I really enjoyed today’s interview on WBEZ with Rick Kogan. Thanks, Rick, for the opportunity to promote “Chicago Sketches.” I will be doing two readings in February. One will be at the Evanston Public Library on Tuesday evening February 12 at 7pm. The other will be at the Barnes & Noble at State and Jackson on Thursday evening February 21 at 6 pm. I hope to see many of you at either of these locations.
Patricia Porter led a group of us from the city up the dilapidated stairwell to the fifth floor of the Lexington Hotel, located at Michigan and Cermak, where she showed the rooms of a suite that Al Capone occupied from 1928 to 1932. It was hard to imagine Scarface and his cronies relaxing and doing business in these same rooms amidst the cracked walls and ceilings now surrounding us.
Pat’s organization, the Sunbow Foundation, had recently bought the hotel with funds received mainly from the city of Chicago to train minority women in construction skills while rehabbing the decrepit hotel in the process. The Jane Byrne administration had originally hoped to house an International Women’s Museum and Research Center at the hotel as part the 1992 Chicago’s Fair, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery voyage from Spain to the Americas.
I first met Pat in the summer of 1981 when she visited me in my office at the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training. A tall, imposing woman wearing work boots and overalls, she came unannounced and plopped herself into an empty chair in my cubicle. She related to me a story that an aide to Mayor Byrne told her that my office was going to be giving her a $500,000 contract with federal job training funds. She said to me that I was the guy that City Hall told her to see to make that happen.
The only problem was nobody at Byrne’s office told my boss who claimed he knew nothing about it. But Pat had made up her mind not to leave the office she had a finalized contract commitment. She sat in my cubicle for five hours, waiting with inordinate patience, staring at me and the walls, before the official communication came from Byrne’s office authorizing the contract for the Sunbow Foundation.
At first, Sunbow began doing small rehab projects at a South Side YWCA and a battered women’s shelter. Several building trades unions bought into the program, providing carpenters and masons as instructors for the trainees. These unions made Sunbow part of their pre-apprenticeship programs, and the women trainees hoped eventually to become fully apprenticed carpenters and masons. Sunbow had some initial success, and then it began rehabbing parts of the Lexington.
When Mayor Harold Washington got elected in 1983, his administration acceded to the wishes of neighborhood groups that believed that city funds allocated to the 1992 World’s Fair should be rechanneled for more needed services and programs in the communities. Chicago pulled out, allowing Seville, Spain, to host the Fair. However Mayor Washington was committed to Sunbow’s program and authorized an increase in funding for the organization that allowed it to purchase the Lexington in 1985.
The Lexington had been built in 1892 to accommodate the many visitors expected to flock to the South Side to visit the Columbian Exposition. President Benjamin Harrison stayed there while visiting the Exposition. For several decades, the Lexington maintained its reputation as one of the more stylish hotels south of downtown. The Depression and the gradual decline of the neighborhood took its toll on the Lexington. In 1938 the hotel changed its name to the New Michigan Hotel, but the downward slide continued for the next four decades. It basically became a dangerous transient flophouse, housing prostitutes and drug-dealers. I remember the down and outers hanging out around the place when I ate regularly at Mama Batt’s, a Jewish restaurant-deli that leased retail space on the ground level, when I worked for the County in an office a block away from the hotel. Eventually, the hotel closed its doors to the public in 1980.
Sunbow’s work on the Lexington proceeded at a snail’s pace. Federal job training dollars were being cut significantly in the second term of President Reagan’s administration, and Sunbow was barely able to stay afloat financially. Pat Porter somehow made contact with the television personality Geraldo Rivera in 1986 and convinced him that there was a good chance that Al Capone had kept a sealed vault full of money in the basement of the Lexington. Pat secured a lucrative consulting contract from Geraldo. Millions watched his TV show as the vault was opened, revealing nothing but a Stop sign and a couple of empty gin bottles.
