From LAKE EFFECT:
When my family moved to Glencoe, it still had the character of a village, a life removed from urban turmoil. In the summer, we went without shoes under a canopy of trees along trim midwestern streets lined with Victorian and Tudor and ranch houses. In the woods, there was a bridge built by Frank Lloyd Wright, the only bridge he ever designed, that cut over a steep green gorge. In town, we would wander into stores where the owners knew our names and the names of our parents. Some considered Jamie a bad kid and followed him through the aisles.
There was Ray's Sport Shop, a dark cave cooled by an industrial-sized fan, naked metal blades cutting the air. Ray, in sweat-stained short sleeves, greasy brown hair, and a wispy mustache, thrived on fear, on the terror he spread to the kids in town. If he saw you in a brand of shoes not sold at Ray's Sport Shop, he waited for your mother to walk into a store, grabbed the meat of your arm, and said, "I run a family business. Maybe I don't sell the best stuff, but I sell it only to you kids. If you don't buy my stock, my family starves. Get it?" A few years later, when Ray sold out to a Korean immigrant, the kids of town, free at last, went on a magnificent mall spending spree. There was U-Name-It, a store that surfed the T-shirt craze, pressing decals of Arthur Fonzarelli or designs that said HOCKEY MOM or I'M THE GREATEST AND KNOW IT. I had two shirts that identified me as A WILD AND CRAZY GUY. There was Harry's Delicatessen, where my father often ducked out back to smoke a cigar with the owner. The walls of Harry's were lined with pictures of regulars, including Jamie's mom, who was a secretary in a doctor's office in the city. Once, when I wanted to complain that my father was not on the wall, Jamie said, "Why not let my mother enjoy this glory alone?" There was Sloppy Ed's, a hamburger stand where we stopped every day on the way home from the beach. Sloppy Ed himself was a sort of guru, sweating over the grill and cursing the kids who came in just to play the video games--Frogger and Donkey Kong.
I've known Rich Cohen for over 25 years, maybe longer, and for 18 of those years I never saw him.
We grew up five blocks away from each other in a town on the North Shore of Lake Michigan called Glencoe, Illinois. (Actually I think it's officially a village but that word doesn't really roll off the tongue in the same fade-to-nostalgia way). It's the perfect place to have had your childhood. The people are super-nice in the way that only people from the Midwest can be. The local grammar schools are called North, South and West and the middle school has the equally straightforward name of Central. Everyone plays Little League (I think I didn't get a single hit in my one season career) and crime was something that happened elsewhere. You bought records at Wally King's, ditched and went to Ricky's Delicatessen where the waitresses would always rip you off, and a perfect Saturday consisted of hot dogs at Big Al's and video games at the local arcade Bleecker Street.
Rich and I went to North together though we didn't 'hang out'. I think he was pretty good friends with the Moscow twins -- Andrew and Theodore -- and all I really remember is that I wished one of the twins would die or at least move away so I could go out with Annie Dexter. Rich was always cooler than me, even before I knew what cool was. We were both kind of the same size, small for our age, but for Rich it never really seemed to be a problem. Even before he wrote 'Tough Jews' he was tough. I think he beat me up once but it might have been more like he kicked my ass wrestling at Dexter Stark's house rather than punching me out. We were in fourth grade after all.
He played hockey which is what made him tough. He had to be at least 6 inches shorter than most of the other guys and definitely gave away twenty pounds to some but he had a mad-dog quality and wouldn't stand down for anybody. I think he even lost a couple of teeth once. It's the hockey thing that sits at the center of my perfect Rich Cohen image.
He was always a good looking kid. All the girls thought he was cute and I forget whether that meant anyone was actually kissing each other but he had a something going for him as the tough kid who could back up his mouth which I think ran pretty good even back then. I don't think we even knew swear words but he wasn't shy with the lip. But that's not really the point. It's about the perfect Rich Cohen image. He's walking away wearing his red hockey jacket, the kind with the grey lining that balls up and I want to say it snaps up the front and has a drawstring at the botton and the damn thing is at least two sizes too big. It's got white lettering and two hockey sticks crossing each other on the back and I don't think I ever saw him without it. At least not in my mind that is.
I left Glencoe after the sixth grade for California and didn't really think about Rich Cohen much until we crossed paths in New York again about 7 years ago. Though as I'm writing this I realize that when I used to lie and tell people, "I played hockey when I lived in Illinois," I was doing my best Tom Ripley and pretending in my mind that I was as tough as little Richie Cohen.