This all began when Yeats was harrowing his poem, "1919," saying:
The Babe rested be-ribboned in a wicker bassinet, kept next to his parents' bed in a dark, well-shaped room that opened outward by two doors of the wall below the bed, and was cut into behind the bed to let a large window look down upon a courtyard with a shed to the left and to the right porches of a three-storied building, while straight to the rear the window looked toward an angular welter of wooden structures that were the backs of houses facing upon Sedgwick Street. It was a quiet view that the boys hardly ever cared to look upon. Once in a while Buddy MacRae, the milkman's son, made an interesting noise out there monkeying around with some junk of his.
They took no milk from his father. He was Bowman Dairy. They were Borden Dairy. Words were heard from time to time to justify Borden's over Bowman's products and services; something had to be made of it; nothing could be let pass for nothing in the family. Nor could any two things be indifferently equal.
The reliability of the milkman was phenomenal. Up three and a half flights of stairs, each tall flight divided into turning halves, in order to leave behind the door at the expected dawn hour two quart- bottles of pasteurized (hurrah for the Board of Health!) un- homogenized (what was that?) milk, a half-pint bottle of cream, and every couple of days a pound of butter. Empty bottles were put out to be taken away. Notes with special instructions were stuck in the mouths of these empty bottles.
A nice game of prediction was played, which only the milkman could lose, he gambling on what they might want and carrying it up with him, they trying to predict their needs for the morrow to spare him a walk up and down. If neither was effective, he would make the round-trip, unless one of the boys happened to be going down or were sent to accompany him. The Babe would be especially obliging if he himself had prompted a note for whipping cream, for he would be asked to whip and he would clean the spoon more than once in the process by licking it.
By this time he would have had several years for the recall of memory. He did not recall how his cradle cap had been rubbed off by pillows, sponging and scratching, and how a crop of blonde curly hair had fast grown in its place. His Mother saved some snippets in an envelope when she finally had to cut it. Nor did he remember nestling in the ample lap of Mrs. Villiers next door when the Mom went out to shop or to take his Brother Bus somewhere.
He spent a lot of time in the kitchen, the headquarters of his Mother; wherever she had gone, she would be back soon enough. He toddled into the parlor, which was separated from the kitchen by two large sliding doors, almost always open. He gained in strength by trying to close them. He peered into his Father's room, where all was neat and forbidden, and sometimes wandered into Brother Bus' small room in back, with its fire escape letting down into the alley, but he had little interest in the dark room until the day arrived when he was moved into it and it became The Boys' Room. He slept with Bussie until Eddie was out of the crib to take his place, whereupon he moved to a large parlor couch whose humps and crevices he felt and fancied as a Mother Earth. Each night he would make his bed, each morning fold away the coverings. Baby Vic held forth from a movable cot in the Dad's studio.
The primeval setting for all of the boys was the parents' bedroom, and the Babe returned on occasion to explore it. He probed into his Mother's chiffonnier with its triple-folding mirrors where he first saw the back of his head; he grimaced at them fiercely and cordially again and again before proceeding. He paid little attention to the stuffed clothes closet with its welter of shoes and stockings. All of his Mother's things smelled good. He was attracted to glitter, pastes, perfumes, instruments and bric-a-brac. He evidenced in no particular any incipient fetishism. At most, he would sniff a perfume, dab Pond's cream on his chin, and give a cursory sweep of his jagged fingernails with a pearl-handled file, but he deemed the total cosmetic process too time-consuming for its small utility. He had no trouble accepting the anti-feminist propaganda, already heard so young, about all the time women wasted on these matters.
Over his parents' bed, birthplace of four boys, hung a gilt-framed large oval painting of a beclouded Virgin Mary, bearing the infant Jesus and surrounded by plump baby angels twisted into adoring positions. It may have been a copy, a bad one, of a Velasquez. The house held no art of consequence. Calendar-art there was, on calendars fresh from month to month. Also there was "Little Lord Fauntleroy," or was it "Little Boy Blue?" A generally available bad print. Pictures of flowers appeared and disappeared over the years, but the Babe could not appreciate flora and had to enjoy fauna mostly by way of pictorial representations. He especially admired a painting called "Stag at Bay." He could not decide, ever, whether to take the side of the beleaguered beast or of the hunter and snarling dogs. Oddly, when later he heard of "stag parties," prideful congregations of bibulous males, he felt that they must be ignoble displays by comparison with this truly heroic pose.
