“One of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places that other disciplines such as history must avoid. To art, we enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us, to bring the dead back to life. This resurrection is, of course, just an illusion, it’s a fantasy, a dream, but dreams matter somehow to us.”
Stephen Spielberg speaking at the site of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, November 19, 2012
October: Wherein Lily and Blue Jay become better acquainted with their tenants, acquire their boiler operator’s licenses; and through a cluster of unplanned events, discover that the secret of striving for normalcy is to admit that there is no normalcy.
In early October, it began to get a bit chilly when the damp winds blew in from Lake Michigan. Lily checked out a thick book, Bailey’s Boiler Handbook, from the library and got a study guide from the Milwaukee Department of Building Inspection. Soon they must face up to their shortcomings. The operation of a large boiler like the Kewaunee was a very responsible job, and she wanted to be able to do her best so as not to explode the building or cause some terrible meltdown. Secretly, she regretted getting them into this position, but decided to put on a brave face and take the challenge. After all, she reasoned, most boiler operators were not college grads who had honed their test-taking skills over sixteen or more years in the educational system. The hand-out from the city said to bring a #2 lead pencil, indicating some kind of objective answers. In actuality, on the job all they would have to do is check the water level on the glass gauge, keep the boiler properly filled, and control the thermostat which was conveniently located in the central hallway of their basement apartment. And, of course, in case of boiler failure they just had to call Mr. Dreschler.
After a heated discussion about the boiler, it was decided that Lily would take the test first. She pored over the overdue Bailey’s Boiler Handbook and taught herself how to compute the steam compression, the rate of pressure needed to heat a three-story building, and how thick the uptake pipes needed to be to convey the necessary pressure effectively. Although this crash course on boilers put her behind in her academics, she confidently clutched her #2 lead pencil, put on a brave face, and made her way to the adjunct city hall building. One glance at the test told her that she had over-studied. She had prepared herself for the “Steam-fitting Operator Level 1” position, not the lowly “Small Boiler Operator Level 3” which demanded only superficial knowledge of how steam worked, but much practical knowledge of filling and maintaining an actual furnace.
The test proved to be a 100-question multiple choice, easily accomplished. She clutched the document in its manila envelope as she waited for the Bus 15 to take her home.
“Look at this, Blue Jay!” she gloated, waving the certificate at him. “97 per cent! Lily Swan, Boiler Operator Extraordinaire! We’re legal!”
“I only needed a 75 to pass! 97 per cent! If I fail out of grad school, I guess I can always become a steamfitter.”
With this important step taken, Lily grew more comfortable with her position. Blue Jay reluctantly worked in some study time, and with Lily’s expert coaching, managed to pass the test with a venerable 76. “Too bad they didn’t just ask me to write an essay on “Three Reasons Why I want to become a Boiler Operator,” he shrugged. “Or a poem: Ode to the Great Fire-Breathing Dragon of Kewaunee. ”
The next time the temperature dropped into the thirties, they made a pilgrimage to the great Kewaunee boiler and gingerly turned on the intake water valve. Blue Jay stayed by the heavy metal boiler room door to make sure the Kewaunee clicked in, while Lily retreated to their apartment to turn up the thermostat.
“We have ignition, Houston!” Blue Jay shouted. “Blastoff!”
And the mighty boiler began to roar.
“On my next trip to the Goodwill, I’ll have to buy a couple of frames and hang our licenses in the boiler room,” Lily commented. “It’s too bad they didn’t put our scores on the certificates. 97%!” she gloated.
Around that time, to her surprise, Lily realized that she was making friends with some of the tenants. Some of them, such as Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis, had lived there forever, it seemed. Tannenbaum Arms was truly their home. Others, such as the students in the upper apartments, seemed to rotate in and out, with only some of the faces recognizable on a daily basis. This made Lily a bit edgy because legally the names of all tenants were to be registered with them and listed on the mailboxes. As she vacuumed the three flights of dusty carpet, she made up a television show, “Touring the Tannenbaum,” similar in tone to The Ed Sullivan Show. She was, of course, the emcee, and rated the apartments and tenants.
