Hallway EBB

… so I ran from her as quick as my tiny legs would take me, first through the kitchen and then into the hallway…

As I chase Lucy, our new puppy, down the hallway after she has just peed on our rug, it evokes a memory from early childhood, not just any memory, but what I am certain is the first one I have of my mother, a young mother and a young me, somewhere between two and three years old, having just done something I wasn’t supposed to do, although what exactly I can’t recall, and her taking what she felt were the necessary steps to punish me and prevent me from doing it again, and like most young children I didn’t like being punished so I ran from her as quick as my tiny legs would take me, first through the kitchen and then into the hallway, which in my memory is so big that every footstep echoes but in reality only spans about ten feet, and I end up in my room, where in the corner sits a play tent decorated with Disney characters and that because it is white and the room is dark is practically glowing and lures me to jump inside and hide, even as I hear my mother’s voice yelling my name from down the hall, her Filipino accent getting stronger as she becomes enraged by my disobedience, with each threat I feel my fear growing inside the tent, the thin nylon walls unable to protect me and where eventually my mother’s shadow appears and grows menacingly as she approaches, and after she finds me, I receive a firm spanking that is as much about my mother’s need to release her frustration as it is about correcting my behavior, but what has stayed with me through the years is how consumed with anger she was and how fearful I was of her, the person who at that point in my life I loved the most.

Robert Grubbs is a clinical psychologist who provides therapeutic services to children, adolescents and families. Previously published in several academic journals, this is his first publication in creative nonfiction. Robert currently works and lives in Chicago with his partner and their dog, Lucy and spends his free time writing and wishing for the warm weather of his childhood in the South.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish



The Paper Trail

An unsettling photo of me appears in a newspaper article. I am perched on a mound of snow, wearing a corduroy bomber jacket and bell bottoms. My hair is an expired disco perm styled on the wrong side of Funkytown. What appears to be a toaster strapped to my chest is actually a portable listening device described as “the smallest cassette player in the world.” This is contradicted by my headphones, roughly the size of two Denny’s Grand Slam pancakes. The caption reads: “Tom Wolferman displays latest in listening pleasure on the slopes.”


WolfermanPhoto v2


This counterfeit ski photo of me sitting dumbfounded on top of a grimy snowbank represented exactly where I was in life: Stuck on the Bunny Hill of a career that was on a slow downhill slide.

The slopes in question were not in Aspen, but in the parking lot of a strip mall in a suburb north of Chicago where I worked as a classified ad clerk at a community newspaper. A reporter had talked me into posing as a skier – a stretch given the bone density in my ankles. It was the late 70s and the article profiled a local resident promoting his breakthrough electronic invention. Too big, too late, it was about to be eclipsed by the rollout of the mini Sony Walkman.

This counterfeit ski photo of me sitting dumbfounded on top of a grimy snowbank represented exactly where I was in life: Stuck on the Bunny Hill of a career that was on a slow downhill slide.

I had taken the job because it was only minutes from my alternate employment as a food server at a Holiday Inn restaurant. The prospect of working at a newspaper, even a storefront in suburban Chicago, was enticing. Maybe as a waiter I could trade in a vowel for a consonant and become a writer. I could cover breaking news, local politics and lively suburban entertainment. Except I was hired to compose copy for garage sales, used cars and lost Pomeranians.

The office was part of a fifty paper chain. As publisher of the suburban branch, my boss, whom I’ll call Vince, was a loner with a surly, no-nonsense Lou Grant personality. He was at constant odds with the suited executives at corporate headquarters who wanted to nudge him out. Circling 60 and at the waning edge of his career, he was up for a fight.

Beyond classified ads, I also supported Vince’s ragtag team of display advertising reps. While diverse in age, they could have moseyed out of a park district production of “Death of a Salesman.” Most managed to hustle ads in spite of being out of prospects and often out of breath. They’d sell the ads. On an Olivetti manual typewriter I’d pound out copy for local big money merchants ranging from hot dog stands to sellers of women’s intimate apparel.

