“Post-Men”

When did American men stop being men? Once upon a time, they strode this continent with inviolate manhood. Conquering the West, they killed and hunted and cut paths through forests and grasses. On top of horses, or on the rails, they rode unopposed by lesser mortals in a vast march to the Pacific. They built cities of stone and iron, dams to stop the mighty rivers, and took to the air like eagles. Men hung heads of animals they killed on walls, and drank jugs of whisky until they passed out. From Boston Harbor to Death Valley, they built the most noble and valorous civilization that history ever created.
* * *
The Mall is the place where they gather every weekend. The young and affluent North Shore of Chicago converges on Northbrook Court. Like a cattle drive, hordes of SUV’s pour down Edens Highway and head for the vast, untamed parking lot on Lake-Cook Road. Hungry for adventure, seeking trophies and displays of wealth, the suburban hunter-gatherers and many who make their killing at the Board of Trade, put down their credit cards and walk away with the greatest assortment of riches available in the world.

These lucky Americans are the inheritors of those who laid down their lives at Omaha Beach, in Korea and in the swamps of Vietnam to preserve freedom. The beneficiaries of these soldiers of democracy are often seen on weekends making their way into the cozy and bland confines of the apparel smart “Banana Republic” store.

Inside the well-merchandised bi-sexual emporium little Emily and Zoe and Max and Dylan romp around the bleached blond wood floors as their parents try on solid colored robot garments in every shade of black, grey and dark brown. Scented candles in vanilla and lavender fill the air with a calming aroma. Soft lights flatter men who are persuaded and cajoled and belittled into wearing ribbed and solid crew necks and v-necks and flat front trousers and dark shoes. The guys, for the most part, have short trimmed hair, with just a dab of gel. The wives are aerobically thin, hydrated and slick. The Banana Republicans wear a uniform: prosperous, understated, cyber smart. These folks, are no longer very young, not quite middle aged. This store is a state of mind. It embodies a state of corporate caution.

Charles and Diana Spence belong to this club. Married seven years, the couple has one 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. They live in the town of Fort Sheridan, a former military base on the shores of Lake Michigan that has now been sensitively redeveloped for the Land Rover and Volvo set in shades of muted green. Residences are carved out of old officer’s quarters in homely yellow Chicago brick now lushly planted with elms, maples, hostas, and ivy. Ornate cast iron lampposts stand like sentries on curving streets paved in cobblestone. The train station is but a walk from the homes, and like the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a privileged few are allowed to live in exurbia with all of the commuting conveniences.

Charles has been out of Notre Dame for almost 15 years now. He played fullback at the fightin’ school and took his testosterone and Celtic manliness to the Board of Trade where he managed to build a successful career as a commodities broker. Six feet tall, 205 pounds, green eyed and auburn haired, he has a sharp jaw that could slice a sirloin steak. Yet his manner is as convivial as his practical jokes. He likes people, likes to kid around and if he had his way would probably just go fishing in Oshkosh every weekend rather than walk around Northbrook Court.

He met his wife when he went shopping for a suit at Marshall Fields on Michigan Avenue. He walked into the men’s department and was immediately confronted by a blonde, confident salesperson. Diana Jakowski was only 26, but she was already the highest grossing employee in her area. She had green eyes, and a navy woolen suit and took him by the arm to the 46 regular suits. She had already sized her future husband up.

“I’m looking for a 44 regular dark gray suit,” he said.
“Take off your coat. You’re a 46,” she said.
“OK. But I’m not a 46,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” she answered, “Here this is a Hickey Freeman. It’s a little loose in the shoulders which is just fine for you.” He put on the dark gray pinstriped jacket. She walked around front and grabbed his lapels and slid her hands down to button the top of the coat. He felt like a little boy getting dressed by mommy.
“See, I told you lady. I’m swimming in it.”

“Did you ever hear of a tailor? We have the best in the city. Mr. Piaggi. Your waist is about a 33, and your jacket is definitely a 46. Your traps are pulling your shoulders.”
“OK,” he said. “Bring out Mr. Piaggi. I want a man’s opinion.”

She wasn’t insulted. She liked his assertiveness and refusal to be pushed into buying a suit. “Mr. Piaggi!” she yelled. Piaggi– a short, older and elegant Italian gentleman– walked out with a tape measure. He stuck the numerical string at the back of Charles’ shoulders. He opened the coat and measured the waist again.

