the beaches of rogers park
I’ve seen sand in blue and red and brown reflecting the seasonal light,
and waves in red and blue and black and churning white,
sluggish with crusted mandalas of ice.
I’ve seen wind rock the trees, working their many colored falls.
The same trees for years and years,
old trees, new trees, slow growing trees,
elms and maples and catalpas and trees of heaven,
bowing and shaking like wooden rattles
in the charged wind.
On the long, distant side of Pratt Ave. beach,
on the pier’s North side,
three willow trees anchor the sand.
Their branches a home for buzzing insects.
Their roots restrain the rising water,
The rising water of
the lake that owns the coast here,
the lake that rises and takes back the paths and park benches in winter and spring,
the lake that is the spirit of this place called Rogers Park,
this place where I have always lived.
As a child,
As a child,
my feet slapped soft, oozing sand
the length of the lake from the stained-glass catacombs in the basement of Loyola’s Church
to the happy ice-skating place at Tuohy.
As a child, I ran and skipped the length of the lake,
holding my breath while flying past the sign that said
“No Trespassing-Private Beach”
by the brick building at North Shore, where women
with long dark hair
and red nail polish on their toenails sunbathed on their porches
while their dark hairy-chested husbands barbequed
and said “Scram,” if you lingered too long,
hands clasped behind your back,
At North Shore
At North Shore,
concrete, giant steps
challenged a child’s short legs to descend,
and once you beached on the sand
you faced a long trudge through the burning sinking pebbles
before the slippery, silky water licked your naked toes.
The beaches of my childhood,
the beaches of my childhood soon stretched into adolescence
where the ritual exodus to the lake
gained power with each street crossed in East Rogers Park
as you called to your friends.
“We’re going to Albion!”
You joined one by one, sometimes walking arm in arm, and singing
“Doo, wah, Ditty, Ditty, Dum Ditty, Do!”
until you were a pack,
a pack of 10 or 12 or 18 or even more.
A pack of fresh-faced, chattering Catholic girls.
You walked past two-flats and houses
and past large courtyard apartment buildings
“Forward, east! ”
past furry, crew-cut lawns
and tailored gardens that were always being watered,
and you usually visited silently
the house of a friend grounded by her parents,
pulling yourself up
“Hurry up. Don’t get caught!”
peeking over the tall fence, waving,
then dropping to the ground giggling as you ran away.
Or you traveled the gangways,
tiptoing at the places you knew like traffic lights,
the places where grouchy old people would yell
and startle you for startling them.
You could easily travel only the gangways
each and every one that you knew by heart
and that everybody knew by heart like some secret highway
for high-top Keds, army boots and saddle shoes.
past two flats and houses until the black asphalt stopped
and neopolitan flavors of blue and brown rose to greet you at Lake MIchigan’s edge.
At Albion Beach
At Albion Beach
Budweiser abuse bred violence,
frisbees twirled and spun
all of the day and all of the night,
and the older boys drank too much mescal
and the older girls got into trouble
on the rat infested rocks
watching the submarines.
Before lights were put in to protect the park,
the only protection the boys and girls needed was the hushed sucking of the peaceful waves.
Bonfires were built and burned in the very darkest night
and when the boys and girls swam at night
they would take off their clothes
if they were wild enough
or if they didn’t care what anybody thought
if they were caught naked
in the sweeping headlights of a car.
It was there
It was there
where first cigarettes were smoked,
first whiskey seals broken,
bras first unhooked,
flies first fumbled
and then hands –no heads were ever used
hands busy groping,
groping as they found their way
to the back door knocking at the Granada Theater,
where the ushers were your friends
and they let you in to see the first-run movies free.
There in the gold and red velvet balcony,
boys and girls auditioned to be men and women,
and more whiskey poured from half-pints,
and boys dropped their blue “bomber” jackets
trampling them with their muddy, steel-tipped boots,
soles hard-packed with frozen sand from Lake Michigan’s beach.
And then really drunk,
the boys would hit the streets
falling down and fighting,
brother upon brother,
until the neighboring gangs heard something was up,
heard about the action.
And soon, a hundred, midnight-blue zippered jackets lined up
to fight in the dank fog
at the chilly lakefront,
hitting out with rank rage,
a drunken rite of passage,
the fight between adopted Irish families
that claimed turf limits at Hartigan Park.
One night a stranger, a black man,
wandered onto Patch turf,
and I watched handfuls of his shredded black hair
erupt from a plunging pummeling huddle of blue-jacketed boys
and then drift to the ground where it rolled up the sidewalk,
circling itself over and over like forlorn miniature tumbleweeds.
The boys said.
