This is the place.

Our house, before and after we got new siding in 2011.

I live on the top floor of a two-flat on a leafy street, just a few doors from Western Avenue, one of Chicago’s main drags. Chicago’s Elevated train runs behind the houses across the street from me, and Western Avenue has an L train stop, so in the summer when our windows are open, we can hear the electronic “bing-bong” of the train as the driver warns riders to get on before the doors close.

Covered in stucco when we bought it thirteen years ago, we switched it to blue clapboards with grey trim eight years ago, after some of the stucco slid off the house. The new color is still sharp, and makes our house standout on the block, I think. We still have the original, grungy front porch though, which provides plenty of space for sitting on both the first and second floors. In summer nights, my wife, Teresa, and I like to sit on the upstairs front porch, feel the breeze and listen to couples talking as they walk beneath us. 

Most of the houses on our block are two or three-flats, occupied by renters. We’re one of the few owner-occupied homes, so my wife and I haven’t gotten to know many of our neighbors. But the Bakers live right next door, and their two kids are about my son, Nicolas’, age, so in warmer months, they play outside or run back and forth between each other’s houses. 

So much of our lives are centered on our neighborhood within a few square blocks. Nicolas’ public school is just two blocks away. Only in fourth grade, he walks to school on his own every day. A nearby park hosts Nicolas’ little league baseball. I swim laps in the fieldhouse there three times a week. Teresa attends a weekly art class a couple blocks away, across the street from a first-run movie theater. Every month I go to a book club with some neighborhood dads in a bar just down the street. And perhaps my favorite feature, I can walk to my neighborhood grocery store, where the owner every year sells me a trussed up pig for my birthday pig roast.

It’s idyllic and hard to believe that we live in a big city with these kinds of amenities. When we were engaged, we talked a lot about where we would settle down and chose the city more for ideological reasons than anything else, I think. We believed the city was where humanity was trying hardest to solve societal problems, and where we would most likely be challenged by people and cultures unlooked for. 

While we get some of that where we live, I more often just find myself ambling from place to place, getting to know the various shopkeepers and characters of the neighborhood. We’ve woven ourselves into the community, by coaching little league, volunteering for our local public school, making local friend groups. 

Truthfully, we stumbled into our situation. Teresa and I started looking for a house to move into almost as soon as we got back from our honeymoon. It was a long and arduous process, since we had a specific price target and a long list of demands: To be in the city, near a rail line, a big park and with a backyard and parking. For months our Saturdays and Sundays were consumed by reviewing listings and visiting homes. I didn’t keep track, but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we walked through forty or fifty homes.

When got to the house we’re in now, it was in sore shape. Many of the windows were broken, it had poor insulation, the garage was collapsing, the house had original electric from the 1920’s and many of the rooms were filthy. But, my wife the architect, after examining everything carefully said, “It has great bones.”

Indeed, “the bones” were good, and the neighborhood was exactly what we were looking for. But I was squeamish because it needed so much work, and if we rented out the bottom floor, we’d have barely over 1,000 square feet of living space. We didn’t have kids then, but it was easy to imagine how the house could fill up quickly.

“This is the place,” our Realtor said, leaning in to me to make his point clear. “You’re not going to find anything better.” After forty houses, he was probably right.

We’ve poured money into our house ever since, and still rent out the bottom floor. We’d love the extra space, but the extra income too hard to give up. Meanwhile our neighborhood’s average income has raced ahead of us as numerous two-flats have been converted to single-family luxury homes. At one point last year, five houses on the block surrounding us were listed for more than $1,000,000. Hard to believe.

The rising prices has changed the kind of neighbors we have. When we moved in, it was a smattering of white professionals in a soup of Latino, Italian, Greek and Serbian families, mostly working class, many retired. 

Before it collapsed, we took down our garage, giving us a clear view of the alley, and people in the alley, a good view of our back yard, where my wife and I are usually found on summer weekends. Frank, an older gentleman with a thick Italian accent and a button-down sweater he’d wear no matter what the weather, would walk up and down the alley on summer afternoons, looking for useful junk people might have thrown away. He lived down and across the alley from us, and after talking with him a bit, we learned that he owned four different houses on the block, acquired through probate court over the years. 

Frank was paleolithic in his attitude. He’d stop and talk about all kinds of ancient things in the neighborhood, and how women should behave. Once, he was walking past us as Teresa and I were working in the yard. Teresa was trying to get my attention as I was working intently on something, so I said something like, “Can you hold on, Sweetheart? I’m trying to do this.” 

Frank, hearing this, immediately chimed in, “That’s the ladies!” Then, moving his hand like it was talking, “Yappita-yappita-yappita!”

Looking up, I said, “Yep! That’s it, Frank!” then looked pleadingly at my wife. She made a gagging motion, I think.

The old ones have moved on or died. Frank’s junk-stuffed garage no longer houses an illicit wine-making operation, since a nephew or somebody related came by to clean it out one weekend. We haven’t seen Frank in years. He’s probably passed on.

I haven’t really gotten to know many of the new neighbors. Most of them either don’t have kids, or their kids are a different age from mine. It’s lazy, I know, but kids are the major way I’ve gotten to know most people in my neighborhood. They’re a natural social lubricant, since kids are able to just walk up to another kid and start playing.

The area around my house is full of this kind of kid stuff. Halloween is gangbusters for trick or treaters, kids hang out at the elementary school park nearby, and going to the little league games us adults horn in by hanging out with all kinds of neighbors. Bring a bottle of wine, some chips and a blanket to the game. You’ll have plenty of people to hang out with.

I suppose none of this is remarkable, you may have a very similar kind of story about where you live. But for me, it is a kind of warmth and inclusion I never anticipated when I was a young man trying to imagine my middle-age years. Growing up in fast-gentrifying Lincoln Park with my mom, or crime-ridden Hyde Park with my dad, neither I, nor my parents felt the kinds a connection to their communities we experience today.

As strongly bound to the neighborhood I feel today, I wonder how tenuous it is in the long run. Will we feel this way once my son moves out for college? What about if my grocer retires? My dry cleaner? What if a new crop of rich idiots moves in?

I feel like I’m in the middle of a good ride right now, and I don’t know how long it’ll last. Maybe a couple years, maybe forever. Let’s hope for the latter.

‘I wasn’t really an activist – I just learned a lot.’

Embed from Getty Images


Far, far in the back, there’s Lou Fourcher.

Last month my father, Lou Fourcher, passed away after a fourteen-year struggle with Alzheimer’s. Since then, our family has been going through old papers and photos, rekindling our memories of him. Last week, my aunt, Charlene, found a printed copy of this old email exchange between my father and his niece, my cousin, Abby, who was working on a high school report on the Civil Rights Movement in 2001. 

From a small New England town and the first in his family to go to college in 1961, my dad was quickly swept up by the civil rights movement. Although he was far from important, he was one of thousands who participated. Dad response to Abby’s questions remind me of ha many war veterans talk about their war experience – I was just one of many, it was no big deal compared to others. And yet, there he was, doing his part.

Dad was incredibly modest, throughout his entire life. It is as remarkable to read how much he downplayed his role, as it is to understand how far he pushed himself to live in the shoes of others. 

