Stacey Harwood shares some Hump Day Highlights at The Best American Poetry blog and links to these amazing essays!
Then, the last week of May, I got an email: “Benedict Wisniewski wants to be friends on Facebook.” Not the Benedict Wisniewski, I thought, the boy who presented me with a red plastic ring with a white knight on it in first grade and said, “Now we’re just minutes away from marriage”? Not the Benedict Wisniewski who gave me Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” album as we stood with our moms on the steps of St. John of God Church after our last graduation practice on a blue-green early summer evening, and said, “I got it at the best record store in all Chicago — Yardbird Records. They have the best selection of bootlegs in the area. And,” he whispered conspiratorially, “they also have head supplies!”
I didn’t know what “bootlegs” or “head supplies” were then, in 1974, but Benedict, a misfit like myself, the butt of classmates’ taunts (he for being fat, me for being skinny, both of us for being “different”), really knew music. We both loved rock and roll with the passion of outcasts whose loneliness had been redeemed by it. I needed to find that store. But I’d forgotten where Ben had said it was, if he had said. But three years later I finally found it, as my dad drove Georgie and I back from driver’s ed, and from then on I hung out there every weekend. Then during the week. Then I dated one of the owners: Arnie, eleven years older than me. My mother constantly threatened a restraining order, but she needn’t have worried. We never really dated until I was about to turn eighteen. Our first “official” date, in fact, was May 6, 1978, a few months before I turned eighteen. When he picked me up on the corner of 51st and Ashland (I told my mother I was going over by Georgie’s house) the digital clock in his Datsun B210 read 12:34 — our first date had commenced on 12:34, 5/6, ’78. It would prove auspicious, too, as Arnie introduced me to the tiny but dedicated Chicago punk rock scene, centered on the north side. He was my ticket out of the south side. He died in 1979, at 29. It was because of him that I learned that it was the north side, and then New York City, upon which I should set my sights if I wanted to pursue artistic goals (writer? painter? actress?). But it was Ben who had pointed me in that direction in the first place. And now, all these years later, I could thank him. I wondered what this had to do with my mental state, if anything. Deep down I knew it was probably everything.
By email we described what our lives had become: Ben was chief operations officer at a big stock trading firm located in Chicago’s Board of Trade building, with a corner office and a staff. In other words, he’d made it. I was embarrassed telling him about my life — I was making less than half of half what he was making. He’d also opted to stay at home and take care of his mother, and I felt guilty — now — about leaving my parents to go live in New York. Wanting to connect with this living, breathing link to a past I was so desperately trying to bring back (or at least understand), I asked him if he wanted to talk on the phone. We started talking regularly on Thursday nights, and our first conversation was about our revenge-through-success fantasies.
“My bête-noir in those days,” he said, “was that guy Johnny Grundy — remember him? With the rotten teeth and greaser hair? Greaser hair . . . in the Seventies! He made fun of me every single day, tried to trip me in the hall, ripped papers out of my folders, put my books in other kid’s desks, put gum on my chair . . . he thought he was cool ’cause he was in a gang, you know? And so, dig this: it’s years later, I’d just gotten out of college, I’d lost a ton of weight, I was working for the city so I had a damn good paycheck, and I had a date with some girl. I was all dressed up — designer sport coat and tie, dress pants, the works — and I had my Mustang then, this little candy-apple red Mustang coupe. Totally hot car. Guys used to pull over at red lights and ask me about it. And so I took it to this car wash at 60th and Western, and I pulled in and got out — this was back in the days when they drove it through the cash wash for you — and I’m standing behind the glass, watching the guys work on it, and I’m looking at this one guy and thinkin’, ‘Man, he looks familiar …’ and dammit if it wasn’t that fucking low-life Johnny Grundy! And when they were done I went over to the car, and he kept looking at me, and I kept looking at him, and I knew he knew who I was, and he was looking at the car I was driving, and looking at how I was dressed — and he was in this raggedy old t-shirt and jeans — and I didn’t say a damn thing to him. I just drove out of there with a big smile on my face thinking, ‘This is what happens in the real world, you son of a bitch.’ ‘Cause I was the fat boy that nobody wanted around.”
“And I was the skinny girl that nobody wanted around.”
“And now I’m sitting in my office with a view of the lake, behind a $2,000 hand-carved executive desk, with my butt firmly planted in a $500 leather chair, thinking those kids that made fun of me — where are they now? Wiping down cars, making shit money. And look at you: traveling around the world, reading your work in foreign countries, getting published, doing what you love … that’s what ya call payback, baby! Don’t it feel good?”
It didn’t. Because I wasn’t successful — I’d just forfeited a Fulbright. I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and I was going to have to start my 3-week adjunct summer teaching gig in a week. I was a mess. Plus I still hadn’t gotten my revenge-through-success on the clique of girls who’d tormented me. And now I was in the grip of something that was taking my last chance at even moderate success as a writer away. I was still a loser.
