A Book Excerpt From:
"The Whiskey Breakfast: My Swedish Family, My American Life"
A Chicago Childhood in an "October Kind of City."
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2002
Early autumn is my favorite time of the year, separating the terrible extremes of oppressive August humidity from the coming dreadshoveling out a parking space on a frozen Chicago side street in January. October in Chicago marks the beginning of the end chapter of the old year. In the autumns of my youth, the neighborhood kids piled the leaves high in an enormous curbside stack and then watched in fascination as the older people burned it to asha funeral pyre to summer, to baseball, and to daylight saving time.
The pungent aroma of burning leaves wafted through the air until city environmentalists with no tolerance or respect for hoary seasonal traditions, decided it was either an unsafe practice, or a public health threat to Chicagoans breathing the already polluted and acrid city air.
With each passing year, I find myself longing for that defining aroma of the changing seasons and the memory of the burning leaves. Today we blue bag it, park it in the alley and wait for the garbage man to haul it away. Do you want to wager that the blue bags never make it to the mulch piles the environmentalists originally intended?
"Chicago," as Nelson Algren ruefully observed while in his cups, "is an October kind of city."
Autumn bespeaks sadness, and Algren's world was populated by junkies, freeloaders, card counters, grifters and refugees from the half-world. God, how I wish I had known them sooner....
My staid and conservative Norwood Park neighborhood was a half-a-world away from the seedy action of Division Street, and was populated by "Fish on Friday" Catholics, city workers, cops, firemen, Poles, Irish, Italians, and Germans who spoke of the Depression and World War II and lessons we needed to learn from their shared experiences of hardship. Today we refer to these people as the "Greatest Generation." They were our parents. I guess they earned the right to preach and complain after all.
Norwood Park is situated in a remote corner of Chicago, as close to the suburbs as one can possibly get without actually being in the suburbs. For this reason, it is where city police, fire, and municipal employees choose to live only because they are hemmed in by the city's tough residential requirements. It is one of the lasts bastions of white ethnic Chicago as it existed before the 1960s. The name of the game out there baby, is property values and how to maintain them in a changing world.
My grandfather Richard Stone (a Swedish immigrant who changed his name from the European-sounding "Sten") moved into bungalow Norwood in 1927, three days after Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris. It was a time when much of the sub-division was still a mud flat punctuated by sagging Dutch Elms and lonely farm houses gradually surrendering their ground to the encroaching city. Home ownership in a serene, pastoral setting like this was my grandfather's dream after years of scraping by in Andersonville, Chicago's hermetically-sealed inner-city Swedish enclave.
There was nothing ambiguous about the carefully trimmed, edged, mowed and thoroughly manicured lawns fronting the bungalows, Dutch Colonials, and ranch houses these people invested their entire lives in, or the elms dropping their leaves in late October. There were however, secrets and sadness in nearly every household to upset the rigid moral fiber and middle class conformity of the community. I guess I just didn't realize it back then as I tried to make sense of my own jangled home life, and the daily hazing inflicted on me by my classmates at Onahan School, who, if asked about it today would likely say the matter is completely forgotten.
The secret I carried with me all through grammar school days invoked shame at a much deeper and more personal level. My parents were divorced. In the mid-1960s in Norwood Park, divorce symbolized the larger failures of modern living and a break down in society; broken homes, delinquency among children, alcoholism, and abusive husbands. Worse, it ran against the grain of Catholic theology, and in Norwood Park two out of three people on the street were Catholics and active in Parish life. So I kept it to myself as long as I could. My father, who was old enough to be my grandfather was "away on business" or so I alibied until the wagging tongues of the P.T.A. moms exposed my shame to my peer group.
Turning to me one day, one of the girls in my eighth grade class smiled sweetly and in a saccharine tone of voice asked: "Is it true you don't have a father Richard?" My face turned beet red, and with my heart pounding I mumbled an inaudible reply.
I was raised by my grandmother and mother, and rarely saw the old man, a distant and terrifying figure spouting Swedish "salt-herring" socialism, the cooperative movement and fiery ethnic intolerance aimed against every non-Swede who had swindled him in business. While I was trying make sense of my crazy-quilt family, Oscar Lindberg was off building houses, appeasing his jealous housekeeper, cavorting with a pretty young secretary and trying to shackle the rebellious inclinations of my older half-brother Chuck, who was under his care in a spacious house in the Northern Suburbs.
