“I’m not in Skokie anymore . . . finding sex, love, and politics in my first time away from home.”
Scags writes (in diary format) of her first semester in college during the turbulent end of the 1960s. Join her as she goes to an elite college and discovers sex, love (with the wrong sort of man) and the political upheavals of her times. Follow her to Washington, DC for the anti-war march in November, 1969 and how this further telling of her awakenings leads her to a fuller appreciation of life beyond her bubble-enclosed Skokie, IL.
Scags at 18
Copyright © 2011 by Deborah Emin
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.
Published by Sullivan Street Press, Inc., New York
Cover and interior design by Patricia Rasch
ISBN 978-0-9819428-9-6 for PDF
ISBN 978-0-9819428-8-9 for epub
Date: Thursday, 9/4/69
Mama handed me this diary at the train station. I don’t think she realized what effect this gift would have on me. I’m sure my face betrayed how frightened I was of leaving home. She must have thought a diary would be helpful, be a companion on the train ride. When I opened her present as the train pulled out of the station, the first thing that caught my eye was my name, Scags Morgenstern, embossed on its blue leather cover.
All the way to Vermont, I clutched my new diary to my chest. I wanted to write down my impressions—what I saw out the train window or what I heard other passengers say. Not one word found its way onto this first page. My mind froze all the way from Chicago to here. My pen refused to click open. I didn’t even doodle on the clean pages of this book. I sat still in my seat, eyes open but seeing nothing. Much of the Midwest and then the East clattered past my window.
It wasn’t until I arrived into this new world, unlike anything I had ever seen, that my eyes and ears and nose began registering what was here. The mountains, the pine trees and green fields stunned me. This summer, as I sat at my desk at home, fantasizing about arriving here, I had no idea what this new world would be like. My fantasies were seedlings that sought a different soil from that in Skokie. I definitely wanted to plant myself in a new place. But I had no idea what this “this” was like.
In the cab ride from the train station to the campus, I began to observe the height of the mountains, the ubiquitous pine trees and their perfume which filled up the whole atmosphere. I’ve never smelled anything like it; it made me cry.
I can confirm that New Englanders are taciturn. The cab driver didn’t say one word to me the entire time I sat in his back seat, clutching my purse, tears roaming across my cheeks as the sheer magnitude of the differences I was about to participate in struck me.
I sat staring out the window. My eyes recorded the scenery now passing by. The winding roads, the red-covered bridges, the white houses built so close to the road. Once we turned off the two-laned highway, though, I knew I had entered another kingdom, where I was about to either find myself or end up terribly lost.
The big black cab drove under a huge sign, a metal sign, with the College’s name entwined in it. The sign sat balanced on two white columns on either side of the long driveway that leads up here. The ride was interminable. I thought maybe I had been tricked, that this couldn’t be the way to where I was going to spend the next four years of my life. The driveway was long with these vast empty spaces of well tended lawns, clean and sprawling but seemingly leading nowhere. But in the distance, such a long distance, surely there had to be the College.
When we neared the summit, the cab pulled up to a stop near a white booth that looked like a toll booth in a fairy tale. A man in a blue uniform stepped out of it, clipboard in hand. He put his face through the lowered back window to look at me and ask my name. Thank God, he found it on his list. He checked it off and motioned for the cab driver to continue to my dorm. We continued our upward drive.
Then, there it was, spread out before me: The magic kingdom of my dreams, the place I had worked so hard to get to. In its reality, it was too fantastical for me to believe. I had never in my life seen such a place as this. It looked like a movie set.
The cab driver took my bags out of the trunk of the cab. I hadn’t noticed him pulling up to my dormitory. I got out of his cab and stood still as the only person I knew so far left me. In the afternoon air filled with fall’s dust, I watched the red lights of his cab disappear down the long drive. I was alone.
There was nothing left to be done standing around. I picked up my suitcase and book bag and trudged up the two flights of stairs to my room. Inside, I found my roommate, Sylvie, sitting on her bed, the one closest to the door. Her clothes sat in piles waiting for some order to be established. Sylvie barely noticed my arrival other than to tell me her name and to say hello. I think I disturbed her. She looked like she was deep in thought. Once she had put her clothes away, Sylvie hurried out the door.
If I were still the surly but sure Scags who needed to get out of Skokie as fast as possible, I might have struck up a conversation with Sylvie. I’ve been deserted by that Scags. I remember her sitting at my desk during the awful boredom of this past August (which was only two weeks ago). She couldn’t bear watching the slow hands on the clock creeping along. She hated the hot air that suffocated us and refused to pack or even walk her dog. She sat at her desk, drawing self-portraits. She drew seedlings about to burst.
Now that I’m here—well—I’m not that surly Scags about to burst. When I introduce myself, I don’t sound like me at all. I sound like Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” You know, the guy who is a bit slow and talks about liking to stroke soft things whenever people talk to him. Everyone else speaks normally, not me, not this Scags.
In my fantasy of my new life away from Skokie, I never imagined I would feel lonely.
The loneliness came crashing down on me. So, I decided to call my Pops. I wanted to hear his voice. That’s what loneliness can do to me. I never seek him out. Generally, I avoid him. It isn’t that I don’t love him, I do, but his crazy behavior makes me feel nuts. It’s as if his craziness were contagious.
I waited for the other people on my floor to leave. I was embarrassed to use the phone booth at the end of the hall. I had never called long distance before. I entered the booth and carefully read all the instructions printed on the phone. I deposited my dime, an operator came on after only two rings and I gave her all the information she asked for. Except I forgot to warn her that we were trying to call a crazy person.
