Just Another Writer–Chapter 8

Chapter Eight

We’ll be getting to Hugh Downs and Studs Terkel very soon, but first let me introduce you to my second store.

Sara and I thought of a lot of names for the store. Top of the list was “Rose Partners” because, when she was four and I was eleven, I persuaded her that being blood brothers was yucky, but squashing rose petals between her hand and mine made us partners forever. I was eleven, okay? And who’s to say it didn’t work? She was one of my closest friends until her death a few years ago.

Anyway, we called our store Raw Materials, and we sold stuff that people could make things out of, to put it simply. It was a kind of crafts store, but we sold things you wouldn’t usually find in that kind of store, like old buttons and beads that I’d scavenged in junk shops. We rented a storefront that had once been a bakery and renovated it, ironing linoleum to peel it off the hardwood floors, plastering holes in the walls, the whole magillah.

At this point, I should have realized, but didn’t, that if I was just another writer, I was most certainly not just a writer. I was lacking in that single-mindedness that makes people successful writers, artists, whatevers. I like to make things. All kinds of things. Earrings. Apple pies. Stores. I felt great satisfaction in getting that linoleum up. As my sister Sara and I went through half a dozen old irons we bought at thrift shops to get the nasty old stuff off the oak floors of that storefront, I felt really, really good. As I plastered a two-foot by six-foot hole in the wall, I felt enormously proud of myself. As we turned that sad old storefront into a beautiful place for our store, all my creative impulses were more than fulfilled.

That’s not what makes a New York Times bestselling writer.

Behind the store was an apartment, and I moved in with a friend, Judy Handler. A classical guitarist, she practiced for hours every day, making her the best roommate I ever had. She, too, was someone who loved more than the one thing for which she had been given such a remarkable talent. Her guitar teacher complained bitterly about her need for a life beyond the classical guitar. Judy argued that loving and having friends and experiencing what the world had to offer would make her a better musician, but she didn’t make much headway. Fortunately, she didn’t care.

It turned out that the best-selling items in our store were batik supplies–paraffin, beeswax, and dye–so Sara and I started giving lessons, after we taught ourselves out of a book. We also began batiking things to sell in the store and at art fairs. We met Peggy Shinner and Diane Epstein through the lessons and they started working in the store. Diane started teaching classes, and I think Peggy did, too, but I’m not sure.

The storefront was not the ideal situation for batik, since it had no running water. Batik involves painting cloth with wax and then dyeing it. You can’t dye things without water. We spent a lot of time going back and forth into the apartment to fill dye vats and the double boiler arrangements we used to melt wax.

Judy was patient and even lent the apartment for our big batik open houses as part of the Sheffield Garden Walk. We actually made some money on those open houses. People wanted our artwork more than they wanted the old buttons and beads we put out in little glass dishes in the store. Go figure.

At our first open house, Sara and I were sitting in the apartment with Judy, welcoming people to our show, when Diane arrived with her husband, Jerry. She made a spectacular entrance. Her dark hair was supplemented by a couple of beautiful extensions, and her make-up was immaculate. She was wearing a mini-skirt with white boots and a bright red blouse. And her arms were purple to the elbows from plunging them into dye baths. Jerry, a vice president of Bell and Howell, was completely unfazed, as always, by his beautiful wife’s eccentric appearance.

When I wasn’t working in the store, I was at the typewriter. Yes, I was writing, but with a twist. I had decided to try to do money-making writing, something that would sell in numbers large enough to support me while I wrote–I was still stuck in my sixteen-year-old dream–the Great American Novel. So, to the strains of Judy’s guitar, I wrote a mystery. It had a brilliantly eccentric woman detective, inspired by Nero Wolfe, and a lesbian sidekick who rented her basement apartment. There was a lot of snappy repartee, some interesting characters and an adequate plot. (I have since learned that I’m not a plot person. Adequate is as good as I get, and I usually fall short of that.)

You may think that I was in a state of avoiding, afraid to commit to the idea of writing art. You would clearly be right. I had doubled up on the make-some-money-so-I-can-write work–store and mystery at the same time. And it worked. Oh, it didn’t make me any money, but it did help me avoid facing my fears about “real writing.”

The guitar really helped me write my mystery. It wasn’t just the music. It was the auditory evidence that someone else in the apartment was working hard. Still, it did help that Judy was so talented that even her scales sounded good. We worked out a system in which neither of us interrupted the other, but when either of us was open to a break and a little conversation, she sat down at the kitchen table. If the other found her there and was in a similar mood, we’d talk. It was perfect.

