When I was growing up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, some of my favorite activities were breaking into private garages and just looking around, riding my bike “all the way” to Damen Avenue, two whole miles from home, and prowling the neighborhood searching for discarded treasures left in the alleys.
One of my favorite alleys was behind a doctor’s office on Fullerton Parkway, just west of Clark Street. My brothers and I would go there to find used hypodermic needles, medical supplies and, occasionally, dental samples. Once we found a whole box of false teeth. But my best discovery was in the alley that ran between Orchard and Burling Streets in the 2200 block. That alley was called, pretentiously, Pearl Court. And it was filthy.
When I was in 4th grade, I was in a split classroom. Most of the kids were 5th graders, and they had put the five highest achieving 4th graders, of which I was one, in that class. We 4th graders sat in the far row on the left side of the room. I liked the 5th graders. Some of the older girls and I hung out together. I wasn’t interested in boys yet, but there was one 5th grade boy who I thought was the cleverest guy in the whole school, and it annoyed me that he didn’t acknowledge my existence.
Our teacher, Miss O, had a game she would play with us, whereby one student would throw out a noun and the next one in line had to come up with a word beginning with the last letter of that noun. So, if you said glass, the next kid would say shin, then net, then something starting with “t”, etc. Not exactly rocket science, but it passed the time. This kid Robin always picked a noun with a silent letter at the end. Thumb. Comb. Face. He was insolent and slick and I wanted him to notice me.
I had not yet figured out that boys like girls to be pretty and nice rather than smart. If I had known that, I would have combed my hair every day instead of once a week, wore nice clothes, boned up on manners and this incident never would have occurred. It was the spring of 1967 when I came up with a plan. Spring was when they baited Pearl Court with Red Squill and Warfarin, and every few days you’d see a dead rat lying there. Many of them were decomposing and maggot-eaten but one day I found one in perfect condition. I picked up that rat by the tail and put it in a shoebox. I took it to my grandmother’s house, the back yard of which adjoined Pearl Court, wrapped the box with brightly colored paper and tied it with a shiny ribbon. I then took it over to Robin’s house a block away. He wasn’t home, but his older sister was outside with some of her friends.
“Hi, Debbie,” I said in as casual a tone as I could muster, “I have a present for Robin. Please give it to him and make sure you tell him it’s from me.”
The next day in school he approached me, grinning like a jackal, and spoke his first, but not last words to me.
“Thanks for the present!”