I spent a little more than ten years of my life, from 1963 (age 4) until 1973 in a classically perfect post-War ghetto, on the Southside of Chicago: rats, broken glass, petty crime and burning garbage. Some of the garbage burning was very near to our kitchen window because it was in flames in the incinerator built into the block of contiguous two-storey apartments our apartment ( #649) was the very end of. Every block had its terminal incinerator; I think there were perhaps twenty or thirty blocks like this in our ghetto. You could step right out our kitchen door, onto asphalt, follow a semi-circle of ten feet, counter-clockwise, to three concrete steps up the back of our building and lever a scorched metal door open to push your garbage right into a devilish forest of smirking flames. These flames strongly influenced my earliest pictorial concept of Evil. The heat from this incinerator kept the first floor of our apartment warm in the winter and unbearable in the summer, especially because our windows were always closed to keep the black smoke out. The formative years of an asthmatic Aesthete.
With my tiny back (I usually wore a buttoned sweater and red suspenders) to the living room window I could look through to the kitchen, at the other end of the apartment, and the kitchen window, with its dainty yellow gingham curtains, in the upper left corner of the cinder block wall, high and to the immediate left of the heavy green kitchen door. To the right of the kitchen door were, crammed together: refrigerator, sink, stove, cabinets. Back into the living room, back to the living room window, I could see the concrete stairs to our second floor to my right. The wall the concrete staircase formed had an elaborately chintzy gold couch against it, a couch I would look down upon while moping down from our bedrooms (one for the kids, one for mother). Near the couch was a book case featuring, over the years, among others: Fear of Flying (Erica Jong), Sun Signs (Linda Goodman), Sydney Omarr’s Astrology (Sydney Omarr), (Sydney Omar), Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (but were Afraid to Ask), Many Lives, Many Mansions (Edgar Cayce), Me and the Orgone (Orson Bean), several books by Truman Capote, something by Sheila Graham, something by Jacqueline Suzanne…
To my immediate right, with my back centered on the living room window, was a large wooden Magnavox console record player/ radio with silver-threaded cloth, behind ornately carved wooden grilles, over the speakers to the left and right of the radio dial, in the center front of the unit, which gave off a great smell (the tubes) and lit the living room with an evocative aquatic light some evenings, after dinner, when the kids weren’t supposed to be awake at all. To the right of that record player was the front door, the door we used as the back door, although it strikes me now that it was designed to be the front door, since it was right beside the mail slot the neighbor kids put dirt through. I can remember my father stepping through that door and twisting a spigot on a garden hose and sitting on the official front steps, watering the little lawn at twilight, the tip of his cigarette glowing in the developing dark like a lethal impostor among the fireflies. Crickets were present, too. Facing our lawn was a median walk and the front lawns of the apartment block opposite; no street. A colored parody of a Levittown with its efficient municipal design, it had started as housing for Black veterans of WWII. Eventually, it filled up with the generally and incredibly and incredulously poor.
Many of the tenants had come to Chicago from the deep South (though we came from LA after my father made a life-changing business error in the very early ’60s; it was his mistake but, somehow, he ended up living in relatively tony Hyde Park and only visiting us, sometimes, on weekends). Our rent was a pittance, we were never on public assistance and my mother was too proud to demand alimony or child support. We must have been fed by my grandparents, which would explain the bizarre, unresolved, long-running feud between my mother and my grandfather: she never quite overcame the shame. She stayed home with us and cooked and cleaned and darned our socks like June Cleaver in Hell.
I can remember sitting out there with my father, up after bedtime, in a breeze from the hose-cooled grass, indulging in the merciful fantasy that the other side of the building, the kitchen side, with the asphalt and smash-bottle sidewalk, and cars (some without tires, some without glass) in a long row along the filthy rat-channel of the curb, didn’t exist. It’s curious that it only now hits me that one side of the building was much more bearable than the other but that the unbearable side was the practical side, the side we saw by far the most, running out the kitchen door to get in my father’s car when he came for us, tapping his code on the kitchen window with his car keys, or to walk to our grammar school, which was at the end of the block and across the street and could be seen from the kitchen door.
The lady two doors down sold candy (Now and Laters, Candy Buttons, Bazooka Joe, Wax Bottles, Chuckles, Boston Baked Beans, Necco Mints, Almond Joys, Twizzlers, Fifth Avenue Bars, Charleston Chews, Topical Flavor Life Savers, Baby Ruths, Mary Janes, Pez, Wax Lips, Candy Cigarettes and Jawbreakers, et al) from her home and she amassed a small fortune; there was a gold-colored Eldorado Cadillac, a real life ghetto cliché, with a puffy white top and a futuristic TV antennae, parked near her apartment most days of the week. My only unalloyed pleasures during the school week were a can of Swiss Cream Soda or receiving a hardbound book, printed on high-acid pulp, in the mail from the Science Fiction Book Club… or a Dreamsicle from the Ice Cream Truck that reeked of sour milk and showed up once in a blue moon to zig-zag the streets to the boozy tempo of its murder-clown melodies. Imagine being a young brother with a modest Afro in the militant ’60s, while Malcolm X was still walking the Earth, driving an Ice Cream truck through the Southside of Chicago; what else would you have been up to, on the side? Reading Mao? Learning Swahili, Karate or bomb-making?
There was a blizzard in 1967 and school was closed for a week and the snow was piled so high it took hours (?) to get the kitchen door open in order for my mother to trudge in a stylish headscarf and an inadequate coat to the spot, as indicated on the radio, where an actual helicopter had dropped flour and other drop-able provisions for the neighborhood and we ate nothing but biscuits for the duration.
There was riot in 1968 when MLK was terminated and the cops stayed away forever.
