Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tales of Sonny Boy: The First Ride Home

I live a little over a mile from the first apartment I ever had by myself. It was at Ashland and Berteau, on the north side of Chicago. I moved into it in April, 1986.

I remember that I went through a rental agency. The office was at Lincoln and Irving Park Road, in a building, since torn down, that also housed a bowling alley, bar and pool room. If you've ever seen the movie "The Color of Money," you've seen the pool room; it's in the scene where Paul Newman played pool against Forrest Whittaker. I looked at a handful of apartments before choosing the one at Ashland and Berteau. It was a second floor one-bedroom that reminded me of the brick apartment buildings I'd grown up in in the sixties and early seventies in Chicago, with porcelain fixtures and ceramic tile in the washroom and hardwood floors. And at $365 a month, I could afford it, even if the area was a little dicey.

One of the other things I loved about the place was that it was, on the Berteau side, on one of a handful of stretches of street left in Chicago that hadn't been paved over; it was still brick. I found that very charming.

I lived in the place for about a year-and-a-half. Sometime in the late nineties, the city finally paved over that stretch. I was a little saddened by it-- the brick pavement was, to me, a reminder of an exciting time in my life, just out of college and just getting started.

This winter was rough on the streets of Chicago. We've got prodigious amounts of potholes. Even pretty new pavement has broken up in places. A few weeks ago, I noticed that for the first time in about a decade, I could see some of the brick pavement of my fond memories, peeking through broken asphalt. It's only a matter of time before they pave it back over, but it was nice to see this memory of my youth. It also reminded me of one of my favorite memories in the beginning of my son's life.

My son was born in March of 1994 at Lincoln Park's Columbus Hospital, which was torn down recently to make room for condos. His mother had a c section, so she and he had to stay at the hospital for a day.

I was scared to death when he was born. His mother and I had split about a month before she discovered she was pregnant. She had offered me out if I wanted; she had made the decision and was going to have the baby, and raise it alone if I didn't want to participate.

I knew my answer immediately. No way. I'd spent a couple of years subbing in the Chicago Public School system, including a year in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects. I'd seen the results of absentee fathers. I decided to stick around and raise my son.

On the other hand, I had grave doubts that I'd be a good parent-- a doubt that a few old friends have recently admitted that they shared. I was a pretty angry person as a younger guy. Having grown up around a really angry-- and sometimes violent-- father, I didn't know how well it would go. I'd been living on my own for my entire adult life, doing whatever I pleased. Sacrificing for someone else's needs was not something I'd done a lot of in my adult life. I think I felt like I'd put a lifetime's worth of sacrifice time in dealing with my father through my childhood.

I was to learn, and continue to learn, a lot of lessons as a parent. One of them I quickly learned was that you have the choice to be different from your parent or parents. I've rarely even raised my voice to my son, and only spanked him a few times in his whole life. Choosing your battles wisely is another lesson I swiftly learned.

But the first couple of days after my son's birth were rife with lessons. The very first one I learned, upon picking my newborn son up for the first time, was Parenting Lesson Number One: newborns don't like to be moved. They've just gone from a quiet, warm place to a bright, loud place filled with unfamiliar things. I quickly learned to be calm and deliberate with my movements while I held my son.

The next day I drove his mother's car to the hospital; I didn't own a car at the time. I was in full-blown bohemian mode: ponytail, big earring, old army coat, new tattoo and all. As the two most scared people in the world brought a baby out into the cold Chicago March air and strapped him into a child seat-- a first for both of us-- I began to be nervous about the ride home. I had barely driven a car since selling my beloved 1972 Cutlass Supreme convertible three years before. Now I was driving with my newborn son in the car.

I made the decision to take side roads and side streets home. Not only was I nervously driving my newborn son home, my girlfriend had a gut full of stitches from her caesarean.

Remembering how much he fussed when he was moved, I thought that the 2 mile ride home through city streets was going to be a long one. I decided to take a familiar route home, a route where I'd pass by my old apartment.

