I talked my sister into travelling from Indianapolis to Chicago on a Greyhound bus. I was back in Indiana visiting family, making those periodic reconnections fueled by tribal obligation and familial love. She lives in Elwood, the small town where we were born, where our parents and three of our grandparents lie buried. I proposed the bus trip in lieu of our by-now rote cemetery visits, evening Mass at the church where we were baptized, and the mediocre pizza that is one of the few foods available in our once-thriving town fast becoming a food desert. Let’s go, I urged her. Great food. You won’t have to cook. There’s so much to do there.
Mom was a Chicago girl. She seldom spoke about her early days there, before her father left, before she and Grandma Boyle moved to Elwood, before she met Dad, a country boy. We went there as a family only once, in our station wagon on a day trip to the Field Museum. I went there a year after that with Grandma Boyle to visit her Aunt Mary, then the last living member of our family to immigrate from Ireland. I was thirteen when I was sent with her and was told to “help her carry her things.” We took the train to LaSalle Street Station. I remember staring out the train window at the black loam of northwest Indiana flowing continuously under its network of fence rows and lone farmhouses – two-story, prosperous and self-reliant along on narrow gravel roads. Grandma sat on the upholstered bench next to me and never let up on the cigarettes. She was a Chicago girl too, who hadn’t been back to her native city for over 30 years. She’d been nowhere for 30 years beyond her nursing station in Mercy Hospital and the house on Main Street, where she lived alone.
No one seemed to be working at the Indianapolis bus station when my sister and I got there, with the exception of an elderly Chinese couple sitting behind bullet-proof glass selling bottled water and over-breaded ham and cheese sandwiches. No one sat at the only ticket window not closed off by pulled-down shades. No departure or arrival information was posted anywhere. The rare announcements from the public address system ricocheted off the soiled, sticky floor and dingy, high-trussed ceiling, rumbling unintelligibly. We staked out seats as far removed as possible from the passed-out winos lying near the walls, stacking our luggage between us. I told my sister to watch our things while I went to get some information. I returned to find her chatting intently with a white-haired woman near our age. When I sat down, she smiled and said, “You must be the brother.”
As the bus reversed out of the station the woman who examined our tickets stood in the entry well, supervising the driver – a pudgy, intently focused young white girl – about how close to cut each corner, to boldly enter the intersection to execute a left-hand turn, and to anticipate the traffic light’s cycle. Take your time. Hold your ground. Tighten your turn. Don’t worry about them, they’ll wait for you. Cut the wheel. Tighter. That-a-girl.
Once we hit cruising speed, she turned her attention to us passengers, microphone in hand, framed against the vast front windshield where I-65 rushed toward us, then underneath us. She spoke with that vocal fry Black women have developed over generations to assert their authority, her accent from south of US Route 40, which bisects Indiana into two distinct linguistic zones. “Fellow Passengers. Your attention please, while I explain our rules of the road. This is a no smoking bus. It is forbidden to smoke cigarettes or electronic cigarettes or tobacco products of any kind on this bus. It is forbidden to play out loud the audio portion of any entertainment or personal conversation on your electronic device. Please use your earphones at all times. It is forbidden to display lewd or improper images on your electronic devices, including nudity of any kind. I ask you to remember that we are all God’s children, and we have a Christian responsibility to be kind to one another. Please treat your fellow passengers with respect at all times. Please refrain from cursing or arguing. Please maintain all conversations at a respectful level. At this time, I would like to officially welcome Evelyn, one of the newest members of the Greyhound family, who is making her first journey today as a professional driver.”
My sister seemed unfazed by our young driver’s inaugural ferrying of mortal passengers at 70 miles per hour while competing for a freeway lane between 18-wheel semis. Indeed, she seemed relaxed, cheerfully advising me not to worry, laughing at my observation that there was less than a foot of clearance on either side. Her calm put me further on edge, as if her serenity rested on my staying alert to matters over which I had no control. We are both in our mid-seventies, an age when confidence bearing in the world begins to fade. I once again watched the dark soil of northwest Indiana stretch out to all horizons as I tried to calm my nerves.
We were the last passengers to disembark in Chicago, where we were prompted to give young Evelyn a round of applause. The lady supervisor seemed to take maternal pride in the moment, perhaps remembering herself at the age she first made the journey.
