A Book Excerpt From:
The Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family, My American Life
A Memoir of Growing Up
That Malignant Summer
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2002
Jimmy Mueller is dead and I'm marking time in Norwood Park. How do I reconcile these two disparate events against a backdrop of sadness and malignant childhood memory?
Maybe it is far better to recall my friend in other days when he was just another shy and insecure kid growing up under the Dutch Elms in this far Northwest Side neighborhood of Chicago; attending Onahan School and buying comic books at Studstrup's Five & Dime on Northwest Highway when the business corridor still retained a vibrant small town flavor.
Along the boulevard Tony's Toy Shop, the old man Hansen's Barber Shop where the boys were treated to free popcorn and dog-eared Dell comic books, Stolle's Bakery, and Meersman's Electric Shop were fine places to "mess around in." Nobody but Jimmy could afford to buy one of the expensive gee-gaws in Tony's display window (he was the only ten-year-old we knew of who maintained an "account"), but the proprietor never minded the rest of us just browsing the aisles and daydreaming.
Sometimes the genial proprietor would hand out free catalogs advertising Lionel trains and Revell plastic models.
With great reluctance we exited through the front door clutching the catalog, because we couldn't afford so much as a pack of baseball cards. The copper bell over the transom tinkled merrily. "Don't take any wooden nickels," Tony chuckled.
My grandmother whispered to me that Jimmy could afford to buy all the expensive toys and games and records he because she had it on good authority that he pilfered Social Security checks from the mail boxes of the widow ladies living in the bungalows, and cashed them at the currency exchange up on the Highway.
Old Emma was suspicious by nature and a hater by inclination. I uncovered the facts of the case later that summer; the summer of 1965 when the Gemini astronauts walked in space and the Byrds cut Mr. Tambourine Man to usher in the psychedelic phase of the sixties. In truth he had landed his dream job, peddling peanuts at Wrigley Field after lying to the commissary manager about his age. Mueller had just finished up eighth grade. He told the supervisor he was sixteen in order to watch his beloved Cubbies for free, and the man believed him.
Jimmy Mueller was my best friend during those tumultuous early years of the 1960s when we were both attending Onahan. The grammar school was named for William J. Onahan, a musty, forgotten Irish politician from the Gaslight Era of Chicago politics whose somber portrait stared down at the boys and girls as they raced from the upper floors to the playground.
Onahan students conformed to a stratified social caste system defined by the popular culture of the day. Conformity in the mid-1960s was dictated by the cut of one's clothes, ability on the athletic field, a measure of coolness, wearing one's hair short (but never, under any circumstances a crewcut. Crewcuts were for '50s squares.)
In respect to the Beatles, fashionably tight pants and pointy-toed shoes with Cuban heels completed the acceptable uniform of the day.
Jimmy was one of the persecuted children, the kind of kid everyone made faces at while he stood in front of the classroom patiently explaining his science project or reading from the social studies textbook. His frizzy black hair was uncontrollable even after a thorough going over with Vitalis and his horned rimmed glasses were secured to his head with elastic bands. When he was spoken to, he didn't always answer.
The P.T.A. moms gossiped about the unusual living arrangements in Campbell's household. In this devoutly Catholic and conservative community, the children of broken homes formed a minority. They were easy targets, singled out for harassment, verbal abuse and exclusion by members of their peer group. In the early 1960s, children of divorce made excuses for the absence of a father in the household. "Dad was away on business," we alibied, until our embarrassing secret was revealed to the other children, or overheard and passed on as a result of the wagging tongues of the P.T.A. gossips.
Jimmy was pegged as a "problem child" by the teachers until the standardized hearing tests revealed that he needed a hearing aid. Mueller was fitted for the clumsy contraption with the wire running down into his shirt pocket. "The Mule is wired for sound," one of the incorrigibles snickered. After that he took the hearing aid off when he was out of sight from the watchful gaze of his well-intentioned grandfather, Bill Campbell, a city worker who owed his livelihood to Mayor Richard J. Daley, the potentate of clout city.
Old Campbell, who was raising his adopted daughter's son in the twilight of his life, was a Democratic precinct captain in Republican Norwood Park. At election time he shuffled nervously from door to door, handing out leaflets and campaign buttons for whomever the organization touted at the moment. Ill at ease and self-conscious for intruding on his neighbor's privacy during the dinner hour, Jimmy's grandfather could never look anyone straight in the eye. But he went about his tasks in carefully disguised disdain which he masked with a pleasant smile. He offered his hand in friendship year after year, spanning the era of Ike to J.F.K., to L.B.J.
