Archive for January, 2012


Saturday, January 21st, 2012

It took too long this year for winter to kick in. Even though it was good for the general positive vibes, 50+ degree days in January, in Chicago, are not natural. I was starting to suspect that we were all going to pay a terrible price for those few weeks of temperate balminess. So when it snowed and froze and dipped down into the teens I felt a surge of winter warmth that I haven’t experienced in years. And now everything is coated in a fresh, white blanket, beautiful and muffled, the gas-powered snow blowers long finished, our boiler pumping heat through our domestic circulatory system. I’m looking outside, thinking of making snow angels, building igloos and marching across barren powder landscapes.

And it reminds me of the first time I played hooky.

I started school as a smart kid. Smart and angry. My parents told me that I topped off my kindergarten IQ, highest in the class, which is sort of impressive, even though I generally think that the IQ is half-hogwash. I think I was one of those young kids who became bored with things and decided to act out, so I assaulted both classmates and my teacher during that first year of schooling. It was my kindergarden teacher’s first year, and I was her first problem student. At one point, I kicked her and she attempted to chase me down as I crawled under all the tables. Another day, someone, perhaps the principal, dragged me out as I kicked and screamed. I don’t remember much, if any, of this, but the stories persist. So my mom would run into my kindergarten teacher every few years and, many decades later, she still remembers me, perhaps touching one of her kicked shins. It is always important to make a lasting impression upon your teachers.

My parents decided to keep me in the current track, and declined an offer for me to skip ahead into the second grade. I was still a wild child, still acting out, but, throughout those first couple years of elementary school, I was more or less disciplined into shape. This isn’t meant as an indictment against corporal punishment. I was rambunctious and prone to demonstrative rabble rousing, and the discipline generally worked. It didn’t take long for me to become a bit less vocal, more shy and mild mannered. I also became less ambitious, and I think my brain leveled out until I was generally average. By third grade, I was just another idiot. The mental growth spurt was over.

I believe that I was in third grade when I played hooky. It involved a test. I had either neglected to study, or I simply didn’t understand the material. Perhaps it was a spelling test, or maybe a little math. Whatever a typical eight-year-old in the mid-70s was supposed to know. I could handle some of the more creative aspects of school, but tests always messed with me. I had terrible recall, and couldn’t focus on studying enough to figure out how to embed that information into my brain. Really, tests troubled me all the way up into college, and then, mid-way through my undergraduate education, I somehow cracked the code and figured out how to ace just about anything. It was a very dramatic and empowering intellectual blossoming. But back in third grade, I was far from such self-actualization. I was lost in the murky woods, alone and confused and overall ill-equipped for the limitless array of escalating challenges and expectations. I just wanted to play with my Legos and Hot Wheels.

So I wasn’t ready for the test. And it wasn’t the first test I was about to bomb. I was already on the list, on the bump, treading over thin, opaque ice. This was essentially the same as a classic school nightmare. We all have them, even now. You have a test in a class that you didn’t even know you were taking. And everything is riding on that test, and you now have maybe five minutes to cram in a textbook full of material that you have no hope of ever comprehending. That was the exact feeling that pressed into my eight-year-old brain. So I came up with a plan.

Instead of focusing on whatever test material, I envisioned the general layout of my neighborhood. The bus stop was a block or so away from my house. About two blocks further was our local park. Beyond the grassy sprawl, a few suburban blocks led to a cluster of shops, including the drug store. There lies the perimeter of my hooky map.

That morning I dressed, ate breakfast, and headed out to school, just another day. As I approached the bus stop, I hid behind a hedge and waited. Once the bus had scooped up the waiting kids, I strolled over to the stop and surveyed my freedom. Yes, all I had to do was wander about the town, explore anything that struck my fancy, and return to the bus stop in the afternoon. Then I would hide in the bushes, wait for the return bus, and head on home. I didn’t consider that someone might call the house looking for me. People disappeared from class all the time, and the teacher never went to any great effort to single them out. I would simply release myself from the obligations of society, just for one day.

One thing to add: This happened to be one of the coldest days of the year.

Yes, this was in the middle of the winter. I was bundled up in my brown puffy coat, hood tied tight over my head, encumbered only by my Ranger Rick backpack and gigantic moon boots. And it was cold. Really freaking cold. I stood there at the bus stop for ten or fifteen minutes, ducking into a hedge with each approaching car. The cars tread slow over icy streets, so I could see them with enough warning. Standing there wasn’t going to work, as my body was starting to cool down, my spit cold within my mouth. So I waddled to the park. Stage One.

The park was silent and abandoned, a featureless topography of white. I followed the hidden path as if I was a lunar explorer, each step massive and lugubrious. The park basin spanned several blocks, crossing a little frozen creek and lifeless tennis courts, from the kiddie playground up and around and over to the advanced playground, then, finally, off to the other end, to the street. It took forever, and even in the misery of the cold and desolation, I was satisfied that this crossing would consume a solid chunk of time. If I ran out of things to do, I could simply circumambulate the park until the afternoon. By the time I reached the exit, some of the streets had been plowed, so I was able to walk with relative ease and haste. I navigated the familiar path to the drug store, ready to move into Stage Two.

Much of my family lived close. My grandma and uncle were just a few blocks down, equidistant from the park and the drug store. Her home was open and active, with various aunts, uncles and friends dropping by throughout any given day. It was a safe haven for me and the rest of my cousins. Everyone loved her house, her dog Rocky and cat Bernie. It was the hub of our family. So I had to stay away from the conduits that fed into that node. Even though grandma was the type of person who might have played along and kept my secret, I couldn’t chance it, couldn’t drop by for a casual mid-winter hooky visit. Even if I knew she would certainly make me cocoa while I hunkered down with Rocky and read Dr. Seuss books.

