Friday, September 03, 2010

Friendship and cigarettes

I have a friend who smokes. He lives far away from me now, but when he is here, he likes to smoke cigarettes and drink wine, and when he is here i smoke and drink with him.

When we were first friends, he lived here, and we would smoke and drink at night outside, looking at the stars. We talked about the people we knew, our plans for the future, our sense of ourselves and our careers. He is from a place far away, and he carries with him the restlessness of the person who has left home and always looks for it again. When i am with him, I feel most myself--the most myself I feel with anybody. He doesn't judge people, which is not the same as not having a critical perspective on them. He just has perspective. He loves fun with the firmness and melancholy of a person who has been beautiful, and young, and utterly careless, but is moving away from these to another place. He believes fun is still always there, though in the simplest of moments. Fun is there in the ridiculousness of aging. He is right.

I like him because he is a boy. Because he is a boy, and himself, he shrinks from over-analyzing people's motivations. He is much more interested in effects. He feels the flow of social relationships, and the feelings that ebb and wash and mix with our own individual desires and dreams as they connect with other people. He feels the effect of big personalities on the world, on history, and on out hearts. We talk about these things when we smoke cigarettes on the porch at his house far away, or at my house here.

We have all of us, in our post-cigarette worlds, lost something with our loss of smoking together. We have lost those moments of contemplation and camaraderie, when we pause in the middle of what we are doing and adjourn together outside for a cigarette and conversation. Television shows like Mad Men glamorize the chain-smoking and drinking of an earlier era, but those shows substitute distracted consumption for the soul of the thing--smoking--which is a sinking down into the present moment, the slowing of time, the enjoyment of now and the people standing right next to you, smoking with you. Fellowship. And being alive, and curious, and social, and full of joy in a good meal, or a good drink, on a cool city night.

On the street, outside the bars and restaurants, we meet people we don't know and will never meet again over cigarettes. We exchange observations and the feeling of being here now, in the world, at our age, in this place. When we adjourn to smoke, we leave our tables and companions to gather in new formations in a space outside the world we have brought with us. We leave our tables and spouses, and move in other configurations for five, ten minutes. We say what comes into our heads. We listen to stories.

We tend not to take this time to just be if there are no cigarettes. One of the things I most loved about my mother was my sense of her, late at night, sitting in her chair in the livingroom, in the semidarkness, smoking her cigarette and just thinking. I would walk down the hallway of my childhood house and past her, sitting in her wingback chair, thinking about her entire life, as much as one can in five or ten minutes. I'm not sure what her insights were, but I know she enjoyed the pause, and the contemplation. The quiet, and the time just for her, just for the moment's pleasure of thought..

i don't smoke much anymore. I don't buy cigarettes because I know they are bad for me. They make my lungs burn and my heart race, and in the morning, they make my head hurt.

Still, they are a treat beyond cakes, or aged Scotch. They are a commitment, for five minutes or so, to standing still, breathing deep, and thinking about everything.

My friend usually leaves me a couple cigarettes when he goes. Tonight I stand on the porch, alone, smoking a cigarette and looking at the stars. The stars are not bright in Chicago, but tonight as I smoke on the porch i look at them, and think of him, and his friendship, generosity, and loyalty. I think of my mother, and her moments of silence. I think of the future and the past, and wonder, still, what life will bring. I listen to the wind, and feel the first autumn chill in the air. I think of how the strong connections we make with other people buoy us up in rough water, and soften our loneliness. The smoke curls up through the night, silver and fragrant, and I watch it as I watch the stars winking faintly overhead.

Monday, June 28, 2010


So much of this blog has been about jobs, about work and the loss of work, that it seems like I should write down what it is like to work right now, in this strange file clerk job, here in the middle of my life. I do not find myself in Dante's wood, because that sounds picturesque, and this office life is quieter, like a ship rolling in windless waters, moving sideways on a slippery sea. It's Monday, and that means tossing for that last hour of precious sleep, waiting for the alarm to go off, then dragging out of bed and into the shower, throwing pajamas back on long enough to make coffee, breakfast, and lunch, packing all of these, then back to throw on clothes before dashing out to the car, hopefully before 8 a.m., and driving the 45 minutes to work.

My judge is supposed to be here by 9 or 9:30 but she never gets to the office much before 10. I'm supposed to be at work by 8:30 but I'm always late.

My responsibilities consist chiefly in preparing the call for the Judge for each court day, which I usually do a week in advance. This means I get the schedule in the box outside my door by 9:30 am, and it is my job to pull all the files for all the cases. Since these are filed by day--say, 23, or 9--I should be able to open the file drawer and find all my cases under "23." Cases can be misfiled, or scheduled for other things under other days, so there are usually some cases you have to hunt down. I do this by double-checking the court date on my back-up call--the call from the last time the case was heard, where I write down the new court date--or by looking the case number up in the clerk system. If there are other court dates for that case, or for siblings in the same folder, the system will show them, and I can look under that number in my file drawers.