Bill Campbell managed to cling to his downtown job because he was willing to tramp up and down the stairs leading to the front porches of the heavily mortgaged bungalows and frame houses, spouting the gospel of the city and state party factotums to "fish on Friday" Catholics, cops, firemen, factory and office workers of Norwood who lived out their lives of quiet, dull routine.
Mr. Campbell was a man with responsibilities and sometimes the weight of the world pressed down very hard on his tired, sagging shoulders. He shook his neighbor's hands, tacked up campaign posters at the polls on election day and worked the precinct as best he could because he knew there wasn't very much that Betty, his deaf-mute stepdaughter could do to support her two children on her own. And in his heart of hearts he knew that Jimmy's well being depended on his ability to turn out the vote and the larger success of Richard M. Daley and the Democratic slate of candidates.
The toys that Bill Campbell bought for Jimmy at Tony's or at Marshall Field's downtown store were the kinds of toys to be played with alone, or in the company of his baby sister Nancy who did not share the same father as her big brother. Jimmy's second floor room faced Nassau Avenue. It was a showplace for plastic airplane models. A Thunderbolt engaged a Japanese Zero in imaginary aerial combat. The maritime flagship of the Navy, the U.S.S. Constitution trolled the high seas atop his bookcase but like the voyages of its owner, the plastic ship of the line journeyed on an aimless course.
In school he was nominated for class president as a joke. They spiked his milk with Ex-Lax and drew unflattering caricatures of the boy who couldn't hear so well on the blackboard. The teachers did nothing to protect the battered victims of bullies because it wasn't in their job description.
There were times however when the outrage made him want to rise up and fight back.
A Matter of Honor
It was a warm hazy October day. Ten of the Onahan boys of varying ages were tossing a football around on the vast school grounds. It was their turfthey ruled it and guarded it with the diligence of a crack Marine unit.
Across the street two other boys were walking home from the National Tea store at Milwaukee Avenue and Devon. Here, where the Cook County forest preserves bisect the encroaching city, a pair of fiberglass and metal statues molded into the shape of Toga-clad hotdogs, tower above the Superdawg car-hop drive-in, where ex-cons receive second chances flipping burgers and mixing malts.
Maury and Florrie Superdawg, their red light-bulb eyes blinking slyly, gaze down at the procession of loitering adolescents in silent contemplative judgment, like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg observing the Valley of the Ashes from a battered wooden sign board over the highway in Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby.
Mueller had I spent the last of our allowance money on Whoopsie burgers and Superdawgs. In our eagerness to gorge, we had momentarily forgotten the turf boundaries of Balkanized Norwood Park.
The football game on the Onahan playground abruptly stopped. Fred Nelson, a compactly built youth a year younger than Jimmy but someone who was very scary and intimidating crossed the street slowly, idly tossing the football up and down. His friends, sensing a good fight, trailed close behind.
"Let's make a run for it," I whispered nervously. By now my Superdawg and tamale had lost their taste. I was prepared to throw it into their faces, if it bought me a few extra seconds to run. Take the long route home and always avoid confrontations. It had become a familiar routine.
"No," Mueller said. The time had come to stand our ground.
Nelson flashed a sadistic grin. A deaf and dumb kid and a punk afraid of his own shadow. What a pair of pathetic losers. "Well if it ain't the old cheesy boy," cackled Joe Wilson as he glanced in my direction. His younger brother Mike who was even more vicious in his taunts, was in my classroom. I had made it my business to steer clear of both of them but that had proven almost impossible.
Seconds passed. No words were exchanged. I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, but Jimmy's gaze and surprising sense of composure never wavered. "I just might let you go if you got some money," Nelson announced.
I fished in the pockets of my corduroy pants for some change, but I had spent the last of my money on three packs of Topps baseball cards.
Mueller stood by silently, his face growing redder by the second. His breath grew quick as he tensed for the coming fight. Maybe by standing up to them the hassles would finally stop. Maybe we would get hurt really bad and have to miss school. Maybe they would expel Jimmy and flunk me. Maybe the cops would come and arrest them all. Maybe...they would let us play ball with them after school if we showed 'em how tough we were.
Jimmy paused for a second, just long enough to catch Nelson unprepared. Nelson wasn't able to react when Mueller pounced on his back and began flailing away at his neck and head. Stunned by the deaf boy's sudden attack, Nelson struggled before he had a chance to free himself from Mueller's viselike grip.
He then succeeded in flipping Mueller to the ground. Gritting his teeth in raw hatred, Nelson pinned him to the ground as the Onahan boys egged the bully boy on. "Kill 'em!" I stood by wanting to say something and help my friend out, but as usual I was afraid and frozen in my tracks.
"Okay asshole! You're real tough huh?"
