by Raju Peddada
1949 Chicago Street Scene © Art Shay|
From Album for an Age, by Art Shay, published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2000, page 92. Reproduced by permission.
Our lives are like threads intersecting and weaving with other lives on the societal loom. One fateful Sunday morning on Madison, six and a half lives intersected each other by the corner store at exactly 9.16 am, and were frozen for eternity with a click of the shutter... This is how it happened. ***
(Swans - February 23, 2009) It was a cold, miserable, and dangerous journey dodging German U-boats across the Atlantic. On D-Day, Stasio, along with his platoon, landed at the Omaha beach and somehow survived the German eighty-eights. The first letter for him arrived towards the end of June. His mother had passed away pining for him. It was a big blow, but he was expecting it. Five weeks later another letter arrived as he was just back from a night patrol somewhere in France. This time, his fiancée had left him for another man -- his left eye and right hand twitched incessantly after that first letter. One day his brother in arms poked him and said, "Hey, we need the Stasio back in this shit man." He was in an emotional miasma, as he absentmindedly picked up a rubber doll in an abandoned house when it happened. In a blinding flash the booby trap exploded tossing Stasio and legs in separation. It all went black for him. He was back in Chicago after convalescing seven months in England. He came back to nothing and no prospects. The VA fitted him with a contraption that was flat and had casters with two doubled-dowel pushers for his hands for his mobility on the street. Utter loneliness descended on him like a cold grey blanket. He lived hand to mouth with money from the government and roomed in a tenement sharing a room with another war veteran. The eye and the hand twitched regularly since he came back. His roommate jabbed him occasionally saying you don havta wok hard at jerkin off...wit that mitt. In his school days he had frequented the corner ice cream shop with his love. He tried hard to forget those days. It was difficult because of all the idle time that took him on painful memory trips. Two days ago, he had seen her getting out of a car with a little girl as he scurried into a shadow. Today was the seventh anniversary of their engagement. He never forgot. On that overcast October Sunday morning his roommate noticed his hand and excitedly asked, "Hey, how come it stopped?" Stasio decided to celebrate with an ice cream at the same shop, two-and-a-half blocks away. He was the first there at 9:10 am, and peered at the new Gillette display in the shop window under the Kleenex and Kotex boxes before he went in.
Mort never got the chance to enlist. He had asthma. He grew up on the south side of Chicago near Flossmoor. His father was a pipe fitter and he beat his mother after getting drunk every Friday. Things at home were not normal. Bob had three other siblings. His sister married a successful butcher at seventeen who lived by Halsted Street near Madison Street...and his older bother was back from the Philippines almost a year prior and started living in California where he had been discharged nine months ago. His younger brother had died during the "Baton Death March," just outside Mariveles in April '42. His father had died of lung cancer five years ago and his mother now lived with her sister in Tennessee. Bob never got married. He thought it was a pointless arrangement. That 1949 fall morning he got a call from his sister about some water leakage in her apartment. As he drove north in his denim bib-overalls in a GMC truck, he was in a foul mood with all the competition that sprang up with all the veterans back from the war. Unemployment was rampant and his plumbing business was struggling to stay afloat. He struggled with asthma and had the habit of chewing gum. At the age of thirty-three he was almost bald and had a rotund physique of a fifty year old. About the only thing that pleased him were his two beautiful nieces, who awaited him that morning. After about a forty minute drive, Bob parked west of Halsted on Madison on that morning and walked east towards the corner shop for his gum before knocking on his sister's door. He glanced curiously at Stazio before entering the store at 9:11 am. After he purchased a pack of Wrigley's gum he headed back west on Madison and nodded in greeting to a dapper looking elder gentleman wearing black tie and suit with a fedora...the gentleman with hands in his pockets was going in the opposite direction at 9:16 am.
