'Read With Me' Author Remembers Old Neighborhood Through Fiction
The "Back of the Yards" is a neighborhood near the old Chicago Stockyards. Since the early 20th Century, it housed immigrants who processed meat in the city that Carl Sandberg dubbed "Hog Butcher for the World" in his poem "Chicago."
Author Sandra Colbert grew up in this neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s, when it was largely Polish and Lithuanian. Her book Chicago Bound re-creates the lives of these residents through short stories that capture their grit, prejudice, violence and dreams.
Colbert's book is our Read With Me selection for May.
In her introduction, the author calls the nearby stockyards a "place of exhaustion, of sweat and filth" where masses of people toiled for pitiful wages slaughtering thousands of animals every week. After work, they came home and built a community.
As the post-war baby boom erupted in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, this community stayed very much the same. It was a community dominated by the Catholic Church, Democratic Party politics and an Eastern European culture. At any given time you heard as much Lithuanian, Polish and Slovak as you did English. Single-family homes were the exception as most lived in flats, not apartments. Apartments were for the well-to-do in other parts of Chicago.
Even at home, the source of their livelihood was ever-present. "It was not unusual to have trucks go by that had the sheep, the cows and the pigs on their way to the stockyards," Colbert said, "because we were that close to the stockyards."
She says all of her neighbors had relatives who worked where the animals were going. "My grandparents worked there," she said. "Everybody had grandparents or uncles and aunts who worked there. It was part of the environment."
One place where workers sought refuge was the local tavern. According to Colbert, you could find three bars on some corners. In one story, "The Deadline," a reporter hangs out at a place called Frank's, looking for stories. His drinking buddy is Bruno, "a beast of a man" who slaughtered a lot of livestock and "had the arms to prove it."
So in comes Joey. Joey stayed clear of the Yards and worked as a mechanic at a small garage down the street. He knew his cars. Joey was one hell of a good looking guy and a real wolf. Dark hair, dark eyes, like the movie star, John Garfield. The babes loved Joey and Joey loved the babes. And Joey loved to kiss and tell. This particular night, Joey was in a bragging mood, especially after a shot and beer. He had a new babe. And he scored big time. A real beauty, natural blond, blue eyes and what a figure. Real good in the sack, Joey says, grinning. She could be a show girl at one of those fancy North Side Clubs. He should have stopped there and then. But no, he tells me she works at a bakery on 47th Street. I could feel the air change. And then he tells me, she's married to some Polish lug who works at the Stockyards. Poor Joey never knew what hit him. I didn't know Bruno could move so fast.
Colbert's various protagonists include a 10-year-old girl named Kristine who follows a peddler home after he visits her family. The peddler, with his suitcase of wares, is popular among his women customers, but nobody knows his name; they simply call him "the Jew." During each visit, he flatters the adult women but routinely ignores Kristine -- which irks her. One day, he notices Kristine following him and asks what she wants.
"The brush. The pretty one with the jewels on the back." To my shock, he began to laugh, and laugh very hard. "What's so funny?" I didn't appreciate being laughed at. "Jewels. Yes, I sell brushes encrusted with precious jewels. Yes, rubies, sapphires, only the best for the ladies in the neighborhood." He wiped his eyes. "You know what I mean. That pretty one that you showed my grandmother." Now I was the one who was irritated. "So Miss Fancypants, you got some money for this big purchase?" "I don't know. How much is it?" "For this extraordinary brush, one dollar."
Kristine works every angle to raise the money, and eventually returns with it. In his apartment, Kristine learns about the man's tragic past. She also learns his name.
"We did have a Jewish peddler who came to the neighborhood on Saturdays, and he was extremely popular with the ladies," Colbert said. "That's where they bought their doilies and babushkas, and he always ignored me."
Colbert says this story, "Abraham," sprang from her curiosity about this man. "When I thought back to my childhood, for whatever reason, he came back," she said. "And for whatever reason I always wondered what happened to him, where he came from, and where he actually lived."
Colbert reads the entire story in the video below.
Today the neighborhood is mostly hispanic, with little that Colbert recognizes; but she says its status remains the same. "The objective was to leave," she said. "Once you received good jobs, and were at a certain income level, you moved to better neighborhoods."
In an interview with WNIJ, Colbert said she wrote this book to better understand where she came from: "It wasn't the greatest neighborhood. But it wasn't a horrible neighborhood. It's a forgotten time -- or almost forgotten -- and that always seemed to bother me."
Some writers revisit their past through a memoir, but Colbert preferred doing this through fiction. For one thing, she says, the years make it harder to recall details like names. "And when you're doing fiction you can twist things around and change things," she said. "In real life, people you love dearly will die. You could take that same scenario and say 'now he survived.'"
Sandra Colbert lives in Rockford, Ill. She also writes crime novels and is currently working on the third installment of her Kate Harrison series.
Next month, our Read With Me series heads to outer space with Ted Iverson's novel Mission to the Stars: Book One: The Search for FTL.
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