by Colleen Sutherland
Years later I would say to the kids, “You missed the Sixties” with pity in my eyes. Yet if it hadn't been for the 1960's, I would never have married their father.
We met in a corner bar on Clark Street. I was trying to avoid the neighborhood bag lady who wandered in and out of local establishments. She smelled of oatmeal and booze and sweat. She wore all her clothes on her back, which worked in the winter but was not so good an idea on a hot spring day.
I made the mistake of doing something socially responsible once after I'd been to a lecture at Hull House. We were supposed to care for the poor back then so I helped carry her filthy bags down the street. After that, whenever she spied me she trailed me to talk to me about my lack of morals. All that winter she showed up wherever I was. When I took my wash to the Surf Street laundromat, there she was, staying warm on frigid days. For extra warmth, she stuck her bum into a warm dryer whenever someone had just finished using it. I took to taking a bus to the next available laundromat.
She was a communist, she said. Back in the days before photo IDs were required, I would see her patiently waiting at the library polling place to vote. The poll workers tolerated her whims, because after all, what was one or two commie votes? She was crazy but they left her alone.
It was fine for them but whenever she spied me, she was after me, talking about the loose morals of women in their mini skirts and tie died shirts and lack of bras. Back then I didn't need a bra. No droop, no point to it.
That afternoon, I saw her coming down Fulton Street and ducked into the bar. I was close to my apartment and I sure didn't want her to know where I lived or she would be pressing my buzzer over and over, day and night.
“Give me a lemonade,” I told George, the barkeep. Back in those days, I wasn't a big drinker. Pot was cheap and available so why wreck my liver on booze unless some guy was paying the tab? Times change. Laws change. Highs change.
I was sipping and reading the notes taped to the bar mirror when I smelled the oatmeal, booze and sweat. She slid on to the bar stool next to me and started a mumbling rant against the establishment and demanding a drink.
“You buying for her?” said George.
I shook my head and turned my stool to the right. Two stools down, there was a guy reading a newspaper, looking at the want ads.
“Any luck?” I asked.
I slid over next to him and started to flirt, leaving George to deal with the crazy woman. That was his job, not mine. My social responsibility phase was over.
That was how I met Bill. He was unemployed and hairy, but he was wearing peace beads and his body looked OK and I didn't have any one else to do that week. We arranged to meet at another bar that night, but a better offer came along, so I didn't show.
The next day we ran into each other again at a peace rally. He bopped me with his Make Love, Not War sign. The war was a boon to guys on the make. Politics and sex were a good mix.
“Where were you?”
“Here and there,” I said, ducking behind him to avoid the bag lady, who was ranting about the war at the edge of the crowd and scrounging for free food. At least there, a communist fit in. We protestors wanted the draft to end but she wanted the North Vietnamese to win. Our wants intersected, so she was tolerated.
Bill sussed the situation. “Want to blow this rally and go down to the lake?” He handed his sign off to another protestor.
The day was sunny and the wind gentle and steady. On the way over to Lincoln Park, we stopped at a store and bought cheap kites. Back in those days a kite was ten cents and a ball of string fifteen. There was a stone wall to sit on and Lake Michigan could be counted on for a strong enough wind. We got the kites up with no trouble.
I found out he was unemployed except for a part time job at a McDonald's. He found out I worked for a big firm in the Loop. During the week I pretended to be a big time capitalist but on the weekends I went where it was happening and that meant being a hippie. Bill had spent the previous year at Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love, but now he was crashing in a flat with a bunch of protestors. I had my own apartment. We were just beginning to getting to the point of kissing with a bit of petting when there she was again. The old bat had followed us.
“Whore! Jezebel!” She sure had read enough of the Bible for a communist. Too much Bible study can drive some to godless anti-capitalism.
I took fingernail scissors out of my rucksack and cut the strings. The kites floated out over Montrose Harbor and we took off, leaving the string behind. When we looked back, she was carefully winding it up and putting it in one of her filthy bags.
We ran all the way to my apartment and spent the rest of the day in bed. It was post-pill and pre-AIDS, so there was nothing to worry about that a little trip to the local clinic and a shot of penicillin wouldn't take care of.