“Perfecto. Now please try on the trousers,” Piaggi said.
“If you’re wearing boxers sir,” she instructed, “Please remember that you cannot wear briefs if we measure you for boxers.”
He looked at her directly. “I’m not wearing any underwear today.” She looked down at his crotch. “Yes. I can see you’re right.”
He bought two suits that day. He also purchased three dress shirts, five neckties, and some socks. Diana asked him for his driver’s license when he got ready to pay. “Oh, you live on North Avenue near Clark. We’re neighbors,” she said. “Give me your number Diana,” he ordered.

They went out and discovered that they had a lot of things in common. They were both Catholics. She was part Irish and Polish and he was Irish and German. He grew up in Arlington Heights and she came from Edgebrook, on the Northwest Side of Chicago. She went to school at a small Catholic girls college in Kansas but dropped out and became a retail sales clerk at 21. He attended Notre Dame on a football scholarship and barely graduated due to his poor grades. They both loved sports. He had season’s tickets to the Cubs. She was a big Bulls fan. They loved beer. He drank Becks and she liked Kirin. They took showers two times a day and kept their cars scrupulously clean. They believed in the Church, but disagreed with everything the Church advocated. He wanted to succeed very badly in business, and show up his older brother. She wanted to make lots of money and show off her success to friends. They were aggressive, motivated, honest, hard working, athletic, clean minded, sexually driven. They married only six months later, honeymooned in Hawaii and moved back to Chicago and rented a two-bedroom apartment on Fullerton and Broadway near Lincoln Park.

In the early years of their marriage, they fought a lot. What interests they had in common were opposite to how they lived in private. She was organized. He threw his clothes on the floor. She had all of her receipts in files, he crumpled bills in his pockets and never cleaned out his wallet. He liked to dress in t-shirts and torn jeans after work. She was forever after him to dress up nicer. He never cleaned the house. She dusted every day.

More than once she had threatened to leave him. He had answered that he would rather live alone than be bossed around. She often burst into tears, and he would hug her, and then she might slap him, and he would get angry, and they would slam doors, and he would sleep on the couch, and then he’d wake up and enter the bedroom and crawl under the sheets with her and they’d end up making love and making up.

Friends like Sari Garentz, a sweet Jewish girl from Skokie who worked with Diana at Fields, adored Charles. He was just so sexy, so masculine, so playful, so funny. Diana’s stories of their fights and problems didn’t ring true with Sari. One Wednesday, Sari and Diana went out to lunch and were walking along Michigan Avenue when Sari suggested they stop off at Banana Republic.

The ladies eyed a table full of solid colored ribbed sweaters in such colors as black, dark gray, dark brown and dark blue. “Every guy looks great in one of these,” said Sari. Diana picked up a brown one. “My husband is too buff for this. Even XXL is going to be small on him.” Sari picked up a blue model. “Well, I’m going to buy Andy one. I hate it when he wears those horrible Western Shirts. He still has a closet of those awful rhinestone and embroidered Gene Autry shirts. Boots, Stetson hats, bandanas—in Chicago! Coming from Colorado he thinks he has to dress like a rodeo cowboy. Well he’s gonna wear Banana Republic from now on!”

Diana picked up the sweater again and pulled and stretched it. “I just don’t know. It’s so conservative. I think he’ll look just like every other guy in his early 30’s.” Sari rolled her eyes. “If you let him dictate what clothes he wants to wear, he’s going to dress like a slob. Your husband is gorgeous. I wish mine was half as sexy as yours. But you have to dress him up. You have to make him into the man you want him to be.” Diana bought the advice and the sweater.

The Lure of the Suburbs

They had been living on Fullerton Avenue for four years. One evening, Charles came home with a real estate magazine. There had been vague talk and rumblings almost inaudible of children and schools and “more space.” The double income couple lived quite well, their industriousness and energy had been marshaled into moneymaking and now they had the resources to choose where to live.

“Honey,” he said, “Look at this house in Evanston.”
She walked over to him and looked at color photo of a 1920’s Tudor home for 2.5 million. “Nice. If we move to Evanston, that wouldn’t be too far from downtown,” she said.
“Oh,” he said jokingly, “You do want to move. Last week you told me that Sari and Andy and Steve and Lisa loved it downtown and that you would never move to the dull suburbs.”
“I want to move to a nice town. But I don’t want to commute for two hours every day and raise a child. That’s why I like living here,” she said.
“Then we won’t move.” he said.
“We can’t raise a child in this small place?” she protested.
“What the hell! First you say we could move then you don’t want to move. Make up your mind,” he said.

