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By: James F. O’Neil

“Home is where one starts from.”  –T. S. Eliot

I used to fly in my dreams.  Drs. Freud and Jung were not worried that I crashed, got up, ran up four flights of stairs, and flew again.  My favorite crash-site was the dirt and dirty non-grassy courtyard behind the Byrne’s Building.  This magnificent brownstone of four floors and some seventy-five apartments faced the beautiful grass-center of a divided Garfield Boulevard on the South Side of Chicago. 

garfield blvd & halsted chicagopc.info garfield blvd 50 chucksViews of Garfield and Halsted 

The apartment had its beauty and elegant layout, well planned by architects to house the growing middle-class of Germans and Irish whose ancestors slaved in The Back of the Yards (the stockyards), but who could not yet afford their own houses.

This structure was part of the South Side I knew best, bordered by Garfield-55th, Halsted, and Green streets. 

The building has disappeared from Google maps, having been demolished some time in the late 1970s.  Yet it remains an important place where my memories reside and continue to live–and a place to which I return often.

We moved from South Marshfield to Green Street.  Our new home in the Byrne’s Building gave us…four flights of stairs, little privacy (with its eight apartments to an entrance), noisy back porches seen by all other back porches, and less room. 

And the Byrne’s Building had bed bugs.  Soon after we moved in, I can remember my dad with his bar of soap, trying to catch the buggers, in the front bedroom off the living room, which my baby brother shared with my parents.  Whomp!  Whomp!  Whomp!  went the bar of soap against the mattress–and the tearing sound as my mom pulled down the wallpaper.   

The Wonder Years for me began there, the early adolescent years, the new high school years, my growing years–years that provided me with countless memories.  The wonders that were part of my life there included illnesses and happinesses, graduations and birthdays, family celebrations and holidays, freezing Chicago winters and street-softening summers.  And a place where dreaming, I fell to the ground, or flew to the dirt center, crash-landed–then being resurrected, then awakened.

I was comfortable, I recall, in the larger bedroom with one brother and the bunk beds.  Its window opened into the void between the walls of the building, that emptiness adjacent to eight sets of bathroom windows, the stale air–and sky–and the laughter and crying and more.  Closed, the window provided some relief from neighbors in summer. 

My desk for high school subjects faced the window my mom tried to decorate.  The beds for us were next to the wall and the ornate sliding door, once dividing the living room (the parlor) from the sitting room in the brownstone elegance of a time gone past.  Now the door was squeezed open for air–and for eavesdropping.

And then another summer on the fourth floor, staring down into our back yard: at clothes lines on pulleys, like a maze of crossed telephone wires, attached to the Power House; at children playing marbles in the dirt, or pushing baby buggies through the moonscape called a playground, without any grass, and maybe some few weeds; at the dirt devils, twisting their way around and through neatly-hung clothes, and clothes lines, those clouds of dust from Windy Nowhere; at the center of the yard, my crash site of dreams, with no fear of flying….

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Laundry and Clothes Lines Pic: Columbia U.

 © James F. O’Neil   2013

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By: James F. O’Neil

             “So, where ya’ from?”

            “The South Side of Chicago.  You know Chicago?”

            “I sure could tell by your accent you’re not from around here.”

That’s what I hear when I’m in Newark, Ohio, talking to a grocery-store clerk; or in Saint Louis; or in Cairo, Illinois; or, even more, in Darien, Georgia, not too far from the Florida border, the state in which I have lived for more than thirty years.

They can still tell I’m not from around “here”–or “there.”  What gives me away?

Is Newark, Ohio, like Newark, New Jersey [“JOYsea”–or “GERsee,” as “gerbil” or “German”]?

And about Cairo, Illinois: Is that like “kai” as in “KAYak” or “CAIro,” Egypt?  Or more like “cay” or KARO syrup“Kaye,” like Karo syrup, that thick sweetener, used in baking, cooking, and on pancakes?

The folks in Darien, Georgia, catch shrimp–some of the best.  They don’t care how I talk or where I am from: They care that I like the shrimp and like the hush puppies.

