I would like to continue with some memories about my childhood in Bridgeport. Following are two short stories that hopefully will give you a flavor of what it was like for me living in this simple, blue collar neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago in the mid-50’s.
In my first story, “Sweet and Sour,” I recall the local candy store that was no more than 100 yards from my house. Bridgeport had many such stores, sometimes no further than a couple blocks apart, that were privately owned by residents who were too old to continue working more strenuous jobs, but still needed to have a steady, modest income. It would sometimes be obvious that the owner of one of these neighborhood candy stores wasn’t doing it for the love of the job nor their fondness for children.
Al shouldn’t own this store. The sign says he does, but he shouldn’t.
Al’s Candy Store —that’s what’s painted on the window in red, outlined in yellow, with three little blue balloons and trailing strings floating above the word “Candy.” It’s an open invitation to all children. But, there should be a law that says even if you don’t like kids; if you’re going to own a candy store, you should at least be able to tolerate them. There’s something about candy that screams “kids” and someone who owns a store that sells it shouldn’t hate children.
Al’s Candy Store sits on the southwest corner of Bonfield and Lyman in the heart of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. It’s on the bottom floor of a three story red brick tenement with several apartments above. There’s a small wooden bench in front – not much of a bench, just a plank of wood between two blocks of concrete with barely enough room for three children. But the size doesn’t matter, because Al never wants kids sitting there anyway. “Don’t be hanging around here. This ain’t a bus stop,” is his response as soon as two or more kids sit there longer than five minutes.
It isn’t an attractive corner for a candy store. The only warm colors in sight are from Al’s sign on the window. Approaching it from the other side of the block, you have to cross a pitted asphalt street then a cracked concrete sidewalk that runs to the bottom of two crumbling cement stairs that lead to a pitted dull gray door, once black.
The inside is immaculate; something expected in a neighborhood where mothers wash the curbs in front of their homes at the beginning of every spring. The wood floors are cinnamon brown except at the glass candy case where they’re scuffed white by the feet of children giddy with excitement. The walls are a pale yellow and the ceiling a dull cream, cracked and peeling in spots – a repair job saved for the winter months when business slows. Two ceiling fans sputter overhead, barely able to push the air away from their blades let alone comfort the patrons wilting below, sweat building into droplets racing past cheeks and down necks until they’re wiped away with a quick swipe of a hand.
When you enter, the sweet aroma takes your senses hostage. Your eyes are immediately drawn to the glass encased counter that stretches the length of the store. And when you inhale, the smell of sugar waters your mouth with every breath taken. There’s candy from one end of the counter to the other; Hershey, Zagnut, and Almond Joy bars are mixed between Mary Janes, Nik L Nips, Bulls Eyes, Slo Pokes and every treat a kid could imagine; all just lying there - waiting. You can hear the candy beckoning you. And if it wasn’t for the glass encasing this treasure chest just inches away, you would gladly oblige their siren call.
But craving is not the sole determinant of choice. No, that’s tempered by the amount of change jingling in your pocket —candy too quickly consumed leaves you with nothing more than fleeting contentment. Slo-Poke is always a good choice. A three inch piece of flattened caramel on a stick lasts a long time; a good bargain for five cents.
As you sidestep down the counter, stopping at your favorite candy and pressing your fingers and nose to the glass, out of the corner of your eye you can glimpse him standing there. He seems 110 years old; stoop shouldered, thin and wrinkled, with a scowl permanently etched on his face beneath his furrowed brow. He never really looks at you; he cuts into you through those tiny slits that hide the color of his eyes. His voice is gravelly as if his throat is coated with sand.
“Don’t touch the counter! You’re getting it greasy! Whataya want?”
“I’m not sure. I’m just lookin.”
“Well, hurry up! I ain’t got all day. How much you buyin?”
“I gotta quarter.” Then, backing away from the counter, “ Uh…uh…uh… I’ll have one Slo-Poke and …uh… uh…”
Before the next choice is made, Al drops the Slo-Poke in a small brown paper bag and starts his running tally, “Okay, you got twenty cents left. What else?”
“Uh… I’ll have three Mary Janes?”
“Okay, fourteen cents more. What else?”
While doing this, his darting eyes follow any kids who wander to other sections of the store. “Whataya lookin for over there,” he shouts as they near the rubber balls and pinwheels. “Don’t touch nuttin!”
If curiosity defeats Al’s warnings, with balls and pinwheels being touched anyway, Al’s quick with his next edict. “Alright, I told you not to touch that stuff! Go outside and wait for your friends! I don’t want more than two kids in here at a time.”
And we listen. We listen because we are children of mothers who wash the curbs in front of their homes at the start of every spring. We listen because this is Al’s candy store and he owns it – even though he shouldn’t.
