Winter 2010

Stern lessons

A mentor and voice found, a friendship lost, a life changed.

By Cheeni Rao, AB’98
Photography by Dan Dry

Cheeni Rao’s book In Hanuman’s Hands, published to wide acclaim last spring, tells the story of his descent into drug addiction and homelessness—and how he pulled himself up again with inspiration from the Hindu god Hanuman. The book ends with his acceptance to the University of Chicago, which he attended while still living in a North Side halfway house. The odds were Rao would gain much at the College, and he did, including a formidable mentor for his writing ambitions. What he lost was harder to see coming. —Laura Demanski, AM’94


“You gotta hit the books harder than you ever hit the crack pipe,” Tats told me, sitting on the front porch of the Oasis puffing his stogie. The Oasis was a Wilson Avenue halfway house for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. I was working three jobs and attending AA meetings in my free time. The University of Chicago seemed my last chance to escape a cycle of minimum-wage jobs, drug relapses, and street hustling, and I was surprised they would gamble on me after the mess I’d made at Williams College years before.

“Good thing they’re helping you out on money,” Tats said, tucking in the edge of his T-shirt, which his gut had forced free from the waistband of his jeans. “That school counselor’s right about you not working three jobs no more. That’s a tough school.”

“I just don’t want to take nothing I can’t handle. Counselor said some credits transferred from my old school, so I could do a physics major or an English major. What would you do if you was me?”

“I wouldn’t drink and I wouldn’t do no drugs. Go to meetings. Talk to your sponsor.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I heard that from you before,” I said, grabbing the stogie out of his hand so I could get a quick taste.

He pounded me on the shoulder.

“Stay sober. The rest’ll figure itself out.” He grabbed the stogie back when I coughed, and sucked deep.

I saw Carl, one of the house regulars, walking toward us from the bus stop, his black hair slicked back “for the ladies,” wearing a flashy purple button-down carefully tailored to accentuate his athletic physique. Five years older than me, Carl ruled the table when we played spades. He had a photographic memory when it came to cards and liked to call out our mistakes so we’d “learn not to be such dumbasses.” Carl and I liked to call out the odds for just about anything, whether or not we knew what we were talking about, much to everyone’s annoyance. The odds of any of us successfully escaping our addictions? One in 30. The odds we would end up in prison? One in five. The odds we would commit suicide before either happened? One in ten. Carl told Tats the odds on if he’d ever stop being an asshole (one in two million) and the odds that I’d end up with a pretty girlfriend in college (one in three).

I’d grown up in a Hindu family addicted to numerology and astrology, my mother smilingly giving the latest soothsayer a bundle of cash if they claimed my days of hell-raising were finally over, so I had a built-in acceptance for those who attempted to predict fate, even when they were mostly full of crap. I knew returning to college after all I’d been through was a risk. Raised by my parents to believe in fate and Karmic retribution, I feared I’d been placed on a payment plan for the violence and crime in my past, and that another installment of failure was sure to come due.

“Got a girlfriend yet?” Carl called out as he opened the front gate.

“He’s not supposed to be looking,” Tats said.

Carl looked me up and down and shook his head. “Those ten-dollar jeans you’re wearing just dropped your odds on finding a looker to one in ten. Girls at that school have class, y’know.”

“I don’t care what happens so long’s I graduate,” I said.

“You shoulda seen him when he first came in. Thin as your wrist,” Tats said.

“I’m loaning you a pair of my Levi’s Silver Tabs,” Carl said, “And some dress shirts. You got more chance than any of us ever will, and I ain’t letting you screw that up.”

“I got an addiction for screwing up. Jeans can’t cure that,” I said.

“Physics or English,” Tats said. “He can’t figure the angle.”

“Physics is a bad bet,” Carl said, “English you can do.”

“I heard they blew up nukes there and whatnot back in the day,” Tats said.

“Last thing I want to see is a punk like him learning how to do that. I’m gonna go with English, too. At least that’s a language he kinda knows, and he won’t kill no one by getting better at it.”

I ended up doing a little of both, at first. I was still faintly attached to the dream of becoming a doctor and helping out my dad at his pediatrics practice on South Ashland, or walking the halls alongside him and checking in on the kids at the juvenile detention center, so I took a chemistry and a calculus class. I’d taken the classes before, but assumed that I’d forgotten everything, the knowledge wisping out each time I exhaled after a hit of the crack pipe. Enough of what I’d learned years before remained, however, and despite my best intentions, I found myself jotting down stories instead of formulas as the instructor droned on.

When it came to picking English classes, I’d tried to steer my academic counselor away from anything I was sure would bore me. I wanted to write, so I asked for creative-writing classes. To my surprise, she showed me there wasn’t much to choose from, and the classes she did point out were taught by writers I’d never heard of.