As part of the job, I also fielded phone calls. Because the office was not equipped with a hi-tech intercom system, Vince capitalized on the 70s trucker fad and bought a CB radio. He rigged the base station next to my desk and planted speakers in the adjoining editorial department. When screening the eclectic mix of calls, I would then page the editors over the CB. It was like a surreal episode of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

Good buddies in Editorial Pick Up On Line 1. Urgent. Subscriber has grown the largest summer squash in Glenview history. Please dispatch photographer ASAP. 10-10.

About a year after I was hired, Vince developed an oddly intense interest in geology and became an obsessive rockhound. After buying an SUV, he spent most of his weekends at local quarries collecting rocks. When he stripped the inside of the vehicle to accommodate his expeditions, he moved the back seat to his office to function as a couch.

It always was comical to see visiting execs from corporate. Vince would be seated at his desk. His superiors would face him about six inches lower in the displaced back seat of a ’77 Chevy Blazer – surrounded by freshly excavated rocks.

In spite of his crusty disposition, Vince and I got along well. He was baffled by my underachieving aspirations, but realized I showed up, did my work and had the temperament to deal with the personalities in the office and the crazies on the phone. While his hands were tied with my paltry salary, he would creatively compensate. Every few months he’d loiter by my desk on a late Thursday afternoon, lean in and mumble, “You don’t look so good. I think maybe you need to call in sick tomorrow.”

As part of my mundane weekly duties, I was tasked with going through phone books to randomly select 55 suburbanites. As a promotional gimmick to lure readers to the classified ads, we’d plant the names on the Super Auto Mart page. If you were a lucky resident who spotted your name among the used Buicks, you could claim free movie passes to the local mall.

For purposes of self-amusement, I began grouping names around nonsensical variations on a theme. I started out discreetly with fruits, locating five last names in Des Plaines that loosely qualified, including Mellon, Appleby and Figg. The next week I played off Morton Grove residents with cruciferous vegetable names, such as Broccolino and Radich. Then it was riffs on spices, like Salterelli and Pepera.

What had started as an hour task, was now taking half a day as I began to fanatically dog-ear the phone book in search of even more ridiculous names to fulfill my increasingly challenging theme weeks.

I never imagined anyone was remotely paying attention. As I became more emboldened, the names I plucked were less cryptic. My tribute to old Hollywood included Gable, Lombard, Garland and Rooney. The jig was finally up when I went with a week of old timey cocktail names that included Tom Collins, B. Alexander, Martini and my proudest find – a resident of Skokie named Schnap.

One day my boss called me into his office and I soon found myself sinking into the Chevy Blazer Back Seat of Shame.

“So, Corporate got a call from some whiney subscriber. He’s accusing us of rigging the Auto Mart movie passes. What do you know about this?”

My career had reached a new low. I was being reprimanded in the back seat of a van. My juvenile impulse made me want to slide my fingers under the cushion to check for loose change and uneaten Goldfish crackers. Instead, I had to be an adult and fess up. I had to tell my boss that I was frittering my workday by populating the Super Auto Mart with names of suburbanites inspired by fruits, vegetables and America’s most beloved bar drinks. No, the names were real. But yes, I was a thumb-twiddling imbecile.

He looked at me with disappointment. I felt like I betrayed his trust. He put his hand on his chin to ponder my fate and finally said, “I think we need to give you more challenging work. I want you to think about joining our sales team. In the meantime, cut the crap with the Auto Mart. And send the crybaby subscriber a few movie tickets.”

I tried to envision joining the “Death of a Salesman” players as the new understudy. I saw a grim future of selling display ads featuring punchy headlines promoting chili dogs and custom-fitted bras.

I ultimately was spared this fate. Within two weeks Vince was gone and replaced. Corporate had finally succeeded in giving him the squeeze. It had nothing to do with my silly stunt, but I still felt bad. When his space was finally vacated and emptied of all geological artifacts, I realized it was also time for me to snowplow down the Bunny Hill and move on to loftier goals.

