Ohio Street

The newbies don’t know you like we do. We used to hang out on the steps waiting for the ice cream truck at 11 pm, remember? Sure, we were kids and maybe we shouldn’t have been out that late, but we liked the dark and admit it, you liked us out there too.

There were only three concrete steps in front of our house, but that’s where we waited for the ice cream truck to cruise by. The song blared from two blocks away as we gathered up as much change as we could from mom’s old, ceramic vase (the light blue one with the chip on the side). It wasn’t my fault it fell. We looked under the couch cushions and found some more money. The rest we got from dad. Strawberry and vanilla cones for everybody.

The night kissed our cheeks and we laughed as we breathed in the last of the warm summer air.  A small chill brushed against my legs and I rubbed them to get the warmth back. Fall was coming. We could feel it.

We ate the crap out of that ice cream, which was just enough to keep us wanting more; the high of sugar—every kid’s dream. And then we went to bed, in the same clothes, no brushed teeth and you knew it and we knew it.

We spent our mornings bike riding, back and forth, down the block. Don’t go too far! Just go around the corner and back! Our wheels crushed the leaves—pulverizing them to dust. And when our parents went inside, our neighbors watched because every kid in the neighborhood belonged to every adult.

And before I put my bike away, I gave our tree, the biggest one on the block, a hug because trees need love too.

That afternoon, we made our way to the Boys and Girls Club, where we’d jump from the top of the steps. We should be dead, but we’re not. No hesitation. No fear. That’s what saved us. Every day, they gave us small cardboard boxes filled with a sandwich, a milk, a snack, and an apple. Nobody would admit it to anybody else, but we were all starving.

And then we’d make our way to Smith’s Park where we’d swing for hours and go down the slide, but mostly swing.

On the way home, we’d hit one of three corner stores: the Damen one, the Erie one, and the one owned by the gangbangers that we weren’t supposed to go to. Damn, why did the gangbanger corner store have the best candy?

We checked our pockets—thirty-five cents. Penny candies it was!

Ukranian Village, you know us and we know you. The newbies could never know you like we do.

Writer:  Janina R. Williams
Location:  Ohio Street

52nd & California


52andCalifornia

 

I blame it on the butcher-block paper. That was probably what threw us off, what enabled my sister and me to distort our childhood memory of the Pope’s visit to our neighborhood. A hand-made, trilingual welcome hung above the windows of my grandparents’ grocery store:

WITAMY!

BENVENUTO!

WELCOME POPE JOHN PAUL II!

Over the years, my grandfather posted many similar signs throughout his business; hand-lettered in black and outlined in red for a 3-D effect. Bert’s Groceries sold everything from fresh “sweet rolls,” to use  the local vernacular, to fennel-infused Italian sausage. A butcher-block paper sign next to the counter boasted several varieties of Pierogis:

CHEESE

PLUM

SAUERKRAUT

Many customers mistakenly called my grandfather “Bert,” however, the name derived from our family name – Bertucci.  Bert’s was only one of four such Mom-and-Pop groceries in our neighborhood: there was Cizek’s on 51st, John’s on Richmond, and Millie’s on Maplewood.

Bert’s, like these and so many other neighborhood stores throughout Chicago at that time, occupied about 600 square feet in the front of the building, and was connected to the house in back by a door hidden behind a partition. My parents would drop my younger sister Anna and me off there every morning before school, and pick us up every evening to take us back home to 62nd and Troy.

* * *

More than three decades before he would be canonized as Saint, and less than two years before his attempted assassination by Mehmet Ali Ağca, Pope John Paul II, traveling in an open motorcade, really did visit Chicago in October of 1979, as is well-documented in newspapers and photographs.

More significantly, for us, the Pope, en route to say Mass at Five Holy Martyrs (known locally as “Fives,”) traversed South California Avenue. California was the main thoroughfare of our quarter of Gage Park, bordered to the West by Central Steel and Wire, and to the East by Nightingale Elementary. Our community had anticipated the event for weeks, and local officials scurried to make last minute beautifications including painting over graffiti. On that chilly October morning, a throng gathered on street corners including 52nd and California, to await the Pope. On the East side, they huddled in front of St. Simon’s, and on our side, friends, family and longtime patrons set up lawn chairs in front of Bert’s Groceries. My uncle Vic referred to Bert’s as a “bar for people who didn’t drink.” This was handily supported by the many customers who would bare their souls to my grandparents. Standing behind us, awaiting the Pope that morning, was Al, a Battle of the Bulge veteran who talked to my grandfather during the slow hours of the workday. I timed these conversations by Al’s appearance when we left for school before 9:00 a.m., and his continued presence when we came back for lunch. Al would draw a stool up to the counter and rest on his elbows between the giant bucket of kosher pickles and the stack of honey  wafers. As they talked, my grandfather sliced cheese and chicken loaf for us to take to the back, where my grandmother would make our sandwiches.

