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Chicago Stories: Standing on a Corner, 1951

We were all huddled together on a corner of Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue waiting for the light to change one evening a few days before Christmas of 1951. I had just finished work, and like the others standing there, I was waiting to cross over to the IC station to catch a train home. It was just after five o'clock, and the lights were set in favor of the traffic. The light had just changed, and I suppose that we had two or three minutes to wait there. The wind was coming in from the lake and was cutting through my clothes, and I was shivering and miserable.

I was thinking how stupid I had been to have Goldstein drop me off on State Street instead of riding back to the warehouse and grabbing the street car at Comiskey Park. I was still irritated that we had been routed to deliver special orders to the restaurants in the Loop that were getting ready for their Christmas trade. Goldstein and I had been riding together for a year, and our regular run was through the taverns, liquor stores, and night clubs of the Black Belt. They knew us, and we felt at home there. Besides, Goldstein could usually promote a free request performance at some nightspot near the end of our run. The week before, he had gotten Billy Eckstine to sing just for us. He had sung "I Can't Get Started with You," with solo backup by Illinois Jaquet on the saxophone. When he wanted to, Goldstein could charm a drink off a drunk covered with snakes.

Both of us were angry that we weren't in the Belt, because Goldstein had heard that Sidney Bechet was in town, and he was determined to get him to play "High Society" for us. Bechet had been in France for years, and Goldstein figured that this would be the only chance that we would ever have to hear the old man. Goldstein was a strange man. He was one of the few original Rangers to survive the war and was capable of sudden and murderous bursts of anger. He was also capable of long slow burns, and this had been his mood all day.

One of our last deliveries had been three bottles of heavy creme de cacao to Trader Vic's, and Goldstein had given the cook a short list of the various kinds of people that liked sticky little drinks with creme de cacao in them. The cook was a rather excitable man and started cursing Goldstein in French, which was OK because Goldstein spoke French quite well and always appreciated a good obscenity. The cook made the mistake, however, of shaking a large kitchen knife in Goldstein's face and immediately found himself lying on the floor with Goldstein's ever-present, seldom-seen commando knife at his throat. I had found that it didn't pay to try to stop Goldstein when he was angry, so I simply remarked, "Hey, Goldstein! Guess what? This guy puts amaretto in his coffee!" That struck Goldstein as very funny, and he started laughing and let the cook go without even a scratch to remember him by.

I had learned a lot from Goldstein. He was always showing me things, telling me things, and teaching me things. He taught me always to carry two rolls of dimes and a handkerchief, and a lot else that has nothing to do with this particular story. He couldn't teach me "Pan-Hellenism in the Orations of Lysias," however, and that's what Professor Roebuck wanted from me the next morning. So Goldstein had dropped me off at Twelfth and Michigan so I could catch the IC back to 55th street, pick up a couple of hot knishes at Kantor's Kosher Restaurant, and get to work on my paper. That's why I found myself standing on the corner of Twelfth and Michigan, cold and miserable, waiting for the light to change.

There was a hole in my right shoe, and it hurt desperately to stand flat-footed on the frozen sidewalk. And so I tried to stand with my right foot on the top of my left. Even this was uncomfortable, and I began to think how nice it would be to find a thick piece of cardboard to slip inside that worn right shoe. I decided that it would be even nicer to have two pieces of cardboard, since the sole of the left shoe was so thin that I could feel a cold ache creeping up past my ankle toward my knee.

The cars and trucks kept whipping by, throwing out swirls of sharp snow, and we gradually bunched closer and closer together, as if we could protect each other from the wind if only slightly. I could now feel myself growing warm and sleepy, thinking of how my feet and ankles would feel if I had two pieces of cardboard in my shoes. My mind was moving slower and slower, and it seemed as if the swirls of snow were slowing down also.

Then there was a tall, hatless woman with dark hair and wire rimmed glasses, wearing a light, flowered spring coat and shoving her way through the crowd toward the curb. Her coat was white, scattered with large rose-colored flowers with great light-green petals, and it was unbuttoned. The wind was blowing it open, and I could see that she was wearing a flimsy summer dress, a light brown muslin with a yellow and blue flower pattern. Neither the coat nor the dress were particularly well-made or tastefully chosen. She was middle-aged, in her late thirties or early forties I would suppose, and I mentally put her down as the type of woman who shopped the basement at Goldblatt's and sacrificed quality in order to stay "in fashion." Her hands, face, and bare legs were red and chapped, and there were tears running down her cheeks from behind her glasses. Everything about her was all wrong, but she seemed so self-assured that I began wondering dimly if perhaps I had just dozed off there on the corner and was only dreaming that it was winter and cold.

It was all quite strange and hard to absorb. She kept moving her hands with little jerky movements and she had a taut and anxious look on her thin red face. Just as strange as everything else about her, she was singing at the top of her voice. She was singing, "Oh, Oh, we all shall go, go to Paradise Island." I had never heard that song before, and have never heard it since. Perhaps she was just making it up as she went along. She finally reached the curb and stood there beside me for a moment, looking up and down the street, and then called out almost tearfully, "Will the bus never come? Oh, will the bus never come?"

She suddenly darted out into the street to look for the bus, still singing something about Paradise Island. I remember trying to pull my hands out of my pockets to stop her, trying to step forward to reach her, but I was so cold and had been standing there for so long that I was stiff and slow. My brain and my body were moving much too sluggishly to be of any help to her. There was no bus coming, of course; there were only cars and trucks rushing by almost bumper to bumper. She had managed to run out right behind an ice truck of all things, and just in front of a brown, pre-war panel truck with yellow letters on its side that proclaimed "Glen Ellyn Florists. Flowers To Remember By." Its bumper struck her just below the knees, and, by some curious quirk of physics, she rose straight up into the air like a misplaced Saint Francis rapt up in a vision of God. She still stood erect and still peered down the avenue, her hands fluttering. Then she fell backwards, with her arms outstretched and her back gracefully arched, as if she were giving us a free diving exhibition. She landed face-down on the roof of a Checker Company cab and then bounced from the hood of one car to the roof of another with her arms and legs flailing wildly and her head snapping in all directions until she finally fell down into the midst of the traffic. As she fell from sight, someone behind me said in an angry voice, "Oh, Hell! The bus don't stop at this corner anyhow!"

Just then the light changed, and a lane opened up through the cars and trucks. We all hurried toward the train station to get out of the wind and then to try to get home where it would be warm. The lady looking for the bus had completely disappeared, but I remembered her quite well. She was the first person I had ever seen killed. Goldstein said that you always remember the first one.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas

042404