Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Computer Commons on a Tuesday Afternoon

Another crying baby. It frets and wails disconsolately for an hour or more while its stoically oblivious parent frowns into a computer screen and pecks at a keyboard. Finally it is tucked and quieted and strolled away. Presently another infant takes its place, accompanied by another unmindful caregiver.

It must be annoying, even unsettling, but no one says anything. Not to the parent, not to the staff, not to security, and certainly not to the baby.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Electronic Communication

Three times I had to search OutlookOffice365 before I could get the damn thing to open... Why was I trying to so hard to get past the error messages? There is nothing new here, nothing at all.

The Price of Progress

It is a bright crisp morning, so sunny that the warmth of the sun makes up nicely for the unseasonable chill. I would like to be outside walking in this but I can't. It is Monday and I am at work.  Time was when Mondays were my scheduled day off. Now I have Mondays free only when it observes a holiday.

I am in Microfilm again, making a pretense of reading my assigned drawers. I am sulking, doing this perfunctorily. I try to concentrate but am too busy wishing I was elsewhere on this lovely day to make much headway. I am so sick of the Chicago City Directories. Why these microfilms, anyway? Why not Life or Look or Seventeen, whose content would at least be more interesting as I check for accuracy and quality.

An elderly customer strides in and parks himself at a reader diagonally opposite mine. He has just turned on the machine when suddenly he thinks of something. "Crap," he says irritably, and jumps up. He strides to the front of the room disappearing momentarily behind posts and signage. Then he returns, takes his seat, and resumes loading the film roll onto the machine. He does not notice me watching him, engrossed in his task. His thick hair and full beard are much more salt than pepper and his face is lined. But he is trim and brown and purposeful and his hands look strong.

Reel 25 - 1915 Alphabetical Only is problematic. It is difficult to know for sure if he correct roll is in the box labeled Feb. 1915; June 1915; Oct. 1915 because the quality is poor--not the tape itself but the microfilmed pages on it. They are so faded as to be nearly impossible to see, forget about read. Even using the zoom and the--what's it called? The wheel thingee you turn this way and that for sharpness and clarity?--even fiddling with the controls doesn't help. There should be handwritten text on the START panel identifying the rolls's beginning content but that too has faded out to streaks of ghostly, skeletal markings. I make a note of this on my lined pad.

I keep scrolling and scanning the film. Eventually a sequence card displays the Feb. 1915 Alphabetical information; a little further along there is another for June 1915. I presume if I keep scrolling I will encounter another for Oct. 1915. This part of the film is much easier on the eyes as the page quality has significantly (I hesitate to say "dramatically") improved. I would like to say that if this day were mine to do with as I please I'd be in Washington Park right now taking some air and getting some much needed exercise. I'd like to say that but honestly maybe not. Maybe I'd do what I often do when I don't have to work, sit in my easy chair watching Boomer television. The Mod Squad, I happily note, has made a return to ME-TV's summer programming. That's almost the only change, other than the weekly addition of Sunday afternoon's The Love Boat and The Rockford Files.

Maybe I'd be reading. I read a lot but I should read more than I do. I don't lack for literature; lately I've checked out enough library books to warrant their own shelf in the bookcase above my bed. If I were home now probably I would be reading. But then again maybe not. There's what you say you will do with your time given a chance and what you actually wind up doing. I came to work depressed, thinking about all this.

I come now to a panel on the microfilm that is striking in its clarity and old-time formatting. It is a cover page and inside its bordering, large Times New Roman lettering says TELEPHONE DIRECTORY. Underneath this is a circle inside a circle. A narrow band of of capitalized wording in a different font says CHICAGO TELEPHONE COMPANY and AMERICAN TELEPHONE & TELEGRAPH CO. In the inner circle there is a picture of a bell shaded in black with the words LOCAL AND LONG DISTANCE TELEPHONE stenciled on it. Underneath the black bell appear the words BELL SYSTEM. Outside the graphic, in larger lettering, it says CHICAGO AND ADJOINING COUNTIES and (in smaller font) June, 1915.

The next page shows an artist's depiction of a couple in old-fashioned clothing. If this was 1978 or 1989 or even 1995 I would describe their outerwear as "turn of the century" but not now. They are standing together in a lush setting under a palm tree. The woman has her hands in the pockets of her jacket and her expression is vaguely wistful. The man standing next to her has not time for wistfulness. His back is to her and he is looking through binoculars at several steamships in the distance navigating a strait. The picture is captioned "The Price of Progress" and there is something here in the accompanying text about the Panama Canal being "the most marvelous achievement of the age." I haven't time to read more. I am due, I think, at Newspapers and General Periodicals.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Saturday Morning

I am not liking today's schedule.

