Tou

Tou, a boy of ten, and his parents were all trembling when I first saw them waiting for the elevator in the lobby of the Chicago Jewish Federation building at One South Franklin. Their plane had just arrived at O’Hare from Thailand, and the Federation dispatched two staff members of the Refugee Services Unit to bring back the family to the One South Franklin office once they cleared customs.

I noticed that at first the family resisted getting on board the elevator. They were Hmong, a clannish ethnic group that lived for centuries in peace with their neighbors, farming on moutainsides in Laos. The culture was viewed as primitive by Western standards, having neither electricity nor other modern amenities. Hmong didn’t even have a written language.

Unfortunately, the Hmong found themselves on the wrong side of history as they allied themselves with the Americans in the war against the Communists in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Hmong men were superior scouts and provided all types of logistical support to the American troops. Once the Americans departed from those nations, the triumphant Communist armies uprooted the Hmong from their mountainside homes and wreaked a merciless revenge upon them.The lucky ones who escaped found sanctuary in crowded refugee camps in Thailand.

Tou’s two older brothers were savagely killed by the Communists, as well as numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. For nearly three years, Tou lived with his mother and father in a cramped tent, going to bed hungry every night. Suddenly they were uprooted once again, as the refugee agency made plans for them to travel to Chicago where other Hmong families had resettled.

In a span of two days, the family dealt with massive culture shock as they experienced cars and airplanes for the first time. When it came their turn to ride an elevator, Tou and his parents had another modern terror to confront. My office, in the Research Department of the Jewish Vocational Service, was on the eighth floor, the same floor as the Refugee Services Unit. Reluctantly, the Hmong entered the elevator with the refugee workers and me.

Going up in the crowded elevator, the still trembling Tou brushed up against me. Instinctively, I clutched his small, clammy hand, indicating to him with a firm grip that everything was going to be all right. When the elevator’s door finally slid open and we all exited, I walked toward my office in the opposite direction of the Refugee Services Unit. Then I heard Tou shouting something confidently in his native language from the far end of the corridor. It grabbed my attention and as I turned around to look, Tou waved to me, a smile beaming across his face.

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Bohemian National Cemetery

It was mid-December, 2011, and a dusting of snow coated the gravestones as Jerry and I entered the Bohemian National Cemetery through a beautiful gothic gate. My friend Jerry Schenwar and I enjoy visiting Chicagoland cemeteries. We are not morbid, but we are curious. We find the markers, memorials and mausoleums of these cemeteries to be of great historic interest.

Bohemian National Cemetery was founded in 1877 by a group of free-thinking Czechs who emigrated from the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia. These Czechs, the majority of them with Protestant backgrounds, did not find the Chicago Catholic cemeteries that catered to the mostly Catholic Central and Eastern European immigrants especially welcoming to their burial needs. So they established their own cemetery. Most of the Bohemian community at that time lived in the Pilsen neighborhood on the near South Side, but they took trolleys and later on buses or drove private cars to visit loved ones interred at Bohemian National, located about a dozen miles from Pilsen at Foster and Pulaski (then Crawford) on the North Side.

Walking through the cemetery you see mostly Czech names, like Novak, Dvorak and Novotny on the gravestones. But the grounds and services of Bohemian National are open to all people. In fact, the Indian community is one of the biggest users of the crematorium for its traditional Hindu funeral rites. Bohemian National is operated by a not-for-profit association, independent of the corporation that seems to have a monopoly on most Chicago area cemeteries.

As Jerry and I walked along the cemetery’s paths, we came across the mausoleum of Anton Cermak, the once powerful Chicago mayor who was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet meant for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, while both men were together in Miami, Florida. Later on that year, President Roosevelt, accompanied by the First Lady, laid a wreath at the foot of Cermak’s mausoleum. A photo of that event is prominently featured in the cemetery’s main office.