Abby, although she was just sixteen or so, asked some really good questions. I’ve made a couple grammatical fixes, but most of what’s here is how he wrote, eighteen years ago, about his experience.

Subj:    Civil Rights Movement Interview

Date:   1/14/2001 11:55:53 PM EST

From: Fishy333

To:       LAFOURCHER

Hi Uncle Lou,

How are you? I’m pretty well. Anyway, thank you for agreeing to do this. My assignment is to interview someone who lived through an important event in U.S. history, such as the Civil Rights Movement. Mom told me that you were involved with the Civil Rights Movement, so I figured that you would be an excellent person to interview. I will list my questions below and you may answer them whenever you have time. Feel free to omit any questions that you don’t know or don’t want to answer, but for those that you do answer, please write as much as youcan.

Thank you,

Abby

1. What made you decide to become active in the Civil Rights Movement? Was there something that happened or someone that influenced you in particular?

I don’t think I was ever an “activist” in the Civil Rights Movement. However, there were some early experiences that probably helped me to be tolerant and curious about people who were not “white .” My parents, despite the old prejudices of their pasts, were certainly accepting of the very few black playmates I had. Then there was Jerry, an older Jewish kid on our block (he was probably 16 at the time); I remember hearing him telling a couple of us – with anger and tears – how local business people wouldn’t hire him for summer work because he was Jewish. That affected me. Sometime in 1960-61, when I was in high school, there was young African-American man (Rev. Woody White) who had come to our church in New Bedford to be the “Assistant Minister.” He was studying theology in Boston and would come down on weekends. I guess he was the “youth” minister. He won over the group of teens at church pretty well. But one day he said that he and a fellow student were going to picket (or sit-in if possible) at the local Woolworth’s in New Bedford – todemonstrate solidarity with the people who were sitting in stores and lunch counters across the South. He invited all of us in the youth group to join him the following Saturday. I really wanted tojoinhim but I had to ask my parents.Of course, they had heard the news reports from theSouth; they were scared, they thought it might be dangerous, and there were those old prejudices.We argued – I argued – a lot;it was probably the worst disagreement we had had. It changed me. But I was a church-going “good” kid and I obeyed my parents. As it turned out none of the other kids wenteither.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for my non-participation in the Woolworth’s demonstration, I began to think about organizing – again through the church (and with Woody’s support) – a kind of conference on civil rights and racial tolerance. joined with another teenager, David (from another church), and an old and wise minister and leader of the local “interfaith council.” Together we managed to get several hundred teen-agers – Protestants, Catholics and Jews in an auditorium to listen to mostly adults talk about race. It was a pretty good event – lots of good talk.

Perhaps as a way of compensating for my non-participation in the Woolworth’s demonstration, I began to think about organizing – again through the church (and with Woody’s support) – a kind of conference on civil rights and racial tolerance. joined with another teenager, David (from another church), and an old and wise minister and leader of the local “interfaith council.” Together we managed to get several hundred teen-agers – Protestants, Catholics and Jews in an auditorium to listen to mostly adults talk about race. It was a pretty good event – lots of good talk.

2. (I switched this question to keep the chronology straight.) Mom also mentioned that you participated in the March on Washington. When did this occur? What was it like? Who did you go with? What did you hope to accomplish by participating in it? Do you think that you did accomplish your hopes? How does it feel to have participated in such a significant event of U.S. history? Did you hear Martin Luther King’s speech? What was listening to his voice like? Did it influence you? How?

At the end of my sophomore year in college (Bowdoin), I was looking for something “different” to do that summer (1963). I volunteered for a job working with “inner city kids” in New Haven, CT, under the auspices of a big old Episcopal Church. I was not a great “youth worker” but I learned a lot. Much of my time was spent with Black kids living in the local public housing – not far from Yale. There were gang fights that I would hear about the next day; there was lots of tension between Blacks and Italians – the old Italian neighborhood was shrinking… The church had a basketball team that was quite famous – they had won something like their last 40 games. Their coach was this very earthy Italian guy who gained the respect of these young black guys most of whom lived in the “projects.” But for some reason, when I arrived he decided to quit. It became my job to take over the team though I knew nothing about coaching basketball. I was not popular with the team. Nevertheless, a game was scheduled with a very tough team on the lower East Side of New York . I drove someone’s Volkswagen bus and the assistant pastor at the church drove the remainder of the team as we tried to find our way to a blacktopped basketball court somewhere on the East Side. We did; I tried to be coach-like, but the older guys on the team knew better what to do; so I mostly cheered them on. The team lost its first game in years… [The New York team came up to New Haven several months later…and we won.] At the end of the summer, the head pastor (Priest?), who was very active in civil rights, asked me to join a large New Haven group who were going to “March On Washington.” We went by train – it was dubbed the “Freedom Train.” On it were hundreds of people, just a few of whom I had met in passing during the summer. In our car was William Sloan Coffin, a pretty famous minister-activist who was the Chaplain at Yale. It was my first trip to D.C. It was very hot; and there were lots of people; and it was very exciting. I ended up with some of the people from New Haven that I had met, but we were a long, long way from the Lincoln Memorial (which is where I think the speeches were made (but maybe it was the Capital steps…). I do remember being moved by King’s speech (over loudspeakers in the trees of the Washington Monument park). There was certainly a sense of history being made that day, but I was probably more overwhelmed with the size and momentousness of the event than I wasinspired.

I had arranged that on the train back to New Haven I would get off in Penn Station in New York City to go to a conference on Religion and the Arts at Columbia (arranged for me again by the Pastor in New Haven). I mention this because at the conference there were two Black students at Morehouse College in Atlanta who had met some Bowdoin students who had visited for a couple of weeks. They talked about setting up a real exchange of students between the two colleges. This interestedme.

3. Mom mentioned that you attended Morehouse College, an all-Black school, for one semester as an exchange student. Where is Morehouse College located? What year did you attend this school? How was this school different from all-White schools? Which school did you like better? How did the other Morehouse students treat you? What was it like when you returned from Morehouse to your regular school? Were you ridiculed by anyone when they learned you were going to spend a semester at Morehouse? How did your experience at Morehouse influence you?

In the Fall of 1963 there was a whole process of applying to be an exchange student at Morehouse (not very many people applied…). I was very pleased to be accepted (and my parents were supportive). Unlike Bowdoin, Morehouse was on a Quarter system; so I got to be a student there for two ten week terms from January to June of 1964. Morehouse was, like Bowdoin at the time, an all men’s liberal arts school attended largely by middle class students. Unlike Bowdoin it was surrounded by several inter-related schools – including the women’s school, Spellman College. The facilities were not as good as Bowdoin’s; there was less money. But there were some very good teachers. One especially, Mr. Campbell (who taught Shakespeare and took groups of us to movies that we later critiqued) had a great effect on me. The place, in many ways, was in the center of civil rights activities. M.L King, Jr. preached at his father’s church which was a walking distance from the school. King senior was on the Board of the School. Its President at the time was Benjamin E. Mays). I did get to hear King preach a couple of times; I met a young activist (perhaps 2 or 3 years past his graduation from Morehouse), John Lewis, who has been a Congressman from Atlanta for quite a few years. He was famous for being in the think of many sit-ins, demonstrations, etc. Julian Bond. another Morehouse graduate who later became mayor of Atlanta, spoke to us a couple of times. But most impressive were the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) people who we met and learned from as we joined them on several demonstrations in Downtown Atlanta. Like John Lewis they were the real activists – in Atlanta and across the south. Imagine these very preppy looking white guys from New England, standing on a sidewalk in downtown Atlanta getting taught to hold tight to your fellow demonstrators’ hands in order to avoid the powerful shock of the cattle prods used by restaurant and store owners (and police I think) to discourage sit-in demonstrators. I never got shocked – we usually left the restaurant when the police were called.