Sunbow dissolved in 1987 due to lack of funding. The Lexington Hotel was demolished in 1996. The McCormick Place Convention complex now extends across the street of the site of the old hotel. Tens of thousands of conventioneers now pass the site each year, unaware they are perhaps in the shadow of Al Capone’s ghost.
Our sixteen inch softball game had just ended at Pilsen’s Harrison Park and a bunch of us from our team crossed the street to Bishop’s to enjoy some chili and wash it down with cold Filbert’s root beer. My team, the Englewood District Office caseworkers, was crushed by the caseworkers from the Oakland District Office, by a lopsided score of 15-6.
The Oakland team not only had better athletic talent, but also approached the game in a more focused manner. Perhaps this resulted from the influence of a strong Progressive Labor Party cadre that played on the team. Our Englewood team seemed as dispirited on the field as during the work week in our office.
Over the last month or so in the summer of 1972, there seemed to be several bomb threats called into the Englewood Public Aid office on Halsted and 61st Street each week. The police didn’t know why these threats were occurring, but each one frayed our nerves. As we waited across the street for the police to give us an all clear to return to the building, one couldn’t help but notice the empty lots and boarded up stores in what had once been a bustling commercial area.
My best friend at Englewood was Steve Kowalski, a Polish kid from the Northwest Side with a blonde ponytail and a fondness for tie dye shirts. He graduated from Forman High School and UIC, and like me took one of the seemingly plentiful caseworker jobs available at the Cook County Department of Public Aid. In those days if you had a college degree and were able to pass a fairly easy civil service examination, you were hired by the county and assigned to one of the district offices located mainly on the South and West Sides.
As usual, our chili at Bishop’s was excellent, but the root beer didn’t quite do the trick in quenching our thirsts. Steve asked me and another one of our Englewood co-workers, a black guy named Greg, if we would like to go back to his place in Canaryville where there were two six packs of cold Old Style in ther refrigerator waiting for us. We thought that it was a splendid suggestion.
We got into Steve’s Volkswagen bus for the trip to Canaryville, located just three miles southeast from Pilsen. Canaryville was a white ethnic enclave, mostly Irish with a smattering of Poles and Lithuanians, adjacent to the recently shuttered Union Stockyards. In fact, the last pen and killing floor closed the year before. The stench of dried blood still wafted in the air.
No one seemed to know for sure the origin of the community’s name. Although a legend had it that birds use to swoop down into the Stockyards picking at whatever animal remains they could find, finally resting themselves with their lucre in the shade of the nearby trees before flying away. One thing that we did know was that Canaryville had a history of racial intolerance. Steve mentioned that one of his elderly neighbors proudly recalled bashing the skulls of Blacks during the Race Riot of 1919. Although he added that most of his neighbors had been warm and kind since he moved to Canaryville about a year ago.
Steve never even gave it a second thought to have a black friend over to his apartment. He knew that some of the old timers poked fun at his ponytail and thought that he was some type of hippie but he never had problems at all with anyone in the neighborhood. Greg and I spent a pleasant few hours at Steve’s that evening enjoying our beers while listening to music and discussing office politics. Steve then drove us to the el station at 35th Street where Greg and I took trains getting us back home.
The next morning at the office Steve approached me looking agitated. His windshield had been smashed overnight by a rock with a nasty note attached to it. He felt betrayed by the people that had taken him into their community as a neighbor. Steve wondered if this incident was an anomaly or did racial hatred still run deep in this community. He now had a lot to think about regarding his own future living in neighborhood, referring to the situation as his “Canaryville Blues.”
I noticed the stains on the carpet and the cigarette burn on the arm of my chair as I waited for Uncle Leo in the lobby of the Edgewater Beach Hotel. It was late August, 1965, and the pink-hued hotel on the Lakefront had seen better days. In fact, this American Sociological Association annual meeting which Leo was attending turned out to be one of the last major functions at the hotel before closing its doors two years later.
My father’s youngest brother, Leo Reeder, played a prominent role in organizing this event. A professor of public health and sociology at UCLA, Leo was a preeminent medical sociologist and editor of the leading medical sociology textbook. His colleague and friend from Harvard University, Pitirim Sorokin, was to assume the presidency of the association that year and Leo had the responsibility of coordinating the inaugural ceremony.
