This unlikely story of pre-adolescent solidarity is about one hour, during one day, on one quiet South Side Chicago street, in which an astonishing assault was mounted to stop one sadistic adult from tormenting one child.
I don’t believe abused children ever really recover. I believe they burn. A low flame perhaps, but it’s on, all the time. Some evil person who thinks they’re safe, in control and free to do as they please with one of them never knows when that low flame will burst into a wildfire…and consume them. This story is about one of those times.
When you read my story, a harsh story, think about what you would have done, if I had come to your door that mild summer day, fifty-five years ago, to ask you to leave your home to come help me.
It may be harder than you imagine to answer my question, once you find out what really happened, in the end.
But first, some essential historical background:
In 1960, I lived on the South Side of Chicago, near 87th and Stony and I went to the Charles P. Caldwell Grammar School, where at ten I was in the fifth grade.
My neighborhood was solidly Jewish and Irish. Growing up at that time, it was as common for me to hear Yiddish accented English from Warsaw, and Gaelic accented English from Cork, as it is to hear to hear Spanish accents today from Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras on the streets and stores of Chicago.
The Irish arrived here first in very large numbers, more than a million after the 1848 Potato Famine devastated the lives of the poor in British (Protestant)-controlled Catholic Ireland. Many died of starvation and disease and many more fled to America for a new start.
Then came the great 1880-1914 wave of Jewish immigrants, my ancestors, fleeing the poor and terror ridden shtetles of Eastern Europe, an area then known as the Pale where Jews from various bordering countries were forced to live in a narrow geographic corridor and who were periodically attacked and killed by rampaging Cossacks with the blessing of the Czarist government. Over two million came past Miss Liberty, on ships.
The Jews and the Irish had much in common. Both lived in terror of a merciless enemy too powerful to defeat and both saw America as the promised land, where all that mattered was how hard you worked and not where you were from and what God you believed in. At least, that was the dream.
So, the Irish in Chicago mostly settled in slums on the poor and dangerous West Side and worked in hopes of giving their (many) children a better life. It took a long time, but by the time of this story, over one hundred years later, the Chicago Irish were firmly in control of the political structure of the city, City Hall including the all-powerful Mayor’s office, the police and fire departments and they lived and worked anywhere they damned pleased. There were many Protestants living within the City’s limits, but they didn’t make a big deal about it. The old country, at that point, was very far away.
By the new Millennium, since the 1830’s, Chicago had been governed by twelve different Irish mayors…not that that’s a bad thing, of course. But out of my 58 years in Chicago, the Mayors Daley, father and son, have led it for a total of about 40 years, and counting.
Well, essentially the same hopes and aspirations as the Irish. They moved into those same slums that the Irish controlled for a couple of generations, because that’s where the rents were still this tough city’s lowest because the conditions there were still the worst. But at least there weren’t any bloodthirsty Cossacks waiting to attack them, here.
Initially, as in any situation where one group rules the roost and another group wants to share the same place, no matter how wretched, gangs were formed and there were clashes. My father, Irving, was in one of those gangs in the Twenties. Not the Irish one.
But not as savage as on both sides of Europe. Eventually, the smarter children of the immigrants forged friendships, realizing they could accomplish far more together than they could imitating the insanity of their Old World situation. Allied in their ambitions, both groups moved up and out, together. It was America, and it was beautiful.
This relationship led to Jacob Arvey, a Jew, ruling over a vast part of the West Side of the city, as decreed by the Irish. They made sure he was re-elected and he made sure all the Jews voted. Twice if necessary, even if they were dead…a mere technicality in Chicago.
When I was ten, one of the most amusing and public examples of this unusual ethnic friendship was a big Downtown Chicago shoe store on the east side of State Street, the city’s main drag, named O’Conner and Goldberg. My family thought it was very funny.
The Irish political establishment supported the Jewish candidate in the city’s wards where there was a significant Jewish population, ensuring the election of that candidate. They also made sure that two Jews didn’t run against each other. That would be a no-win situation that would divide the community and therefore make them less controllable. So, in general there was cooperation and logic.
The Mayor went to Jewish funerals, visited temples on Passover wearing a skullcap or on the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and tended to make the police available to protect the biggest synagogues on those major holidays where large numbers of people would come to worship in the Jewish parts of Chicago. In turn, the Jews voted as a solid block for the Democratic Party and made generous donations on a dependable basis, where it would make the greatest difference. The Jews kept the Irish in power because it was in their own best interests.