At my previous college, creative-writing classes abounded, from poetry to playwriting to fiction, with different classes for beginners, intermediate students, and advanced students. I’d read the teachers’ books, even took pride in the awards they had won, as if one of them winning a Pulitzer meant I was destined to win one too, so long as I paid attention. I celebrated my courageous efforts at self-expression, confident that as long as the instructor gave me good grades, I was fated to write a best seller in a couple years.

When I stepped into Cobb Hall for my first creative-writing class at the University of Chicago, I was suited up in Carl’s Silver Tabs and a sharp white shirt he’d loaned me, assured that life on the streets had given me enough material for a book of stories. I didn’t know who the instructor, Richard Stern, was, but I assumed he’d be more helpful with my writing than the students around me. The graduate students were my age or a touch younger, but neat and earnest with notebooks open, murmuring to each other about dissertations or upcoming conferences. Some of the undergraduates seemed serious in the same way, but there were also a handful of scruffy, wild-eyed fidgeters who looked like they were already coked up by their own inspiration. It was a mix similar to what I’d seen in previous creative-writing classes, and I expected the same results—note-takers waiting for the instructor to reveal the secrets of writing, eager for pronouncements and rules and formulas that would spark them into creativity, while the fidgeters tended to be prolifically stoned, distrustful of the instructor, and disinclined to edit unless their “muse” told them to.

Stern swept into the room, briskly removed his floor-length brown leather coat, and eased his tall, heavyset frame into a seat at the head of the classroom. Taking in the wrinkles sagging his face and thin tendrils of hair failing to cover his gleaming scalp, I distrusted him immediately—he was probably clinging to the benefits of tenure, wandering aimlessly within his own senility.

“I’m reading you a story. Then we will discuss it. If you don’t know who wrote it, then you aren’t reading enough to be a writer,” he barked. “Next week, we’ll read one of your stories. Who wants to be first up?”

Everybody else looked nervously at the table as he swept his piercing eyes around the room.

“I need a writer for next week,” he said. “Are you all in the right class? Are any of you writers?”

I felt a smile come unbidden to my lips. I liked his style. I raised my hand.

“So you think you’re a writer?” he asked, his stare so completely focused on me that I felt all my street-hustling bravado whoosh out of me. I lowered my hand and wiped my suddenly sweaty palms on Carl’s Silver Tabs.

“Not yet, sir,” I said. “But I’d like to be.”

Right after class, my station wagon and I barreled north to the Oasis, early enough to avoid rush-hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive. I quickly changed out of Carl’s clothes, my head buzzing with ideas for the story I would write. The other students in the class hadn’t been as nitwitted as I’d assumed they’d be, and Stern seemed like the type who could really teach me something. He’d spent nearly half the class dissecting three sentences in the Cheever story he’d read to us, and by the time he was done, I couldn’t keep my hands from shaking. Each word in a good story was essential, he said. Each word had meaning, and a writer could radically shift the way an audience felt by just switching a word. Even though I’d heard the thought before, it was in that classroom that I suddenly understood where the power in shaping a story lay.

I knocked on Carl’s door, Silver Tabs in hand. From inside came the tinkling of Gamelon music—I’d picked up a CD for a world-music class on a whim while I was buying my other books, and when Carl heard me play it, he’d immediately offered to buy it off me. He said it soothed him, imagining smiling brown people gathered in a circle in some distant country making music as peaceful as their lives.

“What you want?” he hollered from inside.

I opened the door to musty shadows. Thick blankets hung over the wide bay windows facing Wilson. Carl lay in the bottom bunk, sunglasses on, red silk boxers peeking out from underneath the tails of a canary-yellow polo shirt. His freshly polished black dress shoes were laced tight on his feet.

“You just get back from work?” I asked. I couldn’t remember what job he currently had, but last he’d mentioned, he’d been working for either a jeweler or as a car salesman, trying to work his way into an electrician’s gig that might eventually turn union.

“Didn’t go.” He got up on his elbows, looked expectantly at me. “Anybody else home yet?”


“What time is it?”


“Oh.” He sank back into bed, looking at the bunk above him. “Won’t be a spades game for at least an hour.”

“I brought back your jeans,” I said.

“Keep ’em. I won’t need ’em no more.”

“You all right, man?”

He let out a deep sigh.

“Kid,” he said, “All I’ve got are long shots. Hundred to one odds. But you got a future now, college degree guaranteed. So, yeah, I’m not all right, but don’t worry about me. I’m coming up with new plans.”

After reading my story in Stern’s class, I made my way to his office for our scheduled post-workshop discussion. He draped his leather coat over an austere wooden chair and took a seat behind his desk. I didn’t notice anything in his office other than him and the imposing, ancient desk that stood between us. I could imagine him writing at that desk, long pages in pen and ink, book after book, and like a devotee awaiting blessings at our ancestral temple in India, I bowed my head in deference.

