Eugene Was Born
Eugene was born in April of 1977 in Evanston, Illinois. We had an apartment on 121 Clyde Street. I remember that street and the view from the kitchen window where you could watch the cars switching on the RR tracks -- what we call the L in Chicago, L for Elevated.
The photo shows Eugene just born, not smiling, not yet. He was born at St. Francis Hospital, so his middle name is Francis. That reminded me that I was taught by Franciscan nuns in grade school... A happy memory... Maybe we should have stopped at Francis, but I thought we should also give credit to the Jesuits, because they taught me in high school so we added another name... Ignatius after the founder of the order... Then we stopped the naming and he became Eugene Francis Ignatius Owens. He was quite a healthy and uncomplicated baby, the nurses told us.
Writing about when Eugene was born is making me incredibly unhappy. It reminds me of so many things that were going wrong at that time, things I have not thought about in many years.
I will continue. We had been staying at my mother's house for two months but by that November we had enough money to pay the rent. We chose the apartment on 121 Clyde St. because it was such a solid building and there a lot of old ladies living there. Susan was pregnant and it was November in Chicago. The bitter cold was upon us. But I saw all these old ladies living there, and that means the landlord keeps the building warm. I was right about that. The apartment was warm enough to keep the kitchen window open a crack. Steam heat. You could grow a baby in a place like that. Mr. Muehler, the super, got up at five a.m. to shovel the sidewalk when it snowed. Then he went to the furnace room in the basement and turned up the heat when it got below zero outside.
We lived at 121 Clyde St. when Eugene was born, on the second floor, near the back of this u-shaped building. It was sturdy and warm. Clyde Street was not a sought-after address -- you can just tell things like that if you grew up on the North Shore of Chicago like I did. It was only one block to Howard Street where you had immigrants and cheap stores – “It’s not as nice as it used to be,” people would say about Howard Street and you knew what they meant.
Clyde Street had once been respectable, and in 1977 it was only a little bit shabby. That didn't bother me. What did bother me is that it was dark. The buildings and the sky and the trees just seemed a little dark, and our apartment, with other apartments on three sides -- you looked out the window but you couldn't see the sky, unless you almost peaked your head out the kitchen window and saw a little bit of blue sky over the rail yard.
We didn't have any furniture. A twin bed in the bedroom, a good color TV and a good stereo with some records in the living room, otherwise we sat on the floor. We could have gotten furniture, but we didn't bother. For records we had Neil Sadaka and Chick Corea. Our favorite record was Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life.
We had two folding chairs but we never used them, except that time my cousin Denny came over with his wife to visit. Denny had converted to being a Baptist, which was awful. In my family becoming a Baptist was worse than being a drug dealer. It was unthinkable, but he converted and he wanted to visit us with the hope of converting us too. So we let him and his wife sit in the folding chairs and we sat on the floor, and he talked at us until we went bananas, but finally he shut up and left.
Eugene was born in St. Francis Hospital, an old-fashioned place, yellow bricks. Evanston Hospital was the preferred location for birthing, but we went to St. Francis Hospital where the birthing ward did not have too much business. Maybe that helped with payment because it didn't cost us. I told them we had no health insurance. I showed them my pay stubs and rent receipts. They said forget it, we'll just write it off.
The doctor was a young Indian man, which was not common in 1977. He was quiet and undemanding. We showed up unexpectedly because Susan had only come in once for prenatal care. We apologized for that, but they only smiled. They gave her an X-ray, I think. Then they wheeled her into the delivery room for a C-section. It didn't take long. Susan was calm.
The baby was born by C-section. Afterward Susan was resting well. The nurse brought the baby into the room all bundled up and clean. She said here he is. Look at the top of his head, she said. We saw a big round sore spot on the top of his head. "That's where baby was trying to push through the birth canal, but he could not make it, his head was too big. He couldn't be born that way.
"You see, he's a dwarf. He has short arms and short legs and an overlarge head."
She explained it nicely because I had noticed something. I saw my son for the first time and I noticed something different and I was puzzled. The nurse explained -- his nose has no bridge. Dwarves are like that.
I really loved that nurse, the way she held the baby so tenderly, and then gave her to Susan. Susan loved him too.
I loved the baby but I didn't like having to explain him to people. Strictly speaking you never have to explain the fact that he is much shorter than everybody else, but you do get the double take when he walks into a room for the first time.