A Jewish republican in Chicago was as rare a sighting as a Protestant fireman. Families would never admit to having such an aberration and it would be a source of great shame, like being a republican was akin to being an ax murderer or something, if anyone found out about it.
The most public and ultimately historically significant example of this close political alliance was the 1960 election for president where John F. Kennedy was running against Richard M. Nixon. This is what I know from what I heard the men in my family talk about, when they gathered in the living room after family events or holidays, after that historic election.
John Kennedy was the breakthrough Catholic for the Irish. The final victory of the top prize in America cementing the fact that the Irish/Catholics really made it and they didn’t ever need to kiss anyone’s ass again to control the levers of power in this country.
The value of the Jews as a specific group to be courted in American politics was, and remains, the fact that such a large percentage of the Jews of voting age…vote. It gives them sway and influence beyond their tiny presence in America, now only 2% out of 300,000,000 (legal) citizens. In a close election, they can tip the balance by dint of over a million votes.
While there are now only about 6,000,000 Jews, more or less, living in The United States since they first arrived in the 15th Century, I’ve seen some recent figures that estimate there are approximately 90,000,000 persons who are to some degree of Irish descent currently living in America, including people with only one Irish grandparent.
However, considering the propensity of the charming Sons of Eire to joyously celebrate their Emerald Isle’s patron saint on St. Patrick’s Day each March in a most exuberant manner, now…who could possible estimate how many millions of tiny little Leprechauns have been deposited here and there…and there….among the beauteous, willing and fertile Colleens of every nation? A lassie here, a lassie there, it all adds up. Begorrah!
So when the election of 1960 became a razor-thin race, with neither side certain which way it would go, and with it’s winner would go millions of party-connected jobs, federal construction projects and vast amounts of political pork, the United States Presidential Election race’s results settled onto Chicago’s late arriving returns. Very late arriving returns.
John F. Kennedy received 49.9% of the 68,334,888 votes cast that day and Richard M. Nixon got 49.7%, or 34,226,731 and 34,108,157 respectively. JFK won Illinois by less than 9,000 votes, or…they say he did.
As I heard the adults murmuring among themselves, I came to understand that Mayor Richard J. Daley wasn’t going to let one of his own, the handsome war hero and charismatic poster boy for the Irish, JFK, lose the damn election. Daley was known nationally as a “Kingmaker” and he was going to get himself an Irish Catholic King. By any means possible.
So, while Daley had the Jewish vote in his pocket and the black vote too, that still might have been seen as not enough to carry the day. Daley’s forces understood that they still had to get out the vote, long after all the voting locations had closed. So besides the smaller Bohemian, Greek, Ukrainian, Polish, German, Scandinavian, Lithuanian and Italian community’s voters going JFK’s way, so did their immigrant parents and grandparents. And my immigrant great-grandfather, too. These essential voters were long dead, so it took a while to excavate them and drag them to the polls. Counting all those late-arriving ballots went on into the night.
Democratic hopes rose too, along with the dead.
Then, miraculously, John F. Kennedy won the presidency, generally credited to his devoted voters in this country’s great heartland capitol city, Chicago. Why did it take so long to report the city’s election results? Well, the loyal Democratic Party Bosses and Committeemen were very concerned about reporting an absolutely accurate count. That meant recounting in some wards. And recounting. And recounting, until the results were as they needed to be.
It was at this historic time in America, in 1960, that my own very small story takes place in my quiet, middle-class Jewish and Irish neighborhood. The newspapers never wrote about it. Nor would they.
Married women didn’t work as a rule, in the Fifties and early Sixties. At least, not the middle-class. They stayed home, raised the ‘Boomers’, washed and ironed clothes, watched TV, baked cookies, washed the floors and had dinner waiting when dad came home.
Of course, in a national emergency they also assembled fighter planes, tanks, machine guns and ammunition for battleships. Welders and Riveters.
But after the war ended, all that “women are as important as men” nonsense was forgotten and everyone reverted to the proper prior social arrangement. How could anyone expect the children to be raised properly if the mother was out somewhere, working, and doing God knows what?
A woman who worked was an aberration and was noticed, in a critical way, by the neighbors. My mother, Anne, a talented artist, jewelry designer and interior decorator, worked seven days a week.
