Aug 072012

I am walking along the wide leafy green street of suburban Chicago when the sign outside a grey building catches my eye. I cannot remember its exact words, but it may as well have said ‘we will have the land once called Palestine, whatever it takes’.

I feel ill, as if all the air has been sucked out of my day. It is one thing to build a place of worship, it is completely another to dedicated that holy place to an endless war.

I am catapulted back to a childhood memory. I am standing on wide stone steps outside a synagogue. It is a familiar place to me. I am dressed in white, as are the men around me. It is a loving memory, a gentle memory, a warm winds of childhood memory.

One day, a long time ago in easy chatter, I mentioned the synagogue to my mother, a ‘remember when . . .’ conversation. She stared at me blankly. I stared back, stupidly. There was no synagogue. As common sense would have told me, had I thought about it at all – I am an Australian with no Jewish heritage whatsoever. There was no question that my mother was right. Yet, even allowing for the flawed and corruptible memories of children, I remember that synagogue. It is a memory now categorised under the possibility of ‘past life’, for want of a simple explanation.

I am jolted back to the present by a car horn playing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I walk on, pondering my response to the sign, for I am one among the host of people outside the USA for whom blind defence of a land called Israel is not just untenable, it is shameful.

What is deeply pleasing to me, and delightfully surprising, is not a single Jewish person I have met in the USA supports Israeli aggression against the people of Palestine – pretty amazing, huh?

This pleases me because it is outside our story about the people of the USA. And it pleases me because it signals hope for the people of Palestine, who still wear the keys to their grandparents’ homes around their neck – the homes they left just for a few days while the new settlers blasted their way into homes and land that were not theirs for the taking, fueled with the bloodlust of glorified entitlement sanctioned by a blue banner blazing the Star of David.

I have had only one conversation in the USA with a man who supported the land we currently call Israel and that was with Bill, born ‘n bred Jackson, Mississippi. I met Bill on the bus to Meridien. He said, and I’m sharing this by way of placing Bill in the broader scheme of things, that there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out to me that the unions created the middle class. Before that, he said, there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.

Bill hasn’t flown in a plane since 9/11. I tell him ‘y’know where the safest place on Earth is these days?’ He looks at me, interested. ‘The airport,’ I say. He says ‘you’re kiddin’.’ And I have not forgotten the light in his eyes when I told him how I spent time among the people of Palestine. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said again. I tell him how helpful and respectful they were to me. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said.

Bill points to the insignia on his baseball cap. Somewhere on that silver circle is the name of America’s 42nd president.

‘William Clinton’ he says, ‘best president America ever had . . . stooped, dang stoopid, but a good president. He was a man of the American people, he was one of us. Why didn’t he just say heck yeah when he got caught with Monica? Then we got Bush, Bush embarrassed us all over the world. Every time he opened his mouth on tv I thought it may as well be me talkin’.’

Bill tells me that a while back, he went to Arkansas to see Bill Clinton’s museum.

‘It’s a library actually,” he said. ‘A redneck library, but a library just the same. It looks just like the trailer homes across the river.’

I tell him I heard Mississippi was last in everything, except teenage pregnancy. He nodded. ‘Yep, that’s us,’ he says. ‘That and fat. We’re the fattest people in America. Two things you can count on in Mississippi: poverty and mosquitoes.’

From here we segueway into feminism.

‘Let me tell yer about feminism,’ he said. ‘Okay Bill,’ I laughed, ‘you tell me about feminism.’

‘My grandmother was the biggest feminist ever. She divorced in 1939 with three kids and accordin’ to everyone else she was the biggest whore in Mississippi. She worked tables and bars and did dry cleaning, then WW2 came and she was the original Rosie the Riveter, building airplanes in Memphis. One day when I was about eight years old I was at her house when the power company men came to clip the trees under the lines near her house. My grandmother met them at the door.

‘We’re here to clip the trees ma’am,’ they said.

‘No y’ain’t’ she replied.

‘Well yes ma’am we are.’

‘Billy – she called me Billy – Billy go get ma rifle. So ah did. I went and got her rifle. Those power men went away and my grandmother went to see a lawyer and she got the whole power line rerouted away from her trees.’

