Re-Channeling Tom Sawyer's Saturday's In My Chicago

Saturdays have usually been a good day for kids. To sleep in, to loaf, to play, to waste, to experiment. But as it turns out, America remembers more about how Tom Sawyer spent his Saturdays than they do mine. It’s had Mark Twain to record a kid’s Saturday 150 years ago; today there just aren’t many Mark Twain’s to report on my generation’s Saturdays.

I’m no Mark Twain, but maybe I can sketch out some of the broad outlines of a sunny Saturday in Chicago during the now misty years of the long-ago Thirties and Forties. If those times interest you, read on. If they don’t, I understand.

You’re 12, and you wake up charged with itchy anticipation. Mom is making some stick-to-the-ribs spring breakfast which by today’s standards is deliciously unhealthy. It was good. She was good. However, this is the last you will see of her until the street lights come on at the end of the day, because right after this last strip of greasy bacon, you and your peers are free and on your own. The city, the streets, especially the magical alleys all belong to you. Without rules or supervisors or even Mr Rogers and Sesame Street to advise you. Remember, no television in the Thirties and Forties; only a few kid shows on radio accented by worlds of pre-adolescent imagination.

Where shall I go…? Well, you sorta follow your nose like the other kids. By foot, by scooter, by bike. Where do you end up…? Well, wherever your Saturday morning whims carry you. Could be the local school playground [didn’t have a lot of fancy parks], or the nearby wading pool [no Olympic size diving boards just wading], or the nearest alley of choice, or how about a 10-cent “EL” pilgrimage from the neighborhood to the splendiferous wonders of the great Chicago Loop where everything was waiting for you from live vaudeville, to world-class emporiums like Marshall Fields featuring the fixtures of the world, to its maze of food stands and 50-cent luncheonettes.

The ride down here was cheap, and the choices around you all within the range of the three bucks you brought with. Most important of all, it was safe. Yes, that pregnant little word so rarely claimed today: Safe. Safe for any 12-year-old pretty much any day, but especially Saturdays. Safe from punks, from gangs, from interfering adults, from a world which was so busy fixating on a Depression at home and a War abroad that it counted on kids to find their own fun, follow the rules, stay out of trouble, oh and be sure you’re home by the time the street lights come on.

Here’s the thing. None of this is out of date. Or out of reach. But without another Mark Twain, it’s all out of style….

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