Fort Sheridan

It was Sari who told Diana about an old army base that had closed down and was now being redeveloped with “exclusive homes.” Fort Sheridan, named after Civil War General Phillip Henry Sheridan, was going to preserve the historic architecture and landscaping of the “prairie style” while adding stylish and upscale new homes.

One Saturday afternoon, Sari and Charles and Diana drove up to Fort Sheridan home so they could scout it out.
What Diana saw was not only the beautiful grounds, and historic buildings, but her kind of people: white, pretty, thin and rich.

Two months later, Charles and Diana moved into Fort Sheridan. Sari and Andy chose a “Parade Ground” home with five bedrooms, approximately 5,400 square feet of living area and an attached three-car garage. Charles and Diana bought a “Deluxe Parade Ground” model that featured a fireplace in the master bathroom. What luxury!

Diana and Charles had a longer commute, but they had their best friends to keep them company way up in the burbs.

Baby Time

One humid June Saturday , Andy and Charles were driving back up Edens Highway after attending a Cubs game. At the Willow Road, Andy pulled his Explorer off the road. “Hey, Chuck. We’re going to have a baby!”

“That’s great news buddy!” Chuck said. He smiled broadly but in his heart he dreaded the consequences of this announcement and Diana’s reaction.

Diana reacted politely when Andy and Charles told her the news a half hour later. Andy left and Diana was free to tell Charles that she resented that her best friends had beaten her to conception. Diana had a fine house, a great job, a socially acceptable husband. The baby was next.

Saturday night Charles was at home but his mind was at Wrigley Field. He was still thinking about Delino DeShields hitting his game-opening homer and Moises Alou with that double that drove in two runs. Diana was cleaning, her usual behavior when she was preoccupied. The 10pm WBBM sportscaster was reviewing the game when Diana turned on the vacuum.

Charles shouted, “Turn off that damn thing Diana!”

She pulled the plug out of the wall and started winding the cord tightly around the Hoover. “You saw the game this afternoon. Can’t you pay attention to me tonight?”

“OK. Let’s go out Diana,” he said.
“Fine. Where should we go at 10 pm in the suburbs?” She asked.
“The lake. Let’s take a walk down to the lake,” he answered.
The night was balmy, the summer humidity still hung in the air. They walked outside, not even locking the doors behind them.
The moon cast its glow over the waters and calmed their nerves. “Do you still love me?” Diana asked. He looked her in the eye. “Sometimes.”

Later that night, they returned home and made love. Diana is convinced that her elevated hormones that June evening were the reason Elizabeth was conceived.

March of Time

Sari Garentz had Jayson (with a y) Ariel on February 5th. Elizabeth Montgomery Spence was born on March 30th (the middle name honored Montgomery Ward, the first store Diana had worked in).

Jayson looked like Sari, dark haired with “knowing eyes”. The son would seem to emulate his mother in looks and love, and the boy, as Charles said, “is being smothered.” The spelling of the name annoyed Diana, but she told Sari that it was unique and kind of cute.

Elizabeth was chubby and blonde and laughed a lot. Sari told Andy that Diana fed her baby too much and that the “kid was going to be obese.” Andy was bored with both his own baby and Elizabeth and longed to go back to Colorardo to ride in a rodeo.

It was a secret life and fantasy that Andy Garentz had. He was outwardly a prosperous Chicago dentist, but inwardly he hadn’t left his Western upbringing behind. His dad had been a Jewish cowboy in Durango, Colorado and Andy grew up with horses, dust, saddles, mountains and steaks on the campfire. It was a soft and constricting adjustment to live in the polished confines of the suburban North Shore of Chicago where barbecue flames were delivered by natural gas and steak came from Dominicks wrapped in plastic.

He had met Chicago girl Sari Sethbart at the University of Colorado. She was the only Jewish girl he had ever dated, because he was the only Jewish boy in his high school. He thought he would marry her, move back to Illinois temporarily and then set up practice back in Colorado. Yet luxury and malls and family and passivity glued them, like so many, to the Land of Lincoln.

Diana and Charles continued to live with their new baby in Fort Sheridan. Sometimes Charles would conjure up a secret fantasy life, where he was back at Notre Dame and just hanging out with the guys. He had no responsibility, and no schedule, no nagging expectations. He just did what the hell he felt like. He imagined a life where he never married and never had a daughter and remained a free spirit. But it was just a thought, that’s all.
# # #

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