Atlanta was going through incredible change. There were integrated restaurants popping up all over, but there were still plenty of segregated places. There was this one segregated restaurant, a very famous place in one of Atlanta’s neighborhoods. It was run by Lester Maddox who was famous for having a weekly “advertisement” in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper that really was a vehicle for him to comment (negatively) on the civil rights movement, promote segregationist ideas, and generally comment on politics. Early one weekend morning several of us, both Bowdoin and Morehouse students, had been told that there was going to be an attempt to demonstrate at many restaurants simultaneously at once around the city that very day. Actually, our information was bogus, there were no other demonstrations. Nevertheless, about eight of us decided that we would go to Lester Maddox’s famous fried chicken restaurant. We went in two cars – the drivers (wisely, it turned out) stayed in the cars; the rest of us went to the main door – but got no further. There was immediately lots of yelling and threats. Mr. Maddox was giving orders. The black help at the restaurant seemed to be pretty well versed in what to do with demonstrators – out came these wooden axe handles – yes, axe handles (big axe handles). We stupidly kept standing there saying we wanted to eat… Then there was this old maid on a balcony across the street yelling out something like “Go get ’em Lester, get those “nigger lovers.” By then we were already backing off and yelling to the drivers of the cars – the restaurant guys were bringing out a big fire hose and one (at least) picked up a brick (and threw it and more) as we retreated to the cars – flying around the parking lot with doors open and us trying to get away…One thing we learned that day – civil disobedience is a serious thing – not a game. I think it was in the early 70’s that Lester Maddox became governor of Georgia.

I never really was able to express what I felt during those times. Later I kind of expressed it with my actions. Otherwise, I’ve pretty been inarticulate about the feelings that I must have had, and the things I saw in Atlanta, the transportation system was pretty much officially integrated, but most white people still sat in the front of the bus. On my first bus ride there I went to the back of the bus – no big deal for the black people sitting there, but I felt like I crossed over some very strange boundary). Well there’s a memory I haven’t had since then!

4. Did you participate in any sit-ins? Where? When? Were you afraid that you might be arrested? Did you know anyone who was arrested? Were you afraid you might be hurt? Can you tell me anything else about thesit-ins?

I sort of answered this above, but… yes, I was pretty much afraid at each demonstration (though I never thought my life was in danger (accept maybe at Lester Maddox’s place). I participated probably in five demonstrations while there. Though I must admit I was pretty self-conscious at this very nice downtown “integrated” restaurant – whenever a mixed group of us would enter it, the place would go silent for a fewminutes…

5. What other kinds of protests did you participate in? How did you feel when you protested? Scared? Nervous? Powerful? Benevolent?

I participated, but, again, I wasn’t really an activist – I just learned a lot.

6. Does your experience during the Civil Rights Movement still affect you today? Do things that happen around the world today remind you that time? How does it make youfeel?

Yes, it has affected me and how I think. I was the clinical director of a mental health center in Skokie, Illinois which has a very much white population about 35% of which is Jewish. Our staff make-up reflected the population (though not our clientele). I felt good about hiring the first black person to thestaff.

Later I was the Executive Director of a Community Health Center [Ed. Note: Erie Family Health Center] (several sites) in a largely Hispanic community – actually there were several communities – some largely of Mexican descent; then there was a large Puerto Rican population as well as many different nationalities from Central America.I felt very good about working well with various community groups, opened our facilities up for community meetings, etc. Because we were concerned about AIDS in these populations, we joined with a new community organization to form a the “Hispanic AIDS Network” which did HIV education and preventive work on the streets (especially with drug addicts). I was proud to be the Treasurer of thatorganization.

Then there were clashes between Hispanic and black gangs on the West Side – they would have battles in Humboldt Park – the blacks came from the south of the park and Hispanics from the north. Our clinic site – the “Humboldt Park Health Center” – was on the north end of the park and it was dominated by Hispanic patients and Hispanic staff. Black mothers were afraid to bring their kids to the clinic because they would have to cross a (symbolic) boundary. I got some of our staff to start planning a new “satellite” clinic in south Humboldt Park. We hired black staff, and finally got space in a school. It still functions.

7. Do you think that the U.S. has pretty much dissolved racial discrimination since the Civil Rights Movement? If no, where do you most often see racial discrimination? What do you think can be done to eliminate racial discrimination?

I think there is still plenty of discrimination. But the worst of it is experienced by poor people. Middle class people are discriminated against (there are still plenty of scared, ignorant people who will respond to people they know little about with stereotypes and anger). But black people (and to a great extent Hispanics) in cities deal with a state of poverty that has evolved over many years in which for example, many jobs were lost because of the closing down of large unionized industrial companies (i.e., good paying blue collar jobs) and economically integrated neighborhoods were destroyed because of the process of integration which brought middle-class blacks out of the poor neighborhoods – leaving them all the poorer. This is the case in Chicago and several of the old “rust belt” cities. So, in some neighborhoods there are huge numbers of young (teen­ age) single mothers, kids still in gangs, many young men in jail for drug offenses, crummy schools, and some neighborhood that are so poor that the local McDonald’s can’t survive. I worked as director of another community health center in such a poor community [Ed. Note: New City Health Center, in Englewood] – it wasn’t really a community – it was a place where I might see (out of my second story office window) a young boy on a bike at noon time, stop for a moment, take aim with a large pistol, fire it at some other kid down the street and then disappear down an alley…

8. Is there anything that you wish you had or hadn’t done during that time? What would you have done differently?

I wish I had paid attention more. Much, much more happened in New Haven or Atlanta – or even on the west side of Chicago – when I was around, but I was often paying attention to the small stuff – what movie to go to, watching the 10- o’clock news, etc…l didn’t really understand that the news was happening around me.

9. How did the Civil Rights Movement affect you overall? Who or what was the most influential part of the Civil Rights Movement in your opinion? Why?

Perhaps it was my age (around 13), but Jerry’s tears and anger at not being hired for a summer job because he was Jewish has stuck with me as much as any events since. The “Movement” for me was some of the people I met and respected. I think it led me to choosing the various community health care jobs that I’ve had over the years in Chicago.

10. Please write anything that you can think of pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement that I have leftout.

You asked some good questions. I think l’ve waxed a little biographical, but I hope some of the historical stuff is useful.

Well, that’s it! Sorry for any misspelled words or unclear questions. I appreciate you taking the time to write as much as you can. Thank you once again.

