This story is a defining one from my life. It’s all true.
Friday May 25, 1979 — Chicago
Early on, I expanded my natural tendencies toward frugality and preparedness by watching my mother. I paid attention as she packed Wetnaps into her purse and a dry washcloth as well, a couple of Little Golden books to occupy young minds when needed, fresh underwear and a change of shirt and pants for the youngest of us, safety pins, bobby pins, a few rubber bands, and just about anything else a young mother might need while out with the kids.
She kept exact bus fare in a separate compartment of her bag so it would be easy to reach while she kept an eye on where we sat down, and often while we were out, she would ask me exactly what time it was by my Cinderella watch. Later in my life, even when I just wanted to travel around town light and look cute while doing something fun, I would ponder what was necessary and pack it the night before, writing down travel directions and adding notes so as not to forget things. I learned a lot from Mom, but as each person has to do eventually in life, I decided on my own how important it was for me to keep my word.
In ’79, when my little sister was seven, Mom had been saving money for a while on Sis and my brother’s Catholic grade school tuition, by baby sitting at the church’s Friday Bingo Nights at 7:30. Mom kept all the different ages of energetic (and often naughty) children in check while their parents had fun, and from the outset, it had become my job to stay home and watch Sis, so Mom wouldn’t have to drag her along. This was in addition to my nannying her during the week while Mom was at work.
It became normal to me that a young woman, of legal age, spent virtually every Friday night at home, in the company of a very small sibling. Sis and I spent those evenings playing rock and roll by bands like Talking Heads and Blondie and The B-52’s. She would sit quiet as a church mouse until the door closed behind our mother, then she would push the button to turn on the stereo herself and follow me as I collected the records from my room, sometimes pointing out the omission of one or more of her favorites. We played records LOUD and danced like we were at a disco, and sometimes I would teach her lyrics that she wasn’t allowed to sing while Mom was around. I like to think that I sparked her now legendary, nearly encyclopedic memory of almost all things Rock.
On this specific Friday, my canvas purse held money, lip gloss, a handkerchief as well as tissues, a comb, my vinyl copy of “Roxanne” in the paper sleeve, a black pen, and the exact bus and train directions to the record store on the North side of Chicago where The Police would be that afternoon for a personal appearance. I had called the CTA the day before, so I not only had the directions, but I knew the exact last moment that I would have to leave the record store in order to catch the right bus to get home on time.
That day must have been a federal holiday, because Mom was home from her receptionist’s job at a state agency. I was lucky to have been able to plan this excursion at all. Mom did remind me several times before I left, that I was cutting it close and needed to be home by six. I wanted her to understand why it was important to me to see a rock band up close if I could, and get autographs, but I couldn’t whine to her about never getting to do anything or feeling that life was passing me by. I could see that she had so many things to do, all on her own, with no one to lean on. Why should she care that I was lonely and a little sad, and felt that this ultimately unimportant thing had to be done or I might fade away even faster into the outer margins of life.
From every clue about her desires that I had ever picked up on, I knew that she wanted me to say never mind, change back into my in-the-house clothes, and relent. Without asking outright, she wanted me to stay home, and she wanted to know that I would do it for her. But on that day I refused. I promised her I would be home in time for her to leave at six forty-five, and I was pleasant about it because I felt happy and somehow purposeful. I hoped I could ask the band members some questions, but knew I would be one in a sea of fans, so I only really hoped to come home with an autographed copy of my single. It would become one of my treasures, and I would be able to trot it out and say, “Look what I have! And let me tell you how I got it.” I would write about it in my diary, and be just a little bit special. I do like to plan.
I got to the record store after a nearly two-hour trek, and got there early as I had planned, but was surprised to see that there were so few people. I instantly felt glad that I would be able to easily maneuver myself to the head of the crowd (whichever way it formed) yet sorry that more people didn’t realize how great the band was. It was important to me to be polite but firm in my conviction to get a memento in the almost one hour that I had before needing to leave. I hoped they wouldn’t be late.
Soon, I’m not sure from where (a back room maybe?) The Police appeared and the trio was positioned to stand behind a set of long folding tables at the opposite end of the store from where I was standing. I made it to the front of the tables before most of other fans had a clue. I waited my turn, grinning from ear to ear, but I somehow felt cool, too. Looking back, I’ve always wondered why I was as cool as the proverbial cucumber while looking into the faces of honest to god rock musicians. Even when Stewart Copeland balked as I handed him the single and my own black pen for an autograph (on the record label please — not the sleeve) my confidence didn’t waver. I thought it was odd that he talked animatedly to other fans, but seemed somehow annoyed by me, but I just moved along to Sting.