"Kill 'em!" the chant went up again.
Could they really mean that?
Mueller looked into his opponent's sweat-stained face. He struggled to break free from Nelson and the sharp gravel cutting into his back. Nelson slammed Mueller's head into the ground and for a second it looked like Jimmy was going to black out. The taunts and jeers of the Onahan boys suddenly stopped as they usually do when the bully thinks he has done something that will place him in harm's way. Another shot like that might kill him; then what would happen? Suspension from school? The Audy Home? Wilson attempted to pull his friend off. The diversion afforded Jimmy the chance to break the pinning.
With a free right-hand Mueller landed a good one on Nelson's mouth, knocking him backwards and sending him flying. Jimmy leaped to his feet and delivered a series of furious decisive blows to Nelson's stomach and face. The fight lasted no more than five minutes and when it was over the Onahan bully covered his face as if he were mortally wounded.
Mueller retrieved the boy's discarded glasses and held them out for him. Meekly, Nelson accepted them but Jimmy let them fall to the ground. As a final gesture of contempt Mueller ground them under the heel of one of his Boy Scout shoesunfashionable, ridiculous looking black oxfords. Nobody congratulated Mueller on his victory but I never forgot it.
Ward Healer, Heal Thyself
That night Nelson's outraged parents paid a call on Bill Campbell. They explained that their son (a good boy) had been the victim of a vicious, unprovoked assault. And yes there were at least twenty witnesses to back this up. Freddy was a patrol boy who earned good grades and the respect of his teachers. Sorry, but Jimmy the troublemaker would have to make good on those shattered lenses.
Privately the Nelsons knew the real story. They had been told by the gossiping P.T.A. parents that Jimmy's fathera prize fighter as some believedhad run off on Betty, the deaf and dumb woman and left the boy in the care of his grand parents. Of course the deaf and dumb woman hadn't a lick of sense. She went and got pregnant by another man and brought a second unwanted child into the worlda frail, dark-haired little girl named Nancy who was five years younger than her half-brother.
It was not the kind of wholesome living arrangement that people practiced or had come to expect from their neighbors in Norwood Park. And the only time anyone could remember seeing Campbell, Betty's adoptive father, was the month before election day when he was out ringing doorbells and pestering people at all hours. On frosty election mornings the boy was pressed into duty distributing leaflets and campaign buttons outside the Onahan polling place at 7:00 a.m.
Well, these glasses had to be paid for at any rate. This could not be excused and under the circumstances...
"C'mon son, you mean to tell us that your little friend can't fight his battles?" Nelson's dad demanded to know.
Jimmy looked at his grandfather for moral support. "He started it. We were just walking home and they started bothering us."
Campbell ran his hand through his thin, graying hair. He wondered why his grandson couldn't make friends with the other boys. When he was lad, he never had these kinds of problems.
"You go ahead and have those glasses repaired Nelson. Send me the bill and I'll cut a check. What do you say?" Campbell said at last.
"Well...there is still that matter with the boys."
"I understand. I'll see that Jimmy apologizes to your boy tomorrow. They'll shake hands and this whole thing will be forgotten," he added, anxious to smooth out the ruffled feathers of a potential Democratic voter.
Satisfied that justice had been served the Nelsons went home and Jimmy beat a hasty path to his room.
"Jim, wait a minute now son. I want to talk..." But Jim did not hear.
Alone in his room Jim stared up at the ceiling at the two plastic model airplanes that dueled in mock warfare. Nancy looked in on him but didn't know what to say. She was just a fatherless seven-year-old little girl as bewildered and confused as Jimmy. In that frame house on Nassau Street, there was just no one to provide shelter in the storm and mature parental advice. Just the toys, the airplane models, and the election down the road.
In time Mueller drifted off to sleep wondering if he would ever catch a break in life.
The Society of Outcasts
After that fight the Onahan boys left him alone for the moment, but they never welcomed him into their realm either. Mueller and I forged a strong friendship and we banded together within a small circle of social outcasts which included Jimmy Parelli, a diminutive Italian with a heart the size of a basketball and possessing a kind, generous and compassionate nature. Fearless little Jimmy.
The Parellis lived across the alley from me on Newburg Avenue and attended the Catholic school, St. Techla. In the summers of our youth Jimmy, his older brother Bob whose capacities were sapped by a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, Mueller, myself, and three or four other misfits who drifted in and out of our society of outcasts played 16-inch softball at Rosedale or Norwood Park until the approaching night engulfed the sooty, weed-pocked diamond. Three on a side. Right field closed and pitchers' hands out. The Chicago game. It was in our blood and we played until the inky black darkness made it all but impossible to see the ball.
