Saturday, August 22, 2020

Texas Notes: Ernie


      It's Saturday, which means EGD's Austin Bureau Chief Caren Jeskey checks in:

      Chances are you did not see the live mannequins posing in lucite boxes at Limelight, a club that stood for a few short years in Chicago in the 80s. Nor, some of you are thinking, would you have wanted to. 
      I, on the other hand, was in my late teens and felt like Madonna as my boyfriend and I got whisked inside as the friends of a 6’ tall model who worked the boxes. A goth woman dressed in black platform boots and a tiny black mini skirt stark against her milky white skin passed my boyfriend a little piece of blank paper. He somehow knew that it was her number in invisible ink. I missed the memo on that stealth technique so didn’t realize what had happened. He was so grandiose in his 21 year old glory that he bragged about it to me. I took the paper, ripped it up and threw it away. Ah, the good old days of being a club girl. My priorities were really in order.
     My then-boyfriend— I’ll call him Ernie— was in Chicago without proper immigration papers from Coahuila Mexico. After running away from home at the age of 18 (after my freshman year at DePaul) and telling my folks that I was moving in with a gay friend, I lived with Ernie and his two friends, also immigrants to Chicago. We drank tequila and grilled cheap cuts of beef on the grill on the back porch of our little apartment on Belmont near Damen. We played cards until the sun came up, watched TV, went to the park to throw balls around, and threw big parties. 
     When we met, Ernie told me that he was from Spain with a wealthy father and a 13 bedroom house. He was tall and had long black hair, and was quite the fashionista. I bought it, hook, line, and sinker until one day he said he had something to tell me. He asked me to sit down on the bed with him. Silently he passed me a black and white photo. I recognized him as a much younger man, and he was surrounded by a dozen more children and a plump and warm-looking woman, his mother. I’d listened to him talking to her on the phone for hours each week so many times that I understood every word he said to her, and I felt I knew her. Somehow I never learned to speak Spanish, to my regret. As I looked at the photo he revealed that the family I was looking at was his family in his home city of Piedras Negras. He had been afraid to tell me that he was born in Mexico. 
     One day Ernie came home in tears— the man who owned the retail store he worked for had died in a fire, right in the top level of the business. There was talk of suicide as the business was going under and the owner had his children to think about. It was a very, very sad day and took Ernie months to start to recover from. Thankfully, a man who owned a similar business a few neighborhoods to the south of us quickly gave Ernie a new job. There was a whole underground system that employed a crucial part of the backbone of our society. Sad that they had to live in fear while the oblivious shoppers happily purchased the large items folks like Ernie sold and loaded onto their backs and into trucks to be delivered to the homes of the privileged. These men had no days off, no PTO, no health insurance. They were grateful to be employed and they all sent most of their income back home to their families. Even Ernie at the young age of 21. This is the sole reason he moved to Chicago, to support his mother and siblings.
     I moved on from this relationship when I found out that Ernie had been dating another club girl; for six months by the time I discovered the truth. I was on the couch watching TV on a Saturday morning while Ernie was at work, and the landline rang. I answered. When she heard my voice the first question she asked was “who is this?” I said “Ernie's girlfriend.” She said “This is Ernie’s girlfriend.” 
      I got the essential details so he could not attempt to gaslight me— they had met at Avalon, a club on Belmont and Sheffield, when I was in the ladies' room. I remembered her. He and I had been admiring her style. I called for help and a nice lady named Dawn who I worked with at a luggage store on Michigan Avenue came right over to pack me up while I cried, and we got out of there. I had first called Ernie at work to tell him that I knew, and I was leaving. He rushed home and made it before Dawn and I had loaded up the last of my things into her car. He cried and pleaded and lied and told me he loved me. Good thing Dawn was there, a step-aerobics instructor in her spare time and quite tough. She shooed him away, ushered me into the car, and off we went. 
     Her roommate Paige met us there and they helped me settle into their spare bedroom in a rambling vintage apartment on Sheridan Road near Loyola , where they were students. The room had French doors that opened up onto a stone balcony, and a big, blue, soothing fish tank. We watched soap operas, hung out at Hamilton’s bar, spent nights in Barrington where some of their friend group lived, and I started to feel normal again. When Ernie came by with roses and tears they sent him away as I ran out the back door to the Lunt beach. 
     Years later I learned that Ernie and our roommates had not paid the last gas bill. and before I was able to turn the gas on at my new place the bill would have to be settled to the the tune of over $400. I knew where he was working and called the store. When I got him on the phone I demanded that he pay the bill. Within an hour he had paid it, in person, at an outpost on Milwaukee Avenue. I did not want anything more to do with him even though he tried although was already dating someone else. He said he’d leave her for me. I was too smart for that. Years later I somehow found out that he had married this lady, a cute Jewish woman who was a teacher and cheerleading coach at a high school on the northwest side. I hope he and his family in Chicago and in Mexico are doing well today.