The cases I pull are called the "control sheets," and they consist of name and address information, the original petitions filed when the case came into the system, motions, psychological evaluations, service plans, and the judge's notes about the hearings. A case can be heard for initial evaluation, for Adjudication, for Disposition, for services, for various kinds of status updates, and to set goals. The process of setting hearings is determined by statute, so the initial hearing, called a TC (for Temporary Custody) hearing, occurs first, followed by a rehearing, a Trial to determine whether the charges against the parents or guardians are valid, a Dispositional Hearing to determine whether the child can return home under an Order of Protection or not, and subsequent hearings, called Permanency Hearings, that evaluate the goals of that child's placement and services. These goals range from return home to adoption or independence, depending on the child's age.

Every day in court is filled with these hearings. I pull the control files, arrange them in a pile in the order they appear on the call, and look for any motions that have to do with the cases. I get these when they are filed, and I have to keep track of them to include with the call. Once I have my pile of cases, I make notes on the call about what each case is up for, and whether there are any private attorneys on the case. Keeping track of the private attorneys helps all of us know when a case is ready to be heard, which is usually when all the parties are present. If an attorney is missing, we have to postpone the case to later in the morning, or even give it a new court date.

Once I have made notes on the call, I make 11 copies of it to distribute. I give one copy to each to the State's Attorney, the Public Guardian, the Public Defender, DCFS, the Court Clerk, the Court Reporter, and the Court Sheriff. I put a copy on top of the Judge's call, give one copy to my supervisors, give one copy to the main Clerk's Office, and keep the two remaining copies for the day the call will be heard. On that day, I post one of the copies outside the courtroom and keep one for "back up," which means I write the next court date for each case next to that case after it is heard.

So much for doing the call, which I do before or after court. During the day when court is in session, it is my job to see which parties are ready to go, and call their cases in the courtroom. I then announce the name of the case at the door, and the parties, caseworkers, and families come in. The Judge hears the case, and then asks for a new court date for the next hearing. I give out dates from a big binder notebook, depending on the month or span of time she wants (within the next 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, or 6 months). These dates are determined by the type of hearing: status hearings can be any time for any reason, whereas Permanency Hearings are held every six months until the case is closed by return home, adoption, or independence.

After I write the date in the binder, I write it on the control sheet files when the Judge hands them back to me after the hearing, so they can be filed for the new date. During the hearing itself, I fill out data sheets. These are not part of the controls, but they are filed elsewhere. They are sent down on the day of the trial, and they are to keep track of the parties that attend the hearings and what goals and visitation decisions are determined that day.

When court is done, I drop my data sheets in the interoffice mail, gather my control sheets, and refile them under their new dates. If I finished my call I am done for the day, and can read, browse facebook, answer email, or do whatever until 4:20. At that point I open my door and begin listening for the voices of the other Court Coordinators, who come down to sign out a little before the official end of the day at 4:30.

And that is what work is like. It is the same every day. Sometimes the hearings are different; we may have a trial, or get a TC coming into the system. Sometimes I idly flip through a set of controls to see why the case is here. Most often, it is because a child is born with drugs in its system. Sometimes children are abandoned, or their mother dies, or their caretaker becomes disabled. These are the good cases. Other cases come in because children have been killed, or severely injured, or sexually abused.

My Judge might ask me to look up some cases, though she has only done this twice in the three months I've been there. On Fridays we have no Court Reporter, so there may be one case, or even two, but no call to speak of, which means no work to do. When I was teaching I would catch up on grading or reading during the down time. These days I make phone calls, do email, or read. Now, of course, it means I have time to blog. In a few months, it will mean I can start looking for another job to replace this one, not because it's a bad job, but because it doesn't go anywhere, which is why the turnover is so high and I got it in the first place.

I can't complain. When I try to say what it is I don't like, it all gets fuzzy. Are the people nice? Very. Is the work interesting? Not really, but it's not horrible, and the process of a courtroom can be interesting. Do you hate it? No. Do you look forward to it? Not at all, and in fact I dread it, but when I'm here it's not terrible. Still, though, there's not happiness, or the sense of accomplishing, well, anything.

The days go by. My office is set down from the street level, so I look up and watch people walking. I watch the trees wave in the hot wind. Now that I am alone in my office, I can listen to music, though this will change as soon as they hire someone to replace my former office mate, who left to be a Public Defender.

I think about time passing, and how entry-level jobs ask for so little engagement, but so much delayed gratification. They ask you to start over, to bide your time. They ask you to be grateful, to anticipate reward. They ask you not to want, but to be happy with what you have. They ask you for a minimum of one year, or two, or three. They ask you to be nobody, but a cheerful nobody. They don't want your soul, or your mind, just your body.