We also came across an amazing site that gave new meaning to the term “die-hard Cub fan.” Cub fans have created a final resting place for their own at Bohemian National. They erected a stone monument with a painted view of the ivy-colored centerfield wall at Wrigley Field, complete with bleacher seats and scoreboard above it. Burial vaults holding the remains of loyal Cub fans are encased inside the monument. Each vault has a plaque affixed to it with a personalized Cub remembrance such as “I saw Ruth and Gehrig play at Wrigley.” Grandstand seats original to Wrigley Field and permanently removed during a renovation face the front of the monument.

Nearly 150 victims of the Eastland Disaster lie buried at Bohemian National, as many of the passengers on that ill-fated pleasure boat that sank in the Chicago River in 1915 came from Czech families. The Kolar family who rented their house on DeKoven Street to Mrs. O’Leary of Chicago Fire legend is entombed in a large mausoleum.

As we left Bohemian National on that cold Saturday morning, Jerry and I once again realized that a walk through a Chicago cemetery is a walk through Chicago history. Driving home, we wondered what cemetery we would visit next.

Riverview

Bobs

The ceremony had just ended. I was now a high school graduate, Mather 1963. The graduation took place at Lane Tech, since Mather’s auditorium could not accommodate the five hundred graduates and their families and friends. Lane was located at Addison and Western, next door to Riverview, Chicago’s premier amusement park. So after we received congratulations and hugs and kisses from our family members, a bunch of us guys and gals headed over to Riverview to have some fun.

Called Riverview, because the western end of the amusement park fronted the north branch of the Chicago River, it had some of the fastest and most zigzagging roller coasters around, especially the much feared Bobs. My vertigo and weak stomach did not make me a prime candidate for the coasters. What I loved most about Riverview was its carnival-like atmosphere.

The park had an attraction called Aladdin’s Castle, with all kinds of strange mirrors that distorted the shape of your face and body every which way. The Freak Show always seemed to highlight a bearded lady or an armless guy who could deal a deck of cards with his toes. It was all hokey shtick but I was fascinated by it. My favorite carnie game at Riverview was the one where you could throw balls at rapidly moving cardboard ducks. If you knocked down a certain number of these ducks you won a prize, usually something like a stuffed animal or a live parakeet.

Riverview opened in 1904 in a community that was heavily German American. One of its most popular places was the beer garden. The American Nazis, the Bund, had its annual picnics at Riverview in the late 1930s. My Uncle Abe told me that he and some other Jewish teenagers from his Humboldt Park neighborhood would travel up to Riverview and interrupt their picnic by throwing rocks at the Nazis.

By the time that I started coming to Riverview with my family in the early 1950s, it seemed to be frequented mostly by parents and their children and young couples on dates. It was pretty much good clean fun, with the notable exception of the Dunk Tank.  At that particular so-called amusement, white guys were really getting off by hurling fastballs through an opening in a cage, aiming to hit a target that would eject a black guy sitting on a perch into the cold water below.

In the 1960s, with Chicago’s racial tensions mounting, black and white teenagers and sometimes adults had periodic skirmishes at Riverview. Families of all races started to stay away and found other places to spend their entertainment dollars. Riverview began to lose money, and the owner could no longer resist selling it to a developer who wanted to put a shopping center on the site and Riverview closed its gates in 1967.

A decade or so later, Great America opened in Gurnee, a slick corporate version of an amusement park. I only went there twice when my kids were young, and it seemed somewhat sterile and contrived. The times had changed, and the freaks and wonders that had fascinated me at Riverview were now nowhere to be seen.

The Clark Theater

 

clark-theater-image

A banshee-like shriek came down from one of the darkened theater’s balconies followed by the shouting words ” a man is up here, take him away.” The shouter, a bag lady named Daisy, was one of the regular devotees of the Clark Theater’s “Little Gal-ery for Gals Only.” This kind of real drama complemented the cinematic drama almost daily at the Clark.

