My Childhood

I’ve been thinking about ‘digging through the stacks’ recently, pulling favorite stories of mine written years ago. This is the first of that. Enjoy.


Sisters are strange, you either hate them or get along with them, or both intermittently. Sisters can make your day easy or hell; some are bitchy and some are quiet. Sisters are hard to work with, and I worked with mine for two years.

Before she got hired at my Grandparent’s bakery, I had already worked there for nearly a year, and I knew I finally had one up on her. I knew the in and outs of working there and I finally felt I had the upper hand against my older sister.

Her and I worked mostly after school, closing. My grandmother had the strangest way of ‘evening’ out the register, a nice round $105, but each denomination had enough, or close enough. This boggled my mind for the first few weeks but I eventually got it. My sister picked this up much faster and seemingly understood why my grandmother choose $105 as the cut off. This left me out in the storefront most nights, dumping  the old baked goods, cleaning the wide array of glass that encircled the retail side of the store, and sweeping.

A moment should be taken to say something about my grandmother’s pleasantries with the woman who work at the store versus the men. The woman could do as they please and the men were a lazy group of do-nothings. As a for instance, I’d been “caught” reading a book, all while my sister was sitting reading a magazine; I’d be scolded and Karin would get a friendly “hello.” This was not single instance, but occurred with every other female employee, I was the whipping boy. It would go as far as my sister would receiving unsolicited gifts from my grandmother and I would get told to get more boxes.

My sister and I worked the long dog days of summer together for two full summers. Our days ran cleaner than the old clock in the office. We both would come in at around 12pm in the summer, relieve the person working, usually an old clown woman or a giggly flamboyant fellow. They were usually grateful to have someone there, as they were left working alone for a few hours between shifts, and in some cases refused themselves a bathroom break. Karin and I would then check everything: boxes, the cleanliness of the floor, trays that need to be pulled or condensed and ran in the pan washer, and check the phone for voice messages; a combined total of a half an hour at ‘teenage’ speed. After we had cleaned up after the morning shift we would walk around, maybe talk about our friends for a bit then get lunch. Lunch was always a sandwich for each of us from a new sub shop down the street. We would eat, maybe have a snack after lunch of cookies or a French pastry. We’d get tired from sheer boredom, and then eventually I’d end up in the office.

The bakery office was a dark room with one doorway, two chairs and a desk in it. I would sit in the far chair, my grandfather’s, would keep the lights off and put my head down and just fall asleep. Sometimes she’s sit in the chair at the other end of the room and glide into sleep or simply steep in my snoring – unknown to me which.

We would take turns on who should get up when someone came in and help them, our wake up call was a distance and distinct door bell and sometimes jingle bells. Then there were times when I would fall deep asleep, unbeknownst to me that she had gotten three or more people in a row. I’d roll into my drool and make some noises. And the uncountable times she’d knock on the glass thin mirror glass that faced the storefront because more people were funneling in and they were waiting. She would look at my face and stretch an embarrassed smile and I’d turn and look at the mirror window to see sleep lines running across my face. I’d call out for the next person in line with a scratched and groggy voice, eyes bloodshot and half-stuck together. The customers that I helped never looked at me sideways nor addressed the issue, things are better left unsaid, or unasked.

After our, more of my, nap we would go our separate ways doing our tasks which lead to closing up shop. We would trade off either cleaning the horrendous pan washer and helping customers. If there were any days she didn’t feel up to cleaning the pan washer, I was obliged to do it for her – she’d watch out for me enough to pay her back.

The pan washer was about seven feet tall and had buttons on the front that looked like they belonged on a 1970’s imagined panel of the future. Most pan washers are self-cleaning, at Carney’s we had to clean it. It may not sound too bad, to clean a pan washer, but imagine what all goes in: flour, oil, fats, sprinkles, sugar, egg residue, crumbs, and so so much more. You tried not to think about it as you washed, the thought of it all is just a bit too much. First it had to be drained which took enough time to turn on the radio and separate yourself further from the horrible retail end of working at the bakery. Then the four grates inside had to be taken out, banged inside a garbage can, then rinsed – these stopped the chunks from moving lower, hunks of nuts or maraschino cherries. Then the cleaner had to reach inside with the hose that seemed more like a small inter-tube and spray under the metal guards that held up the grates; this was easily the worst part, the things that were thin enough to go though the grates or were water-soluble would stick to underside. So when washed it all plopped on your hand and caked your wrists. It was the color of light dog vomit and the consistency of warm pudding mixed with oatmeal.  All of which made sparing the goop off their hands off inside the machine strangely satisfying. A heavy dousing of bleach cleaner and a massive scrub brush and a rinse finished it up. The grates would go back into the machine, and then the filling would begin. This took the longest, and at which point  I would usually practice my Kung fu with the floor scraper. Swinging a giant blade connected to a heavy broomstick, like I was battling off the evil ninjas – swishing and clanging and gaining power-ups to fuel my superpower – all under the rising and falling of commercial free classic rock.