The award for the most elegant apartment would have to go to Larry and Lenny, the two middle-aged men who had lived in Apartment 1 for the past couple of years. On their first week here, Jay and Lily had been given a tour of their apartment. Lenny was an interior decorator and often received used items when re-decorating one of the elegant lakefront mansions a few blocks to the east. One of his finest coups was an Austrian crystal chandelier, which he and Larry had installed in the dining room at their own expense. They also had a stately leather couch and—although neither of them played, as far as she knew—a baby grand piano ceremonially outfitted with a heavy silver candelabrum that Lenny said could have come from the Pabst mansion—beer baron friends of the original Tannenbaum family that had erected this apartment building in the 1920’s, he noted.
Larry and Lenny gave a touch of class to the building, Lily thought, with their impeccable manners and style. They also always seemed to know what was going on in all the apartments. They were great conversationalists and generally shared all they knew about everyone, as if they were Lily’s personal Tannenbaum news team. Lily wished they were home right then; she would have appreciated a kind word and an update.
Lily had been forewarned by Mrs. Grant to expect a terrible verbal brawl from Apartment 1 now and then, that once one had escalated to Lenny throwing some of Larry’s personal effects out the window onto the lawn. Mrs. Grant further expounded, “I am not a gossip. I just want you to know so you won’t be alarmed. We just act like nothing is wrong. It’s just their way of coping. They’re dear boys. Every time I make banana bread, I take them some.” Lily genuinely liked the Apartment 1 gentlemen. “So, Mrs. Grant is a bit of a gossip,” she shrugged. She hadn’t yet witnessed one of those rumored outbursts and thought perhaps Mrs. Grant had fantasized this. Whatever their personal anguish, she wished them the best. She would give them the top award for style and leave it at that.
Apartment 2. Mrs. Grant. What award for her? Perhaps loneliest. Or perhaps loveliest. Lily didn’t know if Mrs. Grant was in her high seventies or low eighties. She appeared agelessly elderly. Her husband had died of influenza some time back, probably during the Depression, and she had raised their only daughter on a secretary’s salary. Unless she had been a child bride, that would put her in her eighties. Now the daughter lived in California and came for rare visits perhaps once a year, according to Lenny. Mrs. Grant and Lily gradually were building a relationship of trust through the numerous favors Mrs. Grant had requested and Lily had politely accomplished—such as hauling out trash and unclogging the kitchen sink. She felt a grudging dislike for Mrs. Grant’s daughter who could have made her mother so happy with a few more visits or even letters, who didn’t seem to appreciate her. Mrs. Grant had her daughter’s pictures displayed in every room.
“She’s so different from my mother,” Lily mused. When Lily was six her father had died of thyroid cancer, probably a result of chemical exposure during his service time in the Korean Conflict. She vaguely remembered him, mostly as a sleeping person on a day bed in the dining room with a blanket pulled over his head. After a year of weeping, her mother resolutely put the nightmare behind her, remarried when Lily was in second grade, and started a new life with a hard-working, hard-drinking biker. They created their little brown-eyed nuclear family of one boy and one girl, and Lily basically found herself the outsider—the ungainly, bookish swan child with her father’s green eyes among the brown-eyed ducklings, best valued as a built-in babysitter. Although she had moved beyond bitterness, Lily still felt an occasional twinge of emptiness. Her mother hadn’t even come from Tulsa for her marriage or the birth of her first grandchild, although both times she sent a Hallmark card and twenty dollars.
As the vacuum hummed, Mrs. Grant cracked open her door. “Oh, it’s you, Lily. Have you shopped yet today?’
Lily grinned, “No.” She fought a desire to say that she did not shop on a daily basis.
