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.