The Dad's studio was the room off the entrance hall and across from the bathroom. It faced the Park. It held an elegant oak table with an inlaid leather pad, a neat desk whose very drawers were filled in an orderly manner, while other people used their drawers to pile things into and hide them from sight. A round-shaped Tiffany lamp stood on the desk. A plain round chandelier hung from the ceiling. The Victrola, a massive personage in its own right -- it spoke and sang! -- stood next to the door. The Babe at first liked to wind it up, later shirked the task.
Competition for the phonograph arrived one day in the form of a chattering crystal radio set. It had been born the same year as the Babe. The Mom placed its large ear-phones on his head and sat him down to listen by its stand alongside the Victrola. When one day he ran to answer the doorbell, he dragged down the radio to its crashing doom. But soon enough they bought a fine-looking Philco that won a place in the parlor.
Shelves filled with flatly laid music climbed up two walls of the Dad's study. Inside a cabinet were instrumental accessories and bottles of bonded whisky and Marsala wine. Several musical instruments reclined on the floor or leaned against some solid piece. A single fancy heavy music stand faced the bay window next to the desk. If a second stand were needed for a duet or a pupil, a collapsible metal stand was pulled out of its cloth or leather cover, unfolded and its neck stretched to the shoulder-height of the player. The chairs were straight-up functional models, with flat wicker-seats. The rug was a tight-woven wool of geometric oriental pattern.
The Dad spent much time in his room, copying and arranging music, telephoning and receiving calls, in English or foreign languages, giving lessons to boys several hours of the week, and meeting with personal visitors. The single telephone, heavy, black, straightforward and round-mouthed, gaping from its little table, was wired into the hall so that it could be reached easily from the kitchen or from the studio.
The Mom never received in the studio, nor did the boys play or study there. They entered only on summons, or when delegated to wind up the Victrola and put on records, which were then audited from outside; but they would also occasionally tour the room. As soon as toy phonographs and children's records were invented, they got these and could play them anywhere else in the apartment. They sounded scratchy and squeaky.
The bathroom was in the hall, next to the front door. The Babe used it as soon as he could. He was more than pleased to pee in the bowl when he could push over the telephone directory and get up on it and point his stream with some accuracy. He was an agile child to whom the toilet seat offered a welcome challenge, and although at first he had to call for help to wipe his behind, this was just for a few months.
"Unh-unh" means "No, no," in American vernacular and a curious transition occurred, for the babies heard it when touching a forbidden or dangerous object and then in their second year when defecating in their diapers. "Unh, unh" now became the word for feces, and they therefore asked to be helped onto the toilet seat to "make unh, unh." Later the words became "pee-pee" and "caca," then "Number 1" and "Number 2," and finally "I have to go to the toilet."
The evolution, under continual adult persecution, from the innocent polymorphous perversity of infancy into the clean and proper little child, was successfully achieved. Let us say 87.64% so achieved. Despite his ebullience and frequent rages, he desisted from his instinctual urges and/or forgot that they had been a problem. He did not suck his thumb, play with his turds (or those of any other being), did not sweep things off the table, nor spit food out aggressively, nor remove his pants defiantly. He diddled his genitals from time to time, up until he heard the other boys referring to it as "pocket pool," whereupon he stopped because it was revealed to him as something that people could notice and ridicule, and because it was not simply a private behavior but had to be recognized as coming under rules of public conduct. (I phrase this in professional language; yet I will not admit for an instant that these were not precisely the notions entering into his consideration and decisions upon the matter.)
He drew up a chair before the kitchen sink to wash; washing himself in the bathroom was too much work, even though after awhile he was able to reach precariously into the bathroom sink from either the brown oaken seat of the toilet or the furled white- enamelled edge of the bathtub.
