Below the Fold: Going Home

“Going home. Going home. I’m a-going home.
Quiet-like some still day, I’m just going home.

Mother’s there expecting me, Father’s waiting, too.
Lot’s of folks gathered there. All the friends I knew.”

Paul Robeson. The voice was unmistakable. Light snow falling. The comfort of Chicago’s last classical music station waking me at dawn. I was home.

Dad’s stroke, Mom’s dementia, my uncle’s depression. My father, his sister, and my mother’s recently widowed sister the last of this local life’s combatants. The battle continues.

Little houses, little blocks, now pockmarked every seventh house by makeovers and  tear-downs. Still, sixty years later, the plan-book Cape Cods and Georgians, ours now shorn of its two elm trees, form a distinctive neighborhood, gridded with street names like Elm, Memory Lane, and Maple.  All thanks to the GI Bill.

Our house was a Cape Cod with 740 square feet and an unfinished second floor. My father and his father, my grandfather, finished off the upstairs by themselves, only calling in a plasterer who was a fellow Knight of Columbus with my grandfather and the official plasterer for the Archdiocese. We were small potatoes for the plasterer, but he had it done by his men on a Saturday as a favor to my grandfather. 

It was a working-class neighborhood, neat, tidy, and lawn-conscious, but a far cry from the ranches and bi-levels by the country club across the tracks. The men, bricklayers, pressmen, mechanics, telephone linemen, factory foremen, and the occasional drummer, had good jobs, union jobs, but were seldom home. Mr. Hoffman was a traveling salesman for A.B. Dick, the grand dispenser of the mimeograph machine. He turned off most of the other men with his bragging.

My father’s father was a lawyer who had profited from the first suburban expansion after World War I. Attorney for a small town and its only bank, he made a lot of money and drove a Pierce Arrow. But he got mixed up with a Republican governor who went to jail, and crash-landed financially in the Depression. Grandpa was a textbook case of downward mobility, working as a foreman in a defense plant during the second war. But my mother’s parents treated him with deference, as they were working class and considered him middle-class, great fall or no.

My father couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do. With the GI Bill, he tried dental school and law school, and finally found himself writing service orders in a city Buick agency. We had nice cars, always white and with those three holes below the hood, that were probably financed by the dealer at insider rates, as my father’s $100 a week salary wouldn’t have enabled him such largesse.

After working sales for a family-run oil company on Chicago’s south side, he set out on his own, selling insurance out of the house and getting into used car sales on Chicago’s Western Avenue, where the competition quickly pushed him out. He went into car repair with a man named Norm, whom he often called Father. Some years later, their second garage burned down. Dad fled into teaching, first shop and then worked his way up to college counseling as he acquired more degrees, mostly through night school. He became a civil servant, in effect, a state employee, and never looked back, though he did continue to sell Christmas trees every year outside the third garage where and his partner had worked. Until he became a teacher, he didn’t want the neighbors to know what he did. He was accumulating college credits; they were not. He bounced form one job to the next; they didn’t. I think he was ashamed.

The neighborhood was a world of women and children. There were many children. Even the Protestants had many children. The women, insular, their mothers and sisters their best friends, nonetheless formed little block bands. As their kin typically lived in the city, they were forced to confront and befriend strangers in their new suburban neighborhood. The churches, den-mothering and bridge clubs offered some sociality, but as their houses were teeming with kids, their need for mutual aid was paramount.

So the weekday summer barbecues. They weren’t much: hot dogs or hamburgers  cooked on small flat grills, with cans of  Green Giant Niblets corn lodged next to the coals. This was no place for play dates. Kids were amassed, mothers indifferent to their children’s needs for friendship; they intervened only in cases of bullying.  We played games like Kick the Can and Mother May I. When it grew dark and the mosquitos came out, we went home, the bands dissolving into households once more where the little conflicts between sibs would flare up, only to resolved by falling asleep.

Race was irrelevant. Parents were no doubt bigoted. After all, we Catholics were informally forbidden to join the YMCA, though the only gym in town, because it was Protestant. Imagine race. Perhaps the “n” word was passed among the adults. Absent  the sometime progressive autoworker in the neighborhood mix, the fathers  doubtless benefited from race prejudice and exclusion. But to me and my sister, race, when we encountered black people in our occasional trips to the city, was a source of wonder. When my grandfather took us to a cafeteria in the city on our way to General Motors’ annual Motorama at Soldier Field, a middle-aged black woman handed my sister a plate of very large french fries. At home, we ate those skinny frozen fries laid out on cookie sheets and baked in the oven. The big fries, deep-fried, made a lasting impression on my sister. Like any good native, the black woman and the tasty big fries were fused in her memory.

My mother never knew of the connection, and thought my sister’s requests for big fries were more symptoms of how this shy little girl, unlike her bigger brother, knew exactly what she wanted. My sister always insisted on lobster for her birthday too. It came frozen from South Africa. Rock lobsters. But no matter. For my sister, they were some sign of the good life, or of her life. A little light glowed behind her shyness.

Food at home seldom varied. Tuna fish and egg salad sandwiches  with Miracle Whip were standard for lunch, though I grew fond of Buddig’s chipped beef,  with which my mother would make sandwiches for my school lunch box. Monday dinners consisted of swiss steak cooked on a stove top. For the rest of the week, we had spaghetti and meatballs, store-bought frozen chop suey, baked chicken and tuna fish casserole alternating with frozen fish sticks on Fridays. Saturdays were for hamburgers; Sundays for steak and the occasional roast. There were always potatoes — the one non-meat dish that wasn’t frozen, except for the nasty frozen french fries. Boiled, baked, scalloped, whipped: though we were Irish, we could have been Russian for our devotion to the potato.

