done. I’m going to have to get The Hatchling to sleep again so I can get some work done.” He gestured to the random cardboard boxes around the kitchen.
Moisette stood in the doorway, “Doesn’t he have a civilized name?”
At that point, Lenore saw her chance to make a getaway and streaked past Moisette, bounded up the steps, and disappeared.
“Well, isn’t that the cat’s meow?” laughed Moisette, slinking away up the basement steps and disappearing around to the front of the building.
Blue Jay reached for The Hatchling and the dog leash in one fell swoop and ran outside calling for Lenore, who was arching her back on the neighbor’s lawn, leaving a generous deposit of potential fertilizer. Just then, a woman flew out, camera in hand. “Get that dog off my grass! Immediately!”
“Ma’am, I’m trying to do that. Never mind. I’m your new neighbor. I’ll get it cleaned up, but first I have to catch her before she’s hit by a car. She has no street sense.”
“Immediately! I’m calling the police!”
“This whole world has gone insane,” he thought. He made a lunge for Lenore, snagging her by her rear right paw as she attempted to flee. “Good dog. Great dog. Wonderful dog!” he crooned. Riding under his father’s left arm like a sack of flour, the Hatchling, thinking this was a great game, began to gurgle in a deep-throated, wide-awake way.
“Yeah, this is a new game. Catch-the-Pup, to be followed by Clean-the-Poop,” said Blue Jay.
Back in the apartment, The Hatchling was once again lulled to sleep and Blue Jay, forgetting about Lenore’s deposit on the neighbor’s manicured lawn, began to focus on outlining his semester-long creative writing class project, a blank verse drama, The Tragedie of Joanie Fist. Since it had begun as a contemporary re-interpretation of Goethe’s Tragedy of Johann Faust, Jay debated adding a scene about the death of the Old Society, which had sold its soul to the devil, replaced by a New Age of love and peace; but that no longer rang true. Although he had been busy making ends meet on the night shift at a Stop and Shop Market and could not go to Woodstock the past summer, he wanted to incorporate the notion in his play that 70,000 people could peacefully enjoy one another’s company with mud and music; but only one week before Woodstock, on the other coast, a pregnant movie star, Sharon Tate, and her friends living in a Hollywood mansion were brutally stabbed to death and the word PIG written in her blood. How could he encompass this vastness of good and evil within the human heart with his poetic drama? He lost himself in contemplation.
Five minutes later, the doorbell rang. The Hatchling began whimpering in his crib. A voice called out, “Telephone Man!” A second, sterner voice called out, “Police!”
“Well,” thought Blue Jay, “maybe it will take a few days for things to fall into a routine.”
It turned out that the nephew of the neighbor was a police officer who was perhaps overstepping his duty when he issued a warning ticket to Blue Jay, who somewhat belatedly located a plastic bread bag and a spatula and went to clean up Lenore’s offering of fertilizer. The telephone man was not at all fazed by sharing his visit, and all went well with the installation of the device that was to prove itself a total nuisance over the next several months by ringing at all the wrong times.
As evening settled in, after a brief time at home, Lily hiked up to campus for the first meeting of her Wednesday seminar, which meant that Blue Jay was eating supper with The Hatchling, who thought that getting mashed peas and apple sauce all over his face was great fun, especially when he could make a bubbly gurgling sound with it. Blue Jay ruminated over his elegant supper of peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tall glass of milk–which, the ads assured him, had been produced from contented cows. A song came on the radio—something about a woman named Suzanne who had a supply of tea and oranges from China. Blue Jay stopped in mid-chew and turned up the volume. Tea and oranges certainly was more poetic than milk and peanut butter. The voice sounded rather cow-like, but the words! This was poetry set to music, not music with a rhyme thrown in! This was an amazing poet!
The DJ’s voice came on as the music faded. “This is Bob Reitman, WUWM-FM, playing favorites, starting with the title cut from the 1968 album by Leonard Cohen of Montreal, Canada….”
As Reitman announced the next Cohen song from his new album, Bird on a Wire, Blue Jay asked himself, “Where have I been for two years? Buried in my great night shift at Stop and Shop with Muzak, or with books and babies. Or baby.” He resolved to duck into a listening booth at Schroeder’s Books and Records for a full album listening session as soon as he had a chance.
Perhaps they should go to Canada, he thought. Then imagine… life skipping out on student loans, without burning draft cards, without a Vietnam Undeclared War, without student strikes and sit-ins and without police teargassing taunting Yippies …. “Let’s see. We take our student loan money, and instead of paying the tuition, we simply get on a train and go to Montreal. We find out where this musician lives and we knock on his door. ‘Hello, Mr. Cohen. We are political refugees. No, we are poetical refugees from Milwaukee, USA. Can we please camp in your back yard? What? You’re just going on a concert tour? What a coincidence. My wife and I are trained in property management. We are a team. Fifty-fifty. Do you have a boiler? We could take care of your house while you’re gone. What? You’re just borrowing this pad from a friend? Oh….’ ”
So much for that idea. Even his daydreams took a realistic twist these days. “Hey, squawky Hatchling, how about going on a little stroll?” This was a well-known technique for putting the child to sleep, leaving Blue Jay with a long evening for further contemplation and, quite possibly, some studying.