Eugene has his own way of handling this now as an adult. As a baby, adoring friends would lean over the carriage and smile, but with a slightly puzzled look. "Yes, he has a big head, He's a dwarf. That's just the way he is, otherwise he's normal in every way."
And he was a champion baby. A baby like Eugene should be given a trophy by grateful parents. Listen to this -- he began sleeping all through the night at the age of one month. Sleeping all night! Never waking up until morning. Such a good boy. He never got sick, never got colic or diaper rash or runny nose, or super poopy. He was mostly happy most of the time. We would have loved him anyway, but Eugene made it easy.
. . . . .
We are pregnant. People actually say this. No, we are not pregnant. I can offer evidence. In 1977 one Susan Owens was pregnant and one Fred Owens was not pregnant. Nothing could be more obvious. I saw it with blinding clarity every day. Her whole life and body was erupting into this very unusual situation and changing every day in ways that made no sense to me at all.
Well, it made some sense -- she could tell me in specific terms, and I might read some literature on the topic, about varicose veins and stretch marks and weight gain. Friends and relatives might advise me. But nothing was happening with me.
And then comes the very awful part. This was 1977 and the idea was just getting started..... the idea that the father ought to be included in the birthing process. He cannot actually do anything or help in any way or be the least be useful -- ah, but he can be "present."
Actually I had a job, which is different than being present. It was a crummy job, but it paid the rent. I could have gone to work and told the boss, "Look, I'm not going to do anything today, but I will be present." He wouldn’t understand that kind of thing.
It was still dark in the morning when I left the apartment at 121 Clyde St., walking over brilliant, crunching snow, a half-block to Howard Street, then turning left, going under the Northwestern RR tracks, and coming to Chicago Ave.
January in Chicago is very cold. I would get to the corner of Howard and Chicago and wait for the bus, freezing, slapping my hands, jumping up and down. But I didn't care about that because the bus was always on time and the lights were bright inside the bus, and the bus driver wore only a sweater because it was so blissfully warm in there. The heat embraced you like a mother as you stepped aboard.
It was a 15-minute ride to where I got off and walked over to the office and warehouse of General Printing. That was my job -- assistant shipping clerk -- the place where I went every day. I was doing something, and not being "present." Actually I was quite present in the sense of being mindful of the people and the boxes of paper, and the smell of the ink, and the clatter of the printing presses.
Meanwhile she's back there at the apartment on 121 Clyde St., stitching baby quilts and growing a baby. I'm loading large stacks of paper on a pallet jack to feed the printing presses. I knew I had the easy part, but I didn't know much more than that.
Man Wants Work. Call 251-4714
This was the ad I placed in the Evanston Review. "Man Wants Work" was my original composition. You would be amazed at how quickly you get hired with an ad like this, if you don't care what the work is or how much you get paid..... Right away they called me from General Printing. This was the winter of 1976-77. General Printing hired me as the assistant shipping clerk. My wife was pregnant. This was my first job in the new era. I was now Married with Children and about to achieve Fatherhood. I should have set me sights higher. But I had no plan, no dream, no hope and no ambition. We had been two months living at my mother's house -- I guess that was the goal. Man Wants Work -- so that he can make enough money to rent an apartment.
They ran three big offset printers. I was the guy who brought large stacks of paper from back in the warehouse, wheeling loads on the pallet jack up to the printers. I hated to think how much money those printers made -- union jobs. But you had to know somebody to get into that union. I didn't know anybody. I was thirty years old. I was already past my prime, if I had known that. If you're willing to take the job of assistant shipping clerk, then that is what you're good for. You are thirty, you are no longer on the career track.
I didn't know that. I was only Man Wants Work. The Magical Mystery Tour was over. I was not living in a teepee on a commune in California. I was renting an apartment on 121 Clyde St. in Evanston, Illinois, only miles from where I grew up, miles from where I left home and never came back. Except I did come back.
I could have blamed my wife or my mother. They were at hand and not innocent. But who wants to hear that? I decided to blame God. He can take the abuse. Blame God for taking my father away from me. I wished he had been alive in 1977, just when I was ready to actually listen to him. Dad, what should I do?
But I wasn't lost, I knew where I was. I was in Evanston. I was born in Evanston -- the leafy trees, the tall towering oaks and elms that shaded brick streets in summer. The Lake. Lake Michigan, but we always called it the Lake, so big and calm in summer, so rough and icy in winter.
At least I knew where I was, and Eugene could be born here. It would be all right.