By Drew Gamble - Apr 24, 2017
In 1977, my parents bought a house on a busy street. The home fell inside of a half-square mile oddity of land and bureaucratic mishap that the locals called Skevanston. This real estate snafu allowed people like my parents to buy a better valued home in the city of Evanston’s school district while paying the town of Skokie’s lower property taxes.
I came into the home in 1984, as the fourth child and only boy. Across the street from us was a large field loomed over by a tall tree that grew blackberries the size of cicadas. They rotted in the grass and stained the soles of your shoes. You could eat the fruit right off the low hanging branches. Every weekend an RV converted into a portable library would park on the other side of the field, and I’d cross our busy street with my mother and before we’d climb aboard the Book Mobile, we’d scrape off the blackberries jammed to the soles of our shoes. The outside world ceased to exist as soon as I was standing inside of the RV, on that dark shag carpeting in that narrow, air-conditioned space, loud with the sound of an idling engine. I’d peruse the neat shelves of books and the disorderly piles upon the floor, even choosing what I couldn’t yet fully comprehend, depending on the way a cover illuminated an undiscovered part of my mind, and I’d add to the stack in my mother’s tote. I’d hand over my Skokie library card to the mobile librarian and go back across the street to my home with the Evanston address.
When I was old enough to go out alone, my next-door neighbor would help me search through the garbage in the alley behind our houses for things to destroy. Sometimes he’d climb the fence under the power lines, and grab hold of them with both hands, lifting his feet into the air. He called it High Wiring. His brother, a Marine, would challenge us to fight in the basement of my neighbor’s house, while their father slept upstairs. Whenever I won, his brother would cuff my neighbor’s neck and berate him for losing. Then we’d head upstairs and eat a Filipino dish of fish and rice with our fingers. The day the body of an elderly woman living on our block was discovered rotting inside her home, we searched through the garbage behind her house after the paramedics and fireman had left. Inside of a brown grocery bag, we found the small white body of her dog. We put our hands on it through the paper, and marveled at how stiff and bloated it was. We didn’t look for anything to destroy that day. This neighbor would later throw a rock at my face, busting my lip, leading to damage that would eventually kill my adult tooth, and then, unrelatedly, move away, but not before he gave me two two-dollar bills. A few years after he left, while walking along a state highway in Skokie, I would find a dead kitten wrapped in several damp pages of hardcore pornography.
During my formative years I was educated at Walker, a prairie-style elementary school. The faculty and student body was ethnically and economically diverse. The school itself was, at least from my memory, very supportive of any artistic interests its students had. My artwork, which was oftentimes horrific when it wasn’t plain goofy, and which my parents had to excuse at more than one parent-teacher conference, was displayed in the hallways along with the work of other students, or at the Skokie Public Library, although the drawings had been created in an Evanston school. My stories, which I wrote in an effort to work through some learning disabilities that I was being tutored for in special classes, mirrored those same visual sensibilities found in my drawings. I wrote about romantic ninjas dismembering their way through big-armed bad guys on their quest to find a long lost love, sadistic cop-vampires on Harleys with a talent for slaughtering young coed campers and any other kind of cartoon violence that could be attributed to the books, video games and movies I was being entertained by at that age. Whenever I visited the school nurse I’d look at the poster above her desk of a crudely drawn zebra contemplating existence, and I’d consider my own waking life and if there were any future beyond the urn or casket. My mother would drive me past the dormitories on Northwestern University’s campus to a large stone building overlooking the lakeshore that specialized in helping children like me. I was tutored by a revolving staff of older women, and one in particular, a spinster with dry, frizzed hair and a penchant for cleaning her contact lenses in her mouth, encouraged me not to fear language but to command it, and our sessions instilled an enthusiasm in me for provoking the formulation of words into sentences and so on and so forth until I created a thoughtful, cohesive page, which we would read through together and she would help me to refine. She advocated for my idiosyncrasies and I’ve never forgotten her for that. I always meant to send her a thank you card and I haven’t.
I was developing my own ways of working through independent or shared sensual experiences of the traumatic or tragic. I was learning to harness chaos through the order of precise language.
One year, the boy who lived down the alley from me was walking his little sister to our elementary school, and he misjudged the speed of an approaching car and crossed into the street too soon with his sister and she was run over. She survived, slightly disfigured. The last time this boy and I hung out as children, we had been throwing apples at cars. I was standing with him at the end of our alley in my rollerblades. The alley was covered with loose rocks. He and I alternated cars. We had a large reserve of crabapples from the tree in his front yard. I had the better arm, as I was a pitcher back then, and a couple years older. A car came through the intersection and I timed it perfectly with a flawless overhand pitch. The apple bounced off the grill and split on the windshield. The car pulled over to the curb and parked. I turned in my roller blades, careful not to slip on the alley bed of rocks, and followed my friend to the gate into his backyard. He shut and locked it behind him. I stumbled several feet towards my own backyard before the exasperated driver grabbed hold of me, and elaborated on the dangers associated with being a reckless, stupid little fucker. Years later, that same boy’s father committed suicide at a shooting range.