I strolled into the drug store with a pocket full of lunch money. It would have made sense to spend that cash as it was intended, to find something half-way nutritious. It would also have made sense to just study for the damned test and get on the freaking bus. I ended up blowing most of it on candy. A Charleston Chew. Some Tootsie Rolls. Maybe some other chocolatey item like a Mars bar. I loitered as long as I could without attracting attention, then reduced my horde to loose change. I’m rather certain that this was the one drug store cashier who never charged tax. No one ever asked why she rang everything up at face value. We just assumed she wasn’t paying attention, as those older registers probably required an extra button to tally the tax. It was always a golden moment to stroll into the drug store and find her there, hunched behind the counter, knowing that we could get the most sugar-bang for our quarters and dimes.

It is only now, this very moment, that I realize, after accumulating a half-life of experience, that she was probably just pocketing that money, stealing from the till. Or maybe she wasn’t, maybe it was an honest mistake. Back in those days, my definitions of honesty were not yet distorted. These days, I’m not really certain what it means to be truly honest, or if it is even possible. Really, that day I played hooky marked my first overt divergence from honesty.

The no-tax lady never questioned my obvious hooky-playing. I was simply a paying customer, perhaps sent over by my grandma to pick up a few essential items. No-tax always minded her own business. She was the Ron Swanson of drug store cashiers.

I returned to the streets of Park Forest, Illinois with warm feet and candy in my pockets. The hooky was progressing exactly as planned, so it was time for Stage Three, the consuming of the loot. I returned to the park, but stopped myself before simply marching in. There were my footprints from the initial traversal, sharp and obvious against the otherwise unadulterated snowscape. It was cold enough that the snow had generally frozen over. On one hand, I was assured that no one else had entered the park. But I realized that I was essentially leaving a trail anywhere I went. This was a covert operation, and I needed to maintain some control over my discoverability. So I stepped into each of my footprints, backtracking across the park, one slow step at a time as my moon boots plunked into each waiting hole. The big-kid playground, with all the cool stuff, was right down there, visible from the road, but it took me another ten minutes just to move that hundred or so feet. Good. More time chewed up, inching toward the afternoon, when the bus would come and I could finally escape that cold.

I broke off from the path and into the playground. Then I situated myself in the metal box at the top of the corkscrew slide. It was the lookout tower, and a wind shield. I woofed down my stiffening Charleston Chew, masticating it into a warm putty. I chewed the Tootsie Rolls and stashed the Mars bar for later, rations that would surely be needed during the coming hours. Then I waited, imagining myself as a sentry, a spy, observing the random traffic, the wind through the barren trees, the snow-crusted playground and, off in the distance, that frozen creek. I slid down, over and over, pushing the snow away to expose the smooth, shiny metal surface of the slide. Sometimes you had to queue up to climb the steps and plunge down the corkscrew. It was immensely popular. It was rare that anyone had the chance to camp out in the lookout tower, and that usually involved some sort of battle or encroachment. That day, I could slide as much as I wanted to. The entire park was mine, from the tower to the yellow flying saucer to the swinging tire. The merry-go-round. The swings. I could do it all, and I did. And it was great.

Then it wasn’t. Most of the sugar had burned through, and I was growing colder. I counted my change, just a few cents, really, not enough to warrant a return trip to the warmth of the drug store. Then I realized that the change would give me away. I wasn’t supposed to come home with change. My lunch money was exact. I had to eliminate the evidence. So I sat at the bottom of the corkscrew slide and pitched pennies and dimes into the snow, each one to a different vector, noting the tiny pocks they created in the homogenous surface. When I finished, I was alone, no longer interested in my playground, generally finished with my stash and liberated of cash. There was nothing to do but freeze in silence. I waddled off into the park, stopping a few times to make perfect snow angels along my carefully retraced foot path.

By the time I made it back to the bus stop, I had warmed up a little from all of that exercise, but that was it. I had no place to go, and hours to wait. I folded into myself and sank into a hedge, sprouting up every now and then to rub my shivering mittens together. Cars cruised by, but none of them noticed me. I was the spy in the hedge, hiding in plain sight. Then a familiar vehicle came around the bend. It was my Aunt Kathy, certainly on her way to my grandma’s house. I loved my Aunt Kathy. She was boisterous and omnipresent, a fixture over at grandma’s. As she drove by, I succumbed to instinct. I waved. I didn’t jump up and down and flag down a rescue. This was just the standard one-handed wave, the flag of recognition. She drove on past, and I thought that maybe she saw me, maybe she waved back with the same uncontrollable reaction. I didn’t even feel stupid for waving. I felt happy. There was my Aunt Kathy, and I waved.

I felt stupid when she stopped down the street and backed up until her car was right near me, and she rolled down the passenger window with an astonished “Jimmy?” I didn’t run, didn’t even play it off. I just pushed my aching, frozen legs forward, toward her car, got in, and let her drive me back to my house while I wiped the accumulated snot from my face. The hooky was officially over, but I wasn’t scared. I didn’t care about the test or whatever trouble I was about to get into. I was about to be warm and safe. Maybe I could eat that Mars bar. And, ultimately, I think everyone was just so confused as to why I would subject myself to such a ridiculous excursion that I don’t recall any admonishment or even punishment. My own folly was punishment enough, I suppose.

So when I look out over the fresh snow and think of snow angels, I also think of that bleak isolation, of pitching pennies into the cold and poisoning the trust of my parents. I think of waving to Aunt Kathy and finally escaping my frigid hooky.