This entry is part 8 of 19 in the series Memoir

I grew up on a busy street in Chicago. By age six I could cross four lanes of traffic by myself, and by nine I negotiated mass transit — el and bus — alone, without much trouble. I’m not in the least bothered by the sound of traffic at night. It actually is a comforting sound to me.

The 60s and 70s in working class Chicago were a lot like the 50s and 40s, from the stories I’ve heard. This was long before the technological jump. I learned to type on a manual typewriter. I didn’t know anybody with an answering machine until I was twenty-one. Back then you called and let it ring, and eventually you gave up. If you wanted to leave somebody a message, here’s what you did:

You walked over. In the late afternoon or early evening, especially in the summer, you left the house and walked down the street to knock on the door or call through the screen. You didn’t telephone first, but nobody was put out by a visit. You sat in the kitchen and passed along whatever information it was you needed to share. You might stay ten minutes, or maybe you’d stay longer. Drink some pop, watch the baseball game on channel nine. There might be other people there, visiting. Everybody scooted closer together.

We sat on each other’s stoops and came in the kitchen door to get a drink of water or use the bathroom. My father’s friends came over a lot, sometimes as many as five of them who arrived separately, no plan to it at all. They’d sit in the kitchen with the revolving fan and eat and drink and talk. My father could not have five people in his kitchen and not cook for them. I found it boring so I mostly stayed in the front room or my bedroom. Sometimes my father would call me in to ask me a question, or to send me to the store for something. I’d say hello to all the grownups and they’d fuss over me a little. My father had a friend called Ray, the most educated guy in the group, who was a chemist. I don’t remember ever seeing Ray sober. He was one of those soft spoken, gentle drunks who smiled at everybody. He’d press money on any kid who happened to pass him. He had no family of his own, and he made a good salary. In those days parents didn’t stop their kids from accepting money or gifts, even from friendly neighborhood drunks. Once he gave me a twenty, but all my father did was shout: hey, Ray! You see what you’re doing? That’s a twenty.

My father didn’t object because he pressed money on kids too. Every male in the family did. My uncle Freddy would have his hand in his pocket while you were coming in the door, and he’d press a couple bills into your hand while he was saying hello, bending in close to look you in the eye, one hand on your shoulder. Whatever your problem might be, he was going to tackle it.

We live out in the county now, on a wooded acre. It’s very quiet here. On a summer night with the windows open there’s no sound of traffic. A few of our neighbors are good friends, but we don’t just stop by, and neither do they. It’s just not something people do here. I don’t know if they used to, but I think probably. There are still remnants of that back and forth visiting in some of the old neighborhoods.

Which was one of the reasons that I voted for finding a house in those neighborhoods. The Mathematician wanted to be out here in the county; I wanted the big corner lot with the 1910 craftsman with all the original woodwork and glass, the fenced yard, and a half dozen friends within a couple blocks. I was imagining that it would be something like the neighborhood where I grew up. You go over to tell the neighbor about the problem you’re having with your plumbing and to ask for advice, and maybe you don’t come back for an hour. Somebody else drops by to ask if you’re going to the farmer’s market on Saturday and that turns into a big discussion about produce and organic farming.

In the greater scheme of things it made more sense for us to be out here in the county, and so I eventually agreed. And now I like it here. I am very comfortable in the house, and I love the garden and the quiet. It’s a ten minute drive into town along the bay, and in some spots it looks a lot like northern Italy around Lake Como. I can imagine us staying here for good. Puttering around in the garden at eighty, waiting for the grandchildren to come by. There’s no guarantee, of course. But I can imagine it.

And I still miss, will probably always miss, living in a neighborhood in a city. Being close enough to walk to the store, to a friend’s house, to the park. I’m a city girl at heart.

I’m not sure why all this came into my head today, but the memories of what it was like in Chicago when I was growing up have been front and center. Bit a little nostalgia goes a long way and so I’ll get back to work.

Series Navigation<< Lincoln Park Zoo 1959men in bars >>