We kept the refrigerator stocked with blueberry yogurt and hard-boiled eggs, and there were days when I ate nothing else. With the help of cigarettes and coffee, I just sat at my typewriter for hours, working on the story of Artemis Hughes and, what was the sidekick’s name? Marian something.

Our best neighbor was a woman named Mary, who lived upstairs with her husband and her two sons. Mary had been injured when she was young and told she would never walk again. She explained to us, “I wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t smart and I figured out that nobody was ever going to take care of me. I had to walk.” So she did. She walked on the sides of her feet, which was not graceful, but which got her around. (By the way, she was very smart, but not schooled.)

Her husband was a little dim, and the two boys took after him. Mary helped keep the family afloat with “garage sales” every week, all summer long. Among the things she sold were plants that she grew from cuttings. We let her put dozens of plants in our store windows where there was sun, so passersby had to peer through the Swedish ivy to see our wares. Mary taught her boys how to tend plants so that they would have something to fall back on when they graduated from the Chicago Public Schools without knowing how to read, write or calculate. Three or four times a week, her husband cooked barbecued chicken, and the boys always brought a plate down for Judy, with whom their entire family was infatuated. Judy was kind enough to share with me.

In the meantime, there were other talk shows. At one point, Farrar, Straus scheduled a day of interviews and appearances in Detroit. They flew us out there and put us up in a hotel with a very good restaurant. We got into town in the late afternoon, and our first show was in the morning. Finally, we were going to eat–and eat well–on an expense account. We ordered lavishly of both food and drink. It was just what we had dreamed of. While I was enjoying an after-dinner brandy, Andra got out our schedule to see just what we had to do the next day. That’s when the awful truth hit us. Since the last schedule we had looked at, the publicist had added a radio show booking for that evening. Live.

We grabbed a cab and got there only fifteen or twenty minutes late, but we were–let’s be honest–three sheets to the wind. We ran into the studio, where the host had begun the show by interviewing our fellow guest, a female Detroit police officer who had been assigned to the rape detail. The next couple of hours are a bit of a blur, but I can tell you this: Andra and I fell into a MASH-like dark humor and the cop went right with us. The conversation was raucous and unprofessionally honest. The host of the show looked as though he had found a Rolex in his petunia patch. Occasionally a caller would protest that they tuned in to hear a serious discussion, but the host just explained that we’d gone beyond serious into profound, and we kept going.

The next morning came very early, and I had the hangover of my life. (Andra had been a bit more conservative than I with the wine and brandy.) I also started my period. May the gods never give you a morning like that one. The seven o’clock AM television show–this is the one where we were announced as we walked towards the set with “the rape ladies are here”– was immediately followed by a newspaper interview, a noon news show, an afternoon television talk show and another radio show. The cab that took us back to the hotel after that last show got caught in traffic, and we ended up in our room slamming things into our suitcases and praying for good luck getting out to the airport. We made it by a hair.

I think it was about then that we did the Studs Terkel show on WTTW in Chicago. Now, let me get this straight from the beginning. I idolized Studs Terkel before the show and long after the show. Andra and I went into the studio expecting a great interview because, after all, Studs was the pro of all pros. And then the show started, and we were both completely baffled. It was not as though he hadn’t read the book. I think he probably had. And he wasn’t drunk or stoned, at least that we could tell. But his questions didn’t make sense. There, in our very own hometown, with a broadcasting legend, we had, not the best, but the worst, interview we ever had.

Then he took us out to lunch at an Italian restaurant nearby, a Chicago classic. The invitation included Andra’s mother, the Southern gracious Emily. It would be neat to say that Studs did the interview at lunch that we had expected during the show, but that wasn’t true. He was charming and hospitable and asked some questions that Emily answered with alarming honesty. Andra and I made our way home on the L more than a little shaken by revelations that I can’t go into here.

I suspect, though I can’t guarantee it, that when I reached Raw Materials and Judy, I was treated to one of our favorite entertainments: making up songs. Judy and James were highly proficient at what they called “garbage songs.” They would sit next to each other, alternately making up both tune and lyrics. If only I had taped them! Sometimes Judy and Becky Lofland and I would come up with a “hook” and then retreat to separate rooms in the apartment where each of us made up a song using it–Judy on her guitar, Becky on her dulcimer, and me on my trusty autoharp. I remember one of the hooks was something about “throwing a dead bird into the sky and expecting it to fly.” That was about the time Becky was breaking off a long-time relationship.

Soon after, Andra left the country. But the appearances did not stop. I flew to New York to participate in a panel on Not for Women Only, which was originally hosted by Barbara Walters. Then, to make sure that people got the “not” part of the show name, the network added co-host Hugh Downs. He was the host for the rape panel.

