Essayist and Minnesota Public Radio contributor Peter Smith grew up in Chicago and Libertyville during the 1950s. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss his new book of essays: A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. Read an excerpt from the book of essays below.
1 South State Street
Thick green oil-based paint covered everything: streetlamps, park railings, drinking fountains, the steel girders of the Illinois Central overpass, and the wood of the Illinois Central station on 144th Street. Everything. Someone had been maintaining Chicago long before my brother and I arrived on the scene, which meant Chicago had been here long before us and was vulnerable to rust and erosion and change. Whoever had preceded us had daubed on the paint so thick that it was softening the shape of things. If Chicago wasn’t rusting, then it was melting. And my brother and I, so recently arrived from wherever it was that children came from, brains growing in, were caught between the Chicago that was and the Chicago that would be on South State Street.
“Put your arm around him. Look at him,” my father used to say, sitting there on the sofa, elbows on knees, smoking a cigarette. “That’s the best friend you’re ever going to have.”
And we would. My brother and I would stand there, arms around each other’s shoulders, looking at each other. The same brother who dropped the specially braced shoe the Veterans Administration had made for my father into the crib on top of me. The same brother who told me the meat grinder my mother had fixed to the kitchen table—the meat grinder she used to turn round steak into hamburger—was a merry-go-round for fingers. The same brother who pushed me into the corner of the living room hassock and took a divot out of my cheek that required stitches. This was the best friend I would ever have.
Somewhere in the family photo archives is a picture of the two of us with our arms around each other, mine around his shoulders, his around my neck hugging desperately tight, all but throttling me, not simply complying with my father’s directions but complying frenetically, a firstborn to the core.
And always, there was Chicago: outside the front door, up and down the block, coming in and out with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. My father was a nightside police reporter in those days, and my bother and I would stand at the table and watch him roll a shift’s worth of Bull Durham cigarettes to get him through a night of streetcar rides from police precinct house to precinct house to check the blotter, find out who’d been arrested, and chat up the desk sergeants. He would disappear downtown on the Illinois Central every afternoon and be back the next morning, after another night’s worth of stories, smelling of sweat and fuel oil and cinnamon Life Savers and cigarettes and Juicy Fruit gum. Our world had his boundaries—his and my mother’s. It stretched from their parents’ houses in Blue Island and Flossmoor, north to Brookfield, east through Hazelcrest, to Hammond, Indiana, where Aunt Babe and Uncle Frank lived in an apartment over a bar (Frank working nights in a steel mill in Gary), all the way east to Chesterton, Indiana, at the south end of Lake Michigan, where my mother’s mother’s people still farmed.
There was a big, generous, loving family out there—a Sunday night Sealtest ice-cream cake roll of a clan that had come through the Great Depression and the war, and like every other family in every other ethnic neighborhood in the city, our family stood on the verge of postwar prosperity.
And like every other family in every other neighborhood, we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. There was an unspoken, somewhat tentative “take what you get and say nothing” sense of pleasant-but-guarded surprise when things went well. There was a “what did you expect anyhow?” resignation when they didn’t.
This, then, was our first lesser horror—an unspoken sense that somehow, somewhere, something might be slipping out of kilter. My mother and father had a saying: “Everything is all right so far,” they would tell each other. For a couple of Depression-era kids raising a family, it was a form of optimism, but that “so far” hung there, arching an eyebrow, admonishing, urging caution.
Reporting the news in Chicago, my father was in the business of supplying the city with cautionary tales. The Chicago Daily News city desk was a font of murders, mayhem, traffic accidents, theft (grand and petty), and more—incidents where everything most definitely was not all right so far. My mother had put herself through teacher’s college by the time she was eighteen. It took hard work and tenacity, not sunshine and rainbows, to make sure everything stayed all right so far.
I was three years old, standing in the backyard. My older brother was there, and we were watching the garbagemen work the alley.
The crusty, flat snow was full of coal soot and dog shit. We were out there by ourselves with nothing to do, wearing heavy, hooded snowsuits, snot bubbles burbling, hoods knotted under our fat little chins. We were out there because it was naptime for brother number three, who was that good Catholic fifteen months younger than me.
Our parents were turning out to be recidivist reproducers.
“You know, dear,” my grandmother had said when she explained the facts of life to my mother, “when a man and a woman marry, they have something to do with one another.”
So much for birth control. They would have nine children before they broke their biological clinch and adjourned to the farthest neutral corners. Their fecundity binge, begun during Roosevelt’s fourth term, ran unabated through the entirety of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and ended with Kennedy in the White House in March 1961. But this was not Camelot. The more children they had, the more emotionally crowded the house became. We grew up with our elbows pulled in tight to our sides.
That morning in the backyard, my older brother and I were not aware of all the siblings hurtling toward us—although standing in the backyard in the cold and the dog shit, waiting for number three to rise from his princely late-morning slumber, should have served as one hell of a good clue.
Damn number three anyhow. He was a brooding, jealous, coddled little thing. He arrived and insinuated himself between me and the parental love to which I felt so richly entitled. He usurped attention that was rightly mine. It was always “I need, I need, I need” with him. “I need strained vegetables spooned into one end. I need them removed from the diapered-and-powdered other.”
Ultimately the joke would be on number three. In the house in his crib, nuzzling a warm bottle of milk in his sleep, suspirating peaceful little breaths instead of blowing frosty snot bubbles, he was unaware number four was en route. She arrived the following October. Morning naptime a year hence would find three of us banished to the dog shit–riddled backyard.
And after number four, number five. And after number five, numbers six, seven, eight, and nine. The pattern of life in the fifties had established itself.
“I have a recurring dream,” my mother told me years later.
She was back at work then—a high school librarian.
“I am pregnant, and so . . . very . . .” She searched for precisely the right word the way librarians do. “Disappointed.”
She will turn ninety soon, and there is a part of me that wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if she showed up for her birthday party wearing fifties-style maternity garb and telling us, “You have a new brother or sister on the way.”
At any rate, there we were, my older brother and me, cheeks chapping and snot smearing, watching the garbagemen work the alley.
They had passed our house, and were three doors down the alley, heading north toward 143rd, when one of them came skulking back to our house. He reached over the fence and took my tricycle. He slung it over his back, and looking over his shoulder at us, he carried it off like a Mother Goose fox carrying away a sack full of chickens.
He walked up to the driver’s side of the truck and pounded on the door with the flat of his hand. The driver opened the door, and the thief handed my tricycle up to him. Then the thief climbed onto that little platform beside the hopper at the back of the truck and took one more look back at us as the truck rolled away.
A lesser horror took hold—one with watery blue eyes and a cruel, eastern European cabbage-soup face. I don’t think I would have been able to tell my mother what had happened. I don’t think I had the experience or the vocabulary yet. Even if I had, those eyes and that face would have stopped me. Everything was not all right so far, but I’d be damned if I’d say so.
Sometimes, I think he took the tricycle home to his own son. Sometimes I think he sold it for scrap. He would be almost ninety now, so lately I’ve taken to thinking of him as a cruel-looking old corpse, rosary knotted in his vodka-fat fingers, mourned and lovingly remembered by his middle-aged son. After all, didn’t he bring him a tricycle?
The snow melted. Summer came. Life proceeded. One afternoon, my brother and I found a can of Chicago green enamel, and sitting number three on the curb, we proceeded to give him a rich, thick coat of paint.
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