As I thought he would, he started crying when the car started moving, despite my best efforts to drive smoothly. His mother turned to talk to him, trying to settle him. I drove down Clark Street, past Wrigley Field and and up to Berteau Avenue, where I turned left. I suddenly remembered the bumpy brick pavement on the upcoming section of Berteau, and realized that this route may not have been such a good idea. It was too late to change my route, I decided; we were getting near home, and it would be best to just get him home as quickly as we could.

As we crossed Ashland Avenue and hit the bumpy brick pavement right in front of my old apartment, I realized that it was now quiet in the car. I looked at my son in the rearview mirror and it was at that moment I learned, with some relief, Parenting Lesson #2: a moving car is the best pacifier in the world. Sonny Boy was fast asleep.


SkylersDad said...

A beautiful post JY, and what a great picture of you and Adam!

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks, SD! He was actually a month old in that picture. I think I've mentioned before that my ex is Chinese-American, and that they have a tradition in their culture of keeping the baby in the house for a month (probably a good one-- waiting until the mother has transferred a lot of her immunities through her milk to them). Then you have a big party with good food, including hard-boiled eggs dyed red, both families and booze.

A few years back, Adam looked at that picture and asked why he was scared. I resisted the temptation to tell him that it was because he was being held by a guy who'd had a few drinks.

Johnny Yen said...

BTW, that picture was taken by my old friend Larry, who also posts on my FB. He was, until recently, a journalist, but over the years has become an incredible photographer. He not only showed up to all three of my weddings, but took great pictures of them...

Coaster Punchman said...

I like this story. That is a HUGE fear of mine ---- that I would be too much like my parents. PG has a theory that the harder you fight against being something, the more you are drawn to being it. Who knows, I don't have kids so I guess I'll never know. I'm very patient with my cats. Oh, but this isn't about me is it?

First apartments of our own - I also have a very fond feeling about my first solo apt, which was $375 in 1990. Oh for those days...

Again, nice post.

Mnmom said...

Great post!! I find those first few days with newborns to be somewhat magical. Although if you asked my husband I'm sure he would say it was like being housed with Sybil. That would be me, not the baby.

purplelar said...

Uncle Yen,

I remember that time and the discussions I had with you, I have definitely seen a different person evolve than even you could have imagined 25 years ago when we were in college. I can't believe how fast time has flown since the Dude was an infant. I always liked that picture as well.

Johnny Yen said...

I think we're all a little crazy at that time, if only for lack of sleep!

Uncle Lar-
I have that picture in a frame in my living room. It's my favorite newborn pic of him.

Yeah, I'm a lot less angry. I got tired of throwing good time after bad.

Phil said...

Have you taken him practice driving yet?

Cap'n Ergo "XL" Jinglebollocks said...

THAT wuz tasty.

Th' roads here in NE OH are all torn to hell, and in this neck o' th' woods MOST of the city is asphalt o'er brick w/a number of just plain brick streets still remaining.

Excellent post, and the last paragraph notes why I can't go on long car drives as a passenger: I fall asleep.

Churlita said...

That was really nice. I had abusive legal guardians, but it made me be just the opposite. I would never want my girls to have those same kinds of self-esteem issues it's taken me years to overcome. I'm glad you were able to break the cycle as well.

Anonymous said...

That was really a lovely post.

I flew from Nashville to Portland yesterday, with a hour layover in O'Hare. I kind of miss Chicago.

Anonymous said...

Parenting Lesson #2: a moving car is the best pacifier in the world.

Parenting Lesson #2-Subsection A: Unless you have a very long drive ahead of you and NEED the kid to sleep for a while, in that case, the kid will scream until you pull over and spend at least twenty minutes amusing him.

Erik Donald France said...

Very very cool.

And the brick palimpsest -- love that in any city when it happens. Old brick. Beautiful.

lulu said...

That's what you looked like when I met you.

Sweet post.