There was a big stack of black bumper stickers in front of him with the band’s faces on them, and I realized then that the band members had pens with silver ink in their hands because of that black paper. After Sting nicely signed my record with my pen, I immediately grabbed a bumper sticker and said, “Sign your face.” He looked right into my eyes as he lifted my pen to his cheek and started to sign it. I laughed and said, “No! Sign your picture!” He smiled back, looked at the ghostly picture thoughtfully for a second, then autographed it.
“I signed my neck,” he said. I said thank you and laughed again, beginning to float because I am very easy to please. I moved on to Andy Summers, their guitarist.
Andy looked at me intently. He didn’t leer, he simply seemed pleasantly taken aback. I could see him breathing just a little faster. He kept looking back up at me as he signed my record and the bumper sticker, and I suddenly remembered that I was attractive. It’s easy for a lonely person to forget that, or to even begin to believe that the opposite is true.
I realized that there was loud music playing and that the crowd in the small store had grown considerably, when he tried to speak to me and I had to lean forward over the table, to hear him. He leaned forward, too, and asked me my name, and then smiled as he repeated, “Ré,” back to me. Just then someone else’s little girl, or little sister, appeared at the edge of the table, and he had to sign an autograph for the adult who had brought her. Somehow he kept me close by, with his gaze, and after signing a few more autographs, he leaned over again and asked if I could wait around until the crowd thinned out a bit. I said yes, and that I’d be back over after getting Stewart to sign my bumper sticker. I slipped around the perimeter of the crowd to the other side, and nearly winced at the way Stewart Copeland’s face contorted when he saw me again. He grudgingly signed my sticker and quickly returned to the pleasant conversation he seemed to be having with a small cluster of fans.
I inched back around to the pleasant side of the tables, and saw that the little girl and her adult were still there, and the girl and Mr. Summers were having an animated conversation. When, out of nowhere, the crowd surged forward, he simultaneously yelled for everyone to move back some and gently pulled the little girl around to the side of the table so she wouldn’t get hurt. Then he saw me again, and motioned for me to come around too, next to him. He was so close that I could feel his breath on my ear as he asked if I was coming to the concert later on. I said no, that I had to get home, and he said I shouldn’t go home, I should come with him to the concert. I must have looked incredulous when he said that, because he said, “No, really. Wait until this is over and come with me. We can have some time to talk, and you can watch the concert from backstage.” I know I looked incredulous after he said that. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. I was flattered though, so I smiled and shook my head no. He honestly seemed dejected. His face actually fell. He asked why I had to go home, and I said I had to babysit my little sister. He seemed taken aback, but respectful. He asked if I was sure — couldn’t anybody else babysit? I told him that I’d rather go see his concert, but there wasn’t anyone else to do it. And I had promised. He looked so sweetly into my eyes after I said that, like he really did understand. He asked how old my sister was and what she was like. I told him she was seven and cute, and that she liked “Roxanne.” He smiled and said she had taste. I checked my watch and told him that I should be leaving, but he asked me to stay longer and talk to him. I calculated quickly in my mind, and figured that I could lose about ten minutes of buffer time, that I could take the heat for that delay if necessary, but still manage to be home in time. I said, okay, and continued talking to Andy Summers for ten more minutes. He tried once more to get me to stay. Then he apologized for having to give it that one last try. We smiled goodbye, waved at each other, and I got outside to catch the bus, just in time.
I made it home at six twenty-five. Mom was braiding my sister’s hair as I walked through the door, and she didn’t look up at me when I remarked, a little out of breath, that I had made it home. She had some clothes laid out for my sister, so I knew she had been upset that I might not make it. I told Mom I was sorry, but since there was still plenty of time, it was okay, right? She looked up at me sharply and reminded me that I’d promised to be home at six. All I could think was that I wanted her to transition to calm and be okay, so I kicked off my shoes quick and said I’d finish my sister’s hair. She wouldn’t let me, so I stood in the center of the living room for a moment before realizing I had a little time to tell her the short version of what had happened. She cut me off right away with a loud shh, and said she wanted to hear this. She meant the TV. I turned and saw that the news was on. A DC 10 had crashed shortly after take-off from O’Hare, and no one had survived. They had gut wrenching film to show, and immediately my stomach began to hurt.
After a few moments, Mom said, “You’re running around the streets, God knows where, and this is happening. It’s just not a good day.” She finished my sister’s hair, went to her room to gather her purse and the bag of toys she took to occupy the littlest kids, and left out to start the long walk over to the church. When she was out the door, Sis told me that Mom was really mad at me, before she went to turn on the stereo.
Years later, after she had grown up, I told my sister this story. Like others who had heard it before her, she stared at me like I was dangerously insane, and asked me why the hell I went home. All I could tell her was the same thing I told Andy Summers. And that it hadn’t ever made sense to me again, from the moment I walked through the door.