Leo knew that I was majoring in sociology at Roosevelt University and he thought that it might be useful for my future if I were to meet some of the nation’s most prestigious sociologists. When he warmly greeted me in the hotel lobby, he whisked me away to a reception where he proceeded to introduce me to what seemed to be every significant sociologist in America. Leo was truly in his element.
It had been a long road to success for Uncle Leo. He was the youngest of six children born to poor Jewish immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. My grandfather Max’s family name in Europe had been Raizes, changed to Reider on Ellis Island, and modified to Reeder upon arriving in Chicago where they lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood.
When his wife, my grandmother Anna, died of cancer in Cook County Hospital during the Depression, the older boys, my father Jack and his brother Manny, were already on their own, working and sharing an apartment. Their sister Shirley had just married. Max, who only worked sporadically as a peddler, did not have the financial resources or emotional stability to raise the three younger boys, Leo and his brothers Frank and Abe. They were sent to the Marks Nathan Orphan Home across the street from Douglas Park.
After a short stay at Marks Nathan, the boys were taken in as foster children by a childless Humboldt Park couple, the Cohens. Mr. Cohen worked as a house painter and the couple had the means to provide a safe and secure home for the younger Reeder boys, who all eventually graduated from Tuley High School.
During the Second World War, Frank, Abe and Leo joined the Armed Forces. Leo served as an infantry soldier in the Army. When the war ended, Leo took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he became the first in his family to earn a BA. Leo then continued on at the University of Chicago to earn his PhD in Sociology in 1951. Leo was appointed a joint professor at UCLA in 1958 and served as director of the University’s Survey Research Center from 1969-75.
I always enjoyed when Leo visited Chicago. He always took an interest in my studies and work. When I saw him at the Edgewater Beach Hotel, I was in the midst of my student radical days and we argued vehemently about America’s involvement in Vietnam. Leo, once a socialist, who voted for Norman Thomas as President in 1948, supported Johnson’s aggressive war policy in Vietnam citing the necessity for Communist containment.
Our heated disagreement on this issue continued for some time. The following summer I showed up uninvited at his new house in Pacific Palisades on a spontaneous road trip to California. He didn’t appreciate my unexpected presence and my confrontational manner on the Vietnam War, and after a few days of incessant arguing, he drove me back to the highway to begin hitchhiking back home.
A few years later, Leo telephoned me and told me he was planning to visit my parents and would I like to come and perhaps the two of us could take a walk together. After dinner, Leo and I walked from my parents’ apartment at Lunt and California, a few blocks down to the path along the North Branch of the Chicago River, near the Winston Towers housing complex. He told me that my opposition to the Vietnam War reminded him of his own political idealism at the University of Chicago when he was a student there. He admitted that his earlier position on the war was a mistake, and we apologized to each other for letting politics get in the way of our otherwise close bond.
That walk along the North Branch was in late 1971. Leo and I tried to see each other every time he came to Chicago, even if he had just a few hours of layover time at the airport. He still took a great interest in my life and budding career in social services.
One day in late September, 1978, I got a call from Uncle Frank telling me that Leo’s passenger jet had collided with a small plane over San Diego. Leo was fifty-seven at the time of his death and in the prime of his life and career. He left behind, at that time, his wife Sharon and a young son, Andrew and two adult children, Glenn and Susan. I had seen Leo earlier that year, little knowing that seeing him then would be my last time with him.
In 1980, the American Sociological Association established the Leo G. Reeder Annual Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology which now has had thirty-two recipients. Quite a legacy for the son of a Maxwell Street peddler!
I slid in the sawdust that sprinkled the floor of the St. Louis Fish Market on Lawrence Avenue in Albany Park. I waited patiently for my grandmother, Gussie Schlan, who we in our family affectionately called “Bubbie.” She stood staring at the rows of stacked fish that lay over beds of ice, lifeless, yet eyes bulging in their heads. Soon Bubbie would select the whitefish, carp and pike that met her scrupulous standards for the ingredients of the fabled gefilte fish that she prepared each Passover for our Seder dinner.