From there, we’d continue through our routine; her counting the old doughnuts while I would swept. I had no problem counting, it was my writing and the ridicule from Peter, the baker, that I didn’t enjoy. The message would get passed through my grandmother in the mornings and she would nice it up in the way only a cranky old woman could. So I left that job to my sister who had an even hand. Around this time my grandmother would come in and we would lock the doors. Then Karin would count the drawer, and I would clean the glass – usually with the lights off and passers-by looking in, watching while I sprayed the empty cases and wiped off the vinegar/Windex mixture.

My grandmother would chatter to my sister while I would toss out all the old stuff – sometimes I’d eat half of one, or more, of the different types of doughnuts or bismarks. Grabbing one off the tray and ravishing it while the rest of its friends fell into the big gray can. I’d mostly go for a laugh as Karin would get a kick out of it because by the time I was done tossing all the old stuff out, my face would be covered with smears of jelly and sugar and frosting. I’d wipe up stick the old danishes in the freezer, where we kept them until we gave them to an old folks home on Thursdays. The two garbage cans got pulled out to the dumpster in the back of the store; one bag wet, near the pan washer, while the other would be heavy with discarded doughnuts.

I’d get back to the long metal table around the same time my sister had counted all the money and we were ready to leave.  At some point my grandmother knew she didn’t need to come in anymore and we had gotten so used to this routine that we were left to close the store ourselves. It was nice because we could close at our own pace (quickly), and she didn’t have to come dragging herself into the store either.

It was almost always nice to work with Karin.

In high school I rarely went to parties. I remember clearly once, my group of friends were asked to come because they thought I would have weed to give/sell – I didn’t, I never did; common misconception. Then there was a painfully lame, “mom’s away” party pulled by three or four girls in an apartment where friend Kent was asked to show up. I cannot fully remember who exactly was all there save for the slack lanky girl with that long hair whose name I couldn’t remember even at the time – whose house it likely was, Devin, Kent and I. There must have been more but those were the key players. I’ve learned charm and flirting over time, through anguish and embarrassment, but I assure those reading that I did not have either at the time. Did we hit it off? I cannot remember, we started dating though, pretty regularly and quickly.

She was below my social rung, smarter than me, more accomplished in life, and honestly cooler than I could ever be. Somehow she took me in – maybe it was because I was always willing to learn.

I can only remember glimpses of our relationship even though it was one of the longest relationships – likely 6 months or possibly more.  Glimpse: We were driving in my car listening to “Le soleil est pres de moi” by Air, and she translated it – annoyed by the question – on a ride back to her house; she ended it saying something like ‘it makes no sense.’ Glimpse: I’m laughing so obnoxiously she stops me and I know I took it too far; we drove in silence. Glimpse: We’re dancing like two awkward children in the corner during the homecoming dance, making out and humping to the point of self-aware absurdity. Glimpse: Trick or treating, or maybe simply wandering her neighborhood with the slack lanky girl talking about smart things and and I’m the child who can’t keep on task and sings classic rock hits.

The worst and most painful glimpse: I start to ignore her.

My friends made it clear I could do better, date in my social circle, someone less strange and an outsider. See, I’m a horrible worthless worm of a human being. When I wanted out I just stopped talking to her. What made this all the more painful for her was our lockers were literally 4 away from each other – which while together was fantastic – but during and shortly after splitting became a reminder to me (and likely her) of my inability to stand up and simply say I wasn’t interested anymore. Worse yet, I liked her still. I knew I wasn’t likely to do better, but I had to end it to keep ‘my boys’ happy. High school.

Finally three days into my cold shoulder she confronts me, wondering – justly – just what the fuck my problem was. She was more mad at me for being weak than not being with her. To leave her hanging and wondering. The confrontation plays through my head like a broken record coated in dust, obscuring the words and sound but the message remains the same: you suck.

I suck.

In the crumbling walls of Hubble Middle School (now flattened), I was the shaky smirking irritating guy in class with stretched rubber bands connecting my top and bottom braces. I was as charming as a cloud of gnats, and just about as interesting. I made seventh grade English teacher cried multiple times, my social studies teacher pushed my desk over seconds after class started, and stacks of write-to-pass papers, projects, and the like were left undone. I was awash in self loathing, painful awkwardness, and struggling with the worst bouts of ADHD I’d ever experienced. I wore the same fraying boxers most of those three years, my pants were mostly the same ‘might-as-well-be-glued-to-my-hips’ dark colored corduroys. I was dirty too.