The sweet voice faltered. “I’m wondering if you could pick up a few things for me. I’d like a single lamb chop, Dearie. From the loin. Also, my cupboard door is stuck. I’m wondering if you could open it for me.” Although she appeared frail, Lily believed that Mrs. Grant was as tough as nails.
“I’ll knock on your door when I’m done vacuuming. If I stop now, I’ll never finish.”
Moving up the corridor, Lily speculated on what prize she might award to Mrs. Theresa Hopkinson, a staid businesswoman in her early fifties, who lived alone in the spacious apartment. Lenny had informed her that it was an open secret that Theresa was in a private love relationship with a wealthy, twice-divorced banker whose wife had a memory disorder, that she herself had married young and divorced young. However, because of the tenets of her faith, she would not re-marry. Every Sunday morning she went to eight o’clock mass at the nearby St. Peter the Fisherman; every Sunday around ten she came home with her small parcel of hard rolls and ham, which she purchased after mass at the Italian bakery on Brady Street. The all-knowing Lenny said Mrs. Hopkinson’s breakfast would be shared with the banker who seemed to arrive around eleven, often holding flowers as if they were the Holy Grail.
Larry and Lenny had told Lily about this, and she herself once had seen the genial gentleman caller ascend the stairs with a large bouquet of red roses. “Tenets or tendrils of faith? And to you, Mrs. Hopkinson, goes the award of Most Tasteful Tenant—for the discretion shown in your life and reflected in the quality of the traditional furnishings and beige walls of your domicile.” And she hastened to add, “Or maybe the Most Wasteful Tenant—for throwing away all possibility of happiness.” Lily caught herself here, realizing she was not always kind, prone to snap judgments based on hearsay. “Or maybe I just don’t get it,” she corrected herself. “Not every woman wants to balance a baby on her hip. Maybe this is her road to happiness.”
The vacuum cleaner hummed on and Lily began humming with it—some kind of John Philip Sousa marching song that seemed an appropriate tempo for cleaning duty. She further speculated on happiness: perhaps Mrs. Hopkinson and the banker would have been truly miserable had they married, because she would have had to compromise her religious views and he would have been guilt-ridden about leaving his ailing wife. But it seemed to Lily that there should have been a way around this impasse. She would have to further discuss this with Lenny. “Don’t become a petty busybody, Lily,” she admonished herself.
Next came the entrance to Apartment 4, home of Mrs. Davis. “Let’s see,” thought Lily, remembering the episode when Mrs. Davis tried to accost her with her cane. “Most Warlike. Or let’s be more positive. Hardiest. Strongest Survival Instinct.” Except for a glimpse of a mouse gray carpet through a crack in the door, Lily had not seen the inside of this apartment. Lily had learned from Mrs. Grant that in keeping with her spirit of self-reliance, Mrs. Davis boasted that she had been to a doctor only once in her life, and that was over ten years ago already when she had a gall bladder attack shortly after she turned eighty. Careful not to bump the door with the vacuum cleaner, fearing Mrs. Davis would think she was knocking, Lily quickly proceeded up the final flight of stairs. Visions of the austere Grecian profile with gray hair in a severe bun spurred her on.
The third-floor tenants were the most elusive. Of course, there was Moisette, who threw herself all over any man within sniffing distance. She had two roommates, Linda and Sarah. Unlike Moisette, they seemed like hard-working community college students, both waitressing at the nearby George Webb’s and studying when they weren’t in class, with very little time for partying. “What award should I give them?” mused Lily. “Most Scheduled? No, that would be me. Least Known? No, that would be the guys in Apartment 6. I’ll settle for Most Tolerant, because they put up with Moisette as a roommate. She’d drive me crazy in half a day.”
With only a scant three feet of carpet to go, the vacuum cleaner died. Lily realized that the extension cord didn’t quite reach and had come unplugged. Through the door of Apartment 6 she heard Beatles music blasting on the stereo, sending a message that everybody should drop out. “Great,” she thought. “I’m done. I’m dropping out. I might morp into a walrus if I stay here too long! I think I’ll just skip the rest of the hall. Nobody will notice the difference. They’re probably higher than the ceiling right now. All I am saying is I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together!” she sang along. “And now this job is done.”
