Thursday, June 6, 2013

Superheroes

When we lived in Des Plaines, in the sixties, we lived in a large cul-de-sac of townhomes with a playground in the middle. The name of our street was St. Joseph’s Place, like the old baby aspirin.  It was populated mostly by young families.  From above I think probably looked like a wagon wheel because of the way the sidewalks cut between the rows of buildings. There were no driveways or garages, so everyone had to park their cars on the curb around the circle. The circle is where every morning, like wind-up toys, all of our fathers, dressed in dark suits, raincoats and hats, would go to catch the city bus that would take them to the train and then into the city to work.   

I was friends with just about every boy in that neighborhood and we had a lot of fun, mostly pretending we were superheroes. We were crazed about superheroes. We had our mothers safety-pin towels around our necks and spent far too much time discussing what our powers should be.  I always wanted the power to be able to control the weather and direct it at my will.  In order to be a proper superhero, you must have a nemesis, and we did.  His name was Lorenzo.

Lorenzo was a wild-haired hooligan who did not live in our neighborhood but somewhere nearby. He was older than us and had mastered two things: the art of bullying small children and the art of ding-dong ditch.  He terrorized us in the park, and practiced his other craft nearly every day on virtually every house in our neighborhood throughout the summer. Lorenzo was truly a virtuoso at what he did.  It seemed that no matter how many times our mothers lain in wait trying to catch him, he always managed to slip through their grasp and get away. 

I remember that he did it so much that people just stopped answering their door when the bell rang.  I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m sure that during that summer, there were countless frustrated encyclopedia, vacuum, and Fuller Brush salesmen who sent notes to their home office saying that it was a complete waste of time going to St. Joseph’s Place, because all the women there simply did not ever open their doors no matter how many times you rang.    

In my weird, addled five-year-old mind, Lorenzo became the villain in my imagination, and I swore that there would be a day that I would stop this fiend and win the admiration of tired mothers with sleepless babies everywhere.

There were a lot of legends about Lorenzo. It was rumored that Lorenzo lived in a hut in the vast untamed vacant lot across the alley from where we all left our trash. Often, me, Melissa and others in our circle of friends would go out on expedition to see if we could track down Lorenzo or at least find his lair.  One time some of the older kids went out and found a headless and handless mannequin in the woods and we all wondered if Lorenzo had left it there as some sort of scary warning to keep people away.

Lorenzo’s reign of terror ended when a sixteen-year-old girl, caught him, tackled him to the ground, and drooled her spit down on his face.  She told him that if he kept doing what he did, she would take him out. We never saw him around our neighborhood again.  I sulked for two days, because as a superhero, I felt like I had failed.

I never heard what happened to him after that, and I’m fairly sure no one else knew or really cared.  The incessant doorbell ringing stopped. Yet, what was always funny to me was that the ladies in our neighborhood still did not open the door when the bell rang for what seemed like a very long time.  It was almost 17 years later that I learned why.

One day when I had just returned home after school, was living at home, looking for a job, and courting a girl I was fairly sure I was going to marry, I sat with my mom on the back porch and we talked about our old neighborhood. She told me something about the alley that I had never heard before.

Lorenzo was apparently the child of a broken home, a chronic runaway, who did in fact often hide in the vacant lot and rang people’s doorbells because he had nothing better to do.  From what my mother knew he ultimately ended up at a group home near us.  The other thing she told me that night, and that I can’t believe she withheld for such a long time, was that the reason none of the ladies in our neighborhood answered their doors, and why that summer we kids couldn’t go too far and had to always stay in groups. It had nothing to do with Lorenzo but with the mannequin the older kids found in the lot by the alley.  It turns out it was not a mannequin.  It was the body of a dead girl.  She was one of the women who visited and “worked” at the Dolphin Hotel, which was quite the swanky place in its day. She and one of her paramours apparently got into some dispute and in the heat of the ensuing fight he strangled her.

Maybe it was an accident, as he said, maybe it was on purpose, or somewhere in between. Nobody knows.  What is known now is that after he killed her, he panicked, and sought to cover up his crime, so he took away from that girl everything she had that might reveal her identity. He removed her clothes, her hands, and her head. Then he left her in a woody, overgrown spot, like some department store dummy, thrown away, for some innocent children to find one day.   

My mother told me that it wasn’t until after the killer had succumbed to his guilt, and turned himself into the police, that the neighbor women once again began answering the door when the bell rang, and our fathers took their pistols and hunting shotguns out from hiding places, drawers, closets, under couches, and put them back in the attic. 

There’s a part of me that resents that it took so long for my mother to tell me the truth about what was going on in those days. There is also a part of me that is glad she kept it from me. I have nice memories of the short time we spent in Des Plaines. It was one of the times in my life when I was always happy and all I really had to be concerned with were the weather, Lorenzo, and being a superhero.  Like a lot of people, I wouldn’t mind feeling that way again right now.  I can’t always though.  From time to time I think about that girl, whoever she was, and what someone might’ve been able to save her, or at least allow her to die with some dignity.

I’m very nearly fifty years old and I’m still pretty obsessed with superheroes. My boys took me to the midnight opening of the Captain America movie, because he is my favorite, and I couldn’t have been more excited or enjoyed myself more. My wife and a few others have suggested that I have a superhero complex, and the more I reflect on this, I think they may be right. For whatever psychological reason, my whole life I have always wanted to do everything perfectly and to win the adoration of citizens everywhere.   If I am doing something and it is not absolutely perfect, I can become a very mean and miserable person.

When I was diagnosed it was very difficult for me to accept that Parkinson’s is not a disease that can be cured, but only managed, and that no matter what I do, it will not go away or get better.  In fact, the likelihood is it will in time get far worse. That is a hard thing for a superhero to swallow. I’m learning though.  I’m learning that no one is really able to be a superhero.  I’m learning though that there are things I just have to let go of and do the best I can with what I have.  I’m learning to accept I can’t be Captain America no matter how much I want to be, and that is just OK. I like being the Rain King, sitting in his garage watching the lightning with his family and his friends.  

Michael J. Fox has a line that he uses when he talks to people that I have grown to appreciate very much.  He says, “I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God's business.”   I like that.  I just wish it was something I’d heard and thought about a long time ago.  I wasted a lot of years trying to be perfect, a superhero, when I could’ve relaxed, enjoyed life, and just tried to do my best.  I’m getting there now.