There were half a dozen people from various fields on the panel, and most of them disagreed with what Andra and I had said in Against Rape. I intended to do my best, but I was a little discouraged. And then Hugh Downs began to send leading questions my way. Good leading questions. He was feeding me cue lines for making my points in the best and most effective way. Without losing the appearance of impartiality, he was completely and unequivocally on my side. He was also really smart and savvy. My respect for the man I used to watch as Jack Paar’s genial sidekick–yes, I am that old–skyrocketed.

Sometime about then I got my first royalty check for Against Rape. After paying back the advance and withholding for possible returns, the check wasn’t huge, but it was more money than I’d ever seen before. I went to my bank downtown to deposit it and, on the way home, bought lingerie, chocolate and champagne. When I got to Raw Materials, Diane was teaching a class, but Peggy was hanging out at the apartment with Judy and her best friend, Leni Tannenbaum. We dug into the chocolate and cracked open the champagne, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. On the second bottle, we started trying on the lingerie. Leni was particularly exuberant in the fashion show that ensued, but we all did our bit, while Diane soldiered on, teaching a class just on the other side of the door. She even had to open the door when she came in to refill the dye vats, and then go back out to her students while visions of garter belts danced in her head.

I finished my mystery and sent it to Ralph. He kindly read it and sent it on to a friend of his, Jacques Barzun. Yes, the Jacques Barzun, one of the most important writers and critics of the time, who is also an aficionado of mysteries. He said the book was a charming and well-written novella, too short for publication as a novel. I should have followed through right then and expanded it, but I didn’t have the brains God gave a down comforter. Besides, I got distracted.

About that time the pains I had been having in my abdomen for several years became acute. I finally had to wake James in the middle of the night and have him drive me to the emergency room. By the time we got there, he had to carry me in. The doctors operated half an hour later and removed a cyst and my right ovary. I had no health insurance, of course, so the hospital found a way to get me classified as a welfare patient. I was put in a ward with about a dozen other women. Summer in Chicago with no air conditioning wasn’t exactly comfortable, and some of the women had painful injuries, so it wasn’t quiet. But James, Paul, Sara, Judy, Kathryn and the rest of the crew came to visit every day, entertaining me and the rest of the ward mightily.

After I was home and recovered a little, Bob Nelson brought me free-lance keylining to do at home. Raw Materials was doing better than Pride and Prejudice had financially, but Sara and I both had to do other part-time jobs. She parked cars at a Lincoln Park restaurant. One day Sara and I were working companionably in Raw Materials, she batiking and I keylining on a makeshift drawing table. We talked as I ruled my lines and Sara brushed hot wax onto a t-shirt, from time to time refilling the bottom of the double boiler (which was actually a frying pan and a coffee can) with water from a jar that had been filled at the kitchen sink. She commented a couple of times that the smell of my poster cement was really strong, and I told her she was being a little sensitive. And then I happened to look up as she filled the frying pan again–from my jar of benzene. I flung myself across the room, yanking the plug on the hot plate and yelling at Sara. We got Judy out of the apartment behind and the neighbors out of the apartment upstairs and ran outside, waiting for the building to blow.

There was no explosion, and as we went back in I swore Judy to secrecy. She was never, ever to tell James about what happened. He had been convinced for years that my carelessness would end in death and destruction, and this would be vindication with a vengeance. But Judy was James’s buddy and, a few months later, she let it slip. He was too horrified even to hassle me about it.

Andra came back to this country, and we started another book. It was called Survival, and it contained everything we knew about surviving. Clearly, in my case, that wasn’t much. Still, when Andra dug up the manuscript a few weeks ago, I looked it over. It actually had some good advice in it. “What you want from your life and what society wants from your life are two entirely different things and always will be.” Like that.

Sara moved to San Diego, and Peggy and Diane became my partners. We were settling in pretty well and the store was doing better when we were informed by the landlords that our rent was about to be doubled. All that renovation we’d done had made the storefront a valuable property. We couldn’t face moving, so we decided to close the store.

My thirtieth birthday was looming, and I realized there was one thing I must do before I passed that ominous landmark. I was going to go to Europe. Of course, I had to raise the money, but I’d figure that out somehow. That’s when I took my first editing job. Oy vey.

Click here for Chapter Nine


8 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 8

  1. Pingback: Chapter Eight posted | kathleenthompsonwriter

  2. Gene Knight says:

    I look forward to Chapter Nine.

  3. Mac says:

    what a wild ride! ever figure out what what going on with the Studs interview?

    • No, we never did. We’ve always wondered. Did the subject just defeat him somehow? Maybe he had just heard bad news and was distracted. Who knows? Anyway, a man who did so much great work is entitled to an off day.

  4. Christine says:

    Benzene? What an exciting life!

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