I make even less than I did as an Assistant Professor, but not by much. I don't write anything or read anything. There is no grading, or teaching. There are no meetings.

Now I am just like everybody else out there sitting in their offices, dreaming of something else, if they even have an office. Lots of college grads don't, nor do people with graduate degrees--PhDs, lawyers. Plenty of people in my law class have no jobs, and the classes behind me are doing much worse. Some schools are starting LLM programs for recent grads just to keep them from being unemployed, and to keep up the rankings of the schools. Others are raising GPAs ac4ross the board to make students competitive with those from top ten schools, where they don't really grade at all anymore.

In late capitalism, we are required to--must!--feel extraordinarily lucky if we have any kind of job at all.

I watch the afternoons wane, from spring to early summer, from early summer to midsummer, each day blowing away through the trees outside my windows. I want to hatch a plan but the room is warm, and I am tired. We are all supposed to give thanks for what we have, in this time of no jobs and no future. I am thankful for my health benefits and regular paycheck, but I wish all of this could not be for nothing. I wish there could be a place of realization, of flowering again, of the drawing up of powers. And so I think on this to the end of work, and to 4:30, and beyond it, to another day, hoping for a plan.

Friday, June 25, 2010

a night out

A friend was doing a small burlesque show out in Boystown last night, so some of us decided to go out and be Prideful. The show didn't start till 11, and all of us had to be up by 630 or 7, but that's the point of Pride--to prove, even at your advanced age, that you can still stay out too late in a bar and manage to get up in time for work.

My GF was horrified by the late start time, which just shows how overwhelmed she is these days by having to move out of her office, because nobody loves a bar more than GF. But I decided to go.

So my friend L shows up with a very young little twinky boy in tow--our friend M's latest crush. M has been chasing the young ones and washboarding his abs ever since his husband dumped him a couple of years ago. M is adorable, and seems to get a lot of boys, but this one is young even for him. He's seriously like just barely 21 at the most. Sweet and catty--reminds me of rural gay boys I've known, the way they have no role models so they decide being gay means being an over-the-top flamer hairdresser. He's not from much, and has moved back in with his parents in the South suburbs after doing a tour in a musical production. And yes, he does in fact prove to be a hairdresser, currently in beauty school on the North side.

So he's funny in a way that drains you, you know, because he's trying hard, and you feel as if you should participate and validate. But sweet and heartbreaking in that he says things like "Oh you guys are smart. I'm just a dumb hairdresser." And so I have to tell him that I actually considered going to beauty school after being denied tenure, which is true, but that I decided I couldn't be on my feet all day because they are so bad, which is also true. But I don't know if he believed me.

So we all get to Halsted, and of course parking is a nightmare. We find a tight spot on a side street by Roscoe's and L tries twice to get it in but can't. So I do it of course and the little boy cheers and says it was so good he came (!). I am rather proud of my parallel parking ability, as it is one of my True Talents.
But then, just as we all turn from the triumph of the parking space and begin to walk down the street towards the bar, L remembers she forgot--what? Guess. That's right--her ID. The one that is now a potato chip as a result of going through the washer and dryer in her pants pocket. That would be her driver's license, which apparently she just doesn't carry anymore because it doesn't fit in her wallet. Even though she's, I don't know, driving.

So we are prepared for the evening to end right away, and I'm thinking maybe it's not such a big tragedy to go home, since it's unwise for the old and ungainly to venture out into "Nightclubs," as the seedy bars in Boystown style themselves, but there is our friend Washboard Abs M at the door in front of the bar, talking to our friend C the burlesque dancer. M is cute and lithe and muscle-y, and C is all dolled up with glitter on her face and long thick lashes, and they are so gay and beautiful under the streetlamp, luring the farmboys, that I am awash with love. They both hustle us through the door without incident, in large part because we are so freaking old the doorboy doesn't even card us. Except he does card the sweet young rail-thin hairdresser. Bitches.

So we have a lovely table and a free bottle of champagne, which those piggy gay boys we're with swill down almost immediately, which is fine because it's sweet and warm and you can just tell it's a bad hangover lurking like an evil genie in that bottle. A couple of maddening friends of M are at the bar and they are also sweet and tiresome at the same time, but L and I are drinking vodka and resigning ourselves to a deadly day today (Friday)at work. M is all over this child bride of his, who is busy texting and swaying on his stool as M curves his body over him. Apparently M is now telling everyone the boy is "the love of his life." Right now this boy is just fading out, bored and drunk.

Oh M, you are such a cliche, though you know we envy the fact that you can still ride that rollercoaster. We watch, whisper, and smugly cluck, safe in our lives where nothing ever happens.

