The Secret of Life
by Stephen J. Lyons
For one glorious week in the 1960s, my buddies and I met with a nose-less man every day after school. He sat facing us at a picnic table in Jackson Park, across the street from our school in Chicagoís Hyde Park neighborhood. Because we were fifth grade city boys, who traveled in a pack like stray dogs, we were not afraid of him or much of anything else. The exception was the Disciples and the Blackstone Rangers, two warring black gangs on the South Side. The gangs had switchblades and homemade zip guns, and they despised little white boys, who often mimicked their street mannerisms. Our arsenal consisted of water pistols and Popsicle sticks sharpened into dull points on the asphalt sidewalks. We also had magnifying glasses to incinerate ants and skateboards for quick getaways.
Above all, we had Attitude. We smoked candy cigarettes with style. We hung baseball cards (only the doubles) with clothespins to our spokes so our Schwinns would rasp like motorcycles. We peeked and giggled at Playboy magazines in the back of drug stores, a certain mysterious feeling stirring beneath our jeans. We sneaked onto elevators ascending to the top floors of the Lake Michigan high rises, then stole up the final flight of stairs to the roofs, where we were kings of the city. The tougher guys in our pack walked around the perimeter of the rooftops balancing on foot-wide ledges, their arms spread out to embrace the world. I stayed away from the edge because each time I contemplated a risk, I also contemplated the image of my disapproving mother.
The man without a nose had a face that was flatówithout geographyóand he appeared expressionless. Although he reeked of wine and his clothes were soiled, he seemed content and centered, not at all like a squirmy tribe of non-stop, ten-year-old boys. His calmness reminded me of the Buddhist monks who protested the Vietnam War. Over Beef-A-Roni or pigs-in-a-blanket, Walter Cronkite would deliver the worldís news. There was never any advance warning before the monks appeared on television. Each broadcast began with reports from the dismal war, and it was not unusual to observe a robed monk pour flammable liquid over his shaved head, assume the lotus position, and calmly light a match. I took it all in while reaching for the macaroni and cheese and plenty of catsup on everything.
How I admired them. What discipline! Even when a monk was totally engulfed he never flinched. Sometimes onlookers would valiantly try to douse the (black-and-white) flames, but usually they would let the fire continue until the cross-legged monk would finally topple over, still in a lotus position. At that terrible moment, the monk no longer seemed human. Instead, he resembled a perfect, pyramid-shaped campfire. His smoke drifted across the screen, followed by perhaps a Prell, Fresca, or Lucky Strikes commercial.
At that age, there was so much about the world that I was oblivious to, but I did notice, despite the monksí protests, that the war raged on for many more years. Later, I joined classmates in walking out of high school in protest over the never-ending war, but instead of attending a peace rally, I sat in the left field bleachers at Wrigley Field and watched the Cubs and Mets slug it out. If the monks couldnít stop the war, how could I, a 16-year-old undisciplined agnostic with ravaged skin, have any impact?
The nose-less man appalled us at first, but after the first lunch hour with him, we no longer felt there was anything odd about him. In a big city you see the complete range of human shapes, sizes, colors, and malformations. And, like the monks on television, there was never any warning as to when they might cross our paths: Leg-less people rolling around on carts, propelling their bodies down the sidewalks with their hands, like surfers in search of a wave. Women with elephantiasis, their baggy skin cascading around their ankles like a second coating of skin. Men so obese that it appeared as if their heads were shrinking. Dwarfs waiting for the bus, dressed in three-piece suits, checking their watches, and carrying briefcases.
It was an unspoken rule to never make fun of these people, because to do so would ensure that we would come down with a similar fate. It was difficult enough to be a boy approaching puberty so why take chances? (Besides, we could, and did, make fun of each other. "Hey pimple face!") Already, the afflicted were among us. One older boy, we had heard, had a permanent erection. Another poor soul had lost a testicle. And some classmates simply disappeared after a trip to the hospital, their desks empty for the rest of the school year.
