Urban Heights

by Rick Kempa

Photo by Christina Schmidt

        Relax: no one can see you here. The dogleg of this dead end alley between the two wings of the school building will hide you. Place your right foot on the handle of the glass door; with your left hand grab the sill of that little window above you. On the count of three, fling your body upwards, grabbing at and pushing against the wall with your limbs. First you haul your shoulders over the edge of the roof, then your belly, and then you can drag up the rest.
        You’re on top of the passageway that runs alongside the length of the church and that joins the two halves of the school. It also connects the rectory, where the priests live, to the sacristy behind the altar, where God resides, disguised as wafers and red wine. These big stained glass windows in front of you are part of the church. Stay low if Mass is in session; the congregation can see you.
        Now for the hard part, to get on top of the church. Follow this first level to the left, past the last church window, to that cornice above a door. Hop up on it and then with both hands overhead, launch yourself. Grab with your elbows, dig your toes into the mortar, and for God’s sake be quick. Anyone walking past the alley’s mouth will see you, and at the far end an old nun is sitting by the convent window with her rosary. Whether she’s near-sighted or far-, no one knows.
        Once you’ve conquered the church, the going’s easy. Tiptoe up the tarpaper slope to the peak. You will find a steel-rung ladder bolted into the wall here. Climb it and you have arrived in the high country, on the roof of the school. It’s a barren, gravel-choked expanse, happy hunting ground for the rubber balls that fuel the endless games in the parking lot below. Amidst the shards of fractured bats and chunks of decomposing foam, you might find half a dozen balls with life left in them. Keep your eye peeled for the crown jewel: the one that has been roofed on its first day out, still firm and full of bounce, with its outer coat of paint intact.
        Now turn from the playground and head toward that other ladder. Climb still farther to the school roof’s upper level. There are fewer balls here, but a better view: The pitched slopes of houses, row after row, extend in all directions, the pattern rescued from damnation by the trees that jut up everywhere with all their shapes and sizes. Only a few of them, the king of kings, attain our level. In the distance, smokestacks rear towards the sky, firing like volcanoes. Far to the northeast, if the air is not too foul, loom our private Himalayas: the craggy skyline of downtown Chicago.
        See the house right down there across the street? That’s mine. Throw the rubber balls onto its lawn.
        Was mine, I should say, although having it as a child is having it always. Decades have passed since my last climb; dozens of kids since then have looked down on their world from the school roof, and my life has been unfolding a thousand miles west. But even now I feel a lofty air of ownership, as if the faded, wind-lashed banner of my clan still clings to the summit. Every afternoon the shadow of the roofline advanced across our lawn, up the face of the house and into my bedroom window, while in the long-angled morning, the pointy little shadow of our house’s modest peak strained to touch those heights. From that window, my brothers and I memorized the patterns of the priests’ patrols, the habits of the nuns. Year after year, while one by one the five of us came of climbing age, the school roof was not just our private sporting goods store, but a playground fit for princes, a garden of the gods.
        We had our father’s tacit consent to climb, if not his outright permission. The only time he forbade me was under the eye of Father McGrew, who hauled me once, a reluctant trophy, before Pop’s tribunal. Even then I understood that my offense was not in the doing, but in the getting caught. Thus the real art to climbing the school roof laid not in basic scrambling skills, but in avoiding capture.
        The upper level of the school was crowned by a small brick cubicle, about the size of a confessional. Approached from within, the door of that cubicle was the last roadblock on the paved road to heaven, the end-point of the stairs to no place human. Once, when we were playing a rowdy game of rooftop tag, McGrew burst through that door in triumph, a vision every bit as awesome as Christ on Easter Sunday. What could we do but hang our heads and follow him? Fortunately the gatekeeper, a wise old janitor, almost always kept that door locked, even for priests, and McGrew would instead have to skulk along the building-base like a Judas, angling for a clear look.
