My father bought a two-flat building at 6649 North Campbell Avenue in the Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park in the summer of 1947 for which he paid $14,000. We had previously lived in plain Rogers Park, on Sheridan Road, a block west of Lake Michigan, in a brown-brick courtyard building where our neighbors included the sister of the boxer Barney Ross and some cousins of the comedian Morey Amsterdam. This, I believe, is what is known as secondary name-dropping.
West Rogers Park was a full status notch above Rogers Park, though neither of my parents was all that status-minded. Our new home was larger—three bedrooms instead of one—and the surroundings more comfortable generally. Owning a two-flat apartment, the rent from tenants in the other apartment paying off one’s mortgage, was thought a sound investment. The upstairs neighbors in our building were Mr. and Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Anderson’s sister Edna. Mr. Anderson worked at a bank while Mrs. Anderson spent the day in curlers and a housecoat, getting dressed only just before her husband returned from the bank. A less Jewish couple is not easily imagined.
Far though this was from my parents’ intentions, in moving into West Rogers Park, we were also part of a shift in the neighborhood from Gentile, largely Scandinavian and Irish, to Jewish. I recently did a count of my fifth-grade class at Boone School in West Rogers Park and came up with 18 Jewish and 21 Gentile kids. In that day, when Jews and blacks moved in, current residents would say, “There goes the neighborhood.” (Today, when gay people move in, they say, “Here comes the neighborhood.”) With only one exception, I never felt the lash of anti-Semitism during my eight formative years, from ten to 18, living in West Rogers Park. In grammar school I was called “dirty Jew” by a kid living down the block named Billy Lauter. But then, Billy Lauter was a boy of such bad character that, had I been Protestant, he might as likely have called me “dirty Methodist.”
I live now only a few miles from West Rogers Park and occasionally drive by the old scenes of my youth. Passing the landmarks of the neighborhood as I remember them, it often occurs to me that surely there is no more inaccurate aphorism than “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Today West Rogers Park is dominated by south Asians: Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Rohingyas, and Afghans. I not long ago went to an Indian restaurant on Devon Avenue and felt I might have been in the city of Mysore on a Saturday night. There are a great many Haredim who share the neighborhood with these South Asians. Where once there were only two synagogues in West Rogers Park—Ner Tamid and B’nai Jacob, both conservative—the neighborhood is now studded with synagogues, yeshivas, Jewish day schools, and bookshops, all for the very Orthodox.
Driving along the thoroughfare called Western Avenue, I note all that is missing from the time of my boyhood. At the intersection of Western Avenue and Pratt Boulevard, where once there stood a bowling alley, a new public library looms instead. Across from the library is the site of Fluky’s Hot Dogs, of which in my day I must have consumed at least 200 (“everything on ’em, but hold the peppers”). But Fluky’s is long gone. To the north of Fluky’s was the private Edgewater Country Club, which was restricted. Edgewater’s 18-hole golf course has now been reduced to nine, with much of the rest converted to a standard public park. I learned to caddy at Edgewater at a time when most golf clubs were still made of wood, and each carried its own strange name. All that is left to me of these names is “mashie niblick,” which sounds like nothing so much as a side dish of mashed potatoes and corn niblets.
Crossing Western and heading west, I look for but do not find Sanders Pharmacy. I worked for Mr. Sanders when I was 13, for 65 cents an hour, chiefly dusting and sorting stock and making deliveries for tips that ran from a nickel to a quarter. When Mr. Sanders installed a soda fountain, I became his soda jerk (a term that began life as “soda clerk,” but was soon changed to jerk because of the swinging motion required of the server when adding soda water to drinks). I made sundaes, phosphates, the occasional banana split, and as I write these words, it occurs to me that I may well be the last living soda jerk on the planet.
Heading farther west, I find also missing Lazar’s School Store, which sold school supplies, a few canned goods, cold soda pop, and (its real attraction) penny candy. For a penny, a kid could buy red wax lips or a black wax mustache, licorice whips of black or red, something we called machine-gun belts (dots of candy on a long white sheet), and much more. Mr. Lazar was an immigrant who spoke with a heavy accent. We kids gave him no respect, referring to him as “Lazar,” as in “Lazar, gimme two wax lips, a black licorice whip, and three machine-gun belts.”