I lived in Saint Louis for two years of college.  Saint Louis is but 300 miles from Chicago–the “-ca-” in “Chicago” pronounced by me as in “caught” or as the sound of a crow “cawing” while sitting on a telephone or electrical wire. 

StLouisArchThree-768691My college friends, however, had a tendency to say “shi- [“shin”]-KAH-[a Boston “kah”]-goe” [“toe”], much like the way President Obama pronounces the name of his home city.  (My green car [“kar,” “CARpet,” and “cargo”] was a “core” in Saint Louis; its roof sounded like a dog’s “woof, woof.”)

These various listeners hear my stories told in my Upper-Midwest dialect.  And that’s the long and the short of it, the length of Illinois,Illinois Map from Chicago to those good folks in “downstate” Illinois, south of Springfield and East Saint Louis, down near the southernmost border, around “KAY-roe.”

             “So, where you from?”

            “Iowa.”

            “Oh, Dess Moynes (Dah Moine)?”

 * * *

[Author’s note: I once lived in Des Plaines (Dess Planes), Illinois, the home of the first franchise McDonald’s. Oh, and there is “no noise” in Illinois: It’s like “ill-in-NOY.”]

Des Plaines History

Wikipedia photo

 © James F. O’Neil  2013

By: James F. O’Neil

It has happened again: One of those moments of memory revival when I do something that really conjures up picture-visions, feelings, tastes, and a sense of time gone by.           

Something simple I do, like mixing a pitcher of Kool-Aid or some other popular non-sugared drink, brings me into the memory world–here, the world of my childhood.       

Pour Kool-Aid There I was, pouring the colored powder into the two-quart pitcher.  As the green crystals and powder took their time getting to the bottom of the plastic container, I saw in my mind’s eye my mother, walking toward me, wearing her light-green smock with large pockets.            

I was waiting for her as she came from the Kool-Aid factory in Chicago, on the Southwest Side.  My vivid image of her now makes me remember a warm summer afternoon (she must have worked an early shift), the car my dad and I sat in waiting for her, and her gait, with her hands in her pockets.           

When I saw her, among the other women wearing hairnets, coming out the employees’ door, like those women workers in World War II, finishing their shift in some defense factory–in full-body coveralls–I left the car and ran towards her.  (This now occurs in filmed-slow-motion.)  A big hug, maybe a kiss (probably not in front of all those women), and a question:  “Watcha got in your pockets.”  We kept walking, her telling me about which line she worked that day: Cherry, Grape, Lemon-Lime, Orange, Raspberry, or Strawberry.  (I never liked orange.  Don’t know why, since I always enjoyed Creamsicles in orange flavor.)  She had colored powder on her smock, and her hair sparkled colored-crystal.           

I liked her job.           

That factory provided work for her, money for us to live on, and free Kool-Aid.  I cannot recall the exact dates of her work at this factory (in the 1950’s), but I know I was not a baby, as my title might imply.  Yet I remember one younger brother who also partook of the flavored powder.  We were children, with tastes.           

There is an expression “working for peanuts.”  My mom worked many jobs: making gaskets for bombsights, working at the Federal Reserve Bank (no free samples ever there), working in a cardboard factory making boxes, and the Kool-Aid Factory.  Of all, my remembrance of colored powders brings good feelings and positive memories.  She never suffered cuts, bruises, slivers, or smashed fingers or toes.  She brought home the money–and brought home color and flavor into our lives.  Much better than peanuts…

Postscript.  In 2004, the former Kool-Aid factory on the city’s Southwest Side was scheduled to be razed and replaced with a housing development.  Now known as Marquette Village, near Marquette Park, I know the soil must contain memories and crystals, with Kraft Foods Inc. manufacturing Kool-Aid, with a dose of Good Seasons salad dressing mixes–and maybe some drops and bits of Open Pit barbecue sauce.  My remembrance of things past?  “Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, Tastes Great!  Wish We Had Some, Can’t Wait”–and, “A five-cent package makes two full quarts.”  How great was that!?

*I remember Tom Wolfe’s great book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968.  When writing this memoir, I could not get that title out of my mind–yet I always referred to it with the “Baby” added to the title.  Don’t know why.  Perhaps I have just been a “Kool-Aid Baby.”

© James F. O’Neil  26 May 2013

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