During one of our conversations, Ben told me about a Facebook page created by two former St. John of God Grammar School alums. But he said to beware — everyone was discussing the demolition of the church, which had just begun. I’d been following the final days and closure of the church for years; my mother had sent me newspaper clippings describing the parish’s struggle to keep going despite its dwindling — and then barely existing — congregation, its famous crying Virgin Mary statue, and its final Mass in 1992. I’d wished I’d been there for that final Mass, to see the priest and altar boys leave the altar for the last time, to have one last look at those four pious kneeling angels, the painting in the dome that had inspired such peace in my soul, and the shafts of colored light pouring in through the stained glass windows at the beginning of three months of summer. I’d even had a crazy dream of writing a coming-of-age novel so powerful it would revive interest in our historic neighborhood (the first American grass-roots community organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, had been founded there, by activist Saul Alinsky in 1939) and the archdiocese would re-open the church because of overwhelming demand from the influx of new parishioners. I’d make the local and national news, Oprah would choose my novel for her book club, there’d be an interview with me in front of my old house. Artists and urban pioneers would flood into the neighborhood because of the cheap rents, yuppies would follow, and newspaper articles would be describe the “new diversity,” never-before-seen on the “white flight” south side of Chicago. I actually did write the novel — Greetings From Jag-off Land — but the handful of agents I’d sent it to turned it down, so I shelved it and went back to writing poetry. About joining the SJG Facebook page, I was uncertain: I didn’t know if I wanted to embellish my despair over the demolition of my life with despair over the demolition of the church. The idea of that beautiful church with its graceful, lace-like twin spires, its high and airy vault — my childhood sanctuary — being torn apart was just too much to bear. But curiosity got the best of me, and I joined the “St. John of God Parish and Grammar School” page.
The names of almost-forgotten, now vividly-recalled kids from various grades scrolled before me: Kubicki, Wroblewski, Dombrowski, McGuire, Glow, Walczak, Shedor, Faro. I could see them, and many others, making their idiosyncratic ways up and down the aisles during Communion at 8 a.m. Mass: the girl who developed early and knew it, and rolled her skirt and left the first three buttons of her blouse open, the one the boys called “Bouncy”; the boy whose mother had died and whose shoes had soles that were half off, and so he dragged his feet, making a shushing sound; the tough gang girl who liked to fight, and shot dirty looks from under her blunt-cut black bangs at other girls in the pews. The names I didn’t recognize were girls who’d gotten married, I figured, so I clicked on the links to their pages and it became clear who’d they been back then. Two of my teachers were also there, including Mr. Urbanek, my seventh grade English teacher, my favorite, who’d first encouraged me to be a writer. The names brought on an internalized feeling of the shape and space of the school: light brick, modern, L-shaped, two floors, long windows, two sets of red double doors along the front, and a white cement Lady of Fatima statue, with three kneeling children and a couple of sheep, on the grass behind an iron stake fence. Inside, the shiny marble floors of Kindergartens A and B (upon which I’d napped next to Ben on a rag rug) inlaid with the alphabet, numbers, friendly animals, a clock that looked like a sun. In all the classrooms were high, wide windows that had to be opened with a long pole, and low bookcases containing red Thorndike-Barnhardt Scholastic Dictionaries. In front of Sister Principal’s office (where I went with Billy Peak in Kindergarten because we fought over who had colored their Thanksgiving turkey drawing more prettier) sat a big, plush German Shepherd, placed there by my classmate Melanie Rybczinski, whose mother was the principal’s secretary. I could smell the mimeographed paper we used for cursive writing practice in the lower grades, and feel the curvy orange Palmer Penmanship Pen we used later (and also my continual irritation at not being able to make those wheat stacks look the way they were supposed to).
