Last week my old friend Bob died. I’d known him since we were kids, growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Our neighborhood was South Shore. Since his death, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about life in the old neighborhood. I lived there from age seven to seventeen, in two different locations. In the fall of 1968, I left home to attend college. During the summers of 1969 and 1970, I went back to Chicago for work, living with my parents for those few months between semesters. The following year, I found summer jobs in my campus community. I never lived in Chicago again, although I was a frequent visitor. For the 53 years since that time, I’ve made my home and grown my family away from the busy city that framed my childhood. Somehow, though, that decade was so significant in my life that I’ve always felt I’m from two places. I still have deep emotional ties to Chicago, feeling surges of comfort and happiness every time I visit, despite having no desire to ever live there again. I’m used to a slower pace and ease that simply is harder to find in that frenetic urban environment. Although I love being downtown, I feel claustrophobic when the sky is blocked by tall buildings. I’m accustomed to open space. I hate driving there in all the congested traffic and it takes too long to get places. Yet it’s still my home in the deepest parts of me.
Fern, my oldest friend since age seven, whom I met when my parents moved us back to Chicago from Iowa, has been dead since 1988. I have to smile when I look at this picture of Fern and Bob from 1974. Bob was one of our shared elementary school crushes, although I was always more interested in Danny, from about age ten through eighteen. Like most kids, I flitted around from one person to another with my crushes, eventually leaving them all behind. Not Fern, though. When we were older, she made a concerted effort to bring those fantasies into her real life, eventually catching up with all those unattainable, elusive characters who peopled her adolescent dreams. Bob was one of the fantasies. In elementary school we substituted his name for the heroes in romantic ballads. In high school, he was a featured star in our three snotty novels, The Sarcastic Ones. So many memories.
We all attended Horace Mann Elementary School together. By the time I was in eighth grade, I lived on the third floor of an apartment building right across the street from school. Bob was a patrol boy on the corner of my block. One time he made me pay him a dime before I could cross the street. I complied mostly because I was thrilled to place a coin in his hand. What sweet, innocent days. All the blocks around the school, Jeffrey, Chappel, Merrill, were filled with kids I knew, kids who went on with me to South Shore High School. Because of the baby boomer population bulge, the high school wasn’t big enough to house all of us graduating elementary school kids. I can’t recall if there were three or four feeder grade schools to the freshman class, but we all spent our first year at the Bradwell Branch, a grade school which was outfitted to accommodate us. In total, I think we had about 350 students when we were all brought together.
Although we suffered from the requisite angst of teenaged life, for the most part we squeezed a lot out of positive experiences out of those high school years. Chicago provided a sprawling playground for our growth. With Lake Michigan glimmering in the background, we lounged on Rainbow Beach, occasionally venturing into Hyde Park to Promontory Point, where you could sit on the rocks, enjoying the city’s stunning skyline.
We ate homemade ice cream at Cunis on 79th Street, and at Mitchell’s on 71st Street. Fern and I bowled at the Pla-Mor Bowling Alley. We got our deli food at the Shoreland Deli, Seaway’s and Al’s, ate barbecue at Rib Hill, and watched movies at the Jeffrey and Hamilton theaters. And of course, there were the hot dogs and greasy french fries wrapped in waxed paper, from Carl’s on 83rd street, which created customer lines that often snaked out the front door.
I remember tooling down Lake Shore Drive in Fern’s brother’s black Buick convertible, listening to WLS radio while snarfing down White Castle burgers and fries. I remember driving with Bob in his red Corvair, with the spinner attached to its steering wheel, the car radio blaring “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf. We drove downtown, parked at Grant Park and sat on the curb on Michigan Avenue, watching a seemingly endless Shriner’s parade. Of course, there were many other friends and events in the mix, along with the demands of school and of course, our family lives. I lived among extended family, as did many of my friends. We had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins close by. Older siblings went away for school or military service and then returned to settle down close to everyone.
South Siders were White Sox fans instead of Cubs fans, although mostly everyone felt empathy for the hapless Cubs of that era. No one in our neighborhood would ever put ketchup on a hot dog. But those were just the surface parts of our lives. During the mid-60’s, South Shore was a racially diversifying part of the city. The heterogeneous cultures we experienced as teenagers informed our views of the bigger world. Some of our friends’ families participated in the white flight of that era, departing the inner city for the northern and western suburbs. In 1968, our senior year, the Vietnam War, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy forced everyone to grapple with the big questions facing society at large. We didn’t all look alike or act alike. We recognized we were all part of something bigger although how people chose to adapt was a matter of individual choice. I was glad I grew up where I did, with no clue how that place would affect my views in the future. Nor did I know that the threads of that experience would provide connections down the road.
Our high school graduation photos
After we graduated, for a significant time, I stayed in touch with a fair number of my South Side friends. Some of them were with me at the same university. Fern and I were college roommates for awhile. Later, I roomed with Maurine, another friend from both elementary and high school. There were a few people with whom I stayed in steady contact throughout my whole adult life. Others fell away. I attended my 10th and 20th high school reunions but after that, I was engrossed in my family and work lives, ultimately losing touch with most former classmates. I never forgot the South Side. I took my kids to Chicago to show them where I grew up. I can still see their eyes, trying to imagine me in a world so different from theirs, so different from the mom they knew. Years passed. Then the internet happened and eventually, along came Facebook.
I joined in 2008, primarily to stay connected to my son who was in a study abroad program in the tropics, where he’d have little internet service. Facebook had a “poke” feature which we used to allow him to tell me he was alive and to keep me from worrying. As the saying goes, one thing led to another. What started as a social app for the young eventually attracted me and my peers. Over time, I reconnected with lots of people from the South Side, including many who’d left South Shore High School before we graduated. I was pleasantly surprised by the ease accompanying that communication and, most especially, by the apparent consensus between many of us on current issues. Did our shared experiences in our formative years predetermine that general consensus? Probably to some degree. When 2017 approached, I found myself in the midst of planning our 50th high school reunion, which was looming in the next year. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out that an ideal venue, a popular deep dish pizza restaurant in downtown Chicago, was operated by a fellow South Sider, who’d managed to get the old Mitchell’s ice cream parlor under his aegis. He promptly offered to throw in the beloved chocolate chip flavor, among a few others, as dessert for the sentimentalists among us.
Our little task force wound up locating over 130 people, almost 38% of our classmates. Overall, I think it was a resounding success, with people thrilled to rediscover each other. I think most were happy just to see each other alive. Out of the eight people who were part of a quadruple date for senior prom, seven showed up at the reunion. Mann school had a robust attendance of 24 people. Those who couldn’t make the trip were still engaged in participating, one way or another. Danny, who’s lived abroad for decades, rerouted a business trip to Chicago in December of 2018 to visit a small group of us who got together to spend some time with him.
During these strange Covid years which have shut us down and isolated many of us, I’ve taken great comfort in the virtual world which has connected me to my South Side roots. When Bob died, we all commiserated and mourned him. At our age we’re keenly aware that we’re staring down more losses along with our own mortality. As the saying goes, “no one gets out of here alive.” I never dreamed that I’d have the warmth of those distant days and childhood friends to augment my ability to manage tough times. Lucky me. A South Sider forever.