Bumping the old vacuum tank down the stairs, the hose coiled around her shoulders, she proclaimed, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the winner is…… Well, we’ll just let everyone hang in suspense until next week’s vacuuming be-in while the judges tabulate the score. So for now, goodbye and good luck from Lily Swan, charming hostess of your favorite Monday night show, Tannenbaum Arms. Now stay tuned for I Love Lucy.”
As she was about to leave the building, Lily turned around and looked up the stairs, startled by a blood-curdling scream. She stood attentively like an ancient snake goddess, vacuum cleaner hose twined around her neck. Would further screams ensue? Registering the thump and squeak of a corridor door being opened, she decided it was safe to go upstairs again to check things out. “After all,” she asserted, “I am the formidable caretaker.”
At that point, Moisette and Linda came down the stairs. “We have a mouse in the pantry!”
Lily tried not to laugh. “What’s its name? Mickey? What are you feeding it?”
“Really!” Moisette stiffened. “This is no joking matter!”
“I’ll have to get a trap. I think I’ll try to find one of those humane ones. I’ll give Mr. Dreschler a call,” Lily responded.
“You expect us to go back up there?” Moisette asserted.
Linda grabbed her arm, “C’mon, Moisette. We left the door open. Maybe it’s run away by now.”
“Maybe I should run away, too,” Lily mused as they descended the freshly vacuumed stairs. “Blue Jay is getting ready to participate in the Resistance Read-in and here I am, dealing with screaming tenants and walruses and dust bunnies. You don’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
The next evening as tranquility had settled over the building after supper, Jay absently remarked that it was getting dark so early these days. Lily sighed and thought about throwing a load of diapers in the washer before attacking her homework. Suddenly the harsh ring of the doorbell assailed them. Jay jumped up from the kitchen chair where he had been lingering over coffee. “My turn,” he said. Lenore began to howl in a disarmingly beagle-like way. The Hatchling started giggling and shaking his legs as if pedaling an invisible tricycle.
Mr. Dreschler stood in the doorway, a torn newsprint poster in his hand. “I suppose you are responsible for this?” he accused.
He held out a crumpled poster of a frowning, uniformed police officer, badges flashing on jacket and cap—Wanted for Crimes against the People: Sergeant Frank Miller, head of MPD’s Tactical Squad. We demand that Sgt. Miller be summarily dismissed from the MPD and brought to justice by the people.
“Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Davis both called. This was hanging in the front hall over the mailboxes. You responsible for this?” He looked at Jay.
“No. And they should have called me.”
“This could lose you your happy home, you know.” Mr. Dreschler looked around, first resting his eyes on the kitchen linoleum landscaped with graham crackers, then the sink heaped with dirty dishes. “This poster fits my definition of un-American propaganda! Maybe treason!”
He pointed at the words while reading them, as if Lily and Jay were illiterate. “Calls the tactical force of the police department ‘the Goon Squad’ and ‘Miller’s Marauders.’ Charged of ‘general inability to function as a feeling member of the human race.’ I know Chief Brier personally. He ordered the tactical squad to clamp down on rabble-rousers and drug users. Sgt. Miller is just doing his job.”
He paused and made jabs in the air with his index finger, pointing at Jay. “You need to be in charge here. This is a first-class operation. Keep order. Keep peace. I don’t need to lose my best tenants and you don’t look ready to move.”
“No, Sir!” Jay replied.
“We didn’t know. I will make it a point to check the front hall twice a day,” added Lily, trying to smooth things over. “Look. We can handle this.”
“I hope so,” he replied. “These are some tough times to get through with all spoiled brat protestors from all over the country coming here to cause trouble calling themselves White Panthers and Black Panthers. It used to be simple. Just UWM Panthers on the basketball court.”