Just to paint a picture, that was me. I was the giggling snide side kick but without the chubby face-punching lead-man.

Through the luck of having a friend with a date, I place myself in the good graces of a girl – a date – to a dance. The details are lost in the ether of time, but I’m sure I never mustered the courage to ask her straight out, and merely passed along the message through the lines. I bought a pair of pleated khaki pants, and a flowing dress shirt and tie – like a sprouting kid wearing dad’s hand-me-downs.

The day of the dance, my mom was due home just in time to take her and I to the dance. Of course, being the permanent slouch, I was running behind. I took a shower and had to dry my hair – fast. So I pulled a dry towel over my head and rubbed it fast. Now the hair was too dry and the chunky gel would only make things worse. My head only fit somewhat underneath the sink, and the cold water washed down and onto my beige striped Sears dress shirt. Instead of a towel, this time I whipped my head – clung to my legs above the knee and head-banged a few times into the fluffy bathmats. It was still damp and dripping, more drops of water falling on my skin-toned shirt. I placed my hands on my hips and flung down to draw out the water. My head didn’t clear the counter.

The off white plaster was not forgiving on my squishy body. I went to the dance, meet my date, and sat in the darkened gym when the power went out with a throbbing red mark on my forehead.

I think her name was Lauren, she was just about as interested in me as any girl would have been, she was doing a friend a favor. We didn’t see much of each other at the dance.

In fifth grade, my teacher scared the shit out of me. I was a horrible student and didn’t do my homework. So my teacher belittled us in front of the entire class and told us we weren’t allowed to go to lunch and were being forced to finish the work we were supposed to do the night before.

The girl, who would later get her period on the way to gym class later that year, and I were ashamed and kept quiet, doing our work. The lumpy hispanic kid did nothing of the sort. He cried. Sobbed is more accurate, and protested in the only way a helpless fifth grader would, saying their parents were going to sue her.

Mrs. Smith had always been a little strong in the emotion department. She memorized lines from books we were reading in class and dressed in character – even going as far as adorning a nazi uniform, swastika and all – shouting at the top of her lungs that she was going to find the jews. Needless to say she was a bit heavy-handed, but a passionate teacher none the less.

Something in the way this tubby kid was crying, complaining, and even threatening the employment status of our teacher just broke her. She was a heavy woman, built shoulders first in the hands of god, and when she sauntered her way over to you – with the same authority she called out Penelope’s suitors – like when she overturned my desk mid-class, you knew what was coming. This time though it was rough and jagged like a hurricane hitting the shoreline, she came screaming down his desk row and squared her face with his. She pointed at his chest, deep into his soul and he didn’t waver anymore than he had. I sat with my jaw against my collarbone as my teacher told this child how good he had it, what he was going to amount to, and how much of a shit she gave about his threats. I can’t remember if she swore, but I’m sure she did. All of the garbage, the back talk, the chatter and disturbance an elementary classroom can birth rained down upon this kid. He left, under whose order isn’t clear, but the girl a row over and I were praised for how good we were for working quietly and Mrs. Smith went back to mashing her thick green salad between her wide jaw.

For three days there after I ditched school. My mother forced a teacher conference with the powers that be. As my mother tells it, she scolded my teacher and those who employed her, but I just remember being in the room and not much else.

I ran into Mrs. Smith years later when she came into my grandparent’s bakery and asked how she was doing. She was still teaching, but at a different school.

In fourth grade I played the viola.  In retrospect, I only really played it because I couldn’t play any of the cool instruments allotted to fifth graders. So my mother shelled out the money to rent two separate instruments two years in a row – I guess I can’t complain we never were allowed anything.

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But it was when I was my movement to the band instead of orchestra that I picked up a golden tube of pure disappointment.

I’m not one for practice, at least when, and so anytime I’d pick the thing up to teach myself a thing or two my heart wasn’t in it and my “practice sessions” lasted less and less time. I didn’t really care about the damn thing to begin with and only wanted to fit in with some girl I was eyeing – that cute girl in drum line two rows behind me. When the whole band would practice together, I always kicked myself for not picking up the snare drum instead to awkwardly eye her from the same row. Fifth grade band went scooting by in quiet clumsiness and I usually just moved my hands on the keys while my peers played during concerts.

