Thursday, March 31, 2011

Forty Years Ago Today

For whatever reason, I chose the afternoon of Wednesday, March 31, 1971, to get my allergy shots. I can’t remember whether my every-other-week visits to the university clinic were on Wednesdays or whatever day was convenient. Subsequent events would make me happy to have hay fever, which had flared up again three years earlier and required doctor-administered medication, and chosen that day and time.

The shots were administered using serum and dosages supplied by my allergist in suburban Chicago. One shot in each arm for allergies to ragweed, grasses and pollen. After my last class of the day, I headed to the clinic, gave my name and sat down opposite a most beautiful woman with waist-length red hair. Despite my extreme shyness and overwhelming fear of rejection, I had to say something, especially since I vaguely recognized her as the one who brought a dog into the dining hall where I had worked the previously semester. Since she was chewing gum, I asked her for a piece. She noted we had a mutual friend, a woman in one of my art history courses who lived on her floor.

Brooklyn, 1971
It didn’t take long to ask for a date for the weekend, back when there were “dates” per se. I was confused about her, for although she was from Brooklyn (Flatbush, at that), her German surname, red hair, pug nose, brother at Boston College and mild accent all indicated gentile. Janet turned out to be Jewish, from a kosher home. 

Boston ,1972

Quite simply, we quickly fell madly in love, fueled perhaps in some part by my impending June graduation. Janet would not graduate for another 18 months, and I planned to move to California. My parents were quite surprised how serious the relationship had become when they arrived for the graduation ceremonies. I then did something very rash: I asked her to go to California with me. She convinced her parents with a few white lies, although her brother put in some good words about me. Taking off from Chicago, we made stops in Grand Island, Nebraska; Evergreen, Colorado; and Winnemucca, Nevada; before reaching our Berkeley destination.

Yellowstone, 1971

Home was a large room in Toad Hall, a former fraternity house north of the Cal campus, shared with my friend Steve. I’d spent three weeks there the summer before and knew the area. Steve was working and also traveled home to Los Angeles, which provided more privacy than one would expect. Given the state of the current economy, especially in the Bay Area, I never looked for a job and decided to return to Chicago at the end of the summer. Our journey back took us to Los Angeles, Las Vegas (for about 30 minutes – won’t go into why the hasty departure), Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, the Badlands and Deadwood, South Dakota, during the Harley-Davidson annual ride.

I somehow landed a job at a small publishing company within two weeks of returning home. We kept up our long-distance relationship between Chicago and Boston, and Janet spent the next summer at summer school at Northwestern. I’d drive east from Skokie after work each evening for dinner and recreation before returning home, where I was living to help subsist on my $6,700 annual income. Janet spent the weekends in town, sleeping in the living room. At a summer family gathering, the husband of one of my father’s cousins came right to the point with me. “Are you going to marry the girl?” he asked. After giving my typically short, evasive answer, he quickly followed, “Either ask her to marry you or forget about it and stop wasting her time.” It took me about two seconds to realize that this was excellent advice.

Chicago 1971

I made one of the most verkocteh marriage proposals ever. As part of a long weekend during her final semester, we attended the Bears-Vikings game on a cold, rainy Monday night, October 23, 1972. The Bears, who would win only one more game while finishing 4-9-1, defeated the Vikings, 13-10, when normally reliable Fred Cox shanked a short field goal try on the last play of the game. We almost got separated on the bus back to the Monroe Street parking lot. Somewhere between there and home I asked her to marry me: no ring (my mother said she’d give me her stone after getting a new ring to celebrate her 25th anniversary), no permission from her father and absolutely no down-on-one knee romance or the like. I figured since Janet was leaving for school the next morning and would graduate in less than two months, I’d better ask now. We didn’t tell my parents before she left – don’t know why either – so she wasn’t actually sure we were engaged.

Brooklyn, 1972

Wedding arrangements moved quickly, with the date set for January 20, 1973, in New York City. Her family planned everything but the prenuptial dinner at the Warwick Hotel, which the husband of another of my father’s cousins once owned. My father-in-law found a rabbi to officiate, and the ceremony and dinner were held at Temple Israel on E. 75th Street. Rabbi Martin Zion would later officiate at Janet’s cousin’s wedding and his grandson was a classmate of our nephew at Wharton some 35 years later. The dinner, catered by the finest kosher caterer in New York, featured 20 different hors d’oeuvres, as counted by an appreciative guest. The honeymoon was in Acapulco and Mexico City. We may never have made it there, as Janet forgot her ID and her father had to cab it to the hotel at Kennedy Airport the next morning.

