The picture here is of the house that I grew up in, in the sleepy Mayberry-esque hamlet of Morris, Illinois, some seventy miles southwest and some twenty years behind Chicago. Of Morris, some short remarks can be made to illustrate the town: (1) it is a nice town to be from, but not a nice town to go to, as my sister once wisely said; (2) Morris is so rural and agriculturally-oriented that they have an annual Corn Festival; that is, and succinctly enough, a celebration of corn; (3) Morris became decidedly unfamous through the publication of two tomes, Elmtown’s Youth and Elmtown Revisited, by Professor August Hollingshead (1949 and 1975, respectively), which illustrated a tightly-knit and extremely white bunch of business owners who dictated favoritism for one class of individuals over another through the decades.
Of Mr. Hollingshead’s books, the National Library of Medicine opined: “Unfortunately, slightly less than 50 years after the publication of this path-breaking study, the conditions it drew attention to still persist. The strong association between poverty and poor mental health outcomes has been confirmed in a number of studies, although there is still debate about the direction of causation. One thing has changed, however. Individuals from the lowest social strata no longer receive substandard treatment in mental hospitals; they often receive no treatment at all and are likely to be homeless.”
Naturally, when I occasionally quiz my friends who still live in Morris about social class and class consciousness, the response is one of dismissal or utter disbelief. However, it is of perhaps no surprise that one of the most curt epithets one could give another individual, and one I was prone to using when a young lad, was “retard.”
Although I grew up in the house pictured – my bedroom is on the second floor on the right, overlooking a balcony that was almost impossible to get onto – eventually it was time for our first move. The move was precipitated by my mother and father getting divorced in early 1977, right after their 17th anniversary, and the need to celebrate the split on paper by actually splitting in real life. To my memory, the house pictured was bought by my parents for a whopping $19,000. Immediately, you may think, they must have made a lot of money. However, in rummaging through Redfin, Trulia and similar real estate websites, the value of the home is currently in the neighborhood of $160,000. A dramatic rise since 1967, to be sure, but woefully cheap by most urban metrics.
And so, in early 1977, in the early days of the Carter Administration and yet before “Saturday Night Fever” shook the American consciousness, we all moved out. My father, Mad Jack, immediately went to Joliet, where he laid down his half of the Morris home, in cash, to purchase a very nice shanty house (or a very nice bad house, depending on one’s perspective). My mother, sister and I moved in Morris to an apartment above my mother’s good friend’s house. The apartment consisted of a kitchen, living room, a bathroom, and, along a narrow hallway, three bedrooms.
Nowadays, the idea of moving is a dreadful one, especially if I were to consider moving to a smaller place. But at the time, in 1977, I don’t ever recall seeming to mind at all. It was just what needed to be done.
What was remarkable about this apartment was not physical, but instead spiritual. My mother’s friend was always a bit of mystic and reminded me of Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and, of course, “Rhoda.” She had suggested that she was aware of my previous lives, especially one in which I was a rural farmer somewhere in Virginia around 1861. In that scenario, I apparently had wanted to make the peace and stood between the Union and Confederate soldiers as they convened on my land. Predictably enough, I was shot down almost immediately. When I heard this story, I didn’t quite believe it although I could see it as plausible. Many was the times I, as a child, tried to break up fights between my parents and my sister, only to be rebuffed by both afterwards. That also explains why I have often had a desire to be a diplomat, but never followed though on that inclination. And it may also explain why I have a complete lack of interest in being shot.
The other spiritual anomaly in the new apartment was Mr. Walker. Apparently, Mr. Walker used to own the house and now, long dead, would occasionally walk the floors of both the apartments, above and below. I believe it was my sister who had claimed to have seen a snowy footprint at the entrance to our apartment. By the way, Mr. Walker was not the name of the guy; rather, it was my own family’s sense of humor that christened the ghost Mr. Walker, because walking was apparently all he ever did.
I admit wanting to believe in Mr. Walker, not so much because I was a young Fox Mulder, but because my mother, sister and friend all seemed to believe in the guy. I still remember cowering under sheets at night, with one eye peeking out, hoping to get a glimpse of our mysterious visitor. And there were at least a few times when I was convinced he walked by my room. I went so far to actually imagine what he looked like – a gent with a top hat, a long chin, mustache and a scarf wrapped into a black overcoat. I was convinced of this for years, until I realized, quite soon afterwards, I was merely remembering the Spy character from the board game, Stratego.
It reminded me of the times I would imagine Santa Claus being on the landing of the second floor in my house in Morris. Both, I concluded long before pubescence, were little more than wishful folly.
Since then, moves have had little effect on me – generally, they are things that have to be done as opposed to things one wants to do. Every move I have done since 1977 seems to bear this out.