Obtaining my driver’s license that winter of 1961, I frequently chauffeured Bubbie around so she could do her errands. It was convenient as my parents and I lived across the street from her on Lunt Avenue in the West Rogers Park neighborhood. After Zadie David had passed away several years before, my sister Anne stayed with Bubbie for a few months. Bubbie then remained alone in the apartment on California Avenue which was above Bernie Joseph’s grocery store and Joe Stone’s barber shop. She did have occasional lady roommates over the years, but none of them lasted for very long.
Although the roommates that she had were all very nice ladies, the truth must be told that Bubbie had her own idiosyncrasies which made it difficult for an outsider to live with her. Her family could do no wrong, but Bubbie had the propensity find flaws in others. I remember her describing one roommate and her family in descriptive Yinglish as “a bunch of meshuggeners.” After listening to another roommate tell what I thought to be a poignant story, Bubbie whispered to me “I can’t stand her mishegoss.” These Yiddish words were referring to elements of craziness in both people and things.
Bubbie never learned to read, write and speak English properly. She arrived in the States as a young woman from her home in Lithuania in 1910, several years after Zadie had come here to find work first. It was Zadie, and eventually their children, my mother Ilene, my uncles, Julie and Jerry, who had to navigate English-speaking Chicago for her in making decisions, both major and minor. Later in her life Bubbie confessed to her granddaughter, my cousin Harriet, that her only regret in life was that she couldn’t learn English better, and perhaps she should have enrolled in an English class or two and maybe advance her education in other ways as well.
She was your consummate Jewish grandmother who lavished her grandchildren with love and affection. We kids looked forward to what we called a “Bubbie Gussie kiss,” a warm and wet smack on our cheeks that seemed to last a minute or so. She had a smile that seemed to make the room glow and a laugh that caught our attention and made us laugh as well.
Another distinguishing feature of Bubbie was the flair she had when she went out to what she called “a fancy occasion.” Putting on her lipstick, rouge and mascara, in the prelude to going out, was a major project. When Uncle Julie won a mink stole in a raffle, he gave it to Bubbie as a gift. She seemed to wear it quite often, expanding the definition of “a fancy occasion” to a walk in the park.
Bubbie took great pride in being an American. She didn’t have a written record of her birth, so the family celebrated her birthday on the 4th of July. She always voted in elections, usually with the generous assistance of our Democratic precinct captain. She had a fit when I grew my first beard, saying that it reminded her of the men who lived in the shtetl in a past world. I had to shave it off immediately.
I remember that taking Bubbie shopping was quite an experience. She seemed to have brought the shtetl market place mentality to the New World. Every marked price on an item seemed too high for her and she generally let the merchant know about it. When given a chance, she loved bargaining over an item.
Bubbie loved playing cards. Although she enjoyed playing kalooki, poker was her game of choice. She played mostly with her Yiddish speaking lady friends, although every now and then a man was let in the game. The stakes were penny ante with nickel raises, but the games were nevertheless highly intense. Bubbie always appeared completely focused on the game and could not be distracted until its conclusion.
When Uncle Julie and Uncle Jerry opened their business on the Southeast Side of Chicago, they settled their families in that area. Since ours was a tightly-knit family, and although they lived on the other side of the city, Bubbie expected, and received, a telephone call from both of them each day of the week. They always told her what they ate that day. Sunday was reserved as a day when the family would get together with her. She even took a holiday from card playing that day.
In addition to Anne and me, who were the children of Ilene and her husband, our father, Jack, Bubbie’s other grandchildren were Harriet and Lester, the children of Uncle Julie and Aunt Ethel, and Jill and Lee, the children of Uncle Jerry and Aunt Ro. Bubbie had an unique and loving relationship with each of us. When she passed away in 1975, we six cousins were sitting together around the table at the shiva exchanging Bubbie stories. We soon discovered that it seemed as if each of us felt favorite grandchild status from Bubbie. She had that gift to make us all feel loved in her very special way.