Lawrence (Larry) Stein was an adoring sixty-nine-year-old grandfather. He was the only man in his granddaughter's life, as her father had left in '41, when she was four, and never came back from Europe. Mr. Stein was a successful newspaperman and lived in his large house on Halsted Street with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter since his son left for Europe. He was always in a bow tie and suit. This day was no different. She had turned twelve that Sunday October morning in '49 and it was her party day. They were having a lot of people for lunch. She wore a white dress with a big purple ribbon bow-tied on her waist. Her mother was a good cook and a certifiable nagger. Her grandfather hated to be in the company of many people, particularly her mother's-side folks. She could not understand why he had an aversion to people; perhaps it was because at work he was surrounded by tens of them on a daily basis, and wanted his peace from my chattering mother, he also missed his son. Sometimes his granddaughter would run into his library and find him sitting in total darkness. That morning Fratelli's bakery failed on an order to deliver four dozen Swiss pastries for dessert. This made her mother frantic, and she pestered the grandfather to go and get some ice cream, despite his unwillingness to get involved. "Oh, how can we skip dessert after such a grand lunch?" she had exclaimed. He couldn't stand her mother's histrionics. He put his fedora on and walked out the door with hands in his pockets muttering under his breath. And that was the last time his granddaughter ever saw him.
The return of veterans from WWII was a huge problem for the government. The Truman administration authorized the Korean War and we were on to another war. That pale gray Sunday morning two men known as Matt and Jerry were waiting for their transport to take them to the south-shore train yards. They had arrived at the store corner at 9:12 am and saw Stasio looking into the shop window. Both men could not enlist and had never served in the war. Two weeks before they had received job tickets from their neighbor who had worked for the Union Pacific and was a shift supervisor. They were lucky to be hired as temporary workers when no work was available anywhere. Matt was forty-nine and Jerry was fifty-three, and he had bad knees and smoked two packs a day, he could never stand for more than an hour, and sat down on the curb, facing the action on Halsted Street, with his back on the US mail box. Matt looked condescendingly at Jerry sitting down. Jerry was the son of a KKK elder in Alabama, and was a misanthrope, a loner who had failed in two relationships and several jobs. He escaped north to Chicago in his teen years from the Federal crack-down and changed his name. He was anxious about his legs holding up today for work. Matt grew up in Blue Island and dropped out of school in his 10th grade and got work at US Steel in Gary. After three years there he was fired for flirting with his supervisor's fifteen-year-old daughter. He worked on and off living off his mother's handouts. Four years before he married a widow who happened to be his school fling; still, he frequented prostitutes. Both Matt and Jerry lived close to each other by Jefferson and Randolph, north-east of Madison Street. That morning they were scheduled for overtime work and were getting picked up by the company transport. Both arrived together at that corner at 9:12 am.
Wynston Mabry from South Carolina was twenty-four when he had enlisted in '41. He wanted to join the military to be a soldier and get away from his large cantankerous family and his father's smelly tanning enterprise, in which he had no interest. After basic training he served as a great cook in the military at camp Pendleton in California. For obvious reasons he was thwarted from going to the front line as a soldier, instead got shipped to England in '43. In June '44 he became a part of that logistics wonder called "the red-ball express" supporting thousands of allied troops as a part of the huge supply train. He survived the war and was shipped back in '46 to unemployment, no place to live, sporadic checks from the administration and racial segregation. He moved to Chicago in '47 and landed a job as a doorman to a spiffy Turkish-bath & men's club on east Madison by Michigan Street. That Sunday, he was off and wanted to take a train north to see the Bears play the Eagles at Wrigley Field. He walked north-east from his shared apartment at Racine and Harrison, and arrived by the ice cream shop at 9:15 am. He stopped there at the corner contemplating the cheaper way, whether to take the bus or the train north.
Donovan didn't make it into posterity. He was seconds late for that serendipitous confluence. He was a gay at the wrong time in the country, with all the frustrated war veterans. He, like Jerry, ran away from Mississippi because of his sexual orientation and the barbaric hazing he could not endure from all the heterosexuals. He grew up in an abusive household with his stepfather. He arrived in Chicago in '42 when he was twenty-six and worked as a waiter at an eatery. That October morning he left his shared apartment in huff as he was requested by his roommate to get out as another friend was coming over. He walked slowly in thought towards the corner store with no intent to shop for anything. He was a little too late, only half his body reported into eternity. Ironically, three years later he was found by the police split in half and dumped in an alley. It was messy; he was cut open in half from his crotch to the throat by some maniac.