Also waiting in that crowd was Arlene, a divorcée who poured her heart out to my grandmother as I, a naive fourth grader, sauntered through the store, pretended not to listen, and grasped only a portion of the context. My grandmother would often interrupt Arlene’s triste soliloquies to remind me that our sweet rolls were in the kitchen. These treats varied from custard-filled paczkis to fruit kolačkys, and our grandmother let us set aside the best ones before she opened the store every morning. Anna and I would wash the sweets down with chocolate milk while watching Gilligan’s Island. Later, after we did our homework we’d roller-skate, ride bikes, or be pulled along by our grandparents’ dog Taffy through alleys and up and down sidewalks. When we weren’t outside, we spent hours behind the counter in the store. Our grandfather had taught us how to operate the cash register, and occasionally asked us to man the store if he had to run to the back. To my grandfather’s chagrin, I once turned away a customer looking for orange juice, not knowing that he kept boxes of the concentrated drink in the basement.

Anna and I truly were kids in a candy store;  our grandparents never once tried to rein us in. Sometimes, my grandfather would teach me the Calabrese dialect, or we would spell words backwards. The latter became our secret language and he would utter various words for me to decipher, such as acoC-aloC, or, donutS, an anagram of his dialect spelling for “stupid.”

That morning, when the Pope finally arrived, his car passed the store slowly enough for him to read our sign. Holding his red papal hat in one hand, he raised the other to make the sign of the cross.

Decades later Anna and I reminisced about this with our Auntie Lillie. Anna and I simultaneously recalled (as we often do, speaking in stereo,) how proud our grandfather was that the pope blessed his store and his hand-made sign. There were a few minutes of silence as my aunt stared at the two of us incredulously. She finally spoke and reminded us that the Pope’s visit was in October. My grandfather had passed away the previous summer.

“Then who made the 3-D sign on butcher-block paper?”

I asked, too stunned to alter a memory that was so crystalline not only in my mind, but in Anna’s as well. My aunt told me that she, in fact, had made the sign.

“So Grandpa wasn’t there?”

Anna and I asked. My aunt shrugged, and I thought, but did not express, that if Anna and I had both remembered it that way, it could only mean that in some way, he was indeed with us, and Bert’s Groceries, although closed for business within weeks of his death, had lived on as well.

 

Writer:  Pia L. Bertucci
Photographer:  Bruno F. Bertucci

To Ride Home on His Handlebars

chicagoliterarymap

 

Once again I’ve gotten myself mixed up and met you at that Mexican place we both love. Who says I can’t have huevos rancheros for dinner? And coffee to wash it down? And a pitcher of horchata? And a boy to grin golden grins at me from across the table? No one. No one says that. And that is what this neighborhood is. They don’t look twice, and they don’t think I’m wearing the wrong shoes with these pants, and they don’t forget to smile when they recognize me on the sidewalk. They’ve got kids and they know what it is to work and to be happy and to be exhausted all at the same time. Kids with blue shoes kick their legs back and forth at the table next to us. Kids with brown eyes as big as the moon. Kids with their bikes whirring past us on the sidewalk.

I’ve forgotten my bike again. This always happens because I’m forever coming from here or from there—places where my bike never is. It’s blue and old and has yellow tape that I liked once, but it’s not here so we decide to go on foot. You walk your bike even though I know you’re aching to ride it because it’s new and fast and you know you look good on it. We named it once, do you remember? It was cold that day, but we rode along the lake anyway, far from our neighborhood, our Southwest Side. But now we’re home, more or less, walking down 18th Street, turning down side roads when it comes time, and debating politics while the sun slides down our backs. The tops of pale green reeds are poking through the chain link fence, and I just want to run my fingers through them. I’m not really listening to what you’re saying, but I like the way it sounds.

