Canaryville Blues

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Our 16” inch softball game had just ended at Pilsen’s Harrison Park, and a group from our team crossed the street to Bishop’s to enjoy some chili and some cold Filbert’s root beer. My team, the Englewood District Office caseworkers, was crushed by the caseworkers from the Oakland District Office by the lopsided score of 15 to 6.
The Oakland team not only had better athletic talent, but they were also more focused. Perhaps this resulted from the influence of the strong Progressive Labor Party cadre that played for Oakland. Our Englewood team seemed as dispirited on the field as they did during the work week in our office.
During the summer of 1972, it seemed that at least one bomb threat was 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 would wait across the street for the police to give us an all clear to return to the building, we 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 blond ponytail and a fondness for tie-dyed 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 coworkers, 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 the refrigerator waiting for us. We thought that was a splendid suggestion.
We got into Steve’s Volkswagen bus for the trip to Canaryville, located just three miles southeast of 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 had closed the year before, and the stench of dried blood still hung in the air.
No one seemed to know for sure the origin of the community’s name. Although one legend has it that birds used to swoop down into the Stockyards picking at whatever animal remains they could find, finally resting themselves 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. Steve added though that most of his neighbors had been warm and kind since he moved to Canaryville about a year earlier.
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 with anyone in the neighborhood. Greg and I spent a few hours at Steve’s that evening, enjoying our beers, listening to Pink Floyd, and discussing office politics. Steve then drove us to the el station at 35th Street, where Greg and I took trains back to our homes.
The next morning at the office, Steve looked tired and troubled. He told me that overnight his windshield had been smashed with a rock and “N-lover” had been scrawled on it. He felt betrayed by the people who 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 had a lot to think about regarding his own future living in the neighborhood, referring to the situation as his “Canaryville Blues.”

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Meeting Algren

 

algren on steps

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 smackheads 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 my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Nelson Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen and talking to a tall blond named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and sipped from a glass half full of what looked like rye. The frames of his glasses were held together by Scotch Tape. He wore an unironed, plaid  shirt with mustard stains. Algren seemed like a caricature of one of his own characters.

A guy that I knew, an old beatnik named Bill Smith, who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on North State Street, 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 so Bill introduced me to him as a nice kid with literary pretensions.

Algren smiled at me knowingly and asked me if I wrote poetry or stories. I felt embarrassed because my entire literary output at that time was a few handwritten poems that I had never shared with anyone. I hardly considered myself a writer at all. I felt that Smith’s hyperbole had put me in an awkward situation with Algren. I reluctantly shared the subject matter of my poems with him, and he said to me to always remember the common man in my future writing.

I wanted to say something of more importance to Algren. Perhaps ask how he now felt about Simone de Beauvior, the French author with whom he had a bittersweet romance for many years.  Maybe I could express my empathy to him about how he got shorted by the Hollywood bigwigs on royalties for the film adaptations of the Man with the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side. But after a half minute of painful silence, Algren turned his attention back to Dottie, while I walked away into the smoke-filled living room looking for a drink.   

 

Reading in Wheeling

My friend Debbie Sue Goodman, a comedienne extraordinaire, and myself are paired together at an event next Tuesday, April 29, at the Indian Trails Public Library in Wheeling. The event is billed as “stories to make you laugh.” It starts at 2:00 p.m. and should run about an hour. The library is located at 355 Schoenbeck Road.   

I am culling through my writings to find stories with elements of humor for the reading. I will probably read “Bubbie Gussie” and “Frank” from my book “Chicago Sketches” and a funny excerpt from a new piece of fiction entitled “Pinky Schnookler.”  

 

“Chicago Sketches” Named as CWA 2013 Book Award Finalist

CS_cover“Chicago Sketches” is one of three finalists in the category of traditional non-fiction in the Chicago Writers Association 2013 Book of the Year Awards. I thank the Awards Committee for the honor. The two other finalists are “We Hope You Like This Song” by Bree Housely and “Records Truly is My Middle Name” by John Records Landecker/Producer Rick Kaempfer. The winner be announced on or before December 1.

Upcoming Public Readings of Chicago Sketches

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.

The Lexington Hotel

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canaryville Blues

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.”