I am not the most religious person, but I do believe in a shared, universal god. I also prefer to consider myself a "Transcendalist" Catholic. I learned about transcendalists in History class in High school and I kind of latched on to their philosophy. I had always prayed on my own, without any intermediary, so I felt very in sync with the transcendentalists who believed everyone spoke directly to God versus through a representative or a house of worship. When you were in the middle of a desert, or watching your father get pounded to a bloody pulp by some speedy hustler in the pool room next door to your house, you needed to be able to talk to God on your own and talk to him quick.
I think I kind of had no choice but to create my own religion as my parents had left my brother and I in serious spiritual limbo. My Mom was a hippie from the south who escaped the persecution of her family religion(Baptist but previously a more mellow Methodist) in the 1960's. She couldn't recognize there being a God if we had war. Except for singing in the church, a family tradition, her memories of church life and what she believed to be two-faced morality(racism, pro-war) were anathema to her flower child, love everybody philosophy. Religion pushed her to move out on her own and get a job in Fort Lauderdale when she was seventeen. My father was Italian and Roman Catholic and although he was adamant about tradition, he was also a pool hustler and had no time for church on Sundays. He always said his pious older half-brother prayed enough for the both of them and would "take care of" any of his own sins. So, both my parents decided that my brother and I would choose religion for ourselves when we got older, which I eventually did, converting to Catholicism after college. After four and a half years living in the city of New Orleans, "cleansing"
was probably a good idea.
The first school I attended was Temple Sholom in Chicago for preschool. I don't remember much from that young year except that a large yellow bus would transport me to and from and that I was often mocked with the "Baby Talk" song: "Baby talk, baby talk, its a wonder she can walk." My Mother's best friends, Barbara Reid and my beloved godmother, Sandy Schwartz, were Jewish and my Mom latched onto them looking for the love that she did not find in her own home growing up. She told me over and over that her parents never loved her. It always made me so sad to hear this. I barely knew them as they lived all the way in Florida. They definitely did not approve of her being a hippie, marrying a Catholic, especially not a pool hustler. Unless she was "saved," she was "going straight to hell." When I grew older and began a relationship with my grandparents they always wanted me to tell her that they did in fact love her. I have tried my best to convince her of this.
With her girlfriends, my Mom had an extended family and immersed herself in the Jewish culture to the degree with which she could. My Mom bought history books, read to me from the Diary of Anne Frank and told me about the atrocities of the holocaust. On the lighter side, we had a sign hang in our kitchen that read "We serve Kosher only here." My mother was also adamant that "Jewish men make the best husbands" usually remarking this in the presence of my wayward father. When her girlfriend Barbara, the wife and manager of a famous pool hustler, Jack Cooney, would come to visit from LA, it was a time of unending celebration and I would count down the days, hours, minutes, seconds, before her arrival. We never knew too far in advance of their visit as they were always on the road, and potential victims of revenge or theft from winning on the road. One time my parents took us to a Holiday Inn "Holidome" just outside Chicago which had an indoor swimming pool. We were going to swim in the winter! When we showed up at the front desk, Jack and Barbara were there. Barbara apologized to me for the surprise, but she didn't want to put my family at risk by staying at our house. Some "bad" "mother f-ers" were after them. She always spoke like a ventriloquist. She spoke without moving her lips and pretty quietly from years of practice of spilling secrets amidst a silent pool or pinochle game. We had a ball at the hotel ordering club sandwiches and french toast from room service. Oddly enough, the Ramones were staying at the "Holidome" as well. I recognized the band from the movie "Rock and Roll Highschool" and got an autograph from Joey Ramone. I wasn't even ten yet, but all the older kids wanted to be my friend afterward. Sometimes, we would show up in a small town for a tournament with my Dad and BAM, Barbara and Jack would show up and surprise us, never aging. They were always on the road and always elusive, so you could just randomly see them. I always wished, if I was forced to endure one of my Dad's out of town tournament's, that Barbara and her Clark Kent looking hubby, Jack, would show.
Barbara was a goddess to me. Barbara to me meant decadent food, lots of shopping and jokes centered around my Dad. Since Barbara and my Dad were on the road hustling pool together when she was a teenager (while married to another pool player many years prior), Barbara had a unique perspective on my Dad and had no fear of him. It was refreshing. My always loud and barbaric Dad would just melt in her presence. He saw her as a tag a long to his hustling adventures at first and then came to have the utmost respect for this fearless young girl from LA who could calculate odds faster than a calculator and "wasn't scared of NOTHIN'." Barbara was always the only woman surrounded by all men. There are only men in the pool halls and poker rooms. So, the fact that Barbara had met my Mom and let her be her best friend was truly special and unique and I always felt that being her little girl I was special and unique, too. As a road gal, Barbara was extremely paranoid, trusted nobody and always carried the money. I don't know how we broke through her tough shell.