The two Jimmy's Mueller and Parelli possessed natural athletic ability and shared a strong kinship. As the months and years rolled by their bonds of friendship strengthened. On grading day, Mueller would show his high school course book to Jimmy Parelli's mother before bringing it home for Campbell to sign. Jimmy longed for a semblance of a normal family life and the Parellis, despite debilitating financial setbacks, illness, and the dull grind of his dad's factory job which barely placed food on the table, were a close knit unit. There was love in that tiny ranch house on Newburg despite the tough times. Mueller sought their approval at every turn.
Old Campbell got to shake hands with a drunken Lyndon Johnson during a whirlwind visit to Chicago on the eve of the 1964 election and would talk about the experience for the next two years. His wife passed away in 1965 and Grandpa Bill carried on as best he could supervising his stepdaughter and indulging the two children with a closet full of Milton Bradley games, plastic models, Barbie and Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots.
Despite the usual heavy Republican turnout in the 41st Ward, Campbell managed to carry his precinct year after year for the Democrats until 1969, Jimmy's senior year at Taft High School.
When a well-meaning maiden aunt presented Jimmy with her 1959 Chevy as a graduation present, it was the best of intentions but the dark and tranquil streets of Norwood where Jimmy aimlessly cruised night after night was a fatal lure. Mueller was the first to own a car and the last to have a girlfriend to ride in it. Girls and cars and cruisin' and Jerry G. Bishop spinning the hits of 1969 each night over the adolescent air waves of WCFL Radio.
On those hot, acrid nights before anyone I ever knew could afford air conditioning, I lie awake listening to the neighborhood sounds from my back bedroom porchthe commuter trains bound from city to suburb, the jet traffic directly overhead in the O'Hare flight path and Mueller's '59 Chevy, whipping up the cinders and dust of the unpaved alley to the mournful refrain of Zager & Evans summertime hit on the WLS hit parade, In the Year 2525.
Jimmy drove his Chevy aimlessly down the side streets and alleys, peeling rubber at 60 miles an hour. Always alone. A rebel in search of a cause. I saw less and less of my friend as we advanced through high school.
Every cent he earned working at the National Tea at Milwaukee Avenue and Nagle went into the car, his record album collection, and the occasional dates with a teen-aged grocery store charmer who worked the check out line on weekends. He took to wearing black in order to signify his greaser status while desperately trying to shake off the hateful nickname the baggers hung on him"Flaky." Black levis. A tight-fitting black tee-shirt. An unopened pack of Marlboros lying conspicuous on the front seat of the Chevy completed the effect he hoped to achieve. But Jimmy Mueller could never be a greaser. Jimmy's heart was as soft as a marshmallow....where it really counted.
He spent aimless weekends at Union Grove Raceway showing off his aunt's Chevy which he retooled into a hotrod, and nights cruising through the parking lot of the Hub Roller Rink on Harlem Avenue looking for girls in need of a ride; long-legged girls in knee-high socks, flip hair-dos and short skirts who tempted the male teachers at Taft High School, and drove my friend to desperate acts.
If there was any chance at all, Jimmy would sacrifice his pride and all of his honor. He would even risk his life as he demonstrated during that malignant summer of '69 when Caroline "the Guernsey" Lombardi flirted with him in front of the loading dock at the National store where he was checking in a load of produce.
"Hey Flaky, I think you might have something there. I hear she really puts out." Wally Pichowski wasn't really sure if she "put out" or not. He had heard rumors. But if it meant egging Mueller on, well it was good for a laugh in the break room at any rate. "You know, the chick's only a sophomore, but shit man, if I wasn't going steady now I'd roll her."
Caroline was twenty-pounds overweight, crass, loud, and unrefined. She was boy crazy and desperately insecure about her looks. She didn't appreciate the Onahan boys calling her "Guernsey," but laughed along with them anyway, convinced that she was part of the in-crowd. At night she provided running commentary on the incidents from the playground in a latchkey diary kept hidden along side an index card file on all the boys she met and dated, rating them on a scale of one to ten.
A backseat encounter at the Harlem Avenue drive-in movie during a double feature motorcycle extravaganza on a Saturday night earned her a reputation as a wild, fast-living harlot. Northwest Side girls, especially those that took their catechism seriously, remained virgins until giving birth. An open mouth kiss and a touch of the bare breast invited excommunication, a trip to reform school, and an obscene message scrawled on the wall of the boy's john at Taft High School. "They will never buy the coffee if you let them drink the cream!" the Norwood Park mothers cautioned their daughters.
Caroline just didn't know any better and Mueller of course, was slow to catch on.