In the summers, the carnival came to Skevanston. The Catholic school hosted it in their parking lot and adjacent field to raise funds, drawing teenagers from near and far, who would follow the sidewalks leading to the rigged games and the groaning machinery like gleeful refugees. The carnies worked in the spirit of isolated communities, and wouldn’t make casual conversation with anybody who wasn’t their own. And unless they were making repairs or restocking their stalls, they stayed in their trailers during the day. I would cut through the carnival when it wasn’t open yet and examine the prehistoric equipment in the light of the summer sun. Sometimes, you’d catch a carnie at the 7/11 up the street. My friends and I ran into one with a flat mohawk and wild breasts. We pooled our money together for a carton, and because of her we had cigarettes to last us until school started. We learned young that there would always be an adult to get us what we shouldn’t have.
We’d tumble through the air in the Zipper’s rusty cages, our change falling out of our pockets and ricocheting around us on every upturn, the coins slipping through the screen to the blurring ground on every downturn. We’d spit at each other from the Gravitron’s cushioned wall while it spun terribly fast, the carnie at the controls too busy headbanging to Metallica to notice. We walked four and five deep through the mercurial crowd, enough of us to thwart any lurking, predatory threat. One night, two of my friends were cornered by a group of older guys and robbed. They’d drawn attention to themselves when they did a piggyback ride. I stood nearby but kept my mouth shut. These guys were already in high school and one of them was a well-known drug dealer. No one came to help my friends who handed over their prizes and whatever cash they had. I was far enough away to watch undisturbed. Every summer that the carnival returned it seemed as if the violence it brought with it worsened. A young woman was raped on her way home. A young man was beaten with a brick. The police presence escalated, as gangs were rumored to have begun to infiltrate the carnival and surrounding area. Skevanston was a tree-lined, quiet area, of two- or three-story homes with private backyards and clever driveways, of wide side streets and hidden pathways, of parks with sophisticated playgrounds and crisp, unsulfured water fountains. Residents petitioned to cancel the carnival, but the Catholic school continued to hold their annual fundraiser amid the growing controversy and escalating violence.
The boys who went to the Catholic school were all white and kept their hair cut aggressively short, and they were candid in the racism they had inherited from their fathers. The Catholic schoolboys were apoplectic in their dislike for my public school friends and I, as our paths crossed nary without a verbal threat or homophobic catcall. The girls who went there were kind but oblivious, and wore skirts and button down shirts, and one time, while my friend who went there and I played with his classmate in his TV room, she sat down on the floor and spread her legs to show us her panties, red hearts on white cotton. My friend ordered me to leave immediately, and while I was reluctant to, I did. It never dawned on me until later that he hadn’t many friends at his own school or church. My public school friends and I convinced him to piss on his father’s car from a tree for a worthless rookie basketball card. We convinced him to let us chain him to fences using bike locks when we were too bored to play fair, and we’d leave him in chains until he cried. We threw tennis balls at his groin and if he bowed over in pain, we’d laugh hysterically and leave him cringing. We put hotdogs in condoms and stuck them in his mailbox, or if we’d found calcified dogshit we’d use that instead. We used our emerging sexual energy others might’ve utilized in sports or extracurricular activities instead for cruelty, and doled out new punishments with verve of creativity. This boy, more than any other, bore the brunt of our accumulative lust.
One day when he and I weren’t friends anymore, I had been challenged to smoke as many cigarettes in a row as I could. Declared the victor, I sat down at the end of a driveway and began to salivate and shake. It was a cool summer day, and I was sweating through my shirt. My friends, the losers in this challenge, were playing basketball in the driveway behind me. I belched and began throwing up, splashing my shoes and bare legs and white socks in chocolate vomit and flecks of gelatin from the gummy bears and cake I’d been eating earlier. I walked home laughing, vomiting every dozen paces, leaving a trail right past my old friend’s house where I’d seen his classmate’s panties, and I wished for him to see me there now as the crows descended from the trees to pick at what I’d left behind. I wanted him to witness the grotesque humor in full effect, and to become my friend once again. I turned the corner at the intersection and went through the alley home. My mother cleaned my shoes by hand.