Mr. Katz usually took Howie and me to the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor on Irving Park and Pulaski after we saw the Blackhawks play at the Stadium. We loved Buffalo’s with its delicious homemade ice cream and candies, and its wooden booths surrounded by a menagerie of stuffed animals. Howie always had a hot fudge sundae, and I usually stuffed myself with two scoops of strawberry ice cream and a couple of chocolate-covered cherries.
Although the Mighty Hawks finished in third place during that 1960-61 season, they were dominant in the playoffs, winning their first Stanley Cup in twenty-three years. Howie Katz was an incredibly enthusiastic Blackhawks fan and his dad must have taken us to at least twenty games that season, including two games of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Despite my parents’ protestations, Mr. Katz always paid my way.
Howie was my best friend since the fourth grade of elementary school when we moved into the West Rogers Park neighborhood in 1955. A sweet and kind boy, Howie suffered from cystic fibrosis, a disease that he would eventually die from at the age of twenty. Cystic fibrosis causes mucus to block the airways in the lungs, often leading to bacterial infections. Mucus also clogs the pancreas, frequently leading to abnormal digestion and malnutrition. Even today, with all the advances of modern medicine, fifty-five percent of those born with cystic fibrosis die before the age of eighteen. Howie was extremely thin, and every now and then a kid would make an insensitive comment about his skinny arms and legs.
Following sports was Howie’s passion, especially cheering for his favorite teams, the Cubs and Blackhawks. He could answer almost any trivia question, past or present, about both teams. He had team pennants and posters hanging on the walls of his bedroom. A signed Ernie Banks baseball and a signed Stan Mikita hockey stick also adorned the room.
The cystic fibrosis didn’t seem to slow him down too much until his senior year of high school. He was home a lot, using his ventilators more frequently. Despite missing quite a few school days, Howie was diligent in completing his course work and managed to attend his graduation ceremony in June, 1963.
After graduation, Howie enrolled in several courses at Mayfair Junior College that fall. He truly wanted to be an accountant, and he did complete a year’s worth of courses. Then, in late 1964 and early 1965, his disease was getting worse and he had to be hospitalized several times. Things took another turn for the worse that spring, and Howie passed away in June, a few weeks after his twentieth birthday.
At the shiva, Mrs. Katz held my hand for nearly an hour, thanking me for being such a good friend to her beloved son. Mr. Katz, who came to the States as a refugee from Nazi Germany, sat quietly and stoically in his grief. Emotionally I still had not processed the reality that my best friend had died.
Howie was buried in West Lawn cemetery, where today he rests beside his parents. Whenever I visit my parents’ graves at West Lawn, I visit Howie’s grave and place a small rock on his tombstone that has the inscription “forever in our hearts” written on it.
Suleiman placed the steaming bowl of couscous on my desk. Although the bowl was covered tightly by aluminum foil, some of the spice-laden aroma escaped, wafting in the air, scenting my Cicero Avenue office like a Saharan oasis. He presented the couscous to me as a gesture of deep and heart-felt thanks. The agency where I served as Executive Director, the Polish Welfare Association, had recently and successfully processed his papers under the amnesty program. Suleiman could now come out of the shadows, and proudly say that he was now a legal resident of the United States.
As a youth in his hometown of Rabat, Morocco, Suleiman would talk to American travelers who would stop at his father’s pistachio kiosk in the souk. They told him about the cities and towns where they lived, and how America was the land of opportunity for everyone. Unlike many of his friends who sought to better their lives in France, Suleiman always hoped to find a chance to live in the United States
After finding employment on a cruise ship at the age of twenty, Suleiman worked four years in the ship’s galley. After the end of a cruise in Ft. Lauderdale, Suleiman never returned to the ship, illegally entering the United States in 1972. For years he found work mostly in restaurants and bakeries in Chicago, where his cousin lived. He met his wife, Agniezkca, working at a Polish bakery in the Avondale neighborhood. She came to Chicago in 1975 from Poland, sponsored by her brother who owned the bakery. When they wed in 1983, she already was a naturalized citizen after having received immigration counseling from Polish Welfare.
