Chicago is a motherfucker.
Maybe that’s a bad word where you come from but in Chicago it’s a term of endearment.
“What’s up, motherfucker! Great to see ya’. How you been?”
“Tell that crazy motherfucker Jimmy I love him.”
“You’re one bad motherfucker, motherfucker.”
You get the idea.
The use of that word is all you need to know about Chicago. Even our compliments are barbed with an edge to keep you humble and on your toes.
And then there’s church. You go to church to be accountable to something other than your own savagery. If the Catholic Church hadn’t caught hold in Chicago we would’ve killed each other off around 1890. Everybody waddles into their respected houses of worship on Sunday to erase the drunken rage filled atrocities that occurred the previous of Monday through Saturday. You sit there praying, trying to convince God and yourself that next week shall be different.
Everything you need to know about a person from Chicago can be answered with these two questions and you can bet your ass somebody will ask them while you’re here.
1) What are you? Yes. This is a real question asked all the time. Chicago still operates on an immigrant mentality where you nationality is your business card.
2) What neighborhood did you grow up in? This is key. It let’s people know how much suffering you’ve had to endure. If you came up in a poor neighborhood full of thieves and thugs, you get respect. Rich neighborhood with no problems, no struggle, no suffering? You’re suspect and might get labeled a “Jagoff.”
Jagoff is a shiny Chicago gem.
Whatever happens, you do not want to be known as a jagoff. Once labeled a jagoff, it’s very hard to shake. It’s like getting a nickname. Once you get it, that’s it. I grew up with guys with nicknames like Blockhead, Balt, Swamy, Shitbagger and Bobby Bag of Dicks (Dicks for short or BBD in classier company.) You don’t think Bobby wanted to change his nickname? Of course he did but once you get it, that’s it. The same is true when labeled a Jagoff. You’d have to open a hundred homeless shelters and cure Aids and then maybe, maybe, people would stop calling you a jagoff but even then you run the risk of somebody saying, “Can you believe that Jagoff just cured AIDS?”
Keep you on your toes.
This is the beautifully rough and raw Chicago I was born into on April 14th, 1974 at St Ann’s Hospital on Division Avenue. My Dad was 17 and Mom was 18. My father’s nickname Big Mickey. He was 5’11” with a long black ponytail that hung past his strong shoulders almost down to his waist. He rocked a biker vibe in a neighborhood with no bikers, always wearing turquois jewelry and denim head to toe, smeared with grease and dirt from whatever mechanical or factory work he could scrape together. His father was off the boat from Puerto Rico, his mother off the boat from Ireland but he inherited almost all the Puerto Rican genes. He immediately dropped out of high school to take care of his new and unplanned family that consisted of a baby boy and a volatile freckle faced Irish girl from Oak Park. They tried their best to make it work but they were young with no positive examples to lean on when times got rough and rough it got. So rough that Mom split right before I turned two leaving my father to raise me in a neighborhood called Humboldt Park. We lived at 906 N. Trumball down the block from Chicago Avenue with his mother (my Grandma) and two sisters, Ninette and Nancy in a house illegally converted into a two flat. We shared that house with a black family who lived upstairs.
There were three scruffy kids in the black family. Tyrone was sixteen with the muscular frame of a grown man but the face of a child. Dude was eleven and constantly covered in dirt and mischief. Bebe was nine with a thin layer of black flesh stretched taut over her boney frame.
Chicago is a very segregated town and the black family took a real risk living in Humboldt Park. Humboldt Park was and still is a Puerto Rican strong hold. You have to drive under a giant steel Puerto Rican flag to enter or leave. Everybody has their own neighborhood with it’s own rules. Pretend they don’t exist and it’s not up to you what the consequences will be.
I was Puerto Rican but not Puerto Rican, Irish but not Irish, white but not white. I lived in a racial purgatory. Bebe was my best friend. We hung out all day every day. Because of that, I thought I was black until I was seven. Bebe, Dude and Tyrone were the only kids in the neighborhood I could understand when they talked. I picked up every inflections and tone of their dialogue and every nuance of their mannerisms. If you were talking to me on the phone when I was five you would’ve sworn you were talking to poor black kid from Lawndale. When you asked me to do something, I’d roll my head around like it was on a greased rail and sass back “Ain’t!” Maybe I was more like Jacky from 227.