        The rules of engagement were that if he called us by our names, the game was up. If he heard but did not see us, however, the chase was on. His cries of “Now you boys come on down here” only served to reveal his location. We’d scoot along on knees and palms behind the low cornice that crowned the school, peeking at him from unlikely angles. Usually he positioned himself within sight of a ladder, and we would have to outwait him. This was easy. We had all the time in the world and then some, while he, like all grownups, would eventually tire of the impasse and head inside. We’d wait a while longer to call his inevitable bluff, then make a run for it. In this we had the advantage. For while there was only one natural ascent route to the roof, there were five places where a young, lithe body could leap down. Only the mass deployment of all the bodies in the rectory, and some from the convent as well, would’ve been sufficient to thwart our escape.
        In our assaults on the school roof, we were not so much living out a lark as we were obeying an instinct. Long before he is able to walk, from the moment, as Wordsworth says, that “the babe leaps up in his mother’s arms,” man is an inveterate climber. He claws his way up a pants leg or a chair leg and wobbles there, laughing. Before you know it, he becomes an escape artist. How many parents have had to reinforce the sides of the crib, as mine did, to keep their wanderlusting child in place? Once he breaks outside, he applies himself to scaling the fence or to hauling himself up into the nearest smallest tree.
        He needs no permissions, ignores all injunctions. Parents assume the role first of trying to forestall disaster and then, grown cynical by failure, of foretelling it—their predictions escalating in urgency as the child’s range broadens. But the child, wiser each day to the ways of gravity, remains fearless, even in the face of those tales of climbs gone wrong: of Mikey Paulson, the little white- haired boy across the alley from us who dropped out of a cherry tree one day and broke both wrists; of the kid from a nearby neighborhood who lost a leg and an arm when he scaled a utility pole and tangled with the power lines. This latter story had the effect of keeping us off the poles, although not off of much else. And when a carpenter fell from our neighbor’s roof to a bloody death in our gangway (his body as it plunged past our kitchen window making a moment’s eclipse on our lunch), we were awed, but not scared. Those of us who could, climbed the school roof that very afternoon to ponder the tragedy.
        Humans aren’t the only creatures to possess the climbing urge. The moment ticks board a body, for instance, they begin ascending it. Usually we don’t see them move, because of our impulse to pluck them off in horror the moment we spot them. But as my all-suffering dog found out one wet spring, if undetected for a couple of days, ticks will eventually turn up at the head. Similarly, in southern Arizona in the summer, all the ladybugs head for the heights—not just, like tired hikers, to the first solid shade of trees, but to the very summits, the top ten or twenty feet of the highest peak within each range. I have seen the knobby ends of pine trees shimmering and pulsing red. Up on certain peaks, where the trees have been cleared and the ground cemented over for fire towers or observatories, the wind sometimes piles ladybugs half a foot deep against the abutments, the lower layers brittle and drained of color, the top two inches swarming.
        Ladybugs climb to get cool, and ticks, it would appear, are bound for the tropical regions of the overheated brain. For both, the movement is a mass migration in pursuit of easy living—and here is the difference between the motives of bug and man. We climb to escape from coddling comforts—babies no less than diehard mountaineers. Inside of us are little live wires goading us toward frontiers of achievement.
        At first, an audience is required. The child who screams for his parents to haul him to safety out of the tree may indeed be scared, but he also wants to look down on his parents’ heads, and be looked up to. And what would be the use of being “king of the hill” if no one were envious of you? When we come of age enough to take to the real hills, the first summits we achieve are made meaningful primarily by the photographic record or by the elevation attained. We conquer knolls that map-makers ignored and fancy ourselves the name-givers.
        But the older we get, the more our preference grows to climb alone. The impulse to yodel look what I have done gives way to the quieter realization of what I am capable of doing. The focus shifts from what we’ve achieved to what continues to elude us. We climb, ultimately, in search of perspective, the view behind the view.
