Just Another Writer–Chapter 2

Chapter Two

It was 1970, and  I was living with James Schulz, having been divorced by Ralph when he got married for the second time. James’s job at General Assistance and mine at the Press, even part-time, brought in enough for more than fishsticks–my mainstay during my modeling career–and we had an apartment large enough for each of us to have an office. James was going to be a writer, too, you see. I was still doing a great deal of staring at or avoiding my typewriter, but now I had a room to do it in.

This was fortunate, because James and I had very different styles of keeping house. I didn’t, as you know, and he did. In his world, there was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. In mine, there was one place, and everything was wherever I dropped it. Thus it was decreed that my one place in the apartment was my office. After a time, James even requested that I keep the door closed.

When I decided to open the bookstore, I did not tell James. I was naive enough to think I could do it, yes, but I was smart enough to know that nobody else would, especially the practical, security-conscious James. And I didn’t want to give my true love the opportunity to talk me out of my bookstore. So I began shopping for used books at thrift shops while he was at work and stashing them the one place he would never look–my office.

In those days, thrift shops and junk stores were book gold mines. I don’t think there were as many book scouts out there, for one thing. For another, there just weren’t as many people shopping in thrift stores. They were holes in the wall, not vast flourescent-lit supermarkets run by South Asians. I found real treasures at the Salvation Army and St. Vincent DePaul, scores of clean copies of classics and recent bestsellers. At some of the upscale places, the ones run by refined ladies for the support of hospitals and private schools, I found first editions, boxed sets, and limited editions.

I didn’t drive, so I had to carry the boxes of books home on the bus or the el. I remember finding the mother lode at a thriftshop in the neighborhood, and I ended up with three full boxes. I couldn’t carry them all at the same time, so I carried one box for a block, keeping the others in sight, then went back for another, and so forth, for the five or six blocks home. As I remember, I ended up pushing them part of the way. Things would have been a lot easier in James’s car, but . . . Soon, the boxes of books reached the ceiling in my office, but James still didn’t know. He never opened that door.

I had been working long enough at the Press by this time to get the one and only paid vacation of my life. To finance my store, I took another job during my two weeks off, collating papers and stuffing envelopes for a conference of bankers. That two weeks’ pay was my stake. I rented a post office box not far from the Press and began ordering new books on women’s liberation, to be delivered after James had moved to Milwaukee to take a teaching position there.

I should explain that. I had a second reason for opening the bookstore. You see, it was 1969. I was a young woman who had been encouraged to believe there were no limitations on what I could do because of my gender, despite the fact that my parents also expected me to get married, have children, and, above all, lead a normal life. I had managed to get out of my puberty funk at the age of twelve by deciding that femininity was about ruffles and simpers, while womanliness was about sex. I was determined to reject the first while I enthusiastically, uh, embraced the second. I was absolutely sure I would love sex when I was old enough to do it, even though I didn’t know what doing it entailed, and I was right.

You could get me to do almost anything by saying, “Girls can’t do that.” In addition to being a debater, I was president of my high school student body, the first girl to hold that position in the history of the school and probably the second or third in the history of Oklahoma City. When I started smoking, I smoked Pall Malls. When I started drinking, I drank Jack Daniels. I could cuss like a guy and argue like a guy.

Then a co-worker at the Press handed me a copy of Notes from the Second Year. I read it on my lunch hour, having a sandwich and sitting on the grass in a park near the Press. In particular, I read “The B.I.T.C.H. Manifesto” and had another one of those moments of blinding revelation, like learning to read. From that moment on, I was a feminist. It was so deep inside me that I really didn’t give a good goddamn what other people who called themselves feminists said, did, or believed. And I didn’t care what anybody thought that label meant about me. Nothing could deter or discourage me. I simply was a feminist.