I spied a taxi just up the street and rushed to engage it. The driver hesitated, as if confused, then put our luggage into the trunk. As we slid into the back seat, I gave him the address of the apartment we’d rented, aware it was somewhere within a few blocks of the station. He quoted a flat fee of $20. I had neither the moxie nor a sense of the terrain sufficient to bargain with him. He explained that we hailed him at the taxi arrival point; we should have passed through the station and stood in queue at the taxi departure point on the other side. My sister was amused to think we got away with this. She grinned, as if collaborating with the cabbie, who seemed equally amused. They started chatting. She told him we were brother and sister on holiday. She asked where he was from. Nigeria. She told him I live in Ireland. I volunteered there were lots of Nigerians in Ireland now. He said he knew. His brother lives there. Further evidence of the myriad streams of modern migration, of its constancy.
The apartment was on South Dearborn Street in a classic Chicago steel-frame, brick-clad office building between Jackson Boulevard and Ida B. Wells Parkway. It is called The Plymouth, and it once housed prestigious printing houses, commercial artists, and advertising agencies. It was recently converted into short-term rentals. I booked it online from Ireland. I never spoke with anyone throughout the tedious process, which involved providing several screens of personal data and uploading a selfie. Throughout this stay I will neither see nor speak to any human being representing management, or any staff. We will be tethered only by my digital devices and chat apps. My Irish phone service is limited in the US, with sporadic reception in a city I don’t really know, in an unstaffed building. I rely solely on the building’s Wi-Fi. This is what now passes as “the hospitality industry.”
After the 1871 fire, Chicago’s City Fathers, caught up in fervid rebuilding and responding to insatiable public demand for larger and grander scale, bank-rolled a series of “skyscrapers”, the first of their kind in the world. International architects competed with each other designing taller and taller buildings, ornamented with stylized cast iron and stone in what is called The Chicago School. The Plymouth is a notable example. They still grace the city in a profile of tightly clustered buildings girded by The Loop – the elevated train system whose tracks circulate the old downtown. They are increasingly being overshadowed by newer buildings, behemoths built in amorphous architectural styles, monolithic forms wrapped in reflecting-glass, encroaching on and blocking out the early 20th century skyline. These latter protrude upward into the vast open expanse over Lake Michigan and the midwestern plains, oddly struggling for verticality in a largely empty horizontal space. The most offensive is the 92-story complex at 401 N. Wabash. Supported by tubular grey legs piled down into the Chicago Riverbed, it is sculpted like a gigantic upright Hoover on the river’s north side. The luxury hotel and round-tower complex, third tallest in the country, bears the name TRUMP in 20-foot back-lit lettering posted two hundred feet above the street, hanging overhead like a thought-bubble, positioned for maximum visibility from any approach south of the river. It is Orwellian.
On our first morning’s outing, headed to Michigan Avenue, my sister impulsively pulls me off the sidewalk and into an entrance of the Palmer House Hotel. She finds her way to its lobby, and we sit for a while on its over-stuffed sofas, leaning back to look up at the ornamental ceiling. I had forgotten how resplendent it is, its chandeliers and mosaics redolent of the Golden Age of prairie capitalism. My sister sighs. I turn to see her lost in a memory of a romantic tryst she conducted here. Grandma Boyle brought me here on our trip, too. I can still hear the reverence in her voice when she said “Palmer House,” as if the name evoked urban elegance. I admire the ornate oriental vases and Persian carpets and patterned upholstery and the confident way they are juxtaposed together, luxuriating in a bygone era when more was more. Later, just up the street, my sister guides me to the paneled Walnut Room on the seventh floor of Marshall Fields, which seems to bear similarly pleasant memories for her. Grandma Boyle took me there, too. Time is a coil that turns back on itself and spirals both upward and down.
Photos of Chicago by Rand Kehler
Grandma’s Aunt Mary lived on South Kedzie, on the west side, far removed from The Loop.
I have trouble sorting out what I remember of the Kedzie streetscape of those years. Google Earth shows freshly cemented, narrow sidewalks and trim, verdant lawns surrounding modern garden apartments with parking in the rear. I remember older buildings, shouldered together in an unbroken façade, flush with the sidewalks, brick and cement in all directions, block after block. Google Earth knows things I cannot know. But I know things Google Earth doesn’t. Google’s pixels are no more or no less ephemeral than my memories. I know about the skin the city has already shed.