But inside our house, nobody cared whether you were black, white or Puerto Rican because there were bigger problems to worry about like how to eat, how to avoid eviction and how to find work. Some problems were obvious. Others showed up without warning or notice.
One summer morning I was sitting on the front porch when Bebe sat down next to me, her thick hair pulled into a side ponytail held together by a black rubber band with two small white marbles on it.
“You wanna juice,” she asked?
“Nah, I ain’t thirsty,” I replied.
“I ain’t asking you if you want a juice. I’m asking you if you want to juice.”
“I dunno what you’re talking about.”
“Lemme show you,” she said and walked inside.
I followed Bebe upstairs to the crawl space next to her apartment. We walked in to see Dude and Tyrone already there waiting. The walls were dark orange with no windows. The heavy damp air smelled wet cardboard. The roof was slanted making you feel like the ceiling was always about to cave in.
As Bebe walked to the middle of the room, Tyrone shut the door. Bebe pulled down her dirty white denim shorts and got on all fours. Tyrone walked over, got behind her, unzipped his jeans, knelt down behind her and thrust his hips forward. Bebe let out a moaning noise. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what they were doing. After a few minutes, Tyrone stood and zipped his pants up then leaned against the door so nobody could come in or out. Dude dropped his pants, squatted behind his sister and followed his brother’s lead. Tyrone glanced over and nodded at me, an odd affirmation we were all in this together. That’s when I realized I was next. Dude turned his head and when our eyes met, we both started nervously giggling. Tyrone shushed us to be quiet or somebody might come in and bust us. Dude pulled his pants up and scampered behind his big brother, still trying not to laugh.
“Your turn, Little Mickey.” Tyrone said.
Everything about this felt wrong. It also felt like there was no way of getting out of it. I walked behind Bebe, unzipped my shorts, pulled down my white and red Shazam Underoos and knelt behind her like I’d just watched Dude and Tyrone do. I pumped my hips back and forth until I felt the appropriate amount of time passed then stopped. Bebe looked over her shoulder and offered an innocent gentle smile. I gave her one back. We held each other’s gaze for a moment, both helpless, both kids in the middle of something with no idea how to get out. It arrived. It happened. I participated. I cannot undo. I cannot unsee.
I pulled up my shorts while she did the same. Tyrone and Dude headed out leaving Bebe and I walking down the stairs in silence until she confided her aunt bought her a pack of Hubba Bubba gum and she had two pieces left. Did I want one?
Juicing became a big part of our life. We juiced when we were bored, excited, sad or whenever we thought of it. Sometimes it’d be all four of us; sometimes it’d be just Bebe and me. The first time it was just she and I, Bebe explained how I’d been doing it wrong, that I had to actually be inside her for it to work. She didn’t want to say anything before and embarrass me in front of her brothers.
I thought this was normal behavior. I thought this is what every kid does. Every kid had secrets.
I was six.
Things weren’t any calmer down in our apartment. Ninette, my Dad’s older sister, had long thin black hair, olive skin and the gaunt sunken cheekbones of a junkie. Nancy, my father’s youngest sister, was on the straight and narrow. Nancy carried a few extra pounds along with a fierce determination to get out of the neighborhood. She was studying to be a nurse and no matter what insanity went on in the house, she made it to school and always did her homework. She was rarely around, trying to stay away from the madness and because of that, I have almost no memories of her from this time.
My father’s mother, who I called Grandma, was off the boat Irish who wobbled around all day and night in polyester slacks and stretchy tops guzzling Schlitz malt liquor like a Longshoreman on disability. She was always insanely drunk operating in one of two modes: crooning or complaining. If she wasn’t singing an obscure big band tune she was complaining about the world and what people needed to do to make it a better place. I always wondered how she knew about the world because I never saw her leave the house. Not once. The only thing she watched on TV was The Lawrence Welk Show. While on, she’d gracefully sway around the living room, eyes closed, dancing with an imaginary prince, lost in the music and the fantasy. If that’s where she went when she was drunk, no wonder she never took a sober breath.
My Grandfather barely spoke English and my Grandma didn’t speak Puerto Rican yet they had three kids together. That is what happens when the drinking power of the Irish meets the power of the Puerto Rican penis. Those two powers came together to make three children and a divorce. Magic.