Lily and Jay exchanged looks. “Sure. We’ll do our best to keep things in line here in the building,” Lily responded.
“Tough times all around,” Jay added.
“I shouldn’t have to be bothered with this nonsense.” And with that, without even a simple goodnight, Mr. Dreschler let himself out.
Lily held up the ragged poster. “It’s going on the fridge,” she said. “My favorite line these days is ‘Give Peace a Chance.’”
“No.” Jay reached for the poster. “We don’t need his mug in our kitchen.”
Lily shrugged. “Choose your battles, married lady,” she coached herself. “Okay, then.”
Jay contemplated taking on a work-study job as a security guard in the library on Tuesday and Thursday nights, against Lily’s better judgment. Lily thought they should wait until the campus children’s center could materialize so he could work while The Hatchling was in daycare. Jay reasoned that the library job was relatively non-demanding, and he could study just as well there; but after thinking it over he realized that it would soon be winter and the demands of the caretakership would increase. Also, the Hatchling was becoming more mobile and would soon need more energy expended into caring for him.
Word was around that a large protest march was for October 15, a Moratorium. Lily’s entire class decided to boycott their Puritan Morality seminar scheduled for that night and join the marchers. At this point, Lily persuaded Jay that they should go. “The Hatchling will be safe on my back,” she stated.
He agreed, on the condition that they could simply back off and pull away if there seemed to be too much rising tension. He recalled his Chicago experiences—the senseless brutality, the taunts exchanged on both sides, cries of, ”Fascist Pig!” and “Dirty Commie Hippies!” filling the streets; and in response, the relentless clubs coming down indiscriminately. “Even though it’s UWM, not Chicago, things can flare up in seconds,” he warned. “I want you to agree beforehand to trust my judgment on this.”
She frowned, paused. Then smiled. “Agreed.”
The march proved to be relatively balanced, even verging on peaceful at times, with only a handful of disorderly conduct citations. SDS members handed out black armbands. Officers were strategically placed along the route, but nobody seemed to be looking for trouble. The streets were so filled with protesters that there was no room even on the sidewalk, stretching from the university to downtown 6 miles away, moving like a wave. It seemed to be a rare time of coming together of the diverse student body that comprised UWM. People from groups ranging from the Yippies, to the White Panthers, to the Black Panthers, to the Vietnam Vets for Against the War, and every group in between decided to drop their own differences for a night and concentrate on making a unified statement about ending the war. Not only students participated, but people of all ages from the surrounding communities made their presence known. Along with indignation and distress over the political situation, there seemed to be an atmosphere of tolerance and gritty humor. President Nixon had talked about a silent majority that supported the U.S. war effort; someone carried a sign reading “Silent Majority for Peace.”
Two students who looked like they had come from the nearby university high school passed out cheese sandwiches. Signs with slogans such as “End the War Before it Ends You” and “Bring the Troops Home” were passed around. Someone handed Jay a sign that read “Draft Beer, Not Students.” For a while, Lily carried “Make Love, Not War,” but it proved too much with The Hatchling on her back, so she passed it on.
Hundreds of students marched from the Union, south on Downer Avenue, then over onto Prospect Avenue, lined with its high-rises and homes of former glory, now converted into apartments and rooming houses. John Lennon’s spirit pervaded through his new protest song, anger absorbed into the beauty of the melodic plea: All we are saying is give peace a chance. Repeating the refrain over and over as they walked, the voices mingled and harmonized, echoing through the streets. Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout evolution, revolution, devolution. All we are saying….. Snug in his back carrier, the Hatchling fell asleep.
Jay and Lily were joined up with two of Jay’s commando-booted buddies who had protested with him in Chicago, as well as several Birkenstock-clad members of Jay’s “Poets for Peace” resistance group.
