Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Chicago that once was

All this rain in Chicago lately has brought me back to a time when I was but a wee sprout.  It's a vivid memory of rain, flooding, roadways, and the things that went down in Chicago on a summer night in 1975.  As background, I grew up in Northwestern Indiana.  Then, it was a place of steel mills, Ford manufacturing, and houses thrown up in the 60s to accommodate the rush from the south to fill those jobs, along with the rush of soldiers returning from Viet Nam happy to use the benefits Uncle Sam gave them to set up housekeeping and raise a family.  It was a suburban place, in the shadow of the city of big shoulders, but it was also gritty with the residue of those factories.  Most dads worked, and most moms either stayed at home or held nursing, teaching, or secretary jobs "in the city" which meant taking the train into downtown.  As it is today, people there root for the Bears, not the Colts, The Bears, not the Pacers, but Indiana University basketball was the only college team.

One set of grandparents lived on the north side of Chicago, in culture a universe away from my neighborhood in Northwestern Indiana, but only about 45 minutes in good traffic.  The land traversed between passes some lovely neighborhoods that look onto the lake.  It also passes neighborhoods that had become crime riddled and still have issues today.  The Dan Ryan Expressway wound through 12 miles of the south side, giving a view of some Chicago housing projects that were beginning to become bleak, hopeless places to live. There were also many, many viaducts that spanned the expressway, connecting both sides for cars to turn around or people to walk across.  These viaducts had large drains that connected to Chicago's underground drain systems that were far from sufficient.  It wasn't unusual for these drains to back up and traffic to be at an absolute standstill for hours.  Chicago was in the Mayor Bilandic years, where the budget was cut to the bone and services weren't really helping people (Fun fact for non-locals!  Mayor Bilandic was literally defeated by SNOW.  An epic storm accosted the city, and in more cost saving measures, Bilandic didn't mobilize street cleaning crews for side streets for DAYS.  No one could get out, the city was near paralyzed, and it wasn't until days later people were free of snow and ice, just in time to vote in our first female mayor, Jane Byrne, who only had until then a small amount of the vote).

I don't remember why we were at my grandparents' house that Sunday, but I remember waiting as long as possible for the rain to die down. It was late by the time we'd left, and we must have been out of town somewhere, because we were transporting my cat home too.  I had to get to school and my mom to work the next morning, so we left when it was still raining, but less. We got to about 59th Street, and things slowed and eventually stopped.  The viaduct was flooded.  The rain stopped, and it was still flooded.  People got out of their cars to investigate.  We all knew it could be hours.  No one moved to go onto the side streets to try their luck, because night time in the summer then, flooding would not be a worry, but it would be replaced with others.

I remember cars, big glorious American made boats of steel.  We had a Gremlin (don't laugh).  But THESE cars, these were not the tame blue and white and maybe maroon or tan of my neighborhood.  No, there were purple cars, yellow ones that were so bright, they could have been the sun, with windows dark as night so it would be impossible to know of one or ten people were riding within.  An ice cream truck near us waited about half an hour before turning on his music and starting to sell off his cold, melting treats.  He was sold out in less than 20 minutes.  My mom, alone at night in a less than fabulous neighborhood, even by expressway standards with her 7 year old and a cat wasn't adventurous enough to take me to get ice cream.  I was crushed.

That was when a lovely caramel skinned beauty with a Tina Turner wig (the long red, not the spiky Thunderdome one) noticed me.  She cooed over my cat, cooed over me, turned to her ebony toned friend with teased out hair, and soon both were cooing over me and my kitty.  They were dressed in the fanciest dresses I'd ever seen. They had spangles and necklines cut so low little was left to the imagination.  What was left would be erased when the slits that went almost to their waists were seen.  My mom started gulping when she saw what we had coming toward us.  A giant of a man with a white fur hat (with a long feather in the band), a full-length mink coat, and a purple suit underneath was headed for us, not looking too happy.

The women, who called him "Daddy" a fact I questioned my mother at length about for months to no avail, told him they were sorry they'd drifted off, pointing out the unmistakeable cuteness of cat and girl.  Holding about 10 ice cream items in one giant paw of a hand, he looked at me, looked at my mom, the beat up state of our car, and he promptly told me to "pick you some, baby" and held out the ice cream.  Years later, my mom told me she was gulping air, hoping not to hyperventilate, on the other side of the car, as she could see beyond the ice cream, the coat, and the suit to the full gun holster that matched his size this man had strapped to his side. 

All of this took place over the course of about an hour.  It stayed dry, and soon we noticed people getting into their cars and starting to ease forward, only to stop again.  The ladies talked me up, and my mom made pleasant conversation with them.  As the man sidled over to my mom's side of the car, we heard a cheer from closer to the viaduct, and people scrambled to their cars.  The water had gone down, and we could pass!  My mom fumbled into the car, the ladies made sad faces we had to part as they licked their bomb pops, and the giant man came to my side of the car. He said "take care, baby" and shoved another ice cream in my hand, shouting that the ladies needed to get in car, and we parted ways speedily.

I looked at the sloppy ice cream I'd almost dropped because it was nearly melted through, my eyes getting bigger.  Then I handed my mom the $100 bill folded and wrapped around the package.  Mom told me to "be quiet" even though I hadn't said a word and drove on home.

The things that happen on a summer night in Chicago in 1975. . .

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