I grew up twenty miles west of Chicago in an haute bourgeois suburb, chosen, my parents always said, for its trees and schools. Though no enclave of old money, it was smug enough in those days to exclude non-whites and Jews. Every morning the men would gather at the train station, all wearing suits, shirts of startling whiteness and starchy collars, and brimmed hats in all seasons. No sport coats, blue shirts, or casual Fridays in the fifties. Every evening the station wagons would cluster about to receive the men back from the city the suburbanites kept at a safe arm’s length.
So to me Chicago had all the charm of the other. Simply to walk by crumbling buildings, past old men in cloth caps chewing unlit cigar ends, among people of every national origin was sufficient motive to take the slick Northwestern Railroad cars to the terminal at the west end of the Loop. (When the Aurora and Elgin ran steam engines with their grand white clouds, I was too young to travel alone.) At this time downtown Chicago had half a dozen train stations, now largely demolished or unused, but built with the pretensions of cathedrals. Later I was to visit the city for art (both classical and blues music, the Art Institute, Hyde Park’s used bookstores) and for political access (stopping by the IWW office on N. Halstead, demonstrating with Fair Play for Cuba and the Committee to Abolish HUAC), but even in the early years I found ample attractions not far from the Loop.
In the first days of our independent visits, my friends and I would sometimes play a game which now strikes me as a ritual of class gloating. We would put a penny on the landing of the stairs down to the Clark Street El (which runs partly underground as New York’s subways are partly above). We would then perch above and observe the urbanites emerging, one of whom would, before long, stoop to pick up the penny, delighting us particularly if it were, say, an old lady with many parcels who had to set them all down one at a time before withdrawing her snap purse.
When this amusement palled, we would continue north on Clark. After a few blocks we would enter the greasiest greasy spoon short order café, a hole-in-the-wall where all preparation was done in the tiny space between the wall and the counter which ran around three sides. The proprietor was so obese that he could barely negotiate behind the counter himself, yet he tended two grills even as his flesh protruded on to the counter as he passed. We were fascinated, though we never understood how he avoided frying his belly. He had an employee who shared the very limited area: a teen-age girl with most striking acne. His chili was topped by a layer of fat of some indescribable sort and contained numerous small inedible bits of equally uncertain origin. Our delight in this milieu multiplied when a guest among us became ill after eating there.
Further up Clark Street was Paul Romaine’s, an excellent used book store runner by a littérateur who had been in Paris in the twenties. He featured writers like Nelson Algren and was actually prosecuted for selling Fanny Hill. Though Cleland may strike moderns as lukewarm eroticism, Romaine’s was also a devotee of the political side of the First Amendment. He stocked the forbidden texts of this Cold War period: East German magazines, earnest Trotskyite journals, a paper from Vietnam. Coming from a town where the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were active and simply being a Democrat was outside the pale, it was pleasantly transgressive to browse these precincts even if I never cared to read Lenin’s What is to be Done.
Later in the day we would drift back to the foot of North Clark, to the Clark Theater. I enjoyed Daniel Pinkwater’s memoir of this unique institution, but it was significant enough to me that it must be included here even at the risk of duplicating some of his accurate observations. (Pinkwater also wrote about the chicken-man of the El, whom I, too, saw for years, and the Free Jomo campaigner who continued his campaign undeterred by Jomo’s release – I still have several of this man’s baroquely elaborate handouts, painstakingly constructed in those pre-computer days.)
The Clark offered a different double feature every day, was open almost all the time, and the price was low. They did close the doors from five to six in the morning in order to toss out those who would otherwise live there and hose down the place (or whatever they did to cleans the layer of filth acquired daily). The ushers were not there to show people to their seats (at this time movie theaters still sometimes had assigned seats), but rather to manage the clientele’s sleeping, drinking, and sexual practices, sometimes a challenging job. The situation was such that the place maintained a balcony called the Little Gal-lery which was for women only.
