A Laborious Summer

Summer in the City

Today is Labor Day, that celebration of the American worker that falls on the first Monday in September. In a lovely explanation provided by the United States Department of Labor, we dedicate the national holiday, “to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”

These fine laborers also form our communities, our circles of friends and family. I remember my maternal grandfather Eugene Bosiacki, a WWII veteran who later drove a streetcar for the relatively nascent Chicago Transit Authority. Poppa was robbed a number of times on the job – an era in which drivers carried cash, expected to make change for riders. He was a man of few words so I’ll never know if these episodes frightened him half much as his time spent as a teenage POW in The Philippines. Somehow I doubt it. In the mid-1980s, Poppa was forced into retirement from his final career as a cable salesman. The company was moving out of state. He was well into his 60s and gee, management would love to extend him an offer to relocate after decades of service. But everything is being computerized and well, of course you understand….

I think of my paternal grandmother June Crowley, who juggled multiple waitressing jobs while raising six kids as a single mother in Chicago. After she retired to her own little cottage across the Illinois border in Wisconsin, June had bunions and painful arthritis from years on her feet. But she also relished the satisfaction of having earned her rest and peaceful homestead. No one had handed her a thing.

I’m reflective of my own academic, non-profit, corporate and volunteer labor. The years of under pay and few (if any) benefits. The career reinvention at age 30 that found me pursuing a dream of writing just as the George W. Bush economy fully cratered. The moments I felt hopeless and crushed under the weight of agendas not my own. And the relative career autonomy and satisfaction I enjoy today, a direct result of timely opportunities and relentless self-advocacy.

But Labor Day 2016 is full of other thoughts beyond the worker and his or her struggles and gains. The holiday also traditionally marks the unofficial end of summer and this one, for me, has been unusually hot and painful. I love the heat and any other year, the Windy City’s months of sultry humidity would be received as a blessing. However when one is physically and psychologically stunted by grief, the languid heaviness of the environment depresses an already weak will to engage.

On Memorial Day, recognized as the informal commencement of summer, my dear friend, theater companion and liberal political debate partner Todd died from a sudden heart attack. Prior to his jolting death, we’d been enjoying beer and pretzels at a local German bar in my neighborhood (where incidentally, Grandma June was employed for many years). We looked forward to a series of concerts and other plans for the coming months. We gave each other a warm, long parting hug. Then Todd went home, enjoyed some of his favorite music (per his final Facebook posts), went to bed and never woke up. I’m still struggling to process that such an important part of my daily existence is gone for good.

This past Thursday as Labor Day weekend approached, a colleague for whom I had enormous respect died after a short battle with eye cancer. Her medical leave was just announced that Monday. Three days later she was gone, leaving behind two young children, a bereaved husband and a legion of befuddled colleagues. Didn’t we just have a drink with her at the office summer outing a few weeks ago? Kristin, like Todd, was in her early 40s with so much left to do. When I return to work this week, there will be an interim director in her seat. Why does life move on with sterile logic when it feels like everything ought to stop?

These bookend summer tragedies created a strange, surreal layer of additional thickness, overlaying Chicago’s muggy air. Air that already stifled from winter’s loss of my fur babies, Dino and Meko, as well as the April death of creative muse and master of individualism, Prince. Bob mourned the passing of his beloved godmother in June.  Death is of course, part of life. But how is one to deal with such an endless conveyer belt of emotional punches? I laid down often this summer. I didn’t always get back up without strenuous effort.

I see much celebration over the advent of fall in my Facebook newsfeed. Normally I regret the end of summer too much to welcome the change of season. Because fall has this annoying habit of leading to winter – a cruel set of Midwestern months indeed. This year feels different. My grief will travel with me as I watch the changing leaves fall to the ground, but I feel the sensible need for a rotation of scenery, of a different energy charged with autumn static. The promise of a difficult year approaching its denouement.

Motown Meltdown (May 28, 2012)

Detroit

 

 

I want to talk about something in a politically non-partisan way. It’s true I am a liberal Democrat by stripe and spend part of my freelance writing life as a hard blue columnist for a popular left website. But I am a human, a woman and an American first – in that order – and sometimes I witness scenes that make me wonder how anyone from any vantage point can believe that this country is on the right track.