19 comments:

  1. As with all your columns, I read with anticipation of a great ending or at least some sort of closure.
    This held my interest and then it just stopped. Is there a chapter 2?

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    1. I confess I had a similar reaction. It seems an abrupt, truncated conclusion to what was, up until then, another well-crafted, intriguing piece.

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  2. Thanks Les- I felt that too. Yes, I will tell more.

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    1. Ahhh. Closure. Thank you.
      Sometimes people deserve a second chance. Sometimes the don't. The tough part is knowing when.
      Good decision.

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  3. Is this a teaser with more to come? I was looking for the "click here" link to the rest of the story.

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    1. That seems a common response and Caren, like me, being a full-service columnist, has added a conclusion to it.

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  4. Totally enjoy your Chicago memories.

    "He said he'd leave her for me". Seriously? Tough not to see a pattern there. Everything we do gets us to where we're at. And you're obviously in a good place.

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  5. Thank you Baruch. Yes I am- and not for want of trying.

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    1. Or do I mean not for a lack of want of trying? COVID brain + possible double negatives = mush.

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  6. OMG...Chicago in the 80s...Smack Dab in the Middle (remember them?) of the last time I lived in Chicago as an adult (1975 to 1992).

    Oh, yeah, I remember Limelight. Went there once, with my live-in girlfriend and a big group of people from the house she'd lived in. I was never a clubber (too dorky), so while everyone else was dancing, I started hitting on her ex-roommate's friend, a very attractive, burned-out, 45-year-old "older fox." And I almost moved to Belmont and Damen in the late Eighties, when it was mostly Hispanic and when gentrification was still years away, but ended up north and west of there instead.

    Even almost three decades removed from my Chicago years, I still get a lift and a rush when I see a story like this one, with all those North Side place names--just like I still do when I see the word "Cubs" in print. Michigan Avenue. Sheridan Road. Loyola. Lunt Beach. Hamilton's. Avalon (think I once went there on New Year's Eve). DePaul. Belmont and Sheffield. Milwaukee Avenue.

    I lived all over the place...moved around way too much. Broadway and Surf, East Rogers Park, West Rogers Park, across from Lakeview High School, Irving Park and Western, and twelve years in South Evanston. The North Side is in my DNA, and I'll always bleed Cubbie Blue.

    Great story. There's gotta be more to this story. A lot more. Can't wait to hear it.

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    1. Thanks! I got the chills just reading the landmarks you mentioned that I’d mentioned. Then some more with your list. Chicago is special.

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  7. Thanks much for a great blog, and a great ending. We are spoiled by NS, and love your blog too (on his!)

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    1. Thank you! I love being here as a guest, and Neil’s writing grabs me and doesn’t put me down.

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    2. We all feel the same about NS; how lucky are we!

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  8. I lived in Rogers Park in the 80's and 90's. Drank at Hamilton's many times usually in great excess. Always a fun walk back to Pratt and Sheridan where I lived. Your Rogers Park landmarks in your stories always take me back.

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    1. We must have crossed paths! Remember the old boarded up theatre?

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    2. I moved there the Granada was closed, the Immediate Theater was in my apartment building. 400 was still big, Cheers was wooden inside, the Beefsteak Inn was there before Leona's and many little shops like Round Records by the Loyola El Stop.

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    3. Ah yes, the Granada. We'd knock on the boarded up doors on our way back from Hamilton's and folks who lived inside would knock back. What a gorgeous building that was. The 400 was thriving again before COVID. A friend's father owned a convenience store on that stretch when we were in grammar school in West Rogers Park...

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