Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Paul, Beautiful Sue, Wayne, the Paperboy Failing Algebra & the University of Chicago Lab High School (1966)…Part Two…by Robert M. Katzman

Paul, Beautiful Sue, Wayne, the Paperboy failing Algebra, and the

University of Chicago Lab High School in 1966.

by Robert M. Katzman © January 31, 2018 

Part Two

So Paul and I met twice a week for months in that small room in the library with two wooden chairs and a wooden table. I told him about how the newsstand was progressing and what I was learning, and the difficulties of learning to manage a one-armed, one-legged 69-year-old employee, born in 1896, who as it turned out was the original owner of where my newsstand was now, except his was there in 1916. This became sessions of stories about stories.

I had no identity as a writer, never considered that as any kind of career for myself and wasn’t writing down any of what I told Paul when we met, or his stories either. Like two pre-biblical Israelites carrying on a kind of oral tradition of expecting the next generations to preserve unwritten history. But we were both telling each other stories. I wasn’t expecting anything from him, but I was glad he seemed interested in this kid talking about whatever I was talking about. But when we were telling stories, we weren’t talking about algebra, so that was good.

Bill Reynolds lived across the street from where Rick and I set up the first newsstand and evidently watched us from afar. We were surrounded by nothing, just boarded up buildings, an Illinois Central train stop across the street, and learned we were located about six blocks south on Lake Park Avenue from where a tough old cop told us where the bordellos used to be. Bill and the cop knew each other. Bill knew everyone over the age of sixty in the area.

I nodded when the cop told us about that, waited a bit, and then quietly asked him what a bordello was. It turned out that he was being polite, not wanting to say “whore houses” to a couple of kids fifty years younger than her was. He and Bill looked at each other a lot, looking down at the ground, smiling about what they weren’t saying.

Bill was trying to get out of Chicago in 1912 at the age of sixteen by attempting to grab onto the metal ladder of a westbound freight train in hopes of making it to California. This was only sixty-four years after the 1848 gold rush, or still within living memory of the old guys Bill knew then, some of whom were Civil War veterans and to many kids and adults California represented a fresh start, a land of opportunity, or a American Promised Land. My own parents and our extended families spoke of California that way as far back as I could remember, possibly when I was five in 1955.

But Bill made his dash for the quickly moving freight train during a heavy rain storm, and when he jumped up to grab the bottom metal rung of the attached ladder on the back of the railroad car, he pulled himself up a couple of rungs, then maybe there was some grease on the ladder from some railroad maintenance guy’s boot, but when Bill reached for the third rung he suddenly lost his grip, fell awkwardly backwards landing partially under the train and on the railroad tracks which instantly cut off part of his left arm and leg.

Paul was riveted by my repeating this story to him. I was not a storyteller in my own view of myself, but I had no idea about any of that, then. But I did gradually realize that I was a sort of conduit storyteller, repeating Bill’s stories first told to me, then to Paul, stories across generations.

Bill Reynolds was twenty-four years older than Paul. Born before the Spanish American War, born before President McKinley was assassinated, born when Russia still was under a Czar and Palestine was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He was living breathing history to a couple of guys who could together be his child and grandchild. All we were missing in the cozy library room reserved for the two of us was a crackling fire to sit around with the lights off, telling scary stories in a dark and windy prairie someplace under the stars.

Today, fifty-two years later, I am still two years younger than Bill was then in 1965. Time has become ever more elastic as I flow through it, losing my family and friends along the way and carrying their stories with me as I keep moving on. The stories aren’t heavy, but losing all those people sure is. Who can I call to remind me about this or that part of a story, if everyone I write about is dead?

There is a terrible loneliness to being the surviving guardian of so many other people’s stories.

Paul asked me about details of Bill and I kept talking. I wasn’t used to so much attention and it warmed me. But I never made anything up because that would be lying and I had real issues with liars. Liars had no character, couldn’t be counted on—well, in 1966 I felt no one could be counted on to come when I needed them—but if I did, the liars would never be one of those in my imaginary world.

Bill had no memory of the accident that took so much of him and he was in the hospital for a long, long time. He never spoke of any family or other people who looked after him, but after he recovered and learned to use a wooden leg and arm, he got on with his life.

At that time when person was gimpy, a Yiddish-American slang word for crippled, or was blind, local governments gave them newsstands so they had a way of making some sort of living and also be connected to the larger community. Hyde Park was more village-like then when he got his newsstand in 1916, and he became pretty successful and philosophic about what Life had done to him. He also augmented his meager profits from selling newspapers by learning to become a bookie.