I’m digressing, I know. I’m tellin’ you all this because in the USA talking about Israel publicly is like walking on proverbial eggshells. Let’s talk about anything but this. The possibility of backlash – and there will be a backlash – is as terrifying . . . as . . . well . . . the razor sharp bitterness causing uproar in a Zionist heart.

Or a synagogue dedicated to ‘whatever it takes’.

Jun 202012

I’m walking home from the Lake Bar in Oak Park, enjoying the evening tide – kids running in the park, frazzled parents getting home for supper. I’m surprised to find myself in a leafy green neighbourhood among big houses. Surprised, because, among the soot and grime of this functional industrial city I’d been wondering where the big houses were.

A sign outside a lovely wooden house stops me in my tracks. I drop my bag and scramble for my camera, as if the house is in a hurry to be off somewhere. It is the birthplace of Hemingway, legendary author and stealer of my imagination, light on the hill of my small potential.

I first heard of Hemingway in 1989, in an elevator on the way up to the editorial floor of the newspaper where I’d been employed as a cadet. I was 30 years old – a good 10 years older than the rest of the cadets. A man who was my superior stepped into the elevator, turned to me and said:  ‘you write like Hemingway’.

I shrugged, having not heard of Hemingway (I know, go figure), somewhat sure I’d just been paid a compliment.

As it turned out, that superior loaded me with editorial gifts that were outside the hierarchical blend of industrious entitlement that is a busy newsroom – and an absolute boon to a woman starting her career later than most. I was a cadet shouldered with stories that ought, by right, have been given to senior journalists, and I paid a high price for his faith in my future.

Just before I was banished from a the heat of a metropolitan daily newsroom to the tepid waters of the women’s pages at the Sunday paper, I was at the pub with the other cadets at the end of a long day. We sat in a circle, laughing and chatting, and Richard, who was a couple of years older than the others, rocked back on his chair. I can still see his tippy toes just touching the ground. Charged with beer and bravado, he grinned at me and said:

“Sleeping with X has really paid off for you!”

I stared at him, his words piercing my consciousness slowly; the ethereal, wandering rumours taking form.

I laughed.

“Richard,” I said matter of factly. “I am a lesbian.”

And Richard promptly fell back on his chair and somersaulted into the wooden bar.


I will be forever grateful to my superior for allowing me those few moments of glory in a hard world.

And to Hemingway, for shining the light.

All day yesterday I was waiting for the point of my day, confused in this hard city, longing for something of import to me.

And here it is, around the corner, Hemingway’s house.

To this day I have only read one of his books, The Old Man and The Sea.The others I will read when I have time to read again and besides, I still don’t know what it is about Hemingway that makes him great or that makes my writing a small mirror of his.

I’m still not an educated woman, just a literate one who makes her way through ‘culture’ like fish in the sea, which is to say I’m drawn to what nourishes me, ignoring the incomprehensible rest.

In other words, I love what I love – and I love that someone thinks I write like Hemingway.

 June 20, 2012  Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Jun 192012

It’s not often I go out of my way to please a man, but today was Ian’s lucky day!

It was lunchtime, I’d come from a TV interview on the outskirts of the city; I was without breakfast and my phone company had temporarily abandoned me, I was hungry and unimpressed with Chicago.

I was figuring Chicago must be like Canberra – sucks unless you know the place. The woman in TMobile restored my communications with the world and recommended an Italian bistro across the road for lunch – she convinced me, against my better judgement, that they made their own food; they did not ship it in pre-packaged.

I joined a long queue of lunchtime office workers, figuring all those suits must surely have high standards;  ordered a portobello mushroom and goats cheese grilled panini, sat at the cafeteria-like table and bit down on cold mushrooms.

How do you toast a sandwich and serve it with its centre cold? Or, more to the point, why? Or at least why would you not expect me to return it? Or worse, eat it! @#$%^&*(.

I asked for the manager, I told him nicely but (remembering, I’m hungry and worn out from shouldering a big bag around the city streets) somewhat pointedly. He was tall, wearing a lime green striped shirt with an open collar.