From the years 1963 through 1968, I must have seen about a thousand films at the Clark, located on Clark Street just north of Madison. As a full-time student at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago with a flexible hours part-time job also downtown, I found it convenient to go to the Clark. You couldn’t beat the price, a buck and a quarter, and it was open almost all the time. The only time it closed was for two hours, from 4 AM- 6 AM, to clean the theater and shoo away the all-night sleepers.

The Clark featured two films each day. They were the best of American and international cinema. Bruce Trinz, the owner of the theater, had an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history. He grew up in the theater business, and for Bruce operating the Clark was a labor of love. He truly believed that film was the great democratic medium, and he kept the price of admission low and the theater open day and night. When some of the women complained about creepy guys harassing them, Bruce created the “Little Gal-ery for Gals Only” in one of the balcony sections.

So for five years I viewed the world’s greatest cinema in a run-down, smelly theater on North Clark Street. I learned to appreciate the genius of Welles, Fellini, Hitchcock, Ford, Truffaut, Renoir and countless other great directors.

However good things can’t last forever and Bruce eventually found it hard to keep the place up by himself. Film distribution rules were changing and the Clark was not able to get the film classics consistently. Meanwhile, the property was worth a fortune and Bruce doubtlessly realized it was a good time to sell. And so the Clark shut down in 1969 and the building was demolished five years later. Bruce left town and lived a good full life, passing away this past summer at the age of ninety-three.

Whenever I now find myself on Clark just north of Madison, as I walk by buildings of anonymous concrete, glass and steel, I seem to find myself unavoidably humming the music from some of my favorite movies. Thanks, Bruce, for the memories.

Frank

It was a blustery autumn day in 1987 when Frank walked into my office. He had some important news for me. He just found out that he won three million dollars in the lottery. No joke. He had the proof to show me, the winning ticket and a page from the Sun-Times with the winning numbers on it. Frank was also giving me notice that he was leaving his job at the agency.

The agency was the Polish Welfare Association on North Cicero Avenue. I was the Executive Director and Frank worked as a part-time van driver. He drove the van as part of our ageny’s day treatment program for Polish immigrant alcoholic men. Frank picked up the men from the night shelter in Pilsen each morning, and drove them back in the early evening. His parents were Polish immigrants themselves, so he had no problem communicating with our clients.

Frank lived modestly in a small basement apartment on Milwaukee Avenue across from Chris’s Billiards, where they shot the movie The Color of Money with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. Frank, a regular at the pool hall, had been cast as an extra. He got by with a monthly social security check and his meager earnings from his part-time work from Polish Welfare.

In the fifties and early sixties, Frank was a successful pantyhose salesman, carrying his inventory in his Cadillac Eldorado. His sales route was downtown and the Rush Street area. He frequented the seedy strip clubs on South State Street as well as the popular night clubs like the Chez Paree and Mister Kelly’s. He liked to see all sides of life.

Frank had a certain flair that attracted the ladies to him. He was lucky in love and lucky in selling pantyhose. The Chez Paree Adorables adored him, as did the strippers and the girls who checked the hats and sold the cigars and cigarettes. Frank was on the top of his game, living on cloud nine.

Then the booze got the better of him and he hit the skids. The girls avoided him. He lost his job and his self-respect. He lived on Skid Row for awhile. His life was hell for twenty-five years as he battled alcoholism. Slowly, tortuously, he got his life back. He thanked his faith and AA for that. At age sixty-five, he wanted to give something back. The part-time job at the agency was a perfect fit for him.

So when Frank told me about winning the lottery and leaving the job, I was not only shocked, but also concerned. I had heard stories about recovering alcoholics relapsing when they came into unexpected wealth. After Frank left Polish Welfare, I lost contact with him for nearly a year. I stopped by Chris’s on occasion and friends there said that Frank seemed to be doing well. When he stopped by to play pool, he was only sipping cokes and guzzling bottles of water.

Then one day I bumped into Frank at a Polish restaurant in Portage Park. He looked terrific. Frank introduced me to his girlfriend, a gorgeous blond Polish immigrant named Basia, who looked to be in her mid-thirties. He also gave me a peek at his car, a new high-end Cadillac Eldorado. There was no doubt that Frank was on top of his game again.

