I was 15 when I started working (and I do mean “working”). I worked for the Mom & Pop bookstore next to Schurz High School and the little corner restaurant on the corner of Elston Avenue and George Street. The customers at the restaurant referred to themselves as “businessmen,” but they were really factory workers from the various plants in the neighborhood. I’d work the early morning breakfast crowd at the restaurant before heading to the bus stop for the ride to school. Once I got off the bus I’d head straight for the bookstore and stock the shelves with books and candy before heading for my first class.
After school and on weekends I babysat for many of the families on the block. One of my regulars was Red and his wife across the street. They had three kids, the youngest of which was less than a month old when I first started babysitting. I was often hired for Friday or Saturday nights so that they could “paint the town.”
There was also a southern family toward the end of the block who had five kids ranging in age from one to six years old. My real job was to do their laundry each weekend and take all five kids of their with me to the Laundromat so I really got paid for doing the laundry, but not for watching the kids. At the end of every week the kids’ mom would pile their week’s worth of dirty clothes into two shopping carts and then her oldest son (the six year old) would tug and pull one of the carts while I’d drag the other while carrying the baby of the family. Two kids would hold hands between the two shopping carts while the two year old sat on top of the pile of laundry in the cart I was pulling. It was a real wonder I never dropped or lost one of those kids. We’d spend hours on end waiting for the machines to go through their cycles so I could fold the clothes and stack them neatly into the shopping carts once again so we could start our long tedious trek back to Elston Avenue.
I babysat for a couple of teaching professors on Western Avenue on Saturday mornings through the summer. They had a little boy and a little girl. I believe the only reason they hired me was because they knew that I had a reputation for cleaning kitchens and theirs was in dire need of cleaning every Saturday. As soon as the professors left home, I’d talk those two young kids into helping me in the kitchen with the promise of making them something really nice to eat just as soon as we had clean pots to make it in. The three of us would spend the better part of the morning washing the stacks and stacks of dirty dishes and scrubbing down all the surfaces of the kitchen before I’d open a can of ravioli or soup (the extent of the “something nice” category) for their lunch. Once the kids were finished eating we made certain that we cleaned the dishes we had just used so that the kitchen would be sparkling when their parents got home. The kids seemed to enjoy it, but I could never quite understand how anyone could maneuver through a kitchen as cluttered as theirs was all week long. After lunch the kids insisted that I read to them, which was their idea of entertainment. While I’m certain these kids grew up to be at least as intelligent as their parents, their favorite and most requested book was referred to (by them) as “Moby the Dick.”
Then there was Donna, the woman who had rented the apartment upstairs from ours. She now lived with her grandmother two doors down from us. Donna raised and bred Collies as well as Great Danes. Her kids, Dawn and Joey, would sit on either side of me on the floor in front of the couch and watch television for the better part of Saturday night while two of the Great Danes sat with their hind quarters backed up onto the couch cushion. The Collies would sprawl out on the floor in front of us. Dawn and Joey would each lay their head on one of my legs and fall asleep during the middle of some late night horror movie. I never concerned myself with worrying about anyone breaking into the house and doing us harm. With all those dogs, were well protected. Donna also paid better than any of the other jobs I had. If she stayed out all night (which was her habit), she’d hand me an extra ten-dollar bill as I walked out the door.
I was kept busy trying to do my homework and make money. My calendar was always full. I paid little attention to the boys down the street when they started noticing me – I had places to go, kids to keep, houses to clean, laundry to do, and money to make!
In the fall of 1967 Harriette and I got our first “real” jobs. While we had both done babysitting, and worked at neighborhood restaurants and bookstores, this job was different; it was Downtown. We worked at the Forum cafeteria on Madison, Harriette and Jane worked as servers on the line, and I was a bus girl on the second level. Every day after school, we’d board separate CTA buses and head down to the Loop. If nothing else, it gave us our own spending money and a little unsupervised freedom.