I didn’t hear a word he said, my attention hijacked by the accent.

‘Are you Australian?’ I asked.

He grinned. Yes he was. Is. And so it was that when Ian offered to warm my toasted panini in the pizza oven I agreed he could, rather than telling him he could make me a new one. Please.

He brought it over and stood beside me while I bit into it for the second time.

‘It’s still cold,’ I said. ‘Here, stick your finger in it.’

‘I don’t wanna stick my finger in it,’ he said.

I laughed. He offered me pasta. Crap bloody pasta. I told him I was vegetarian. He brought over the menu.

‘How about this?’ he asked, pointing to the leek pasta.

‘Sure,’ I said – here was my historically worth-recording moment of pleasing.

All I really wanted was my money back so I could go find some real food. But Ian was so nice about it – and I had the feeling he was going to keep offering until he found something I would eat.

And then he decided the other pasta would be nicer and so, even though I knew it wouldn’t be,  I said it again: ‘Sure.’

Pleasing, twice in one day. Twice in the same five minutes! About food. Of all things.

My little plate of bland spiral pasta, which to me always looks like kids’ food, arrived with its scattered piece of pepper, three or four small bites of tomato and a little shred of kale.

And I ate it.

Just to please Ian – who had lived in this city for 20 years and wasn’t letting me go without an assurance that I’d do at least one thing to make me fall in love with the place. After all, there must’ve been a reason for him staying 20 years when he only intended to visit.

And so he sent me down to the river to catch an architectural cruise . .  .maybe . . . depends how much they want for one.


NEWS FLASH:  I really don’t enjoy Chicago.

I know, surprising huh.

It’s not that it’s not New York. Nor even that the people look and feel so . . . overwhelmed . . . by life. Not quite that industrial is everywhere, almost as if beauty was saved for the cold, pretty steel of the inner city. I bet those who enjoy Chicago are not those who do so at street level.

The vibration of the city unnerves me. Funnily, I don’t feel safe here. Except, ironically, on a street I walked some way along for a TV interview – that a man in an office insisted on driving me back through for my return journey, because he feared for my safety.

I wonder if Al Capone and his campadre  are still in the shadows.

I just can’t seem to orientate my spirit to this city. I knew as the train pulled into the station on Sunday that I didn’t want to be here. That I can’t wait to leave. That I have no desire to return.

I finally found a train station to take me home from the inner city to Oak Park, where I wandered among gentler streets and shops seeking the sustenance of anything beyond spiral pasta and found the Lake Street Bar – and roasted beets with burrata cheese and grenolata (parsley, lemon and olive oil), house marinated olives and flatbread showered with fresh grapes, rosemary and gorgonzola. All of which I washed down with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

The food wasn’t great – but it was greeeaaaaaatttttt, if you get what I mean.

Chicago just got a lot kinder, though not kind, not to the spirit. As the trees outside twist in the wind, I am reminded of the elderly couple with whom I laughed out loud today as a sudden gust of wind blew us sideways on the busy city street. With such ready laughter I bet they’re tourists, not locals.

I sit back and sip on the last of my wine, watching the bar fill up with the evening tide. I ponder paging Batman in the black Corvette and decide against it – I am here promoting pilgrimage, after all; the least I can do is walk the four miles (Australians please note: miles) home with my heavy bag . . . metaphor for my Chicago spirits.






 June 19, 2012  Tagged with:  No Responses »
Jun 192012

Yes, rub your eyes as you please, I know I did – here is my lift ‘home’ in Chicago – a black, very shiny Corvette.

Don’t you love the way that front wheel winked at my camera?

That’s my suitcase peeping out from the back. Along with Jim, who with his wife Jane are my couch surfing hosts for three nights in Chicago.

Chicago. I pulled in several hours late after the crowded train broke down in the night. It was a long night. A scrunched up in my own little seat night. A listen to Lady of the Rivers on audio, again, night. I never tire of that story.

‘Any woman who dares make her own destiny will always be in danger.’

That’s why women stay home. It’s why we play safe. It’s why the one thing more women are more curious about on my journey than any other is:  ‘are you safe’?