He pulled my story out and slapped it on the desk.

“A fine start to what may become a story some day,” he said, pushing the pages my way. They were coated in red ink, as if he’d stabbed the pages with his pen until they bled.

“How do I make it better?” I asked. I spoke slowly to better focus my words, to ensure that what came out of my mouth sounded educated, like what a student who belonged at the College might say.

“I thought your fellow students made some fine comments.”

“Like that guy going on and on about how I should change the narrator’s name?”

Stern cocked his head, stared deeply at me.

“He had a valid point,” he said.

I crossed my arms, leaned toward him.

“It’s stupid to go on for so long about a guy’s name. The name’s not important.”

“The name, followed by the description you used, implied a tough and emotionless character, but the story hinged on the sensitivity within him. You focused too much on establishing the character’s callousness, as if we wouldn’t believe that a person could be that way, but you didn’t pay nearly as much attention to revealing the layers underneath. It is those layers that make the story worth reading.”

“You shoulda said that in class,” I said.

Stern shook his head.

“Just as you have to pay attention to the words you use in your story, pay attention to the words people used when talking about your work. The class had trouble believing in the transformation at the heart of the story. Every comment circled around that point, though none of them said it directly.”

I nodded, furrowed my brow.

“And all these comments you wrote are about that? Nobody’s ever ripped into one of my stories before.”

“It’s a good story.”

“Then why’d you tear into it?”

“You said you wanted to be a writer.”

“More than anything. More than being sober.”

Stern laughed quietly. “Stay sober. You will figure the rest out, if you can learn how to listen. I don’t pull my punches with my writers. Neither will editors and publishers. If you want this as bad as you claim you do, stuff that ego of yours and start revising.”

I nodded. “Take the cotton outta your ears and stuff it in your mouth. That’s what they say at the house.”

“I expect your revision next week,” Stern said,

“No excuses.”

Back at the Oasis, Carl was missing, and all anybody had to explain it was desperate excuses. Maybe he was at work, or visiting family, and just forgot to call in. He’d been going to meetings, socializing with the guys—no chance he was using again. We talked about what might have happened as we all went to a meeting together, and some more afterwards while we sipped coffee at Zephyr’s. We all knew that he was going to be in trouble. Unless he’d cleared an overnight with Tats, he would get kicked out. It didn’t matter if he had an excuse or not. Rules were rules.

When we got back to the house, Tats was standing on the porch with a black garbage bag, looking at his watch.

“You kicking Carl out?” I asked.

“He hasn’t even been gone 24 hours, Tats,” one of the guys said. “You got to give him a chance.”

Tats shook his head and looked away from us.

“Got a call from his family,” Tats said. “He stole his mom’s car, drove to Wisconsin. They called the cops. Cops found him in a hotel room.”

“He was doing all right last I talked with him,” I said. “I mean, he didn’t go to work, and he looked tired, but…. ”

“Heroin, man,” one of the guys said. “It yanks you back, don’t matter how good you been.”

“He didn’t relapse,” Tats said. “He hung himself.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw a night sky filled with constellations of words. I could read one or two, but then clouds would pass before them, and when the words reappeared, they were changed, the sentences unfamiliar. I got up from bed, keeping the light off so my bunkmate wouldn’t wake, and sat in front of my dresser. I pulled out Carl’s Silver Tabs and the shirts he had given me, felt the soft touch of the fine cloth. I had talked to him more than anyone else in the house, played games of spades where we ran the table, communicating what we had in our hands with nothing more than the skill with which we played our cards. He had told me his life, but as I sat refolding his clothes, all I could remember were the odds. All of us in that house were long shots, and most of us would fail and fall unremembered.

I went downstairs, pulled out a cigarette, and sat in the kitchen with my notebook. I couldn’t begin to understand why I was still around when people like Carl kept falling away, couldn’t guess at what role fate and karma and odds and astrology played in it all. All I had were the words Carl had told me, the stories I’d heard. I felt like Stern was standing over one shoulder, Carl right beside him, and I wrote for the first time without trying to understand or excuse.

“The odds of successfully escaping our addictions? One in 30.”

“They were coated in red ink, as if he’d stabbed the pages with his pen until they bled.”

“Raised by my family to believe in fate and Karmic retribution, I feared I’d been placed on a payment plan for the violence and crime in my past, and that another installment of failure was due to come.”

“I celebrated my courageous efforts at self-expression, confident that as long as the instructor gave me a couple good grades, I was fated to write a best seller in a couple years.”

“It didn't matter if I had an excuse or not. Rules were rules.”