This is the kind of scheduling that makes me wish so fervently that I'd been assigned back to my neighborhood facility, warts and all. Were I there instead of here, I'd be working the big busy desk charging things out and checking them in, and/or (probably and) assisting with incoming stations. Or I'd be moving along the aisles maneuvering trucks groaning under the weight of returned items (always and inevitably re-routing materials to outgoing stations trucks for return to their branches of origin). The morning would hum with activity, then settle into the kind of quiet that lets a person think a bit.

Not this regimented one hour here, the next hour there, and so on. I didn't need daily spreadsheets telling me what my workday would be. At the neighborhood branch I knew what needed to be done and as time and circumstances permitted I did it. I knew my job. I was good at it.

Half my day today will be spent in the time machine room. As a patron I used to like that room a lot. I had no thoughts then of working for the city, least of all in a library. Being posted to that room each day reminds me why I felt that way. I loved libraries, I always did, but was convinced that working in one would somehow spoil both my enjoyment of the facility and all my childhood memories of what public libraries--especially the stately main downtown building--repre

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


It's early. 37 minutes more before we open for the day. I am in the staff kitchen, silently cursing my stupidity as I visualize the unintended whereabouts of my carefully prepared lunchbox of tuna salad, Ritz crackers, yogurt cup and apple slices. I am hoping the day will be a quiet one, hoping plans and preparations for the approaching holiday occupy most of our regulars.

Moira, white, attractive and slender, arrives a few minutes behind me. Eight months in and I still don't know precisely what Moira does or what her title is, just that she's one of the full-timers here who moves like she runs the place. She is bearing several cardboard boxes and a large square pan. She places them all carefully on the table close to the center, and invites me to help myself. The boxes contain small wrapped sub sandwiches, saran-wrapped pickles spears, and little individual condiment and plastic-ware packets. The pan is a chocolate chip coffeecake Moira proudly announces she made herself. She pulls paper plates from the shelf over the sink and generously offers me one of the thick pre-cut squares, along with my choice of sandwich and pickle.

I accept immediately, grateful for the lunch solution. The coffeecake looks amazing, the darkly glistening, half-buried chocolate chips dotting nearly the entire surface. I shouldn't, my sugar intake has been off the charts lately... I wolf it down. I am going to have a raging headache within the hour but it is totally worth it. The cake is dense and sweet; it is effing delicious.

I enjoy it so much that I wait a few minutes as Moira busies herself making coffee, then sneak back into the kitchen when I think she's gone to take another piece--maybe two--for later. She walks in and catches me at it. A blink-and-you've-missed-it side-eye as she serenely pulls down coffee cups.

"As long as there's enough for my team," she cautions politely and I am immediately chastened. I decide to keep the piece I've already wrapped in foil and stored in the fridge alongside my sandwich but abandon the idea of taking any more. I am embarrassed at my greed and Moira's observation of it. Annoyed too, faintly. Something about her demeanor--that super-polite tone with the hint of cool disapproval underneath it--suddenly reminds me of Molly. Molly with the delicate fine-boned face and tiny, ballerina waist. Is there a secret club all white women of a certain age belong to? For a moment, I hate Moira Conner and her precious homemade chocolate chip coffeecake and wish we'd never encountered each other. Maybe I should return that second piece, along the with the deli sandwich and the pickle. I can buy my own damn lunch.

It is later. I sit at my desk, munching the last of the pickle, stewing about Moira, I mean Molly, I mean Moira.

I mean Molly.

Actually not so much Molly as all of them, the whole Mulvaney clan, remembering them and Mom and me some 20 years ago, around the time of Molly's engagement to James. Remembering how afraid my mother was.

Here were these strangers, her in-laws-to-be, affluent, educated, attractive--the youthful Mulvaney women especially--and brimming with confidence and social ease. Their elder daughter, a University of Chicago law student, was living with her son in a Hyde Park apartment somewhere off Cornell. Jamie was waiting tables at that pizza place on Kenwood. What did he see in her? And why a white girl? A girl from a family so different from his own? If he was trying to make his mother feel insecure and off-balance he couldn't have come up with a better choice. I watched Mom try to be happy for Jay but I could see that... well, she had her doubts. Put it that way.

Miranda Mulvaney was happily married to the father of her four grown children. She had a thriving career of her own, was slim as her daughters, drove her own car, and was friendly and outgoing. My mother, a billing manager for a tire company, had none of these things. The Mulvaneys celebrated everything and there was a lot to celebrate: the sale of Mike's company upon his decision to retire, Peter's promotion and posting to London, the publication of Danny's new novel, Kelly's acceptance to Barnard. Whenever my mother found herself in the company of this family of accomplished, globetrotting go-getters she was reminded of everything her family wasn't, everything she wasn't, I knew.