In the bathtub he took his weekly bath, usually but not always on Saturday, sometimes more frequently, depending upon the temperature of the air and upon the dirt cuffing his ankles. The bathtub invariably elicited some discussion and alarm: the water run from the gas-heated boiler might scald him; he might drown if it were too deep. The window above the tub allowed wicked drafts to pierce the skin and was not often opened, the most notable of such occasions occurring when the Dad would intrude and throw up the sash, exclaiming "phew" and giving his sense of smell priority over his fear of the ever-threatening pneumonia.
The child played with boats and balls and sponges, not as much as children would do today when there are more warm water, more heat and more aquatic toys, not to mention the extra toilet available to the shy of the household, and they were all shy in this sense, only one person to the bathroom unless the other were sick, an infant, or, later on, the boys were quickly washing their faces before rushing off to school. Over its oak wood, the bathroom floor was laid with linoleum that was cut and fitted around pipes and pedestals and therefore could crack here and there if a little experimental pressure were applied.
Natural thin oak slats covered the floors of the other rooms too, and were overlain each by a patterned woolen rug. The interiors of the Hill Street apartment and of the Southport Avenue place that they moved into later were furnished for ordinary use, functionally equipped; everything to be seen was employed. The Babe received a strong impression of this when he watched in the pantry while his Mother climbed a stool as tall as himself and reached up to the broad shelf above all shelves to take down jars of jam or a roaster pan big enough for the expected turkey; these were secondary reserves, not on call everyday. And he could feel her bending down to his level to poke around in a cedar chest among the mothballs and winter clothing for the sweater he now needed.
Little enough space was available: perhaps this is why the symbolic bulky Central European and lush Victorian tastes of the time were not indulged. The idea of a parlor interior that would be closed to all except on one or two days a year or upon death, with its furniture kept covered and its dark green shades drawn behind brocaded curtains, could not prevail in the face of a rich and varied home life and work, nor were the males of the family unconscious of this fact; for they could be heard, led by the Dad, to scorn the ornate, the plush, the extravagant, the useless.
The kitchen looked out upon the best view that a child might expect. The parlor next to it had a bay window, the angled view there was even better; but one had to clamber upon the long couch and push aside the curtains in order to see out, at the risk of a scolding for "ruining" them, or else one squeezed behind the couch with a loss of freedom to come and go, there always being more than one hare to run at the same time, and it makes one shudder to follow the course of events when fingers were sticky with paste or peanut butter, a nose was dripping snot from a cold, or pants were gravied or freshly painted. So, instead, the kitchen window was to be preferred, granting that somebody might be hitching up his droopy pants from behind unnecessarily or affording unsolicited comment, yet, too, promising the boon of a lift up if a horse and wagon were to pause immediately below, three floors down where it could not be seen without danger of fall.
Otherwise the curly head peering hardly over the window sill had a good world-view. Seward Park spread out its several acres of open- space, at first wire-fenced with cement posts, then later fenced by iron stakes. Trees marched all around the Park outside the fence. On the far side of the Park, a long brick structure housed a gymnasium for boys, a public library, a gymnasium for girls; it was tunneled through by two arched passages to the unseen world of Elm Street beyond.
In the United States, a structure such as the Babe inhabited was called then a "building," and contained "flats" of a type that later came to be called "apartments." Most of the buildings around were brick structures of three stories plus an English basement, which was not then called "English." Historically they may have been Chicago basements because there grew up a tradition there of buildings whose first floors were up a flight of stairs, going back to the time when the traffic was becoming heavy and sinking continually into the mud. So the streets had to be built up with harder materials and this made them high, and made basements out of many first stories.
The Babe's building was the largest dwelling for blocks around. Its construction was of red shiny brick, a solid four stories tall, with bay windows extruding from the front in wood. The interiors, the hallways too, were lined with oak. The walls were painted in dense shiny colors. Hard heavy brick and hardwood everywhere.
Its rectangular shape held two sets of flats, one facing West on Sedgwick Street, the larger ones entirely facing North upon Hill Street. These conveyed a higher status because they were off the "car-line" and turned toward the Park. The boys scarcely noticed the other part of the building unless a boy lived there, which once happened, and they would call him out to play, whence afterwards his mother would scream at him to come home, "Johnnnny!" and he would shout in reply what sounded like "Chi daw?" which obviously meant "What do you want?" and she would reply -- what could be understood without translation -- "Come home this minute!" and so the game would be broken up. The Dad said that the language was "Gheg gheh," and was spoken by Albanian immigrants who had lived in Southern Italy for generations and had emigrated to America along with the Italians.