The neighborhood was on the extreme Southside of Chicago, very close to the border of Gary, Indiana, and, as I’ve written elsewhere on this site, down-wind of a vast and infernally-intricate Sherwin-Williams paint factory, the odor from which has synesthetically tattooed my sense-memories of the ’60s in hideous green with streaks of black and yellow … as well as being within hearing of the massive Thor-pounding (ka-CHOWN, ka-CHOWN, ka-CHOWN) , every night of the week, from the Interlake Steel Mills, watered by Lake Calumet, upon the oily beach of the opposite shore of which my father and I once sat, with the futile dignity of characters in a short Beckett film, fishing with a bamboo pole. My father assured me that the worms we were putting the hook through, one after another (entirely in vain) couldn’t feel it, but I remember watching each unlucky thing, in turn, writhe and curl on the hook and thinking that what my father had said could not be true.
To quote no less an authority than the Washington Post on the neighborhood of my childhood:
For years, nearby steel mills and industrial plants sowed the land with toxic waste. The factories and jobs are long gone, but the chemicals, slag and oil remain. The neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city by landfills, the heavily polluted Little Calumet River and a sewage treatment plant. Its sweet, putrid fumes hit Altgeld with varying intensity depending on the direction of the wind.
Most weekends my mother, brother and I took two buses, on two different lines (the “Suburban” bus and the CTA), from the ghetto to my grandmother and grandfather’s house in the quasi-suburban neighborhood called Morgan Park. We transferred from the downscale (yellow and green) Suburban bus line to the modern Chicago Transit Authority in the midpoint of the shopping district called Roseland. We’d carry provisions for the weekend (books, pajamas, games like Monopoly, Parcheesi and Chinese Checkers) in embarrassing shopping bags. I can’t trust the stretched proportions of my childish recollections of Time, but I think the trip from ghetto to quasi-suburb took a little more than an hour from our kitchen door to my grandmother’s homely wooden front porch steps.
My grandfather and grandmother’s house was on a large-ish lot (long as an acre and not quite as wide), with yards to the left, right and behind it, shielded in front, on the left (as one faced the street) by low hedges and on the right by high hedges, two-car garage in the back. The property had an apple tree, cherry tree, green and purple grape arbors, patches of rhubarb (for my favorite pie; the cherry and apple pies were quite good , too) and surprisingly productive plantings of tall corn and fat tomatoes. My grandfather kept chickens, which he would raise and then fry; one grisly memory: he’d give us the chopped-off chicken feet to play with. His buttered corn on the cob was delicious, even to a kid.
We’d dig huge holes in the back yard under the apple tree and cover the holes with plywood to form secret hideouts stocked with a transistor radio and a box of Animal Crackers (which weren’t crackers at all, but cookies), run around in our beeveedees under the hose in high summer, whoop it up on the rope swing near the back porch windows, collect grasshoppers (huge ones) in pickle jars. When I was nine I made a tent from canvas and clotheslines, strung between trees, and sat alone, in a trance of escapist bliss, listening, on my birthday gift of a brand new portable cassette tape player, to my other birthday gift of the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The cassette came in a large white soft plastic case, stickered with a reproduction of the film’s painted poster (the “Pan Am Space Shuttle” shooting from the mouth of the hub of the double-wheel of the Space Station) and I listened to it all day and imagined that my future was in Space. Anywhere other than where I already was.
Friday nights we sat on the front porch and watched the hazy cool green and yellow nodes of fireflies drift toward the vacant lot and we listened to the synchronized crickets and watched moths mock an atom’s electrons around the street light over the high hedge.We watched the occasional car drive by, too. We played what became our favorite weekend pre-bedtime game of guessing the color of the next car to come but while I was playing the surface game (red! blue? green!) I was also playing a private game of wondering where the cars were escaping to and trying to picture myself on the same trip, as far away as possible, a grown-up and free, a secret game I played even harder, to greater effect, overlapping with literal dreams, with the stoic horn of the freight trains my little brother and I would hear in bed (our mother on the fold-out couch in the living room), the tracks not more than a quarter of a mile away. A wonderful sound, the nearing, then receding, horn and the interminable dah-dah-dah-dumf of those hundred-car trains.
Saturday nights we watched Creature Features on the black and white TV in my grandmother’s living room; vintage horror films from the 1930s and 1940s, eerily oppressive in their grayscale gloom and the stilted trans-Atlantic diction of their alabaster victim-heroines in gowns. I always had nightmares, not least because my grandmother’s house was very old and featured a cluttered black basement so densely packed with antiques and trunks and hairy secrets, toward the front, that only the back half of the basement, featuring the furnace, the washing machine ( its two sinks for suds and rinse water) and pens for my grandfather’s chickens, was ever used. My mother’s beloved grandfather, Gramps, of Irish and African and god-knows-what-else blood, had lived in that basement, in the 1930s and 1940s, and had died down there, and my mother had told me that after Gramps had died she would go down into that basement with a candle and call his name softly… Gramps? Gramps?… so of course I lay in that bed in the deadest hours, hours after Creature Features, every Saturday night, quaking with anticipatory pre-nightmare terrors, innocent victim of a sliver of ancient cultural traditions that managed to filter from the old world to the new with musty (ignorant) magic intact. No wonder I was reading physics textbooks as a kid. As talismans.
Nothing was ever as awful, in all my childhood, as the hour, every Sunday, after our TV-tray dinner (and “The Wonderful World of Disney”) when Reality reasserted its cold dominion and it came time to re-pack our shopping bags. Head for the bus stop and the long ride home. More than once I begged my mother, in tears, to please, please not take us back there but what could she do? My mother couldn’t protect me from our peculiar punishment any more than she could bring Gramps back.
And yet, here I am.
Things turned out astonishingly well.