Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why I Live in Thailand: The Prequel

This month's blog is a little different: it's an excerpt from a novel I'm writing called Brighton Park. It's a fiction/nonfiction blend like all novels-- not autobiographical in many respects-- yet it describes the foundation for why I live in Asia.... 

Filled with rows of identical brown brick bungalows, Brighton Park brimmed with families who had had their lives upended by war and who now wanted what her parents called The American Dream, whatever that was. Near as Kate could tell, the dream meant living in the United States, which her parents said, was the best country on earth. In America, we have freedom, they told her.

While the adults went freely about their lives inside the windowless factories where they worked long shifts, packs of kids played kickball and Horse and hide and seek in the streets and alleys behind the factories. Daiva and she had met during games in these streets. If there had been a time when they weren't friends, she did not remember it.

Brighton Park was a neighborhood on Chicago's south side. Kate thought it was a dumb name. It was anything but bright. By noon every day, haze from nearby factories fogged the air and blocked the sun. And there weren't any parks.

A better name would have been Lithuania Town since more than half her neighbors had come to Brighton Park directly from the Old Country.

Her parents called the Lithuanians DPs. When she was a little kid, Kate didn't know what a DP was but she could tell by the way they said it that it wasn't a good thing. Wafting from DP houses was the foreign odor of beet soup and cabbage instead of the American smell of Hamburger Helper and instant mashed potatoes. The women tied brightly colored babushkas on their heads. They didn't shave their legs. The men wore socks with sandals and their pants never quite matched the color of their shirts. But worst of all was that they spoke Lithuanian in the shops, and on the streets and buses. This was America for God's sake, her parents said. People who come here should speak English.

The Lithuanians did not agree.

Daiva's and her own parents were in agreement about one thing though: the Brighton Park Public School was no place to send a kid. The giant stone fortress with gated windows and steel plate doors a few blocks from their houses looked like a prison. Neighborhood gossip said the teachers were terrible and that students were treated like inmates. Daiva's parents were Catholic so they sent her to all girls Immaculate Conception Elementary School where the students wore blue plaid uniforms with pleated skirts that they rolled up very short when the nuns weren't looking. The girls were required to attend mass each morning and school often dismissed early in the afternoon so the students could sell candy door to door to raise money. When they weren't in church or doing fundraisers for the school, Daiva said the older girls smoked in the bathroom and talked about things they did with boys.

Although Kate did not have to wear a uniform at her own Missouri Synod Lutheran school, she could not imagine students being allowed to hang out in the bathrooms, leave school early to sell candy, or talk about things they did with boys. Misbehavior was dealt with swiftly and publicly by teachers who were not shy about using a large wooden paddle they called “the Board of Education” for things like late homework, skirts that were too short, or overdue library books. Classes were disciplined, orderly, and quiet.

Daiva's school sounded like a lot more fun. Kate wondered secretly how she could become Catholic and go to Daiva's school without her parents knowing.

On a warm May Saturday morning, the girls sat on Daiva's porch. Mr. Petersonaitis, Daiva's dad was fixing the family's ancient push mower on the small square of crabgrass that constituted the family's front lawn. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. Kate noticed what looked like numbers tattooed onto his left forearm.

“Why does your dad have that?” Kate asked. “Have what?” Daiva flipped the long brown braids that reached down to her waist. “Those numbers?” “From the camps,” Daiva said, still more interested in her braids than in Kate's question. “What kind of camp puts numbers on people?' Mr. Petersonaitis suddenly looked up from the mower and quickly rolled down his sleeves. Kate realized that she had been staring at his arm. He disappeared into the backyard. “Papa doesn't like to talk about it much. All I know is that there was a guy who put a lot of people into camps because they weren't Russian.” My parents had to work hard there. That's why they left the Old Country. Wanna a popsicle?”

Kate did not want a Popsicle. She wanted to know about camps in the Old Country where people who weren’t Russian were tattooed and forced to work hard. Were there a lot of camps like that, she wondered? Were they still open? Was the Old Country the only place where there were such camps? Kate wasn’t Russian. If she went to the Old Country, would she be tattooed and put into a camp? If so, this seemed like a good reason not to go to the Old Country. And yet Daiva and her parents often spoke of returning to Lithuania. It was confusing. As usual, she had a million questions and few answers.