Running his hand through his black, matted hair, Jimmy invited her to ride with him that August evening. "I'm going to Wright College in the fall," he boasted, deliberately omitting the word "Junior" before college. (There was something about a college man, or so he was convinced).
"That's cool. What kind of car do you have?" Guernsey" asked, drawing a swig of Pepsi from the glass deposit bottle.
"Uh," he shrugged, "it's a '59 Belair but it's pretty fast and I take it up to the drag races once in a while. Maybe you'd like to come with me some night. You know."
Guernsey smiled coyly and told him to drive by Onahan that night. She would be hanging around the swings watching the guys play ball. "Do you know Kowalski?"
Jimmy's face clouded. He was a St. Techla greaser who dropped out of Taft a year ago. "Yeah, I've heard of him."
"What about Jim Redding?"
Mueller's concerns deepened. Here was a guy from Edison Parka neighborhood bordering Norwood. In the pecking order of things, the greasers from Monument Park and St. Juliana's parish were even more fearsome than the Onahan boys. This Redding was a bad actorbut he had a sister who was a real fox. Sam Princep, one of the members of our society of outcasts was in a one-sided love affair with her via her graduation portrait in the Taft yearbook.
Then Jimmy remembered my personal encounter with Redding and his greaser pals who were pitching pennies outside Taft one cold morning. "Hey cheese, you got 50 cents you can give me?" He demanded as I walked toward the building for freshman R.O.T.C.
"Get bit!" I replied. And in a moment he jumped on my back like an insane chimpanzee, swinging and flailing away at my head. A cigarette drooped from his lower lip.
Bloodied and dazed, I realized there was no percentage in taunting a crazy man. I gave him his 50 cents, and 50 cents the next week, and the next week, and the week after that....until he mercifully dropped out of school after his junior year.
"Is Redding going to be there tonight," Mueller nervously asked.
"Might be." The girl's eyes twinkled. There was a hint of danger in the air, but Jimmy was enthralled and eagerly agreed to a clandestine rendezvous by the playground swings at 7:00.
For the Love of Caroline
Later that afternoon Mueller pumped me for information about Caroline. "Yeah I went out with her.....once," I confessed. I related the unhappy details of our afternoon date to the McVickers Theater in downtown Chicago to see a movie called the Oblong Box. (Cinema verite, truly, in a matinee)
We held hands and she allowed me to put my arm around her in the darkened movie theater. It was a walk in the clouds and the early stirrings of sexual awakening for me, but within 24-hours the illusion was ended. There was no room in Caroline's index file for sophomore boys who relied on public transportation to get them around on their afternoon dates.
"She's grease," I cautioned Mueller. It was a warning not to be taken lightly or easily dismissed, but he never listened to me when a girl was involved.
In an image-conscious caste system governed by defiant greasers, and the great mass of "collegiates" garbed in pressed levis, penny loafers and red-checked lumber jackets, the social outcasts afflicted with acne, a poor choice in clothing styles, or weak social skills, were forced to bear the brunt of oppression. When pressed for an accounting Jimmy and I liked to say that we belonged to that respectable limbo caste known as "semi-grease."
The Onahan boys were playing a game of fast-pitching, a variation of baseball that only required two on a side, a chalk-mark strike zone crudely drawn on the face of a brick wall and an open expanse of yard allowing the hitter to drive the rubber ball great distances, if he were capable. In Chicago, grown men still play fast pitching. The Onahan boys were kings of that diamond adventure well into their late twenties.
Mueller splashed on some British Sterling cologne. He smoothed his hair back and approached Guernsey who was gabbing and smoking cigarettes with two of her giggling girlfriends who whispered something that provoked spontaneous laughter. Something about Mueller.
"Hey babe." Jimmy slid an unlit Marlboro in back of his right ear but the cigarette fell to the ground.
More giggles. Guernsey just rolled her eyes as her two comrades headed off in the general direction of the Onahan boys leaving her alone with Jimmy. "See 'ya round Guerns!"
Caroline was not an intentionally cruel girl. Toying with the opposite sex in this manner was just an innocent game she played with dozens of boys-a trait she would never outgrow. Years later, in between waitressing jobs and the scar tissue of two failed marriages, she would waste her off hours in the Rush Street pick up joints acquiring a yen for Bloody Marys and two categories of men: the muscle bound brute you would never take home to mother, and the two a.m. no-questions-asked bouncing bed springs routine at her studio apartment high above Dearborn Parkway.
When she was way too old for the Rush Street cabaret scene, Caroline the barfly found her perfect barstool at the Redhead Piano Bar, a Near North gin joint for the four o'clock shadow business types in rumpled Brooks Brothers suits (ties fashionably loose around their collar), looking down the dresses of provocatively attired women in black who took their drinking seriously.
