“You walk strong and look people in the eye.”
That is how I remember Paulette’s advice, though I am not sure it was her advice. It is hard to remember dialogue when you didn’t really understand it. I had no concept of cities. It sounds a little off now. More likely she said, Walk strong and pay attention to your surroundings.
Paulette moved to Chicago when she was 18.
She was an incredibly fascinating hipster, and I wanted to grow up to be just like her. Chicago was a great city: the Sears Tower, the Renoirs at the Art Institute, the lake! On a trip to Chicago with my mother, we stayed at the Palmer House, bought clothes on sale at Marshall Field, popped into the Art Institute, bought a psychedelic poster in Old Town, a reputedly counter-culture area, and had lunch with Paulette.
I visualized Paulette living happily in Old Town. (She probably did not live in Old Town.)
Later, I would live in a city, in an apartment in a slightly dodgy neighborhood, and I would instinctively know how to act. (How you act is: move into a better neighborhood as soon as you can.)
Paulette told us everything was going well. She had a vaguely bookish job typing ceaseless articles for a twentieth-century lit professor. She checked his bibliographies, because he was a little sloppy. She mimeographed handouts, which he usually made up at the last moment. She said he drove her mad quoting Robert Lowell, who was mad. (She tore a poem out of a library book–bad, I know–and gave it to me: “Harpo Marx, your hands white-feathered the harp—/the only words you ever spoke were sound.”)
She loved her apartment in a dilapidated building in a bad neighborhood. She was friends with everyone in the building, it seemed.
I am haunted by an image of what happened later: her boyfriend hacking the ice in her apartment to salvage her possessions after a fire.
There was a big fire. It was winter. The building froze when the firemen doused it with water.
Paulette died of smoke inhalation. Others died, too. We cried and cried.
I wonder when they let her boyfriend into the apartment. Perhaps he snuck in, slipped past the yellow tape x-ed over the doors. Did he use an ice pick? I picture stalagmites and stalactites. I do not know what he saved.
Nobody talked about the cause. Code violations? Neglectful absentee landlord? Sad, irrevocable.
I have always been puzzled by another memory. When I was five, another friend, Pauline, and I were riding on the merry-go-round on the playground. Kids shouted and mocked her because she had freckles. “Shut up!” I was a strong girl. They did.
I do not remember her last name. She is not in the class picture. Did she move away?
The other day I suddenly realized: Paulette/Pauline. Paulette had freckles. Perhaps I dreamed about Paulette as Pauline? Paulette was a trusting, vulnerable girl with freckles. Perhaps I sensed that she needed protection?
But was it a dream? Was there a Pauline?
Paulette was real.
Memory is a strange thing – I find as I get older I’m not sure whether I have the real memory any more or the memory of having the memory, if you see what I mean…
Yes! Sometimes snapshots corroborate, but very old memories are often of golden summers or sitting in an apple tree or playing ball in the vacant lot… Pauline probably DID exist, but it could have been a child’s dream.
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As Karen says, memory is a strange thing but whatever the truth behind your memories your concern for your friend is real and admirable.
I love the piece about knowing how to act in cities. An acquaintance once said to me that she had never come across anyone with such determined footsteps as I had. She was a very ‘proper’ lady. I decided not to tell her it was a result of having been brought up in a red light district!
Yes, poor Paulette. All of us wondered if we could have helped or saved her in some way. How, I don’t know.
I’m not sure being a proper lady is always the best thing!