Aunt Mary was a wizened old woman, remarkably short, with a day-dress tied at her waist. She still spoke in the brogue that was the lingua franca of this once-Irish ghetto. That was changing to Spanish, the language of the Puerto Rican wave of newcomers. I sat quietly on her daybed in the tiny studio apartment, a young boy sponging up as much as he could. After more than a quarter century apart, the conversation between the two women was thin and halting. Their talk seemed strained, resting on obligation and propriety. Aunt Mary talked about a Puerto Rican teenager named Israel who ran errands for her. It appeared she had not only relied on him but felt some tender affection for the lad; he must have reciprocated those feelings at some level. It soon emerged that Israel pilfered from her purse from time to time, and dipped into her supply of Mogen David wine. I heard Aunt Mary’s muttered complaints and my grandmother’s tut-tutting, “Ah, sure, what can you do?”
The second morning, as my sister and I leave The Plymouth, we see two men passed out and lying on the sidewalk. One white, one Black. The white man appears to be very young, perhaps still a boy. The Black man lies flat on his chest, his pants pulled down around his knees, his bare buttocks and the backs of his thighs exposed to every passerby. His face is turned and rests on the left temple. His eyes are glazed. It occurs to me he might be dead. I wonder what should be done. We both shudder and walk on.
As promised, my sister and I eat well, tour several museums, wander sidewalks and riverwalks and generally impress ourselves with the physical stamina we can still muster when required. The day we leave Chicago – my sister home to Elwood, me home to Ireland – I awake to her puttering at the small kitchenette counter. At 8, I get a text message that her bus is cancelled. I booked it for her, so they notify me. I find a bus leaving two hours later. My flight back home isn’t until late that evening. My original plan was to stow my bags and walk around the city to kill time before heading to O’Hare. But I have no faith that, after leaving the apartment at checkout, I will be able to re-enter the building with the codes I have. I have no reliable phone reception. I have no one who could help me if the door closed behind me. So we both sit in the lounge waiting for her taxi. She is on edge now, nervous to be all on her own soon. She is shaking a bit, her hands in a slight tremor. She is breathing heavily and sighing. When the cab arrives, I walk her bags to the building entrance and hold open the street doors and the inner lobby doors. I am reluctant to go out to the cab, fearful of being unable to re-enter. She stands in the small space between the two doors I hold, and she decides, then and there, to pull a small coin bag from her purse. She is quivering with nerves, and she drops it. Coins roll in all directions.
A young Black man, dressed in chino pants and a polo shirt, comes to the door, takes her bags and walks with her to the cab. He puts her large suitcase into the trunk. I collect the coins and hand them to him. He seems to sense her nervous state, and, as he hands her the coins, he gives her a brief, calming hug, which she readily accepts. She gets into the cab and the cab pulls off; the man stays behind. He turns toward me. Confused, I thank him and hold the lobby doors for him.
“She’s very nervous. She gets confused easily.”
“Really? She seems very nice.” He smiles broadly, then follows me to the lobby and my unattended luggage near the sofa. He sits in an armchair across from the sofa and begins telling me his plight, how it is hard to make the rent, how a man has to eat. He has a pleasant face, dark, clean-shaven, his eyes engaging with mine when he speaks.
“I thought you were the taxi driver.”
He shakes his head no. I ask him if he is a guest in the building. He says no. I let silence fill the room. Only the two of us here, then. I feel myself stiffen a bit. I open my paperback and pretend to read. After a few moments he rises to his feet, smiles, says “God bless you,” and walks out the lobby door onto Dearborn Street, possibly on to other good deeds. Possibly this time to better luck at finding a handout.
I wonder who he is, and where he came from. When did his people come to Chicago? Everybody’s people came to Chicago from somewhere else. I wonder who his people were. What would they make of his present state, a pleasant, well-mannered panhandler, looking for an opportunity, still able to see the humanity in others?
I know where my people came from. What would they make of me, a nervous, distrustful old man, lost in memories, too fearful to aid the needy, to rescue the damaged? Was I the person they had come to this new place to beget?
I think of Evelyn, the rookie bus driver, small and confident behind the wide, flat steering wheel in front of her spring-mounted seat. I think of the Nigerian cabbie who made my sister laugh, already the ancestor of people who are yet to come, the people of a new Chicago, a source for the next century’s stories. I think of his brother in Dublin, newly settled among the native Irish. The two brothers will beget their own progeny. In a century or so, who among those descendants will look back on them, admire their grit, assess their contribution to the world, to whatever Chicago has become, to whatever Ireland has become?
Buy Waltzing a Two-Step
“Dan Juday’s Waltzing A Two-Step: Reckoning Family, Faith, and Self is a coming-of-age memoir that is a must-read. A compassionate journey of self-acceptance that follows Dan Juday from the rural communities of Indiana, across Europe, and among the East Coast searching for a life well-lived.”
—Chanticleer Book Reviews
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