        My first ascents of the school roof were purely utilitarian: the foulest of foul balls, those which went up but did not come down, would interrupt the poetry of the game. In the moral universe of the playground, calling off the game mid-cycle (full-count, bases loaded) was a worse offense than treading on the heads of priests. But even in those quick, functional forays or in those other outings which were pure lark, I could glimpse the greater possibilities of the place. Soon it became an end in itself, a haven of open space, the vantage point from which to overlook not just my house and neighborhood, but my life. When, in junior high, I began skipping Mass, I didn’t hang out in an alley with the other truants to smoke and talk dirty. Instead, my silhouette in the stained glass would briefly amaze the trapped congregation as I darted by, fleet as an angel, bound for my private fresh-air service. No doors or locks ever barred my way. Whenever my hour of need arose, I would haul up my burdens and vices and deposit them there, perverse offerings that, had they taken physical form, would have cluttered the heights far more than the detritus of mountaineers has swamped Mt. Everest. Unlike the altar underfoot, mine had no place for kneeling. Thus I learned to be both supplicant and minister, to not just purge but to absolve myself. A hundred times I returned to earth burning with good will, certain of profound and permanent changes.
        But the school roof was more than a crisis station. My longest-standing ritual was to go there to mark my milestones. On graduation days—first from the school on which I stood and later from high school—I studied the horizon from its crest. The afternoon before my first date I rehearsed my script to the pigeons cuddling in the chimney. The evening before I left for college, I gazed down on my house with brimming eyes and mourned all that I had not done. I reported there as soon as possible after my homecomings to measure myself against my former world.
        One such self-measuring stands out, from the late spring of 1977. I was newly arrived home again, having dropped out of college for the second time. My latest disenrollment was supposed to have been a triumph: after a winter of planning, I had set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada. What happened instead was my young life’s biggest failure. When I came upon an Interstate in Southern California, a couple of weeks and two hundred miles along, I found myself unable to cross it. Instead, riveted by a sudden desire for my girlfriend, I stuck out my thumb and bolted back to New Mexico where she lived. The coziness of that love nest didn’t last long; I was not only embarrassed to be there, but an obvious intrusion on her work as a student. So here I had come again, to a place which felt less like home than ever.
        On this particular night, after returning from a poker game at a friend’s house, I’d gone to bed, but not to sleep. A welter of emotions roiled within me: nostalgia for the bright mornings on the trail brimming with promise and excitement; loathing and disbelief that I had given up that quest so easily; the dull, constant ache for my girlfriend, the presence of her absence. Worst of all, filling the cracks between everything else, a great weight of dread: My half-hearted job search of the previous day had borne unwelcome fruit; the next evening I would begin work at a nearby meat-packing plant, a death sentence if ever there was one, the end of my summer before it even started.
        Suddenly I thought of the roof and the healing power that it once held. I slipped back into my clothes and quietly went outside. The atmosphere was so thick with dew that I felt as if I were ascending through water instead of air. By the time I reached the upmost level, my face and hair were soaked. I lay on my back and stared at the few stars bright enough to pierce the city’s sheen. They shimmered and pulsed wildly. Small wisps of breeze moved this way and that, each with its own tale to tell: From the north came the drift of the stockyards, malodorous to most, but to we who sometimes fell within its range, hardly worth a second sniff. Out of the east, laced with exhalations of all the city in between, I thought I could feel the clammy coolness of Lake Michigan. From the south seeped the big time industrial odor of the steel mills. Then the breeze died altogether, and the aromas from the nearby Crackerjack and Nabisco plants reasserted themselves, as syrupy sweet as ever.
        The sound of a car engine idling in the street roused me to one elbow. Kelly Major, who lived two houses down from ours, was coming home from an even later night out. If ever a person’s life seemed free of uncertainty, it was Kelly’s. A first-born son, he was clearly the heir apparent to his father’s house, lawn, life. The former best friend of my older brother, he’d gone straight from high school to the steel mill, bought his first wheels at eighteen—a metallic-green Mustang that blew our minds—cultivated the first beard on the block. Every now and then he’d sidle out to the playground where the rest of us were doing our best to not grow up, and, hands in pockets, talk the weird talk of pension plans and interest rates.
        Far from being impressed, I’d always viewed Kelly’s path as the road to not travel, and tonight, looking down on him, I again felt a surge of disapproval: This isn’t what we were made for, I thought, merely to conform, to degrade ourselves with patterns. How could anyone manage to live in the city without the possibility of perspective—the ability to see the same old turf from a new angle, to detach oneself from it? Not much of a life, where you did not need to raise your eyes to accomplish your small aims, where the very activities that passed for novelty, like boozing it up or mowing the lawn, were predictable.