Then middle school came knocking. At Hubble, kids in band stayed after and the thirty something with a four-foot pony-tail brought a much stronger presence than my lumpy elementary band conductor did. I made it to one session. I couldn’t hold up the lie anymore. Lessons were no longer played together, where I hid my playing behind my classmates. There were deadlines and song were to be memorized. My excuses were riddled with holes, and I just didn’t care anymore. To top it off my little drummer girl was only spotted in a sea of kids on concert nights; the band, as a whole, rarely played together.

I quit, much to the chagrin of my mother –  who was, unsurprisingly, upset about flushing a chunk of money on something she had pressured me take more seriously, even having a conversation before renting for another year. Was sure I wanted to play in middle school? That poor woman.

These may not be ‘great’ albums, or the best by the artists, but they are albums that, in a broad sense, help construct an identity for myself.

In the turmoil that is the average middle school the horrible subversive infighting, painful chastising, life-long damage to self-worth and the like – mine was particularly bad. Some back history: I failed seventh grade. Not in a way that school systems allow kids to do, nor in a way that parents would allow their kids to do so either. I had a self-inflicted agonizing loss of close friends in a way that would make any part of child’s life hard, but stack that on top of being placed into a ‘last chance’ class for the horrible fringe children of Hubble Middle School – well I might as well have been gum on the shoes of mediocrity popular. I attempted to eat lunch with people I knew but was cast out publicly, shamed for days, until I spent the rest of year eating ho-hos in the hallway – avoiding hall monitors and crying tears of embarrassment. My poor teacher, who had his own demons (his wife having a nasty case of breast cancer,) allowed us social bottom-feeders in the room when we whined enough to break. When he didn’t it was the three steps across the hall, or the desk placed directly outside the door, me, a green bag of Sun Chips, and a sack of two off-brand ho-hos.

So it was during this part of my life I picked up an album. An album by a band I only liked in passing but wanted to buy so the cool (see: bad) kids in my Educational Opportunities class would think I was somehow cool too. They, of course, didn’t think this in any dark recesses of their psych – but they borrowed the album no matter. It was a different time when CDs were king and you had one that you were into and played it to the point of mania.

Another short piece of back story: Mr. Comstock, the shepherd of us lost souls, was doing a ton of research on ADHD. I had (have?) a pretty nasty case and he put to use a handful of tools to help me study. One that stuck for the rest of my life: white noise – or more accurately, jams while working. So I brought my CD player in, my fancy rear-wrap headphones, and RC adapter in to relinquish half of brain to the music.

So this brings us back to the classroom. Where seeming the only normalizing album in my collection was ‘Hello Nasty’ by the Beastie Boys. It wasn’t my foot in the door to being hip, but it was a way to feel normal, to feel needed by my peers. That is just the tangible item. The album harps on some pretty dark themes, has bright poppy songs splashed with a message, and just like nearly any pop album of a preteen’s library – leads the listener to believe it’s about them. It spun and spun in my CD player, the brain-cation between my ears, allowing me to get away from being an emotional fringe blob.

Everything about it is the ideal metaphor for my life at the time.

The reason why we never had nice things as a kid wasn’t really about money (all the time) or that it was rare or hard to find. No, we mostly didn’t have nice things because of me. Now, I’m not looking for sympathy or an argument. I will simply offer the facts and you can make the judgement.

I break things.
So I’ve got this knack for destroying anything in arm’s reach. So much so I’ve had friends and their families hide new and expensive toys from me. They would place fun new items high on the shelf, or simply say that it was mostly to ‘look at.’ I knew though, I break things – I can’t help it. Am I accident prone? Maybe. Did I not care about my friend’s toys? No. All of my toys ended up breaking too – which leads me to my next point.

I break my own things. A lot.

Yeah. So no big shocker here, that if my friends hid toys from me. My poor mother felt the need to keep trying to buy me things. I think it got to a point for her though. And you can’t buy one toy for your good kid while leaving your brat of a son who breaks all of his out in the cold. So I wrecked that party pretty early on. But I don’t just break toys. I’ve taken a hammer to a sink for seeming no reason beyond wanting to see what would happen.

I take things apart

My poor mother. I’ve taken radios, controllers, televisions, small furniture – all part setting aside the miniature screws – each with a different color ribbon on the threading. Finding out how the thing worked was always a fantastic feeling, but not being able to put it all back together again was painful (mostly for my angry family). When the front room’s TV remote stopped working because it was still in ten pieces, or when my brother comes back from college to an empty shelf in the garage – yeah. Those were me.

I lost my remorse

Sure, I cared a lot at first. But after years and years of saying sorry – it started to mean less and less to those I was saying it to. That feeling of ‘not enough’ leeched into me and I didn’t know what else to tell them anymore.