If Caroline "Guernsey" Lombardi remembered Jimmy Mueller at all, it was a story she would never share with her companions at the Red Head.
They had spent less than fifteen minutes together before the Onahan boys spotted the intruder trespassing on their turf. Conversation ceased as the Mule observed Nelson, Redding, and three or four other college-aged youths slowly advancing. It was never clear whether Jimmy was gripped by terror and unable to retreat to his car while he still had the chance, or if he considered a beating preferable to humiliating himself in front of his latest "prospect." Either way, Mueller was no match for them. Redding joined in with Wilson, reigning down blows to Jimmy's face and stomach. There must have been twenty to thirty kids of varying ages watching the fight and egging the bully boys on. Not one came to Jimmy's aid.
"You fuckin' dork, we told you to stay the fuck away from here..."
Guernsey sat passively by on the swings, gently pushing herself forward and backward. A look of unconcern registered on her face. Greasers rule!
Jimmy choked back his tears and staggered toward his car, bleeding and shamed. He groped for his glasses, not knowing that Freddy Nelson had deposited them on top of the school roofa vengeful coup de grace.
Shaking and unable to see the road ahead of him, Mueller nearly flooded his engine before he finally kicked the car into gear. A rock hurled by Wilson thudded off the roof, leaving a two-inch dent in the blue metallic finish. These were his unhappy memories of senior year.
The next day Mr. Campbell appeared at my door. "Richie, what happened last night to my grandson? Did you have something to do with this business?" Jimmy had told him that I had once dated Guernsey. Somehow he connected the ugly beating with some feminine intrigue on the girl's part that I hatched.
"I wasn't there to see it Mr. Campbell. I told him not to go but he didn't listen to me. I swear....I had nothing to do with it. Jimmy's always been my friend."
"I know that son, I know that.... but I have to try to get to the bottom of this." There was an expression of profound sorrow on the man's face. Old Campbell's complexion was pallid and he had lost a lot of weight in the last year. His Christian charity put a roof over Betty's head, and the comforts of home for two lost children who would otherwise be orphaned. What more could he do?
A Changing World
Within a month's time Bill Campbell was dead. The frame house on Nassau Street was sold in great haste by the extended family. Betty was sent away to live with Campbell's cousins in suburban Rolling Meadows where she was required to perform domestic chores for the family in order to earn her keep. Little Nancy Kaczmarek, Jimmy's frail half-sister who weighed sixty pounds soaking wet, ran away from home with the girl down the street rather than live the life of an indentured servant in Rolling Meadows.
Nancy's 13-year-old traveling companion hitchhiked back to Norwood Park six months later. The two of them had thumbed their way to an Oregon commune to live among the hippies and groove to the aesthetic rhythms of peace, love and harmony, set in the wild timber regions. But she steadfastly refused to divulge the location of the commune, or Nancy's exact whereabouts.
Efforts to locate Nancy failed. Betty Kaczmarek never heard from her daughter again.
Jimmy Mueller's world began to change. He did not cry at his grandfather's funeral but seemed to view the old man's passing as a chance at liberation. That fall he attended classes at Wilbur Wright Junior College, the "University of Chicago Located on Austin," but the challenges of higher education in an extended high school setting held little interest for him and his grades suffered as a consequence. His world revolved around his grocery store job, making the rounds of the shot and a beer joints on north Milwaukee Avenue where he was hustled by the local girls for free drinks, and the evolving progressive rock scene of the early 1970s.
He squandered his pocket money buying progressive album rockthe heavy metal music performed by Black Sabbath on WDAI-FM.
Steely Dan, the Eagles and KC & the Sunshine Band, the mainstream music of the mid-1970s we listened to on our eight track stereos en route to a night of lustful dalliance with our girlfriends at the Harlem Avenue drive-in, did not appeal to the image he cultivated as the last restless, angry rebel of Norwood Park.
Everything about Mueller seemed to change. He broke away from the Society of Outcasts to explore a world of his own in the company of high school girls who were favorably impressed by his car, his money, and his status as a "college man." The times, they were a changingeven in serene Norwood Park, where the pace of life moved along at its own plodding rhythms.
Northwest Side greaser apparel-the leather jackets, the baggy pants, and the "Dago-Tee shirt" from the mid to late sixties were abandoned. The new generation of adolescents defied social convention and the regimented class consciousness of the 1960s in unimaginable ways that must have horrified their parents.
Greasers evolved into pot-smoking nihilistic "burnouts." "Party on, man" was more than just the comic invention of a West Coast gag writer lampooning teenage culture in 1970s America, Jimmy Mueller bought into the total picture, or what he called "the scene."