This past Memorial Day Weekend I ventured with Steve by Amtrak to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. It is here that my partner spent his formative years. He attended college in the late-1980s at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, holding down various jobs before he migrated to Chicago in 1996. I traveled with him to the Motor City, the once-glorious birthplace of the automobile, the R&B Garden of Eden where Berry Gordy established Hitsville, USA and launched the Motown legend. In the 1930s, Detroit was christened the “City of Champions” owing to its successes in the sporting realm. During the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, Detroit was Americana, the symbol of society’s mechanization and social evolution.

But then the Motor City fell on some famously hard times, troubles that date back several decades. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population fell by 25%, plummeting in the ranks from America’s 10th largest city to its 18th.  The 2008 housing bubble burst delivered some of its loudest pops in Detroit, where a perfect storm of unsustainable subprime mortgages, crushing unemployment and falling home prices left behind scads of abandoned buildings and lots, often as far as the eye can see. Opportunistic investors can still take advantage of foreclosed homes that cost hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars. The sinking ghost town is a breeding ground for drug activity and violent crime, further eroding home values.

It’s true that White House policy over the last four years salvaged the auto industry, Detroit’s remaining lifeblood when combined with tourism/casinos and hospitality. But with local budgets strangled and plagued by red link, there are simply no resources left to level the rampant blight that welcomes visitors to town.

I was astonished when I alighted from the city’s Amtrak station last Friday evening, a structure no bigger than your average two-car garage, aesthetically dull and devoid of concessions or any comforts beyond a restroom. The station was constructed in 1994 as a replacement for the former Michigan Central Station, which closed in 1988. A quick Wikipedia search of the Central Station revealed more glory come decay. The previous structure was once identified as the tallest rail station in the world, with some 200 trains traveling in and out each day at the outset of WWI, while 3,000 workers held jobs inside the station’s office tower. Today exactly six scheduled Amtrak trains enter and depart the city each day, while less than a handful of workers enter the minimalist station.

There is no doubt that the Motown Museum is an impressive tour and a fabulous bargain at $10 per entry. But when Steve and I went in search of food after our Saturday afternoon excursion, we had real trouble locating anything more than a KFC here, a unserviceable Subway outlet with reinforced bullet proof glass protecting the counter there. I suppose I take for granted that when I walk out onto almost any Chicago street, multiple culinary options await.

And oh the heartbreaking destruction of the streets and architecture, the abject poverty, the lack of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that evokes the classic Kurt Russell film, Escape from New York.

I do not fault the citizens of the Motor City or even the local government for a failure to resolve what must seem an insurmountable mountain of challenges. It is possible that Detroit’s most glorious days are simply in the past. But that is no excuse at all for our failure to deal with the conditions of this piece of our collective history on a national level. I found myself wondering at several intervals over the course of a three-day visit, “If a tourist from another land decided to stop in Detroit, what impression would it leave of the country as a whole?” Is Detroit’s decline a metaphor for the decaying American dream, the death throes of a dynasty that can no longer sustain its promise?

Last Memorial Day (May 30, 2011)

Last year this holiday weekend, I was riding a jet ski around Lake Geneva, arms around my husband Eddie, squealing with laughter as we got sprayed with cool water.

This year, I have avoided emails, phone calls and spent the last three days nursing lonely wounds that have gone beyond the possibility of tearful, sweet release.

On Memorial Day last year, I visited my aunt in Wisconsin and drank beers on her patio.

This year my mother-in-law is visiting from India, eating and sleeping a mere three blocks away, and I am not part of her world anymore.

Last year at this time, I was celebrating the Chicago Blackhawks’ blessed run to Stanley Cup glory.

This year, the Hawks are out, and the Bulls too. The Cubs don’t seem primed to lift anyone’s spirits.

In 2010, the spring was unnaturally warm, with 80 degree, sunny days that stretched back into April.

In 2011, I wore my winter coat until May 27, and the rain won’t stop.

Last year I had my health, and my health insurance, and both seemed invincible.

This year I am counting down the days until surgery will relieve my body of a cervical cancer invasion.

A lot of things are different since 365 days ago. Not many of them are upgrades.