Balconies, Stairs, Stoops, and Folding Chairs

As the sun rises, I can peer to the east from the small balcony of my new 37th floor apartment and see Navy Pier. A slight turn of the head to the west brings into view the Tribune Tower. The Chicago River, in its natural green tint, and Lake Michigan -- blue as far as the eye can see -- are also part of my sky-top view. It is quiet now; only the soft rush of early morning autos reaches my ears.

Sitting outdoors on a perfect Chicago summer day coaxes my mind to travel backwards to other unforgettable places where I have perched. And like a jigsaw puzzle whose picture only emerges when all of the parts are snug in place, I add the characters who help create a picture of my past.

The year is 1996, early evening; I am sitting at the top of a long staircase outside my Henderson St. townhouse. My Golden Retriever, Sasha, is hip-to-hip next to me. She rises and madly rushes to the bottom stair to greet her friend: it is our neighbor Tommy returning from work.

As Tommy pets Sasha, I boldly ask, "If you ever want to catch a movie, let me know." I have practiced this sentence because dog and I have said good morning to this fella ever since we moved in. He'd be out for a run the same time as Sasha's first walk. I had learned he was about my age and single. At the time, I was merely looking for a pal in my young neighborhood, and thought Tommy a candidate.

"I go to the Y Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays," he said, likely eager to add his fitness credentials. So any Tuesday or Thursday." I picked a Tuesday, and that was how my second marriage began.

Now, let's flip the calendar backwards to 1970. See my 32-year-old self as I sit on the stoop of a townhouse in South Commons on Chicago's near south side. The brick homes are built around a square, so my neighbor and I can lounge, and at the same time watch our children at play. My daughters are six and seven-and-a-half years old, my friend's two daughters nearly the same.

The scene looks idyllic: the children scooting and whooping in the courtyard are shades of white, black, and brown. We live in a community where that palette was the purpose -- urban pioneers, eager to be part of an experiment to learn if people of different races, incomes, and ages could live together.

While the youngsters are carefree, these two mothers are dour, for we are both in first marriages chipping at the edges. "I don't know what to do," I tell my friend. "Is divorce the answer?" I have asked the question, but will stay wed until he and I part many years later.

Now let's travel far back and ride a Red Hornet streetcar to Division Street circa 1940's Chicago. It's not me on outdoor seats; instead my parents and neighbors on this immigrant block.

"Lock up," my mother says to my father. She is talking about Irv's Finer Foods, our corner grocery store. She has removed and folded the apron she wears in the store and hid it behind the counter where she will unhappily unfold it tomorrow and place it over her head. She does this carefully, so as not to mess her up-swept hair.

"Some kids might want an ice cream bar," my father the askew optimist says. He is sitting on a folding chair outside of the store. His cronies are lined up on one side and my mother on the other. He puts his hand on her bare arm -- it is a hot summer's night -- and she shakes it away. The movement is her answer and a gesture that cracks my heart.

Dad ignores the slight and turns to his pal. "Did you listen to the Cubs game?" he says. His brown eyes catch the light of the lampposts. "Farshtunken," his friend slams. "They're still my boys," my father says.

While our parents are lined up on the chairs they have schlepped from closets, my brother and I, and a slapdash mix of kids are racing wildly on the concrete sidewalk. "Oley Oley Ocean free," someone screams. "You're it!" shouts another.

Before I leave my balcony and reminiscing, I wonder, why these scenes and not others? Surely there were patios and porches where I enjoyed the summer air and dear companions. But when I peer into each vignette, I realize they were all wrapped in beginnings and endings: A sweetheart married and buried. A young love found and lost. A childhood carefree and bruised.

Life. Now a new one.