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Chicago Stories: Sixty-Third and Cottage Grove

Of course, there was the Loop. The Loop was magic, with Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the Art Institute, Goodman Theater, Orchestra Hall, Soldier's Field, Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, Navy Pier, and more kinds of stores, bookshops, restaurants, theaters, magazine stands, and of everything else than you could describe, name, count, or imagine. There were the great department stores of State Street, Wiebolt's, Goldblatt's, the Fair, and, the queen of them all, Marshall Fields with its enchanted windows at Christmas time, porridge and cocoa in the Walnut Room, arching mosaic ceilings, and, of course, the clock under which all of Chicago arranged to meet for dinner, business, proposals and propositions, shopping, and all those other things that pertain to the humane life. My grandmother dreamed one night that God had told her to meet Him under the clock at Marshall Fields. No one to whom she told her dream considered the arrangement the least bit odd.

There were the dingy shops over on Wabash; the eternal going out of business sales of Maxwell Street, Capone country down past 12th, little Hillman's heaped with oranges, lemons, grapefruit, kumquats, tangerines, pomegranates, and pineapples in the dead of winter, and stacked with fragrant mince pies; the wind driving sleet like bullets onto Michigan avenue; the great red carpet of at the Sheridan Hotel; the smoke-filled rooms of the Blackstone, the continual screeching as the els made their four ninety-degree turns to clatter back to wherever it was they had come; and, towering over it all, the white Deco of the Wrigley building and the gray Gothic of Tribune Tower. The Loop was magic, especially at Christmas or Easter, or when it was raining or snowing, or at any other time you might think of, and I don't know of anyone who didn't love the Loop and everything in it.

The intersection of 63rd street and Cottage Grove avenue wasn't magic; it was real and it was home, and when I was a child I believed that 63rd street was the finest place in the world. One night, my mother listened to my prayers; after I had asked God to bless just about everyone, including our two vicious Chows, I added "and be nice to everyone everywhere else." I later heard mother boasting to a neighbor that her son was so thoughtful that he prayed that God should bless the entire world, but she hadn't understood me. I was asking God to take pity on all of the people who didn't live around 63rd street.

I didn't know then, and wouldn't have been able to comprehend it if I had been told, that both of my parents were working very hard so that we could someday move to a "nicer" place. Much of their labor was for me; they did not want me to grow up in the company of drunks, prostitutes, grifters, punchdrunk ex-boxers, and all of the other people who filled the street day and night. They never understood that this was Life, and that I was drinking it in with as great gulps as a small boy was capable.

Sixty-third street was a world of delight. It was a narrow street bordered by four-story buildings on either side, the ground floors occupied by stores, shops, taverns, restaurants, and enterprises of all manners and means. On the bay windows of the second floors, tastefully but clearly lettered in the blackest blacks, shining golds, emerald greens, or ruby reds, were signs. Big letters that you could read from the sidewalk were surrounded by arabesques that lent the words an air of delicacy and elegance that made sign-painting a highly respected profession and the sign-painter an artist in his own right.

We learned to read even before we began school; kids who could would point out signs and read them to the rest of us. Sixty- third street was our primer, and a much better one than the color-coded residents of "Friendly Village" provided.

JOHN TIERNY ATTORNEY AT LAW WILLS PROBATED. PAINLESS EXTRACTIONS WHILE YOU WAIT. Yes, it did say that. PEDICURES AND BUNIONS REMOVED PAINLESSLY. PERSONAL COUNSELOR LEARN WHAT IS NECESSARY. ST. KILIAN'S PARISH CHARITIES. TEA ROOM QUIET REFINED. MICHAEL PEABODY MD MEDICATIONS PREPARED ON PREMISES. JAMES FLYNN PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR OVERDUE ACCOUNTS DUNNED. TIVOLI SURGERY TONSILS AND ADENOIDS OUR SPECIALTY. PANTS PRESSED GUARANTEED. ORDER OF ROSICRUCIANS. MEN'S HOTEL 25 CENTS CLEAN SHEETS DAILY. HOT BATH AND MASSAGE. ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS. JACOBS OLD GOLD BOUGHT AND SOLD. VAN DOUT'S COFFEES TEAS COCOAS. LOANS NO COLLATERAL NEEDED. CHRISTIAN SCIENCE READING ROOM NO LOITERERS. TURKISH BATH STEAM HOT AND COLD LOCKERS FREE. DEMOCRATIC PARTY HEADQUARTERS. CHILDREN KEPT LONG AND SHORT TERM. DUCKPINS THREE CENTS A GAME. ALEXANDER'S. J. S. ROYLAND PORTRAITS FROM FLESH OR FOTO. HEADQUARTERS GERMAN AMERICAN FREINDSHIP SOCIETY (Yes. The sign- painter didn't like them). ROBINSON'S GYM RING FREE WITH SPARRERS, FEDERATED BOY'S CLUBS OF CHICAGO. THEOSOPHICAL CIRCLE. All ending with the legend, in smaller letters, "one flight up".

