From this tiny spot on the edge of the earth I ventured out into the world, seeking adventures and trying to make Mother Earth a better place.
[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. These photos will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]
The “beach house” was my bachelor pad on the edge of the earth, a secluded hideaway crib with a close-to-nature vibe. In the early ’80s I lived in this space, situated near the end of the Loyola Avenue alley at the edge of the Great Lake Michigan. During my years there I did some growing up; by the end of the decade I had grown beyond it.
Pictures from the Long Haul
I inherited this third floor studio from my late folksinger pal Tom Dundee. He had come to it through Katy Hogan, my Heartland Café partner who lived across the hall.
Tom turned the “Murphy bed” alcove into a cozy waist-high sleeping loft, with a great view for one (or two) to behold: treetops, Pratt Pier, Lake Michigan, and the ever-changing sky. In this little bedroom Tom left part of a New Hampshire license plate: “Live Free or Die.”
The window in the dining area framed sunsets straight west down the alley behind Loyola Avenue. The other windows — kitchenette, living room, and bath — looked directly north, across Hartigan Park, Albion Street Beach, the east end of Albion and the lake. These large windows offered a near-90-degree view of the Great Lake Michigan, a slice of aqua pie.
I loved that shower and spent plenty of time leaning on the windowsill, with my head, shoulders, and part of my upper body outdoors. The water, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, hit my backside. I indulged in this relaxing pleasure summer, fall, winter, and spring, whenever I wanted, nighttime or daytime.
Through those windows I observed people and nature: the shifting colors of the landscape, the hues and shades of the sky and lake, motions of the waves, patterns and flow of the ice, the cop on the Loyola University beat religiously giving out parking tickets, people playing (and making out) in the park, on the beach, and in the water. During the heat of the summer an older couple arrived each morning to swim from the beach to the pier and back. They inspired me to begin swimming that same route, often passing them going or coming.
The lake was an open expanse seasonally dotted with sailboats and motorboats.
The lake was an open expanse seasonally dotted with sailboats and motorboats, the rare windsurfer, a canoe or kayak now and then. Occasionally I spotted something unique: a pick up truck that didn’t belong, stuck in the sand; a commercial fishing boat, a tug boat and barges repairing the lake wall or a freighter. Once on a very frigid, still, and quiet night I tracked a lone freighter far out on the horizon, way beyond the ice, its distant dim shimmer moving slowly south toward Gary, gradually disappearing from view.
My years on the beach were full, and they were fun. Along with running a restaurant (with a bar and general store), putting out the Heartland Journal, and traveling, I got into riding up and down the lakefront on the new Ross mountain bike I bought from Joe Hall at Quick Release Bikes.
It was good to be back on a manual two-wheeler, especially one that worked on rough surfaces. I hadn’t ridden a bike much since my pre-teen days when I decked out my JC Higgins fat-wheel-clunker with a coon tail and fringed handlebar grips, playing cards attached to the fender brackets by clothespins to replicate the sound of a motorcycle as the card hit the spokes.
And in those days I still did some running around, chasing and being chased by women. Who would have thought? Sometimes my heart felt like a pie cut into too many slices. There were late nights; I did my share of drink and drugs. Sometimes I entertained and partied in my little Beach House, but I also took refuge and rested up there. I worked on and nurtured myself with cooking, reading, writing, and stretching.
From this solo living space I readied myself for things to come, dreaming, imagining, and making big plans, some more realistic than others. From this tiny spot on the edge of the earth I ventured out into the world, seeking adventures and trying to make Mother Earth a better place.
The winter of 1983 was colder than cold.
The winter of 1983 was colder than cold and included a record-setting temperature of negative 27 degrees. But in the midst of this grueling cold a gift presented itself, and that was being given the opportunity to improve Chicago’s collective condition when Harold Washington took up the unity banner and ran for mayor. Activists and progressives emerged and came forward, and new political activists were born, cutting their teeth in a Rainbow Coalition movement that united people of different races, ethnicities, classes, and religions.
We at the Café were all in for the cause. On Sunday night, February 20th, we had the honor of hosting Harold at a standing-room-only crowd, both inside and outside, at the Heartland. Harold took the microphone and said, “You want Harold? You got Harold!” The crowd went wild.
Two days later, this principled and progressive African-American Congressman became the Democratic nominee to be Chicago’s Mayor, defeating Mayor Jane Byrne and future Mayor Richie M. Daley. We were ecstatic. Katy and my 13-year-old son Jesse headed south down Lake Shore Drive to McCormick Place, where we joined thousands of others in celebration.
My beach house crib was adjacent to Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus and between there and my work at the Café I met and came to know a myriad of interesting folks connected to the university. One was the Loyola water polo coach Ralph Erickson.
Big and stern, Ralph was a formidable man. He was a regular at the Heartland Café. Originally from South Dakota and the son of Scandinavian immigrants, he grew up in Chicago. A paratrooper wounded during World War II’s Battle of Bulge, he hated the Nazis. Ralph was a hotshot swimmer, a pioneer scuba diver, and a founder of the PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors).
Ralph arranged for the Loyola athletic director to give me a go pass, a “permission to use facilities” handwritten on his card, so I could use the lovably ancient and funky athletic facility known as Alumni Gym, home of the 1963 NCAA Basketball Champion Loyola Rambler team.