It was the Sixties and he was good at the bed thing. We wrestled on my grandmother's antique quilt under the aspidistra, drank herbal tea and ate Swedish limpa bread slathered in cream cheese and honey. Then we smeared the honey all over our bodies and went at it again. When we needed a breather, we shared a joint.
Sometimes, when I wasn't in the mood, he gave me fabulous back rubs, slowly working up my spine till he straddled me, worked his fingers down my sides and played with my boobs until I was in the mood.
In a few days, he had moved in with me. He quit his fast food job, but he managed to find around $50 a week somewhere toward food and bills. He could have been dealing drugs but nobody minded that in those days. I went to work each day, he stayed in bed reading the three Chicago newspapers I brought home each night, looking for jobs. At the end of the day, the want ads were marked, but he didn't seem to get very far on the job search. I didn't mind. My job was good and he was a decent fuck.
We went out to bars where he would could hustle pool players to make enough to pay for his drinks and my Cokes. I cooked at the apartment or we went to protests where food was being handed out. We wore peace beads and fit in with the crowds. We talked politics. He agreed with me on every point then dragged me back to bed.
A week later, he proposed. I refused. It was the Sixties and I was liberated. What was the point?
Perhaps he wore me down. Perhaps it was the Alice B.Toklas brownies he made. Perhaps it was the old woman questioning my morals every time I went out the door. She represented my Midwestern parents who weren't around to nag me. Whatever. I finally accepted.
We went down to the free clinic for our blood tests. Back in those days, the only reason for a blood test was to get married. When he fainted, I found out he was afraid of blood. The anti-war stuff began to make sense. Three days later the doctor called to apologize. One of the vials of blood broke on the way to be tested at the lab. It was his vial and we had to go back. This time, he brought his own smelling salts.
When the blood tests were finally OK d, he met me downtown to get our marriage license at city hall after work. We were there when the news broke that Martin Luther King was assassinated. The riot was already happening, starting on the south side and moving north.
“Go home,” the city hall clerk said, but first we had to go get our wedding rings at Marshall Fields. In those days there was only one, the one downtown. I paid for the rings with my charge card, one of the first issued. We bought two silver bands, $19 each.
By then, the streets were filled with blacks. (They weren't African American for another decade.) We ducked into a movie theater and decided it was probably safer there than on the street. It was an old movie theater subsidized by the University of Chicago that showed nothing but classic film twenty four hours a day. To make it more available to the students, the charge was only 99 cents, but that meant it was always filled with drunks and weirdos instead of kids. Downstairs was a combination of booze and piss. Upstairs was put aside for women only, but the lesbians were going at it up there. We found a spot downstairs, covered the seats with napkins, and watched Marx Brothers comedies for three hours as old men and women beside us mumbled about whatever was on their mind. It could have been a bag lady convention.
I had my own commie bag lady up on Surf Street and finally had enough. We went to the lobby, peered out and listened to glass breaking up and down the street. A Clark Street bus came rumbling. We jumped on board, the only two passengers with a petrified driver. He kept asking us if we wanted to get off at various places so he could take his bus farther north and abandon it somewhere.
We wound up at the same bar where we'd met. George was there, with a shot gun across the bar and a pistol in his hand ready to protect his establishment. We stood outside for a while watching Chicago go up like a fireworks display. It looked like the fires wouldn't come this far north but it was a night to stay awake. Bill pulled a couple of joints out of his wallet and we lit up. After an hour or two, we went behind the bar with George's pistol and took turns shooting rats, laughing with every shot, until a patrol car came up to the front, lights flashing. We dropped the gun and ran down the alley back to my apartment.
We found out later the bag lady had wandered into a riot and got herself killed.
Three days later, we were married at city hall during my coffee break. Friends bought us a wedding pizza sprinkled with pot instead of oregano.
A week later I came down from a marijuana haze and I realized I had made the biggest mistake in my life. Bill gave up giving me back rubs, became a Republican and railed against the deadbeats on welfare. He told his friends that he believed in women's liberation saying he allowed me to continue working. The Sixties were over as far as he was concerned.
I regretted not being nicer to the bag lady that first day in the bar on Clark Street. Funny how a little thing like that can change your life.