Thanks for asking. It was fun!

[Final Note: Incidentally, my mother, Barbara Ireland, and her father Paul, were at the March too, but Barbara and Lou were not to meet for another two years.]

Finding The Mindset For Major Personal Change

Sometimes an RV is bigger than a house. Rob and Susanna’s RV before they left Denver for good.

I’ve become fascinated with people who actually make major life changes after 40. It’s expected that in our twenties and thirties that we might move to a new city, start a new career, or commit to a life-long relationship. But people who manage to make those kinds of changes later in life seem braver than the rest of us.

As we get older, and collect the life baggage we call kids, mortgages and careers, it becomes harder to consider big changes, let alone actually make them. Stability becomes a kind of shield against the world’s ills, encouraging us to do whatever we can to make sure things stay the same.

So, recently I interviewed three friends who’ve made major life changes to learn why and how they did them. Rob, who convinced his wife to sell their suburban Denver home and trade it in for an RV and a year of driving around the United States. Sandra, who created a plan five years ago to retire early, and recently left her lucrative civil engineering job in Chicago to retire at age 50. And Ruth, who, despite a passel of kids in Western Massachusetts and friends around the world she loves, decided to stop using Facebook.

Rob, Sandra and Ruth each made changes I’m not sure I could undergo. But each person says they feel secure and happy with their choice and can’t imagine doing anything different.

Until last month Rob and his wife Susanna lived in a 4,000 square foot house outside Denver, with a view of the mountains. Rob was an urban planner in Thornton, Colorado, while Susanna managed a federal grant program. They lived in a friendly community, and their five-year old son, Rafe, was happy.

But something just didn’t seem right for either Rob or Susanna. “We started thinking from a materialism point of view. Why do we need all this stuff?” said Rob.

Filling a big house with possessions, climbing the career ladder, and living far away from family (Rob’s parents live in far-upstate New York, while Susanna’s live in New Mexico) was just not fulfilling. Sitting outside with a friend one day, Rob realized, he wanted to leave Denver. And then talking about it later with Susanna, Rob suggested selling everything and moving into an RV for a year. 

Susanna was not against the idea. Her job was coming to a close in early 2019. Maybe this was an opportunity, they realized. “I think we were done with Denver after 25-plus years,” said Rob. “It took from the end of June to August 1 for us to commit to the idea.” 

Since the Denver housing market is booming, Rob and Susanna sold their house at a big profit, allowing them to buy the RV and keep their retirement savings safe. They sold or donated most of their household items (“One place had to close for two days to process everything we gave them,” said Rob. “We had enough stuff to create six starter kitchens for refugee families coming to Colorado.) and put the rest into a 10×15-foot storage unit.

“I had 45 button-down shirts. Thirty-eight hats. Why do I have all that stuff? I believe I still have half of them, because I haven’t been able to get through them. I must have had 20-plus jerseys. It’s ridiculous. You collect,” said Rob.

At the start of December, they moved into their 28-foot Winnebago RV, and drove to Albuquerque, to stay with Susanna’s parents for a while. Later they’ll drive across Texas to Florida, then up along the Atlantic Coast, stopping to visit friends along the way. By fall they want to end up in Cairo, New York, to visit Rob’s parents, who owned a dairy farm there.

“We are focused on our son’s life now. Time on organic farms, digging in the dirt. I want him to ride his bike. Dial down the electronics and working on becoming respectful, with more face-to-face time and learning how to do things,” said Rob.

They made plans for a year, since Rafe would normally start first grade next year, but Rob and Susanna are maybe up for homeschooling. 

“I am a fan of unschooling,” said Rob. “I would be stepping further into experiential learning. I feel between Susanna and I, Rafe can get what he needs without the benefit of public education. What would be underserved would be socialization. We might enroll him in classes just to spend time with other kids.”

“There is no set end time on this adventure,” said Rob. “There will be a significant amount of time at the Larsen homestead. And then we’ll go to Canada, and then to Alaska, because Rafe has been talking about Alaska.”

Ruth has two boys, aged 15 and 10, and one girl, 13. A part-time English as a Second Language teacher today, Ruth served in the Peace Corps in Albania and Romania right after college, and ever since I’ve known her those in college years, she’s managed to keep a broad collection of friends from every corner of the world. 

But then last month she decided to stop using Facebook and delete her account. Her reasons why are excellent, so let me just transcribe what she said to me on the phone recently.

“They [Facebook] have the winning formula for keeping you as a customer. It’s not a normal service they’re offering. They’re selling you your own life; your emotions. You’re so invested emotionally: your pictures, recipes. Your life: it’s all there. Without it, you’re potentially throwing away anything you might see again. ‘I might not be able to find that friend again.’ They have people as captives, because people can’t break away.

“But I decided to reject it anyway. I don’t like feeling trapped. In the end, I was feeling exhausted. It’s a series of pictures and it elicits emotions. You feel all these different things: nostalgia, remorse. But it’s all in your head. There’s not an actual interaction because your emotions have been played. You end up feeling exhausted. 

“Then, the people you’re actually with: your family. [The time you spend on Facebook is] at the expense of the people around you. You could instead take a shower, go outside, meditate, cook. It’s not relaxing. It just makes you more tired.

“What will happen if I don’t do it? What will the cost be to me?

“You feel like you have to keep giving and giving. In the end its all fake. Your friend on Facebook feel like they’ve seen you, they know you, but it’s not really there.”

But, Ruth admits she has a few advantages: Her husband doesn’t use Facebook, and all of hers and her husband’s family live within a short drive of her house. Her oldest daughter uses Instagram, but none of the kids are Facebook users. 

When I checked in with her, she said feels pretty good about being without Facebook or social media. 

“I feel better, because I don’t have nagging in the back of my mind to look at it. It’s one less thing on my to do list. I’m not drawn to my phone.”

She’s noticing the lack of interaction, though. “I miss the Mike Fourchers in my life. I like seeing what people are doing, but I’m ok with not having seen it. If I could check in again in five years, that would be good. You could call me or let me know if you’re going to be nearby.”

For Sandra, the decision to retire at 50 was about gaining time for her many hobbies. Originally a theater major, Sandra graduated college and started working in small storefront theaters, eventually helping to run Stage Left Theater, a well-respected non-equity theater in Chicago. But she was always working a waitstaff job on the side to make ends meet, so by the time she was thirty, she’d figured out math and gone to graduate school to earn an engineering degree at University of Illinois-Chicago. 

“My starting salary [out of school], was almost double what I’d ever made my entire life. I was hired out of school by Parsons Brinkerhoff and I haven’t worked anywhere else since then.”

Work was always satisfactory, Sanda says, but it was never really the core of her life. One of her hobbies, political activism, is how I met her over ten years ago. She is also an avid dancer, loves to read, and has a habit of walking all over Chicago, long distances.

“I’m not that into [work]. It was just a day job to me,” Sandra said.

Never extravagant, Sandra lives in a one-bedroom condo that she paid off years ago. She’s not married, doesn’t have kids, and managed to pay her student loans off quickly.

“I have a lifestyle where I don’t care about fancy stuff. I worked at a place where I was paid well and got lots of money. I basically decided I didn’t want stuff,” so she spent a lot of time saving, rather than spending.