And overhead, running straight east from Halstead past the decayed woodpile that had one been White City Amusement Park Fun For The Entire Family, was the el. Double tracks running level with the fourth floors and supported by open-work steel girders marching two by two down 63rd street to the Blackstone street station. I lived with the el; my bedroom looked out on the tracks, and the trains would thunder and screech and clatter by with their lights all day and night until 2:30AM. I would sometimes lie in my bed and wait for the els to pass and look at the people in the windows and pretend that I was moving and they were stationary, sitting and reading their Final Editions. Each morning I would wake up for a few blurry momements at 2:30 AM a bit disoriented by the silence, but I would quickly fall asleep again.

Beneath the el, tfour-fold trolley tracks ran down the center of the street, on which bright red and gold street cars clattered up and down, occasionally showering bright blue sparks when their power poles momentarily lost contact with the electric wires overhead. On either side of the streetcar tracks, dark green enclosed wagons with bright red spokes and rubber wheels hauled ice, chocolate brown wagons with cream-colored wheels carried milk, rumbling open wagons carried the junk men, rag men, and all sorts of others going up and down tending their business. In the winter, the horses would have thick blankets on their backs, canvas feedbags covering their noses, and plaid scarves wrapped around their heads to protect their ears. They would stamp the snow into slush, snort great clouds of smoke, and were finer than the finest dragons in my picture books.

In the summertime, the sunlight shone down through the tracks in long lattices of light and shade that fell on the autos and horses and wagons and people moving up and down the street. Every few minutes, a train would rumble overhead and its shadow would raced down the street and slow with screeching brakes, finally stopping at the Blackstone Street station, where travellers could transfer to the Illinois Central Railway, and from there to anywhere in the world.

At about five in the morning people would start coming to the corner of Cottage Grove avenue and 63rd. They would a hot fresh doughnut from the cart where they were fried and hung up on broomsticks, and drink a mug of hot fresh coffee with sugar and cream. Some would then climb the stairs to the el station and others would board the street cars that would pull up in long lines. All day long, the street cars and els would rumble and screech up and down. By 6:00 in the evening, a cart with steaming coffee and thick slices of hot fennel bread and another with fresh hard rolls and hot kosher kielbassa had taken their places on the corner, and the neighborhood children had begun to gather to wait for their parents to come home. Bobby Roth and his whole family had gone down to the Cottage Grove steps when his father had gotten on the el and gone to Spain. And Richard Thomas's mother and father had escorted him when he took the street car to join the Navy and be assigned to the USS Arizona.

In between morning and evening, people went up and down the sidewalks in a steady streams of activity, and I never tired of watching them. Of course, my friends and I were part of it all, pursuing our own money-making schemes, each with his or her own enterprise. The McCarthy twins, Georgie and Eddie, were particularly well-known for their promotions of the course of true love. They would prey upon young couples without wedding rings walking down the street. As a couple passed, Georgie would say to Eddie in a stage whisper, "Hey Eddie! Pipe duh babe! Ain't she a beaut? Wow!" Although the nose of the lady in question would usually simply rise a few points into the air, a nickel or dime from the young man would often enough sail through the air into the waiting hands of the McCarthy twins.

Where has it all gone? What has happened to them all? Where is Mr. Carlson, carrying a pail of beer home to drink with his supper? Where is Andy, pretending not to see that I had grabbed a ride on the back fender of the Halstead streetcar? Where is Father, swinging off the trolley after a twelve-hour shift in the Yards? Where is Sonia, jingling her keys and whispering "two dollars"? Where are Offissakelly with his billy in one hand and a doughnut in the other, George the candymaker, Bracchia the vegetable cart man, Leon and his ferrets, Tony's monkey with his bright red hat and frightened eyes, Otto the philosophical streetsweeper, Stanley and his mechanical men, Resto the rag man, Belle the ice-wagon horse with her black velvet nose, Pietro the knife sharpener, Pete the blue-eyed drunk, and punch-drunk Sailor shadowboxing the fire alarm post? I suppose that old Lao was right and that they've gone wherever it is that straw dogs go.

Lynn Harry Nelson
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Kansas

042404