At the time, the country was right in the middle of the Viet NAM War. One of the benefits of so much military activity in the country was that there were plenty of sailors on leave every weekend. Stationed at Great Lakes Naval Center, these young men boarded the trains into Chicago every Friday night. After much discussion about these fine specimens of manhood in their crisp white uniforms, the three of us girls initially made a pact not to date solo, but this plan soon fell apart because of our work schedules. Harriette dated a nice sailor from Pennsylvania named Bob, and I was seeing his friend, the most beautiful, auburn haired, green-eyed sailor alive, George from Brunswick Georgia. Jane dated a sailor named Louie for a while as well as others, but she finally settled on a nice southern sailor named Gary (who she would later marry).
For the record, George was a perfect gentlemen, so if any of you think you know who he is, you can thank him for me. He was kind, courteous, and caring and I adored him. Unfortunately, he was the one that I let get away. I can only hope that his life has been as good to him as he was to me.
Then again, after George shipped out, there was that young Italian sailor named Franco (see a pattern evolving here?). You see, at one time, the city of Chicago was looking for escorts for a naval ship that was coming into port, the Navy San Georgio, an Italian Navy ship filled with strong young Italian sailors, and Harriette and Jane decided that we would answer the call and volunteer to be escorts.
Our plan was simple. We would bring them home, cook for them, and show them what real American hospitality was all about. While Harriette and Jane were a little more boy-crazy (or should I say “sailor-crazy”) than I was, I certainly didn’t complain when they included me in their plans.
Franco was a sweet soul. I think it was his green eyes that endeared me to him. Those eyes reminded me of George (whom I hadn’t heard a word from since he left). We took buses and taxis from one attraction to another such as the Museum of Science and Industry, the Art Institute, and so on. He never once complained about being in pain and it wasn’t until I took him home that I realized that he was suffering from a really bad headache. I explained it to Mama and she immediately gave him two aspirin. I don’t know if they had aspirin in Italy or not, but he decided to refuse Mama’s offer of water to wash them down. He started chewing the aspirin and, the expression on his face was priceless. You’d have thought that Mama was trying to poison him-such a pained look! His headache finally gone, we dined on homemade spaghetti and garlic bread before heading back to the ship.
That evening, dressed in our finest party dresses, our weekend would end with a farewell ball onboard ship. The deck of the ship had been transformed into an outdoor ballroom laced in lights and filled with young people and romantic music – the sailors we had been asked to escort were now attired in their dress uniforms and looked like royalty. As the waters of Lake Michigan shimmered alongside, we danced the night away and drank wine that tasted like apricot nectar. To top off the evening each escort was presented with a medallion of the Navy San Georgio. To a 16 year old girl, the night was pure magic.
The next morning Harriette, Jane and I stood on the dock as the ship pulled away. We waved and cried until that ship was out of sight. Franco wrote to me for almost a year before our correspondence finally ended. He wrote his letters in Italian and I wrote mine in English, which may have contributed to do with the end of our letter writing campaign. I’d like to believe that he remembered me, but we know how sailors can be – it may have taken a year to find another girl in another port. But I must ask you once again, dear reader, if you ever see Franco, tell him that I thought he was a very nice person (even if I couldn’t quite understand him). My whirlwind romance over, it was back to bussing tables at the Forum.
The job at the Forum paid us every Friday and on Saturday morning, Harriette and I cashed our checks at the currency exchange on Western Avenue and took Ben downtown to the train station to let him shop for his favorite books. He was well past Golden Books, so he shopped for bigger books. Browsing the bookstore shelves for the latest children’s book, Ben would sit cross-legged on the floor and read at least the first few pages. One Saturday a sailor sauntered up to Ben and told him that he had a pretty mother. Looking up at the sailor, Ben blushed and giggled and let this flirt know, without hesitation, that I wasn’t his mother, I was his sister.