Nintette was the oldest child and loved heroin and men who beat her. One Saturday, late in the afternoon, we were hanging in the living room; me, Dad, Ninette and her monthly piece of garbage, a pudgy Hispanic guy whose greatest accomplishment was his goatee which he stroked with great respect and passion.
While he was fondling his goatee, Ninette made a comment that it looked like he was jerking off a dick on his face. Even at six I thought this was funny. The guy did not.
“Shut the fuck up, bitch,” he yelled.
“Don’t talk to my sister like that,” my father shouted back.
“Fuck you, you’re not my father,” Ninette hissed at my Dad, “and fuck you too,” she screamed at her boyfriend.
In a flash, without a warning, her boyfriend slapped her.
My father leapt off the sofa and got in his face.
“Don’t you ever put hands on my sister!”
Ninette’s boyfriend offer up a smile. A smile I would see a few more times through out my life. It is the evil smile a coward always offers before trying to hurt you.
“What’s the matter faggot? Afraid a getting your ass beat in front of your kid,” he cackled.
“Let’s take it outside,” my father said as he charged out the front door.
Ninette tried to hold the gangbanger back.
“Get off me, bitch. I’ma beat his ass then I’ma beat yours then you gonna suck my dick.”
He shucked her off and bolted out after my father.
Ninette ran after him, slamming the door behind her.
I stood frozen in place, staring at the door. Five minutes later my father walked back inside. He was alone, his hands covered in blood with long strands of black hair wedged under bloody fingernails.
He plopped down on the sofa; eyes darting from the floor to the door then back down at the floor again. He finally looked up at me.
“You ever see a man hit a woman, you better do something about it or you’re just as bad as the guy hitting the woman. Understand?”
“Okay… What if that guy comes back?”
“If he comes back I’ll kill him.” My Dad heaved himself off the sofa and went to the bathroom to wash the blood from his hands.
I was scared. I didn’t want my Dad to have to kill somebody but murder was just put on the table. Don’t get me wrong; my father wasn’t a bully or a guy presenting a cold-blooded hard ass to the world. He just knew how to stand up when he had to. One time a burglar kicked in our basement window in the middle of the night trying to rob the place. My father grabbed the only thing within arms reach – a yellow wiffle ball bat and ran downstairs after the guy. The burglar had a .38 and dropped it, scarred of the lunatic with balls enough to charge after an armed home invader with a wiffle ball bat. My Dad did what he had to do – right or wrong.
I wondered if I’d ever have to kill somebody? What if the guy that hit Ninette came back and I was there. Would I have to help my Dad kill him? The concept of murder was one of the many myths of manhood that almost killed me. The idea that somebody might have to die and I might be the person making the call. And if I can make that call and I’m a nobody kid that means somebody can make that call against me.
I couldn’t tell my dad how scared I was. Scared for him. Scared for me. Scared for Ninette. Even scared for the gangbanger. I didn’t want to see anybody die. I wanted to tell him but I didn’t know how and there was nobody around to teach me. I didn’t know what when I was a kid but after years of hard living I found out why.
In Chicago (and maybe where you live too) you quickly learn there is a price to pay for people knowing how you feel. Feeling too happy and you hear something like “What are you so happy about?” On the flip side, if you’re feeling sad you’ll hear something like, “What are you sad about? Keep it up and I’ll give you something to really to be sad about.” So you learn two things 1) Keep your feelings to yourself 2) Feelings are a serious liability.
It’s not that my family didn’t care how I felt; there was just no more room for feelings. Life was hard enough. Feelings are nothing more than an unwelcomed burden stacked on an already fragile barely tolerable existence. There’s no room for anything else, especially feelings that run the risk of shining an even harsher light on a situation where everything is fucked unless you pretend otherwise. So you realize you can never say you’re afraid, never say you’re happy, sad or fill in the blank.
So when people ask how you’re doing, you learn the only correct answer…
So this is the second pass. I would consider this a first draft. I wanted to show you how I went from the bones of a story (the previous post) and tried to dig out the moments I liked and expand on them. I also wanted to tee up Chicago a little more thus the new opening. I am going to try and get up a rough draft of Chapter 2 before I go on vacation. Looking forward to your comments.