Five years ago, Sandra decided that what she really wanted was more time for her hobbies and friends. So, like the engineer she is, she made a plan to retire at 50.

“All I had to do was get to 59 and a half when I could get into my 401K.”

Quietly, Sandra enacted her plan. The reality of it arrived about a year ago.

“Last December, I was talking to my boss. I’d been there 15 years, and he was talking about 2018 and all the projects coming up. I felt bad for him. And then I told him I would be retiring in 2018.”

Sandra’s firm specializes highway construction, and Sandra specialized in roadway hydrology. She was basically the person who figured out if the planned road would be able to drain water, rather than make pools you’d skid across and kill yourself from.

“When I told Dave, my boss, I was afraid of his reaction, but he said, ‘That sounds great, I wish I could do that too.’ But he makes a ton of money, much more than me. I‘m sure he could retire now if he wanted.”

Sandra’s firm needed her, because there really aren’t too many people that can do what she does. A one-year notice seemed about right.

“I gave them a long lead time. But even then, the last month was crazy before I left.”

Right after quitting work, Sandra had some elective surgery to take care of a cartilage problem in her knee. Now she’s using her convalescence to think about what to do with all of her time – for the rest of her life.

She thinks of becoming a personal financial coach. Or maybe taking a part-time job in a coffee shop just to have structure and a guarantee that she’ll talk to people on a regular basis. She has dance classes, and for summer, she’s planning walking dates with friends along Lake Michigan. 

More than anything, what strikes me about Rob, Ruth and Sandra is how clear minded they all seem about their choices. None of them expressed any hesitation now they’re committed to their choice, and all of them described their decision-making process as matter-of-fact. Almost to the point where they couldn’t imagine doing anything different. In retrospect, their decisions seemed obvious.

But their choices are certainly their own. When I told each one about the others, they were all impressed by one another. (“That would be psychologically harder than what we’re doing,” Rob said about Ruth leaving Facebook. “I haven’t totally committed to that kind of disconnect yet.”) 

So, it seems to me that while each person has circumstances that made their choice easier than it might be for others, those circumstances are no accident. There’s a kind of psychological positioning each person seemed to begin for themselves, long before they sold their house, left Facebook or took early retirement.

Perhaps, it’s not the decision, or taking the big leap that’s the hard part. It’s creating a mindset to make those decisions in the first place. 

The Great And Good Things Dad Did For Me

A movie I made 18 years ago, of a day Dad and I spent in New York City. Here he is at his best.

Lou Fourcher was far from perfect, no man could ever be. But as his only child, I was showered with love, encouragement and wisdom like no other. Of course, he and I had our fights, but they were usually because of my own impatience, rather than something he did.

“He was a man completely without guile or ego,” remembers his long-time friend Steve Wheatley, words that described him perfectly as a father. 

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. It was a sorrowful split, but friendly. Dad moved a short distance away, within walking distance in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. He gave me as much of himself as he could, with two overnights a week in his series of tiny studio and one bedroom apartments. I didn’t notice their shortcomings, because we played and played together with Legos, trips to the park and my favorite, a make-believe game called “Emergency” where I’d climb in his lap, and he’d make helicopter noises as I pretended to pilot him to find a person in need of rescue.

Those years when he was single and mostly poor, bound us together as tight as you can imagine. A cerebral man who just couldn’t figure out how to make money, the 1970’s were slim for him. A big weekend outing for us would be to go to a Sunday morning matinee, which were extra cheap, and maybe to the Museum of Science and Industry for the one hundredth time, which was still free back then.

My grandfather, Charles, with me and my dad, as we waited in Logan Airport for a plane to take us home to Chicago. Probably taken by my dad.

One extra slim Christmas when I was six, Dad told me he could barely afford presents, and definitely not a tree. So, in a stroke of genius, he suggested we cut out our own ornaments from magazine ads, and hang them from his rubber plant with paper clips. Topped off with a short strand of blinking multi-colored lights, I was tremendously proud of the tree my dad and I had made together. Years later, in wealthier times, we’d recall the “ornaments” with gales of laughter. We had us, and I loved it.

Later, when I was eight, dad remarried, choosing a wonderful woman, Penny. She was warm and caring, with two older children of her own from a previous marriage. Dad and Penny also eventually split, sorrowfully but amicably, but for years Dad and Penny loved all us step-children, and their home became a refuge during my bumpy teenage career.

Through the years, Dad, a natural athlete and one-time captain of his high school football team, gently encouraged me to get outside and play sports. A bookish kid, I resisted fiercely, but he persisted. In my pre-teens, he pulled me outside for long walks to the park with a baseball and gloves he kept to play catch. Then, one Sunday afternoon we stumbled on a pickup softball game. He pushed me to join, first volunteering himself to play. I had never played any organized sports, but that game, and the following Sunday pick-up games in that field with my dad and neighborhood kids, converted me into a baseball lover. 

Middle school and high school were difficult for me. Enrolled in an elite private school, and constantly told I was a smart kid, I still struggled in class and often erupted in fits of rage. The elite school setting didn’t fit me well, as I was acutely aware of the income disparity between me and much wealthier classmates. 

My father, and his home with Penny, was where I retreated every weekend, to prepare for the week to come. More than anything, he gave me empathy, as I’d yell, rage, cry or just sulk through my twice-a-week visits to his house. It was a relief from the pressure cooker I believed teenage-hood to be. When the weather was warm, we’d walk around Hyde Park, bouncing a ball between us on the sidewalk. I’d talk about whatever, or not, and he’d just be there. 

We usually ended up in the many bookstores of Hyde Park, and I’d struggle to stay entertained, as dad plunged into the philosophy, sociology or anthropology sections stocked for brainy University of Chicago students and graduates like him. 

“Ooh, I got some good ones,” he’d say, and I’d glance at the long, meaningless titles, wondering how he stayed awake when reading them.

His bookcase was magnificent. Self-built, it was far from artful. It was just really, really big. Hundreds of books, all of which plumbed the mind, the psychology of inter-personal relations, or just something super deep and full of academic gobbledygook. He read them all, filled them with underlines and notes in the margins. 

The bookcase was in the same room I slept in at his house, so as I drifted asleep, I’d admire it wondering if I could ever be so well read. 

Noticing my interest, Dad gave me books of my own. They were often hard, always challenging. Biographies of people he thought I should know and admire. Edward R. Murrow, Saul Alinsky, George Orwell, Phil Burton, Robert Moses. The lives in those books set my mind on fire. They enabled me to dream big, and set my own course for working in Congress, starting my own news publication and believing that I could change the world for the better, just like my dad.

If you knew him, you understood that Dad believed that fighting for social justice was the highest calling a person could answer. The first in his family to go to college, he found himself pulled to the civil rights movement almost immediately after leaving his small New England town. Once, as part of a group of white students who attended the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta for a semester in 1962, and then joining Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington the next year. 

As a graduate student, he was part of one of the first community health centers, the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Valley Project, in 1971. That brief stint led to a stunning set of photographs he took of people living in one of Chicago’s poorest ghettos, and then a life-long passion for community health care. 