So, although we gawked and stared, the misshapen took on a cult status. We were their groupies. And to meet a man without a nose was like meeting Sandy Koufax himself. Our guy lived in the park and even smoked, two activities many of us desperately wanted to try. He blew the smoke out the two brown holes above his mouth, proving that his respiratory system still worked. Soon, the idea of not having a nose was not such a big deal.
Around that time, a giant moved into our neighborhood, touching off a frenzy of back alley activity among our gang of boys. We couldnít determine his occupation, but we just knew it had to do something with the circus. We had no proof, of course, to this or any of our rumors. All we had learned up to that point was contained within a few square blocks, within a handful of comic books and on the backs of baseball cards, and anything we could copy off television and older siblings. No matter, we pursued the tall man relentlessly, from the time he left his apartment until he returned. Our giant, who may have been eight-feet-tall or six-feet-eight, had to duck underneath the doorframe at Jesselsonís Fish Store on 55th Street. We watched him through the window, our gasping, impressible faces pressed to the glass, our hearts beating as fast as hummingbirds. Jeez, look at him! When he finished his business and turned toward us, a white parcel of lake perch in his massive mitts, we fell over each other like a furry ball of puppies trying to scamper down the street. But we were fast and would not stop until we made it all the way back to our secret meeting place at Jackson Park.
No way, he didnít see me!
Yes he did, he saw you Lyons!
No, your mother!
To insult someoneís mother was the ultimate put-down. The insults were tight, declarative sentences that gradually built upon themselves into something approaching bad haiku. Creative skills were honed to the detriment of our matriarchs.
Your motherís a man!
Your motherís a man, lives in Japan!
Your motherís a man, lives in Japan, has rotten teeth, eats soup out of a garbage can!
The conversation would spin in an endless loop until some other adventure popped into our heads.
Letís go to Rasmussenís. Heís got baby rat snakes!
I did not know exactly when Rasmussen took up serpents, but he was never without. Most times he had two in glass cages and another unknown amount that had escaped to disappear in the cubbyholes of the first-floor apartment where he happily would wrap bull and garter snakes around his wrists and where his mom lived in a perpetual state of terror. He would often enlist us to search for the missing reptiles. "My mom said I canít go play baseball until I find at least one snake." Sometimes we would find freshly shed snakeskins in a closet, but none of the pets were ever found. His mom rarely slept.
Jackson Park was our wilderness. We'd spend every free moment roaming among its overgrown shrubs and towering trees. Lake Michigan shimmered to the east, just beyond Promontory Pointís battery of Nike Hercules missiles.
Much later I heard it was possible that some of those missiles had live nuclear warheads on their tips, and that two hundred trees were cut down in Jackson Park to make room for them. The Chicago American boasted of the missiles: "A ring of sword-like guided missiles called the Nikeórevealed for the first time todayóstands ready to send sudden death belting into the sky to meet any enemy head on.
"The thing you ought to remember is that the Nike's presence hereabouts should enable you to sleep a lot more soundly. They make nice neighbors." My friends and I thought the missiles were impressive. We bought and assembled the Revell model kits of Nikes and Ajaxs, not knowing what they represented.
The world could fall apart for all we cared as long as the Lake and the Park were safe. Nobody wanted to be stuck inside stuffy, un-air-conditioned apartments. This was before VCRs and computers kept kids indoors; before fast food and double income earning couples. We stalked the bridle path dressed in our un-tucked baggy, oversized shirts, Kedís sneakers, and torn dungarees in search of quarters, dimes, and nickels that fell from ridersí pockets. We always kept an eye out for the gangs and we ventured no farther than the racial boundaries that somehow every Chicago resident knew about. We skipped rocks in the goldfish ponds by the Museum of Science and Industry and hatched a plan to someday spend the night after hours in the museum, running wild through the coalmine and farm exhibits.
The most popular game we played was a spirited reenactment of the Civil War. Mark, our pack leader and Rebel general was, in fact, from Tennessee. Because he was a new kid in the neighborhood, and because he was cool, most of us opted to be Rebels, too. We used sticks for guns and lobbed pinecones for grenades. (We were not historically accurate in our weaponry.) The highlight of our battles was getting shot and tumbling down the little hillocks in the park, carefully avoiding dog droppings and broken glass. "Iíve been hit!," we would yell, with drama in our squeaky voices. Then we would lie still for a minute, jump up, and resume the conflict. But one had to pretend to die to make it official or someone would scream, "You didnít die! You didnít die! You have to die!" I had a crush on Mark. He had been in the world outside Chicago, a place I could not even imagine and, as with the nose-less man, I was drawn to Mark with an almost spiritual reverence I usually granted only to the starting lineup of the White Sox.
