At seven years old, I have now become a Chicago girl. My family has moved into the third floor of an apartment building at 7746 S. Cornell.
One block to the west is Stony Island which is a major thoroughfare through the city. The Chicago Skyway is close by and we are never supposed to play in those places because of the heavy traffic and the stranger danger. But I look at them from our alley and from the back porch steps three stories high, where the boiling afternoon heat turns our apartment into an inferno in the summer. There are so many vehicles moving in steady streams in many directions. I am not in Sioux City any more.
This apartment only has two bedrooms. Mom and dad are in one. My two sisters and I are in the other. My brother is in some makeshift space on the back porch. There is aluminum foil put up to reflect the sun away from his bed. I am too young to be upset at the major downsizing from our Iowa house to this small space. In retrospect I realize that this move was much harder for my older brother and sister who were more established in their Sioux City lives. They have to adapt to a new social structure because we are now living in a much more sophisticated and wealthy area than in Iowa where class didn’t seem as obvious. Or maybe I was too little to notice class then. Our apartment building is on the fringe of that wealthier neighborhood and we go to school with kids who are used to a whole other economic existence.
As kid number three, I have the advantage of observing the problems of my siblings and figuring out strategies to survive. My parents,who were driven by desperation to make this move, didn’t have the psychology chops to understand the ramifications of this sea change. They were naive. This move created what my mom called “two separate families,” my parents with the older siblings and my parents with me and my younger sister. Whether true or not, I think my mom was wrong to tell us that. At least she told us two young ones. I really am not sure what she said to the big kids. Dorothy the boundary-less. But I digress. Mrs. Miller is our landlady.
She is broad, with greasy, straight salt and pepper hair which is straight, cut in one length to just below her chin. She is brusque and I want to be away from her. Sometimes her family comes to visit and by their accents, it seems they’re from the south. There is a pale-skinned, pale-haired, pale-eyed girl about my age. We play together in the gangway which separates our apartment building from the one next door. I make up most of the games. I did the same thing with Robin, the boy I loved in Iowa. With him we played, the butterfly, the spider and the fly. He had a dual role as the mean spider and the savior fly. I was the butterfly. With this pale girl, we are playing island natives. We trade off who is the girl and the boy. The heroine’s name is Fayaway. She is always in danger, being captured and then being rescued. Although nothing actually sexual happens between us, through the prism of time, I recognize that these were erotic forms of play. Apparently I am always in love, as soon as I recognized the beginnings of that feeling.
Our block is primarily apartment buildings, some three units and others six units. There are a few duplexes. There is only one empty lot on the block. I go down there to collect grasshoppers. In summer, my sister and I screw our roller skates to our shoes and go down the sidewalk making metallic, grinding sounds on the journey to collect the bugs. I bring them back to the ledge at the front entry of our building and conduct experiments. I dissect them and move their pieces around to see what happens. Sometimes their separated parts keep moving after my operations. I have no idea how that works but it interests me. We say that the grasshoppers are spitting tobacco juice at us. Our lawn consists of a small patch of dirt, maybe 4’ by 4’ with some wan blades of grass. I am now in the urban world of bricks and mortar. That’s what I adjust to, with the alleys, sidewalks, gangways and apartment basements as my play ground. Iowa becomes a memory. In summer and on weekends, kids pour out of the buildings and we all play together. Our hide and seek games have a two block radius because there are so many kids in the game. We need lots of space for hiding. I remember going into dark basements and have a hard time believing the freedom of those days. We play kick the can in the alley, concentration and those hand clapping games that have songs attached.
Concentration is a game where you say, thinking of, names of, cars, beginning with, A. We go from cars to colors to flowers and so on. This is semi-spoken and semi-sung. The hand games have songs too like, a sailor went to sea, sea, sea to see what he could see, see, see. Our hands move fast and we have special clapping styles. Sometimes if we go too fast, the game breaks down and we start over. We play jump rope and hopscotch.
There is always something to do outside. My mom opens the front window of the apartment, calls out or whistles and we run home for dinner. After we eat, a big gang of kids runs to the corner to wait for Harry, the ice cream man.