For a thrill, he inhaled PAM, an oven cleaner sold in the National Tea Store where he now worked as the night manager. There wasn't much Jimmy Mueller wouldn't do, if it guaranteed acceptance within the circles he traveled.
In 1974, he announced that he was all set to marry Debbie, a young girl on the verge of completing her senior year. Her long blonde spaghetti hair and angular features appealed to Jimmy. He didn't much care about her obvious lack of intellect, maturity, or how well she would cope with the pressures of marriage a month removed from her senior home room, because at last he could show off his "fox" at the grocery store or Roman's Tavern on Milwaukee Avenue without fear of being ridiculed for picking up another "dog."
Fox and dog were easily understood terms.
He smoked pot with Debbie and her heavy metal friends in a tiny rented apartment not far from the store. The burnouts were at least five to seven years younger than Jimmy but he did not care, nor did he pay attention to their sarcastic taunts. He was in love...and believed in his heart that he was loved in return, even after Debbie was spotted in a parked car on Newburg Avenue with another man.
Jimmy realized, rather belatedly, that he had made a serious miscalculation. "I'm going to get out of this man....I gotta' figure out a way." There was a distant and dark look in his eye and a humbled tone in his voice as he whispered this to me late one Saturday night when I caught up with him in the parking lot of the Superdawg, where everyone went to show off their cars and make time with the girls in scenes straight out of Mel's Drive-in, depicted in the movie American Grafitti.
He was alone and aimlessly making the rounds. Jimmy did not know where Debbie was this night. He changed the subject quickly when I asked him. The false bravado that earned him the nickname "Flaky" vanished.
Dutch Elm Disease
Then came the nasty business at the National Tea grocery store, his employer since 1968. Funds were missing from the cash drawer and Jimmy, as the manager of the night crew, was suspected. Someone had to take the fall, but this time Bill Campbell was not around to cover the monetary loss. This time there were car payments, an indiscreet wife, and no one to turn to. His former friends from the Society of Outcasts, preoccupied with college, girlfriends, and plotting a way out were no longer around to help.
Before so much as an investigation could be ordered Jimmy was fired and the retail clerk's union to which he belonged refused to mount a protest on his behalf. Neighborhood businesses would not hire a suspected thief, especially one with no useful job skills other than the ability to sling cans of cat food onto a shelf in the pet aisle. In desperation Jimmy went to work for Banner Automotive on Elston Avenue. They paid him $50.00 a week under the table. No taxes were taken out, no social security taxes deductedno benefits. He might as well have been an illegal alien.
Jimmy Parelli and I should have seen it coming, but we looked the other way for our own self-serving reasons. In early 1975 he tried?and failed?to kill himself. Mueller was pulled out of his car in a comatose state and rushed to Resurrection Hospital. He was discovered in the garage by a neighbor moments before the noxious carbon monoxide fumes could exact a final toll.
A week later Jimmy was released from the hospital without anyone bothering to seek psychological counseling for the despondent young man who had run out of options in life. There was no one left to care.
I last saw my friend at a Chicago Bulls game at the Stadium less than a month later. The Bulls were making a run for the N.B.A. title, and with an extra ticket in hand, we invited the Mule along thinking that the company of his old pals would cheer him out of the doldrums. None of us really knew what to say to him. Mueller undoubtedly sensed the embarrassment by the sheepish expressions on our faces and the faltering, almost solicitous tone of voice. I mean, what can you really say to someone who just tried to kill himself?
Jimmy was in good spirits that night. He bought a round of beers and self-consciously wisecracked about trifling, long forgotten matters. All through the game I carefully observed his mood and affectations. He seemed to be his old self again, at least temporarily, but what he was really doing was cleverly masking the inner torments that raged from within.
Two months later the entire episode was forgotten. We went about our lives in dull complacency under the Dutch Elms.
I turned away from the gravesite. The rain had all but stopped as I paused for one last look at the stone. It occurred to me that nobody talks about Jimmy Mueller anymore. Once in a while I may run into an old acquaintance who remembered himbut not so much anymore. More than twenty-six years have elapsed since that August day and several more generations of children have already come and gone from Norwood.
Neighbors still like to gossip over the fence, but at what point do we still mourn?
"Didn't you hear? Don't you know? Flaky killed himself....finally succeeded in pulling the pin.
They found him in his car in the parking lot of Banner Automotive at 5:30 in the morning. He connected the rubber hose to the tail pipe and went to sleep. Just like that. Except the cops and the coroner couldn't explain the bumps and bruises on his arms and heads. Looks like somebody must have whacked the shit out of him.