She was rarely home, but when she was, she was inaccessible to me due to her never-ending phone calls. My older sister Bonnie’s and my fortunes within the family rose and fell, depending on how well my mother’s efforts to be successful were going. When things were going badly, her dark side eventually emerged and I was continuously beaten, day and night, without provocation. A nightmare. My sister fled to her many girlfriends’ homes and consequently, she was mostly absent from my life, but also from my mother’s rage.
Ever since I can remember, my mother had housekeepers taking care of my sister and me, beginning when we were tiny. My mother tried motherhood for two years, decided it was not for her, that part of her life ending after my birth in 1950, and then she turned that boring job over to others. A long succession of others. Woman who did that kind of work, feeding the children, washing the clothes and cleaning the house were called “maids” in the Fifties. Most of the time when I was at home, it was with a sullen maid going about her work.
I don’t know if I was an especially difficult child for a maid to take care of, but they came and went like the flowing clouds in the sky for most of my younger life. I do know that I was a very angry child, trapped in a terrifying situation, but unable to strike back or escape. So, it’s possible I might have been somewhat uncooperative to a succession of strange women living in my house.
One of those women was named Luella. She was in her twenties, I guess, had this rural accent when she spoke that was different…but not quite southern, maybe Kentucky or Tennessee, and she was very talkative and energetic. She also forgot to feed us periodically and since I was almost always by myself when she was there, I was also a source of ‘fun’ for Luella.
Her fun. Not my fun.
Part of that ‘fun’ was snapping a wet washcloth in my face or some other part of me. She also pushed me around like a rag doll, if I was in her way, or if she was bored. She smiled a lot and showed a lot of teeth but she was frightening to me, because her personality changed as soon as my mother left the house, just before I went off to school. I was trading one fearsome circumstance for another. She saw my mother battering me at will, so she must have decided that was acceptable to do in our house and she did as she wanted to me when no one was there to see her.
Casual child abuse.
I have learned that it is a big mistake to underestimate when a person has reached the limit of their willingness to be abused by someone. There is no dial on their forehead to warn another person that they were now in the danger zone, like a car overheating.
Luella must have felt completely invulnerable to scrawny me, in 1960. I was very thin, shorter than most boys my age and probably appeared completely harmless to anyone, I imagine.
Then one day, when I was in my second floor bedroom, kneeling next to my bed and drawing a picture on a piece of stiff white shirt cardboard, Luella walked into my room with an armful of laundry. She was smiling. I was quiet and continued to draw my picture, because I was an artist too, just like my mother.
I was already in my second year of art school. In a bizarre twist of unpredictable behavior, my mother very patiently showed me how to draw people in correct proportions, which then became noticed in my grammar school. But then, often as not, she would lapse into one of her violent rages and tear all my treasured pictures off my walls, shredding them. This was my chaotic world.
While Luella was sorting the pile of laundry, I continued to draw my picture. There was not a sound in the room. Then, with no warning, Luella was standing behind me and she threw herself on top of me, forcing my face into the thick blanket, smothering me. I was unable to scream. She held me there for a while, laughing and laughing. Then she let me up. I screamed at her for scaring me, tears of terror running down my face. Luella kept laughing and carried part of the laundry into another room, ignoring me.
She was completely unaware that the invisible gauge on my small forehead had become irreversibly stuck…in the danger zone. I ran away from her, tearing down the sixteen stairs to the first floor of our brick house, tore open the door and fled out of my house into the street.
I ran up and down the block, ringing the bells of my Irish and Jewish friends and playmates. Almost every house had children in it, and most of them came out when I asked them to help me. While they could probably tell I’d been crying, I didn’t tell them what I wanted from them. A small but growing band of children began following me down the street as I attempted to enlist more children to help me, going from house to house.
Not every kid would come along, mostly the girls, but some did, the more curious and adventurous ones and I kept ringing bells. I wanted vengeance, I needed help to do it, and I was unstoppable in my determination to carry it out.
The band of children eventually grew to a dozen boys and girls of varying heights and complexions. They didn’t know they were actually…a vigilante mob. Not yet. We turned east into a gravel alley off Bennett, my street, just south of the Rexall Drugstore and 87th, the big street we weren’t allowed to cross, with its river of fast moving traffic.
I waited until all twelve of the kids were gathered together, who were by now consumed with curiosity and I breathlessly told them about the crazy maid and how she had been torturing me and then what she did to me that very day. The expressions on their faces turned from anticipating some kind of fun to disbelief, that something terrifying like that could happen on our own pretty, leafy street where every third house had an Irish cop in it.