So she kept me close. I was moral support. Maybe also a shield of sorts. From the first I felt this. But listen, I had my own insecurities and didn't liked to be chained to my mother every time she faced a gathering of the Mighty Mulvaneys.

Did I ever tell you this story..? The Joy Luck Club story? Yeah, well.

In the fall of '93, some weeks before the wedding, Miranda Mulvaney decided it would be nice if she and her girls and Maude and her daughter could do something together, just the women. There was this new movie she and the girls had been wanting to see, and she thought--why didn't we all meet at the theater and see it together? And have dinner afterward, her treat? I will never know with what degree of enthusiasm or reluctance my mother accepted this invitation. But she did and then she called to tell me. I was immediately wary. What movie?

What movie, Mom?

Well (long pause) it's based on that book by Amy Tan.

Amy Tan? What book? Which book? (Oh no...)

It--oh, what's it called--it talks about the lives of these Chinese America women and their daughters.

Uh-huh. (Oh shit... Oh no.)

I was aghast. Seriously? This was the way Miranda Mulvaney thought we should begin to get to know one another? The five of us passing popcorn back and forth through a 2 and 1/2 hour angst fest exploring the whys and wherefores of mothers and daughters who don't understand each other? And then, what, spending another hour or so dissecting it over dinner? I cringed at the very thought.

You have to understand: nearly all of my life my feelings for my mom have been this complicated, love-hate thing. I couldn't summon one iota of enthusiasm at the prospect of spending hours in the dark next to her, watching this of all films and then talking about the meaning of it all with three women who were near strangers to me.

I did my best to get out of going but my mother would have none of it. She half-bullied, half-begged me to cooperate. It would not have been nice to decline Miranda Mulvaney's invitation, it would not have been polite--these two would be mothers-in-law soon and grandmothers eventually, after all--and she was goddamned if she was going to face these suburban superwomen alone. (And besides, if Miranda Mulvaney's invite was the only way to get me to a movie my mother had been hoping we'd go see together anyway, so be it. Every time Mom saw a TV advertisement for The Joy Luck Club she nudged me.)

Honeyit's one evening out of your life.

What could I do? I swallowed my resentment and misgivings and I went. And... I don't know. It was chilly, but I don't remember what I wore. We ate somewhere close to the theater, but I don't remember where or what I ordered. I don't remember the post-movie conversation. Just the awkwardness and the super-politeness and the strain in my mother's voice. Or maybe it was my voice. Whatever, I couldn't wait to get away. From all of them, Mom included. I felt guilty for feeling that way and then angry about the guilt. The old conundrum.

I wonder if, after my mother dies, I will continue to write words like this. Will the remainders of love and guilt prevent any more of these conflicted ruminations about her and me? Or will her absence make the musings easier? I can't even hazard a guess.

It's late. Time to go.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


I watch the local news, shaking my head. There is some kind of disconnect here that is not being talked about, at least, it seems, not publicly. It's no good marching arm in arm in the streets with matching tee shirts and signs, chanting Cease fire! and Put down the guns! and No more body bags! when the shooters are in fact your neighbors and kin and the self-imposed No Snitch rule remains hard and inviolate. Are the shooters gangbangers? Are the gangbangers strangers, some implacable alien force invading the borders of your community?

Or are they your children?

Brunch with Audrey

The skin on her face is so smooth, and her eyes so velvet and soft that though she is darker even than my half-sister I look at her think helplessly of Audrey Hepburn. Audrey, or some winsome, movie-star princess like her.

Her smile is Audrey's too. It's enchanting; warm and wide and very, very white. Her smile, and the way it animates her eyes, is what cinched my longing for her. Almost immediately I became obsessed with the ear to ear width of her smile and the perfection of her teeth. Now, surreptitiously, I watch her from across the table, trying not to stare, determined not to telegraph too much too soon. Audrey takes delicate sips of iced water, her long cocoa brown fingers sliding along the condensation beading the glass. She takes another bite of her ham and spinach omelet, laughing a self-conscious little laugh as she chews, trying to maneuver the bits of food in her mouth and still talk intelligibly. She startles and her hand jumps toward her face. When my half-sister does this I want to gag but on Audrey it's just adorable. Adorkable. From now on, in nice restaurants on Sundays, I will order omelets and eat them like Audrey does, winningly and with feminine gestures, even though the smell, really the very thought, of cooked eggs makes me violently ill sometimes.

She laughs again, mispronouncing superfluous. She forks more omelet, chasing chunks of egg and ham around her plate, and swallows. I reach for my water glass and take long, deep swigs, trying not to gulp.

A week or so later Audrey and I went to the Music Box to see The Last Waltz. Afterward we went to a steakhouse, a fancy one on the Near North side, and had dinner. I ordered grilled salmon. Audrey's ribeye was extremely rare.

This was our last date.