Children were scarce in the twelve flats. Bro Bus and the Babe were alone. None of the ethnic groups was prolific; Chicago grew fast thanks to immigrants from rural America and Europe. With the thirties came Buddy Randazzo, a humdrum minion and then the Chiaro family took over the first floor apartment below: these were big Anthony, middle Nicholas, and small Johnny, Italian Jews, the Dad explained, whatever that meant; the significant meaning was more baseball players. Johnny went to play on Sedgwick Street one day and was shot in the eye by an unidentified boy with a BB gun and lost the eye and received a glass substitute. Everyone was appalled and never again did an air rifle seem harmless.
Bro Bus and the Babe did have such an air rifle, obtained, after much pleading and haranguing, upon the basis of research conducted among shop windows and via the pages of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue. There had never been a gun in the house, and the Dad was loath to make an exception in this case. It was not only his feeling of danger but also a more profound pacifistic and ominous sense that who lives by the gun dies by the gun. Nearby "Death Corner" carried one testimonial after another to the adage, of which more later.
Their gun was single-shot, with a clumsy bolt-action rather than a pumping load-mechanism; it was a cheaper type, and its vaunted function, the killing of rats, went unexercised, there being a scarcity of visible rats when one went about packing the gun, while birds, even the common sparrow, were abjured as targets, as also the squirrels -- an easy mark; the highest prize, legitimate because edible, rabbits, did not cooperate during the single summer when the gun was toted into the country. So, unloaded, it lent verisimilitude to the warfare of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and American and German soldiers -- dramatic roles, however, that would rapidly lose their appeal to the olding boys.
Only one other boy and no girls ever lived in the building. He was Philip Ficara, whose mother was doubly distinctive for being divorced and a taxicab driver; also she was a pretty redhead with a cunning smile. They moved into the long-vacant basement, the Depression rent for which amounted to eight dollars a month. They scoured the unvarnished floors, and pried open and washed the grimy windows, and fixed the locks, although the Babe could have told them that, whatever they affected to do, the ghosts and criminals it had harbored in times past would be returning.
Mrs. Ficara brought in only certain essential pieces of furniture, notably a large stove, so that the boys had plenty of room in which to horse around. One of the Babe's constitutional conventions was held there -- poorly attended, Bro Bus as usual abstaining yet hanging around, warming himself by the huge pot of soup that Mrs. Ficara had left to simmer on the stove, admonishing Philip to stir and guard it well.
In the calisthenics that succeeded the legislative session, bodies collided and lurched against the stove, upsetting the pot of soup. Aghast and consternate, and then particularly concerned that there would be nothing to eat for the Ficaras that evening, the boys vigorously and thoroughly scraped the soup from the floor and stove, put it back in the pot, lifted the pot back upon the stove, and added cold water to bring the fluid up to its previous level. They watched it to a boil, consoled Philip and reassured him, and left before the mother returned.
Philip and mother moved away not long afterwards, out into the great American crowd somewhere, where everyone knows everyone and no one, and all are not lonely but slightly melancholy, and are cheered by seeing in other people dimly recognizable faces, as do babies when they are beginning to recognize others, and the multitude is grateful for the crowd, looking around themselves, singing "Hail, hail, the gang's all here," when given half a chance. One gets to love this vast crowd, with a feeling that is particularly American, a sense that unites the American's whole being from baby to big person, whereas lots of people of other cultures look incomprehensibly and irritably at this childishness that loves the sea of unknown faces about which Walt Whitman chanted.
Across a dark hall was a second basement, this one a laundry room, with tubs, boilers and stoves. Wires for hanging clothes crisscrossed the rooms. It was rarely used. The laundryman was as faithful as the milkman. Until the neighborhood worsened, the place was left unlocked and served for hide-and-go-seek, to scare one another, and to hold meetings. The final stop of the dummy elevator was here.
At each landing up to the very roof, where clothes might be hung out to dry, a small door could be lifted to reveal the elevator shaft; you looked far down it into blackness and turned your head upwards to see slivers of light entering from the roof. Falling into the shaft was one of the earliest scenarios of danger pictured to the Babe, and, ergo, ipso facto, and pari passu the employment of the dummy as a personal convenience became a driving ambition.