He wears a white coat and hat and rides a bike with small freezer on the front of it. For a dime you can buy a popsicle, a fudgsicle, an ice cream bar, a dreamsicle or a push-up. I love chocolate popsicles the best. I am bigger than a lot of the kids. While we wait for Harry, I lie on my back and flex my knees toward my chest. The smaller kids sit on my feet and I push them through the air. I push Johnny Lothrop so far that he flips over and breaks his collarbone. His parents are very angry and I’m afraid they want my parents to pay. Johnny has to wear a neck brace. For days I’m afraid to go out and I stand in the little front hallway, looking out longingly at everyone playing. Our block is filled with all kinds of people.
We have several Greek families living near us. Elaine and Anna Sonios live across the street. They’re older than me. Their parents own a grocery store on 79th Street. They celebrate different holidays than we do and on occasion we get invited in and are given treats. We get Greek halva which is nougat with pistachios. I can still taste it. Elaine and Anna’s parents are very strict. When they have lots of guests, the girls climb out the windows to run around with the rest of the kids. Constantine Athanasoulias lives on our block as does Johnny Latsoudis. Johnny is handsome. There’s another cute boy on the block named Kenny Jones. I have a crush on him. He has a line in the middle of his lower lip that makes him look special. He has an older brother named Edward James but everyone calls him Edgy. The first African-American student at my elementary school, Horace Mann, moves onto our block. Her name is Sandra Greene. She is tall and athletic. Her skin has reddish tones and her face has high cheekbones. I think she’s beautiful. I often wonder whether she is part Native American. Down the block there is a family from somewhere in the Middle East. A little girl whose name is Lu-el plays outside. She is odd. The big kids try to make her eat dirt with a stick. Sometimes when I look back I feel like the kids are just this side of Lord of the Flies. One day Lu-el drops to the ground and is having a seizure. We run and get my mother who comes and puts a tongue depressor in her mouth so she won’t swallow her tongue.
Our block is full of action. One day I am outside when a mean-faced teenager named Harry Hess comes up to me and calls me a fucking kike. I know this is bad so I go tell my mother. She comes storming outside and yells at Harry and explains to me that some people don’t like us because we’re Jewish. I’ve never heard the “f” word either. I’m getting my first lessons in prejudice. Cornell is an ethnic swirl and there’s a lot to learn.
My grandparents live right around the corner on 78th Street. I can still smell their hallway. It smells like chicken soup and pepper and schmaltz. Schmaltz which is flavorful chicken fat is saved and put in a jar in the fridge and is used for cooking and us smeared on everything. Why did everyone not die of heart attacks? My grandmother is a wonderful cook. But when we visit, we sit at her white porcelain table with blue embossed flowers and eat apricot jelly on rye bread and cantaloupe cut into chunks. The chicken and friccasees are for special occasions. One of my uncles and his wife live “north” on Kenmore but then they are suddenly south on Euclid. We get together with the extended family every weekend and have big meals. We sing a lot. Favorites are You Are My Sunshine, Tell Me Why and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. We shop locally on 79th Street.
There is Heller’s drugstore and Feldstein’s delicatessen. Feldstein’s has a big barrel full of penny candy. There are yellow jawbreakers wrapped in red rope candy. There are little wax bottles filled with juice. Wax is definitely a thing because there are big was lips you bite down on and wax mustaches. There are white candy cigarettes with pink tips and pastel gums that are shaped like cigars, with a gold label like the ones on real cigars. There are pink, yellow, white and blue hard sugar dots that are baked onto paper- you bite those off. You can get a package of pixy sticks or Lick-a-made which is nothing but flavored sugar. Tiny ice cream cones filled with colored marshmallows. Chum gum. Those were the treats we got on hot Saturday afternoons when we all piled into the laundromat with our bags of clothes, sheets and towels. How I hated the laundromat. The wringer washer in Iowa was long gone. My parents wouldn’t own a machine again until they moved near me in my adult life, almost 30 years later. But while we took turns there, swapping out the wet loads and folding the hot things from the dryer, there was shopping.