Some of the other inmates

Harry Drabik

It’s true that some of the characteristics we brought from Chicago in the fifties made us stand out as a bit out of the ordinary. It was claimed we had accents. It was true we’d say for instead of fur, but I didn’t see how the more correct pronunciation counted as an accent. More often the differences were in words rather than pronunciation. When mother told a local lady that her little house was pretty as the flat her sister had in Chicago there was almost a fight. Flat was not in the local vocabulary except as something indistinguishably dull. Boys in my new Seventh Grade class informed me of words for body parts that bore no discernable connection to the Latin forms I knew. They chalked this up to my religion. I went along thinking theirs was a view not worth arguing.  

In one area I was a total stand up. Years of picking up basic survival skills under the eyes of ever watchful Nuns meant hearing my name called in class I’d pop from my desk like one of Redenbacher’s best kernels ready to recite. Any student who did not stand promptly and smartly when called was in for a wail of unwanted attention. A boy who slouched was asking for the firing squad. My classmates in public school thought my bounding up when called was riotously funny. But it was very difficult for me to curb habits of order and obedience. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have got some kick out of being slovenly and lazy in manner. You know, burp, scratch myself, have my shirt half untucked, wear jeans instead of pants with a crease, and maybe my zipper not run all the way up the pole. I was sure I could do those things and could do so without practice, but I was equally sure that soon as I did Sister Mary Alice Storm Troop would know of my fall from grace and lay me low like a boy struck by a supersonic nuclear blackboard pointer. I wasn’t risking it. Life was too dear to see it splattered by a long distance liturgical bomb.

Another thing setting us apart was a tradition of uttering aloud a short prayer whenever entering or leaving a home. Everyone in our family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and kin all did this. In Chicago where ethnic neighborhoods and customs were common and appreciated it was ordinary as day for Italians to use Italian or Poles use Polish. Nobody particularly thought about it. We just did it. Here on the North Shore where Luther was better represented than the Pope I dropped the custom as far easier to avoid than explain, especially to kids told Catholics had arsenals in their church basements. I only wished. Having some real firepower available has appeal when you’re a Seventh Grader getting pushed around.

Odd as we looked and sounded as freshly transplanted Chicagoans on the North Shore we did not hold the field of peculiarity as exclusive turf. The elderly woman we bought our house/mouse hotel from claimed to have been an operatic singer. Her neighbors said it was Vaudeville. We decided not to have an opinion on that one. I figured she had to be a very skilled actress for having convinced my mother she was so poor we ought to give her 9 months free rent before we moved in. That was something because not even I got nine free months from mother. I paid, but I no less admired the elderly woman as an entirely interesting character. You could knock at her door but she would not appear until properly and heavily made up. It fascinated me to think how she did it. I imagined her applying makeup in the dark using a spatula. That was how it looked. Commanding as her appearance was her speech. Her sharply pinched face shot precise remarks like a lizard zapping a bug with its long tongue. It impressed me. Before we moved in I asked her if I could have a much rusted rifle that hung on the porch. I’d no idea iron oxide could be so dear. She acted as if I’d requested a pristine heirloom instead of something which in her own words she found outside an old homestead. I was disappointed not to get the rifle but relieved I’d not been flayed to the skin for asking. I was fond of my skin and wished to keep it free of lizard tongue lacerations.

After our house she moved a few miles to another mouse mansion similar to ours but with the standard two exterior doors instead of the five we had, because an earlier resident feared fire and had an escape door in every room but the bath. (At age twelve I was glad our bathroom had but one door. If I was going to burn I preferred privacy.) Like all the old ladies for miles around she had a cat. Actually there were lots of cats, but only one was officially on the roster. It was a calico she called She-she. If there was a world championship for shedding She-she would have been a top contender. Sitting on her sofa meant standing up in a whirr of fuzz to leave wearing fur coated pants. When I took a bath later there’d be a mess of hair in the tub. I knew it wasn’t mine. She-she’s fuzz got everywhere. You’re one hundred percent correct seeing nothing unusual in an old lady having a cat. The weird part was her seasonal neighbor adopting the cat every summer. A bachelor with eyebrows large as gray bat wings, he was a retired professor. Right now you’re thinking all sorts of things, aren’t you? But I bet you are not thinking the old boy would wheel She-she in a baby carriage daily to the Post Office. It wasn’t far, maybe a half mile. Any of your neighbors do things like that? You’re glad of it, aren’t you? I’d be, too, but he was harmless and had good stories. In the fall he wheeled She-she back to her winter home. Then he left for where we’d come from, Chicago. Maybe that’s the connection.