I made one visit after that to the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union offices. They were on the second floor of a building on Belmont Avenue. When I walked in, I saw posters of women with fists raised and anti-Imperialist slogans all over the walls. I remember particularly one with lipstick that looked like a missile, or vice versa. I’m not sure now.

Now, I’d gotten into trouble in high school for my involvement in Civil Rights, and I was at the first big anti-war demonstration in Washington in 1965, but all my principles were moral, not political. There was something in me that rebelled against political rhetoric and its visual counterpart. Besides, I knew very well that the average woman trying to find out something about this new way of thinking was not going to make it past those posters. So part of the point of my bookstore would be to provide a gentler introduction. I ordered all the books and brochures and newspapers about the women’s movement I could afford and I stocked Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Orlando, as well as the complete works of Jane Austen and Dorothy L. Sayers. Obviously, I saw no reason that I shouldn’t define feminism for myself.

Then, after I had gone too far to turn back, I told James. He shook his head and began to help me find a storefront. He was cautious, but he was no dream-basher.

My brother Paul decided to move to Chicago to live with me about then, and two friends from the southside, Lucina Kathmann and Nick Patricca, were moving to the northside, so we joined forces and found 3322 N. Halsted, a building with an apartment upstairs and a very long storefront downstairs. James helped me wall off the back of the storefront for bedrooms for Paul and me, while Lucina and Nick took the bedrooms upstairs. We shared the upstairs living room and kitchen, although Paul and I had a refrigerator downstairs and, I think, a stove. James and I built bookshelves in the store. I hung up a poster-sized enlargement of a photograph of Olive Tracy and bought a coffee urn.

Pride and Prejudice was open.

I knew absolutely nothing about running a bookstore. Nothing. I actually thought I could sit at my large library table desk all day and write. Not that I had yet come up with anything to write. I didn’t think about restocking or paying bills or keeping books, much less advertising. I was the first feminist bookstore in Chicago, and nobody knew I was there for quite awhile. I was such a softie that, when anyone came in to sell me books, I couldn’t turn them down. I bought books I knew I would never sell with money I should have been using to pay bills. Someone once left a couple of boxes of romance novels on my doorstep. Scornfully, I tossed them in one of my display windows with a sign reading, “All you want, 5 cents.” I did everything wrong.

I had a wonderful time.

I put up a sign that said, “Don’t steal it. Read it here.” And people did. I had an overstuffed barrel chair in one corner, and some of my patrons would come in, get a book and a cup of coffee, and sit down to a quiet afternoon of reading a mystery or looking at great art. I had a table that sat half a dozen people, most of whom did not buy books but enjoyed conversation. One of them, a veteran of Vietnam, dove under the table whenever a car backfired, but no one took much notice of it.

I should just say that we’re about to get to the writing part of my life, but I really would like you to meet a few of the bookstore regulars. So, be patient with me. I’ll be starting my career any moment now.

First, there was Ty. He was tall and skinny and his teeth could not have called a quorum in his mouth. Born in Europe and orphaned during the second world war, he became part of a band of children who wandered the continent, begging, stealing, and surviving. He told me he had his first child with a little red-haired girl in the group before either of them knew where babies came from. He also told me that the band wandered up into Denmark and were given a handout at Isak Dinesen’s backdoor.

Are you getting the idea? I never knew how much of Ty’s life story was true, but the details were so interesting that I didn’t care. I had never met anyone who would even think to say that he met Isak Dinesen. Most people I knew had never heard of Isak Dinesen.

Anyway, Ty’s band was recruited by the Communists during the Hungarian Revolution and fought for them in the street. (They were old enough then to do some damage.) In return, they were promised jobs and homes when the Communists won. They didn’t get them. They were put in a workhouse instead, with the result that Ty hated Communists ever after. From the workhouse they were rescued by American Presbyterians, who provided them with sponsors and brought them to the United States. By this time, Ty and the little red-haired girl had five children and were married. (I think the Presbyterians had something to do with the latter.) He got a job at a record distributor’s warehouse and consequently knew every song ever recorded, who wrote it, who produced it, who sang it, and who substituted as second bass guitar because the regular guy was touring with Leon Russell.

