Brad, you darling old economist or physicist or philosopher or whatever they made of you; you made of yourself over there in Hyde Park, I want to extend a belated thank you. I'd look you up: Google you and send you a proper thank you card, but- I do not remember your last name. I remember that you were attending The University of Chicago, which meant little to me at the time, but now I realize that you were, are to this day, I sincerely hope, quite smart. I wonder now why you took so much time with me. I was cute enough, I guess and bright in a way, although I certainly didn't know as much a I thought I did. And I was, for a summer, the girl net door. Convenience, perhaps. I was visiting my aunt in Oak Park, who lived at that time in a brick three-flat: a building where your family also lived. You guided me into the heart of Chicago, and you intuitively knew what to say, what vistas to explore, what unexpected doors to open that would make a little hayseed like me fall in love.
It was the summer of 1956, mid-point of the “Eisenhower Era”. I had just graduated from high school in South Dakota, soon to enter an Iowa college. My uncle Bill was an attorney, a Colonel in the Air Force who was, for some reason, stationed briefly in Chicago. He and my Aunt Virginia had been visiting her parents, my grandparents, in Sioux Falls where we all lived and they invited me to go back to Chicago with them. Visions of the greater world beyond the confines of Sioux Falls were delivered to our house with Life Magazine and National Geographic. Ike and Mamie were familiar figures although they inhabited the same black and white world as Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth. Not to suggest that Photoplay had ever got past the front porch of our house. Heaven forbid. That guilty pleasure was accessible only at a friend's house, whose parents were less vigilant. Amazonian jungles' dense leathery foliage accented by topaz colored birds and little brown men in loin cloths were my exotic virtual travels. Presidents, movie stars and loin cloths were all of a package: remote, only vaguely related to the corporeal world. There was no television in that house until I was essentially out of it. I was far away in college before the 20” RCA took over the living room. Anyhow, I don't believe that early T.V. simulated reality to a greater degree than the slick fan magazines of the 1950's.
The medium that opened the world to me and to thousands of folks across the country was radio. Before airwaves became cluttered with polemics, AM signals traveled across the prairie unimpeded. Prior to the miracles of penicillin and the myacins, I spent many a feverish vicarious day in Chicago confined as I was to my little bed with bronchial pneumonia. Our old Philco radio next to me on the chest of drawers conveyed a city full of delight and drama to a wan and wheezing child who was also bored to death. I marched around the breakfast table with Don McNeil in the opulent Morrison Hotel, I agonized with the travails of Ma Perkins and I absolutely identified with Mary Noble, my namesake who was living my own aspiration: marriage to a famous film star.
Several years later, as a teenager, late at night I could tune into WMAQ on AM radio secretly steeping my mono-cultural ears in the exotic sounds of Chicago with Daddy-o' Daylie.
God, how I wanted to go to Chicago!
My two younger boy cousins and I sweated and fidgeted for five hundred fifty miles across Iowa and Illinois. The interstate was not yet completed and ordinary people did not have air-conditioned cars. Second-hand smoke from Virginia's Chesterfields billowed from the front seat. I was going to Chicago, I was going to Chicago. Late that steamy evening, we unfolded our damp selves, climbed a flight of stairs and entered a large Craftsman style living room trimmed in dark polished wood. Small built-in benches flanked the recessed brick fireplace. It felt grandly cozy. I had never seen a living room that looked like that.
Of course, this must have been the way living rooms look in Chicago. This was it: I had made it to Chicago.
Daylight roused me up and out to take in the great city. Standing on a landing off the back door- a stopping off place between two flights of wooden stairs, I looked around for evidence of the metropolis. What I saw was the backsides of three story brick buildings exactly like the one I was visiting, all outfitted with a set of rickety unpainted wooden stairways exactly like the one I was standing upon.
Perhaps it was at that very moment that you came jogging down from the apartment above. Perhaps one of us said “Hi”. It may have been a day or two later that my aunt introduced us. At any rate, mollifying my disappointed realization that I was not in Chicago, I was in Oak Park, as I later discovered, you showed up to show me Chicago.
Now that I am familiar with Hyde Park and the University, I understand you with clearer perspective, though, to tell the truth, I don't have a very clear image of you: not tall, I think, with straight dark hair that you were constantly brushing away from your forehead and even though it was July, I seem to see you in a light brown windbreaker. You were intellectual, nerdy, I guess: so the first stop on our tour sort of makes sense. But if you were to pose the same scenario to a young man of your acquaintance today, a grandson, say, as to his choice of venue when “showing off Chicago” to a young woman in the city for the first time, I'd be willing to wager a beer at The Billy Goat that his first thought would not be The Newberry Library. I was puzzled.
“We're going to a library?”
Not what I was expecting, but, after all the city of “big shoulders” has been the purview of great writers like Sandberg, and I considered myself to be a writer, so a library kind of made sense. Fifty years later, finally a Chicago resident, I revisited the venerable fortress of white-gloved academics, and relived the awe, the reverence I felt then. It is a holy place for documents, for history. It gave me the understanding, from the very beginning of my Chicago experience that this city, for all its raucous and tumultuous pasts and brilliant presents, has a deep seated respect for serious thought. And maybe the trip to The Newberry Library wasn't about my edification, it could be that you were doing research that took you there. Going to The Newberry probably was not so unusual for the sophomore U of C egghead who I now realize you were.
A few steps from the Library's sanctified quiet, lies an enclave dedicated to a more boisterous dissemination of wisdom. You called it “Bughouse Square”, a small park where a cluster of folks were noisily engaged in disputation with a bearded figure rhythmically waving a pamphlet as though conducting a Sousa march. You were really taking this in.
“Communist,” you commented.
You didn't have to tell me. That was one piece of information I didn't have to come to Chicago for. My Uncle Jim, great-uncle actually, was the town Communist. He expounded regularly on the evils of capitalism, not in a public square, but stretched out on an oak and leather couch in his Stickley appointed living room. His select assemblage occasionally included a curious young niece, bribed to silent attention with a Nehi soda pop.
That same day we also visited Maxwell Street when it was still Maxwell Street. Tables full of stuff for sale, an open air flea market. Lots of people were milling around: midwestern guys in short sleeved shirts and swarthy gentlemen in heavy black coats. The street was abuzz with good natured laughter and excited conversations in languages foreign to my ears. Tantalizing cooking smells pervaded the atmosphere. Recalling that scene, the pungent redolence of sauerkraut assails me. You told me that this was the real Chicago. Was. Not there anymore. I never had the opportunity to revisit before it melded into the University of Illinois.
You were a gifted tour giver. I have never forgotten that day. A few days later, we went to Riverside Amusement Park.
That memory is vague, possibly because I am, have always been, prone to motion sickness. Of course you wanted to take me for a ride on The Bobs- a guaranteed way to get a terrified girl in your arms. I'm certain that I protested and I'm pretty certain that I did succumb to pressure and reluctantly climbed into the little chair. I don't remember the ride at all; I just hope that I didn't throw up on you.
We talked a lot. I was feeling that my prospective college was not really my choice: it was my Mother's Alma Mater; you were worried that you could not afford to complete your degree at the University. Hours of conversation have faded in memory as the subjects' relevance has faded with the years. But I will never forget your schoolboy rantconcerning a very pretty person of your acquaintance. How you carried on aboutthe libertine behavior of a young woman who had left Chicago for Hollywood. You intimated that she was a fellow student, possibly at U of C, which she wasn't. No doubt it was all just name-dropping to impress me. That was over sixty years ago. I still remember it clearly. Apparently I was impressed. It's fairly certain that Kim Novak wasn't.
But Brad...I was kind of in love with you.