But also there, as I feared, were photos of the church in the process of being taken down. At first, I couldn’t look at them, but, again, curiosity got the best of me, and there was the mural of Jesus with the children, now with nothing but clear blue sky behind it and raw plaster all around it. The vestibule was in ruins, and rubble littered the winding staircase that led to the choir loft. A linked youtube video, called “Goodbye, St. John of God Church,” made by the daughter of a woman who’d graduated the year before me (and whose brother had been in my class), lovingly lingered on the details of whatever remained amidst the rubble and the mold-damaged, peeling walls. The murals of peaceful, pious, kneeling angels flanking the altar were chipped and fading behind dust and mold, though they still continued to display, to the best of their ability, and for whatever eternity remained to them, the censer, St. Veronica’s veil, the chalice and Host, and the Crown of Thorns. (Now, I could finally see their faces and tender expressions up close — it made their imminent destruction even more tragic.) The pews had been removed and an inflatable basketball hoop and backboard put in, and garish blue and yellow protective plastic padding covered the Stations of the Cross paintings. A cheap digital scoreboard had been added to the wall below the choir loft — the church had been repurposed as a gym for the community center that was our old grammar school — and a sign affixed to the outside of the church read “William J. Yaeger Memorial Gym.” The lofty white marble and gold main altar had basketball-shaped puncture holes at the bottom, and the alcove where the statue of St. John of God once stood, holding a pomegranate surmounted by a cross in his hand and looking down tenderly, bemusedly, was empty. Remaining atop the main altar were the two white marble figures, seated, looking down protectively; they now looked down on rubble-strewn floors, and an inexplicable car tire. The dome painting that I’d loved so much, of St. John of God ministering to the sick man, assisted by an angel holding a vessel of healing liquid and the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus seated on clouds, remained poignantly intact. Outside, the two slender bell towers, stripped of their exterior bricks, looked like stockyards’ smokestacks. At the end of the video was a quote: “‘What the heart has once known, it will never forget’ — Author Unknown.”
There were discussions about the church that echoed my own feelings:
— Has anyone gone back to “our” church to see how it looks? I don’t think that I can, I’m afraid my heart would break in a millon peices…
— I was looking at the pictures on the site…is that a scoreboard where the choir used to be?? Wasn’t the church blessed at one point? How can there be basketball games going on in a sacred place?!!!
— All our indestructible memories, amid the ruins . . .
— OH MY GOD!!!!!!! It’s a gym????????????????????? That is horrible!! I can’t believe someone allowed all of this to happen.
— I went past there about two months ago, showed the kids where I grew up and the size of the school compared to where they go. The church is still standing but it just looked deserted. When did they tear down the “old” school? Remember doing the plays there or using it for a lunch room?
— God bless our home.
But there was actually hope. Reading more recent postings, I learned that St. John of God wasn’t exactly being wantonly demolished. The beautiful Renaissance Revival facade and some of its exterior were being transported, brick-by-brick, to Old Mill Creek, Illinois, a town on the Wisconsin border, to become part of a new church, St. Raphael the Archangel. The interior of the new church would come from another closed Chicago church. This was something that had never been done before, apparently; the Archdiocese of Chicago had an epiphany: a recycling apotheosis. In a photo of the new church going up, I could see the beginning of the familiar collonade that would shelter the massive front doors. In a video, the foundation-laying ceremony included putting St. Raphael’s corner store on top of St. John of God’s. I recognized that cornerstone — the date, in Roman numerals, had been chiseled incorrectly originally, and some smart-ass had written the proper way in underneath, in chalk. The chalked date had been erased, and now it would apparently remain awkwardly calculated forever — I liked that. My former fellow schoolmates were just as encouraged:
— Whew! My childhood memories are just . . . . moving.
— Heard about this move. Sounds like a great idea and a way to continue the beauty of this church in a beautiful church.
— If by moving it it will continue to be of use, I say bravo, Archdiocese of Chicago.
— My sister already contacted the pastor at the new church and the old St John members are invited to attend the “opening ceremonies”. Thought it would be a great way for the old St John family to symbolically hand over the building to the new congregation. Any thoughts out there??
— That sounds like a great idea to attend the opening ceremonies. I would love that. Anyone else?
— Absolutely! I went past the new location recently and took these photos of the limestone bricks of “our” church waiting to be pieced together . . . Although these are waiting to be reconstructed, somehow just being among them, made me feel at home!
The shape and color of those piles of bricks brought back the palpable and familiar presence of the church. I could feel myself, so vividly it surprised me, walking up the wide steps, standing at the entrance to the church, under the collonade, with a glance cast to the side, to the trees that surrounded the church, just about to grasp the door handle and enter the vestibule on a mild spring morning. In the background of the photo the unmown Midwest prairie grasses and tall trees of its new home on the Wisconsin border recalled Sherman Park. It occurred to me that the church had been moved to the kind of bucolic location that Sherman Park was designed to suggest — it had been moved to a beautiful, peaceful place, away from the violence that had been done to it. It would never be the same without its original interior (which had been ripped wantonly away — why couldn’t those beautiful murals be saved?), but it had been moved so that it could serve a new purpose for a new community. Had I wanted it to remain where it had been, serving no purpose except to be a useless symbol of a long-ago time? There was something to be learned from what was happening to St. John of God: at 50, what was my purpose? Was I just clinging to a long-ago time that could never serve a real purpose? And hadn’t I been de-constructed recently, hadn’t my insides been ripped away?
I knew there was something to be learned from that, and that all this was in my life for a reason, but could I emotionally deal with it? If I started posting on that page, and people responded, what other wounds would be reopened?
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.