I’m why we can’t have nice things.

Being so close in age to my sister, my friends felt she was fair game, well to one person in particular. A metal fan with the demeanor of a child in the supermarket, seeming missing in his own mind and kind to anyone that gave him a slice of their life.

I am unsure if it was Tim’s sweet innocence or his lackadaisical façade, but they dated a handful of times like any young couple. I wouldn’t call their relationship turbulent, or even bumpy, or hell – even a relationship – as far as I know they didn’t but kiss a few times. It was middle school after all, but Tim never gave up.

The final nail in Tim’s pursuit came when myself and a small group of friends were lazing on the cream corduroy couches that filled in the front room of the house in Warrenville. As I am sure all other groups of high school guys are, we were assholes to one another. Always enjoyed seeing one of our own fail miserably – it was a game of who was next – but with Tim around in his stammering oblivion, he couldn’t help but fall into being a kind of punching bag for those who loved to push the buttons. It was them, the pushers of buttons, and the hype-men who turned the screws to build the blind gull of the lowly Mr. Eads. So we moved the pitching group to that front room, an unusual occurrence to say the least, and the tension grew as the hyenas yelped at the ankles of a lost lover. Tim called to his dearest, my sister.

He sat back on the couch as she approached, resting his hands on his head, interweaving his fingers, with his elbows outstretched like he had already won, in his brittle way of gaining confidence to her and the rest of us. The crowd fell silent and I grew a dumb grin on my face – I knew what was to become of his humility.

He spread a big empty smile across his face, “Karin…”

“Tim. No.” My sister butted in before he could finish past her name. She cracked a demure smile, turned heel and walked back the crackling parquet wood floor as the room erupted with painful laughter.

I could only say my peace with a handful of ‘told-you-so’s while the rest were filling the front of the house with a million layers of crackles. The way she said it, her smirk and the beaten down Eads, all spoke to one thing – it was never going to happen, move on.

In the dizzying days of Chicago summertime, outdoor play-time became squished by the sun’s ability to seemingly ‘pop-a-squat’ on the midwest. It was here, in the sun soaked summertime of my preteen childhood that we took refuge in the most unlikely place – tents.

Let me back track a bit here and say something about what a tent means to young kid: independence. It’s a room outside our own homes where we can do or say anything we want, be as loud as we want, it becomes a small home of our own. But for us, a tent wasn’t a place to be loud and stomp around, it’s a place of quiet. An eery quiet that laid over all of us like a thick blanket. One moment we’d be screaming, charging to the zipper entrance, but once inside the breeze blowing through the fine mesh and polyester made it hard to shout. Waggling, thick green leaves sounded distant and alien inside. We could build a life in there, it was an escape and had the lure of being outside but not vulnerable.

We put tents in the back, front, and side yards of every kid’s house in our circle of friends. Sleep-overs eventually became camp-outs as the summer’s drew themselves out in long stretches of our adolescence. In the hushed conversations of the open night air we allowed ourselves to be most unguarded behind the shroud of darkness. We admitted fear, love, lust and true friendship. There were crickets between our thoughts for once. Time to settle into ourselves.




My Childhood

In my family we never really got a car when got our license. My sister got my great-grandfather’s car: a swaying awkward Pontiac with a statuette of Saint Christopher. A near dead CB radio sat between the driver and passenger footwells, not connected to anything but the mounting hardware. Gray interior with partial stains and a distant smell of cigarette smoke. That is until my sister got her hands on it.

She didn’t do much; somehow she managed to have a constant flow of dolphin shaped air fresheners and a white outline of a fairy. Not just any fairy, but one that took up a great deal of the angled back window, making it impossible to avoid when checking the rearview mirror.

This is where I come in. This was my car, in which I had a license but had to beg my sister to take it anywhere, a painful experience for any teenager. I didn’t have my own set of keys and she had a couple of embarrassing trinkets hanging from her keys too – a big clunky chain-gang like apparatus that made it even more clear that this was not my car.

One of these times I borrowed her car, a friend and I drove to a concert at the Congress theater. I was 16. This part of the city had yet seen the spreading fingers of the gay community, not even the lesbians had moved in yet. After the show we got lost. We found Roosevelt road. Two white sixteen year old kids from the suburbs driving around Humboldt Park then down and through the near south and parts of the west side till we finally realized we could scurry back home. We couldn’t help but laugh the whole time though – it was a cool day so the windows were fogged and the massive fairy watching over us. Laughter helped coat the fear and made easier to swallow.

So I think I owe my sister a thank you for putting that white fairy in the window.