At ten PM Lily came home, too tired to talk. By 10:05, she had kicked her sandals off and was brushing her teeth. The doorbell rang. “Get it, Jay,” she effervesced through the toothpaste. “Can’t you get it? I’m half naked.” “Oh, great,” she stomped to the door. “Yes?” “Hi. I’m Craig from Apartment 6. I’m locked out.” “I’m your caretaker. I’m rabid and foaming at the mouth. I’m insane. Lemme get you a key.” Craig stood there not knowing if he should laugh or run. He had played football in high school, but now that he was a college student, he preferred the drinking team and proudly wore his expanding six-pack stomach, which tonight hung over his jeans like the hangover he’d have the next morning. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” he mumbled, as she came forward with the key. He lifted his right hand in a V sign, while attempting to twirl the keys in his left. “Peace!” “It’s okay. Just shove it under our door after you let yourself in,” she gurgled. “Don’t stumble. Maybe use the front stairs, not the fire escape tonight,” she couldn’t help adding, noticing his somewhat inebriated condition. She rinsed her mouth. “That’s it. No more interruptions. Let’s post a note that we do not answer doorbells after 9PM. This job could eat us up if we let it.” When Lily got like this, sometimes the best tactic was diversion. He reached for her, putting his arm around her and pulling her close. “Hey, I heard this great song on the radio. Leonard Cohen. Canadian poet. Wanna move to Canada?” “Yeah, sure. Along with everyone else playing draft dodgeball and their cousin. Leonard Schmeonard. This is home. Even if I hate what the country is doing with Nixon’s damn war, I’m red-blooded. They can’t get rid of me that fast. I prefer Hendrix twanging out ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Anyway, it was a long day. I’m too tired to talk.” “ I have a solution for that,” Jay countered. “Let’s hit the feathers.”
Their class schedules seemed to be moving along and the semester began to take on a life of its own. It looked as if the tenants were all quite reasonable with their demands. Craig introduced a new roommate in Apartment Six, a transfer student from Cleveland named Joe who figured out after two weeks that he couldn’t take dorm life. He and Craig were off to a protest at the new Performing Arts Center, hoping to disrupt the grand opening. “All the big shots will be there,” Joe proclaimed. “Tickets are $100 apiece. What normal person could afford that?”
Craig flashed a poster: “Down With Fat Cats, Up with People.” He grinned. “Ready for the outside show.”
Jay and Lily declined an invitation to join them, with growing awareness that opportunities for protest would be constant.
Near the end of the month, the Students for a Democratic Society confronted the ROTC program on campus, believing this military group had no place on campus. The afternoon classes in Bolton Hall were disrupted by a parade of protestors making their way through the halls. Lily heard the chants from her second-floor classroom.
“One, two, three, four, We don’t want yer fuckin’ war!” competed with the professor’s drone, and disheartened students stopped taking notes.
Looking around the room, the professor sighed and said, “You may use the rest of the period to work on your assignments independently. Class dismissed.”
“Good that I have afternoons and Jay has mornings,” Lily remarked to her friend and fellow student Pam as they left the room. This semester they had this statistics class together, and managed to save seats for each other. “Jay would be joining the marchers by now, I’m sure. But I think we will go on the protest march this weekend, just walking from UWM to the War Museum. It should be non-violent enough to deal with and I want my voice to be heard. Well, maybe not heard, but I want to be present. You know. Bearing witness. Nixon has it really wrong.”
Pam shrugged. “Tough all the way around. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.” Since meeting Pam last spring in a Sociology of Education class when she was juggling the end of the semester and advanced pregnancy, Lily was relieved to find a friend she could relate to openly, who could be counted on to understand her situation. “You should switch to a practical master’s like me,” she advised. “Education. Always a job in that market. That means, a paycheck. What will you ever do with that degree in Sociology? Go on for another degree, and then another, and then what?”
Lily realized that Pam had an opinion on everything and knew when to just laugh; although she thought perhaps Pam was making a good argument in favor of an education degree.
Class had been dismissed twenty minutes early, so they walked to the Union for coffee and rare conversation time. Pam was a single parent. She had a two-year-old daughter who was truly in her terrible twos. Her mother was assisting her with childcare. “You get to look forward to acting-out behavior with Little Jay,” she said. “It can’t be helped. And the way people are conducting themselves, there is way too much acting out for me.”
Lily laughed. “Well, I keep my Dr. Spock Baby Book handy. I think Little Jay is right on target for almost four months. He likes to smile and put things in this mouth and drop food off his tray.”
The corridor was littered with upturned trashcans and chairs. They stepped cautiously. They crossed the mall, littered with protest flyers and more overturned trash cans and benches, making their way to the student union.
“Damn this useless mess. I think I need a brownie and goop,” Pam stated, referring to a favorite campus treat consisting of a large slab of a very chewy chocolate brownie with an added swirl of ice milk from a dispenser. “A little sweetness to temper all the bitterness flowing through the air.” The near-empty dining hall seemed a surprising island of tranquility.
“Good that they didn’t drain the goop machine,” Pam remarked. They plopped down at a nearby table absorbing the clatter and hum of the cafeteria that surrounded them, blocking out all thoughts of war, discussing the challenges of motherhood.
“I heard a rumor. There is a possibility of establishing a drop-off daycare center for students with young children. I would be happy to work there a few hours in exchange for Molly getting to stay there when I’m in class. I hate listening to my mom’s self-righteous martyrdom. She loves Molly, but she says she already raised me and my brother and that was enough. She only half means it, but I get the point.”
“Maybe she just wants to be appreciated,” Lily remarked. “But you know, according to Spock, daycare could help the children socialize with each other. Learn to get along, and all. I was just reading about that.”
“Molly could use a little socialization. Sorry to say, she bit her three-year-old cousin for grabbing her favorite bear. No harm done. No tooth marks. Lesson learned, I hope.”
Both women shared a laugh over this.
“Keep me posted if you hear anything, Pam.” Lily scraped the last bit of chocolate from her bowl. “I better run. I have the evening shift tonight. Jay has a poetry group and I have trash duty at Tannenbaum Arms.”
~ * * * * * ~