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BY: JAMES F. O’NEIL

Some synonyms for “bleak”: black, gloomy, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, dark, darkening, depressive, desolate, dismal, dreary, glum, gray, miserable, morose, somber, sullen, sunless, wretched…

Not every snowy and cold winter in Chicago is/was “bleak.”  But delivering papers in the cold and dark afternoons of my childhood often seemed bleak.

I could not often use my bike because of the snow.  So I had a sled to haul the papers from the distribution point at 69th and Racine.  I had to walk there after school (still in grammar school), fold my papers, then begin my route.  No easy summer bike ride with a paper bag on the front of the bike, no easy travel “to work” and then back home.  Winter brought the cold after school.  Then dark–and colder.

My little brother Tom was often there with me, slogging along, making my duty and responsibility to my customers less bleak.

My original route began with 39 customers.  I was the young kid delivering the afternoon paper during the week, with some Saturday and Sunday (early Sunday morning) customers.  I was the paperboy for the Chicago Herald American.

Chicago Herald-American_mast

We began our undertaking at 69th Street and Loomis Boulevard, working our way north.  Crossing 67th Street–Marquette Boulevard–we delivered only on the west side of the street.  Ogden Park, with its paths and hills and summer rec swimming pool, now covered with snow, took over the east territory to Racine Avenue.

 map of ogden parkMap of Ogden park

At the corner of 63rd and Loomis sat our winter oasis: Rexall Drugstore.

A Rexall Drugs Sign (logo). Credit: wikipedia

Sitting in the shadow of the elevated train, the “L,” back then the end of the line for A trains south, was Our Rest Stop.  Our Watering Hole.  It provided us with our favorite nourishment after that cold Windy City walk opposite Ogden Park.

My brother sat in a booth, snow melting from his boots and mittens.  I ordered and paid at the soda fountain: “Two hot chocolates with marshmallows, please.”  (I always was polite to the person making our delicious creamy drink.  More marshmallows for the polite.  Big marshmallows.  Two, maybe three.)

We sat, joking and laughing, perhaps recounting our Snow Warrior battles along the route, or counting money collected.  I always paid for his drink, his reward for helping me.  Then we had to return to the bleak midwinter to finish the route.  Once again my brother and I trudged along, to customers on Ada, Throop, and Elizabeth, from 64th back to 63rd, up and down both sides of the streets, the wind now blowing across the park, from the south.

Finished.  Then home: from 64th and Elizabeth to 67th and Marshfield, rarely though the wind-swept snow-piled paths in the park, down to 67th , then west, crossing the frozen streets of dirty snow and slush, sled bumping off the curbs, to wide Ashland Avenue, then to our home refuge. 

chicago snowy street and row houses c 1960 chuckman's

Chicago Snowy Street and Row Houses  c1960. Photo: chuckman’s

Sometimes, though, on our way home, we stopped at a neighborhood grocery store, getting a five-cent pie, our snack for a job well done.  Cherry was always my favorite, or lemon–or maybe coconut cream.  Small pies, easily shared, or gulped down by one.  I still long for those pies, now more crust than filling (and with no whole cherries). 

When I grew older, when winter turned to other seasons, and my companion found other activities of his own, the winter-time paper route had grown from 39 papers to a route of 73.  It became too big; it was split.  The drug store was no longer on the route.  Those warming cups of chocolate were no longer needed. 

I no longer stopped at Our Rest Stop.  (Besides, I hated sitting alone.) 

©  James F. O’Neil  2014

 

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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….

clotheslines  css.cul.columbia.educatalogrbml_css_0224

Laundry and Clothes Lines Pic: Columbia U.

 © James F. O’Neil   2013

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