The Forum Cafeteria gave me the chance to witness all sorts of curious people. One of the regulars was a woman who had fishnet stocking tattoos on both of her legs. She reminded me of the portrayal of a witch in some of the books I had read — her long hair was pitch black and stuck out at wild angles from her head, her face was thin, her features pointed, and her eyes were huge and dark.
She usually came in for a cup of tea and piece of apple pie, but if anything happened that startled her, she would cross her index fingers in front of her face and hiss at the source of the irritation. I was always relieved when she decided to sit at a table on the lower level because her first act when sitting down was to remove her false teeth and drop them into her glass of water. That in itself wasn’t so bothersome, but she never remembered to take her teeth with her when she was finished and one of us would always have to race after her, water glass and teeth in hand, to return them to her.
One of my jobs at the end of the night was to prepare the condiments for the next morning. I would put the salt and pepper-shakers, the sugar dispenser, and the ketchup bottles on a serving tray and fill each one before sending them down to the kitchen.
The witchlike woman was the only customer remaining on my level as I worked at my task. One of the kitchen workers was helping me clean my area. He was a very thoughtful black fellow named Clarence whom we affectionately called “Tree” because of his stature. He towered above everyone he came in contact with. Harriette was also helping me so that we could get home before midnight.
We were typical teenagers, just fooling around trying to get through for the night. The wild-haired witch-woman decided we were all completely evil and did her finger crossing, hissing maneuver at Tree. Harriette, the ever protective soul that she was, turned on this creature.
“Have you got a problem with my brother?” she asked.
“He’s not your brother, he’s dark and evil,” hissed the old woman.
“He’s not dark, he’s not evil, and he is my brother, so leave him the Hell alone!”
“He is not your brother!”
At that point, I couldn’t resist. “He’s not only her brother, he’s my brother as well. She’s my sister and he’s my brother, too, and my dad wouldn’t like it if he could hear you talking about his son that way!”
“Yeah,” yelled Harriette. “Pick up your broom at the door and fly on home you old witch!”
I don’t know who could take the credit that night, but she drew up her shoulders, hissed at all three of us, left her half-eaten pie where it was, and remembered to take her teeth. We seldom saw her after that (probably because she decided that apple pie was an acceptable breakfast food and we didn’t do the breakfast shift).
Another character graced the Forum with his presence. He played the lead in the Fiddler on the Roof that was playing at a local theater. He arrived one evening, still in costume, after a dress rehearsal with a few other members of the crew for supper. When they had finished eating he asked me to bring them dessert and coffee. I went downstairs and filled their dessert order and brought it back to them. He tried to give me a tip for waiting on them.
“I’m not allowed to accept tips,” I explained. “It’s all part of our service.”
“What do you mean, NOT ALLOWED TO ACCEPT TIPS!?!” he yelled.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that we do this for everybody. It’s all part of the job. If I take your tip I can get in trouble and I don’t want to lose my job.”
“LOSE YOUR JOB?!? LOSE YOUR JOB BECAUSE YOU WERE KIND TO A PATRON? WHAT IS THIS WORLD COMING TO? SOMEONE LOSES THEIR JOB BECAUSE THEY DID A GOOD THING? I CAN’T SHOW MY APPRECIATION TO YOU FOR BEING A GOOD PERSON BECAUSE YOU’RE AFRAID OF LOSING YOUR JOB? THAT’S LUDICROUS!”
The flowing robes of his costume flared with his exaggerated gestures as he flung his arms into the air to accentuate each point.
“I’m really sorry, but I can’t take it.”
“Very well then, but I will not patronize an establishment who refused to allow their personnel to be compensated for kindness.”
They left shortly after finishing their dessert and I waited until they were out the front door before clearing their table. As I stacked the dishes onto the trays so that I could load them onto the dumbwaiter, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful actor he must be to have put on such a performance for my benefit. As I lifted the full tray away from the table, I then noticed that he had made his point and also had his way. Under his tray were two crisp twenty-dollar bills. I never told a soul about it. I simply folded the bills neatly and put them into my uniform pocket. Ever since that day I’ve always dreamed of seeing Fiddler on the Roof.