"He left behind a note saying that he wanted the Banner mechanics to serve as his pallbearers. Noone else. And you should have seen that funeral. All of his wife's doped up friends were crying and carrying on and looking like assholes. They hardly knew the poor dope."
"Don't that beat all."
"So why did he do it?"
Slow measured silence.
In the 41st Ward of Chicago the pace of change and the rhythms of life are slower than in less stratified Chicago neighborhoods. The familiar Polk Brothers plastic Santa Claus illuminates the front porch of many brick bungalows at Christmas, and American flags (symbol of the pervasive "love it or leave it" attitudes) flap in the breeze at all other times. Norwood Park clings to its unique "suburb within the city identity," harkening back to a late nineteenth century agrarian ideal, a time when Norwood was a distant resort community nestled into the woods, but connected to the central city by the railroad.
A graying population of "empty nesters" and middle-aged homeowners faithfully water, and mow, and sweep and shovel, and rake and mulch, and pull weeds, and glower at non-conformists who would jeopardize neighborhood property values by failing to keep the backyards and front lawns neat and tidy and the wood trim of the bungalows freshly painted and free from benign neglect.
The most incorrigible of the greasers dropped out of Taft High School and ended up in jail, or so it was reported in the local gossip mill.
Tony's Toy Shop, Studstrup's Dimestore the Dodge dealership, and Stolle's Bakery where Jimmy squandered his allowance money, vanished. A bank stands on the corner of Northwest Highway and Raven near a string of antique shops peddling estate curios and mementos that once adorned the living room mantles of the young married couples of my grandfather's generation who arrived in Norwood during the boom years of the 1920s, when the farm lands north of the Northwestern railroad tracks were subdivided for residential development and a quick sale.
The immigrants from Northern, Western and Eastern Europe who moved into the bungalows along the unpaved thoroughfares off of Northwest Highway in the 1920s, raised their children north of an invisible demarcation point dividing the old settlers of Victorian Norwood of the 1880s and 1890s from bungalow Norwood of the Roaring Twenties.
How they beamed as their kids steadily progressed through Taft in the final years when it was still a quiet, gang-free, all white high school sending a high percentage of graduates to state universities and commuter colleges.
In old age these original settlers tenaciously clung to their time-honored values of placing church, family, and pride of home ownership above all else, until their bungalows became a financial burden as rising property taxes swallowed up their meager social security earnings and passbook savings.
That's when the children stepped in and were forced to relocate their broken-hearted parents into sterile senior citizen centers or nursing homes that smelled of feces and medicine. Forty-five years of accumulated bric-a-brac was left to the antique hounds and packrats who swarm like locusts upon the houses during Saturday morning estate sales.
For-sale signs sprouted on the lawns. Properties originally purchased for four or five thousand dollars during the 1927 land boom were re-sold to the newcomers for staggering six-figure sums because no price was too much for them to pay in order to raise the kids in a crime-free, all white neighborhood.
Properties were turned over to an advancing army of modestly affluent cops, fire fighters and city workers hemmed into the city by tough residential requirements. You can bet they will all dash off to the suburbs if and when the city lifts the hated residency rule. Only then will there be real change. But until that time neighbors will faithfully water, and mow, and sweep and shovel, and rake and mulch, and pull weeds, and frown at non-conformists and free thinkers.
Starbucks will never open a store on Northwest Highway. The two-fisted coffee drinkers passing time inside the Norwood Restaurant, drink their Hills Brothers black, the way it was meant to be served, next to a plate of red meat slathered with dense brown gravy. The menu items of yesteryear are still appreciated.
Solid food for substantial people who lately are all puffed up with hometown pride as they gape in wonderment at the booth where President George W. Bush parlayed with Mayor Richard M. Daley over cheeseburgers and Cokes in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was the most thrilling moment in Norwood Park history since a film crew shot the exterior of the Superdawg Drive-in for the motion picture Sixteen Candles.
Before the Norwood Restaurant became a symbol of patriotic fervor in scary, uncertain times, it was a library, and before that a record shop where Mueller bought his Grand Funk Railroad eight tracks. In grandfather's day it was a bank building.
The barbershop, next door to the restaurant, is open and under new ownership. Hansen and his son carted away the old popcorn machine and the fuzzy memories of a million heads of hair they trimmed dating back to 1957.
The old timers still demand the white wall buzz cut, but the cost has risen to seven bucks. And that's not good.
The sun has set on another Norwood Park day. The street lamps and the twinkling light-bulb eyes of Maury and Florrie Superdawg illuminate the Valley of the Ashes. Another malignant summer is almost over.
Author's Note: With the exception of Jimmy Mueller, names of the real-life characters in the story have all been changed.