Agnieszka brought her husband to our agency because she knew that he would qualify for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The Polish Welfare Association was an INS approved processing center, the most popular agency in Chicago for the Polish community to participate in the legalization program. Each day, the agency was inundated with clients making their applications for the program. Although the vast majority of clients were Poles, about 15% came from other countries. Suleiman was one of the 5300 people legalized by Polish Welfare during the twelve months of the amnesty program.
Suleiman, a magnificent cook and pastry chef, had a fervent dream of one day opening his own restaurant. He enrolled in a community college course and learned how to prepare a business plan. However he feared taking that plan to a bank because of his illegal status. The amnesty program, and his subsequent legalization, permitted him to move forward and approach a bank for a business loan. He secured that loan and put down a down payment for a restaurant downstate. I guess sometimes in life dreams do come true.
I had started my freshman year at Roosevelt University two months before in September, 1963. Attending an urban university offered an opportunity to take in all the surrounding cultural activities. I often found it possible to squeeze in a visit to an exhibit at the Art Institute or a concert at Orchestra Hall between my classes and my part-time job. Lately, I began going to Friday matinee concerts at Orchestra Hall on a regular basis to see the Chicago Symphony play.
My last class at Roosevelt on Friday ended at noon. The CSO concert began two hours later at 2:00. I usually had a bite to eat at the restaurant in the Fine Arts Building, and then walked the two blocks to Orchestra Hall. I liked to find a seat in the upper gallery at about 12:45. It was fairly quiet there and it allowed me a chance to catch up on my homework before the concert started.
On November 22, 1963, the program listed Bach’s First Brandenberg Concerto to open the concert, followed by Henze’s Symphony Number Three. After the intermission, the distinguished pianist Byron Janis would perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra.
I was so absorbed in my homework that I didn’t notice that things appeared different that afternoon. Very few seats around me were occupied, which seemed unusual since this performance with Byron Janis had been receiving much advanced hype in the music community. Also the musicians were coming on stage in a more delayed manner than the norm to begin tuning up their instruments.
Then, at 2:00, the Concertmaster stepped up to the front of the stage and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. He said that the concert would proceed, but asked the audience to refrain from applause during the entirety of the performance. These somber words sent my emotions reeling. Presidential assassinations were events that you read about in history books, not something that you personally experienced.
The conductor, Jean Martinon, waved his baton and the concert commenced. In shock, I could not concentrate on the music as I had so many questions about the circumstances of the assassination whirling in my mind. The short Brandenberg piece soon ended, and the Henze symphony began. About five minutes into it, I felt compelled to leave my seat and ran down the stairs to talk to anybody that I could see in the lobby. An usher had been listening on his radio, and he updated me on all that he knew.
A cold breeze hit me immediately upon entering Michigan Avenue. Stunned pedestrians walked by me heads down and weepy-eyed. The afternoon papers already had editions out that the president had been shot, but there was no mention that he had died. I walked over to Goldblatt’s on State Street to join others gathering around the display televisions to get the latest information from Dallas.
As I headed to work on the el, my sadness overcame me. I cried for his beautiful wife and children. I cried for my nation. I cried for the unfinished symphony that was our president’s life.
Whenever circumstances took me around the Maxwell Street area in the late eighties and early nineties, I always tried to stop at Nate’s. Located at 807 Maxwell Street, this deli had been around seemingly forever. The owner, an imposing black man six feet, five inches tall, named Nate Duncan, worked as a counterman for Lyon’s Deli, slicing corned beef and dishing out chopped liver, for many years. When the family sold the business in 1973, Nate became the new owner. I got to know him pretty well since his cousin Eddie Long was a colleague of mine at the City.
As part of my job as an administrator for the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training, I travelled extensively throughout the city visiting agencies in just about every community. I loved the diverse aromas emanating from the restaurants in these neighborhoods. My favorites were El Milagro in Little Village, the Parthenon in Greek Town, and of course Nate’s Deli on Maxwell Street.