As the hours slip by unnoticed, the reds, yellows, and oranges turn gray and green, but we can’t see it from our place inside under the window. The first thing we sense is the breeze because it suddenly smells of impending rain. A storm is coming, we both know it, and I should probably get home so I won’t get caught like last time, the time when we got your bike and named it and rode along the lake. Do you remember? This time it will be different, and I’ll go before the rain starts. It will be different because this time when you say “Trust me!” and ask me to ride on your handlebars I’ll say yes. Finally, I’ll say yes. I don’t know if I trust you or if I just don’t want to get wet, but here we go. Shaky at first, and I’ve torn my jacket jumping up on the metal bars (are they metal?), but it gets easier. I lean back against you, and your head rests near my shoulder as you pedal, finding your rhythm. Onward we go through tiny back streets flanked with murals both grotesque and wonderful with colors still visible in the waning daylight.

It’s getting darker now, and the quiet desolation of 16th Street breaks only at the incessant chiming of those railway bells, the ones I’ve never seen, only heard, like legends told before campfires. They sound so hollow and lonely, yet there are many of them. I think I’d like to find them with you sometime. What do you think? Maybe some time when the rain isn’t threatening. Maybe some time when I remember to bring my bike. Maybe then. But for now I’ll just have to ride home on your handlebars, down Wolcott and back to 18th where we meet once again with the rest of the world, the rest of the buzzing, singing world.

 

Writer:  Carrie Laski
Location:  Ashland & 18th

My Time at the Pacific Garden Mission

Then came the day they told me I was going to Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago. My mind barely registered what was written on the card, simply an address with no directions. I had a hazy thought of some run down homeless shelter in the middle of a bad neighborhood. Then I was out. After a year of being a lone shut-in that barely talked out loud, I was in the hot July sun, breathing fresh air and trying to see, my eyes squinting. I remember the cut grass lawn, how it smelled so much better than the stale air of Read. My feet where not used to the uneven surface and there where no walls to guide my walk. I climbed onto the CTA bus with just a bag of old clothes to my name and a months supply of the meds they had me on. How ironic, that after spending a month on suicide watch, they send you out on your own with enough drugs to kill yourself with. The smells where overwhelming. What with the year of only smelling myself and not having a cigarette in months, it was not good timing to have my nose start working again. I could feel perfumes wrap around my face like a wet towel. I recall standing on an L platform, the Montrose blue line stop, and hearing the stark roar of cars screaming by on either side as I kept from stumbling over the unguarded edge to the rails. Presently, I was on the rocking and swaying subway, lights flashing by as I tried to get my sea-legs, the squeal of the rails so loud that my eyes squeezed shut. I had gone from death’s waiting room to a toboggan flying down the slope of an erupting volcano… and I didn’t care, my mind was a blank.

The mission didn’t look at all like I thought it would. It is a big, solid and clean structure that greeted me on the inside with a wide inviting hallway who’s floor is painted yellow. The PGM is a miracle. They get no federal funding, yet feed, shower and give beds to over 600 people a night. More than just temporary comfort, they also provide a life changing Bible program to those that want to try to get back on their feet.

When I had walked in, I had no idea of anything, no thought on what my future might be, and any wild thoughts of being ‘rescued’ from my situation had long ago faded. I merely existed. I stopped at the security kiosk and asked where to go. The guard could tell I was new and offered up a sack lunch and told me to sit on a bench near by. The food was the best I had had in months, as the food at Read was nasty government surplus swill. Soon, a kind grey-haired old man called my name and waved me onto his tiny office. His name was Wendle Davis and within 5 minutes got me to smile for the first time in weeks. he explained that I could do like 90% of the men there and live on the edge, or I could join the Bible program and sleep in a separate, safer area upstairs, all I had to do was sign a 30-day agreement.

Now, every decision I had made in my life so far was wrong, so I wasn’t in any hurry to go down any road too fast. I thanked Wendle and told him I’d read the paperwork and think about it. It took me an hour of reading and pondering on that bench, I was way too tired to walk anywhere, and finally decided to sign up. I had nothing left to loose.

The next few days where kind of a blur. They gave me clothing, a bag of toiletries and a top bunk up in dorm 3026. When I think of 3026, I think of the inside of a submarine with 60 guys and a skosh more room. It measures about 60×50 foot, it’s hot and stuffy and well, there are a lot of sounds and smells that guys make while snoring and out the other end. Oddly enough, you get used to the smells after a week, but I’ll never get used to the sounds.

Rules, there are lots of rules, and they are needed. You are dealing with a bunch of guys that did it their way so much that most have lost everything, so we need structure.

Writer:  Zac Lowing
Location: Pacific Garden Mission