        Tonight, however, his trajectory seemed not so certain. He was having a difficult time parking his Mustang in the small but ample space outside his house. He pulled up alongside the car ahead of the space and then, looking over his shoulder, swung his own car back and in. Easy enough, except he was too far into the street; even I could see that. He pulled out again, came back in—oops, too close; I heard a tire squeak against the curb. Third time a charm? Nope. Nor the fourth time. Out again and in and out he went, driven by a discontent that I could not fathom. Then, when he’d finally gotten that part accomplished, he began to move back and forth and back between the cars in front and behind him, five, ten times, inching forward, inching back, bumping the bumpers on either side.
        He could stop anytime; why didn’t he stop? Clearly he needed some kind of help, some buddy as drunk as he with whom he could cackle and be giddy, someone who could finally say, “All right, let’s straighten up.” I was not that person; I was a mere spectator, an accidental witness whose smirk became a frown and then a grimace, as Kelly’s struggle to simply come to rest assumed a mythic weight, as it came to stand for other lives, and even—horrid thought—for mine.
        I’d seen enough, collapsed onto my back again and watched for the whitening of the sky, the diminishing of the already-diminished night. Instead, to the southeast, a lone star asserted itself, grew brighter, bigger, like the Second Coming, then diverged into a trinity—one yellow beacon flanked by two red lights. A faint purring arose, a line of sound that thickened to a growl as a black body took shape behind the lights, that grew into a roar as the body came in low, until it was overhead, and there was room for nothing else in the world.
        Maybe this plane will crash, I thought, and the routine will be wiped out, Kelly’s confusion settled once and for all. But no such cataclysm rescued us. I wheeled my head around to follow the plane’s passage to the northwest where, a little more than half a mile away, the runway lights of Midway Airport glowed. It touched down as scheduled.
        The roar of the engines’ after-thrust washed over the treetops like a tidal wave and inundated me. I leapt up in astonishment. Why weren’t lights flicking on in windows, people running outside the way they did a decade before when a plane did crash, and body parts and jagged metal rained down on the neighborhood? How could anyone not notice such a monstrous sound? But then again, why should they? Throughout my entire childhood, when Midway Airport was billed as the “busiest in the world,” a steady stream of aircraft had come bellying in overhead just like this one, while I had gone about my earth-bound business, grown so used to the gigantic facts of the routine that I mistook the scream of the engines for silence.
        But now, in my earnest spirit-hunger, I not only noticed the plane but translated it. The simple act of its landing served as a counter-symbol to Kelly’s struggle, a consolation. Look, not all routines were dead-ends. This plane had landed, but it was not grounded. It could and would take off again, and so too would I. Whatever took place in the meat-packing plant each night, it would not consume me. I would walk out into a summer of dawns like this one whose sudden emergence now startled me.
        The downtown skyline was boldly standing forth against the rose-streaked east. Signs of the city stirring awake rode the air: the belching of busses and delivery trucks from the nearby main streets, the mutter of traffic on the freeway, an acrid tinge of exhaust. I walked over to the edge of the roof to check up on Kelly. He was gone, I was glad to see, his silver Mustang positively glowing in its perfect placement. I wished him a good day’s sleep and no more nights like the one he had just lived through. There will be no such nights for me, I vowed. This summer will pass, and then I too will take off again. I strained for a sense of the natural world threaded through the city sounds. Sure enough, birds were coming alive in the trees; dogs, collared and fenced but wild still, were raising their noses to the sky. And out of the west came a drift that made my muscles ache with longing: the crisp untainted scent of cornfields, the open plains.
