Coming off the two semesters that my friends called “Cud’s weird year,” I arrived home at the farmhouse where our family lived for a year and took a hard look in the mirror. My hair was so thick and long my thin face looked like a piece of dried fungus between two large shards of bark. The scraggly beard on my chin was doing me no favors either.
I took some shears and cut off a few locks, but that was not going well at all. I wanted to clean up my act, not come out looking like a criminal mug shot. So I jumped in the car and drove to the Avenue Two barbershop in St. Charles.
It had been a year or since I visited the shop, or any barber shop for that matter. Perhaps some co-ed chopped my hair a bit that year, but not by much. It was too thick to put in a ponytail or comb straight back. So it just stuck out, especially when I wore a hat.
I walked into the barber and told them, “Hey, I want to get rid of this hair.” They looked at each other in a bit of wonder, and sent me to the back of the floor where a young-looking barber stood nervously by his chair. The shop was a vocational destination for graduates from Mooseheart, a North Aurora school for underprivileged kids. During high school, I’d gotten my hair cut many times at Avenue Two, and perhaps some of the guys working there recognized me. But I couldn’t blame them for not knowing me with that knot of thick hair hiding my face.
The barber said, “Go ahead to the sink there and we’ll get your hair washed first.” So I sat in a chair and positioned my head face-down in the porcelain. “Um, no,” the kid instructed me. “You can lean with the back of your head.’
From there, I felt the hair fall away in layers. When it was finished, I stood up and thanked him, gave him a tip on top of the fee, and waved to the other barbers on the way out. “Hey,” one of them said to me, “Thanks for coming in, Chris.”
There was one other layer of persona I needed change as well. I was sick of my thick glasses. My prescription got worse during college and I tragically chose a rimless style of glasses that only showed off the thick goddamned lenses.
I went home and told my mother, “I need contact lenses.” And for once, perhaps because our family was starting to do a bit better financially, she said, “Yes, that makes sense.”
In the meantime, my parents decided that living on that farmhouse six miles out of town was a bad idea. They bought a house back in town and we gladly moved away from the farm. The people that owned the place were paranoid, it turned out, accusing us of having too many people living in the residence. Years later, a co-worker and former track teammate at Kaneland rented the same farmhouse with the same idea of gaining some country living time. Instead, the owners drove his family nuts with even crazier accusations. After he moved out of the house, he came up to me one day and asked, “Hey, do you want to come with me tonight? I’ve got a bowling ball in my trunk and I’m going to throw it through the plate glass window and hope they die of a heart attack.”
“No,” I told him. That’s a really bad idea.” It took me ten minutes to convince him that he should not go through with the act, but he was determined. Finally, he agreed not to go on the rampage.
I was glad to be back in town with access to more familiar running routes. On the first day that I wore the new contacts, I ran a nine-mile loop on Country Club Road. It was a warm day, and I absentmindedly wiped some sweat from the side of my face and the contact lens popped out of my eye. I stopped about twenty yards later realizing it was gone. The sole reason that my mother refused for years to buy me contact lenses was the fear of incurring an expense by losing them. Panicked at the thought that I’d already failed that test, I carefully walked back the road shoulder and looked down to find that sweet little piece of plastic glinting in the sun. It was tough to get it back in my eye, as I’d had little practice to that point, but finally, I could see again and ran home grateful for finding the thing. I made no mention of the incident to my mother.
Running without glasses was an absolutely liberating feeling. No more pushing glasses up my face or feeling the strain of a glasses band on the back of my head. Having less hair was also a relief. I’d kept the mustache in a tip of the face to Steve Prefontaine, but other than that, I looked like an entirely new man. Feeling my oats, I decided to jump in a June race in Glen Ellyn, only to find myself running next to one of that era’s greatest distance talents, Ken Popejoy. I lasted a couple miles and dropped out.
That summer I got a job working as a janitor at a building managed by my friend’s father. It was a one-hour drive one-way to get there, but I was grateful to be able to earn some money after my plan to sell artwork at the Swedish Days Art Fair got rained out two days in a row. Leading up to the show, I got in several arguments with my mother about the plan to sell artwork rather than work in some manual labor job.
For all my private complaining, I drove to work every day in the company of a sweet girl named Pam that I’d coached in summer track a few years before. She did secretarial work while I did chores under the direction of an embittered fellow named Andy. He despised the Polish cabal that dominated most of the workforce in the building. They also hated me for getting hired by the building manager when one of their own could have found work. Andy warned me, “Stay out of their fucking way if you can.”
I liked Andy. He was straight with me in every way. Our tasks were often grungy and sometimes difficult, but he never asked me to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. We got along fine.