Back to Western now, long gone at the corner of Lunt Avenue, was Miller’s Steak House. In those days, when the Chicago stockyards on the South Side were still in business and on a warm and windy night one could smell them from a hundred blocks away in West Rogers Park, the steak house was the apotheosis of Chicago dining, and Miller’s was the apotheosis of that apotheosis. The owner of the restaurant, a bachelor, was also a partner in Murphy-Miller Heating and Air-Conditioning Company. Each night, Mr. Miller frequented the restaurant. He was said to have bet the daily double in a combination of the number 13 every day and was always in a jolly mood when he won. For many years he bought the winning steer at the stockyards show, which he displayed in a tiny corral on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant. One night in the bar at Miller’s, I watched a man rise from his stool next to an attractive blonde, hand a 50-dollar bill to the too-raucously-playing pianist and instruct him to take the rest of the night off.
Across Western, and two or three blocks to the north of Lunt, was Armanetti’s Liquor Store. Armanetti’s will always be memorable to me because its night manager, Max Ponder, was a friend of mine. A few years older than I, Max had made the all-state football team and was later on the wrestling team at the University of Illinois (his wrestling days had left him with a cauliflower ear). The least pretentious of people, Max knew a great deal about wine, and one day, in one of the storerooms of Armanetti’s, he set out to teach me. He began by describing the shoulders of bottles and what they told about the wine within. He next went on to the appellations on the labels. Halfway into this he asked if I thought I could grasp it all. I told him I thought I could, but in order to do so I would have to forget almost everything else I knew. Max smiled—no hard feelings–and we knocked off. Years later, I heard Fran Lebowitz say that there are three kinds of people: ordinary people, who talk about other people and current events; cerebral people, who talk chiefly about ideas; and stupid people, who talk about wine.
Little there was in the way of distinction in the architecture of West Rogers Park. For the most part, the neighborhood’s buildings consisted of two-, three-, and six-flats, with lots of bungalows with octagonal fronts—sturdy stuff, but without aesthetic interest. One small exception I encountered each day on my four-block walk to and from Daniel Boone Grammar School was the house and office of George S. May on North Shore Avenue between Rockwell and Talman. May’s pleasing but less than grand house sat across an alley from his rather ornate, three-story office building. Born in the small Illinois town of Windsor, George S. May was a former Bible salesman known variously as a consultant, efficiency expert, and industrial engineer. In fact, he was a high-level promoter, with golf his great field of promotion. He owned Tam O’Shanter Country Club, where he staged (for that day) big prize-money tournaments. He was the first to allow broadcasting of his tournaments (the All-American Open and the World Championship of Golf), and the first to allow crowds of spectators, golf carts, picnics off in the rough. He welcomed international and black golfers. I read in Sport magazine, the bible of my boyhood, that May was said to have 26 pairs of eyeglasses, one to match each of his 26 sports shirts. He also kept the membership of Tam O’Shanter restricted. On my walks to and from school I never saw Mr. May, but I was occasionally greeted by his chauffeur, a friendly black man named Greenwood, who spent considerable time polishing his boss’s black Fleetwood Cadillac.
In Chicago when you ask someone where he is from, he is likely to give you his address, then add “near Washington (or Jackson, or Humboldt) Park.” Catholics, asked the same question, after giving their address, add their parish, “near St. Nicholas of Tolentine” or St. Jerome’s or St. Sabina’s. The two most prominent parks in West Rogers Park were Green Briar and Indian Boundary. The latter was closer to our apartment and had four tennis courts, a small zoo, and a field house in which, during eighth grade, some among us were sent to learn ballroom dancing “Fortnightly,” these dance classes were called, a misnomer since they met weekly on Saturdays. They were a form of socialization, bringing us boys and girls more solidly into the middle class. “Young gentlemen will now ask young ladies to dance,” each dance began. We learned foxtrot, waltz, samba, and other steps we would never use again.
But the center, the hub, Les Champs-Élysées, of West Rogers Park was Devon—pronounced DEE-von—Avenue, the neighborhood’s shopping district. During the years I lived in West Rogers Park, Devon became more and more Judaized. In a seven-block area from Western to California, there were three Chinese restaurants, three delis, and a take-out shop called K-Rations that sold kreplach, kasha, knishes, kugel, and other traditional Jewish dishes. Along Devon there were also three men’s clothing stores and a woman’s dress shop called Seymour Paisan that offered cocktails to its afternoon customers. At the corner of Western was Hobby Models, which sold electric trains, model airplanes, chemistry and erector sets, and other toys for boys. Farther up was Pro Sports, where a Chicago Cubs pitcher named Johnny Klippstein worked part-time to add to the modest income he earned from playing baseball. Today, of course, he would be making a salary of roughly $2.6 million and might well own Pro Sports.
