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Excerpt: 'Crossing California'

by Adam Langer
Jun 2, 2006

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Adam Langer

Matt Tannenbaum of The Bookstore in Lenox, Mass., recommends Crossing California by Adam Langer in his conversation about summer reading with Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition. "As a widowed man raising two teenage girls myself," Tannenbaum says, "I can attest to the accuracy of the emotional truths Langer portrays."

Wasserstrom

Jill

The day after an estimated seventy Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Jill Wasserstrom paused on the corner of North Shore and California Avenues to contemplate the accuracy of what she had proudly declared to Lana Rovner during recess at K.I.N.S. Hebrew School. What she had told Lana hadn't quite been true. She hadn't given Muley Scott Wills a big old hicky after eighth-grade phys ed at Boone Elementary School. She hadn't given Muley Scott Wills any sort of hickey at all. What had happened was that Muley Scott Wills had asked her if she wanted to go with him to Sun Drugs to pick up some items for his mother. She'd said sure, she had time before she had to go to Hebrew school, so she's gone with him to buy a heating pad, a bottle of aspirin, two blocks of Neapolitan ice cream, three packs of Now and Later's, and a bag of Warner's spice drops, which they consumed before he said good-bye to her in front of K.I.N.S. But, Jill realized as she continued walking south on California, Muley Wills was unlikely to deny any story that made it seem as if their relationship was more profound than it actually was, which was why it had been a safe bet to tell Lana Rovner she'd given Muley the hickey: If Lana—who was always asking intrusive questions about Jill and Muley's relationship—actually went up to Muley some day in the future and asked if Jill had given him said hickey, no doubt Muley either would say nothing or would immediately confirm the story to conceal the fact that Jill had never given him a hickey. Or anything else for that matter.

At the corner of Albion and California, Jill Wasserstrom turned east and crossed the street. California Avenue was the first of two east-west dividing lines in West Rogers Park. It was one of the only two-way streets in the neighborhood and one of the only commercial ones. On California, there were service stations, synagogues, and small grocery stores, a firehouse, a diner, and a funeral home, the Shang Chai Kosher Restaurant and Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza, Burghard's Egg Factory and the Nortown branch of the Chicago Public Library. West of California were the parks and the single-family houses, the houses with evergreen bushes, maple trees, and underground sprinklers out front, the houses with banisters, stoops, and steps carpeted with Astroturf, the houses whose doors were rarely locked. Here and there were apartment buildings—grim white or sky-blue brick edifices that smelled of senior citizens and their warm lunches—but they were the exceptions. Doctors lived west of California. Lawyers, too. Not the top-of-the-line doctors or lawyers; they mostly worked downtown or in the northern suburbs. The doctors here mostly worked for the county and the lawyers generally worked for the city. Still, for the most part, everything west of California was pristine and white-collar and Jewish, or Indian, Italian, Filipino, or Korean, all of which amounted to essentially the same thing. Lana Rovner lived west of California, on Sacramento Avenue across the street from Chippewa Park, where she sometimes sat on the benches and watched her brother Larry play two-on-two with his musician buddies from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy.

East of California, there was a discernible change in light. Here, the redbrick apartment buildings and smoke-gray bungalows soaked up the sun, and the streets seemed just a bit narrower. East of California, there was precious little greenery or open space, save for the playground of the Boone Elementary School and the front lawns of churches. Here, the houses were the exceptions. Jill Wasserstrom lived next to one on Campbell Avenue, on the second floor of a four-story walk-up. She, her sister Michelle, and their father, Charlie Wasserstrom—manager of the newly opened It's in the Pot! Restaurant in a shopping mall in nearby Lincolnwood—lived in a one-bedroom apartment; Michelle, a junior at Mather High School, and Jill shared a room.

The landscape changed once again at Western Avenue, a sprawling four-lane street that spanned the entire city of Chicago. On Western, there was Bingo City, Fluky's Hot Dogs, the Nortown Theater, and more car dealerships than on any other street in the city. There were no houses on Western, only apartments above diners, pet stores, restaurants, and taverns. East of Western was Warren Park. Once an exclusive country club, it was now a vast expanse of overgrown grass, of cracked tennis courts, muddy soccer fields, rusted charcoal grills, and one toboggan hill, a former garbage heap now known to the kids in the neighborhood as Mt. Warren. The cozy shops of Devon Avenue—with its bakeries, record stores, and Judaica emporium—stopped at the Western intersection. East of Western were grimy grocery stores, five-and-ten shops, liquor stores, restaurants with their neon lights flickering, bars with Old Milwaukee signs in their windows, the Seconds to Go Thrift Shop, Burger Kind, and the dingy Laundrytown above which Muley Wills lived with his mother, who shelved books at the Nortown Library and supplemented her measly income by cleaning houses.

Jill had just finished Hebrew school and it was already dark outside, which meant that maybe somebody would be home when she got there, but come to think of it, probably not. Her father had recently starting taking extra shifts at the restaurant to pay for the Bat Mitzvah she had already told him she didn't really want, really didn't want, and Michelle was probably still at the high school, rehearsing for the winter musical: H.M.S. Pinafore. The echoing loneliness of the apartment, which had once struck Jill as a symbol of her utter abandonment, was now little more than simple fact—something she dealt with every day, like spending the last thirty minutes of Math class waiting for Mrs. Cardash to inspect her homework just because her name came near the end of the alphabet, or going to bed with a pillow over her head to block out the detailed discussions in which Michelle attempted to engage their father about the kinds of boys she liked, the kinds of boys who worked on cars, the kinds of boys who called up WLS and dedicated Boston songs to her, the kinds of boys who played street hockey and ogled her at Blackhawks games.

Excerpted from Crossing California by Adam Langer. Copyright 2006, Adam Langer. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.

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