Looking back on this phase of my career, although newsprint is fading fast, my newspaper stint left me with a lifetime of indelible knowledge. I learned how to sell a used car in three lines or less. I mastered the art of interoffice communications on a CB radio. I know for a fact that sedimentary rocks can enhance any office décor. And after months of exhaustive research, I can confirm that once upon a time someone named Zucchini was living in Des Plaines.

Tom Wolferman is a Chicago freelance copywriter in marketing and business communications. His humor has been published in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Reader and he has shared stories at live venues throughout the city. For more about Tom, go to

Photo by Curt Chandler.

Smoke Screen

Imagine the nerve: My dealer had gone out of town without informing me beforehand. So I was all out. Every last roach incinerated, I was reduced to coaxing “hobo-highs” from thick black resin extracted from deep within my paraphernalia. This could have been a good opportunity to clear my head a bit, go a week or two without smoking. But that was wishful thinking.

smoking girl JC

“Weed made the things I already liked – movies, rap, heavy metal, crime fiction – sparkle.”

Pacing around my apartment, I thought through my options. I had made a rookie mistake, becoming so dependent on this guy Seth, not bothering to develop back up connects. People bought drugs on the street, from strangers who didn’t pretend to be your friend, all the time. Why couldn’t I? But where exactly did such things happen?

Looking through the newspaper, I came across a short article buried deep in the metro section. A young man had been shot to death the previous night on a west side street “known for drug activity.” Brilliant! I piloted my parent’s hand-me-down Volkswagen there tout-suite.

The neighborhood was residential, streets of red-brick bungalows connected by a main thoroughfare with liquor and convenience stores, and many empty lots. Nowhere did I see any bustling open-market drug activity, so I approached a group of white-tee clad males. “Any of you guys know where I can buy some smoke?” I asked. “You want coke?” one of them replied. I told him I did not, which seemed to end the conversation. Twenty minutes went by as I awkwardly loitered in the area until a car pulled up. The man riding shotgun addressed me. “You the guy looking to buy some ‘dro?” Indeed, I was. We did our exchange in the entryway of a fast-food joint with bulletproof glass between the patrons and employees.

I viewed this expedition as little more than an inconvenience. A week later, my dealer came back from California and we continued our civilized appointments in the comfort of my apartment or his car. That winter, he got pulled over with a quarter-pound, but was kind enough to refer me to his friend and occasional co-rapper, Epik. Epik was unemployed and all too eager to drop by on short notice.

I tricked myself into thinking that the way I smoked, while maybe not normal, was at least acceptable. A little something in the morning to make the prospect of schlepping off to work tolerable. Nothing on my lunch break though; that was only for the truly desperate. Not that I didn’t consider it. I could wait another few hours until after work. That second smoke of the day was nearly as good as the first. Depending on the evening, a couple, three more sessions before I retired for the night.

With real, solid motivation, I could quit for a month or two, long enough to pass a drug test when applying for work. But once I got a job, it was off to the races. Being stoned seemed to make everything better. I tried not to show up to certain places – like my grandmother’s house, important meetings – too stoned. But even at events I looked forward to, it wouldn’t be too long before I’d be checking my watch, wondering when I could slip away to blaze. Weed made the things I already liked–movies, rap, heavy metal, crime fiction–sparkle. I wouldn’t immerse myself in these things, I’d be submerged. Exhilarating, transcendent. Issues, whether personal, artistic or philosophical, could be examined at a distance, and occasionally seen in a new light. And smoking took some of the sting off of life’s travails. As Napoleon said about champagne, in victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.

In college, I had a proper stoner crew. Friends who liked to smoke at acceptable, party times, as well as less designated times, like between classes and as a study break. But a couple of years out of school, I stopped making those types of friends. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had no one around to goad me to smoke more, or front me bowls when I was all out. My friends knew I smoked, but not how much or how often.

