Teddy Podlasek’s house always made me feel comfortable, maybe because he lived in a neighborhood like mine, one that wasn’t entirely white and middle-class, even though we were. He called it the Poli-Mexi ’hood, and he spoke both languages fluently. His parents were immigrants from the Old Country—a cleaning lady and a maintenance man—and they worked their asses off to put three children through Catholic school and Polish culture lessons, to buy this house and decorate it the way they wanted. They painted a Bambi-looking forest on their living room wall and someone said it was their village back home. They furnished the basement with retro couches, coffee tables and ashtrays, and you had to climb a set of stairs to get to the toilet in the bathroom, so it quite literally looked like a throne. Imagine how many pictures were taken of various idiots being “caught in the act.” Ted’s father kept a colony of pet rabbits in the garage and they kept him company there while he tried, it seemed, to drink himself to death.
Ted was my favorite because he was very loud, very funny and secretly very smart. While his friends listened to bands like Korn, a confessional metal band who recorded angry songs about clowns and Adidas gym shoes, Ted had a deep appreciation for R&B and old standards. Unlike his young, working-class friends, he was able to see beyond his own experience. He had soul, and he was happy to tell them so.
One night, I walked down to Ted’s basement after greeting his father in the garage, and I heard him explaining to a large group of college-age boys who didn’t go to college that the U2 song they loved and were listening to on repeat was about Dr. King’s assassination.
“Dude! You didn’t know that? Listen.” Ted pointed to the speaker and spoke along with the song. “Early morning, April four. You don’t know what April four is? Where the fuck did you go to school, man? Shot rings out in the Memphis sky. See? Now you’re gettin’ it. It’s a song about Dr. King, man. It’s a song about a hero.” He looked up at me in the narrow doorway and brightened.
“Well well well,” he said. “Here she comes. Miss America.”
We had parties at Ted’s once a month because his mom worked nights and his dad didn’t see the point of legal drinking ages. We were all under twenty-one at the time, and we didn’t go away to college—those of us who went at all—so Ted’s basement was our version of a frat house. In some ways, it was safer, and in some ways, more dangerous.
The boys who gathered in the basement all worked odd jobs—new construction, loading docks, siding, Bennigan’s bartender. None of them went to school anymore, though Ted had done a couple years at a junior college. Some of the girls, including myself, commuted to local universities via the CTA or their parents’ cars, but many had dropped out because of the cost. We had all gone to single-sex Catholic high-schools in Chicago, where half the graduates went away to school while the other half stayed back, for whatever reason. So, I was surprised when Rosie Giovinco and Bill Mooney walked into Ted’s basement that night. Rosie had always been in my honors classes and was by far one of the strongest students. Why hadn’t she gotten away from the Northwest side? Why hadn’t I?
It was pretty simple, actually. My father convinced me to take a full-ride scholarship to a commuter school to avoid incurring student debt because he certainly couldn’t foot the bill. I loved my father and I trusted him. Rosie stayed for Bill Mooney, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Frankenstein, scar on the forehead and all.
The night was like any other—we drank cheap beer, I made fun of their stupid music, they said they were so proud of us girls for doing well in school, we played dice and cards. We laughed about the way Ted’s dad called me “baby boy” and the pretentious accent they claimed I had acquired because of my elective acting classes. People took turns using the throne and snapped pictures of each other giving the middle finger to the camera. But at some point, I heard Rosie and Bill arguing, and I heard him, plain as day, call her a cunt. Not just once, but over and over again. When I looked at Rosie, she looked like one of the caged bunnies in the garage, and that’s when my heart started jackhammering and everything started to hum.
“No,” I screamed across the room. “No no no no.”
“Who the fuck are you talking to?” Bill asked me, and Rosie shook her head, imploring me to stop.
“Get out,” I said. “Kick him out,” I said to Ted.
For a second, Ted looked like he might not do anything, so I raised my voice. “Do the right thing!”
I was mouthy already at the age of eighteen, secure in my convictions, because I had been raised by a father who had somehow convinced me, against all odds, that my convictions actually meant something. Bill Mooney was a huge monster of a man, and when I went toe-to-toe with him, he looked like he might punch me instead of Rosie. Then Ted squeezed in between us and said, “Go, dude. You heard her. She calls the shots around here. Go cool off somewhere. Don’t come back tonight.” Bill eventually had to be escorted from the basement with fists flying, and then I was the cunt, of course. He said I was a know-nothing college bitch, a bitch who didn’t know her place, too much college and not enough high-school, and I should shut my mouth before someone did it for me. I tried to keep my hands and legs from shaking as I lit a cigarette and said, “Bye bye now, Frankenstein.” He spit at me and missed.
Rosie stayed close to me for the rest of the night, told me about Bill’s violent streak and his unpredictable fits of rage. Then she asked about school. She remembered how I had written my own version of The Canterbury Tales in British Lit, and I confessed that I had really enjoyed her physics report on kinetic energy and rollercoasters. I asked if she had ever considered college, but she said no. She was going to marry Bill Mooney. She wanted kids, after all, and she didn’t want to be an old mother.