The preliminary phase involved manipulating the thick hemp rope that hoisted the carriage and controlled its descent. The next phase required a boy at each of two landings, calling to each other, practicing the lifting and lowering of the solid wooden car. At the roof landing, a small tower protected the shaft from the weather and housed the pulley and connections, all of which could be seen by gazing upwards with twisted neck. (Peering upwards or downward at any floor was not without danger, since an unexpected lowering could guillotine the onlooker.)
Now one practiced racing against the car up and down the five double flights of stairs, one boy running, the other boy raising and lowering the car furiously. The Babe did some of his early studies of geometry, acceleration of falling bodies and the physics of inclined planes at these times. Also, friction and first aid came into play as the rough ropes cut and burned their hands; they were reckless about wearing gloves, but, too, gloves might be slippery, nor were they to be found when you needed them.
A remarkable speed was achieved on the ropes, but only a free- falling object could beat a body throwing himself down the stairs, and no hoister could beat a boy clambering up the stairs two, later three, steps at a time. The stairs had smooth banisters with round heads at each landing and turn, but mounting and dismounting from them before and after each mere short slide lost time, so the feet did most of the work, with the arms and bannister heads helping to whip the body around the turns and keep it from plunging uncontrolled down the stairs. Windows brought light from the courtyard in back as you went flashing by, but the final leap to the basement landing was exultingly blind.
A few times they fell, and arose painfully to play again. Once, in the deteriorating Depression days, the Babe saw the Dad throw a drunken bum down the stairs -- "and stay out and don't come back!" -- and his bones ached for the man, introducing the conjecture, does a drunk get hurt less in falling than a boy? The Dad explained the violence..."so he won't come back again," and the Babe had then to contemplate the disagreeable ethical principle of preventive punishment.
The final phase of dummy operation involved the transportation of passengers; it was preceded by years of toiling at the ropes to hoist burdens of wood, coal, and groceries, much of this faked, to be sure, in order to gain experience, for there was little to be carried up or down that could not better be done by hand-carrying, while large heavy objects could not be fitted through the opening onto the carriage, but had to be lugged up by paid moving-men.
Ideally in all complex operations, as was this one, the final execution should be rendered faultless by the prior accretion of all the component skills, as attested to by expressions such as "Get all the kinks out first..." whether the goal be a bugle call or a landing on the moon. So the first manned expedition was preceded by the many dummy exercises. Then, upon the great day, "Bay" rode the vehicle, "Buh" took up the more responsible job of pulling and controlling the ropes. After the first landings, they would take turns, passenger and controller were reversed. Foreign visitors were afforded a free ride too. Soon the team had exhausted all the exhilarating effects of the project.
Resting from their labors, they would visit the roof. It covered an area as extensive as the building itself and was tarred all over and planked. Spaces between the planks let the rain and snow fall through, and the water would drain off into the long gutters and fall steeply in tin pipes to the ground far below. The roof held a number of chimneys that gave off coal fumes in the cold weather. The boys could not figure out which of the chimneys was their own; they thought that the high-grade anthracite to which the Dad was partial might be evident in its smoke, which, so he said, was much cleaner, but could not separate their own fumes from the rest of them and suffered a mild sense of alienation from the disconnection of cause and effect here.
The roof was bitterly cold much of the wintertime, and blisteringly hot in the summer sun. At least once of a summer night each year, the boys would be let to haul up their bedding and to sleep there, under the stars and moon, with the smell of warm tar and parched old boards in their nostrils.
The view from the roof was fine. The heavens opened. The city lay flat to the horizon in all directions. When a great dirigible sailed by, the Babe raced up to the roof to watch it. It was the custom still then for the children to chant, "I see an aeroplane, I see an aeroplane...etc" when one flew across the sky. When skyrockets were set off in Little Italy a few blocks to the southwest, the roof was the place to be. When the huge gas storage tank by the North Branch of the Chicago River soared up in flames, they had grandstand seats; fire sirens screamed from all points of the compass and they could glimpse the fire engines hurrying to the scene of the disaster; they rushed to the wooden fence of the roof when an engine passed directly below. They were on a gut-gripping precipice, recalling the films of Harold Lloyd, with his frightening balancing acts upon roofs and cables.