She followed Daiva to the corner mom and pop store where they sold cigarettes, milk, Wonder bread, bagels, candy, and popsicles. Kate got a red/white/blue Rocket Blaster. The Popsicle was so cold it stung her tongue as she bit off a chunk of blue ice. Daiva licked her Dreamsicle and talked incessantly about the reward a priest at her parish had promised she was going to get when she cut off her braids after she graduated in two years from eighth grade. Kate thought the whole thing was weird. Why would a priest make Daiva promise not to cut off her braids until she was in eighth grade and give her a reward because she then did? Kate had tried to get an answer from Daiva about this. Daiva said it was something someone who wasn’t Lithuanian wouldn’t be able to understand. Kate said, “Try me. What’s the reward?” “That’s what I mean,” Daiva said. “You don’t understand.” But Kate did understand. She was an outsider.

The wind shifted and the air began to smell like a feedlot. For years her mom had explained the stink by saying they lived near The Back of the Yards. Chicago after all was the hog butcher to the world. But by grade 6, Kate knew the slaughterhouses had closed years ago. This smell actually came from the Darling Fertilizer Plant. Darling and dozens of other factories that hedged Brighton Park on all sides spewed fumes day and night but Darling's mix of ammonia and manure pierced the nose and clung to clothing in ways the others did not.

Besides Darling and the Lithuanians' food concoctions, the other prominent olfactory feature of Brighton Park was the smell of the many of dimly lit taverns that occupied the corners of most blocks. When the doors of these establishments swung open, the reek of stale beer, cigarettes, and urine wafted out. Most of the taverns had some patrons who parked themselves on the tattered vinyl stools when the bars opened at 9 am and who drank and smoked uninterrupted for hours. These devoted drinkers could not be troubled to stop long enough to get up to use the toilet. Yellow puddles pooled beneath their seats. Daiva's parents did not go into the bars. Both of Kate's parents did.

In fact, they were frequent visitors to Ona's and Baly's Tap just across the alley next to their bungalow. Adjacent to the bar was an 8 x 10 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain linked padlocked fence. A large black Doberman named Prince paced the pen all day and well into the night. Baly said he was a guard dog although he never seemed to be allowed outside the pen.

Every morning on her walk to school, Kate studied the fence to see if there might be a way to help the dog escape.

That evening at the supper table, Kate asked her parents about the camps and numbers she had seen on Mr. Petersonaitis’ arm. “Stalin was the man who put the DPs in labor camps after the war,” her dad said while opening the fifth of many bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer he would have that night. “Had the right idea, too. Those DPs helped the Nazis. If you ask me, we should get the balls in this country to put troublemakers into camps like Stalin did. Round ‘em all up and make ‘em work. I bet that nigger King never worked an honest day in his life. And he’s coming here to lead marches and stir up the jungle bunnies? Go back to Africa.”

Kate doubted that her dad could find Africa on a map.

“Oh, Bob, you don’t mean that,” her mom said quietly. She had only had two bottles of beer.

“Who are you to tell me what I mean?” He slammed his fist on the table causing a plate to clatter and break upon the stained linoleum floor. Not for the first time, Kate studied her parents and thought the two of them made quite a pair. Although he was only in his early thirties, her dad was almost bald and looked twice his age. With his big beer belly hanging over his belt, he reminded Kate of Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, but with less hair. Like Jackie, he was powerfully built. Her mom on the other hand had all her hair but was rail thin. Full of nervous energy, she waved her hands when she spoke and often flitted about whatever room she was in. Kate secretly called her Bird Woman. Physically, Bird Woman was no match for Jackie Gleason. And Kate knew from experience that what was about to happen was going to get physical.

She excused herself from the table and went for a walk. It was best not to be in the house during her parents’ arguments. By the time she got back, the fight would be over, her parents would be at the bar, the house would be quiet, and she could go to bed.

Kate knew that a black man named Martin Luther King was supposed to lead a march for something called open housing in nearby Marquette Park. Lots of Lithuanians lived in that neighborhood, too. And just like Brighton Park, there were no black people there. The only time Kate saw blacks—her Uncle Wally called them “the colored”-- was when he took her on the Archer Avenue CTA bus downtown to visit the Art Institute, Adler Planetarium, or The Shedd Aquarium. Once downtown, she would see many black people on the sidewalks, in the museums, and on buses. Her uncle under his breath often pointed out how thick colored people’s lips were and how curly their hair was. Kate didn’t think these things needed pointing out since she could see for herself but she didn’t say anything. Her uncle was probably going to buy her lunch in a restaurant which was a rare treat. No good could come of starting an argument. But after lunch when she pulled a stick of Juicy Fruit from her pocket, her uncle grabbed the pack away and told her it was jungle bunny gum. She said it tasted good and demanded it back. He refused and called her a jungle bunny. She put her hands above her head in imitation of rabbit ears and began to hop out of the restaurant. People stared. He returned the packet of Juicy Fruit.