Then Ty’s wife left him and he got cancer. He was offered the opportunity to be in a clinical trial of a new treatment. If it worked, he would receive financial support for the rest of his life. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have to worry about that or anything else. As of 1971, it had worked. In the “cancer hospital,” as he called it, he had nothing to do but read and watch movies. They showed several movies every day to keep the patients occupied. As a result, Ty also knew every movie ever made, who wrote it, who produced it, who acted in it, and who was key grip and best boy. Judging from the Isak Dinesen story, among many others, he also read a lot of books.

Ty talked as much as I would let him. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I would say. “Ty, stop talking,” and he would sit down in the barrel chair and read. He never took offense.

Mr. X was a member of the anti-Fascist (read Communist) Czechoslovakian government in exile. He did not tell as many stories as Ty, but he presented me once with a plan to cause gridlock in the streets of Chicago in the event of a revolution.

One day, Ty, with his memories of the Hungarian Revolution, and Mr. X, with his memories of the Fascists in Czechoslovakia, got into a political argument. I had to separate them physically. I asked Ty to leave on the grounds that Mr. X was old and looked as though he was going to have a heart attack. Being a humanitarian, Ty left.

Then there were the women. Shortly after I opened the bookstore, Lucina started testing piss. At the time, you couldn’t buy a pregnancy test at the drug store, so a number of women’s groups started doing tests. Lucina decided that the bookstore would be a good site for testing, and she was right. We did lots of them. The downstairs refrigerator began to fill up with urine samples, and no one there ever drank apple juice again.

Lucina was working at the time as a philosophy professor at Barat College, but what she really wanted was to be a dancer. Unfortunately, she was not very tall and had a sturdy, rather than a willowy, body. She was not the type that was in demand in either ballet or modern dance at the time. But she found her way, in the end, and created some terrific dance theater.

Then Paul’s Oklahoma girlfriend, Kathryn Thomas, came up to live at 3322. She was a wonderfully spoiled young woman who had been taught that whatever she wanted she deserved. I’ll give you an idea what she was like. When she first came to Chicago, she needed to find a place to get gynecological care. We all went to free clinics, for obvious reasons. Kathryn went to a place in Uptown, which was not at that time a very safe place to go, especially after dark. When she came out of the clinic, pills in her purse, she saw a man with his arm raised, a broken bottle in his hand, about to hit a woman in front of him. Kathryn, a slender, high-voiced girl with corkscrew curls, launched herself at the man, shouting at the top of her lungs. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the Uptown boozers and derelicts watching in stunned silence. Fortunately, her actions galvanized some of the watchers, who joined her in her pummeling of the wretch until the police got there.

It never occurred to her not to do it. She was my kind of feminist.

Kathryn started organizing consciousness-raising groups out of the bookstore. Soon, there were dozens of rap groups around the city and suburbs that had been put together by this privileged daughter of Phillips Petroleum who could talk to anyone and do anything. Later, she became a self-defense teacher.

Pride and Prejudice was quickly turning into a full-fledged women’s center. And that’s not all. One day, the bookstore door opened and there was a short, muscular young Hispanic man with a mustache and beard. He looked for all the world as though someone had somehow condensed Fidel Castro. We talked for awhile and he asked questions about the place, then introduced himself as David Hernandez. He was a poet and the leader of a group of Puerto Rican former gang members called the Roscoe Street Blues.(Roscoe street was just north of the bookstore.) They organized political actions in the neighborhood and published a newspaper. They needed a place to meet.