In the summer wet wash was hung on the roof's wires; thus the Mom saved some money doing the laundry that needed little ironing. He helped when he was tall enough to hang it, and before then stood by with the clothespin bag and handed the pins one by one to his Mother, and put one on his nose for fun, or snapped then into a necklace during a lull.
Too, he helped to take down the wash. And he could smell the sun-baked sheets and towels, the roasting tar under his feet, the breezes from the factory to the southwest, sometimes the caramel smell of a candy factory, the hot planks seeming to crack under one's eyes: it was these boards that smelled best after a summer shower and a quick-baking sun's return.
Chicago stank in many different ways, almost none of them pleasant, at least to begin with. But the Babe could have listed a number of smells that he liked, such as just these, and the best of all was the ozone-laden post-thunderstorm breeze that had fought its way into the center of the City and would expire in a few minutes.
Like the basement, the roof was usually a lonely place, awesome, where the Babe could commune with his soul, briefly, because he usually had better things to do with his time; still, one must admit that he did so. He found especially nostalgic the sunsets to be watched from the roof, often gloriously colored they were, just as he had pictured them in the Wild West stories that he read. He had no idea that the chemical pollution of Chicago was contributing mightily to the production of its spectacular gloaming. "Riding off into the sunset," was his dream, nirvana, the perfect state of mind -- beautiful, manly, healthy, adventurous, promising. The Golden West!
He went to bed often thereupon to think of riding-riding on the long trails to the beautiful hidden valley. At night, Hill Street was quiet. Occasionally a trolley car would sound from Orleans or Sedgwick Street, sputtering and clanking, then silence again until the church bells of St Joseph rang, with the Dad snoring resonantly, reassuringly regular, Bro Bus tranquilly keeping to his side of the bed, no need to give him a shove.
The owners of 365 Hill Street were of Swedish origin and lived to the North, and the neighbors were mostly Scandinavian when the Dad moved in. They found in him a commanding personality, a gentleman with a pleasant and bright wife, and came to tolerate his two boys when they came along, even to love them. The John Ericksons just above had once owned a number of restaurants. They now owned two. They were jolly and cordial, and the Babe liked to ascend to their flat and partake of cookies and cream while watching Mrs. Erickson grind her coffee in a fancy machine.
From her window he might compare her view with his own. It gave him a new perspective of Seward Park. The clangor of the street-cars dulled, the voices of the children dimmed, the tops of the trees flattened below and did not obscure his view of the North.
The folks of the Hill Street entrance looked upon the Dad as a territorial guardian, a protector of the proper spaces around, for he seemed to dominate them, and appeared to screen as by some charismatic process, those who came and went, delivered and picked up, repaired, inspected, and inquired. How could they not have suffered from the shouting and quarreling of the boys and the practicing of musical instruments, but they never complained, not to the Babe, nor to the Mom, for she surely would have conveyed the message, not being the type to keep such matters to herself.
Prices hardly changed during the Twenties, and the $22.00 per month that the Dad paid in the beginning went up lastly to $27.00 before the Depression struck and then dwindled to $17.00. The owners very much wanted their responsible tenant to stay.
Mrs Villiers next door, on whose lap he had often rocked, was old and fell sick. She sat disconsolately in her rocking chair, in darkness by day as by night. One son whom the boys and all called "Uncle" left for Buffalo where they had come from. The second son stayed with "Mother" and came home early every evening to her, a gaunt, quiet, cigarette-smoking man, quite different from the generally unemployed, pipe-smoking, jovial "Uncle."
The Babe now saw little of her. The long visits were gone, the easy talk a memory. He was sent by the Mom for a cup of flour, or was it sugar? Mrs. Villiers said to Frank grumpily: "What's he want? They're always asking for something." Frank was quick to help the boy, calling from his room, "It's nothing, Mother." But it was a blow. It was so untrue. (He reviewed the asking and the giving process, over and over again.) That was not what hurt the most: it was that his doting old friend had changed her character.
