It’s been almost a month since my last post. Much of that time was spent in family obligations and events as well as my own illness. Regarding the latter, I had a relatively mild case of the flu that lasted two weeks. Every time I felt it had ended, a low grade fever would return. And in addition to my babysitting duties, I’ve become heavily involved in three of my grandchildren’s basketball interests. I usually attend four to six basketball games each week, watching and cheering my 15 year old, my 12 year old, and my 7 year old grandsons. And I love it.
I mentioned before that some of the stories I will share with you will not be about Maggie’s and my life together, but rather about moments I remember from the neighborhood in which Maggie and I grew up. Since Maggie and I came from the same community (our houses being a little more than 400 feet apart) she and I experienced the same influences. We were both born and raised in the same neighborhood in Chicago – Bridgeport.
In the early 1900’s the Chicago Stock Yards was the hub of the meatpacking industry of the United States. Consequently, poor immigrants from many European countries came here seeking a better life. Because they needed to live near their workplace, they formed neighborhoods of specific ethnic groups - Polish, Italians, Lithuanians, Germans etc. Bridgeport was one of those neighborhoods established immediately south of the Stock Yards.
Bridgeport was ethnically diverse, but also quite segregated, and stayed that way for many years. Blacks were not allowed and Italians lived primarily east of Halsted Street (which ran through the middle of Bridgeport). West of Halsted, where Polish, Irish, and Lithuanians. It wasn’t a rigid segregation, except for Blacks, and occasionally Italians would live west of Halsted or vice versa. In fact, the maternal side of Maggie’s family was Italian and her grandparents; four uncles and many cousins lived in the same apartment building west of Halsted.
In the 1960’s, African Americans were not welcomed in Bridgeport at all. It was dangerous for any black person to even to walk through the neighborhood, let alone try to live there. In fact, I remember when a black family tried to move into a home, only to have the windows broken and the house set on fire. Thankfully, that has changed now and such bitter segregation doesn’t exist anymore. But in the 1960’s, when Maggie and I lived a block apart, it was a different time.
Following is an experience I recall:
Bosley P.G. is one of those narrow inner city parks nestled between two parallel streets to give parents a place to go with their children and to keep older kids out of trouble. It doesn’t have much: four swings, a slide, monkey bars, a maypole, two holes in the ground for horseshoe pits, an outdoor basketball court with chain nets, and a baseball field of unusual dimensions. It has black asphalt, brown dirt, and gray gravel, but not much green—except for the scrawny trees that line the third base side of the baseball field, the few bony bushes growing along the chain-link fence, and the weeds sprouting through the cracks of the asphalt basketball court. Bosley’s a small park. Actually it’s considered a “playground, which is what the “P.G.” stands for, but all the guys call it a “park”—real guys wouldn’t be caught dead in a “playground.” It isn’t pretty, but it sure beats playing in the streets or hanging out on the corner all day.
On this hot, muggy summer afternoon when a gentle wind is tickling the leaves and the sun is baking the asphalt, three black children, a girl around twelve and two boys about four, cross the street from Benton House to Bosley. Benton House is a community settlement program that aids struggling families throughout Chicago. The children are not from this neighborhood and are apparently too young to know that they don’t belong here—not in Bridgeport. But they’re here, in Bosley, swinging gently under the blazing sun to catch a little breeze.
Soon, they’re not alone. Three neighborhood teens, fifteen or sixteen years old, seem to come from nowhere. They do nothing more than stand and stare. Within seconds, the three becomes six, nearly encircling the swings and the black children on them—all just standing and staring.
A red haired teen, a head taller than the others, steps from the circle toward the children. He stops in front and just short of the girl,
“Whata ya doin here?”
The girl doesn’t answer, just keeps swinging slowly, her eyes cast down. The two young boys look anxiously at each other, then at the girl who’s probably their sister.
“I SAID, WHATA YA DOIN HERE?”