Along with an A&P and a National Tea supermarket, there was a food market called Hillman’s, a precursor of sorts to the Whole Foods of today. I worked briefly as a bagger at Hillman’s. Earlier I substituted for a classmate for a month or so one summer as a busboy at Pekin House, the most popular of the Chinese restaurants on Devon. We washed down the tables with undrunk tea turned tepid. At the end of our four-hour shift, we could eat all the Chinese food we wanted, except for shrimp dishes. Soda jerk, caddy, bagger, busboy: As you can see, I was building up an impressive résumé.
I have neglected to mention the small movie theater on Devon called the Ciné, neglected perhaps because the movie theater my friends and I most frequented was the Nortown, a grandiose auditorium on Western with light bulbs flickering in its ceiling to suggest stars. As a boy, my friends and I went to the Nortown every Saturday afternoon without inquiring what was playing. A Saturday session at the Nortown, with two full feature films, a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions, lasted roughly four hours. In the winter months, one went into the theater in the bright sunlight of 1 P.M. and emerged in the dark of 5 P.M. Many of the movies had World War II settings, many were musicals or romantic comedies ending with a lengthy kiss. I don’t remember ever leaving the Nortown feeling disappointed.
As for the Jews of West Rogers Park, our spirit, our ethos, was by and large bourgeois—perhaps “petit-bourgeois on the ascendant” comes closer to capturing it. My father embodied many of the traits of the petit-bourgeois spirit. He left Montreal at 17, before finishing high school, and he worked as a salesman at various jobs. After World War II, he began his own business, manufacturing costume jewelry and importing novelty items, chiefly from Japan. He used to say that you have to love your work, and he loved his, and worked a six-day week. He believed in the centrality of the family and enjoyed few things more than helping relatives in financial need. He was honorable without being in any way sanctimonious. “No one is asking you to be an angel,” he once told me, “but that doesn’t give you any warrant to be a son of a bitch.” He declared himself an agnostic yet would have been disappointed if his grandsons had not had brises and bar mitzvahs, gave serious sums to Jewish charities, and after the successful Israeli commando raid on the airport at Entebbe, he donated an ambulance to the Magen David Adom.
I do not recall any Jewish Republicans in West Rogers Park, or for that matter in the city of Chicago. A popular grammar-school dirge of the day went: “We want [Thomas] Dewey, where, where? We want Dewey in the electric chair.” Owing to its owner’s isolationist sentiments, the Republican Chicago Tribune was not allowed in our apartment, a serious deprivation for me, since its funny pages—with Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and others—were vastly superior to those of all other local papers.
West Rogers Park, which like every other neighborhood in Chicago now has its share of carjackings and other crimes, was utterly safe in those days, day and night. Nor did I know any families in which there had been a divorce. The one scandal of those years was the discovery that a man named Joe Roth, president of the men’s club at Ner Tamid Synagogue and whose daughter was in my class at Daniel Boone School, had hired a hit man to kill the husband of a woman with whom he had been having an affair. The killing never took place, but the story occupied the front pages of the local press for a few days.
Chicago was in those years a Catholic city, so much so that, as a boy, I thought Catholicism stood for all Christianity, a thought further encouraged by all the priest-worshipping Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald/Pat O’Brien movies of the era. Yet in West Rogers Park, Catholic and public-school kids did not mix. I believe that Catholic-school attendees were told to segregate themselves, lest they somehow be infected by the secularism of public-schoolers. Much later in life, a friend brought up in Catholic schools told me that he and his fellow students had been told never to go in the YMCA, lest the Protestants there try to convert them.
A good part of what I think of as the Jewish spirit or ethos of West Rogers Park entailed an intense practicality. Nearly everything one did had to be related to getting on in the world. When it came time for my contemporaries and I to go off to college, almost everyone signed up to be business majors, with a few declaring themselves pre-med or pre-dental students. This practicality had an even stronger effect on girls, most of whom sought teaching certificates. A few girls I knew were not allowed to go to college at all. Even though they had the money, their fathers felt that since they would soon marry, a college education would be pointless. I not long ago went to lunch with a woman, a friend from those days, who told me that not being allowed to go to college left her life with a hole never to be filled.
I steered clear of the excruciating boredom of four years of studying business, owing to an antipathy for accounting. (“You don’t study accounting, Lloydie,” the immigrant father of a friend of mine told him when he showed an interest in the subject. “You hire an accountant.”) At the University of Chicago, on the city’s south side, I read literature, history, and philosophy. But at family dinners and on other occasions with West Rogers Park adults, when asked what I was studying, I was able to suspend their potentially querulous response by announcing, “Pre-law.” Case closed.