As they approached the War Memorial, some SDS members handed out candles from a wicker laundry basket and people held them high. By now, evening had fallen and the candles illuminated the darkness like flickering SOS signals all around. A platform and microphone appeared as if by prearranged magic, and anyone who wanted to take the stage could get up and give a speech.
Voices rose in protest of the war, with references to atrocities seen on television that gave immediacy and urgency to the scene. An impassioned veteran with a leg wound recalled an event of U.S. troops of Company C slaughtering a whole village full of people. This was news to everyone. Hearing his personal account, the crowd became increasingly agitated.
“End the War! Bring our Troops Home!” One person spoke wearing a skeleton suit that glowed in the dark. “I am death. How many more will join me in the grave before this is over? 45,000 of our troops already dead, half a million deployed. Richard Nixon, this is on your soul!”
Things grew more intense. The officers made their presence known, standing in defensive mode at the edges of the street like Spartan warriors. Lily and Jay decided to make their exit and began the long walk home.
“I can wear The Hatchling for a while,” offered Jay; but Lily declined because she was afraid the transfer would wake him up.
They somberly walked through the streets, Lily pondered, “What kind of world will today’s children have to grow up in? I think every generation tries to make it better. I hope we can succeed. But is it really a revolution or just a repetition?”
“Damn that war!” Jay exploded. “The world has a long way to go. What kind of times are these? I hope our voices are heard.”
“Maybe we’re making it better,” Lily mused.
Jay reached over to the bulge in the back carrier and gave the sleeping Hatchling a pat. “Maybe. I hope so.”
They walked on in silence.
October brought no peace. It ended with the ongoing trial of the Chicago 8, soon to become the Chicago 7 with the departure of Bobby Seale. Protestors were brought to trial, charged with crossing state lines and conspiring to incite a riot and other transgressions during the violent demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention the previous summer. Judge Julius Hoffman seemed to delight in tangling with the defendants, especially Abby Hoffman who taunted him with, “Dad, Dad, have you forsaken me?”
“These contenders are made for each other,” Lily remarked. “Opposites with big mouths and beliefs in righteous causes attract.”
Daily reports filled the news.
Jay took more than a casual interest in the trial, since he had participated in the Chicago demonstrations in August. On October 29, things took a worse turn, when Black Panther Activist defendant Bobby Seale attempted to disrupt the trial. He continued to shout insults and make obscene and provocative comments at the judge and prosecuting attorney and even the onlookers. Judge Hoffman ordered Bobby Seale bound and gagged. This played out on national television, prompting passionate response on all sides.
‘Repulsive! Abhorrent! The term ‘kangaroo court’ comes to mind. This would have made incredible, outrageous theater,” Jay remarked at a conclave of the Poets for Peace as they met in the Union and watched the five-thirty news. “Except it is real. It is horrific. If we had written this, nobody would have believed it.”
There were murmurs of agreement, as the next story flashing on the screen showed a recent bombing of a rice paddy in Vietnam, appearing deceptively innocent, although purportedly a Viet Cong stronghold.
“Words fail,” remarked a tall poet named Sam.
“No. Words can’t let us down. Poetry can be a form of protest, a voice of the people, a collective conscience,” a woman with long braids countered. Jay knew them both from various English classes he had taken over the past three years. He nodded in agreement.
“So, do we look at words as weapons waging war for peace?” he chimed in.
Another member, Val, took the bait. “They can be, at times, but that is not their total function. As the great S.I. Hayakawa says, ‘The symbol is not the thing it symbolizes and the word is not the thing.’”
“Hey, we all took that course, Val,” another poet entered the arena. “I say we just speak out from a voice of authenticity. Best way to counter media propaganda.”
“Time for an open reading again,” Jay remarked, “even if we are only preaching to the choir.”
The news ended with a cute story of heartwarming comic relief about a cat that was lost by people camping in Ohio that somehow ended up in Florida where its owners lived. The poets, hearts filled with deep unease that could not be assuaged by a cat story, went their separate ways.
–to be continued next month–