In Honor of Eric Zorn’s Check-it List

Madison Street Photo

On several mornings during my drive to work last week, I noted people waiting for the bus, or attempting to cross the street while navigating the latest dump of snow.  Our collective fill of this weather has been well-documented — you don’t have to go far to read about it, and you’ve likely had a conversation or two, or three, about it with friends and co-workers.

During my drives to school, though, I recall feeling uncomfortable, and yes, guilty, watching from the warmth of my car as folks stood stiffly at bus stops, bundled into heavy coats, some with only their eyes visible, staring dull-faced into the distance for their ride.  I wondered how long they’d been standing there, and how much timing plays a role in their daily lives (how long do you wait before venturing outside for the time the bus is scheduled to arrive at your stop?  Step out too early, and you freeze — leave too late and you risk missing your bus, only to wait another half hour for the next one to arrive).

My car represents easy mobility and access, and I know I take it for granted.  In an unexpected way, I was reminded of it again after reading Eric Zorn’s column in the January 22 Chicago Tribune.  But this time my car took on a different significance, because the column called to mind my early professional days when I didn’t yet own a car, and how I typically got around using public transportation.  The plot thickens just a little here, though.

So, in Eric Zorn’s column, he introduces a spin-off to the concept of the bucket list:  the check-it list, an idea his wife suggested and which he admittedly refines in the column.  The check-it list is defined as “an inventory of things you’ve done — maybe once, maybe many times — and will be perfectly happy never to do again.”   Specifically, though, the list must contain “things that were or seemed like good ideas at one time … But they can’t be things you’d like to do again but aren’t physically able to do.”

Many of the initial activities Zorn and his wife included were leisure activities, such as ice skating, sky-diving, back-packing, and horseback riding.  But the second list is much more varied, boasting everything from  staying up all night to helping a friend move.

Zorn suggests that the value in constructing a check-it list lies in accepting your changing self — making some peace with your current self and your past self.

Stay with me here.

So, after thinking about folks navigating the snowy conditions, and my car, and my early work years without a car, I would like to offer my own single-item, professional version of a check-it list.  This anecdote, for me, typifies the kinds of  choices we make in our early professional lives when we launch that journey — and because these are the experiences that shape us, and help us cut our teeth in the world of work.

The spring right before completing my graduate degree, in the mid 1980s, I was teaching in the lab preschool of my undergraduate institution.  I learned of a job with a Head Start program sponsored by the Salvation Army, in a location west of downtown Chicago on Monroe Street.  The position involved administrative duties to assist the director of a multi-site Head Start program.  I was surprised to get the job, and figured that it was an important next step in my career.

I learned a great deal about the history of Head Start, about the function of grants, and about the specific ways such programs are structured to support young children and families.  The majority of the work that I did, though, was writing and reporting — a fair amount of paper-pushing.  While it was not as stimulating as I’d hoped, hindsight helps me understand that it was a valuable part of my first years in early childhood education.  The check-it list helps me understand that this kind of work I would probably never take on at this point in my career:  call it age and experience, youthful motivation that has naturally faded, and a different kind of psychic and emotional energy that we devote to our work when we have been through a myriad of experiences from which we hope we’ve learned.

Still, I have strong memories of the commute to Monroe Street, aspects of the community and the building and the people who worked there.

El Train

I didn’t yet own a car, so I travelled from Rogers Park to Monroe Street, starting with the Howard train and picking up the #20 Madison bus in the loop.  The views from the bus always changed dramatically after departing the densely packed streets and skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.   Soon we were surrounded on both sides by vacant lots, burned-out buildings, piles of concrete and trash, and abandoned store fronts.  Tiny bars and small, struggling grocery stores or hair salons dotted the landscape every few yards.  On the side streets were two flats, some abandoned and some  occupied.  A co-worker in my office lived in one of them.  During colder days it was not unusual to watch several men sitting on old couches and easy chairs, huddled around a fire built in a rusted trash barrel.

It was a sobering daily trip, seeing the result of the riots that took place in April of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and to consider how this area was all but forgotten.  I always tried to steel myself for this part of the trip, and the two-walk block to the building after arriving at my stop.

The building itself was a residential recovery center for people struggling with alcoholism.  The Head Start office was housed in the basement — not terribly unusual, as many early childhood programs , often those in poorer areas, operate in the bowels of buildings.  The main office and clerical areas, such as the photocopy center and similar offices, were located on the first floor.  It was common to cross paths not only with Salvation Army personnel but with residents of the recovery program in this area as well.  I saw many folks looking to make their way through this early part of their recovery and eventually leave that building.  Picture lots of smoking and lots of coffee.

My comings and goings from the building were just as much, if not more memorable, though, perhaps because of the impoverished conditions of the community.  It was not unusual for me to wait for the bus after work as a prostitute stood half-way down the block.  I’m stunned as I think back on that now.  I could have gotten beat up or chased away.  But it didn’t happen.  Sometimes cars would slow down, though I think my long winter coat and non-eye contact offered appropriate clues.

One morning, after alighting from the bus and crossing the street, a police squad car moved alongside me.  The officer asked me what I was doing there, and I explained that I was on my way to work, gesturing in the direction of the building.  He asked if I realized that I “stuck out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood” and if I carried a gun.  I responded “Yes” and “No” and recalled thinking that having a car wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  After that day, a squad car was often (though not every day) idling at the corner across from my bus stop.

Another time, while walking to the bus stop after work, a man called to me from behind to ask if I had voted for Harold Washington in the mayoral election.  I truthfully answered that I had.  He turned and walked in the other direction.

Madison Street Photo 2

On another occasion, as I stood at my stop, a man shouted from across the street, “Hey!  Are you afraid of me?”  I answered, “Should I be?”  He said nothing more and continued walking.  Where the hell my response originated from I will never know, as  I am not by nature especially tough — or extensively street-smart.  I may have been channeling my mother at the time … or some other forces were at work.

Later in my 18-month stint, one of the male residents began greeting me at the entrance of the building.  We’d exchange limited pleasantries.  But the building greetings morphed into his showing up at the bus stop on my arrival in the morning.  The third time this happened he presented me with a plastic rose.  It was then that I quietly sought assistance from building personnel.  I began sitting on the other side of the bus and got off the bus one stop further on the way into work.  This lengthened my walk, and seemed to remedy the situation in a few days.  I didn’t seem him very much after that.  Still, I felt bad about this man, who struck me as sad and weary and weathered.

I don’t know that I could ever take on this kind of work at this point in my career.  The check-it list helps me understand that and be OK with it.  When we’re younger, and more wide-eyed, we take on challenges with enthusiasm and curiosity.  We get around without a car because we have to.

Enthusiasm and curiosity take on a different timbre with experience.  I contribute differently to my field now.   Yet I’m glad I made the choice to take on the Head Start position back then.

This job was an important part of my own professional path.   My thanks to Eric Zorn for the Check-it List, and for reminding me about the significant steps in the journey.

So … what’s your professional check-it list?