The conversation turned that night to the university I attended, and Ted told us that the mayor at the time destroyed a racially integrated neighborhood to build it, displacing tens of thousands of Italian immigrants and African-Americans.
“He could’ve built it anywhere else,” he said. “The consultants told him to build it somewhere else. And you wonder why our city’s fucked up.”
Ted ranted about the past until we stumbled into the future, as we always did, and the boys said they were thinking of taking the upcoming test.
“No,” I said, mostly to Ted. “You’re too smart for the police department. That job destroys people. Come on—you know that. You should go back to school. You should get your degree in whatever you want.”
That’s when they all erupted with laughter.
“Who’s gonna pay for it?” Ted asked.
Ted’s father started yelling down the stairs in Polish then, so it was time for the last song of the night. Ted played it, probably. We Got Tonight by Bob Seger, probably. And I was in love with him, in a way, but I still wouldn’t kiss him when he tried.
“Thanks for getting Bill out of here,” I said, a little drunk. “I know he’s your friend.”
“He’s an animal,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Just worry about yourself and your homework, Baby Boy.”
He kissed me on the forehead and slow danced with me for a minute, then his dad started yelling again.
I wish I could tell you this story had a different ending. I wish I could tell you that Ted Podlasek found a scholarship for bilingual studies or first-generation college students, but instead he took the test for the police department, and promised us he’d be one of the good ones. Why not? I thought initially. I wish I could tell you that he continued to impart wisdom about the segregation of his country and his city to those who didn’t know any better, and that he continued to stand up to the monsters. I wish I could tell you that Rosie Giovinco went back to school and became a nationally-renowned physicist.
The last time I saw Ted was at a bowling alley. I met his new fiancee and he shook my husband’s hand for the first time since our wedding. We took a celebratory shot and reminisced about old times. I told him I was sorry to hear about his mom and he said he was sorry to hear about my dad. Many of the wives in the group were cops as well, and they regarded me with suspicion when Ted called me, with affection, Professor Andersen. Maybe they deliberately said what they did to test my “liberalism.” I don’t know. In any case, a group of black kids walked into a Northwest side bowling alley, one of the wives noticed it, rolled her eyes and asked who had allowed them here. Predictably, she started spewing racial slurs, and my jaw rooted. She was gasoline to some fire inside me, and in my mind, I could see her neck snapping; I could see my first smashing her nose. But no. I rooted my jaw again. It wouldn’t even help. I put down my pink bowling ball, turned, and looked at my husband.
“Let’s go,” I said. “Now.”
The woman called after me. “Oh yeah, you think you’re better than us, Miss Liberal. You try doing what we do! We keep you and your family safe!”
Ted chased me out to the parking lot, trying to convince me to stay, all the while trying to defend our friend’s wife. My husband will tell you that I screamed and cried in response.
“But you’re a teacher!” Ted yelled back. “You only see the best in people. We’re cops. We only see the worst!”
“You make me sick,” I said, spit flying. “All of you. You make me physically ill.”
Those are the last words I said to Ted Podlasek, and I never saw him again.
I understand that the nature of the job is difficult; I am not naïve. But I was the one who barely made Cs in Physics, who sometimes cut class just to spend the day with them, who struggled to articulate my opinions in every class, unlike the kids who had been groomed for higher ed. And yet, against all odds, I made it. Why couldn’t they have taken the unlikely route, too? I made it to where I am today largely because of their ridiculous belief that I was somehow capable of it, and they ended up where they are today despite my conviction that they were above it. I can’t help but feeling like I failed them.
If you ever go back to that old-fashioned bowling alley, you will not find me there, but the ghosts of my teenage nights still float in the surrounding alleys. They sing along to Bruce Springsteen, eat tamales late at night, know how to make a joke and take a joke. They cry and punch walls and love their parents, vow to leave this world better than they found it.
If you Google my name now, you’ll find links to a few stories and essays I’ve written, an embarrassing picture of me on my university’s website. If you look up Rosie Giovinco, you will see that she’s been married to Bill Mooney for more than a decade and they have three of the most beautiful children I’ve ever seen. If you look up Ted Podlasek, and this is a heartbreak of my life, you will see in the public database that he’s been tried several times for false arrest and excessive force. It’s all right there for the world to see. The names, the addresses, the details. The city has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars for these cases.
On the night of the Bill Mooney incident, a few of us decided to sleep over because we’d had too much to drink, and we were always careful about that. I called my parents and lied, said I was spending the night at my girlfriend’s house, then I laid down in Ted’s bed and he covered me with his favorite Garfield sheets and blankets. I breathed in the scent of his mother’s laundry detergent and smiled in the dark.
“Goodnight, sweet girl,” he said as I drifted off to sleep. “Make us proud, okay?”
Then he cleaned up all the beer bottles and went off to sleep on the couch. He was a perfect gentleman, as always, the noble hero of my teenage nights. And now that legacy is stained. He made arrests without the proper affidavits; he kicked people until their ribs cracked and fractured into pieces. Oh, Ted: I know you’ll say it was the other way around, but you’re the one who broke my heart.