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CROSSING CALIFORNIA by Adam Langer

Adam LangerIn the early 1970s, when I started going to grade school on the northwest side of Chicago, there was a phrase I used to say to myself as I was walking home: “Once you cross California, everything’s ok.” The phrase referred to California Avenue, a street that traversed the north side of Chicago and formed a significant boundary in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. California was one of two streets in West Rogers Park that for all practical purposes separated classes. West of California was largely upper middle class, east of California mostly middle class. The second boundary, Western Avenue-Chicago’s longest street-demarcated the separation between middle and working class. Before I was born, my family lived east of Western; when I was going to school, we lived just one block west of California.

For my family, crossing to the west side of California represented their arrival and assimilation into mainstream, middle-class American life. My father was born in 1925, the son of Eastern European immigrants who spoke exclusively Yiddish; one of his earliest jobs was as a Prohibition-era bartender in a speakeasy in the Levee District, which was ruled by Al Capone. Later, my grandfather worked as a trucker for a soda pop distributor. My mother was born in 1927 on the west side of Chicago. A good portion of her youth was spent living in the back of a store run by her father. I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about her father’s attempts to perfect various inventions he had designed. By the time the 1960s had rolled around, my parents’ connections to their family’s immigrant past had just about disappeared; they vacationed in Colorado, New York City and Washington DC; they owned a Ford Thunderbird and a Volvo; in their three-bedroom West Rogers Park house, there were two televisions, two hi-fi’s and a pool table. In 1967, the year I was born, only one of my grandparents was still alive. Last Memorial Day Weekend, my uncle passed away; he was the last member of my family to have the last name Herstein, which I decided to take as a middle name while writing this novel.

Alas, perhaps thankfully, Crossing California is not a family history, nor is it a personal memoir. But, like my parents’ journey from Chicago’s old Jewish West Side to West Rogers Park, it does deal with a period of transition in my life as well as in Chicago and America at large. The novel is set during the 444 days of the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. Memory tends to simplify matters, but with the exception of the present moment in America, I can’t recall a time in our country during which the mood and political climate shifted so quickly. On November 4, 1979 when I was in eighth grade, Jimmy Carter was president, Jane Byrne was Chicago’s first woman mayor, there was a permissiveness and openness to the city, kids would hitchhike to school, drugs were prevalent yet never seemed overly threatening, the feminist and black power movements had not yet fallen out of favor with the national government. And, I might add, before November 1979, hardly anyone had heard of radical Islam. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was being sworn in as president; the U.S. hostages had been released, but I recall a sense of cynicism and fear beginning to take hold. Chicago’s government was once again mired in corruption; Muhammad Ali’s career was through; John Lennon was dead; xenophobia and moral absolutism were growing. The phrase “Just Say No” was soon to become the nation’s motto. And the chant “USA! USA!” began to seem less a patriotic cry than a threat. In just fourteen-and-a-half months, my life, my city and my country all felt markedly different, something that seemed to have little to do with the fact of my Bar Mitzvah.

At this point, I hasten to add that none of this novel about the intersecting lives of three families in West Rogers Park is autobiographical. Still, I do share experiences with almost each individual character. Like the young filmmaker and radio personality Muley Wills, at the age of 13, I worked as an actor, reporter and editor for a local NPR affiliate, as well as an amateur and, later, professional filmmaker. Like his mother Deirdre, I worked briefly as an instructor in the Chicago public schools. Like his father, Carl “Slappit” Silverman, I spent time working on play scripts in Chicago’s African-American entertainment world. Like Jill Wasserstrom, the object of Muley’s desires, I was Bar Mitzvahed in 1980 and also proudly defended the policies of the Ayatollah Khomeini in front of a class of appalled eighth graders. Like her father Charlie, I worked during high school as a reporter for a chain of low-rent neighborhood newspapers. Like her sister Michelle, I was a high school thespian (though I was nowhere near as talented as she is, despite having shared the stage with such luminaries as Chicagoan John Cusack). As for the Rovner family, I too lived west of California, and though I would prefer not to think I have much in common with any of them, of course I do. Like 13-year-old Lana, I briefly hosted my own prepubescent radio show entitled “Adam’s Perspective.” Both of our fathers happen to be radiologists, though if my father was ever as sex-obsessed as hers, I’d prefer not to know. Like Lana’s brother, Larry, I was a crappy guitarist with dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Like her mother Ellen, my father once saved my life in an almost-comical way. And, like one of the minor characters in the novel, I too suffered an existential crisis at the age of 13 when I accidentally extinguished my synagogue’s eternal light. But what feels most autobiographical to me in this novel are not these individual stories and personality traits, but the sense of transition in my life and the lives of those around me during the 444 days between Autumn 1979 and Winter 1981.

Though my parents still live in their house west of California, of course the neighborhood of West Rogers Park has changed. Most of the first generation Jewish families who are still living have departed-to retirement homes, to the suburbs, to Phoenix, to Hot Springs, to Miami Beach. In their place are the newer immigrants-the post-glasnost Russian Jews, the Asians, the Indians, the Palestinians. And yet, the borders remain. But, even though I have crossed different borders since I moved out of the neighborhood-from West Rogers Park to Lincoln Park; from Chicago to New York City-whenever I visit my old neighborhood, I still feel slightly nervous every time I cross over to the other side of California.

About the author

Adam Langer is an editor, journalist, author, playwright and filmmaker. With the publication of CROSSING CALIFORNIA he is now a novelist as well. Over the years, he has worked as a radio news writer and producer, an actor and a stand-up comedian. He has lectured on writing and journalism and has been a commentator on books on national television. He now divides his time between New York City and Bloomington, Indiana.

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