Tuesday, October 10, 2017


Joanie and Diane

When Joannie graduated from college, her father told her he would pay for either college or a Thunderbird.  Fully aware, she chose the T-bird.  It was pea-green.  She and her buddy Diane cocked their sailor hats over their eye and zoomed off to participate in the world!  

Well, at least, Union Avenue, which had not yet been re-named MLK.  In summer when I was home from college (Northwestern University), they took me along because their mothers would say,  “If Mary is going, it must be all right.”  I do not know how I projected this idea of providing safety, but it has been with me all my life despite risky behavior and perilous situations.  I felt I was putting my friends in danger with my false safety.

Christmas, 1957

Diane said, when she heard I had a scholarship to Northwestern — I never applied anywhere else and none of us had heard of Northwestern — she said, wisely, “When you come back, you’ll be changed.  We won’t know you anymore.”  And yet when I came back for Christmas, they  met me at the airport and gave me a dozen red roses, as though I were a movie star.  The next summer we rode the T-bird again.  That was about the end.

In those days college at a bigshot campus was something like space travel, going to an unknown world.  But it meant you were designated someone special, like an astronaut.  And Diane was right, I was changed in deep and unintentional ways.  So was the world.  I sat in physics class (which I had no business taking) while the prof played the living sound from the new Sputnik, beeping as it circled the planet.  (When he found out I had no math, he threw me out and would have cursed except that he was a college prof with dignity.)

The School of Speech at the time was an orderly place where freshmen took three quarterly courses in sequence:  public speaking, interpretation (spoken literature), and speech therapy/audiology.  If you had “comped out" of bonehead English, you took a survey class with an auditorium-sized audience.  Bergan Evans was the prof.  Also in that class somewhere must have been Ivan Doig and Paul Winter.

Today, the School of Speech no longer exists.  Now there is Communication Arts with departments called “Communication Sciences and Disorders: which includes learning disabilities; Performance Studies “the sprawling intersection of personal narrative, literature, culture, technology, and performance theory”; Radio/Television/Film, relatively traditional except for “the social and cultural impact of media” (very French theory); and Department of Theatre which (bless its heart) includes “the full benefits of a liberal arts education.”  This was an ideal of Alvina Krause's thought.

A few years ago there was on the Internet a posted diary of a dead man (suicide, I think) who had attended about when I did.  Arrogantly indiscrete, it revealed what we kind of knew at the time:  Dean McBirney was a narrow small-town Chamber of Commerce man with a mistress and a hatred of all things gay or otherwise unconventional.  He was out to destroy Alvina Krause, our beloved “Method” acting teacher who protected exactly those same elements: nonconformity, exploration, risk.  She had been sponsored and protected by the preceding Dean Dennis.  Looking at the contemporary shape of the transformed School of Speech, one sees no public speaking or debate, the keys to that McBirney’s focus on demagoguery.  He was an early seed of Trumpism and finally lost.

Many of my classmates became famous.  The first of my 3-quarter sequence of classes was public speaking.  My first faltering speech was about Maria Feodorova, the Russian Empress I had played in Anastasia.  Looking for a sympathetic and responsive face, I focused on a handsome young man, who — returning the favor — gave his speech with me paying close attention.  It was about a hometown murder: a son killed his parents with a blade, not a gun, very bloody.  This was one of the people who became a close friend who said I made him feel safe.  He eventually directed “The Strawberry Statement.”  And a lot of other things.

My freshman year, entering women lived in an old hotel about a mile off campus, called “The Pembridge.”  I had a peach of a roommate, Judy Lou, who was the daughter of a high school principal and coach and his divorced interior decorator wife who had remarried.  The first thing I was presented with was a bill for matching bedspreads and dust ruffles.  Neither I or nor my mother (who had to pick up the tab) had conceived of such a feature of college life.  None of our beds at home had dust ruffles.  Judy Lou was warm, generous, and entirely in charge.  I was a challenge, but she laid out the rules.  

We lived by her portable phonograph:  woke to the "Four Freshmen" singing “redirect your feeeeeet, to the sunny side of the streeeeeet” and whiled away the evenings with Frank Sinatra.  Now that I’ve mentioned those damnable “Four” I’ll have their ear worm the rest of the day.  Judy was not an ace student but she knew how to live.  She loaned me a silk-lined dress (I didn’t know dresses ever had linings) and dabs of her Arpege or Chanel #5.  (I was still wearing Faberg√© “Act III” which Melba Day Sparks had given me for graduation.)

We were in the lakeside corner room of the 6th floor and took the brunt of storms coming off Lake Michigan a few blocks away.  At the same height as the elm trees on the street, I once stood in the window watching and met the eyes of a seagull being blown sideways while trying to fly forwards.  He seemed resigned.  That’s sort of what I felt like as well.  Great forces beyond what I had known gripped me and propelled me.

When the weather was calm and hot, one would walk the distance back to the Pembridge and hit the Coca Cola vending machine, another phenomenon new to me -- bottles, not cans.  One of the women, seeing someone just beginning to swig the cold, dark, biting fizz, would demand,  “Tell me what that first taste is like.  It’s always the best.  Describe it for me.”  In its banal and deadly way, it was like a bite of the darkness where Sputnik swung through space, beeping, beeping.  No words. What did it mean?

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