A visit from Barbara meant dazzling us with talk of the road and all the silly, hard to believe occurrences that turned out to be true. Fearless, she even took a few bullets in a pool hall in Baltimore when a game went bad. She would show up at our humble apartment in her large Cadillac or Lincoln Town Car dressed like she WAS the Pimp. Usually in a flowing silk blouse and blazer, tight pants or jeans and high heeled boots. She looked so much like Stevie Nicks. My Mom would fill the house with Barbara's favorite deli treats like Beef Brisket and Pastrami and make her favorite, Royal brand chocolate pudding. Barbara and Jack relished the home made dinners and desserts my Mom would prepare as they only ate in motels and drive thrus. Le Creperie, a few buildings down from our apartment on Clark Street, made her favorite chocolate crepes with whipped cream on top. The ladies, joking about their bodies, always claimed at least a ten pound weight gain after a visit. Barbara's parents were jewelers, and she always had the most beautiful gold necklaces. She was just gorgeous - tall, with long, thick, dirty blond hair and a Southern California lightness and accent. She is just one of those people who are always cool and in style regardless of age. Like my paternal Grandfather, O'Brien - Sicilian but given the Irish nickname based on an early girlfriend - who maintained hipness into his nineties.
I joined Barbara and my Mom for extravagant shopping sprees, as they relished in the money recently earned from a big pool "score." I saw her buy seven pairs of these sexy boots once and I remember telling my friends for days - "Seven pairs of shoes! Can you believe it?" Carrie Bradshaw had nothing on Barbara Reid. Barbara and Jack loved us unquestionably with their whole hearts and us the same right back. Isn't that what religion is all about?
I believe our underworld, semi-normal nuclear family provided both a respite from the road and an anchor for them. It was so rare to have someone so smart and beautiful actually understand your outsider life. It made me feel like we weren't so much stranger from all the other families I saw because look at Barbara - I can claim her as one of ours. How lucky am I? Barbara always joked how she was convinced she was adopted as her parents had no pictures of her. I, too, did not feel like I belonged to my family WHATSOEVER. This woman understands my crazy, unpredictable and often unpretty life. In her presence, I don't have to pretend to be anyone other than who I am, a pool hustler's daughter. Barbara's visits provided me with a breather and the confidence that I mattered. If I played my cards right, I could be as unforgettable and successful as her someday. Growing up, Barbara was a rock star to me and I continue to be her biggest fan.
There is no person other than my parents who treated us more like her own children than my late Godmother, Sandra Schwartz. She was a bit older than my Mom, and we met when my parents moved into their apartment above Kiyo's Japanese restaurant across the street from the Century mall in Chicago. The restaurant owner's wife wore a beautiful kimono and allowed me to eat her abalone soup which was my favorite and also ridiculously costly. My parents still reprimand me for my expensive tastes. The apartment building itself was owned by a mobster. I spent my early years in that run-down apartment as it was just one block from Bensinger's pool hall on the corner of Diversey and Clark streets. It began as a one-bedroom and then we knocked down a wall and expanded to a three bedroom. Had we not been living there, I would not have seen my father at all, I presume. He was either in Bensinger's basement - where one might not see the sunlight for days - or on the road. When he did show up at home he was often tired, sleeping all day on the couch and asking me how old I was or what grade I was in. This irritated me immensely but when he walked through the door we always sprinted screaming right up to him, begging for Pall Mall hugs and scratchy kisses.
I think of Sandy Schwartz as the quintessential Cosmo girl of the 1960's. Having spent her early years with Russian Jewish parents living near Taylor Street after WWII, surrounded by Italian immigrants, she had nurtured a soft spot for Dagos just like my Dad. When she was older, she lived on the far north side of Chicago and attended Mather high school. She told me how all the girls wore cashmere twin sets and a pearl necklace back in the fifties. She married shortly after high school and divorced quickly after. She left the safe environs of the Edgewater neighborhood and moved to the Clark and Broadway area, which at the end of the 1960s/early 70s I can only compare to the Castro in San Francisco or the Village in New York. There were lots of wild parties going on. This was a heavily bohemian and homosexual area, chock full of methadone clinics(count them - two- within one block of my house) and hare Krishna's, but only a few blocks west of tony Lincoln Park. The side windows looked onto a rather active alley full of hobos, transvestites and druggies. Mostly relieving themselves or shooting up. On the light side, it was also a short cut to our beloved Renaldi's pizza on Broadway.
