Where're You From
Why is that so often the first question we ask a stranger? To place him or her geographically, sure, but also in the whole universe of language, culture, and attitudes we associate with place. So it used to be, when people asked me that, I’d mumble apologetically. I longed to say “the mountains of Montana,” “the wilds of Alaska,” “Hollywood California,”—anything but “Chicago”—and watch their faces change as they pictured that dirt-dull, smelly world of steel mills, smokestacks, rail yards—and, of course Al Capone. “Have you seen gangsters?” they’d ask. Or, from a New Englander: “Are there cowboys in the streets?” Other faces would light up. “I’m from Chicago, too!” they cry, beaming. But it turns out they’re from some suburb or other, which is not at all the same. On the rare occasions when they really are from Chicago, they ask “North or South?” That question divides the world into the respectable and not.
Well, I’m a Southsider, which is not, though I’m a Hyde Parker, which has the University of Chicago to lend it dignity. And it’s a neighborhood that has suddenly revived its “posh” history since President Obama has a home there. It’s true there are blocks of posh here and there—most of them dating from the distant past. But I grew up in a six-flat across the alley from the university’s heating plant, printing press, and biological research labs—otherwise known as chicken coops. Lots of us (faculty kids and others) grew up back there, running in the alley, walking fences, building forts, hitching rides on the horse-drawn vegetable cart or begging ice from the milk wagon. Big events were the delivery of mountains of coal to stoke the furnaces of the buildings, the arrival of the monkey-grinder man or, of course, the bells that signaled the Good-Humor man. In the alley, we became Chicagoans.
As we grew older, the campus that would shape our future was our playground. We roller skated and rode our bikes on the quadrangles interlacing paths, tried to catch frogs in Botany Pond, peeked into chapels and otherwise, I'm sure, made a nuisance of ourselves.
Sundays were different. On Sundays we were clean and left the alley to climb the steps to the university’s famous French carillon whose bells we listened to all week—though it was roosters from the chicken-coops that woke us up each day. Or we’d ride in a rocking rail-cart through the coal mine beneath the Museum of Science and Industry, or walk the aisles of Rockefeller Chapel. But on hot summer days, we joined all of the other city-dwellers on lakefront, where everyone retreated to catch the breeze.
This was not my parents’ life, I know. There were four of us children, and this was the Depression. My father was a doctor and so had work, which made us among the fortunate, but my mother fed us on the welfare budget, which was published in the newspapers every week. We lived on the third floor, and my mother sweated or shivered her way up and down three flights of open stairs with every load of groceries, every skinned-up toddler, every basket of clothes.
Laundry was done in the basement of the building next to the stoker that fed the red-bellied furnace. I remember my mother, sweat pouring down her face, stirring the whites boiling in a galvanized steel tub to get rid of the Chicago coal soot that coated everything we touched. When we were old enough, we helped, rinsing clothes in water from the frigid lake—again and again until our hands were blue, the water clear. The yards were always full of someone’s flapping sheets and dirty children playing hide and seek among them—until spotted.
We had no car—few did. The cars of my memory are one or two derelicts permanently parked out front. I remember a big black Packard, magnificent in its chrome. We watched vigilantly for some stranger to arrive and claim it, but I don’t remember that anyone ever did. The other day, I heard someone grieve loudly that they’d been reduced to taking a bus. I blinked. Reduced? In my world, being trusted to pull the wagon the three blocks to the grocery store was an honor, riding the trolley up 55th Street to the lake instead of walking, an adventure. When you’re were really grown up—like about ten—you might be trusted to take the Illinois Central to the Loop by yourself.
Riding streetcars, buses, and trains was being part of the screeching, clanging, whistling city you listened to from your bedroom every night. Sometimes we rode the “El” into the bowels of the city and gazed into back windows of tenements close enough to touch, watching women over their stoves, scolding their children, or looked down into yards like ours, full of urchins and laundry. More often, we took the IC (Illinois Central) which ran along the lake. We stood on the platform, waving at the engineers of passing streamliners bound for Chattanooga, New Orleans and beyond. Heroism was taking the wrong bus and figuring out how to get back home—knowing by passing cityscape when to get off. One day when I was about six, I was daydreaming as we rode the IC home from the Loop, and my family got off without me. I can still see my mother waving frantically at the conductor as the train pulled away. It’s the only time I ever saw a conductor pull the emergency cord and stop a train. My moment of fame, and you can bet they never let me forget it.