We kept the job at the cafeteria until Jane got into an argument with the manager and quit her job. That upset Harriette and she quit her job, which upset me and I quit my job-so much for freedom and independence.
That September I was pleasantly surprised when Carl came home on leave from Germany and asked me out on a date. He had joined the Army after quitting high school and had spent most of his enlistment overseas. I was probably a rebound date as he had just broken up with his last girlfriend while he was in Germany. I didn’t care at all about his past romantic interests, I was his current interest and I was smitten (I can still say smitten, can’t I?). The uniform may not have been Navy, and he may not have spent his time aboard ship, but he still looked the same as I remembered him in grade school, only more mature, and the uniform certainly didn’t hurt his image a bit. We dated until he left for Viet NAM.
I wasn’t permitted to go to the airport with him and his parents, so the two of us sat together the night before and talked about his tour, his plans, what might happen during his tour and what I should do if he should die. He talked about how he’d write to me every chance he got and he told me that he loved me. I guess his parents thought he’d forget about me in a week (or I’d forget about him in a week), but we did write to each other at least once a day. I’d get a week’s worth of clay stained letters at one time and I’m sure he’d get two week’s worth of perfume-scented letters from me at a time. He’d send me trinkets from NAM and I’d shop at the local bakery for cookies that shipped well. I’d send him Meerschaum pipes and black cherry pipe tobacco. I bought each of us a tape recorder and I’d send him tapes that I had made while walking through the Chicago neighborhoods at night, explaining to him everything I saw as I walked.
Sometime during the following summer I met someone who would have such a dramatic effect on my life that the experience still haunts me. He was a serviceman who was A.W.O.L. I won’t get into any of the details of his stay in Chicago or my relationship with him, because he still doesn’t rate high on my list of mentionable people. I will say that he pursued me. He wanted to marry me and I told him no. Sometime during our brief encounter, I had come to the realization that I didn’t want to lose Carl, but I was very afraid that it was already too late. When I told this man that I didn’t want to marry him, he told me that if he couldn’t have me that no one else would want me. I put the threat out of my mind and continued to go to work everyday, oblivious to what life had in store.
In September of 1968, a month before Carl was due home, I had been working at an envelope company on the city’s west side, and was attacked as I was walking home. I was gang raped by seven men below the “L” tracks on California Avenue. One of them had hit me in the side of the head with a brick and I went in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember much about the incident other than I could hear the trains overhead, I could hear people talking, heading home during the afternoon commute, and I could hear a voice in the background, a man’s voice, a voice that sounded very familiar. It was the same person who had threatened me not more than three weeks earlier. The entire incident was surreal as if I were somewhere else witnessing the whole thing.
When the attack was over and I finally came to my senses, I stood and straighted my clothing, brushing off the dirt and cinders from my dress and legs, and numbly started walking in the direction of home again. I continued walking down California to the nearest Police Station. I don’t remember passing another soul on the street or hearing the sounds of traffic or feeling a breeze against my skin. My mind was fixed on one thought. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to make a report, a complaint, anything. I knew I needed to report this. I felt that it was my responsibility to report it.
I knew I was in the wrong place as soon as I approached the counter. I realized that the desk sergeant on duty that day had other ideas. The bored look on his face told me that he was not concerned about me or my situation. While he acted very patient with me, he told me that the best I could do was to go home, take a hot shower, get a good night’s sleep and forget it ever happened.
“I’m going to be completely honest with you young lady. If this ever goes to trial, you’ll be on trial. You’ll be treated like a criminal. They’ll decide that you were asking for it somehow. You were wearing your dress too short. Your hips swayed a little too much. You were tempting those boys. Just go home and act like it never happened.”
While I was stunned into complete silence by his comments, I nonetheless turned and left, tears still streaming down my face. I had been wearing a mousy knee length floral sack dress that I had borrowed from my oldest sister, Bobbie, and this guy had the nerve to tell me that I caused the attack, that I had somehow asked for it.
