Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Star Wars and South Commons

Clearly, I associate Star Wars with Modernism, at least part of that association is personal. I wrote the following personal history for Kato McNickle’s theater project Star Wars Stories. She is looking for sories about how Star Wars changed your life. It doesn't need to be about 1977 or as long as the one I ended up writing, but it does need to be written soon. She needs people to submit their stories before March 3oth.

On the 22nd of May of 1977 I was six years old, almost seven, and had no idea what was going on in the world beyond the bowl of South Commons, a planned community on Chicago’s South Side. It was a ring of inward facing town houses, surrounding a grassy quad and a playground. The look of the place was aggressively Modernist; from the flat roofs and unadorned sheetrock interiors to the industrial plainness of the brick facades and the organic cast cement Isamu Noguchi-esque playground equipment. My family had moved there before I was born and I was only beginning to understand that there was more to the world.

As microcosms go, it was a wonderful one. It was designed with the help of University of Chicago academics, the inward facing 2nd floor kitchen windows were placed so that young stay-at-home mothers could keep an eye on their children while they cooked the evening's meal. The model was a Modernist ideal of a traditional family facing an updated village green. And while the place had the look preferred by Robert Moses and Le Corbusier, urban theories, no doubt adopted from Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, contributed to justifying the layout of the place.

The aim of the designers was to create a neighborhood that was racially and economically integrated. My parents and the other young families that bought in were trying to live the ideals of the Civil Rights era, and for a time it worked. I remember loving and admiring the older kids with their Afros and long hair; my beautiful teenage babysitters sneaking their head-banded-boyfriends in through our basement window like something out of Welcome Back Kotter; and old men doing the Robot to the theme to Car Wash – showing the kids how it was done.

What I don’t remember is seeing Star Wars the first time any more then I remember the first time I saw a Big Wheel. These are things that were once not there, and then were everywhere. I have only one clear memory that I can positively date as having anything to do with seeing Star Wars the first time. My sisters wanted to go see Star Wars and I didn’t. I wanted to stay outside and play with my best friend Carl. He and I had lost our minds over Tarzan Lord of the Jungle. He had run down the block to my house the Saturday morning it first aired to tell me to turn it on. The gritty realistic animation was SO much better then the lousy Hanna Barbera stuff we had been force fed the summer before.

The first Green Machine had appeared around that time as well. It was an up-market Big Wheel. It looked so much cooler then our beat up, sagging tricycle-like Big Wheels, and could do these crazy spin outs that were hard to do on a Big Wheel without turning over (many scabs). But they were expensive and while a few of the kids got them Carl and I were stuck with last year’s Big Wheels. It was my first awareness that some families had more money then others.

The day my sisters pressed me into going to the movies the weather was great and I didn’t want to go see some dumb space movie. If I had to guess, I probably wanted to play Tarzan (“Unk Cheetah!”) or bum a turn on some else's Green Machine.

But my sisters were a lot older and smarter and their friends were so beautiful and so cool. I never really stood a chance. So I know we did go see Star Wars and like every other little boy in America it blew the front of my skull off. I never recovered. (This must have been around the time I became disillusioned with Mr. Rogers, realizing that his trolley was always going to go to his Land of make Believe and never to mine.) Tarzan was immediately forgotten and the rest of my childhood was dominated by space ships (except a few years later when Thundarr the Barbarian united those two very different obsessions into one awesome world).

Carl and I were now only concerned with making the jump to hyperpace. And while the newer Green Machines were at first highly coveted by Carl and I, after Star Wars speed was all that mattered to anybody. “She may look like junk,’ we might have told the rich kids, “but she’s got it where it counts.”

We were the fastest kids in the neighborhood; hot-rodding our Big Wheels by removing the seatback and starting races by using them like kids use razor scooters now, only dropping into the “cockpit” and peddling like mad once we had “achieved hyperspace.” When we realized that because its forcibly recumbent ride and lack of handle bars the Green Machine was impossible to get a running start on, our dusty battle scared Big Wheels got new life. The Green Machines could not be hot-rodded to alter their fancy factory ready rides. They didn’t stand a chance against our souped-up Big Wheels.

Eventually the Green Machines were put away, they weren’t worth the trouble of dragging them outside. The Big Wheels had all the cool of the Millennium Falcon, Green Machines all the suck of Hanna Barbera.

That was the summer my parents divorced (that was the summer when everyone’s parents got divorced). That fall I moved with my mother and sisters to a suburb famous for Victorian and Prairie Style architecture where we rented a prewar wood frame house with a normal yard on a normal street; where no one wore an Afro or danced the Robot; and where no one rode Big Wheels, every one rode bikes. I was out of my element.

My first day of school in the suburbs I was confronted on the playground by a little boy who wanted to know if I knew why Darth Vader wore that mask. I had seen the movie, I understood the hilarity of speed, but he knew all kinds of stuff I didn’t (he had older brothers, and probably had access to their Starlog magazines, I had no such advantage).

Finally impatient and totally contemptuous of my lack of Star Wars knowledge he answered his own question: Darth Vader had to wear that mask because he had fallen into a volcano. His absolute certainty was echoing in my head when I saw the third prequel thirty-odd years later and watched the final light saber battle in disbelief waiting for Vader’s eventual fall into the lava. I still wonder how he knew.

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