I grew up on 24th Street in Chicago. I went to Our Lady of Vilna grade School. It was a Lithuanian/Polish Catholic School in an Italian neighborhood. The Italian kids went to St. Michaels two blocks away. There was no rivalry between the schools. That’s just where you went.
The neighborhood was like most in Chicago in the 1950’s. Bungalows and three-story apartments one after another lining every block. Everyone sat on the front steps of their house or apartment in the summer evenings and visited or talked or simply enjoyed the summer nights.
There was no concern about security for any of the kids in the neighborhood. Every stoop had moms and grandmas with hands on hips watching every kid, studying every stranger and everyone of them knew my name. I never wondered why, but it was kind of cool and I think it was a very well organized effort by all of the women in the neighborhood.
I remember some things that would seem totally bizarre to my children today. I remember the “Scissor’s Man” rolling his sharpening wheel down the street, and all of the women including my mom running out of the house with their scissors and kitchen knives to get them sharpened. I never questioned this behavior. It’s what everybody did.
I also remember the fruit truck stopping on the block. The guys would open the back of the truck and shout, “Watermelo!” People would come streaming out of their houses and buy watermelons, cucumbers and other fruit and vegetables from the back of the truck. All of us kids were excited when these guys showed up. I was 5 at the time and we all knew we would go back to the stoops and steps and melons would be sliced and we would all get a piece. I was always surprised that many of the Italian men in the neighborhood put salt on their watermelon. I always said, “no” when they asked me if I wanted a shake of salt on my slice and they always laughed.
A more mysterious visitor to the neighborhood was the rag man who rode the alleys in a horse-drawn cart. He was old and had long, white hair and a long, grey beard. The horse would trod slowly down the alley and the old man would sing, “Rags and Iron. Rags and Iron.” We were always fascinated by the sight of the horse, but scared of the old man. The back of his wagon was piled high with rags and pieces of metal and we wondered what he did with that stuff. Our moms and grandmas always told us to stay away from him.
There were a lot of teen-age boys in the neighborhood and we really looked up to them. They looked after us too. I was the oldest boy in my family, but many of my friends had older brothers and they were really nice to us. They all wore black shoes with white socks and cuffed blue jeans with white t-shirts. Most had a pack of cigarettes tucked under the arm of one of their t-shirts right above their biceps. We thought they were really cool guys.
Sometimes they would let us little kids sit in the basement of one of the houses on the block and listen to the police radio. I don’t know how they were able to do that, but it was pretty cool and we knew to just be quiet and listen or they would tell us to get lost.
On really hot summer days the teenage boys would open the fire hydrant at the corner. They had a monkey wrench hidden in a space in a gangway and told us to never tell anyone it was there. We never did. The most fun was when one of the older kids would put his butt against the hydrant and the water would fly into the air like a big, watery dome. We would stand under it in our underwear and it was like magic. Eventually the fire department would show up and shut down the hydrant. We all ran away. We never told them where the monkey wrench was, and they never found it.
Every now and then our moms would give some of the older kids some money and they would take us little kids to the movie theater on 22nd Street. This was a big adventure for us 5 year-olds. But nowhere near the adventure when mom and Dad took us to Riverview.
Riverview was an amusement park that was a fantasy land for kids in Chicago. My Dad took me on the parachute ride once and it was terrifying and amazing. Everyone talked about riding the “Bobs” which was the wildest roller-coaster, and the Fun House was weird and quite frankly – not that much fun. It didn’t matter. When you came back to the neighborhood after a day at Riverview you had bragging rights and you never told the other kids you were scared, bored or confused by any of it. This was the summer in Chicago and after a day at Riverview you were living large.
One of the things all of us kids used to wait for was when the lights went on. All along the streets there were street lights and it was a badge of honor to be able to say, “First one to see the lights go on!” It was also a sign that things were going to change. It meant go home and we did. But sometimes we could stay out on the street. Especially in the summer. Everybody in the neighborhood was on their steps and stoops and we could still wander a bit. Not far, but a bit.
One of our favorite wandering points was the corner of 24th and Coulter. It was by the fire hydrant and on summer nights there was a hot-dog man with a hot-dog cart. My grandfather was a hot-dog man but he had moved up to a restaurant location. That was okay and hot dogs were a family tradition for all of us.
The whole neighborhood would sometimes congregate on that corner. Justine’s Candy store was right up the street, Uncle Vic’s house not far from there, and there was an old tavern on the corner where the Dad’s and Grandpa’s would go to have a beer.
But for us kids, our focus was on the hot-dog man. Hot dogs were 15¢, tamales were a dime and sodas were 12¢. 10 cents for the soda and 2 cents for the deposit on the bottle. Our Dads would buy us hot dogs and sodas and we’d sit on the steps of the tavern while the men went inside to have a beer. We’d watch the people buy hot dogs and the moths and bugs buzz around the street lights. Sometimes a hot rod would drive by real fast and we were glad they kept going.
Life was good and nothing ever went wrong. Sometimes the teenage boys would come by for a hot dog and say hi to us little kids or even buy us another soda. It made us feel like the coolest kids in the world. Eventually our Dads and Grandpas would come out of the tavern and we would all walk home. Life was good and I slept great dreams dominated by laughter in the streets, the smell of steamed hot dogs and tamales and the thought that tomorrow would be another great summer day in Chicago.