The second short story is about how important a nick name was for me. When I was only 13 years old it seemed that all the kids in my neighborhood had a nickname – well maybe not all, but certainly all the cool kids. It may sound silly, but to be called by something other than your “given” name set you apart from all the other kids. If your name was “Bob,” you were no different than any other “Bob” in the neighborhood. But, if you were called “Moon” – even if no one knew why or what it meant - that distinguished you from all the other “Bobs.”
One would think a thirteen year old kid would hate being called that. Tom Clefkis didn’t seem to mind. He was the smartest kid on Bonfield Street, but that wasn’t going to win him any friends in this neighborhood. Hell, he barely knew which end of a baseball bat to hold. His nose was one of those Roman shaped ones that seemed to start in the middle of his forehead and jutted out to just above his upper lip. So, we called him Hosenose. He almost seemed to enjoy this distinction that set him apart from all the other guys. In fact if a new kid in the neighborhood called him “Tom,” he would defiantly utter, “The name’s Hosenose!”
I always thought there was something mysterious about a nickname. It could define you in one or two words and it could make you a part of a group or an outcast. Hosenose couldn’t play any sport. He just sat there on the sidelines watching; couldn’t even pitch horseshoes. Yet, he was one of us because he seemed to be almost proud of his name and that, in and of itself, was just so cool.
I so badly wanted a nickname when I was growing up. It seemed as if everybody had one but me. Deep down I knew that wasn’t true, but my desire to be called something other than my Christian name was so intense that all I could see was what wasn’t, rather than what was.
There was “Corncob” who had a problem with acne and had these funny little bumps all over his face. He seldom hung out with us because he had to help with his dad’s business - the little white push cart on the corner of 32nd and Aberdeen. Their entire family took shifts selling hot dogs and tamales eight months of the year until too many of their customers hibernated from winter’s freeze. I never even knew Corncob’s real name. Maybe he was named after his father who owned that little white pushcart for over twenty years - “Mike’s” painted on the side in faded red letters. It really didn’t matter; he was just Corncob to us, the son of the guy who sold the best hot dogs in Bridgeport.
“Crazy Jake” was, well, just crazy. He was about 17 and four years older than me when I knew of him. He was broad, muscular, often drunk, and always angry. The last memory I have of him was in the middle of December, when the temperature was below freezing and snowflakes were swirling in the blustering Chicago wind. Crazy Jake stood shirtless in the middle of Archer Avenue, a major thoroughfare through Bridgeport, holding a fifty gallon garbage can high above his head, staggering from one lane to the next and screaming threats at each approaching car that swerved around him. After several minutes, he finally smashed the garbage can onto the windshield of an empty parked car, then simply stood there laughing. He could have been drunk, or just crazy; it didn’t matter. I wasn’t about to stick around to find out what happened next.
“DP Wally,” was a recent immigrant from Poland. He had just been expelled from Kelly High School during his freshman year when he and his posse of dropouts and truants decided to take over Bosley Park, a fenced in playground on Bonfield Street that held our baseball field and basketball court. DP Wally and some of his thugs stood at Bosley’s main entrance, informing whoever tried to enter, that “the park was closed today” - punctuating his edict by flashing his zip gun from under his jacket. Word quickly spread to the Jolly Rogers, a local “social club,” who arrived with two screeching carloads of bat and chain wielding “club members.” The last time I saw DP Wally, he was running east down 31st Street with a host of Jolly Rogers rapidly gaining ground.
Some nicknames were given because of athletic prowess, like Tim Bady who was called “Puma” because of his cat-like smooth, quiet, quickness on the basketball court. Others had no obvious connection to anything specific. There was “Mutt,” basically a nice guy, but a bit of a bully; “Pixie” who was tall and thin, but a hell of a fighter who didn’t mind the name; and “Yardbird” who had the honorable distinction of two nicknames, also being called “Shribbles.”
Even some of the neighborhood girls had nicknames: “Nickle Nips” who always seemed to have those little wax bottles filled with flavored syrup that she sucked dry every day; “Yokohama Yogi” who was as large as a bear and could crush anyone, girl or guy, who called her that, but never did because she enjoyed the notoriety; and “Miss Mountains” who got her’s for obvious reasons.
What was there about a nickname that made me crave having one during most of my childhood? Why was the obsession so strong that it brought me to a point where I began carrying pockets full of peanuts in a shell, constantly eating them in front of my friends, hoping they would make the connection? I was so desperate for one that I would have accepted something as demeaning as “Peanuts.”
I would have welcomed any nickname, absolutely any that would have instantly set me apart. Well, almost any– not “Hosenose.”