As time went on, when stoned, I spent more and more time thinking about how I needed to quit smoking. That and brainstorming a great heist screenplay. After a month of writing every day, I re-read the script. It made no sense. All my adult life, I’d viewed pot as part of my creative process, my creative identity. When high, every idea seemed priceless, every phrase that popped into my head utter poetry. Rereading that script, a thought dawned on me: maybe getting my stoned thoughts on paper wasn’t just a challenge, it wasn’t worth it.

For almost a decade, I had been trying a variety of strategies to keep my smoking in check. I’d give my stash to a roommate for him to hold, only to ransack his room to find it. I divided my bag into a dozen smaller portions, and hid those behind furniture and under mattresses, thinking that having all my pot together in a central location was tripping me up. This approach would inevitably lead to a demented Easter egg hunt for all my mini-stashes, and the crazed belief that one more was out there in some nook I had forgotten. Later I started buying individual grams instead of eighths or quarter ounces, again figuring that having less around would limit my consumption. Every night, I would promise myself that tomorrow would be the beginning of something new, a couple days off, a week or two, or quitting altogether. But to do so, I’d need to start with a clean slate, have no pot around, so I might as well smoke the rest of what I had. Then tomorrow would come around, and after some pangs of guilt and shame, I’d go ahead and buy some more, glad that I had voiced my promise to no one else.

When stoned, the prospect of quitting seemed like the only way forward. When sober, it seemed impossible. The pot was making me miserable. My girlfriend, who avoids pot because it gives her panic attacks, grew tired of being around me when I was high and asked me not to smoke around her. I chose to interpret this very literally, and would race home, get high, wait an hour, then go over to her house, hoping I wasn’t too visibly stoned. I’d always relied on my ability to come off as mostly straight when baked. At some point, this morphed into an ethical sanction: if people couldn’t tell I was high, it wasn’t an issue. The stank of a joint gave me away, though, and my girlfriend smelled it on my sweater. I could apologize all I wanted, but the writing was on the wall. It was her, or the pot.

The next day, I looked up Marijuana Anonymous on the internet. A week later, I worked up the courage to check out a meeting. Eight or nine friendly and burnt out looking people were sitting in folding chairs, giving each other strength and reminding each other that weed wasn’t as harmless as many insist. I started going to meetings regularly, and for the first time in years, put long weedless stretches together. I even got a sponsor for a while, an intense carpenter named Rich with ten years sobriety. He’d yell at me when I told him I was doing okay. “I guess you’re just a special snowflake, then, the most well-adjusted guy to ever go into recovery.” I wasn’t in touch with my feelings and, dripping sarcasm aside, he probably had a point.

Over time I discovered that part of what drew me into smoking was the way it made all varieties of uncomfortable feelings – anger, disappointment, boredom, sadness – seem remote, if not disappear completely. What had started out as a badge of rebellion and self-styled outlaw identity had morphed into something more nefarious: a shield against experiences, emotions, even the people I loved. When I stopped smoking, I was inundated with thoughts and moods I had effectively avoided for years. It felt like eternity, marinating in these emotions for hours or days when I had grown so used to being able to flick my lighter and change the channel. After three months, I stopped calling Rich, and eventually stopped going to meetings; the obsessive thoughts came less often, and were less intense. At a friend’s wedding recently, I even smoked a bit, and had fun, but it didn’t feel as good as I remembered. A year and a half after I stepped into that first MA meeting, what I really miss are those reclusive times when smoking turned books, movies and music up to a chemically enhanced 11. There’s the trade off: I’ve lost that escape hatch, but the veil protecting me from life, glorious, messy, complicated, brilliant life, has been lifted. I’m trying to fully embrace this new life, but part of me feels left behind. Even as life seems more vibrant than ever, part of me wants to retreat from the slings and arrows, retreat back behind the smoke screen.

Timothy Parfitt grew up outside Chicago and in Hannover, Germany. His film and music reviews have appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Wassup and on his blog, This is his first published essay.
Photograph by Jen Clar