At one point the boy is closing his eyes and his head is dropping, and soon it's time to "take him to the potty room" to hold his hair back while he brings forth the bounty of the evening. Unlike my friend N, though, who can party till dawn with the help of strategic oral purging throughout the evening if necessary, this child has no concept of pacing, and has missed his window of opportunistic regurgitation. Sadly, M now has to make good on that daddy/husband thing he's got going, and this means he has to drive the boy home, way South, long before C's burlesque number, and not even half way through the show.

The crowd in the bar is small but good-natured, even when the boring comedians come on. The dancing boys on stage pop their balloons to reveal chiselled physiques, and the girls bounce and jiggle and twirl to polite appreciation (this is--need I point out--a nearly all-male crowd). Our friend C is the last act, and she nearly falls off the front of the stage at one point, but pulls it back together and sails on. She has dark eyes and a hooded look which can smolder if she doesn't rush through the routine, but I think the wobble has thrown her off a bit. She spins her pasties with vigorous if distracted athleticism. It seems as if she's only on stage for, like, 90 seconds. At this point it's 1:30 in the morning and really time to go.

Out in the night the mohawked, eyelined, high-booted, transgendered people drift down the sidewalks. A hippy throwback dances in the light spilling out of a bar. The moon swells overhead, almost sated. L and I stop for onion rings and fries at Burger King, telling ourselves at least we aren't eating White Castle (though this morning my crispy stomach is failing to distinguish a difference).

I walk in my house, and GF and her mom are sound asleep, but Maude is wailing. I go in and pick her up, and immediately she stops crying and starts conversing with me about how dark out it is, and how dark, too, "in here." I change her diaper and offer her water, but she says no, she wants milk, so we walk up the hall to the kitchen, past the lava lamp, which is still on as a kind of night light for me. She says, "It's pink!" and we agree it is very pretty. She actually chuckles as I make her a bottle, a low happy laugh. I put her to bed and brush the hair from her dark eyes, leaving her to her contentment.

And that is my night. It is 2:15. L texts to say we had parked in a permit zone, and she has a $60 ticket on her car she hadn't noticed until now. I text that I'll split it with her. Just the cost of an evening out on a night in June, Vega conspicuous overhead, under the rising moon. Happy Pride everyone! Here's to all those who glitter till dawn, heedless.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

spring forward

I haven't written for a while because I'm not sure what to do with this blog, and I'm not sure if anybody is still reading it, and if they are, they are all on facebook now and thus connecting with me in other ways. While FB is good for updates and news links, it doesn't satisfy the enjoyment of writing the way a blog does, but when I have tried to write lately, my anxiety about the future has made it hard to do much more than complain. Most of all, I've grown tired of sounding discouraged.

But things are changing. While Maude and I were visiting a friend in Austin, I got a call from someone I interviewed with a year ago. I was in the park, playing on the jungle gym with Maude. Well, we were actually playing UNDER the jungle gym, in the pebbles. Maude kept shoving them in her sandals, under her toes, and I kept pulling them out until I realized she was putting them there. My friend was laying on the bottom of a slide, letting the sun hit his hairy stomach, which he calls the Pregnant Lady Monkey Tummy. The air was warm, with a temperature in the 70s, and I was loving the brief reprieve from the Chicago weather.

Then the phone rang. A number I didn't recognize. I ignored it, then got a frantic text message from a friend in Chicago, telling me this job was calling me, and to call back the number. I hesitated. Wouldn't it be weird to just call back? Wouldn't they wonder how I KNEW to call back? I texted this to my friend. "Just call!" she wrote. "Don't say you heard it from me!"

I called back, and was offered a job on the spot, which I accepted, on the spot. It's a job clerking for a County judge, and apparently, there was a new opening, and a salary low enough to qualify me for some loan repayment help. With regular hours, pension plans, benefits. It's just what I really wanted right now, in fact.

The best part is that I knew about this job last year because word was passed along a network of burlesque dancers; mild-mannered office types by day, they become fierce twirlers and peelers by night, headlining various comedy venues and spicing up the social scene with some much-needed girl power. I hadn't taken the bar yet so I couldn't land the position; now, however, everything was different.

So yes, I got my first law job because of burlesque. But most important of all, I got my job because of a network of very cool women who are happy to hire other women.

In a moment life turned around. Suddenly, there was a job, a career, a salary, health insurance for my daughter when GF's job ends this summer--all the things I worried I'd never have again after tenure denial, law school, recession, the collapse of the legal job market, GF's denial of tenure. The sun was shining on my friend's belly, Maude was shoving pebbles under her toes, and I had a job for the first time in almost five years.

Dumbfounded, I hung up the phone and told my Austin friend what happened. "We'll celebrate!" was his immediate response, which tells you a lot about why we are such good friends. And then we just sat there for a few minutes, planning what champagne to buy, thinking about who I should call, savoring the moment.