After leaving Chicago 43 years ago, every time I go back it feels like I'm seeing into a multi-dimensional time tunnel. Every face looks familiar, every place, every building, sparks memories not only from my childhood but somehow I see them framed as they were when new. This can be disconcerting at times for Ruth and me walking when she sees me stop suddenly to mumble a word or phrase and gaze blankly into space. Multiple cities live in time and space at the same time for me. I hear music coming from old bars and smell the tobacco and liquor smell wafting out into the street from long ago defunct neighborhood hangouts.
Walking along the street, I pause...there used to be a garage here...yes, the location of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, long ago torn down and a trendy condo complex housing their ghosts. Over there, two old Jewish men, the Cook Brothers, who smoked cigars continuously, ran the neighborhood hardware store. There, everything you could ever need or imagine was available on some dark, messy, unorganized shelf, or in the dark recesses of the unapproachable basement where they would disappear and return with your requested object in hand, smelling like cigar smoke. It was a city of magic, opportunity and pulling into its embrace the tired, the poor, the seekers, and opportunists that give Chicago the vitality it has today.
My grandparents had a house on Fullerton Ave., a beautiful tree-lined street in the heart of the city just a few blocks from large, lush, Lincoln Park.
The old house was built in 1886, and my times there were full of explorations into its nooks and crannies, huge walk-in closets that bent around corners, an always-mysterious basement where my grandfather used to shoot his pistols (much to the consternation of the neighbors), and an upstairs apartment that housed the living quarters of my two spinster great aunts.
They were both born a few years after the Civil War, a couple of decades before the old house was built, and shortly after the Great Chicago Fire that was the greatest American disaster of the 19th century. Being with both gentle women was my first choice, as they had a peace of mind and presence that enveloped me with so much comfort I could hardly move a muscle. I would often ask for my hands to be washed, and remember them clearly turning on the warm water in the high-ceilinged, bright white octagonal-tiled room, pulling down the bar of ivory soap, and with crinkly, ancient, twisted fingers, gently enveloping my hands to wipe clean any thoughts but the bliss of timelessness.
Many times the old women would share stories from their past with me and I had so many questions to ask. One day I saw, vignetted in oval frames, pictures of two beautiful girls wearing white-laced high-necked blouses and hair pulled up in fashionable waves on their heads,
and asked who they were. They looked at me with crinkled, smiling, sparkling eyes and said, “Why, that’s us!” I didn't believe the old stooped women before me were those same two. They laughed in a gentle way and told me stories of those times that seemed like fairy tales. They spoke about how amazing it was to see the Columbian Exposition in 1893, it being such a large area lit up in electric lights, a new invention. (It's hard for us to imagine what life must have been like before the light bulb with gas, kerosene, and candle illumination.) They rode the first moving walkway, and felt vertigo at such a wonder. The first illusion of moving images were seen there, a precursor to motion pictures. They saw Scott Joplin play ragtime, rode the first Ferris Wheel, and were some of the first to own a Kodak camera in the 1890s. They told me how exciting it was to ride in their first car, a Duryea, in 1898.
Oh what stories fell upon such eager ears from those centenarians whose eyes had seen so much change in their lives!
Ruth and I made our pilgrimage to connect the dots of our journey, to several of the most popular blues clubs in Chicago, B.L.U.E.S.
and Kingston Mines across the street from each other. We remembered from a previous visit to B.L.U.E.S., that whoever was on stage had a line of musicians either waiting to jam with them or become the spotlighted players. This night, 3-4 musicians held the command stage. As it turned out, we were sitting next to the owners of the club by the back door and we struck up a brief conversation through the musical interludes about our journey and quest. They bought us drinks…then more…and then invited us across the street to the much bigger venue as their guests to listen to more fine Chicago blues. I must admit that I remember taking a video of the musicians but after that things got significantly hazy. The next day, Ruth asked me if I remembered taking the taxi home, or the conversation with the desk clerks? I looked at her with bagged, blood shot, squinted eyes, and groaned. I’m pretty sure it was the best blues I've heard…Ever!