the role of memory in writing fiction

The writing is going. Note the lack of qualifier, because every superstitious Italian cell in my body is telling me to shut up now.

So something very different.

Once in a while when I’m procrastinating, I will go online and look at real estate in Chicago. In the neighborhood where I grew up, which is sometimes called the St. Ben’s neighborhood. Because St. Benedict Parish is in the middle of it. That’s where I went to school, first grade to twelfth. I do this out of perverse need to see what I can’t have, and also because it’s just amazing. The neighborhoods around Ben’s are mostly made up of brick two flats, with an occasion full fledged stand alone house, or an apartment building. I remember when I was eighteen, a friend of my father’s bought one of the two flats for 34K.

In the eighties the neighborhood teetered on the edge of real trouble for a while, and then it got sucked into the gentrification process. So now I browse real estate listings of those old two flats that have been renovated into one family homes, and go for someplace between $700K and over a million. These are nice neighborhoods, mind you. Lots of old trees and little postage stamp grass yards front and back, a real sense of community. That’s what you get for your million.

So while I was looking at houses, a map of the neighborhood came up and it seemed off to me. I had to study it for a few minutes before I realized what was wrong.

A whole hospital had gone missing.

Martha Washington Hospital used to sit on about five acres at the corner of Irving Park Road and Western. It was a small hospital by any standards. My great uncle Ben was on the board of directors, and he got me a job there. I worked full time as a nursing assistant for almost a year, and then part time when I was an undergrad.

My memories of that period of my life are pretty vivid, but I almost never talk about them. Or I never used to talk about them. But ever since I read about the hospital being torn down (to make way for senior housing), images keep popping into my head and bits of stories and memories. I think this has to do with the fact that I’ve finally admitted to myself that the Chicago I remember, the one I grew up in and lived in until I moved away for good at 25 — doesn’t exist anymore. Pieces of it are still there. Ann Sather’s, and Wrigley Field, and Lutz’s Cafe. But so much is gone. Martha Washington is just one example. The Maxwell Street Market, Riverview, these are institutions that are long gone, but are still very much present in my internal picture of the city.

Now see, I went and got all maudlin. Obviously I need to go back to work.