Although he was a practicing psychologist, Dad’s real career became managing community health centers across Chicago, most in neighborhoods devoid of investment and ignored by white society. He pulled me along to his jobs, pressing me to volunteer, where I inflicted patients with my high school Spanish, and learned about a world my elite private school barely acknowledged.

Dad, some time in the early 1990’s, on the back stoop of his sister Charlene’s house. Credit: Richard Carle.

He was selfless in his commitment to work. There were plenty of people that needed much more than he could give, and they were ignored by society, he’d say. If he could make a difference, he would try to do his best.

His passion for fixing society’s ills never included personal glorification or accolades. He was embarrassed to be recognized for his work, and when we was, by me or others, it was uniformly met with, “Well, thank you. That’s enough, now.”

It’s a tricky thing to achieve: a drive for good works without personal ambition. It’s a standard that has eluded me throughout my own work, but one I constantly reference. Dad’s love of people, and his need to make the world better is a thread that runs through almost all of my career decisions.

Dad struggled with the ravages of Alzheimer’s for a long time. The first external signs of it came almost fourteen years ago, he was diagnosed twelve years ago, and lived in a care facility over eight years. When he was able, he and I talked about his fears, and mine, constantly. I loved being his friend and confidante, it was an easy way to repay him for all the great and good things he’d done for me over the years. 

Like an acid test for personalities, they say that Alzheimer’s strips away the edifices, your barriers, as it progresses. For Dad, that meant he just became calmer, and more giving as the disease took away his memory. The nursing home staff told me Dad would minister to other patients, holding their hands, sitting with the anxious. Befriending the lonely. “We all love him so much,” each of his nurses said to me in turn.

In a strange quirk, the nurse who admitted him eight years ago, was the one who ministered to his final hours, and pronounced him dead. “He was a great man,” she said to me as I left his room the last time last Sunday night.

Dad loved jazz, played it constantly, and dragged me to Chicago Jazz Fest and Blues Fest performances. He knew the names of obscure drummers and bassists and would regale me of times he’d seen them at the old Jazz Showcase club years ago. 

But anyone that knew Dad well, knew him for his piano playing. Eschewing sheet music, he’d play his own songs, a unique one every time, because he claimed, he couldn’t remember anything he’d played before. But wherever he lived, most weekend afternoons, you’d find him at his stand-up piano, starting with a boogie-woogie, then a tune that transformed into a sweeping rhapsody with a repeating leit motif. 

His piano playing could come at any time: Waiting for people to put on jackets, venting rage from a terrible Bears game, digesting dinner. The songs were an expression of his emotion and state of being; a way to talk to anyone who could hear.

Like a fingerprint, his music was unique and indescribable. But if you heard it a few times, you’d recognize four or five themes that repeated themselves. Never sad, they always ended up ranging and expansive, drawing you to imagine a vast world of many wonders. After he played for a while, he’d be relaxed, happier, ready for whatever was to come.

There is so much more I would like to tell you about Lou Fourcher. The sound of his walk down the hall, his love of sly humor and his guffaw-like laughter, his love affair with Lake Michigan and bodies of water in general, the natural way he took to a picnic blanket in a patch of grass, like it was the best place in the world, no matter where it might be. His radiant intelligence that was somehow never cutting, but instead managed to fold you in.

I have anticipated writing this memorial essay for years. And to finish it, I feel like I am letting go of him just that much more. Feeling the beauty and love that was my father, slip away from me. 

It is so hard to stop writing.

Sitting at his piano bench, playing that piano with the funky A key he could never get fixed, is how I’ll remember Dad forever. I am so grateful he was my father.

If you read this in time, and remember him, please join us at his open memorial service, Sunday, January 27 at 2:30 p.m., at The First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave. Dad was also a huge fan of Ruth Rothstein, with whom he worked to help make Erie Family Health Center one of first health centers to apply Medicaid funding to treating AIDS patients. So, in lieu of flowers, please consider making a contribution to The CORE Foundation, 312-572-4549, 2020 W. Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60624, which benefits the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, a clinic that focuses on the prevention, care and research of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

We’re All Part of The Team

I was part of a team today.

This afternoon I went for my regular swim at the local park district pool. Loaded down with Thanksgiving food, it was harder than usual. Making my usual number of laps was hard in a pool crowded with more than the usual number of swimmers.

I made a turn after completing a lap, heading back behind a woman I’d never seen before in the pool. She was fast, and wearing a streamlined suit, the mark of an expert swimmer.

But as I came up on the halfway point of the lane, I saw her floating underwater, on her back with her arms extended ahead of her, reaching towards the deep end. It was strange, and I thought maybe it was some expert trance I’d never seen before.

I swam over her, saw that she was motionless. I reached for her arm and pulled it. She didn’t move so I pulled her up, and pushed her body into the air, holding her from behind. She gasped for air, and suddenly, almost every swimmer in the pool headed for us. Two lifeguards yelled, diving into the pool. One was next to me in seconds, maneuvering her into an expert carry. Another lifeguard at the shallow end set up a board, and two lifeguards in the pool carried her out.

“Everyone out of the pool, please!” yelled one lifeguard. “Please go to the locker rooms!”

Another was on the phone, calling 911. “Is she conscious?”

“Yes!” shouted back another.

We lap swimmers streamed to the edge, as a group gathered around the half-drowned woman.

“What happened?” a man who just finished a lap asked me.

Now I had to think. What had happened? “I think she had a seizure. She wasn’t moving under the water, so I pulled her up,” I said.

“Ah,” said the man.

“Move to the locker rooms, please,” reminded a lifeguard. Three other lifeguards surrounded the woman, who seemed to be coughing, breathing. I couldn’t see her.

Picked up my towel, walked to the locker room in shock. Showered. Changed. Other men talked about the incident briefly, then circled around a scale weighing themselves, discussing weight loss.

I was shaken. Walked around to the pool door to the street. An ambulance had arrived, the woman was now on a gurney. Paramedics wheeled her out. Eyes open, awake, looking pale. Staring into space as she wheeled past me.

I stood there. Wondering what to do.

“Can I help you?” one of the lifeguards asked.

“I pulled her up.”

“Oh yeah? Hold on,” he grabbed a clipboard with a sheet titled, Incident Report.

“Put your name and contact information here. They probably won’t call you, but you know.”

I filled it out. He took the clipboard. Closed the door.

So, I walked home and thought: Today, I was part of a team. I saw someone in need and helped her. Then passed her to another person who helped, who passed her to someone else who helped.

That’s what we do. We help when we can, and we make a team.

I hope she comes back to the pool soon. I’d like to learn her name.

I Hate Swimming, But I’ll Never Stop

The Welles Park pool in Chicago where I swim. In the summer, the walls slide aside to the open air. On winter mornings, sunlight streams in.

I hate swimming. The act itself is unnatural. Humans are just not built to spend long periods of time submerged in water, holding their breath. Think about the position a person takes in the water: Stretched out, windmilling arms, wiggling legs back and forth. There is no elegance, nothing attractive about it. When a person gets out of the water, their skin is pruny and tender, with hair a complete mess. They’re likely out of breath from holding it for so long.