        Suddenly there came a loud, metallic click, followed by the scratchy silence of a tape about to be played full-blast. I walked over to the small wooden platform on which three huge megaphones were bolted. From 6 A.M. to 10 P.M. each day, these megaphones announced the time at quarter-hour intervals in an endlessly monotonous pattern of bells—four notes for each quarter hour, followed at the top of the hour by one stroke for each o’clock. I stood directly in front of one of the cones, expecting it to declare the six o’clock hour. What came instead was a single, thunderous note that rocked me back on my heels and triggered an explosion of birds from the great elm trees alongside the convent, and then a chain reaction of flashing wings from trees in all directions as the wave of sound rolled across the neighborhood. When the reverberations had nearly ceased, there came a second note and then, after the same interval, a third. Each one struck me like a chisel-blow, peeling back the overlay, uncovering within me a pattern of a different sort, one that transcended time: the song of “The Angelus,” the Catholic clarion call, which had entered my ears every day of my childhood three times a day at six, noon and six, imprinting itself yet remaining, like the scream of the jets, unheard. Now, ear-to-ear with a megaphone built to bear the message over several square miles, I stood in the charged air of the doubly long interval, awaiting the note that would begin the second trinity of bells. After the third trinity, I braced myself through the even-longer silence for the tide of notes that I knew would follow.
        Like angelic thunder it broke upon me, part-song, part-storm: a string of notes bearing a melody, a wave of bell-sound fused together—cresting, ebbing, cresting, rolling through and beyond me into the calm air of the neighborhood. Here was a pattern that transcended time, a summons to all, whether stirring in their last sleep or standing groggily by the bus stop, to throw open the windows of their bedrooms, the shutters of their ears, to come awake not just to the fact of day but to the wonder of it: wake up and worship!
        And I, set in motion from one edge of that height to another, answered the bells with a melody of my own: just sound, at first, something guttural, arising from that deep-within place that had been touched by the green scent of the plains. Then two words—no yes no yes—took shape, forming a counterpoint to the bells’ flourish, singing the twin urgencies of my soul: yes, how very welcome this freedom-flood was; no, how very much I wanted it to never subside, unlike the bells that yielded finally to silence, leaving me with my eyes closed, my arms raised overhead to touch the new sun that had emerged from its shroud of mist.
        Soon, other more prosaic signals resounded through the neighborhood. Factory whistles hooted, each with its own pitch and timbre. One by one, the men of the neighborhood appeared on their porches with briefcases or brown bags in hand. At 6:45 my own father emerged. I crouched behind the cornice and studied him while he paused, adjusted the brim of his hat and squinted into the light. I expected him to stride purposefully to his car like the others did. Instead he sauntered, stopped to kick at a weed sprouting in the lawn, bent to pluck it out. When he got to the car, he turned and gazed back at the house. I wondered, was he thinking of the awning that needed a coat of paint or of my mother, whom he had just kissed goodbye, or perhaps of me?
        This last possibility made me wince. We’d been at odds lately over the twists and turns of my career. When he’d heard I’d quit the hike and gone back to my girlfriend, he’d sent me a terse note to “quit screwing around and get on home and back to work.” I’d resented the intrusion immensely—I was after all “out on my own”—and my resentment was doubled when, soon after, I ended up doing exactly what he’d ordered. Since my arrival, we’d behaved towards each other like two nervous electrons, in opposite, silent orbits around the nucleus, my mother.
        Whatever his thoughts now, his peaceful, half-smiling countenance when he again turned toward the car astonished me. Never would I have expected this of someone going to work! Was this not after all St. Stephen, the martyr to the family cause? In the catechism books I studied as a child, martyrs always rolled their eyes heavenwards in hopeful anguish as they were being consumed by flames or lions or timeclocks, but never were they depicted as smiling.
        I felt a great surge of friendliness toward him, a desire to stand up and bellow, “Hey Pop!,” to clasp my hands above my head and shake them in that famous gesture of triumph which he’d used a decade earlier as the manager of our little league team. In the ideal world he would break into a great grin of welcome when he saw me; he’d clasp his own hands above his head and yell out words of encouragement: “Keep at it, son! You’ll do fine!” He might even suggest (not order) that I come on down, and we would stand in front of our house together and converse in low voices, as equals.
        Too much to risk, even though I sensed that he too was hungry for such contact. After all, he thought I was in my bed, resting up for my first night on the job. So I kept my silence and stayed hidden while he clambered into his car. Only when he was half a block away and accelerating did I rise up and give him the family salute. I stood then for a long while, looking after him, contemplating this new fact I’d encountered, which I would not understand until much later, when I would come to live it: that one could be content, fulfilled even, in one’s patterns, that it was possible to move on the ground in a straight line and still be free.