New York City 1973

So here we are, forty years later. Janet is still a beautiful redhead (no longer natural) and I’m mostly gray (and happy most of it is still there). I’ll spare all of the clich├ęs about marriage and admit she has always done more than her half of the bargain to make it work. I don’t know what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone for the allergy shots on that Wednesday. Thank goodness for ragweed, grasses and pollen and being at the right place at the right time.

Chicago, 2010

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Starched White Shirt

My father worked at a downtown CPA firm until I was 14 years old, at which time he became the chief financial officer of an envelope company at Kedzie and Grand. His uniform, so to speak, during the 1950s and early 1960s was a dark suit, straight-collar white shirt and tie. In the days before permanent press, his shirts were sent to the laundry, where they were washed, starched, ironed and folded. They would reside in paper and plastic containers, neatly folded over a piece of cardboard, in his bottom dresser drawer until the chosen day for wearing.

Dad at work
As youngsters, my brother and I used the shirt cardboards for drawing, pasting photos or making charts. They were clearly superior to sheets of paper but had to be used judiciously because of their limited supply. When we ran out, we had permission to invade the bottom drawer and carefully remove the cardboards, making sure the starched white shirts were replaced in orderly fashion. 

My work, on the other hand, didn’t require a suit and tie until ten years into my professional career. Gradually, I went from various colors and styles of no-iron shirts to button-down laundered shirts to almost exclusively straight-collar, heavily starched white shirts. Sure, a blue or striped one would appear every so often but most were pure white, button- or French cuff; pinpoint oxford, broadcloth or, if on sale, Egyptian cotton. I now had ten suits (five winter, five summer) and the requisite number of dress shirts for proper rotation. Gordon at Little Bit Cleaner didn’t have to be told, “Hangers, heavy starch.”

Little Bit Cleaner, N. Clark Street

After some time, I realized that my attraction to these shirts wasn’t just to look professional, especially for clients, some whom were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. As that youngster fetching shirt cardboards from that bottom drawer, I associated the sight, touch and even the scent of a starched white shirt with being an adult, a successful and respected one like my father. It took me almost twenty years to reach the point where I thought of myself as being successful, and subliminally this included wearing a white shirt five days a week. Finally I was an adult and I was going to dress like one!

Three shirts

A manufacturing company on the West Side demanded less formal attire, and my father eventually went back to no-iron shirts in various colors of solids and stripes. Between the change to casual corporate dress and later (and present) self-employment, I almost never wear a suit and tie. My white shirts have been replaced by more stylish ones from Hilditch & Key and Charles Tyrwhitt. I still have a good supply of starched whites, and I’m going to wear one on Tuesday in dad’s honor.  He will be gone 38 years that day.  Sentimental, sure, but why not?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Advice Well Taken

During my days as an editor, I read an unpublished autobiographical manuscript by John Clayton, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and public relations executive during the early and mid-twentieth century. One of his stories has stuck in my mind all of these years, both for its human interest and its punch line, a bit of simple advice people would do well to heed.

Clayton had been a foreign correspondent in Germany, where he reported on the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s attempt to overthrow the government in 1923. He returned to the United States and found the Tribune would not offer him a job in Chicago. Clayton then became a publicist for the Lyric Opera.

Each year, Clayton wrote, the Lyric printed annual programs in several languages, and multiple copies would be left over at the end of the season. One of the extra editions was in Yiddish.  Clayton, being Christian and a relative newcomer to the city, asked his young assistant if he knew of a worthy Jewish organization to send them. The man, an Orthodox Jew, sensed an opportunity to cause trouble. “Why don’t you send them to the Standard Club?” he said, informing Clayton that it was an all-Jewish club. This sounded fine, and he sent the copies to the club.

The Standard Club

Shortly after the programs arrived, Clayton received several angry phone calls, accusing him of insulting the membership. The Standard Club at the time only accepted German Jews, and Yiddish was generally only spoken by Jews of Eastern European decent. Clayton later noted that if any of the members had ever known Yiddish, they had either long since forgotten it or never acknowledged they did. The Lyric was able to get some of its club member subscribers, including Mr. Kuppenheimer, to intercede on its behalf and point out no slight was intended.

After the controversy was cleared up, Clayton sternly admonished his assistant with some excellent advice: “Young man, from now on, conduct your vendettas on your own time.” 

I read this about 35 years ago. I’m going to have to say this to somebody this week.  Simple and to the point, I must say. I hope she listens.