A fine old structure built as a live performance venue and remodeled for films in 1931, it had declined to pornography by the seventies when it was mercifully demolished. During my youth it published a crude mimeographed schedule called Hark, Hark, the Voice of the Clark which listed the films, typically older Hollywood B-movies and a good number of films from around the world, each described by a bit of doggerel. (Foreign films must have been inexpensive in those days. I remember seeing all three of Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in one long day at the Clark.) Where else might the suburbanite experience high art and city grit so perfectly blended at so low a price?
Bums, far from frightening me, seemed fascinating. I always offered alms, and often heard fragments of a life far from my own in return. At the age of sixteen, several of us decided it would be a hoot to spend the night in a rescue mission, so we headed to the city and, on South State Street, just past what may have been the city’s last true burlesque theater, we entered the Pacific Garden Mission, the spot where Billy Sunday was reborn. After an endless service, punctuated with calls to rise (the patrons of the divine no less than those of the Clark’s films, were expected to remain awake), we found another hurdle. Those looking for free accommodations were expected to submit to individual spiritual counseling. Next thing I knew, I was on my knees with a Mission staff member who read the Bible, and every time the word “thou” appeared, emphatically substituting the pseudonym I had given when explaining that we were dropouts from St. Louis, looking for work in Chicago. After this moral softening up, we learned that their facilities were full for the night, but they promised to find us room in the neighboring servicemen’s center. Though we were close to the end of the rather lengthy process of qualifying for shelter, one of our number then was overcome with guilt and came out with the truth. Exposed as faux needy, we tried to make the best of it by sleeping in the car. Naturally, the police came upon us before long, and we ended up returning to the suburbs, sleeping in the car anyway to salvage some shred of self-respect.
The black community held endless charm for the visitor from Whitelandia. I marveled at the men’s fashions in the windows of Smokey Joe’s on South State and often took the El down to 63rd Street on the South Side only to wander there for miles, looking about me with exactly the heightened attention I later felt during travels abroad. I would buy a fat Polish sausage with mumbo sauce and envy those who had a culture, erroneously thinking that we Wonder Bread WASPs had none. I bought the Chicago Defender (where Langston Hughes’ column still appeared) and read it thoroughly, once ordering from its pages the 45 rpm record of Louis Farrakhan under the name Louis X, playing “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell” with a calypso beat. After a dreadful slum fire, the Defender ran a headline “Children Burned to Crisp in Apartment Fire.” The story went on to specify that four children were killed in the fire, “two of whom were burned to a crisp.” This struck me as a phrase in such exquisitely egregious taste, it seemed darkly delightful, and for several years I displayed the page on my suburban bedroom wall near snippets of poetry in a variety of languages and a painting of Lenin haranguing a crowd.
From the safe perch of my WWII surplus bunk bed twenty miles from the racial contradictions that would shortly lead to riots in the city, I was surely mocking the editors of the Defender. Yet I would like to think that my motives were somehow bound up with those that later brought me into the tumultuous September 1966 open housing march in Cicero, VISTA work with gang kids, and teaching in Africa. The same person who put pennies on the steps to the trains in a first flirtation with the city later lived in Chicago, San Francisco, and Brooklyn, often in more or less run-down neighborhoods, enjoying the environment in a way that would have been unlikely for one born there.
I recall hearing of a nonviolence training session during the Southern Movement in which those who were about to put themselves on the line watched films of racist speechmaking. The white activists instantly fell to making fun of the KKK speakers' dialect and ignorance, only to be upbraided by black SNCC workers who quite rightly warned them that these were not clowns but murderers. I would surely have been among the laughers, many of whom doubtless grew up in towns like my own, but there they were, prepared to make common cause with people with other backgrounds, and together to make history.
Had I grown up poor and oppressed, I suppose I might have made a goal of accumulating bourgeois accoutrements. If nothing else, my childhood privileges freed me from that ambition. It has been decades since I have visited Chicago, and I know a great deal has changed, but I do not doubt that it remains sufficiently dirty, deteriorated, and dangerous to relish yet.