The Midget Club

The Veteran Supply truck turned right on 64th Street and made another right into the alley. Steve, the driver, backed it up in front of the Midget Club delivery door. I was Steve’s assistant, helping him load and unload the trucks.

Veteran Supply sold restaurant and bar supplies all over the city, suburbs, and northeast Indiana, but most of the customers were located on Chicago’s South Side. My uncles, Julie and Jerry Schlan, started the business in South Chicago after serving our country during World War Two. They proudly named it “Veteran Supply.”

In the summer of 1962, when I was sixteen, my uncles hired me for the summer to help around the store, and, on occasion, help Steve with deliveries. I especially liked riding shotgun to Steve, checking out the sights and sounds of the urban landscape.

As we unloaded our delivery in the kitchen of The Midget Club, Parnell came out to greet us and check out the order. Parnell St. Aubin and his wife, Mary Ellen, owned the establishment. Parnell had a fling in Hollywood, playing a Munchkin soldier in The Wizard of Oz. But movie parts were few and far between for little people in Tinsel Town, and he eventually headed back to his hometown of Chicago.

He met Mary Ellen in the toy department at Goldblatt’s, where she was working as one of Santa’s elves. They fell in love, married, and began a business. They wanted to create a lounge that would cater to the social needs of little people like themselves.

The Midget Club opened its doors in 1948 at 6356 S. Kedzie. It was a sight to behold. The club had a downsized bar counter, as well as downsized bar stools, tables and chairs. Only little people could manage to sit at the bar. Other customers had to be content with sitting at the few regular-size tables and chairs in the place. Signed photos of a grinning Munchkin Parnell with Judy Garland and Ray Bolger graced the wall next to the bar counter.

The club stayed open until 1982. I always wondered what happened to its unique customized furnishings. To this day, nearly fifty years after my first and only visit to The Midget Club, it still remains to me as a place of wonder and imagination, much like Oz itself.

The Arbeter Ring

I first noticed the samovar. It had some kind of Russian inscription on it, one of the relics of the Old World, as were the former Stalinists and Trotskyists sitting around the long table. These former enemies now, out of necessity, friends.

My friend Jerry Taft lived across the street from the Arbeter Ring Hall, located at the corner of California and Arthur in a neighborhood everyone called West Rogers Park, although its official city designation was West Ridge. Jerry had a key that he needed to give Harry, his stepfather, who was attending a meeting at the hall. He asked me to come along to say hello to Harry and to check out the place.

Despite his very American name, Jerry, his mother, father and stepfather were all displaced persons. They were people from Europe who found themselves uprooted from their homes due to the devastaion of the Second World War. After spending some time in displaced persons camps in Europe, they found themselves transported to the New World—the United States, Canada and Latin America—to begin new lives. Many of them were Jews, but there were non-Jews as well from Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other victimized lands.

Most of the Jews spoke Yiddish. They came to the States as strangers to the new culture. In Europe, there was a vibrant culture of Yiddishkeit embodied in literature, drama and music. Now ninety-percent of the participants of that culture was gone forever, murdered by the Nazis. Only a remnant survived.

The Arbeter Ring, Yiddish for Workmen’s Circle, was an organization established for those in this remnant who held leftist political leanings. It served as a gathering spot for aging men and women who once were young socialist dreamers in cities like Warsaw, Vilna and Odessa, before Hitler destroyed their world. Activities at the Ring included lectures, occasional concerts, but more often card games. Weekend excursions to South Haven during the summer were organized. 

The hall was located on the second floor of a building that had seen better days. Two long tables and folding chairs pretty much made up the furnishings. The place smelled of cigarette smoke and mothballs. Scattered alongside the samovar were Yiddish language papers, the Daily Forward, printed in New York, with a few copies of Chicago papers, the Sun-Times and Daily News. No Tribunes were allowed in the room, since everyone knew that Colonel McCormick was a fascist.

Glancing about, I could not help but discern the sadness in the eyes of Harry and his friends. They had seen so much loss in their lives. Yet there, at the Arbeter Ring, they found solace in each other, comrades forever, in a place in time that never truly would be their own.

Meeting Algren

After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smack heads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on the jacket of my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen talking to a tall blonde named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and was sipping from a glass filled with what looked like rye.

A guy that I knew, Bill Schmidt, an old beatnik who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Wells, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called Lord Nelson. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and Bill introduced me to him as a nice kid with literary pretensions. Algren smiled at me knowingly and said how could I stand hanging out with a bullshitter like Schmidt. We all laughed, no feelings were hurt in this good comradely banter.

I wanted to say something of importance to Algren. Perhaps some details about his love affair with Simone and how Sartre reacted to it. Maybe express my empathy to him about how he got screwed by Hollywood. Instead, after a few seconds of painful silence, Algren turned his attention back to Dottie, while I walked away heading into the living room.





The Adventures of Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Saul Bellow is the name of the course that I will be teaching this coming January and February in the Emeritus Program at Oakton College. There are four sessions on Thursdays, from 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM. The class begins on January 12th. We will explore Bellow’s short stories, examining parallels between the author’s life and his fictional works. I hope that you can join me, and don’t forget to tell your friends.

James T. Farrell

On this mild mid-Fall Chicago day, I paid a visit today to the grave of James T. Farrell in Evanston’s Calvary Cemetery. I place Farrell in the quartet of great Chicago writers, along with Saul Bellow, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren. Yet of these four, only Farrell has his final resting place in the area. Bellow and Algren are buried on the East Coast, while Wright is interred in Paris. 

Farrell wrote the brilliant Studs Lonigan trilogy, a tale of a South Side Irish young man’s transformation to early adulthood. Lonigan leaves behind the parochialism and bigotry of his Washington Park Irish ghetto during the Depression and escapes across the Park to cosmopolitan Hyde Park. As Joyce mocked the provincialism of Dubliners, so did Farrell of Chicago’s Irish. Both authors were not appreciated in their hometowns, and each left for their own self-imposed exiles.

As I walked around the environs of Farrell’s grave in this Catholic cemetery, I saw that he is buried in the company of Chicago mayors, priests and nuns. A final irony in the life and death of Farrell, an erstwhile Trotskyist and fervid excoriator of clergy and politicians.