Sometime later at that same intersection, I heard rumor that a truck had collided with a minivan, and that the minivan caught fire and the family inside burned to death. Whether or not the immolation was true, evidence of an accident was plainly obvious, and a four-way stop was installed. A block away at another, busier intersection, notorious for accidents, people continued to misjudge the speed of approaching cars. The median and gutter glittered with broken glass and plastic. It wasn’t until several years later that I witnessed an accident myself while standing outside of my friend’s house in Evanston proper. A hotboxed sedan driving at high speeds collided into the back of another car, snapping the driver’s neck. The teenager driving the hotboxed sedan cut across the opposite lane and onto my friend’s front lawn where he then parked, and he and three other teenagers jumped out into a sprint, beer cans in the foot wells, marijuana in the air. The police wrangled together kids from the neighborhood into a lineup on my friend’s front lawn and advised him to point out which of them had caused the rear-end collision that had killed a man. My friend lied and said he didn’t recognize any of them.
If my friends and I wanted weed we called the Evanston drug dealer with the yellow two-door sportster. One of us would get in with the money and go for a ride around the block. We didn’t have cellphones back then so we’d choose the reconvene spot beforehand. At this introductory stage of smoking weed, we didn’t have any glass pipes yet, and so we constructed apparatuses to smoke out of, notably, a ketchup bottle wrapped in duct-tape, that had been fashioned into a kind of plastic pipe. We’d pick out the seeds and stems from the bag in the weak light of a streetlamp, and step into the path near our houses to smoke, one person standing guard at each entry point. We’d get high and walk through the same parks we’d played in earlier that day. Around this same time, someone had littered one of these public parks with the torn pages of pornography, what seemed like hundreds of scraps from several different magazines, each addressing a specific kink, none less hardcore than the rest, all of the grainy pages scattered throughout the eastern baseball diamond and field, enough for all of my friends and I to take some home and still leave plenty more behind. The pages were water damaged from the morning dew, and the people displayed on them flaked apart as the paper dried. Yet everything that could be encouraged into mouths or shoved into the orifices was still viewable.
Our summer going into high school, we began to associate with a bigger consortium of druggies that had strong weed that they could sell us on the spot in public. We would roller blade to downtown Evanston and loiter at the 24-hour Burger King that had yet to become the politely remodeled haven for the homeless that it is today. We’d go into the parking lot and smoke to the side of the drive-thru, or go across the street to the grassy knoll where my parents had donated a life-size sculpture of a horse made out of metalized wood, and we’d get high beneath its skeletal legs. Some of these kids were into harder stuff. Mushrooms, opium, heroin, but my friends and I were only concerned with weed and booze. If we wanted booze, we’d find one of the two homeless men who we knew and could trust to buy us the alcohol, and we’d wait outside for them with our backpacks open and have them drop in the twelve-pack or handle and they’d keep the change and we’d go our separate ways. I’d carry the backpack back to my friends, using the same sidewalks my father, a landscape architect, had designed with his Evanston firm.
There were many things that occurred in that old, hybrid-area that would never occur again anywhere else that I’ve ever lived. Much of which has not yet been relayed. The murder of a black man who coached college basketball, a random victim gunned down by a lone gunman on a hate crime-killing spree, and my friend unknowingly walking past the victim’s house days later, waving around a pellet gun, oblivious to everything. Skevanston was a place where homeowners followed rules to a T, where grass was grown low and cars were kept clean. It excelled at the conformity of a predominantly middle-class community. There is much that I have left out. I have left out that the year I was born the city of Evanston lifted it’s ban on liquor stores. That throughout all of my formative years indicted above, I was taking mental note of the uncanny circumstances I bore witness to or heard of through rumor. Most notably, I was taking inventory of our suburban monotony’s subversion, such as the pornography in a playground, the rape outside of a carnival, or a child’s easy access to psychotropic substances. I have left out that Skokie was home to a very large population of Holocaust survivors, as well as a museum that contains the atrocious truths of the Nazi agenda. I have left out that my elementary school took us on field trips to hear the death camp survivors speak. I have left out the vandalism I committed, the trespassing on property, the one-time arrest, the fabrication of driver’s licenses for personal profit, the vile, petty behaviors of small, privileged middle-class white boys. But overall, I have left out what might be the essence of a special area in which myself, and several others I still hold dear, grew up. It was in the dark of the night, that my friends and I were arrested for having climbed onto the roof of a magnet school to smoke cigarettes and watch the sunset. What the police didn’t understand as they questioned us while handcuffed, was that we had been up there to view beauty. We were so used to running roughshod throughout our neighborhood, we hadn’t worried about the consequences, because for us, there never were any. We were used to bearing witness to a multitude of extraordinary moments that over time would accrue into some sort of collective memory of our hometown, and which I have attempted to share here. Things that my friends and I would continue to discuss in the years since. There was an innate tension between Skokie and Evanston that could be felt in the way that you crossed into their proper hearts. Evanston or Skokie’s downtowns, where commerce and recreation were centralized and where that city or town’s residents remained loyal pedestrians. Places I visited but never felt wholly united to. Places where I remained an observant voyeur, a role that I adopted in youth and that continues to this day. My parents sold our home in 2002. There is much that I have left out.