And yet, I do it three times a week. I don’t think I’ll ever stop swimming if I can help it.

Swimming has changed my life. Since I started going regularly last January, I’ve lost weight, gained energy and for the first time in my life, managed to do something that requires long-term discipline.

Early in the morning I walk three blocks to my local park district pool. I change into my swimsuit, sharing the showers with a pair of very clean homeless men that shower there every morning. I push open the heavy metal door dividing the men’s showers from the pool, drop my ID on the table by the door and plop my towel on the metal bleachers to the right.

Then, I pad to the middle lane – the fast one with people doing freestyle or breast stroke rather than the crawl – and jump in the pool. I take a deep breath, and dive in. Twenty laps on weekdays, thirty seven, one mile, on weekends.

I get into the pool and start swimming as soon as possible. Some people hang out at the shallow end and talk a bit, or psych themselves up. I just go. Waiting is my enemy. If I wait, I’ll think. And when I think, I imagine other things I’d like to do instead of swimming. Instead, I just plunge in, forcing my body to do something it would much rather not.

Now that I’ve been swimming for a while, I’ve gotten to know the characters of my pool. The lifeguards are all interchangable and almost never interact with the lap swimmers. They do set the music on the boombox, which echoes throughout the room and fills your ears when you stop at the end of a lap. Mostly they choose pop stations, but one guy sometimes punches in the classical station, sublime on an early, cold morning. I wish he worked more often.

The swimmers however, are all very different. The first lesson you learn about lap swimmers is: Body type and age is not an indicator of swimming ability. Of course you can imagine some muscle-bound, trim guy or woman splashing uselessly in the pool. But your mind gets bent when a rotund woman in her mid-60’s does a flip-kick off the end, then a dolphin kick into a breast stroke, lapping you twice in five minutes. These are the people who intimidate me.

One of them, a woman I call “blue suit” (I have names for everyone in my mind) is blindingly fast and well into retirement. Sometimes a buddy of hers shows up in a black suit. Together they dominate the fast lane, setting a pace for everyone, so we all go faster, rushing not to keep up with blue and black suits, but to avoid the thing that silently creeps up on you in the pool: The overtake.

The overtake can be a delicate thing during lap swim. Either the person being overtaken stays politely to the right, or they flail arms everywhere, swerving back and forth so the faster swimmer needs to knock them about a bit. When someone like blue suit attempts to overtake Mr. Crawl, then everything goes nuts.

Mr. Crawl is a guy I just hate. He’s probably in his late 50’s, balding, wears a black volley shorts suit. And he does the fucking crawl, a stroke where your arms and legs go as wide as possible, in the fast lane. In my mind, this is an offense of the highest order. The fast lane is where you go fast. So, the crawl? He’s taking so much space, it’s almost impossible to pass. Basically, Mr. Crawl is saying “fuck you” to everyone in the pool, since he’s throwing himself into the pool as a monkey wrench to all of our attempts to keep a rhythm.

Don’t be Mr. Crawl. Go to the slow or medium lanes if you’re doing the crawl.

Now, just because I have strong opinions about my exercise doesn’t mean I’m some kind of pool nut. In reality, I’m a very mediocre swimmer. I swim five laps at a time, because I really start to run out of breath after that. Five laps, break, five laps, break, and so on. I don’t bring a water bottle or use any kind of swimming aide. Just googles, because swimming without them is plain dumb.

Eventually, after my twenty or thirty-seven laps, I pull myself out. Grab my towel and my ID card, rinse off in the shower, change clothes, go outside and walk home three blocks. I’m always super hot and sweaty. I pull out my phone and type my distance into Swimtivity, an app that allows you to enter exercise into the iPhone/Apple Watch activity tracker. I close my exercise circles for another day.

I managed to do it one more time. Even though I hate it.

Saturday Morning Around The World

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the American world fell into a shitstorm this week. Rather than write about the big topic we’re all talking about, I want to invite you to be part of something positive, demonstrating togetherness.

Please help make our Saturday Morning Around The World video. Already people from half a dozen countries and from all over the United States have volunteered to be a part of it.

You can get details here. It really shouldn’t take you more than three minutes on Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. your time, and dang, it would be great to see your face along with all the others. With your help, I’d like to help show that people all around the world, are pretty much the same.

Yes, it’s quaint. And, no, it won’t alter world history. But it will feel good. And it will be cool to show so many great people be a part of it. If you know someone overseas or somewhere in the U.S. that might want to be part of it, please forward this message!

After I get everyone’s clips, I’ll edit it all together and release to you next Friday, October 5.

I can’t wait to see your video! [Here’s the details again.]

Just A Shell

Lou Fourcher, at Loyola Beach in Chicago, June 2012.

It begins one of two ways, either a call to your cell marked “No Caller ID”, or from that gut-wrenching number from the nurse’s station you’ve memorized.

“Hi, Mike. There’s no emergency with your dad. I just wanted to check in on some things.”

These kinds of phone calls are never good, but they’re better than the alternative, when there is an actual emergency.

“So, we haven’t talked in a bit. But have you taken care of funeral arrangements?”

That isn’t exactly what the social worker said, in fact he never said the word “funeral”. Instead, he said something artful and sympathetic, so you understood the topic without an overt mention of death. But still. The dull pain hits you.

My father, who has been living with Alzheimer’s for twelve years, well, at least since he was diagnosed, is in a nursing home here in Chicago. He isn’t married, and I have no brothers and sisters, so all the calls, all the paperwork comes to me.

And yes, I’m the main one who visits him too, although over the last couple of years I’m ashamed to admit, the visits aren’t that often. But also in the last couple of years he’s been a total vegetable, so I don’t feel like I’m really hurting anyone.

Well, I do feel bad about it, actually. But it’s so complicated. I mean, he’s totally gone now. The details of his current illness are ugly, and my father’s modesty and propriety keeps me from describing how bad things are. So, please take my word for it: He is a shell now. None of the man I, or anyone else once knew, is there.

Gone, all gone. Except for the shell of a being that looks like a person. Except it really isn’t.

And so now, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been responsible for someone that’s really not there anymore. I could tell you all kinds of things about how wonderful a man he was, how loved he was, and how he loved me, his son and only child.

I could tell you about his failures. His two divorces, lost jobs and people tired of his endless crusading.

But at this point it’s all gone. Supported by Medicaid and Social Security, my father eats and breathes in a facility that tends to his bodily needs. A chaplain visits at least once a week, and so does a volunteer that plays CDs of music I know he used to like. His nurses and their assistants are good to him.

I visit when I feel like I can stomach the grief. Which seems less and less often these days. But who, except the nurses and nurses’ assistants would know the difference? Not my dad.

I love him so much.

But I can’t help him. When he was declining, my love made a difference. I knew.

Like when he began to have paranoid freak outs common to Alzheimer’s, I’d stand in the room with him, and hug him. I’d play Earl Hines piano jazz on my phone to distract him. It usually worked. And as painful as it was, the knowledge that I was helping him, being a good son, filled a hole for me.

I felt like I was loving him as well as I could.

But now. The shell.

There’s nothing I can do for the shell.