In our fifth grade class photo taken in the library, I am dressed in a raggedy pull-over that tumbles past my knees, and a light shirt underneath with one collar peeking out the top. My teeth are bucked with an impressive over-bite. Iíve removed my thick glasses, which meant I was legally blind and could not even see the photographer. My back is slightly bowed and Iím one of the tallest of the twenty-two boys in class. The eleven girls in the photo sit with their knees together and their hands folded in their laps. They appear happier and more mature, dressed in their plaid skirts and cardigan sweaters. They always won the spelling bees. They are so goody goody.
The boys in my class were not so good. We wanted to be tough, feared Chicago South Siders. We wanted to be baseball stars, hockey goalies, or Rebel generals. We wanted to own dogs and private basketball courts that no one else could play on. We reached no further in our ambitions because we could not envision a world beyond Lake Michigan. Perhaps thatís why we had no idea what girls did or what they thought. Because of the under-rated effects of biology, all of this would change. For the moment, we threw pencils at their feet in an obvious attempt to look up their dresses, and we would show off our athletic skills for their benefit. "Look, see how fast I can run!" In a few short years we would be helpless in our pursuit of their affections, and it would not be much fun to play war in the park.
In the school picture, taken in October of 1965, Mark stands next to me, his glasses folded neatly in his front shirt pocket. He set the style for the rest of us, and that day he sported a fashionable black turtleneck beneath his shirt. His freckled face is wise, serene even, like one of those Buddhist monks right before they lit the match. I look, however, like Iím trying to get away with something. I desperately wanted to attain a look of serenity, but I felt like I was going to bust out of my skin, a feeling I had until I was around thirty. Six of the boys wear neckties, but no one among my group would dare dress up without suffering verbal abuse and maybe a shove. I often think that the neck-tied boys probably have huge houses and retirement accounts.
Mid-week, the man without a nose told us we were brave warrior men and if we would bring him our milk money on Thursday, he would tell us "the great secret of life" the next day. We dutifully complied and lined up to place in his dirty palm the quarters our moms had given us. (Chocolate milk was thirty-five cents and few among us received that luxury.) "Thank you, laddie," he said to me. His pleasure made all of us happy as if all our goofing around was amounting to something.
On Friday we were bursting. The six hours of school seemed like sixty. We gave each other knowing glances, passed notes in social studies and music, and we huddled at recess delirious with excitement. Those outside our clique knew something was afoot, but Mark had sworn us to secrecy with a solemn oath that each of us had to sign. Even the girls watched us with what I interpreted as romantic awe, the same way Lois Lane admired Superman.
I was the first to spot the vacant park bench surrounded by empty wine bottles. We sent out several Rebel scouting parties to scour the park, but he had vanished. We would never learn The Secret. It did not occur to us that we had been swindled. Besides, it was June, school was about over, and it was time to switch our quick shifting attention spans to more important matters: baseball, swimming in the cool lake, and endless evenings shooting baskets. Next fall, we would be sixth graders, one step closer to the top of the grade school pecking order: eighth grade. Already we had heard rumors of what sixth grade would be like. There was health class, with film strips about certain diseases so graphic that one boy had passed out in class, taking his entire desk with him and shaming him for the rest of his public school life. And there was one Eva Kopel, whose red hair was wrapped in a painfully tight, red bun that appeared on fire. Mrs. Kopel was a teacher so feared that as the first day of school approached that fall, I had bed-wetting nightmares in which she became the Wicked Witch of the West, turning winged monkeys loose on me because my homework was late.
Looking back, Iíd like to
think I know what the man without a nose might have told us. He had, in
fact, already delivered his message by his very presence in a public
park. It was similar to the monksí message. The secret to life was to
be yourself, no matter what.