Most days after work I’d get home and go for a run in the twilight hours. Sometimes I’d even run in the dark with the nighthawks calling overhead and the river bugs twirling around the streetlights. I could feel the fitness growing after a solid spring in track. When late July came around, I traveled up to Decorah to run the Elveloppet (River Run) 15K with Luther teammates. We stayed up a bit late the night before, and my eyes were exhausted from wearing the contact lenses so long, but I fell asleep quickly after chowing a late-night burrito and woke up the next morning ready to run.
In previous years, I struggled to get in the top ten of that race. But during the summer of 1978, I was feeling real confidence beginning to grow. I finished in the top five at 54:38 on an extremely hilly course and got a few hearty backslaps from the leaders on our team. That felt good.
Then it was back to the job for a few more weeks. The building was called International Towers, and there always seemed to be some sort of renovation going on. I hauled torn-up carpet out to the trash in big rolling bins. I cleaned the restrooms for both women and men and had a couple interesting encounters with bored women serving wine during their breaks. That was an era of secretarial pools and I was not wise to the ways of middle-aged women that were bored and horny. I took a bit of interesting teasing in several of those restroom encounters.
One afternoon Andy called me down to the office and handed me a tool and said, “Follow me, we got shit to do.” We strolled out in the parking lot under the blazing summer sun and Andy said, “We’ve got to find this piece of pipe under the asphalt,” he told me. “They have an electrical problem at the gate. So start chopping.”
I was good at chopping after spending a couple weeks the previous summer cutting sections of dried paint under the vats at Olympic Stain. But this was hot work, and Andy stopped fairly often to light up a cigarette and suck on it in the sun. Then he’d toss it down, crush it with his foot, and mutter another swear word or two.
Occasionally during the workday, Andy would get a call from his wife when we were both sitting in the janitorial room. I’d try to pretend not to listen but was able to gather that she was not a woman in good health. The normally acerbic and cussing Andy was patient and tender with her on the phone.
As we continued chopping away at the asphalt, Andy grew a bit tired. I was determined to find the conduit and kept chipping away black chunks of aggregate and tossing them into a growing pile. Finally, I hit something with a “tink!” noise and Andy bent over to inspect our work as if we’d found treasure. At that moment, the electrical contractor walked up with my friend’s father and they told us to expose the rest of the pipe and it took the rest of the afternoon. Frankly, I was glad to be outside for most of the day, hot as it was. So Andy let me finish the job while he went inside to check on the rest of the building.
One afternoon he sent me upstairs to gather loads of used-up fluorescent bulbs. I slid the 60″ bulbs back into cardboard boxes and placed them in the gurney to go down the elevator. There were stacks of boxes filled with bulbs by the time I was done. I’d piled them all in the garbage room next to the trash compactor. Andy was nowhere to be found because he needed to run home that afternoon to check on his wife. So I tossed all the boxes of bulbs in the trash compactor and pushed the button as I walked out the door of the garbage room.
The next thing I heard was a massive BOOM as all the bulbs exploded at once. It must have sounded like a terrorist attack within the building. I quickly escaped into the stairwell and raced up several flights to get as far from the scene of my idiocy as possible.
Andy protected me that day, but the next day there was a big discussion in the front lobby with a group of Polish men and women shouting at management. Someone was translating, but I understood that they were still angry about my presence in the building. “Relax,” my friend’s father told them. “He’s only here another week.”
For breaks, I’d often go up on top of the building that stood at the intersection of Cumberland and I-90. From there, I could look at the Chicago skyline a few miles away. The smell of car pollution and the sound of traffic were constant, but it still felt good to stand above it all even though going next to the edge of the building gave me the heebie-jeebies.
On the last day of work, I piled into the car with Pam and she almost immediately fell asleep in the passenger seat. It was a hot afternoon and she’d either purposely or forgetfully allowed a button on her blouse to fall open. The sight of her pretty bra and a glimpse of a freckled breast in the flashing summer sunlight was worth the otherwise loneliness of the drive home that day. I felt a bit guilty, but we’d flirted enough on our own accord to justify my lust.
A week later my friend Rob and I double-dated with Pam and one of her friends from the Catholic high school she attended. It was a classically joyful evening, and I made out with her friend in the back seat. Despite all the back-and-forth, we’d all found ways to make the summer fun. An August trip to the Indiana Dunes gave me a nice tan and some sun-touched hair. I felt attractive and confident going into that senior year in college.
In August, I did sell a couple hundred dollars worth of paintings to add to my summer earnings. By August 15, I’d run 425 summer miles, just enough to provide a happy base going into the cross country season. On August 8, I’d written down some ideas about the year to come. I read them again while listening to an entire side of an ELO album ending with Mr. Blue Skies. Then I packed up my Radio Shack turntable, receiver and Optimus 1-B speakers to wrap up the summer.
“My goal is to compete at 3rd man or above,” I wrote. “Track season indicated I am capable. 13 meets. I can be ready for each one. This is my last cross country season. Hah. Eight years of getting ready. I can honestly say I have never bee more prepared. Ready for once.”