I miss him so much.

But he’s not gone yet.

I had already taken care of funeral arrangements. I bought a funeral package with his savings before he went into the nursing home.

I Was Raised By A Black Woman

One of my mothers was a black woman and I miss her more than words can convey.

I’ve tried countless times to write this essay, because I want to tell you about my relationship with Inez Fleming. I keep stopping, or have thrown away previous drafts because I’ve been so afraid to talk about this well-to-do, white man’s connection to a poor, black woman. If I’ve learned anything about race and class in America, it’s that it twists and corrupts our understanding of one another.

By telling you about my invisible, undeniable bond with Inez, now buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, I’m opening up my pristine, loving memories of her to you. Please be careful with my memories. You may have your own ideas about what we were to one another, and maybe they are right. But I have my own memories and ideas, and I know those will always be true.

When my biological mother started her career, Inez was hired to take me during the days and nights. It was the 1970’s, and as progressive as my dad was, he was going to work too. I was just six weeks old when Inez entered my life.

She was my Inez. You may have a different, more common name for what she was, but I will never say it, because “second mother” seems like the only term that fits.

Two years later, my mother and father divorced, and Inez stepped in for more hours. I knew her better than my biological mother at times. It was not uncommon for me to call her “mom”, because that’s what she was.

My strongest memories of childhood are of Inez trundling me around in her green and white Impala. I moved with her in South Side Chicago’s world of black women caring for white children. Again, because it was the 1970’s, that often meant going to some of those caretaker’s houses, or to greasy chicken shacks for lunch. It seemed there were fewer rules those days, so I rode along into Inez’ world most days, listening to gossip about so-and-so, running errands for her friends. Nobody seemed to mind.

We were close. Everyone remarked on it. I’m not sure what I did to show it, but she hugged and held me tight. And when I was bad, she threatened to “get a switch”, but she never did.

Inez was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, although Inez had left long before that had happened. I’d asked her about life in Mississippi, but she always deflected, saying, “I don’t like to talk about bad things, Michael. That’s why I came here.”

Sweet, full of smiles, and devoted to Christ and Roman Catholicism, she was wiser than her lack of education should have allowed. She understood people, and could detect a false motive a mile away. “I only deal with good people, Michael. There are too many bad people in this world, and I can’t make time for them.”

Round and with a weakness for food of all kinds–especially Neji pop–Inez struggled with weight her entire life and eventually with bad knees and diabetes. Going on, and staying on diets were a constant topic with her, up until the end. My mother, who became close friends with Inez, would talk recipes and bring her loads of fresh fruit, hoping her habits would change. But South Side church dinners and chicken shacks don’t usually serve diet-friendly food, and so the diets always came to an end.

For complicated family reasons, my mother and step-father let Inez go when I was seven. Her services were quickly picked up by another family I knew, which made me jealous beyond belief.

I insisted on visiting her regularly to make sure she was still “my Inez” and to check in with her. I was a child, so I didn’t know exactly how to check in, but I did my childish best.

The visits were at first a few times a year, eventually winding down to twice, then once. By the time I went to college, we mostly talked on the phone and exchanged cards and letters. I still have them, in her flowey, perfect Palmer Method script.

Around when when I was thirty, my mother got very sick with cancer, I orchestrated a visit between her and Inez. The logistics were difficult, since Inez was also enfeebled now, using a walker and visiting dialysis twice a week. My mother was less feeble, although using a walker of her own, so we visited Inez’ second-floor walk up. It was terrible, and lovely.

The three of us present knew it was the last visit. Not a goodbye, just yet, so we made the best of it with a dinner cooked in the apartment and jokes and stories. My mother and Inez reminisced and told each other how much they loved one another, a conversation Inez repeated back to me verbatim, up until the last week of her life.

After that, they called each other every other day, just to check in. To complain about hospitals and nurses, things they’d both experienced in detail.

“She’s like my sister, your mother is,” Inez would say. And they both pledged their undying devotion to each other. Inez had pulled my mother through early motherhood, and then her divorce from my dad, and supported her early career. My mother and dad had steadied Inez, took her to a bank to open her first bank account, loved her and gave her security when her brutal husband left her after years of beatings and alcoholism.

But my mother’s illness frightened Inez. “Who will take care of me, now?” she asked me. She had no other family.

Then when my mother died, my father flew in for the funeral, prepared to pick up Inez for the service.

“I can’t do it, baby,” she told me on the phone. “I just can’t do it. My knees hurt too much. But you know how much I loved your mother, don’t you.”

It was an excuse, of course. But my father and I understood and visited her together the next day. It was the first time he’d seen her in fifteen years. “So gaunt,” my dad said. The once rotund, jolly woman was now ashen, with skin hanging off her bones. Dad was visibly shaken.

Quickly now, Inez began to decline. Exhausted and depressed by dialysis, my visits to her house or trips to dialysis barely perked her up. Once, I convinced a priest friend of mine, to visit her house and say a private mass. When the priest and I arrived, Inez had tidied her house, put on her wig and a bucket of rouge, and had set out snacks. Delightful, it still makes me smile to think of her excitement.

Eventually, her knees got so bad that she couldn’t walk up her own stairs. Her social worker begged her to enter a nursing home. We knew what that decision meant.

“I don’t want to go there, honey. That’s where people die,” Inez said. I remember it clearly.

But, if you don’t go, you’ll fall and probably die sooner, I told her. And so she went.

It was good at first. I visited twice a week for a long while. People in the nursing home seemed to perk up when the white man in a suit kept visiting this one old, black lady. Inez knew it too, and chuckled over the treatment she got from the nurses as a result. “They asked me, is that your lawyer? And I said, No! That’s my God son!”

And so I was.

Things went on like this for a while. But, as it goes, a sudden jolt changes things. For Inez, there was an accident on the shuttle she rode in to dialysis. The driver had forgotten to strap her wheelchair down, and when he came to a sudden stop, she violently rolled forward, and fell out of her chair, breaking her hip.

Now, the social worker asked, “Who is her next of kin? Because she needs a legal guardian.”

Then Inez pointed at me. “He is. He is my son. He’ll sign the papers.”

Even now, thinking of that moment, I’m brought to tears.

Of course, her health got worse. There were more hospital visits, doctors, social workers. We talked less, because she was weakening quickly. When she could, we talked about old days, and how she was ready to see The Lord.

The visits shook me. I’d cry on the Metra Electric as I headed north.

And then the call came: She’s crashed and is having another heart attack. Do we resuscitate?

No.

I scraped together some life insurance receipts she had in the back a of a drawer, and visited the funeral home. Her insurance wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a funeral and burial, so my dad and I paid the rest. Some cousins came, a couple old friends. But Inez was old with few relations left. She was either 71 according to her expired driver’s license, or 88 according to her welfare records. Philadelphia, Mississippi didn’t have a birth certificate.

Inez Fleming taught me compassion and love. She taught me to be suspicious of overly generous people, and she taught me that it’s a good thing to care deeply and give of your self to others that you care about.

I miss her every day, and I wish that race and class didn’t mean anything. I wish I was allowed to use the lessons Inez gave me to connect with people the way she taught me.