He told his Mother. I know, she said, Mrs. Villiers is very sick, she's old, she can't help it. Still he could no longer feel neighborly love. When she died not long afterwards, he was sobered, but not moved to tears. He sensed a greater loss when Frank, now alone, who could no longer call "Mother," lost his job and then moved quietly out to live in some rooming house somewhere, and the empty flat stood like a skull voided of memories.
The processes of deterioration, already advanced in the neighborhood, took hold of 365 Hill Street, first on the Sedgwick Street side, then creeping over to Hill Street, accelerated by the Great Depression: tenants who were quick to move, less reliable maintenance men to fix things; more drunks and derelicts wandering around, stores vacant and their customers vanished -- or picked up by Wieboldt's or Goldblatt's, who were amassing vast fortunes in the teeth of the worst economic storms of history; factories stilled; train tracks overgrown with weeds in many an industrial yard; more blacks coming from the South all the time and seeking in every nook and cranny for some kind of housing but usually meeting with hostile neighbors and frightened landlords when they found a place; reduced municipal services; Protestant churches emptied; Catholic churches holding on dispiritedly.
The Near North Side had entered the Great Depression like the rest of the United States, totally unprepared, mentally and organizationally incompetent to address it. The "broad-shouldered" city of Carl Sandburg's poem blundered and staggered.
The Babe's building was built to last a century, its workmanship of a high standard lost to builders during and after World War II. It did not become a total slum. It maintained an imposing and populated presence; if it suffered from internal problems, it did not reveal them and they were not fatal. Perhaps there was something newly shameful about it, it was old-fashioned, or its age as such -- "anything that old has to be bad" -- or perhaps the destitute who came to live there went to the welfare authorities demanding central heating. Still, it was the Board of Education that years after the Babe had departed made the fatal deal with the beleaguered owners that brought down the building to make way for a new school. In the collapsing rubble disappeared the ghost of the Babe reading by the bay window behind the couch: the children of the new school had one of the poorer records in the City in respect to the ability to read.
Instead of admiring and supporting the Dad for holding on to the pristine values of the City -- the proximity of everything, the integrity of the community, the structure and nervous system of such a culture as Chicago strained to attain and boasted of anyhow -- the family, the Babe in the lead, with his sharp forensic skills, harried the Dad until he conceded and consented to move to an uglier, noisier, twice as expensive apartment at 3533 Southport Avenue, twice as far from the heart of his work, his heart. Granted, it was larger by a room, but not so large as to justify the Babe's rhetorical excesses on the subject. So the Mom did her bit to be closer to her sister and friends, and the Babe to be where the action was -- the "better" people, the "better" schools -- in this changing America; and the others strung along with them, Bro Bus fifteen, Edward six, and Victor four.
Central heating, a more modern bathroom -- these and other "better" features were the minor details of the larger scenario of moving away from the city center, instead of fixing it. Here was the greatest movement in United States history, surpassing in quantitative measure the settlement of the West, and taking up a large percentage of the gross domestic product of the American economy from 1925 onwards.
Nor did anybody think of it as a curse, but rather as a blessing, not as a shirking of responsibility, but as a brave progressive movement. The Dad felt the evil in his bones, but had not the slogans and the power to command a stop. He was one against the multitude.
Or, on the other hand, was he being typically rigid? His kind could not hold out against the destitute black families from the South now coming in large numbers and progressively occupying the rim of the Loop. "Everyone was getting out," even if they could not afford to do so economically. It was not merely a matter of consumer choice, an upward mobility, as it was often put, although this to be sure was more true of the movement outward, which, in the years before the Depression, was brought on by the desire for open spaces, newer houses and schools, and hastened by the advent of unfamiliar and disparaged ethnic strains. It was not now "something that we can well afford," but instead a flight from cultural disintegration, a move made out of desperation, not because there was more money in the bank or a promotion with higher wages.
The process would not cease until all the city centers of America were destroyed. A kind of fate appeared to be working itself out. Most Americans in all periods of the country's history have disliked cities. The Babe was no exception. He disliked them on principle. He was riding on the great American myth, waving his ten-gallon hat and whooping it up. He had never experienced the countryside for more than several weeks at a time. Moving outward, within a city, was a hardly conscious means of rejecting the city and returning to the country.