Using those facilities allowed serious conversation with the priests who swam in the pool and used the small sauna. I met athletes, coaches, administrators, and trainers as well as priests, faculty, students, security guards, and maintenance personnel. The gem of the building was the large and deep (no shallow end) swimming pool designed for water polo. It was simply wonderful. And in that pool Ralph gave me my first scuba diving lesson.
My learning partner was Tommy Gilchrist, a young “C & D” kid I’d met hanging out on the corner of Clark and Devon (C & D) during the early days of founding Rising Up Angry. He went from wild biker to active athlete, union activist, and conductor on the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad.
After completing our first lessons in that water polo pool Ralph brought us to a beach in Evanston where we went into Lake Michigan and explored a submerged freighter that had sunk in the late 1800s not far off shore. Next we headed to a quarry near Kenosha, where I froze in a wetsuit 40 feet underwater as we explored the skeletal body of an old Ford. Back on land I relished the warmth and was relieved when my stuffed ears cleared after I popped my first Sudafed.
I took advantage of the weeks after the Mayoral primary and headed south.
Turns out Ralph ran scuba diving trips. He let me know he’d be in Cozumel, Mexico, during Loyola’s spring vacation in March. So I took advantage of the weeks after the Mayoral primary and before the general election and headed south.
Proudly wearing one of the “Irish for Washington” t-shirts I had produced, I went to the town of San Miguel on the island of Cozumel off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. There I joined a group of Loyola students and faculty, plus Tommy. I made a day dive and a night dive; both presented a marvelous visual treat with their unique underwater constellations of tropical fish.
I spent considerable time in the saltwater diving, swimming, floating, and treading water. I relished being in the water even more than usual because my back had gotten rough a few days before I left. I moved slowly, smooth and easy, especially when going from a little bay near the Intercontinental Hotel through a small outlet to the sea. Two days running, I eased past a barracuda lurking there, guarding his turf in the surf and, I assumed, waiting for prey smaller than me.
Scuba vacationland was pleasant. It was Mexico for tourists, who engaged in aqua activities and then walked the main drag, eating and drinking, and looking at clothes in stores like Aca Joe’s. Not much else going on: no visible local life, nor local joints to check out, only tourists — and those who served them.
I was just another effen tourist, plain
I was just another effen tourist, plain and simple. This was not my cup of tea. So I split, and took an Areomexico flight to Villahermosa. There a few other travelers and I shared the 90-mile cab ride to Palenque in the Estado de Chiapas.
One fellow traveler was a guy from Florida named Fletcher. We hung out for a few days. We trekked to a swimming hole in la selva, the jungle, where lo and behold, we encountered the counterculture: gringos, Europeans, and Mexicans. One of the homeboys had weed and hongos alucinógenos, the magic mushrooms. I partook of both. He also sold gemstones and I bought a heart-shaped piece of amethyst. The water, trees, and shade were soothing, and so was the camaraderie of those who emerged through the trees and gathered at the swimming hole.
We visited the ruins, las ruinas de Pelenque, and climbed to the top of a pyramid built by Mayans a couple hundred years BC. For a minute I experienced an uneasy sense of vulnerability as I precariously made my way down the tiny, steep stairs, the same ones on which I had just climbed to the top.
Returning from the day’s adventures at sunset, we found the town was without electric power. This made for one enchanted candlelit twilight. At a vending stall selling CDs, I discovered a Nat King Cole disc of his beautiful ballads, in Espanol — a cherished disc that ended up on the Heartland Café’s jukebox for decades.
Refreshed by my time away, I landed
back in Chicago.
Refreshed by my time away, I landed back in Chicago and focused my attention on the Mayoral election, the importance of bringing Harold home. The progressive and fair-minded people of Chicago did just that. Harold defeated Bernie Epton, the old-style liberal Republican who ran as the great white hope.
Epton’s decent reputation was severely blemished when he accepted the racist backing of people who believed that with a black mayor, Chicago’s black citizens would rule, dominate, ruin, and take revenge — the world would end. Their motto was “Bernie or the Nigger.” But the larger community of diverse good folks in Chicago made sure those racist forces did not prevail. Instead, black and brown and progressive whites, including the “lakefront liberals,” pulled it off. On April 12, 1983, Harold won the general election and defeated Epton with 52% of the vote.
We got Harold! So we celebrated again with another great night out.
On April 29, Harold was inaugurated, becoming Chicago’s 51st Mayor. I attended the inauguration with Katy, who had worked very hard on the campaign. She joyfully greeted her friends, including Lu Palmer, the rebellious and outspoken journalist who was instrumental in getting Congressman Harold to take the plunge and make the historic run.
During the post-inauguration gathering I spotted long time Chicago politician (first as Congressman, then Alderman) and political leader of the Polish community, Roman Pucinski. He had encountered and was surrounded by Jesse Jackson, his entourage, and the engulfing crowd. From a distance their encounter symbolized both the moment and opportunity to build better understanding, harmony and unity.
Pucinski would soon reject that chance. Instead he became part of the notoriously racist “Vrdolyak 29” in the 50-seat City Council. These 29 aldermen attacked and obstructed Harold’s every move. They were insistently on the wrong side of history, and their attitude flew in the face of a more racially harmonious and brighter future.
But on this bright, sunny, warm Inauguration Day in April, the event was the result of a beautiful, hopeful Rainbow Coalition. In that moment, Chicago caught a glimpse of the route to its own better future.
Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.
[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at email@example.com.]