Some of the girls became very upset. The boys looked shocked and angry. This was nothing any of them knew anything about, and I didn’t even bother to mention my mother. That problem was one they couldn’t help me solve. Besides, she was far too private a matter to ever tell anyone else about.
I waited a moment for all I’d said to sink in. These were kids I’d known for years. I’d gone to kindergarten with a number of them. Then, I told them I wanted them to follow me back into my house, collectively grab the evil Luella, who was not a fragile creature, and help me drag her out of my house and then lock the door on her.
This was outrageous. Children didn’t attack adults. It was unthinkable. Besides, we were all just ten-years-old. Individually, we were all too small to ever tackle an adult. But, I insisted we could do it—get rid of her—together. I knew for certain I couldn’t do it alone.
Then one of the taller boys, an Irish kid named Tommy, stepped forward toward me in that alley and said he’d do it. He was considered among us to be one of the tougher kids in the fifth grade. We shook hands on it. Then another boy. And another. Then the first girl, and then her friend standing next to her, too. In a very short time, all of them agreed to go with me and do this crazy thing. I swore them all to secrecy. If the grown-ups ever heard about any of this, we’d all be grounded for life, or worse. But for me, “worse” was every single day.
It was the first time in my life I discovered that people want to be asked to help, even young kids, when you really need it. I learned that some people, maybe most people, find it hard to say ‘no’ when they know that another person is in trouble. It became the essential lesson of my life, both in that alley in 1960, and ever since.
We swiftly ran north down the block toward my house. There were no adults in sight, anywhere. It was a humid, lazy, summertime afternoon and all the men were working and the mothers busy doing something else, inside. We gathered together on the cement steps outside of the front door I’d flown out of just an hour before.
Now, I wasn’t alone.
I very slowly unlocked my door, opened it partly and crept into my house and looked around. No sign of her. I motioned for the others to wait, and I listened more intently. Then I heard the floor squeak above me and I knew she was still upstairs. It was time.
I opened the door all the way and whispered for the others to keep quiet. Not a sound, and to follow me. When we reached the top of the stairs, I whispered they should follow my lead. All of them nodded. I was so glad I had someone on my side, for a change.
We all crept up the stairs, the same sixteen stairs I ran down to get away from that sadistic woman. We were bunched close together. I was in front, and when we reached top of the stairs, I looked to see where Luella might be. There she was, to my left, still in my room, lying on my bed, smoking a cigarette. The hazy white smoke filled the air of my bedroom.
I held my breath, turned to the others and nodded. Then I yelled as loud as I could,
That band of children charged up the stairs and we burst into my room screaming. yelling and without any hesitation…we swarmed all over that bigger, meaner person like killer bees. There was no plan. There was only revenge. I grabbed a leg and began pulling her off my bed. Others joined in, helping me and also grabbing her other leg and we all pulled her off the bed together, jerking her so she fell heavily on her back, bouncing her head on my wooden floor. She was screaming, but all the windows were closed and the air conditioning was on, so no one could hear her scream.
Just like me, Luella. Just like me, you monster you.
Some of the kids grabbed her arms to keep her from scratching or hurting any of us. No one hit her. With all of us collectively lifting her up by her legs, I distinctly remember her dress falling down over her head and seeing her girdle. I had never seen a woman’s underwear before that wasn’t my mother or sister. The thing looked bullet-proof. Then I realized the other ten-year-old boys had noticed the same thing. They hesitated. Time to get moving.
I yelled, to be heard over her screaming,
“Let’s drag her down the stairs!”
And we did, in a clumsy fashion, because she was a big woman. One stair at a time, slowly banging her stupid head on every step. She wasn’t hurt. There was no blood. But she would remember this day, as I have, for the rest of her life. Maybe she’d think twice before she picked on someone she once would have considered to be “just a helpless kid.”
It must have been a terrifying experience for Luella. All those kids were screaming like savages and eagerly dragging her down those stairs. I think civilization must be a very thin layer, because none of those previously timid girls showed any hesitation to join in with the Fifth Grade Revenge Mob.
When we reached the ground floor, a girl let go of Luella and flung open the heavy front door we’d come in only minutes before. With a collective effort, everyone trying, working as a unit (amazingly), we picked that terrible woman up and threw her out of the door, onto the cement steps and then that very excited girl who opened that door, slammed it with glee.