To which the answer is always ‘of course’, because we all know we are referring to my physical being. The answer is also ‘never’, if a woman values her own life. But I learned a long time ago I had much more to lose by pleasing than pleasing myself.

In truth, surprisingly to me, I wasn’t sorry to be leaving Boston. I had always thought that one day, when I”m old with nothing left to do, I would come to Boston and study at one of the fine women’s colleges there, steep myself in the history of English literature and the best of American women’s leadership.

That was before I fell in love with New York City. Actually, that’s not true – it’s before I experienced the actuality of being in love with New York City.

Everything now is ordinary. Bland. ‘What for’? And the further I pull away from My Great City Love the sadder, less sure of my own world I become.

As the train and I trundle our way west, humming along underneath the Canadian border, literally in my case – The Night Chicago Died replacing Please Come To Boston in my head – I’m surprised to see there are no hills obliterating the sky. I had thought there would be mountains.

And then I see what ought to be the sea and realise must be a Great Lake.

The world around me is flat, ordinary and uninspired. Much like me.

We rattle on through the food bowl, past fields and factories, scattered silos and great paddocks of green and brown and yellow. And I realise this must be what is known politically and geographically as ‘middle America’.

I am shocked. It really is, seemingly, habitually humdrum; justifiably compared, the world over, to that culturally intolerable state of being known as’Wisconsin’.

The longest journey draws to a close as the train rolls into Chicago – and I am eyes-popplingly startled by the industrial corridor that rolls out from the train window to each horizon.

This is extraordinary industrial wilderness. What does it support? All the USA? It is black and grimy, full of brick buildings and wires and tracks and what on earth is behind all that apparent productivity?

I stare into empty backyards and streets of suburban Sunday Chicago as we close in on the city. Concrete houses butt up against factory walls. The streets are empty. The parks barren. Just as I realise no-one is playing on the pitches, fields and courts I see a bunch of adults and kids playing baseball.


I make my way through the quiet inner city streets from the AMTRAK train station to the local service. I marvel that no-one has thought to make a remote control suitcase following nicely at heel behind the overburdened like myself – and it’s okay to steal that idea, by the way,  just let me test the prototype.

I sit in the cold empty station waiting for my train to Oak Park. A man offers me a joint. I shake my head, then ignore him. An hour later he gets on the same train and sits next to me. He introduces himself as Howard, I shake his hand. He offers to share his beer with me. I decline. He asks stupid invasive questions and I tell him sharply ‘no more’. He talks to me all the way to my stop, a man in a red shirt bemused, bewildered, befuddled by a woman who refuses to be polite. I ignore him completely. I do not acknowledge his presence. As I get off the train he tries to give me money.

I walk across the road to a bakery and coffee shop and drop my bags outside. A man makes a stupid comment about ‘taking my boyfriend for a walk’, referring to my suitcase. I laugh. He says ‘women always laugh when I say that.’

I say ‘that’s because it’s a stupid thing to say’.

As you can see, I’ve already had enough of the men in Chicago.

I order a watery, sugary chai from a pretty young dyke behind the counter. She smiles and chats with welcome-to-Chicago bonhomie. I tell her it’s a pleasure to find people who don’t harass you in Chicago.

‘Who!’ she demanded.

‘The man in the train for a start,’ I said.

‘Where is he?’ she asks, making for the door.

‘He went that way,’ I said, pointing down the line. ‘He’s wearing a red shirt.’

‘He’ll keep,’ she said.

And we laughed.

We laughed and laughed till Jim turned up in the black Corvette and I roared off into the Sunday quiet, leaving the man with the dumb boyfriend comment with his jaw on the ground.

Sigh, Chicago.

Black Corvettes and blackened brick.

As I lie in Jim and Jane’s bottom bunk bed in their spare bedroom, I ponder the point of being here at all – and then I remember that I am planting seeds. What feels so rich and alive and full in New York City is my fertile garden bed. Nothing compares, that’s all.

Like Mary Mary quite contrary, I must wait for my garden to grow.


 June 19, 2012  Tagged with:  1 Response »