Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Swirls of Pet Milk

No one does it for me quite like Stuart Dybek. Yes, I know he's a Chicagoan and, yes, I read that he teaches at Northwestern, but those things have nothing to do with it. It is how he stirs me up. He hits a memory nerve every time I read one of his short stories. In The Coast of Chicago is the short story "Pet Milk" this one is a gem. "Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow." And, yes, dear readers, it was snowing outside my window while I read "Pet Milk". "Pet milk isn't real milk, The color's off, to start with. There's almost something of the past about it, like old ivory."

Dybek is very good at invoking the past, and inciting his readers, such as myself, to wax nostalgic. He asks us to remember when we were kids, when grandma gave us kid coffee laced with lots of sugar and milk. His stories remind me of when I came to Chicago in the early 80s, when the curbs were full of litter, when vacant lots were nothing more than parking lots for abandoned cars, when slum landlords set fires every weekend in their run-down 6-flats converted into rooming houses, housing 30 - 40 people. One never really gets used to the blight. The old ladies hobbling down icy sidewalks, the young Cambodian kids jumping off a fence into a pile of dirty mattresses, the scrawny teenage boy sitting listlessly on a seesaw in the derelict playlot huffing on paint stripper from a paperbag.

When I first came to my neighborhood in Uptown, every night the gangbangers used to roll out and if they couldn't fight a rival gang they beat up each other--usually with baseball bats.

Dybek reminds me of all this. And as bad as it was, these memories are a badge. Thy are now part of MY story, which I'm going to have to sit down one day and write about. Especially that time I found a man in my closet, a drunk who had wandered in off the street and entered me and my husband's room while we were sleeping. After that we always remembered to lock the door--but that, again, is another story.


Sheila said...


I loved your Swirls of Pet Milk post. It brought back memories of my former life as a teacher at an inner-city Philadelphia school. I should write about it and wish I'd kept a journal at the time. But I was too exhausted and discouraged. Guess I'll have to rely on "memoirous."

Jane Hertenstein said...

YESS!! I've wondered if anyone was reading my posts. Definitely check in. Don't know how long you've lived in Chicago, but I wish someone would do a post on chairs left on the street to mark your snow-cleaned parking spot since there are neighborhood groups agitating to do away with the TRADITION.

Sheila said...

Hi, Jane,

I am just starting to read a few blogs fairly regularly, and yours is one I like. :-) I’m sure you have lots of readers who aren’t making comments.

Your books sound great. I’ll have to tell my daughter (a middle school librarian) about them.

Do you do residencies through the IL Arts Council? I did a few quite a while ago and had a great time except for the paperwork involved.

Those beehive cookies look very, very strange. What do they taste like?

Oh, I don't live in Chicago. I live with my husband in an old farmhouse (west of Rockford), where we raised our seven children (six were adopted). I lived in Philadelphia while attending college and while teaching special ed kids in a public school. I never heard of the Chicago chair tradition!

Jane Hertenstein said...

Beehive cookies are stuffed with rum creme. They go down real easy.