They had a silent ride home on the CTA bus. Uncle Wally never took her on another Saturday expedition downtown. But by that time, Kate had an allowance and knew how to take the bus to the museums by herself. She continued the Saturday expeditions alone. This was preferable to going with Uncle Wally although she could not afford to treat herself to lunch even though museum admission was free. But now that her uncle was no longer with her she could spend hours studying the exhibits in detail and return to her favorite museum again and again. Kate spent the next year of Saturdays in the Art Institute of Chicago puzzling over Impressionism and Asian antiquities.

The Art Institute had many galleries of Impressionistic art. Most of the paintings were by French guys named Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Matisse, and Degas.  But there were also other paintings by people like Sisley and Cassatt who weren’t French but had gone to France to paint. From what she could tell from Impressionism, the light in France was very different from that on the south side of Chicago. It was much more beautiful. French light shimmered. Someday she would go there and see it for herself.

Kate liked Renoir’s art the best because it glowed with the most color and joy. She found herself especially drawn to his painting of two young sisters sitting on a terrace by a lake. The girls had rosy cheeks and radiated health and youth. Both wore big hats. The older sister’s was red which was Kate’s favorite color. What fun it would be to sit on a shimmering lake terrace wearing a red hat in a happy glowing world. But for no reason at all, tears sometimes came to Kate’s eyes when she stood in front of the picture of the sisters. The tears always surprised her and she quickly blinked them away. Crying, she was pretty sure, wasn’t going to help her see the beautiful world the Impressionists saw.

The museum’s Asian galleries were even bigger than the Impressionism ones. Uncle Wally had taken her to see the Asian collection once to show her examples of “Jap” art. He was an ex-Marine who had fought in the Pacific during the most recent worldwide war. Bird Woman told her that Uncle Wally's wife divorced him while he in Japan. Now he lived alone in a rooming house near 47th and Archer. He held the Japanese responsible for this.  Referring to some sculptures of the Buddha, he hissed, “Japs pray to these statues. Didn't help them win the war though, the bastards.” Her uncle apparently had not noticed that museum signs said the art was from many places in Asia, not just Japan. Or maybe he thought all of Asia was just one big version of Japan?

“When I was in Japan right after the war ended", Uncle Wally said,  "a family gave me a meal. It tasted good but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I asked the cook to tell me. He pretended he couldn’t speak English. But his English had been OK up to that point. I said he better tell me. ‘Rat’, the Jap said. I went around back and threw up. Then I thought about shooting him. A buddy who was with me told me it wasn’t worth risking a court martial for." Uncle Wally chuckled.

Kate wondered if the cook had actually played a trick on her uncle because Americans won the war. But what if rats were the only kind of meat the Japanese had left when the war ended? Or maybe, the Japanese actually ate rats on a regular basis just like Americans ate hotdogs? Had her uncle ever asked an American cook what was in a hotdog? If he got an answer he didn’t like, would he consider shooting the cook?

Knowing that her uncle would not appreciate these questions, Kate didn't ask them. They left the museum shortly thereafter and then went to lunch. It was at that lunch that the Juicy Fruit incident occurred.

On her post Juicy Fruit trips to the Art Institute sans uncle, Kate noted the Japanese woodblock prints and Chinese jade carvings with interest but was especially attracted to the hundreds of sculptures of the Buddha from various parts of Southeast Asia. Kate didn’t know much about Buddhism but she liked the fact that all the Buddhas looked pretty relaxed and were smiling. Their eyes were half closed like they were watching some inner movie. Were they smiling because they saw the same shining world the Impressionists did?

Kate wanted to see what the Buddhas saw. Even if they did eat rats.

Daiva said she thought how Kate spent her Saturdays was weird. “You mean your parents let you get on the bus and go downtown by yourself?” “Yeah. They're usually too hung over in the morning to ask a lot of questions. They think I’m going to the library.”

“All day?” “Yeah, I tell them I have a lot of homework.” 


  1. Hi,

    I just found your blog and want to invite you to provide a guest post for our site Retirement And Good Living about moving to and living in Thailand.

    Currently the blog section of our site is comprised entirely of posts by guests on a variety of topics. To date over 100 guests from around the globe provided posts to our blog.

    Please send me an email and I will forward additional information.


    Simone Harrison

    1. I have sent you an email and look forward to hearing from you.

  2. I look forward to reading more of your novel. And curious how you are part of the story.

  3. Thank you. I look forward to reading more of it, too. :)

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  5. Thanks Santosh. Glad you enjoyed my blog.