A Long Way from Maxwell Street

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!

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Bubbie Gussie

 

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.