Paulette/Pauline in Chicago


Old Town in Chicago

“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.