Yesterday I was in an office supply store to buy some pens and have some copies made for my class when I walked by a guy in the store. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that he'd turned back to look at me again, and that his jaw had dropped. I heard my name and realized that I recognized the voice.
It was John, my first roommate when I got out of colllege over twenty years ago.
When I finished school in 1985, I took up my aunt's longstanding offer to live with her, in the extra bedroom of her Beverly apartment, while I got on my feet in Chicago. I lived with her a few months, and in January of 1986, I answered a "roommate wanted" ad in the Chicago Reader for a couple of guys up in the Rogers Park neighborhood. With the help of my friend Tim, I moved literally from one end of Chicago to the other, south to north, one afternoon.
One roommate was a "phantom" roommate-- a law student who was actually living with his girlfriend, but maintained a separate residence so that his parents didn't know about it. The roommate I ran into yesterday, John, on the other hand, was there all the time, since he was unemployed. His ever-present girlfriend Ellen supported him. She'd grown up in the neighborhood, and officially lived with her mother a few blocks away, but was usually at our place. At first the prospect of this seemed annoying, but she and I quickly became good friends. She was intelligent and witty. What she was doing with John was beyond me; he was overbearing, rude and narrow-minded. She was a "nice Jewish girl" from Rogers Park who'd graduated college and worked in social services; he was a classic Chicago palooka. They'd met at the University of Illinois, where she'd graduated and he'd dropped out, but just kept following her around.
I remember that John was trying to start a contracting business. He was putting together all his own ads--literally, cutting and pasting them all over our dining room. It was pretty annoying. He had some kind of form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-- he would tie up the bathroom for hours scrubbing himself. As I met his family, I discovered that they all had severe dysfunctions, and I discovered the source: their father. John's father was a violent, powerful guy. He was the head of one of the big municipal unions, and had gotten incredible agreements for a particular group of Chicago's municipal workers, but at home was horrible-- violent to his wife and kids and a womanizer. John and his whole family were a train-wreck of dysfunction. He wasn't an easy guy to be around.
In March of that 1986, the landlord sold the building and gave us three weeks to get out. We questioned the legality of it, but since we'd had nothing but trouble with him, we decided to just move out. And to tell the truth, I was fine with it. I'd gotten another job-- I was working as a law clerk during the week, and as a waiter on the weekends-- and wanted my own place. I stayed with a co-worker for a month while I found my own place, a one-bedroom at Berteau and Ashland, down the street from Lakeview High School.
I tried to stay friends with both John and Ellen, who'd begun a series of break-ups and make-ups. Finally, they ended things. John moved in with another woman, and in time I lost touch with both of them.
In early 1999, I was reading the Sun-Times, and was astonished when columnist Mary Mitchell mentioned John-- that he was in a vicious custody fight with his ex-wife. Having just been through a brutal custody fight myself, I empathized. I did a little internet search and was able to come up with his email. I emailed him, and we got in contact by phone. We caught up with what we were each doing (I was teaching seventh grade on the west side of Chicago, he was a firefighter) and talked a little about our kids. Then I asked him-- so you ended up marrying that girl you were living with?
"No. we split up. Ellen and I got back together. She tracked me down and said we were fated to be together. We got married in New Orleans on New Year's Eve one year."
I was literally speechless. This nightmare couple had gotten back together and had now gotten a child involved in their dysfunciontal relationship. I was furious with both of them. There'd been arrests and other ugliness. It was completely insane. It made my own custody fight, which involved the police at times to enforce my visitation rights, look genteel. John blamed it all on Ellen, but I know him too well. I know that at least half of it was his fault, if not more. He is prideful, has to get the last word in and always has to be right. And he can be physically intimidating.
When I stopped yesterday for a few minutes to talk to John, I discovered that he now runs an organization dedicated to fighting child abuse. He was apparently picking up a desk for his office. I asked about his daughter. He hadn't seen her in six years, he told me. We talked another moment and parted. As I walked away, I thought about the moment nearly ten years ago where I'd swallowed my pride and signed a custody agreement I wasn't completely happy with. It would have killed me to not see my son for six weeks, let alone six years. Sometimes there are things that are more important than being "right."