The Maxwell Street area, from Roosevelt Road on the north to the 16th Street viaduct on the South, from Halsted Street on the east and Racine on the west, always evoked powerful memories for me. As a child, my father use to bring me to the Maxwell Street market looking for bargains and schmoozing with the guys that he knew that worked there. He grew up right around the corner from Nate’s, on the 1300 block of South Green. All the houses and stores on that block fell to the bulldozer, to make way for a new field for the UIC baseball team.
From about 1890 until 1920, thousands of poor Eastern European Jewish families called the Maxwell Street area their first home in America. After the Jews left and moved to other neighborhoods to live, the market remained as a colorful and vibrant outdoor and indoor bazaar. The Jewish merchant presence in the area persisted until 1994, when the University of Illinois, with the encouragement of city government and the power of eminent domain, bought out all the remaining businesses in order to raze the buildings for redevelopment.
Nate Duncan resisted the inevitable as long as he could. His whole life centered on that small deli, essentially a deli counter with four or five tables to sit diners. He took so much pride in his business. He loved it when the Aretha Franklin scene from The Blues Brothers was shot in the deli, which they called “Soul Food Café,” for the movie. Nate’s mother and granddaughter were cast as extras in that scene.
In 1994, Nate had to shut his doors. You now had to cross the Kennedy Expressway and Roosevelt Road to find the nearest Jewish food at Manny’s Deli. The whole experience with the city and the university embittered him until he passed away in 2006. He could never get over the shattering of his lifetime dream. In his final years, Eddie told me that Nate loved to bring his deli slicer to church events where he dished out the corned beef and pastrami that he lovingly prepared. After all, once a deli man, always a deli man.
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment
Here, silently, all screams, and hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
The writer of those words sat in my office as we clinked glasses and downed a shot of vodka. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s hair was indeed ashen gray; his tall body squirming in the small swivel chair opposite my desk. He looked great for a man of seventy. Yevtushenko, the famous Russian poet who penned the haunting poem “Babi Yar,” was about to do a reading of his works at the ORT Institute in Chicago. A crowd of about three hundred packed the auditorium of the Institute, located on Touhy and Albany in Chicago’s West Ridge community.
After leaving Russia in 1991, Yevtushenko settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he has been a professor at the University of Tulsa since 1994. He maintains an apartment in Moscow, and travels extensively giving poetry readings around the world.
This was the last of several stops in Chicago for the poet on this busy Saturday in December, 2003. As the assistant director of the Institute, one of my job duties was to coordinate special events for the various ethnic communities that constituted the majority of the student body- Russians, Poles, Bulgarians and Assyrians. On this particular event, I worked with a Russian newspaper and three cultural organizations to bring Yevtushenko to ORT.
My office was being used as the “green room,” a place for the poet to relax before the reading. When Yevtushenko ascended upon the stage, the capacity crowd gave him a thunderous ovation lasting five minutes. After all, he indisputably is the greatest poet in the Russian language in the post-Stalin era. This audience consisted mostly of elderly Jewish immigrants who came to the States as refugees from the former Soviet Union.
So when Yevtushenko opened with “Babi Yar,” you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. The audience clung to every word of his poetic depiction of historic anti-Semitism, culminating in the massacre of Jews at Babi-Yar in the Ukraine. Almost each person in the room had a personal experience with family and friends murdered during the Holocaust. This poem wrenched their guts.
After reading “Babi Yar,” Yevtushenko lightened the mood with several satirical and farcical pieces. An actor by training, he had charismatic stage presence, utilizing both body and voice to magnify the emotional power of his words.
When the reading finally ended, we returned to my office for a congratulatory shot of vodka before he was to meet the press and his adoring fans. I will always remember him asking me in heavily accented English “Richard, my dear, do you perhaps have a glass of water as well?” I brought him his drink, and he handed me an autographed copy of “Babi Yar.” We shook hands firmly as he departed my office, ending a day that will always be etched in my memory.