Wednesday, June 25, 2008

'hood, one part

‘ hood
During the early years of Elvis and Little Richard but before the Beatles, we grew up in an area in central Chicago searching for its’ own identity. Like when someone asked you what part of Chicago were you from, you didn't have an easy answer like Lincoln Park or Rogers Park or Uptown or even Bridgeport where the Mayor lived throughout his five elections and our lifetime. We lived in the harmless sounding "near west side" – surrounded by produce terminals, the sanitary drainage canal and railroad tracks to either side.
Mayor Daley didn't campaign in our neighborhood because it wasn't necessary. Vito Marzullo, the alderman and boss of our 25th ward, got out the vote always in numbers far greater than registered voters. Vito, in his latter years as dean of the city council, was invited to Harvard University where he lectured on practical politics; such as empowering the precinct captains with the delivery of garbage cans or handing out jobs - like being the pick and shovel man on a curb and gutter crew.
One of my blood brothers was Dominic - he is Italian and I am Lithuanian, (most of us were one or the other) - well, he had his sights on becoming part of the Daley machine when he got out of the Army. He was in about the same time as Elvis but he never saw him. Dom got an honorable discharge and became an assistant precinct captain, which meant he would also have a job working for the city - except on election days when he was a chauffeur to the polling places.
He had a real passion for this calling and he would assist people in pulling the levers on the voting machine. Of course, Dominic swore he was doing no wrong and most of the people in the neighborhood felt exactly the same way. All through our young lives we knew the President was a Republican and everything else was Democratic. Dominic was inspired to work hard this campaign because one of our blood brothers Joey Margiola told him he was having trouble sleeping ever since the Russians put "the Sputnik" into space. Joey did all kinds of cerebral thinking and we had a lot of faith in him because he would read magazines all the time and he read a lot of books, too. So, in 1960 Vito and the Democratic machine and guys like Dominic got out the vote to elect John F. Kennedy and the rest of the country helped them do it.
But this 'near west side' thing was the real challenge for us; you see, the voters constantly turned out 88% Democratic (the other 18% Republican) so we never made the news as a "key" precinct; therefore, we never got named. There was a local newspaper that ran a banner proclaiming the area "The Heart of Chicago" except nobody outside the neighborhood ever read it and so, like if you were at a dance on the North Side and said you were from the "Heart of Chicago" it didn't help.

I think the only place in the city you could find other people from "the Heart" was Twelfth Street beach in the summertime. The sand beach wasn't the greatest, but it was big, and the waves carried little grimy-bits that stayed on you when you got out. It has a large grassy hill and meadow between Miegs field and the Planetarium – a great spot for getting sun and watching the girls. We could just put some cocoa butter on and soak up the rays or we could do something masculine like throw a softball around and onto the blanket of some good looking babe so we could check her out.

Every year this chick named Sandy was there and she had the darkest suntan and the greatest knockers we'd ever seen and a radio that played all the 'right' songs. She was slim, tall, blonde and dark from the sun and cocoa butter mix and she was forever sixteen. Bobby Siers worked hard at being as brown and would go out early in the morning to get a perfect spot on the hill, maximizing the angles of the sun and its rays. Joey would throw a ball onto Sandy’s blanket so Bobby Siers – the last of the ‘Four Bloods’, - could go over and hold his arm next to hers. He never quite made her color and would walk away with the ball and humming the song from her radio would say to us "Wait till next week and I'll ask her for a date".

Cooling Bobby down was easy at Twelfth Street beach by walking out to "the rocks" to dive into the chilly waters of Lake Michigan and swim out far enough to make the lifeguards uneasy. It's for sure they had no desire to swim out to the cold waters and eventually we would honor their frantic whistling and head back. But, Joey and Bobby and Dominic and me and this other guy named Chuck would go to the other side of the Planetarium where there were no lifeguards and we could swim straight west to the Aquarium.
Then one time out Chuck said we had no balls if we didn't try for the breakwater. It looked kind of far to the rest of us but Chuck said we could do it. I didn't always trust his judgement but I never doubted his courage. When we were thirteen he broke his arm as I ran over him with a bicycle. He never held it against me so I figured this was a guy who wouldn't let me drown. So, we swam to the breakwater that formed a harbor for the boats anchored across from Buckingham Fountain. Their white sails sparkled like diamonds in the bright sun. My eyes watered, the diamonds got bigger and I promised myself a handful.
It was a lot tougher swim than we had imagined; struggling against an unknown current, we finally reached the breakwater and when the grime next to the concrete filled our hands we felt it to be quite slimy - not at all like the rough cut of a diamond. We climbed, exhausted, onto the concrete lifesaver while our stubbornness, courage and strength faded. We waited; ….to signal for help from one of the passing boats.
As they helped us into their boat, they at first thought we capsized and that we swam to the breakwater for safety. Joey told them we had no boat and just needed help ashore and we could see a concern come over their faces as if they had just picked up a band of pirates.
Nobody I knew in "the Heart" had a sailboat, so this was my first time in one. I coveted both it and the pretty, young ladies aboard breaking two commandments at the same time. Joe was watching me check out one of the chicks and said to me "It's for sure you're going to burn in hell".

For all we knew Hell was being manufactured right in our neighborhood in an abandoned trolley car facility on 24th street. From the early nineteen hundreds to the early fifties electric cables criss-crossed the city powering what we called streetcars cars that ran on tracks down the middle of our streets. This sprawling barn was for maintenance and repair of those cars for the southwest side of Chicago’s transportation system. We saw the tracks paved over with asphalt and the car barns were slowly converted to accommodate buses. The last trolley rolled out on the flatbed of a truck – the tracks were gone when it left. By 1959 the barn was downsized even for bus maintenance and nobody knew what was going on inside. The Chicago Daily News ran a story about how the hottest temperature ever recorded was generated below the ground right there in that old brick and steel barn. It was time for Vito to act! His heat, however, was saved for us.
Presiding at a nervous community meeting, the classy, portly and bespectacled Vito Marzullo, speaking broken English, accused us of overreacting and standing in the way of progress. Johnny Torino asked, "Please tell us what is really going on"?
Vito said, "You woudn' unnestan; so I'm a no tella you to make lies".
"But are we in danger? What about our drinking water? What about our children", Johnny asked?
Vito started to turn red and shook three fingers right at Johnny and said, "Whenna you come to me an you ask me "Alderman, is everything O.K.", an I say "yes", …. don' ask me nomore. You got da annsr".
He walked away from the makeshift podium, right out of the building. In two days, the cars that came for years stopped coming and I saw four trucks pull out one night at about two thirty and head straight toward Western Avenue.
Hell came and went - it didn't feel any different when it was gone.
Dominic told us that it was the alderman had listened to us and took swift action to make the neighborhood safe for the children. People started to talk about the whole deal and figured if Vito couldn't tell us what was going on how could he have done something about it. Cerebral Joey tried to tell Dominic to cool his rhetoric, but Dom said it would get votes for Kennedy. They didn't need that story to get the vote but Dom continued to make a hero of Vito Marzullo. It was a good story at Harvard - told from "the heart".
A nod to Stuart Dybeck - who lived and grew in a parallel universe

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