Schvitzmas

The Caref brothers were preparing the herring in anticipation of Schvitzmas that evening. Shelly, Willie and Benjie make it Russian-style, the way their late dad Jake taught them. The brothers toast Jake with vodka shots as they get the herring ready. Jake was one of those legendary Red Army soldiers who gallantly fought the Nazis as they retreated from Stalingrad to Berlin.

Jake also taught his boys to love the schvitz, the traditional Russian and Turkish wet steam baths, so popular among Jewish immigrant men from Eastern Europe. Schvitz literally means sweat in Yiddish. As a kid, my father use to take me on occasional Sunday mornings to the Division Street or the Luxor baths on North Avenue.

Unless you experienced it yourself, it is hard to describe the calming effect from the heat at the schvitz. Your body detoxifies as your pores seem to open up. Muscles relax and your lungs feel clean. It feels like a “mechaya,” literally a restoration of the body and soul in Yiddish.

For going on twenty years, a group of guys have been attending the schvitz almost every Monday night of the year. First at Division Street until the ceiling collapsed, now at the Sweat Lodge on Cicero and Cornelia. There is a hierarchy at the schvitz. First and foremost are the Regulars like Joe, Mel, Bobby, Willy, Jimmy, Ronnie, Jay, the two Bobs and a few others. Shelly was a Regular until last year when he moved to Ecuador. Then there are the Semi-Regulars, who come maybe twice a month. I belong to the Irregulars, the group on the lowest rung of the ladder, making appearances once in a while, sometimes not being seen at the schvitz for months.

During the holiday season, the Regulars organize a wonderful celebration they call Schvitzmas. They are even so kind to invite renegade Irregulars like me to join them. So on a Monday in December, after all have had some steam and a rub, the festivities begin. There are males from four generations as sons and grandsons are brought to the schvitz that night. Everyone wrapped in towels, sitting around long tables enjoying the food and drink. You will never see a Norman Rockwell painting looking like this.

Each adult brings a food dish of some kind for the Schvitzmas feast. Home-made or store bought, everything is delicious. Some make toasts honoring various people and milestones, as well as remembering great schvitzniks, like Jake, who are no longer with us.

The schvitz itself is a place of warmth, but there is no greater warmth than the friendship that binds this band of brothers, wrapped in their towels, during Schvitzmas, on a cold Chicago night.

Dorothea

She looked unwashed and unloved, slouching on a chair in my classroom. Classroom, what a joke? It was a converted supply room that barely accommodated my six special needs students. I didn’t even have a blackboard on the wall. I made do with one of those old slate boards that you saw used in the one-room school house on Little House on the Prairie.

Dorothea was one of my six students. She hardly ever spoke, and she never took off her tattered coat, despite the tropical-like temperature in the overheated room. A glint of sadness reflected from her beautiful ebony eyes.

It was March, 1973, and I was finishing the last month of my teaching gig at the West Garfield Park Upper Grade Center, in a neighborhood that the locals called “K Town,” since many of the streets in the area began with the letter “K.” I barely considered myself qualified to teach anything to anyone, but by being enrolled in two educational courses in the evening at Northeastern, the Chicago Public Schools gave me something called provisional teaching status. When West Garfield’s special education teacher went on maternity leave for three months, I was offered a job as a substitute teacher there due to the lack of trained and certified special education teachers in Chicago.

I don’t know how much I was able to teach those kids with my inexperience and lack of support and resources. Now four decades later, I can’t recall the names of my other five students. I just remember Dorothea, that awkward and sad girl of twelve. My father was dying of cancer at that time, and Dorothea seemed to sense my pain. She didn’t have to say a word. Her eyes told me.

One cold and gray day in March, the assistant principal came into the room to tell me that my sister had called and I was to go the hospital at once. Tears welled up in my eyes as I told my students that I had to leave immediately. Only Dorothea came over to hug me, a caring embrace that I will never forget.