My mother spent those years washing clothes, cleaning the house, and raising five children. She had had dreams of being a ballet dancer, but these were quashed by the war and working in Marshall Field’s. She finished two years at Loyola University along the lake. Like my father, she had gone to Catholic schools and to a Catholic university. We went to Catholic schools too, and I was the first of my father’s family to attend a non-Catholic college. My mother’s sister had married a Protestant, and they had joined the profane world of public schools and public universities. 

My sister and I would bike over to the parish school across the tracks. The Irish nuns equipped with big crosses, white breast plates, and sweet-smelling holy pictures took us up in tow. Sixty to a class, dressed in khaki and blue, we were the soldiers of Christ in what we sensed was a hostile Protestant town. We had no gym, we had no science, little math, and a lot of reading and religion. I was smart, and got in a lot of trouble, I think, out of sheer boredom. My sister didn’t speak for two years. They wondered if she was all right.

Catholic school actually taught us little religion. That was simply memorized, like the Latin I spoke as an altar boy at weekday Masses. The key was comportment, and the only intellectual exercise that emerged was deciding what a sin and its gravity were. Matching the injunctions and your infractions was left for you to parse: after all, no one knew exactly what self-abuse was, and we were left to ponder its meaning aided only occasionally by a priest.

Being a Catholic, thus, was more about being somewhat holier and superior to Protestants. Oddly Jews were held in much higher regard, the reason stressed that Christ was a Jew, and the faithful called him Rabbi. So glorious, doubtless because it was prefatory, was Jewish history that an ancient and likely arteriosclerotic nun who knew me well over the years in school called me up to the head of the class, and solemnly asked me in a loud voice to write the history of the Jews. I tried to do it. My first unfinished manuscript.

We Catholics were meant to set a public example for the Protestants. When the Salk vaccine was given en masse to the town’s school children, the nuns drilled into us that we must smile, stand straight, take the shot, and thank the doctor. We were supposed to teach those public schoolers, read Protestant children, how to behave.

Yet, there in Catholic school, as Catholics were Catholics before they were middle and working class, I got to know  through my classmates the habits of the town’s new bourgeoisie. In my class, there was my doctor’s son, a dark-skinned Italian-American bespectacled egghead; the Hungarian architect’s son, tousled hair, obviously brilliant, and an a completely oblivious deviant; the Irish downtown restaurant owner’s daughter left with only one eye after an early bout with cancer. There was the Irish town savings and loan president whose son became a big town lawyer. Other fathers were managers or sold complex machinery. No sample cases and retail routes for these men. Some were even small technical business owners.Their houses were bigger, uncluttered, and kids slept one to a room. Their parents were solicitous, and mothers made you lunch at their houses. Their families took vacations.

I thought these middle class classmates had it made. I never had my classmates over. I went to their houses. Except for these occasional sojourns, I played with the kids in my neighborhood. We contented ourselves with baseball.

The boredom was killing, relieved only by childhood sexual intrigues which stopped under the heel of Church discipline by age eight, and by reading. My father would bring me books from the Chicago Public Library: dog-eared renditions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, the adventures of Tom Sawyer, and so on. I read easily. Summers, however, were wasted reading endless sports biographies.

My home was in a little world, no bigger than a Catholic parish and a working class  neighborhood. It was often stifling and depressing for me. But it was not an ignorant world . People read newspapers, and you knew right away by their choices which political side they were on. People had opinions. My father by heritage was a Republican, the libertarian type of Republican. He would switch to the Democrats during the Vietnam War, thanks to our persuasion and the anti-war movement of the party’s left wing. My mother was born a Democrat; her mother was a tiny voluntary cog in the Daley machine. They were New Deal Democrats. My mother, sister, and I were thrilled when John Kennedy passed on the town main street in a 1960 motorcade. My father took us to a Nixon rally at O’Hare airport. My sister and I wore our Kennedy buttons.

Most important, as I returned this weekend, is the realization of how unpretentious life at home was, and to some extent still is. Plainness is preferred. Putting on airs and graces isn’t.

Actually, my trip home began 10 days ago in New York. My university faculty is recruiting new members, a time when the humdrum of everyday work ceases, and out come the peacocks and their plumage. Who has the prettiest feathers? Who can show them to advantage in brighter better light?  Better to have strutted in a palace than some rude pasture. After a colloquium finished, and the mating dance of department and candidate recommenced over wine and cheese, I  felt nauseated. Perhaps it was due to the cheese, or the Chinese food I had grabbed earlier to avoid getting drunk, I thought.

Then, I had an impromptu conversation with a colleague whom I like and respect, notwithstanding the fact that he himself was to the manor born, and enjoys the fact. We were searching together for descriptions of how we felt about the colloquium performance of the candidate, when suddenly I blurted out that I found it slick and pretentious. This last judgment, I confessed to him, was based on life with the levellers at home. He agreed with my judgment, choosing slightly different grounds.

Though I grew up calling professors “mister,” even at a prestigious private university in the sixties, I live in an academic world now  where one’s title, fancifully like the “J. Worthington Fowlfeather Professor of…” is longer than the occupant’s name. It is a hall of mirrors, of conversations that reflect themselves or are only reflected in the comments of others similarly caught up in the game. Snobbery is the key to success, and pretension its handmaiden.

Christopher Lasch in The True and Only Heaven (1991) argues that the lower middle class, armed with the ethic of hard work, loyalty, denial, thrift, and equipped with a strong sense of life’s limits were perhaps the only sane and salubrious class left in the United States. Perhaps too trenchant, as he always was.

Somewhere along the way through childhood, I heard Paul Robeson. I heard Leonard Berstein perform Das Lied von der Erde on Chicago’s WFMT. But returning home, I feel the moral strength that stems from the unpretentious life.

Robeson and Mahler fit inside.