I wish he could know that I tried. I really did try. I went home just like the nice officer told me to. I got into a hot bath and scrubbed myself until I was afraid my skin would bleed. I sat in that tub until the water was cold, but I still didn’t feel clean. I didn’t think I could ever feel clean again.
I got up the next day, got dressed and went right back to work. I pretended that everything was normal, but my body refused to pretend. I started hurting. My legs refused to hold me upright any longer. My mind would go blank just when I needed it to function. My mouth would try to form words, but I couldn’t speak them. I was slowly shutting down and couldn’t understand why.
When Carl came home from Nam, I couldn’t face him. I knew that he would be able to tell that I wasn’t the same person he’d left the year before. It was as if I had a sign across my forehead that read, “Unwanted, Unclean, and Unlovable.” He would walk down the street and when I watched him everything inside me felt broken. I could not look him in the eye because I felt he deserved better than me.
I finally told Harriette what had happened, but I made her promise that she wouldn’t tell another soul. She promised, but I think she crossed her fingers behind her back when she made that promise. The two of us were shopping at a department store on Milwaukee Avenue when I couldn’t move away from the outside wall of the store to get on the bus and go home and that’s when she made up her mind that my secret had gone too far. She told Carl first because she believed he would understand. He came by to see me and while it was really difficult at first, he did everything he could to help me get past the initial pain of his knowing. I believe it may have been Carl who finally talked Harriette into going public (as in letting my parents in on the secret).
When Harriette finally decided that I was really beginning to have problems, she did tell Mama about it and Mama told Daddy. Mama then took me to the emergency room of the hospital and then to a psychiatrist downtown. On my eighteenth birthday, I signed myself into a hospital’s psychiatric ward to receive therapy following rape.
That ward would become my home for better part of the next six months.
The psychiatrist who was treating me had been the intern who had seen me years earlier at the University of Chicago’s Neurosurgery Clinic for seizures. He admitted that he had suspected that I wasn’t an epileptic, but he did not know what had caused those seizures. He ordered a spinal tap shortly after I was admitted so that he could run some tests. If you’ve never had a spinal tap, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. Even though the doctor who performed the procedure told me that I would need to lie flat on my back for at least eight hours following the test, the nurses on the ward had other plans for me. Less than an hour after the test they had me get out of bed and walk around the ward. I immediately got the worst headache that I’ve ever had in my entire life, even worse than the headaches that followed my seizures as a child. The pain was unbelievable. I couldn’t raise my head, I couldn’t move my arms without the pain in my head exploding. Those nurses threatened to force-feed me when I told them that I didn’t want any food. They tried to spoon feed me when I again explained to them that I didn’t want anything to eat. They accused me of being a baby. That headache lasted three days during which time I absolutely hated any nurse that came near my room.
On the 29th of November, just a week after I entered the hospital, I dreamed of my 16-year-old cousin, Jeanette. I dreamed Pop was driving a car and she was sitting beside him in the front seat. I was simply sitting in the back seat, listening and observing. Jeanette was describing the passing landscape, the covering of clay that covered the rock walls on the sides of the curving roads. When I awoke the next morning, it seemed as if my world was a different place.
That same evening, Mama and Daddy came to visit me. I was sitting alone in the common area of the ward when I saw their faces. Before they could tell me, I told them that Jeanette had died.
Jeannette and I had been very close in age, and we had often talked about what we were going to do when we grew up. Now that wasn’t going to happen. While others may remember her as being the person who taught me how to do cartwheels, I will always remember her as being the person who taught me to soar.
Jeannette was always so full of life and I could be absolutely wild and free when I was with her. It really hurt knowing she was gone forever. I hadn’t even known she was sick. After her death I found out that she had leukemia and her parents had told no one, including her. Like so many others, she didn’t die because of the leukemia, she died of the common cold.
To be continued. . .