The Wilderness Downtown

My hometown is something of a movie star. Glencoe, Illinois, has been featured in a number of Hollywood flicks over the past few decades—Risky Business, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles. Even the famous Mean Girls line “You go Glen-CoCo” refers to the town. The Glencoe I saw on the big screen, however, always felt more exciting than the one I experienced in real life.

I was born twenty miles south of Glencoe in the heart of Chicago, but my family didn’t stay there long. A murder next door to our townhouse and the city’s 52% graduation rate were enough to convince my family to escape to the suburbs. In May 1998, we gassed up our Isuzu Trooper and drove the 22 miles up I-94 to a white stucco house on Grove Street. As a kid, I had no idea about the gun violence that drove us out of Chicago. For all I knew, the whole world was as crime-free and carefully landscaped as Glencoe.

***

One thing I discovered early on about Glencoe was that wealthy suburbanites made for fantastic lemonade stand customers. My house is directly across the street from the Skokie Country Club—prime real estate for any aspiring beverage entrepreneur. I’d set up shop at the end of my driveway on hot summer days and shout, “Lemonade!” I was a master of Microsoft Word’s Clip Art and made obnoxiously colorful signs highlighting our incredibly low price of 50¢ per cup. Whenever business was slow, I’d steal a few sips from our pitcher and yell at my little brother when he did the same. My mom bought us a few jugs of Newman’s Own lemonade from the local grocery store to use for our little business. I think we sold it at a loss, but we either didn’t know or didn’t care. Paul Newman’s face was always smiling at us either way. Adults dressed like Vineyard Vines mannequins would come buy lemonade for their kids, then disappear through the green metal gate of the country club across the street.

I could hear it all from my perch at our stand—the hitting of golf balls, the splashing in the pool, the thunk of tennis serves. I always wondered what it was like on the inside. My parents were not prepared to pay the $150,000 membership fee, and my mom, a Jew, would have been less-than-welcome there. I thought maybe my lemonade revenue could cover the cost, but I came up a few hundred thousand dollars short.

***

Four or five times a day, a blaring horn cuts through the silence in Glencoe as the Metra train barrels into the station. Back when I still went to Sunday School, I used to hope that it was Jesus blowing a trumpet to signal his second coming—that I’d be raptured up into heaven before the day’s end.

Glencoe and Chicago were linked by the Metra line in 1855. As it does today, the train gave the wealthy an escape from the city’s corruption. I preferred as a teenager to do the reverse—to hop on the train and spend my time at concerts in Chicago at sketchy, intimate venues with sketchy, intimate friends.

The Glencoe station has a small bookshelf inside. On top of the shelf rests a laminated sign that reads:

Please take a book, then bring one back
so that this shelf may never lack.

The truest measure of Glencoe’s wealth
lies upon this humble shelf.

There were no books on the shelf, only stacks of Sheridan Road—a local photo magazine filled with pictures of Glencoe-ites at extravagant black-tie events. It’s the kind of publication that everyone has on their coffee table but never once opens.

***

The whole of downtown Glencoe spans only two blocks. Next to a jewelry store named Covet is Little Red Hen—the eatery where 8th-graders and soccer moms go to grab a quick all-American meal. Jimmy, the owner, is infamous in our town. Mention his name to almost anyone and you’ll get the same look of disgust. He runs the store with his wife and daughters, who seem more minions than companions.

“Where the hell do you think it is?” he’d always say whenever kids asked where the bathroom was. Unwarranted rudeness was his schtick, but no one could tell whether or not it was an act. He made all his customers pay in cash, to avoid credit card fees and the IRS, we thought. I didn’t understand how the mediocre food could be worth the trouble of dealing with Jimmy, but Glencoe-ites never stopped going. Perhaps they appreciated his island of imperfection in the middle of their Mean Girls town. Or perhaps going there was just part of their routine. When the restaurant went up in flames in a freak fire a few years ago, I thought that would be the end of Jimmy’s business and attitude. I was wrong. He and his Little Red Hen came back stronger than ever.

***

No one knows exactly how Glencoe got its name. But if one thing’s for sure it’s that the “Glen” refers to the ravines that carve through the town. A friend of mine named Zach has a house on Sheridan Road at the mouth of one of the ravines. He’s a screen printer and a glass blower who climbed Kilimanjaro a few years back. Once, in a fit of boredom, we decided to explore the ravines and see what we could find.

It wasn’t quite Kilimanjaro, but it was what we had. The ravine looked like a natural, mulch-covered halfpipe. It was impossible to walk more than a few feet without ducking to avoid branches. A sewer pipe poked out from the ground, betraying itself with a porta-potty smell. Red solo cups littered the ground, party artifacts that high schoolers thought the ravines would hide forever. The sound of cars speeding down Sheridan faded as we walked deeper into the gulch—far away from Jimmy and the bookshelf. I was sure none of my lemonade stand customers had ever been here.

After an hour or so, the trees thinned and I began to hear the faint crashing of Lake Michigan’s waves. Eventually, the dirt gave way to sand and the ravine emptied out onto the Glencoe beach. The public part of the beach was fenced off and neatly contained in the distance to our left. Towels laid out on the sand lined the shore like parking spots, and the pointed gazebo roof and playground obstacles formed a sort of suburban skyline. Kids built giant sandcastles that looked a little like the mansions of Glencoe.

But the beach where I sat was different—an untamed enclave of adventure in an otherwise dull town. The public beach was just 100 feet from me, but it felt like a completely different world. In my little spot at the mouth of the ravine, I felt as though I’d left that Glencoe behind, if only for a moment.

***

My friend and I once brought a pile of books to the train station’s lacking shelf. We hoped Macbeth, The Tipping Point, The Monkey Wrench Gang and others would put some fuel to the take-a-book, leave-a-book fire. But when I went back a few weeks later, all of our books were gone, replaced only by more issues of Sheridan Road. It was a trick candle of a bookshelf. No matter how many times I swapped the magazines out, they never stopped coming back.

***

A fence surrounds the Skokie Country Club, but there is an opening a few blocks down my street that’s just big enough to squeeze through. One night, my friends and I climbed through the hole in the fence and stumbled into the club. We didn’t have to pay $150,000 or adhere to a ritzy dress code.

My heart raced. I was convinced that a helicopter would come flying over and trap me in a searchlight at any moment. Maybe I was more nervous about walking on a golf course than I should have been, but this was the sort of thrill a kid could get in Glencoe. After a few helicopter-free minutes, I began to calm down and appreciate the charm of the place. Finally, I was where my lemonade customers had gone all those years. I couldn’t tell the green from the fairway in the darkness and, if not for the softly flickering lights of the clubhouse, it would be easy to forget that this was a golf course at all. The course seemed to extend infinitely into the night. There was no tennis serving, no splashing, no screaming. Just silence. We walked aimlessly for a while, then sat in a bunker, looked up at the sky, drank cheap beer, drew our names in the sand. We talked about summer plans and life plans and what it would be like if we didn’t have to make plans at all. The darkness cleansed the place of its arrogance, and for a while I forgot that I was just across the street from my house.

 

Aaron Lewis is a software designer from Chicago, IL. He likes to play the guitar and longboard, and sometimes does both at the same time. Send him an email at aaron.z.lewis@yale.edu.

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