Within a couple of weeks, the Blues were meeting in the bookstore after we closed and had their mimeograph machine churning out newspapers in the basement. When the cops tried to shut down Arroyo’s liquor store, for reasons Chicagoans will know and others can guess, the Blues went into action. The cops would send someone underaged into Arroyo’s to buy liquor, Mr. Arroyo would notify the Blues, and the Blues would send kids running down the street alerting the neighbors. All the 3322 folk would pour down to Arroyo’s to witness his turning the underaged customer down so that the cops couldn’t claim otherwise.

Life was interesting and full, and I was just about to become a writer.

One of the best things about the women’s movement was going to the women’s bars. It didn’t matter if you were straight, gay, or somewhere in between. After a long, frustrating meeting where people couldn’t come to an agreement about anything at all or hours of counseling a woman who was trying to leave her abusive husband, there was nothing like going to the bar and dancing it all out. The music was loud and the atmosphere sexually charged, but no one hassled you. You could just dance until there was nothing left in your mind but your legs.

I met Andra at one of the bars. She was a striking, astonishingly shy, confident and oddly aggressive seventeen-year-old who was carrying a notepad, which she took out from time and time to scribble in. She was writing. I was twenty-four and still blocked, so I was impressed.

Soon, she began to appear at the bookstore. We discovered that we had a lot in common, starting with a distrust of rich people and a fairly thorough knowledge of bigots and ending with our shared ambition to be writers. I liked her enormously. I also started to see flashes of a truly remarkable intelligence through the wall of shyness and eccentricity she had constructed to survive what had been a not very easy life. She was a presence.

One day, Andra asked for my help. She had gone to the downtown YWCA and asked if she could hold a conference on rape. Remember, she was seventeen years old. This was 1971. No one was talking about rape yet. The women at the Y, to their eternal credit, said yes. They helped her with all the organizational details but allowed her to be in charge of the program. She wanted me to help her with that part of the conference, but she didn’t need my help. She really did everything herself, and it was a landmark occasion in Chicago, the beginning of Chicago Women Against Rape, itself a groundbreaking organization. There were perhaps fifty women there and, I think, two men. I remember clearly two moments.

The first moment was when Andra played a few moments of a grossly misogynist rock and roll song and then broke the record over her knee. Cheers from women who had always wanted to do the same rocked the room.

The second moment was when a quiet man sitting on an aisle stood up to explain why men rape women. He was earnest and sincere and obviously thought he was making a helpful contribution to the discussion when he told us it was because sometimes women walked along the street like they were too good for the men and the men had to do something about that.

News teams showed up from the local television stations and, after the conference, wanted to interview Andra. That was just not going to happen. At the very thought, she pulled her shyness over her like a snail’s shell. So, the women of the Y turned to me, her supposed co-organizer, and I talked to the press. I could always talk. The conference was all over the evening news that night, and it was seen by two young men with a dream.

I wish I could remember their names. I might be able to find them in my papers somewhere. At any rate, they had founded a small publishing company in Chicago on the premise that books could be marketed like any other commodity, an idea that was fairly unusual at the time. They didn’t know anything about publishing, but they knew marketing and had one success under their belts. After seeing the news, they realized that they’d never heard of a book on rape. They checked and found that there had never been a book on rape, except for one academic statistical study. They called the Y and asked for the names of the conference’s organizers. The next day Andra and I were sitting across the desk from them in their downtown Chicago office, and they were asking us if we wanted to write a book about rape. Of course, we said yes.

We walked out onto the street with a contract and without a clue. We pinched each other to make sure it was real, went to a diner for grilled cheese sandwiches to celebrate and giggled all the way to the el stop. We couldn’t believe it. We were writers. A publisher had asked us to write a book. We didn’t think about the subject of the book, not for a moment. For then, for that afternoon, we were two up-and-coming young writers with a book contract, and we were wildly, stupidly happy.

Click here for Chapter 3

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2 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 2

  1. Carolyn W says:

    Can’t wait for the next chapter. What twists and turns life offers us!

  2. Thanks, Carolyn. I hope you keep enjoying the chapters.

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