This illegal career choice of his echoed through the decades, which I was startled to learn from some friendly street beat cops in 1969 that the local vice-squad in the 21st Police District discovered that my still wooden newsstand had a telephone, so naturally they took for granted that old Bill’s successor had become a bookie, too. They parked under the viaduct across the street trying to figure out a way to catch me doing it. I continued to antagonize them by never doing that.

The chief vice-squad cop didn’t like me for some reason, didn’t hide that and wouldn’t even accept free newspapers from me like all the other cops did. But that’s another story.

Paul did have a chance to meet Bill since he knew exactly where and when he worked. I never witnessed that, but he told me about the electricity of the moment, when he met the real guy I was describing to him in my stories, the guy who when he didn’t like someone called him a “satchel-assed bastard” or when I said something that annoyed him, which was frequently, he yelled at me: Fuck That Noise!”

As I began to hesitantly write some stories for my English class, motivated by the exquisitely beautiful teacher, blonde and slim Sue Phillips, only twenty-two years older than me but unfortunately married, and whom I was anxious to please, I began peppering the stories with 19th Century words I picked up from Bill, the ones which weren’t profane. I wasn’t aware that what he said and how he said it would perhaps be incomprehensible out of context.

Only when Mrs. Phillips asked me to stay after class—yes, Heaven existed– to answer some questions about my word choice and other things, did I begin to realize the uniqueness of my two intersecting lives.

But Sue Phillips saw something very distinct in me, encouraged me to keep writing, was so warm and gentle in helping me to learn how to write a coherent story, and I managed to have her as my English teacher for three out of the four years I was at U-High. My crush on her was and is inextinguishable. Time can’t touch that. In 2003 she heard my first public reading of a story at Chicago’s Chopin Theater on North Avenue, east of Milwaukee Avenue. She was seventy-five by then, and had been reading my stories through the years.

In that small intense high school with a total student population of about 600 students for all four grades, Freshman through Senior, all of the faculty knew each other, and I know that Paul was eventually in touch with Sue—I mean, who wouldn’t want to be?—and they discussed my general situation because if ever there was an odd duck at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, I won the prize. They together were the two of the three pillars that gave my a sense of self-esteem and an awareness that writing about my life was a real possibility and that other people would actually want to know about all of that. This was incredible.

Some middle-class Jewish kid gets beaten for nine years, runs away, opens a wooden newspaper stand and somehow becomes interesting.

Sue, encouraged by Paul whom I never saw together, suggested that despite my rigid newsstand obligations, that I was a disaster with math, and my total disregard of sports as something I would never consider doing, told me to go see Wayne Brasler, then only twenty-seven, who was the head of the journalism department which churned out the Midway, the high school newspaper. Maybe he’d consider accepting me as one of only eight students chosen by him to be in his class each year. I did that, with no expectations of him thinking I’d be able to contribute something of value whatsoever. But he did.

Did Paul talk to Wayne?

Did Sue talk to Wayne?

Did the three of them conspire to see if they could find a way for me to be successful at something, anything, in that harsh school? Was there ever a discussion that I actually had…talent?

Remember the part about my despising liars?

Ok, well that was true, and remains so. I never ever knew if any of them met or talked to each other or if that was how I managed to become the eighth member of the staff for the next two years of what stunningly became in 1968 the most awarded high school newspaper in in the history of United States, winning all nine “Pacemakers” by the national judging panel. Pacemakers were the high school equivalent of the Academy Awards, except in journalism.

Wayne Brasler went on to become a national figure who eventually had an award named after him. No high school newspaper ever made a clean sweep again. I don’t need to write fiction. Real life can be breathtaking in its twisting and turning way.

Me?

I became a columnist, ad writer, ad salesman, cartoonist (much later illustrating my own books when no photo was available), won a prize in a story contest when Wayne submitted a science fiction story I gave to him to read and he sent it in without my knowledge.

Then after that, deciding that I was not intimidated by the high school’s authorities or adults in general, because he knew all about my increasingly successful newsstand and the growing number of employees gradually added through my school years, and even had another student interview me about it and published the story, which was a big surprise to my classmates who even after three years didn’t know what Katzman did with his time before or after school.

Wayne loaned me to a sister publication of the overall school, The Parent-Teacher News-Letter, where I began interviewing the teachers, administrators, and some of the famous parents of my antagonizing classmates.