And you knew the world was bigger than Rogers Park,
and things more exciting and romantic
than the submarine races at Hartigan Park would call you,
and many beautiful things would happen
that could blow away the ugly smokey thoughts that rose from Connolly’s Bar
and tarred the racist smiles of the young men there
Their eyes already ached alchoholic red.
And you knew that love knew no color
and that war was wrong
and that adults had heavy hands and even heavier hearts that they’d press on you
to hold you back and down.
If you let them.
There was escape, there was a place.
Past the sea wall at North Shore, past the frat house on Columbia,
past the new breakwater,
lay delicious and different beaches
teeming with older teen-agers
and men with long hair and beards and handsome mustaches,
and women too.
Women who wore peasant dresses,
but no bras or shoes
and slept in the bushes.
They made love in the bushes
and hid from police during the night.
The park was theirs they said.
“Take back the park.”
And they sold all kinds of things during those hot muggy summers of drug love,
they sold illicit goods from the open trunks of their cars at Morse Ave.’s Pill Hill.
They swarmed the close, mossy street like moths crashing in the white street light,
they peddled their wares,
tangled, pungent branches,
leaves and buds
and rainbow colored capsules
in shimmering, see-through sandwich bags,
and micro pieces of puttied sky wrapped in tin foil.
The long-haired mustached men sang.
“Chocolate mescaline, peyote, man.”
And they looked like pirate princes
and the women looked like princesses of a lost promised land,
floating by in their billowing dresses,
bare breasts, soft, pressed against the thin, gauzy cloth,
against the thin, tender cloth of their gowns
native to some distant, crowded place where veils hid women’s faces from men’s eyes.
In the carnival nights at Pill Hill
anything could happen and it always did
and that’s why the police came every night to clear the park
and beat the bushes.
But hiding places were plenty,
and the police couldn’t reach them all.
The black horizon of the lake,
the longest stretch of beach bowing far out from the walk was empty,
and distant from the path of a patrol car,
and the police never used their legs.
on a cool, fragrant summer midnight,
you could hide by the ink of the lake, snuggling in sand until morning
when the sun rose flamingo pink and blinding
from the cobalt-turning-turquoise water,
the orange light in blinding stripes of gold and silver.
The sun burned spots into your eyes,
spots seered like white flies into your eyes,
fantastic insects caught
in the sticky fiery surface
of the blazing, brilliant horizon.
And in the summer days and dusks,
guerilla theater, and Free Street theater players roamed, handing out props to any who’d play,
and guitars strummed,
and bells rang on ankles,
and incense burned
and often there was a belly dancer,
and hundreds of people – all young and mostly white and long-haired.
And you were one,
one of them, one with them finally.
One night, hundreds of people gathered under the street light and waved their arms in unison,
shaking their fists at the Park District curfew sign.
“Park closed at 10:30”
Hundreds of frustrated fists slammed the air together that green heavy night.
And the sign came down amidst cheers and confusion,
and the sound of police on the bullhorn.
And you ran home after curfew, arriving at your parents’ house
breathless that night,
what a night,
that night you’d kissed a red-haired boy
He had said you were beautiful
You’d held hands with a wigged out girl from school
who’d seen Beethoven’s Ninth symphony expressed
in perfect musical notation in the lightning-filled sky.
You could barely sleep waiting for the morning,
when all the excitement of the promised land would begin again.
And you swore to yourself
that you would toughen your feet so it was easy to walk barefoot,
and wear granny glasses and a floppy hat
and never, ever, ever wear a bra.
You would ditch your shoes behind your mother’s favorite bushes,
in the morning,
and ready yourself for the world outside,
for the beach in Rogers Park.
I practise Tai Chi in the autumn sun by the lake,
Carry Tiger to the Mountain.
I lift my hands, palms up to the burning mid-day sun,
and then drop them flat, like a gull drops its wings settling in tall, scratchy dune grass.
Around me brown and black and white babies play,
and their mothers speak clicking, clattering
rolling poetry in languages I’ll never know
as they picnic in circled dozens under the trees, Krishna cymbals ringing,
passing dishes of dried fruits and nuts
from hand to brown hand.
On the park benches gold teeth flash.
“Bam, Bam Nyet. Bam, Bam Nyet”
Boomboxes broadcast rap at the basketball courts
where bottles of Night Train pass with no lack of lip,
“Hey Bro! Pass it this way”
bomber jackets and steel-toed boots
replaced by baseball caps and baseball bats and guns.
And you’re filled with wonder at how
love knows no color,
and you know that war is always wrong,
and you lift your hands and heart
to the sky.
Copyright 200-2001. Sduros Communications.