The girl twitches and her body tenses as she raises her eyes toward Red.
“Nuttin. Just playin .”
“Well ya ain’t sposed to be here! This ain’t yer park!”
The girl looks down and drags her feet on the ground, stirring clouds of dust as she slows her swing. She seems to know she should be leaving.
“I said ya ain’t sposed to be here! That means get da hell out! We don’t want your germs all over our swings!”
The girl stiffens her legs to stop her swing, slowly gets off the seat, and turns towards her two brothers sitting motionless next to her. Their eyes are wide and begin to fill with tears as they glance at their sister.
One of the teens picks up a hand full of dirt and throws it at the girl’s head, some of it spraying onto the boys. She bends her head and shakes it vigorously from side to side while brushing the dirt from her hair with both hands.
“Yer dirty!” says Red laughing. “Get otta our park!”
At that command, two more teens scoop up handfuls of dirt and rub it on the heads of the boys. As they start to cry, the girl embraces each brother and eases him from his swing to the ground. Holding hands, they begin slowly walking away.
When the three children quicken their pace to exit the park, several of the teens spit at them while the others continue throwing handfuls of dirt.
“GET OTTA HERE AND STAY OUT!” Red shouts.
As dirt rains down on the fleeing children, they run across the street to the entrance of Benton House and hurry through the front door.
The Bridgeport teens scatter.
Loocius has been working in Bridgeport for about ten years now. He rides the 31st street bus from east of Halsted—beyond the Italian neighborhood and beyond the Dan Ryan Expressway that some say was built as a barrier to keep his kind out. Loocious is black.
The bus stops in front of Flanagan’s Liquor Store next to The Shack, the hamburger joint where the neighborhood punks hang out. They stand on the corner eating their hamburgers, holding their grease soaked bags of French fries, and occasionally guzzling their bottles of ice cold Coke. Some lean against the pale cinder block building, smoking and flicking their butts into the street, trying to look as tough as they can. Others playfully punch and wrestle each other, stopping occasionally to gesture and curse at the passing cars.
Loocious steps carefully from the front of the bus—one slow step at a time. He’s an old man, probably in his 70’s, dressed in a clean but rumpled shirt and baggy pants and wearing a tattered gray flat cap that he’s probably owned for many years. His hair is tightly curled and gray. He’s about 5 feet 6 inches tall, maybe taller; but he’s always stooped at the shoulders so you really can’t tell. He has a light gray beard, more of a stubble, as if he didn’t have time to shave. As the door closes and the bus departs, Loocious waits for the light to change before crossing the street. Even when there are no cars coming from either direction—he waits. When the light turns green, he walks as if his feet are sticking to tar, moving slowly and deliberately. His head is down as he looks only at his shoes and three feet in front.
One of The Shack teens notices Loocious crossing the street.
“Hey Loocious, looks like it might rain today.”
Loocious turns his head slightly towards the teen, nods almost imperceptibly, smiles, tips his cap, says nothing, then goes back to looking at his shoes and the three feet in front until he reaches the other side. He shuffles to the building just off the corner of 31st and Morgan and enters the door next to an empty storefront. The door opens to a darkened flight of wooden stairs that lead to his dimly lit shop in the basement—below the storefront that’s been empty for five years.
Loocious—he shines shoes and sharpens ice skates, and he’s not supposed to be in Bridgeport—certainly not here, across from The Shack where all the neighborhood punks hang out. The same punks that just last week threw the three black kids out of Bosley park—filled their hair with dirt, laughed at them, spit at them and chased them out because they didn’t belong. But here’s Loocious; he’s here five days a week—across from the thugs who tell him it “looks like it might rain,” and leave him alone. For them, this seems okay. Somehow it makes sense that Loocious could be here five days a week at the bottom of the darkened stairs in his little dim shop—because all he does is shine shoes and sharpen ice skates.
In Bridgeport, sometimes you have to know where you belong—and sometimes you have to know how you belong there.