As the serendipitous convergence of these characters was taking shape at the corner that Sunday morning, a short, stocky photographer from Life magazine with a caustic wit sat alongside his Chicago buddy, a writer of note, cruising the south side neighborhoods looking for stories. That morning they drove north slowly towards the intersection of Madison and Halsted, where the car eased to a halt next to the US mail box at a stop signal a few seconds after 9:15 am. Then suddenly, the photographer motioned his buddy, to his right, to duck as he lined the camera with Jerry's nose and snapped the picture. The time was a few seconds past 9:16 am CST. It was too late for Jerry to see what had happened and by the time he realized it, they were gone. That Sunday morning on Madison, six and a half souls got captured by a simple click. Those six and a half characters represent all of us out there, in all our waking ironies, innocuous beings in happy as well as dysfunctional lives, racing towards an ignominious end. This one-sixtieth-of-a-second fame is bestowed by chance and narrated into posterity by a print. Who knows what happened to them. The only voice of that vision is the silence that dignifies their existence in a rigid immutable composition of fate. Fifty-eight years later, this very composition spoke volumes to an elderly woman from California, of that Sunday Morning on Madison.
She was in Chicago in October 2007 to visit her grandfather's grave. She was intrigued by a sign that touted a photographic exhibit of old Chicago at the Chicago History Museum by a famous photojournalist. She had lived comfortably married for fifty years in California. At the exhibit she moved slowly through the pictures, often stopping for several minutes upon recognizing old places she knew. An hour later, at 6:19 pm, eleven minutes before closing, the museum staff found her hacking-sobbing in front of a picture she would not leave. It was fifty-eight years since she had seen her grandfather, a picture of his last moments lived. Her life on Halsted flashed suddenly in front her. Her mother nagging, his walking out with that fedora on his head and hands in his pockets, never to come back. She was taken to the curator's office, where they gave her water. "Please continue," said the Curator. She then went on. "The real personal story here is that of my grandfather, but the stories of those men are our stories, of everybody, yours and mine, who live without knowing when it's the end." She went on, as a crowd gathered in the curator's office. "My grandfather that morning (wiping her eyes, taking a sip of water) came across this man in bib-overalls and smiled at him, it was 9:16 am when they crossed paths. A few seconds later he walked into the busy Borden's ice cream place and saw the legless man having a cone there, greeted him, and bought two large cans of Butterscotch to be delivered within the hour. After lingering there a few minutes, he walked back the same way, and while crossing Madison Street walking south on to Halsted Street, he abruptly stopped, clutched his chest, staggered, and collapsed. He died on the spot of a heart attack at 10:02 am. About twenty minutes later the police knocked on our door and fifty minutes later the ice cream got delivered. I never forgave my mother." She gets up, picks up her handbag and makes for the door, "sorry for carrying on like this, thank you for the water, have to go."
This photojournalist today lives in the north suburbs of Chicago and is eighty-six-years old. The writer who accompanied the photographer that morning won the National Book Award the following year for The Man with the Golden Arm. He died in 1981. On her way out, the elderly lady quipped "serendipity sure underwrites our lives, don't you all agree?" The museum staff broke into spontaneous applause, as she got escorted out.
* [ed. No one knows how it "actually" happened. This is how the author imagines it happened -- a work of fiction.] (back)
Letter from Art Shay (added on February 24, 2009):
"Thanks to you for publishing and Raju Peddada for creating "The Deconstruction Of That Sunday Morning On Madison." I think it only fair to literary fans, sleuths and future students of mid-twentieth century literature and photography that Swans lets me point out that although I much admire Peddada's brilliant expatiation on my picture it ought to be noted that Peddada's flight was one of fancy, not fact, and the author with whom I was working was Nelson Algren. The picture, part of a Life magazine project on Algren, first appeared in my book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1988."
Chicago, Illinois, USA - February 23, 2009
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