In the West Rogers Park of my youth, culture had not yet arrived at the stage of philistinism. The height of culture for most adults in the neighborhood was musical comedy. I knew of couples who went to New York on business or holiday who might see four musicals in three days and then see the same shows again when those shows played in Chicago. I knew of tough fathers, who dealt unyieldingly with labor unions and gangsters, who were delighted by The Pajama Game, which is a sympathetic musical depiction of a strike. My mother occasionally used the phrase “legitimate theater,” denoting serious plays, apart from musicals, vaudeville, and burlesque. But neither my parents nor anyone else I knew went in for a lot of such fare. I knew no one who had tickets to the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera. Nor were there any violin-playing Jewish boys in my extensive acquaintance, or girls gently playing Chopin on a Baldwin upright in their parents’ living rooms.
For boys, sports was the main activity, excellence at them the chief road to status and prestige. At the time, there was no Little League. Sports for kids were happily unorganized, and parents stayed clear of their sons’ play: Fathers had work to worry about, while mothers felt their time better spent at homemaking, charities, cards, and much else. Besides, who wanted one’s parents around to testify to one’s errors and defeats at sports or to censor one’s profanity? We boys met at the gravel schoolyard throughout the summers and during vacations for pickup baseball games, and we arranged for football games against nearby grammar schools. We played basketball in a league at Green Briar Park. In sports, girls had only jump rope and ball bouncing, as they awaited the coming of Title IX.
There was keen interest in crime. Going back at least as far as the Al Capone days—when if one told strangers one was from Chicago, they might raise their arms as if holding a machine-gun and rat-a-tat-tat away—Chicago was known for its organized crime, its members usually denoted as the Syndicate, the Mob, the Outfit, the Boys, but never the Mafia. There was some West Rogers Park representation here too, but mostly in the field of bookmaking. Potsy Pearl, Jakey Summerfield, Ike Epstein—these were some of the neighborhood bookies. Ike Epstein was no relation, but I had an uncle, my mother’s brother Samuel Abrams, who was one (known alternately as “Lefty Abrams” or “Square Sam”). He left Chicago for Los Angeles and later owned a few points in the Riviera Hotel in Vegas. Sinatra attended his granddaughter’s wedding.
I went out with a girl in high school whose father never seemed to go to work. Spring, summer, and early autumn he golfed; through the winter he played high-stakes gin rummy at the Town Club in the old Sheraton Hotel. I later learned that he was the brother of a Capone lieutenant named Hymie (“Loudmouth”) Levine and was said to have collected a dollar a month off every jukebox in Chicago. The father of a friend of mine went in for buying boxers— at one point he owned a part of Ernie Terrell, later a heavyweight champion—which, for reasons I never quite fathomed, put him in bad odor with the Syndicate. At one point, my friend’s father was simultaneously being pursued by the FBI and a Mob brute named Milwaukee Phil Alderisio. Fortunately, the FBI got to him first.
We boys vaguely aped these characters, not in crime but in taking pleasure in the illicit. This meant gambling and whoring. As adolescents, we played lots of cards, poker in all its variants, gin, and a game called potluck, a high-stakes variant of blackjack at which one could quickly lose $50, a serious sum in those days, between after school and dinner. We bet parley cards, at which if one successfully picked three college football games within the point spreads, one won at six-to-one odds. The cards were available at the newsstand at Devon and Western as well as inside Senn High School.
As for our whoremongering, a certain amount of it entailed transactions with streetwalkers. More often we would drive out 50 miles or so away, usually six of us in one car, to the cathouses of Braidwood or c. These trips entailed a full ritual, of which the sex was the least part. The charge without any of the trimmings at these establishments was $3, the same fee charged in those days for a visit to one’s physician.
In Chicago through the 1940s and ’50s, ethnicity marked most neighborhoods. Italian, Greek, Irish, Polish, Mexican, Negro (the term of the day), and Jewish neighborhoods were the order of the day. Rightly or not, people felt most comfortable among their own. Was this a bad thing? If one believes in the importance of diversity and inclusivity, I suppose it is. Yet Socrates said he was thankful to have been born a Greek, and Plato that he was pleased to have been born an Athenian of the time of Socrates. We had neither Socrates nor Plato in West Rogers Park when I grew up there in the late 1940s and 1950s, but I cannot imagine a better place or time to have come of age.
Photo: Devin Hunter
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