The front windows of our apartment looked down upon the Clark Street bus stop so strange people were always standing outside waiting day and night. If you opened the front windows you would likely inhale exhaust, so they were kept closed. The front windows of our entire building were always filthy because of the traffic. There was black grime on the doorknob.
My father constantly threatened that he would sell me to the Gypsy's if I was bad. My Mom told me not to talk to the Hare Krishna's as they would brainwash and steal me away to their cult. When I heard their tambourines and chanting outside, my stomach would tie up in knots. That damned Peter MacNichol movie. Suffice it to say, I had very few "safe" people nearby I could talk to - so Sandy was a godsend. My Mother almost had a heart attack when I hugged a homeless woman outside the grocery store - Stop and Shop- one day. She yelled at me so badly that I cried hysterically. I had known this crazy old bag lady my whole six years of life and didn't know it was "wrong" to touch her.
Our only other neighbor friend was the flamboyant Puerto Rican hairdresser Peter, who would come and cut our hair, drink Bolla red wine and call me "Lola Falona." He died of AIDS before anyone even had a handle on it. He just kept having to go to the hospital and they were amazed with all of the illnesses they were finding in such a young man. I heard his funeral was a very quiet affair and we were not invited. I was very young, but also, Peter's very conservative family did not acknowledge his sexual preference, so that side of his life, which I just thought was so much fun and delightful - was suppressed. At least he got to be his true self when he was at our home - creative, playful, affectionate, talented. He made you think being gay meant having the time of your life, honey!
I had such a hard time comparing my early home - above a Japanese restaurant and next door to Gypsy's - to anything I saw on TV. Everyone on TV or in the movies lived in a house - a real house - in the suburbs - with lawns and friendly neighbors. Even Tom and Jerry, the Monkees( I loved Davy Jones) and Casper lived in a house. I lived in an apartment. The only TV families I could come close to comparing myself to were the Flintstones. My Dad's name was Fred and also had a serious gambling problem, his eyes hypnotized into stars and all you hear him say is "BET, BET, BET, BET, BET!" My brother's name was Dino(like their pet) and my Mom was always yelling "Frrrrred!" You know, it really did bring me a lot of joy to watch that show.
Sandy got a job as a secretary at Leo Burnett - the Sterling Cooper of Chicago - THE ad agency for having invented the Marlboro Man. This is where she worked for almost 40 years taking at least one highly lavish trip somewhere around the world by herself(Paris, Hong Kong, etc). She truly wanted her independence from her family and from what was expected of her. She was incredibly cultured and worldly from working with all of the satellite offices of Leo Burnett and her travels. She did not need a man for anything. I don't know why her marriage was so bad but she never wanted to talk about it or her parents. Her mother's name was Shoshanna which I told her was beautiful but she never elaborated. I imagine she paid a price for her choices in life - to be alone and without her family or a man to take care of her. She was incredibly smart with her money, managing to always have top quality everything at the best price and pleasuring herself with exquisite french food(all the rage in the 60's and 70s), travel and chocolate. She even named her dog Rolf after Rolf's Patisserie on Diversey. She took in many unwanted dogs in her lifetime. These were dogs who had been abused and now dangerous yet she loved and spoiled them. After Rolf bit not only her, but another person at the park, she had all of his teeth removed rather than put him to sleep. She wanted the dogs NOBODY wanted. She would give them a home and any and all expensive medical care that might be needed, including a Prozac prescription for Rolf.
Sandy took the bus to work without a second thought, regardless of weather which helped her put pennies in the bank. She was the most liberal of people - loved everyone - stood up for the rights of all. She was always on top of the news and the current political issues of the day - she was very methodical about her research and organized which probably attributed to her longeivity at Leo Burnett. She had a size 2 slim figure but a bad addiction to those extra long Virginia slims which she kept in a clasped leather case. A large cup of strong black coffee was always nearby.
