I was never a morning person. In fact, the earlier I am expected to rise, the worse my dread of the morning becomes.
The summer of 1982 was especially rough. Having just finished high school, I got a job at a collection agency stuffing envelopes every weekday in downtown Chicago. This meant that I would have to get up by 6:00am and be at my desk at 200 W. Monroe by 8:00am. That summer, I had a plan. I would save enough money by the end of August, for tuition and room and board so that I would be able to go to college. At the time, I lived in my parent’s house with many siblings. Since I was 18 years old, most of the siblings and the events that occurred in our house were of little concern to me.
But two of my sisters also worked downtown. They also had to get up by 6:00am every day. And since we shared a bathroom, this was a concern. Not only that, we shared a bedroom. We shared hair brushes and makeup and food and transportation. Yet the biggest challenge we faced? We shared clothes. I suppose “shared” is a generous term to describe this situation. Better to say we grappled. Or we struggled? No, I’d say – “toiled” Each morning we would toil: snatching, sneaking, swearing, crying, hating and screaming.
And then, by 7:00am, or 7:07am or on really bad days, 7:15, one of my sisters and I would pile into a sky blue VW bug with a couple of my cousins and often another friend who lived on the block. My cousins had to get ready in their apartment around the block, plus drop off my cousin’s 2-year-old daughter at my Aunt’s house before meeting us. Quite often, the random friend on the block would wave us down as she’d clamber down her porch and scurry to the Bug. We’d all cram in, still fuming from our morning toiling. Our hair, styled but already frizzy, would be further challenged by the rush of warm summer air from the open windows as we rattled and swerved our way down the side streets to downtown Chicago.
My cousin drove a stick shift, smoked Virginia Slim Menthol Ultra Lights, darted around potholes and easily joined in the busy gossip of the morning. It was common for her and her sister to still be in the throes of one of their own brutal morning fights. On Friday’s we’d all be in a better mood, and we’d crank up John Cougar on the AM/FM radio. We’d all participate in some combination of singing, gossiping, and/or smoking.
Our whirlwind ride always took the same route. Wallace to Archer and then we’d take a shortcut by cutting down a side street to avoid the light on Canal. And so it went — every morning.
Another gentleman was just starting his day along our shortcut as well. An elderly man, maybe he was 40, or maybe he was 70, (it was all the same to us), was usually on his porch by 7:20am. He liked to drink his coffee sitting on the front step of his porch. He had a habit of wearing a robe. A big fluffy white robe. And in fact, only a big fluffy white robe. We knew this information because his preferred seating position involved legs slightly open, but open enough. And there It was — every morning.
Now, this was 1982: no internet, no cable. I was briefly given a quick glance of a Playgirl magazine on one occasion at our all-girls Catholic high school, but frontal nudity definitely was not readily available. The public nature of this occurrence added an additional layer of outrageousness. We were equally appalled and curious. Each morning once we’d turn onto the side street, my cousin would slow down, and a hush would come over the car.
“He’s probably there again. I just know he’s there again.” my sister would say. And each morning, we’d all peer out of the passenger side of the Bug. What we saw was dark and shadowy, but we got the full Monty. And then it was over, as we glided past the house. The car would erupt!
“That is so disgusting!” We yelled. Then we laughed, and then we’d revel in our disgust!
“He is repulsive!”
“He’s an f-ing pig!
“We should call the cops!”
In the end, we decided he was just an old, gross, weird, pervert, and we’d continue to our respective jobs and forget all about it. And the next morning, we’d to it all again.
I didn’t go to college that fall. By October, the old guy was gone. We decided that a neighbor must have called the cops and that he was sitting in jail somewhere, knees spread.
Looking back, I’m certain that the sky-blue VW Bug, full of screeching girls, was the highlight of that guy’s morning. Why didn’t we take another route? Through those chaotic rides, I learned a thing or two. I learned that public exposure was illegal. I also learned that creepy guys on the bus who “leaned in” were also engaging in illegal behaviors. This was news to me. This led to further conversations of other men or boys from the neighborhood who “creeped us out.” It gave me the perspective to know that unwanted sexual advances were not necessarily my fault. In the era of ‘boys will be boys,”, I learned that sometimes, the guy was just creepy.
We didn’t have the language to describe sexual harassment, and date-rape wasn’t a thing yet. As young girls, it was typical to endure unwanted physical and verbal advances, and those car conversations gave us a venue to understand it. We validated each other. We supported each other.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a weekend with my cousins. We now all have beautiful grown daughters of our own. I imagine that these younger girls see us chatty aunts with our endless stories as fun, but a bit outdated – just as our parents seemed to us. For their sake, I am glad that the national conversations around these issues have ramped up and that our understanding continues to evolve.
On a frigid January afternoon in 1983, I finally moved into a dorm room. I was prepared financially, and thanks to my posse of girlfriends, sisters, and cousins, I was prepared in other important ways as well. This fall, as college girls (and boys) unpack their boxes and settle into their dorms, they face a social scene that is unlike anything we could have imagined in 1983. I hope they are able to support each other and respect each other. And whether presented in the form of a random neighbor, a favored college professor or a powerful billionaire, I hope that at a minimum; they know a creep when they see one.