November 4, 1960

We finished bedecking the 50th ward float with red, white and blue streamers. The float was hitched to Marv Stein’s Chevy Impala. Soon we would head downtown to be part of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s torchlight parade and the JFK pre-election rally at the Chicago Stadium. My role on the float was to make sure that the hitch remained secure during our ride.

As a kid of fifteen with a decided liberal political bent, I really wanted to be part of the parade and rally and see my idol, John Fitzgerald Kennedy in person. My Aunt Della, who worked for County Commissioner and 50th Ward Committeeman Jerome Huppert, pulled a few strings to let me part of the ward contingent going downtown that memorable Friday night of November 4, 1960.

Chicago mayors had been holding pre-election torchlight parades and Stadium rallies since the first FDR election campaign in 1932. The entire Democratic Party Machine apparatus came out that night to give a glorious sendoff to the presidential nominee. First for FDR, then Harry Truman and native son Adlai Stevenson and now JFK. Each of the fifty city wards had floats in the parade which were surrounded by a phalanx of torch carrying precinct workers lighting up the darkened Chicago sky.

When we arrived at Columbus Drive and Congress, the parade starting point, our float and marchers were placed at the back of the line because we were from the 50th ward. The tough looking 1st ward delegation was at the head of the line behind the mayor and Senator Paul Douglas.

As the floats and marchers proceeded west on Madison to the Stadium, handbills were passed out with the words to the Kennedy-Johnson campaign song. I still remember the words:

“Walking down to Washington to shake hands with President Kennedy, walking down to  Washington to see what we could see. Kennedy and Johnson how great that day will be. Soon we will be in Washington D.C., dancing at the President’s Jubilee.”

Eventually the parade ended and we entered the Stadium for the rally. I climbed the tortuous ramp to the uppermost balcony, finding a seat in the uppermost row. It really didn’t matter where I sat when JFK came out to the stage with a thunderous ovation resounding through the great hall. I hung on every word he said especially “we have millions of Americans whose full and equal rights under the Constitution, regardless of their race or creed has been recognized in law but unfulfilled in fact.” JFK’s statement hit me like a bolt of lightning then, and now fifty-one years later I still wonder why America’s promise still remains unfulfilled for so many of our citizens.

Chicago Surreal

I dashed across 35th Street and caught the 29 bus pulling out of the stop on its way downtown. The crowded bus had only one seat available, in the rear and on the aisle, and I took it. My meeting at Youth Connection Charter School ended a few minutes earlier, and I needed to do research for a project at the Harold Washington Library. Getting the 29 right away meant that I would be at the library in about fifteen minutes.

In my travels around the city on the bus and el, I always bring a book to read. An “old-fashioned” book, one with paper pages, not one on a Kindle or iPad. Despite my short jaunt to the Harold Washington Library, it was my intention to read a few pages of the book in my satchel, The Master and Margarita, a satirical Russian novel often viewed as a masterful critique of the Stalinist regime.

After pulling out the book, the man sitting next to me by the window seat noticed the title and asked me if I was enjoying it. He was a black man, probably in his early forties, wearing jeans a size too big and an army fatigue jacket with the name “Jones” emblazoned on it by the pocket. The man tightly held an empty Dunkin Donut cup in his hand.

He mentioned to me that he read The Master and Margarita when he was deployed in Kuwait during the first Gulf War and it really hit home. “It was surreal man, just like the sand and the burning oil fields around me at that time,” he said. We made introductions. His name was Henry Jones, and life hadn’t been easy for him after leaving the army.

Henry thought that a veteran would have great opportunities in civilian employment. He went to dozens of job fairs and couldn’t find anything. After a while, he became depressed and hit the booze and dope. Henry found himself in and out of rehab programs, his life going around in circles. He eventually stopped looking for work and nowadays he spent most of his days panhandling outside of the stores downtown. That’s why he was holding the empty Dunkin Donut cup in his hand.

As I got up from my seat to leave the bus, I dropped twenty bucks in Henry’s cup. I couldn’t help but think what a shame it was that such an obviously intelligent man could have come to this hopeless place in his life. How could a veteran, a man who gave so much to his country, now be cast adrift in Chicago as a panhandler? For me, it seemed that those fifteen minutes on the bus were more surreal than anything I was reading in The Master and Margarita.