My brother and I were the children she never had and she treated us as such. She was our neighbor first and always in good physical shape and I loved to do exercises with her. Although she was over thirty, she would wear two short pigtails just like me as if we were schoolmates. She shared our Christmas's with us every single year and we shared a bit of Hanukkah tradition with her. I spent every X-mas eve morning with her for nearly 35 years of life. Sandy just loved to be downtown during the holidays - especially the flagship Marshall Field department store on State street and would take me with her to see the unveiling of the magnificent X-mas windows depicting the Nutcracker and such. She told me I looked exactly like the princess in the window. The day after Thanksgiving she would ask my brother and I for a list and buy us almost everything on that list. Like EXACTLY what we asked for. My girlfriends were always so interested to see what the Sandy "spread" was this year. A few highlights being - Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" album, all the gear I would ever need for my first trip to Europe - waterproof camera, compact umbrella, Swiss army backpack; pearl necklace and many, many cashmere sweaters. She could have been a personal shopper. Her spending far exceeded our parents, which they were always grateful for, especially during gambling downturns. Our X-mas eve tradition was always the same. My Mom bought a few pounds of Nova(hand cut only) lox(always 1 pound for Sandy to take home), and fresh bagels from New York Bagel and Bialy open 24 hours on Touhy in Lincolnwood. There was always some sort of a chocolate gift for Sandy and the three of us ladies(my Mom, Sandy and I) were all chocoholics. We even gave her a teddy bear which when you squeezed it said "I LOOVE CHOCOLATE!" in a Wolfman Jack voice. Sandy's presents would encompass multiple large bags with expensive wrapping paper - you know the kind that is thick and does not tear easily. They were wrapped so exquisitely in bows and ribbon that you felt guilty not only for the expense of her generosity but of mangling these works of art made with such love. She did not make you feel the least bit guilty for her indulgences - she truly loved to spoil my brother and I with this bountiful mitzvah upon our crazy, loud, often broke gentile family who were always blown away by her X-mas Eve presentation. She just beamed over the phone when asking us for our list and in person when she got to unveil the packages. She was always smiling from ear to ear in front of us and you could hear her infectious laugh up the stairs when she was on her way up to our apartment. She always wanted my brother and I to have the best and supported us in all our life pursuits.
Sandy passed away one month before X-mas, and it was just us as her mourners - my Mother, father, brother, husband and I - and we stood shivering as these two older Jewish men in suits who ran the cemetery, opened and poured a packet of soil from Israel over her casket and then dug into the frozen dirt with shovels and broke a sweat as they continued to dig and pour this dirt to cover her. The immigrant Hispanic workers in overalls just sat in their truck quietly and looked on. This pure act of selflessness was so deserved for our dear friend. Those two men made me feel closer to God, and his love, as this was the most holy of acts, I have ever witnessed. Sandy may have rejected her immediate family fifty years prior to be a ground breaking feminist, but her extended Jewish family gave her the reverence and respect as if she had been an obedient and observant woman her whole life. It reminded me of the scene from Godfather III where Michael Corleone, now in his late sixties and in poor health himself, goes to Sicily and visits his own Godfather, now in a wheelchair and rather than let one of his many lackey's push the old man, he pushes it himself. That these men who had never seen our Sandy with the warm happy glow in her face while detailing her world travels, eating chocolate and watching us open our gifts, should be so respectful to her, was just beautiful. Sandy got the respect and unconditional love she had always given us and her beloved pets, right back, from strangers. I remember the pain in my heart when the case worker first spoke to me over the phone, to let me know that they had found Sandy alone with her dogs in her apartment, and that there were pictures of my brother and I throughout the house, so she knew just who I was. Sandy had no family by blood, but she treated my family as such.
That first X-mas Eve without Sandy I drove way out to the cemetery an hour out in Buffalo Grove at dawn, another frigid Midwestern day, to visit her grave site, which had yet to bear a headstone. I had to imagine where she lay (her beloved dog Rolf lain close by) and put down some chocolate and even a bagel - the way she liked it - plain cream cheese(no goyum butter, please), not toasted with the hand-cut nova and said a prayer to the God I know we both shared. I wanted her to know somehow that our tradition - which she continued even when my brother and I were in our thirties and I myself even married with children, would continue forever with my children, who would know that Christmas Eve morning would always belong to Sandy, and we would always have to wake up early and drive to the North Shore for those perfect bagels and never go cheap and buy anything other than the more expensive(and less salty) hand-cut Nova. Some people create art to buy immortality, others have children, or donate their name to a favorite cause. I will do my best to keep the memory of Sandy Schwartz, a gentle, generous, loving, youthful woman with the highest of standards, who took in numerous dogs that were abused and nobody wanted and gave them all the love in the world. A single, resourceful woman who pioneered life in the big city without a husband. A woman who made my own life so magical, exciting and full of love. And she made sure her own life was rich in good food, friends, pets, travel and of course, chocolate.
I clean out my closet on a regular basis as I am plagued by a tiny one, sending various out-of-date pieces to the Salvation Army and such. But I just can't seem to give away my heavily worn, black cashmere twin set from Sandy. It just reminds me that fairy godmothers really do exist and that our thirty five joyous X-mas eves together were not a dream.