I immediately locked the door to keep the “Wolf” outside. Everyone stood around breathing heavily, after having been part of something none of them ever dreamed they’d do. It was a major moment. We had won. She was outside, and we were safely…inside.
No one spoke a word. All the flushed Irish and Jewish faces, boys and girls, my heroes, began to realize what they had just done and words were not enough to express what they all must have felt. It was incredibly exciting and a rare moment in life when all of us were as one.
But I knew what was coming and I also knew everyone had to get out fast, before anyone noticed they were gone. After all, they were all only…ten years old.
Just harmless little children.
I stopped everyone from being too lost in their reveries of victory because for me, it would be a short one. Then I told them, looking at each of them, that this was a big deal, and that we could all get in terrible trouble if anyone ever talked about it. That this was a lifetime secret and no other kid, nobody’s parent, could ever know about this. Then I asked each one to swear.
Now we were a in a conspiracy of silence. Would they be able to shut up about this? Would the police, not too far away in this case, come looking for us?
I had no way of knowing, but I remember how sober and serious all of them seemed to be, like we all were connected by the same electricity. Then I led them to the back door in the kitchen, on the opposite side of the house, and one by one, with a few moments in between, each kid left my house, walking…not running, so as to not appear as a mob running from the building. That would attract some attention, maybe, and we didn’t need that.
In a few minutes, everyone was gone. How long would the terrible secret last? How long before everyone knew what a hellion I was and kept all their neighborhood kids from coming near me? How long before the bomb dropped?
Almost fifty years.
That’s how long, and I’m the one who decided it was finally safe enough to tell my story. No child told any other person. Not one parent knew. No teacher was whispered the secret by a guilty child, despite the preponderance of Catholics among us. Maybe a priest somewhere knew, but then, they would know how important it was for them to keep a child’s secret.
Not one of the twelve boys and girls, Catholics and Jews, ever told.
Think about it.
My parents came home late that night when it was dark outside, about eight hours later. Luella was still sitting on those cement steps. Her purse was in my house, somewhere, and she had no carfare to take a bus to go home. When I heard the voices outside my front door, I ran down to listen, with my ear cupped against it. I heard Luella wail:
“That boy of yours…all those wild children…they threw me out of the house!!”
She was crying now. I heard my father say that that was impossible, a big woman like her, a skinny little boy like me. My mother said nothing. My father sounded disgusted and said something about her getting into our liquor and that she must be drunk. I ran and hid when I heard the key in the lock. I saw Luella run in, grab her purse and then, run out. My father drove her to the bus stop on 87th Street and that was the end of Luella in my life.
That was the end of all the maids, too. I managed to avoid a beating that night because my dad was home and because no one believed Luella’s story. But, today, I believe my mother knew that it was possible. She was very perceptive, and she looked at me with a different sort of appraisal, like:
“I didn’t know he had it in him.”
Maybe in her eyes I earned a little respect, however short-lived that ‘elevated status’ might last. But very soon, things returned to our house’s frightening version of ‘normal.’
How could I possibly know that I too would follow the evil Luella out onto that same hard cement step, almost exactly four years later, raining hard this time, when my demented mother threw me out of my house at 2 am, on June 9th, 1964, never to return?
Violence was a constant visitor in my house, on that quiet street on the South Side of Chicago. But over time, I learned to take my victories when I could, and savor them.
That day—with the crucial aid of my brave young Irish and Jewish allies from the old neighborhood (all of us decended from all those desperate European immigrants) —that day, a single ray of light in my dark, dark world—was mine.
Tommy, that tall boy who was the first to volunteer to help me rid myself of the evil Luella on that desperate incredible day, appropriately, to me at least, was born on the 4th of July, 1950.
He and I walked to grammar school together almost every day for eight years. He was a very good person, a dear friend and I cared for him. After I left my home, suddenly, four years after the “rebellion” and moved far away, Tommy and I lost touch with each other. Different schools, adolescence and all that probably were sufficiently distracting.
We did meet once more, however, and by chance, in 1978 in a brief reunion in downtown Chicago. It was good to see him and talk about old times.
More time went by.
Thirty years after that last time we met, I learned that just four years later, in September 1982, Tommy was shot and killed during a robbery attempt while waiting at a bus stop. He was only thirty-two years old.
I want to believe he went down swinging. I need to believe that.
Goodbye, brave Tommy. I will remember you.
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