I’ve lived long enough now to see my city’s reputation transformed from Sandburg’s Chicago of steel mills, slaughter houses, and coal soot into one of the great cultural centers of the nation. When we took our children to visit their grandparents in Hyde Park, it wasn’t to the six-flat, which had long since been torn down for medical-student housing. Instead, they reveled in the one house my parents ever bought, a wood-paneled, turn-of-the-century gem. Chicago, for them, was skyscrapers, trips to the Aquarium, the Field Museum, Michigan Avenue, the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields. All of these had been there for us, buried behind the mills, rail yards, and gangsters that gave the city its reputation. They were a part of Chicago’s Sunday face. Like us, our children’s favorite was Hyde Park’s Museum of Science and Industry, which by that time had acquired a German U-Boat as well as a coal mine.
I don’t mumble apologetically anymore. When I return to my city, history comes alive. I remember the crackling static of the shortwave, then Hitler’s voice and the German marching songs. At Soldiers Field, I saw President Roosevelt—just a speck down on the field, but his voice silenced the stands and rings in my memory to this day. I’ve ridden Lake Shore drive in the rumble-seat of my uncle’s Dodge--one of the rare car rides of my youth—to the Fourth of July Fireworks at the same field and remember the feel of greatness as the rockets created the American flag. After the war, I watched them bring that submarine across Lake Shore Drive to the museum. They prepared the way with the yellow and black warning diamonds familiar to us all, but this one said, “Submarine Crossing.”
On the Midway, site of the World Fair brought back to life by Erik Larson’s book, The Devil and White City), I waved as General MacArthur passed, conducting his own parade after President Truman brought him home in disgrace. This was his “fading away.”
If you’ve read Larson’s book, you know the picture he paints of my neighborhood—the First Columbian Exhibition alongside the serial murderer collecting his victims from among the visitors. No, I wasn’t there, but White City, its giant white pavilion, was still standing, converted into a roller rink. We had skating parties there. The three-block wide, mile long strip of green that was its midway was the scene of a second Columbian Exhibition in the Thirties. I don’t remember that one, but I was there. My uncle was a sidewalk artist on the Midway, and pencil drawings of my mother, sister, and myself hang on my bedroom wall today. The Midway was our playground, our ball field by summer, skating rink by winter, when it becomes a tunnel for Lake Michigan’s howling winds.
I stood with my brother across the street from the abandoned football stadium, Stagg Field, and watched a squad of soldiers march up and down a silent, empty Ellis Avenue. Any school child could have told you Stagg Field held secret war work—we made up stories about it to entertain our friends. But no one could (or would) tell what those soldiers meant. Not until three years later, when the newspapers blared headlines of Hiroshima, we learned we had watched the opening of the atomic age. The men were a suicide squad to be sent in if the pulling of the rods went wrong.
I was back, standing with the city in shock again, the day Marin Luther King was assassinated. The crowded streets of Hyde Park were jammed with cars, their drivers too afraid of brushing, touching or angering each other to move. In the grocery store, black and white kept a paralyzed distance from one another, clogging the aisles. My nine-year-old pulled my arm. “What’s wrong, Mother? Something’s wrong.”
Then the city around us burst into flames. The word came out: “Hang the flag if you don’t want to be set afire.” My father hung the flag. When we left the city, our radio, tuned to a Chicago station, went silent. Hours later, at home in Ann Arbor, we learned that the Blackstone Rangers and East Side Disciples, gangs from Hyde Park and abutting neighborhoods had met on the Midway. Called a truce and resolved to restore the city to peace.
Sometimes, when others talk of childhoods spent in forests, mountains, or ocean beaches, I sigh with envy, but then I remember being alive in the center of the nation’s history and know it shaped the very personal sense of the nation and culture that permeates my fiction. My first writing coach, Robert Haugh, said, “You write from place.” The years have proved him right, and I’m sure that sense—dominant in The Inheritors—comes from growing up in the ever-changing city--being present in the city’s history.