My brother marked time in the Lake Bluff Orphanage until he was age five. My parents' marriage was a "cooperative" arrangement between my father who needed a wife in order to remove Charles from the care of the harsh Methodist deaconesses, and my well-meaning but unintuitive grandfather who decided that Oscar Lindberg should be the one to rescue his thirty-something daughter from the shame of spinsterhood. They shook on it, raised their glasses and said "Skol!" at Simon's Tavern on Clark Street in Swedetown.
From one day to the next I never felt perfectly secure or at ease in my dealings with either of my parents. My mother, a clinically depressed woman, was ill prepared for marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood thrust upon her in the fifth year of her seven-year ordeal with Oscar.
She often threatened me with deportation to my father's Skokie house every time I "acted up," embedding dreaded images in my mind of his (alleged) alcoholic orgies, drunk driving, and willingness to pound his fists on miscreant little boys. Grandmother Emma, whom I analogized to "Fagin," in Oliver Twist spun wicked tales, spoke ill of the neighbors, satirized the other ethnic tribes of Chicago, told me how spineless she thought mother really was, read my diary to see what bad things I was saying about her, and cautioned that I was likely to turn out "no good" because when all was said and done I was a Lindberg and not a Stone.
The shades were pulled down and the curtains were always tightly drawn in that house so the neighbors could not gaze inside as if they cared. There was much talk of the Depression years and recollections of sewing coal bags on a riveting machine in the basement in order to bring money into the house to stave off wicked old Mrs. Thunbow from foreclosing on the mortgage. It was always 1933 at our house, and the walls smelled of decades old nicotine.
The laughter, the gaiety, the memories.
At Christmas time my grandmother cooked traditional Swedish lutfisk (a dried cod slathered with horse radish sauce) with cookware she had brought with her on the boat from Mother Sweden. She capped it off with a snort of Mogen David, and marched to bed at 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve to sleep through the holiday because that is what people do when they are in a depressed state of mind.
Helen, my mother, sat glumly in the kitchen smoking her pack of Viceroys to extinction until the evening shadows completely engulfed the room and only the glowing tip of the smoke provided any illumination. In the long day's journey to night (December 24-25), I sat quietly in the living room parked next to the tiny Christmas tree hoping against hope that the telephone would remain silent and thus spare me the nervous anxiety of a custody visit to the Skokie house where every bad thing was likely to occur, or so Helen prophesied. "Christmas just isn't what it used to be," she sighed, repeating it year after year after year.
All through the house not a creature was stirring, not even the mouse.
Christmas lutfisk and old people's depression. Autumn leaves and summer sunsets. Trying to fall asleep on the back porch of the house late at night, to the din of happy, laughing people conversing in their back yards with the drone of Cub baseball playing on WGN in the background.
Softball games in the alley with the Pistorio boys and Jimmy Mueller. Building snow forts with John Abboreno in back of the factories on Northwest Highway. Backyard hockey with Steve Doering. Kayo chocolate milk in a glass bottle with raised letters. Whiffle balls and the Weekly Reader. The painted covers of Classics Illustrated, and exchanging Topps baseball cards outside Wally & Mary's corner grocery with the day campers from Rosedale Park. Oh, where have you gone Wally Moon, Julian Javier and Mike Hershberger; my priceless picture cards covered with bubble gum dust?
Classics Illustrated cost fifteen-cents at Studstrup's Dimestore up on Northwest Highway, in what passed for Norwood's commercial business district. Protuberate old ladies in aprons and house dresses who had worked there since the Depression, straddled the aisles and gazed suspiciously at the children loitering in the toy section, expecting them to filch a Pez dispenser or a plastic dinosaur at any moment, and what would that do to old man Studstrup's profits!
I never went in for the cheap Hong Kong wind-up toys, and the other gee-gaws in the Studstrup's toy aisle. I was a cerebral kind of kid, and it was the Classics Illustrated comic books I was after. Fifteen-cents worth of adventure, history, intrigue, and mystery crammed into thirty pages of panel artwork. With every new reading of Lord Jim, A Tale of Two Cities, Robinson Caruso, The Red Badge of Courage, and Call of the Wild the closer I came to believing that I too could write stories that people would read with enjoyment.
More importantly my fifteen-cent treasures allowed me to take leave of the world (and for a short time), that "October kind of city."