How quickly I forgot how difficult it is for Pops to do new things. When the operator told him he needed to accept the charge for the call, he didn’t understand why he had to accept the charge. He demanded a full explanation of where those charges would go and what would happen to him once he agreed.
Well, that’s my Pops. I did hear his voice. After listening to the operator being as nice as possible to Pops, I had to speak up. I couldn’t take his worrying about the phone company wanting to rip him off. I told the nice operator that I didn’t want to place the call after all. I hung up the phone. I sat in the phone booth trying to get over how hard he made things. Why couldn’t he just agree to pay for the call from his only daughter away at college for the first time?
I couldn’t sit in the phone booth anymore. I heard voices coming up the stairs so I ran down the two flights of stairs and outside into the most beautiful day I have ever seen. Life was everywhere. My fellow students looked like a bumper crop of dandelions. Bright and fresh and strong, they took over the lawns and the roadways, even the parking lots filled with their riotous growth. The raucous sounds of them yelling hello, grabbing onto their old friends, welcoming everyone back made me see what I had been longing for. I watched for a few moments and then headed for the nearest path away from their collective happiness.
I wanted to run away from it all but I don’t know my way around. I followed the path I was on. The sounds on campus faded behind me. I walked and walked until the path ended and I found myself in an orchard. No one was there.
I stood on the perimeter of the orchard and stared into it, noticing an orchard for the first time. I have read about orchards and eaten my fill of apples, but I have never been in one.
I had no idea what an orchard’s life was like. I stepped from the path and walked straight into it, following no particular path, as there was none. Everything that happened was brand new to me. Apples fell to the earth and burst open. Bees working sounded like saws sawing on wood. They were everywhere but didn’t frighten me. They paid no attention to me; they had so much work to do. The sun was warm but not hot.
I began pulling apples from the trees. I wanted to see what they tasted like direct from tree to me. I put one in the palm of my hand. It looked like a small globe with red masses and green masses.
I stared at it for a long time before biting into it. The colors could have been painted on. I was in awe of myself. Here I was standing in an orchard so far from home with this amazing apple in my hand.
When I bit into it, as my teeth pierced the skin, I was aware of every single sensation—of the sweet juices shooting out from between my lips and down my chin and then along my arm. The stickiness attracted the bees. The bees swarmed around me, humming over my head.
I didn’t care. I ate as many apples as I wanted to and dropped their cores to the ground. The abundance in the orchard made me feel wealthy. For a moment, I wasn’t lost. I said out loud for the bees and the trees to hear, “Home wasn’t built in a day.” That made me laugh.
I laughed myself silly. I ate apples until I couldn’t fit another inside my stomach.
Then I realized I didn’t know how to get back to the campus. I had turned myself every which way so I could taste as many different apples as possible from as many different trees. In the process of filling myself up, I had gotten myself lost, again.
My rescue came unexpectedly within minutes. I heard The Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” come swooshing into the orchard from the open dorm windows. The exuberant music became my bread crumbs, leading me back out of the orchard and onto the path that leads back here.
I was so relieved by my good fortune, I hurried along, not wanting to lose my way back before the song ended. In my haste, I didn’t pay attention to anything but following that music. No surprise then when I walked right into a man racing along the path. He swerved to get past me and fell down a small incline, sending gravel, leaves and his shoe into the air.
I offered him my hand to help pull him out of the little ravine he had fallen into but he popped up from it, laughing. I couldn’t believe it.
“I’m okay,” he said, touching his arms, his legs, his back, checking to see if indeed he was okay. “Yep, I’m fine. Really.” He laughed all the time, and hopped around trying to put his shoe back on and tie it.
“That’s good,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say.
I noticed, however, that my breadcrumb song had ended. I waited to see if this man I had almost injured would be able to get me back where I needed to go. I couldn’t ask him. I was afraid of how he might look at me.
Turns out he is more polite than I am and even introduced himself to me as the cross country coach. His name is Alex. He made it clear to me that there were two teams, one for the men and one for the women.
“I didn’t know there were women’s teams,” I said. I looked at him to see if he cared what I was about to say, “I trained with the boys team in high school, but I never competed.”
It felt like I was showing off. I don’t usually talk about running. No one at home seemed interested that I ran with the boys. Alex, though, was most impressed.
I guess it is impressive that I could keep up with them. I never thought about it. I like running. I like it so much I was willing to be with them as they charged along the paths, spitting and swearing and pushing each other out of the way. They ignored me. But I could keep up with them.
Alex suddenly asked me to try out for the team.
I didn’t expect that. “I need to think about it,” I said, “my classes have to come first.”
“Of course,” he said, “but you should try competing. It changes everything.”
By then we had reached a spot where I knew where I was. In my eagerness to get back up to my dorm room, I walked away from Alex. But Alex didn’t let me walk off like that. He came after me and tapped me on the shoulder.
“I’ve told you my name, but what’s yours?”
I said, “Scags Morgenstern.”
He looked me right in the eye and said, “Okay, Scags. We have a practice tomorrow morning. Meet us at 7:00 in the courtyard of the phys ed building.” With that, he walked away.
I didn’t have a chance to say yes or no. I lingered for a moment, watching him run back the way we had come. For the first time, I tried to imagine what it would be like to actually win a race rather than just pretending to myself that I could win one, given the chance.
With all of these new thoughts racing around inside me, I made myself come back up to my room so I could write down all this great new stuff that is happening to me. Maybe this gift from Mama will be useful after all.