One, Eleanor Parker, (1922-2013) was a movie star who appeared in more than 80 movies, was nominated for three Academy Awards, and was in The man With the Golden Arm movie with Frank Sinatra. She was active between the forties and sixties, and was still pretty good-looking when I met her in 1968, when she was forty-six. She also starred with Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, and Ronald Reagan, and lived to the age of ninety-one. So when we met, she was at the exact midpoint of her life.

I had to put my interviewing her on hold while she and her Manager of Chicago’s Shubert Theater husband eventually stopped necking in a doorway when he arrived home from work. I was nervous enough being alone with her in her luxurious high-rise apartment, but he, about six-foot-six, definitely was a further distraction. She was a real good kisser, too. I guess.

Time moves pretty slowly when you’re watching, although not supposed to be watching, other people kissing, was one thing I learned that awkward evening.

Then, one day I somewhat innocently while writing up a new Newsletter interview, compared the young assistant-principal to a chipmunk, in his perky enthusiasm because of how his face looked with his bulging cheeks. Surprisingly, to my relief, he really liked it. But then other faculty members asked to be interviewed and to be compared to other adorable animals. After hesitantly agreeing to do that a few more times, I ran out of attractive animals and decided to quit. Get out while everyone is still smiling at you is a pretty good philosophy.

Wayne never left that select school, they wouldn’t let him retire, he was an in-house academic goldmine attraction that drew ever more parents whose children wanted a career in Journalism, especially as the University’s high school became more proletarian and the ratio of non-faculty students was allowed to increase.

Now seventy-nine and retired, finally, Wayne, Paul and the ever beautiful Sue, now 90, together impacted my life like three rockets, remained my friends for life and I know that whatever I am in the eyes of other people, if it is impressive in any way, it is because of those three God-sent teachers. They civilized me, saw what was invisible to anyone else and let me know that despite my appearance, despite the ink on my hands (all the way through four years at that school), despite my incurable simmering anger at what life had already thrown at me, I was worthy of them, of people like them and that remains incredible to me, yesterday, today and forever.

But, what was it like for me to have twenty employees by mid-1967, while being seventeen, a lawyer, an accountant and a corporation, and at the same time failing Geometry and not yet finding one single girl at U-High to go on a date with me, even though by summer I’d bought a very cool old 1962 gun-metal blue Buick Electra 225 for $300. Girls were a foreign country to me. I just didn’t know their language.

Oh, and how did I ever pass the driving test after failing it twice due to nervousness, and possibly incompetence?

One of the nice older cops who sometimes hung around the newsstand with me on dangerous Saturday nights, and who one of my “Alternate Universe Real Life Tutors” along with Bill Reynolds, and who was sympathetic to my driver’s test misery, and suggested that in Chicago—cautioning me never to repeat this (but he’s dead now)—if a person wished to pass a driving test to get a license who wasn’t legally blind, all they had to do was put two dollars on the seat between them, stare straight ahead while holding the steering wheel, and say nothing.

Next time out, armed with the cop’s specific instructions, I did just that, exactly that and without a word. Left the building with a license, fifty years ago. Two dollars in 1967 money is equal to $14.77 in 2018 money. I guess the guys working there made it up in volume.

Are you getting the idea that this story/eulogy is an entangled tale with a varying cast all passing through both of us as time flew by? Well, it is, because true stories are complicated and messy and heartbreaking and wonderful, so, yeah, I’ll keep on writing about Paul, Sue and Wayne at other times and you’ll keep meeting other people and seeing other places across America as our relationships kept us rendezvousing in other places. You are welcome to come along for the ride, if you please.

 

Contact: robertmkatzman@gmail.com

 

4 Comments »

Comment by brad dechter

January 31, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

Nice one Bob! Good to know that you do have redeeming/”worthy” features- I thought that you walked on water and didn’t require redemption! (Wink, wink.)
I obviously believe they talked.
Nicely woven tale.

Comment by James Manella

January 31, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

Hi Bob my grandfather had a newstand at Chicago Ave and Clark, he had seven children the yougest was my Dad. Grandad was a bookie too, and did pretty well owning 2 apartment buildings on Rodgers Park. My Uncle Pete ran that newstand until the early 70s. Then was a messenger for First National Bank.

Comment by Charlie Newman

January 31, 2018 @ 3:36 pm

Rock on, Bubba!

Comment by Jim Payne

February 1, 2018 @ 10:04 pm

I love your story telling. It is so good it even makes me want to write a story. You are a great story teller and you write just as well. I will be looking for the next chapters. Part of what makes your stories so interesting to me is that you tell them just as you saw them, just as you lived them. They always move along like you are now. The rebel is in them.

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