Bridgeport, Chicago: 1948-1958

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A few weeks ago I performed at the Frunchroom reading series on the far south Chicago neighborhood of Beverly, which focuses on south side stories.

I'm from Evanston but claim South Side roots--something I use as an explanation when anybody asks me why I'm a White Sox fan (as if there has to be some reason for it.)

From 1948-1958 my dad lived with his brother, sister and parents at 3344 S. May St. in a building with a grocery store out front. His dad worked for the Chicago Board of Health as a dairy inspector and his mom was a butcher at Midwest Groceries, the chain grocery store that as in front of their house.  

I heard a lot of South Side stories growing up, and thus decided to formally interview my dad and hear what life was like for a small boy during the first ten years in a Bridgeport baby boomer's life. And thus, I told some of these little stories at the Frunchroom. I will now need to look for a story about north side stories during the same time period so I can do the same for my mom.

The neighborhood--

"In the summertime we used to play a game called 'Ring Relievio,'" my dad said, describing a team game of hide and seek on the multi-leveled sidewalks.

The rules? "There's a jail and if you get caught you have to get in the jail but if one of your teammates can go and get in the jail and slap your hand without getting caught you get to be free," my dad said. "You had to play it at night.

As an aside, I questioned whether the name of the game was really "Ring Relivio," as my dad is one of those dads with the names. Bruce Springsteen = "Mike Springman." Jim Carey = "Steve Ventura." But the (extensive) Wikipedia entry on "Ringolevio" includes an acknowledgment of the pronunciation "Ring Relievo" so I want to give my dad credit for being pretty close on that one.

"We were one of the few people on the block who had a bath," my dad said. "At the end of the block, we had a bath house," referring to the John P. Wilson Bath House, (now Wilson Center Community Park. "You could go there, and for a nickel or a dime, you'd get a towel, a little bar of soap, and you could take a shower. It was fun to do, to get a shower."  

There was a candy store at the end of the block, my dad told me. "I remember guys my brother's age and older, they'd have card games and dice games where literally everybody would cash their paychecks and the money you'd see laying there was unbelievable, hundreds of dollars."

They didn't live very far from the stockyards: "One day a week, it stunk to high heaven," my dad said, and told me about kids stealing trash from the casing factory to make balloons (which he may or may not have done.)

This is a legendary story in my family: "We were playing baseball in the park, in the middle of the day, and all of a sudden there was this huge ugly pig with hair on it," my dad said.   It escaped from the stockyards somehow. Everybody was trying to catch it--a guy was trying to put a rope on it." The pig ended up in my dad's side yard: "I remember being afraid of it. It must have been 350 pounds." Then the police, he said, "put about 5 bullets in it."

When your house has a grocery store in it--  

In the summertime, after closing, the kids would do their homework in the store's walk-in cooler."You had to keep the window open or else you could suffocate," my dad says. He told me a story about how his mom suspected a customer was shoplifting from the freezer, and so my uncle lay on top of it and shined a flashlight to confirm he saw her shoplifting. This apparently worked: "She agreed to never come in again."

My dad enjoyed square (!) ice cream cones in which you could lay square (!) pieces of ice cream, although he preferred watermelon brought by a man driving a horse and buggy to the produce at the store.   "It had flies all over the damn thing but for some reason it tasted great coming from him."

A few other details:

"Kids would challenge my father to drink a Coke in one sip. They'd get a free bottle of him if he couldn't do it."

"This blind woman would come in and she'd have two white rats that would run up and down inside her blouse while she shopped."

The Wednesday before Easter they stayed up late using molds to make butter lambs to sell for Easter. "You froze it, put a little ribbon on it like you wear now for breast cancer."

On school and church at St. Mary of Perpetual Help--

"We had a nun that insisted on perfect handwriting with cartridge pen and I had sloppy handwriting, so I'd get beat up a lot." I asked how exactly he got punished. "She'd slap me. I'd have to redo the work again."

My dad told me about the perils of being an altar boy holding a paten under someone's chin during Communion: "If a host fell the nun would beat the heck out of you."

Finally: "  I got hit by every nun I ever had."  

On leaving the neighborhood--

My dad's family moved in April 195, after the store closed. His mother had gone on to a job working in dispatch for the Chicago Police Department. On drives back from Cedar Lake (a now-closed manmade lake near Lake Villa), my dad says, "We'd take Milwaukee to Austin, and [my mom] said that area had the lowest number of police calls in the city."

His dad wouldn't have minded moving further south, to Beverly, but my grandmother didn't like the environment on the south side.  She was critical of the fact that nobody from their neighborhood went to college. "Also, a friend of my brother's was killed by a gang. The gangs were white -- my dad mentioned that Bridgeport was unwelcoming to minorities at the time, and that while there was public housing nearby, the residents were white.

They moved to the Norwood Park neighborhood. "The one we bought was across from a park and it had field goals for football, I was happy to move." I asked my dad if there is much that reminds him of his old neighborhood and he said not really, aside from a hamburger and chili place called Lindy's. But, he says, there's "Nothing else that remains that can give you a memory of living there."

"In 4th grade, on the day before we moved, I was known as Edward Ziolkowski at school," my dad said. The next day his mother drove to the St. Tarcissus rectory and he sat in the car while she went in. "She came out an said "you're going to school now and your name is Edward Zulkey." My dad laughed and added, "That wasn't as traumatic as that sounds."