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Field Day

My aunt was a vibrant and youthful-looking septuagenarian who withstood the indignities of aging with annoyance and defiance yet grace and charm. She had no money but in little ways she had appropriated the public grid of Chicago--its libraries and parks,

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To reveal her name would be to violate a trust: her aura of privacy is singular among her very few assets and comforts, and she guards it with the silent passion of withdrawal. That she is my godmother and aunt will suffice to identify her for the purpose at hand. And although she is very much alive, my describing her from this moment on by use of the past tense is deliberate, appropriate, and painful: the woman as I once knew her no longer exists.

She was born in Chicago, one of my mother's younger sisters, and often served as Mom's surrogate to me and to my brother Floyd when my father, a sworn Chicago fire fighter, was killed violently in performance of duty at age 30 and my mother was forced to seek outside employment when we were infants.

Last Christmas my aunt was a vibrant and wonderfully youthful-looking woman who turned 77 at holiday time and who had withstood the indignities of aging with annoyance and defiance yet grace and charm. By most American urban standards she would have been considered impoverished, especially in our era of obscene avarice and professional self-indulgence, but if she was aware of her indigence she refused to admit it. With considerable effort she lived wisely and well on her widow's social-security pension with little or no other income or assets, never seeming to succumb to the withering stresses and limitations of indigence or to care or complain about them. She looked forward, she moved forward, she dreamed forward.

Although a generation separates us, she was on occasion mistaken for my sister--a compliment to her and not an indictment of me, I liked to think. Her appearance and dress were impeccably stylish and appealing, the result of inherent good taste and remarkably resourceful shopping.

From childhood on, she loved the opulent ambience of Marshall Field's State Street store; after the premature death of her husband and at a stage of life when others are preparing for leisure, she chose--out of necessity--to work there in accounting. She grew to enjoy it so much that she stayed there for many years, until she was forced out by retirement law.

She continued to return often to the Loop and to Field's on the least pretense, or none at all other than quiet pleasure. Like a detective discreetly flashing a badge, she assuredly displayed her retired-employee's discount card (which she'd sealed authoritatively in see-through plastic), then strolled and shopped the familiar elegant pillared aisles of the store she'd revered from earliest eidetic memory.

Using her wonderful senses of fashion and value, she'd return home by CTA in the evening, invariably clutching one or more of the familiar trademark Field-green shopping bags snuggled with boxes of designer clothing and fine housewares purchased at far less cost than others might spend at a K mart for far less quality.

Yet, like my mother, she could not walk past most tin cups or extended hats without digging into her purse for coins, refusing only the most outrageous of charlatans, and sometimes not even them. Her rare inadvertent failure to meet the weekly parish stipend immediately prompted a private act of contrition and a doubling of the next week's allotment--with interest, of course. And whether she ate at a Formica Woolworth lunch counter or a fluted table in Field's Walnut Room, she labored to compute the rightful tip and offered it to the penny, often when the service did not warrant it.

In little ways she forged the public grid of Chicago into her private estate: its libraries, its parks, its museums, its fairs and exhibitions became vested extensions of her home, as she saw it from her exalted perch as a vibrant dues-paying citizen of the city she loved. She studied the eccentricities of its transit system so that it catered to her like a personal chauffeur. She knew no other way and had no other means of passing through this tangled sacrament we call life, and she quietly and demurely marveled at her ability to extract such resource from so little.

She was street-smart to be sure, but in a pristine, utilitarian sense, knowing how to get from here to there to anywhere and back home again; knowing what street was named after whom and why; knowing what to avoid and when, although this last sense was to fail her in the end. And all of this faculty was so much the more remarkable in that she never in her life drove a car and was seldom a passenger in one. Her safety she entrusted utterly to her God and to His Mother, to whom she prayed more than just daily.

She was born in a home near Magnolia and North avenues, educated first at Saint Stanislaus Kostka and then Saint Michael's High School, and married back at Saint Stan's. Upon learning of the current gentility of Goose Island, the Clybourn Corridor, and River North, in or near the neighborhoods of her birth, her schooling, and finally her marriage, well, she gave an incredulous chuckle and a brisk disapproving shake of the head.

For her then, for her Chicago-born parents before her, and for me a generation removed, this area was Polonia, a gritty, ham-fisted, bilingual ghetto where one was born and raised out of want and necessity; in which one lived and usually worked and often prematurely died; through which the commuter train, with its window-gaping suburban riders, passed daily but never serviced, coming or going.

But it was home, a deep place of the heart, one she finally had to leave, with tears and some fear, as a 1945 war bride who opted to accompany her counterintelligence soldier husband to Allied-occupied and battle-decimated Europe. She lived in recently abandoned barracks and bomb-damaged farm homes, often alone with a loaded pistol under her pillow, while her husband spent his nights burrowed in the hay of lofts, subsisting on raw eggs and milk from the udder, in the course of tracking and arresting fleeing war criminals for the Nuremberg trials.

Significantly, my aunt survived three years without a scratch in that foreign environment, which may have been as hostile as any on earth at the time. Then, without to-do, she and her hero husband returned together to Chicago to set up housekeeping, but this time in the Logan Square community to the northwest of Polonia, where industry was lighter and the air a bit cleaner and the Slavic accents muted by the distance of those few miles, for what little they mattered, other than relief from the ebullient crush of returning veterans, as well as the new huddled masses of postwar displaced persons, and of course the instant boom and bawling of babies.

But the 1948 job market for a former military spy, even one with a cigar box brimming with medals of valor and two Purple Hearts, was the same as for a guy who avoided conscription altogether for whatever reason. So while my aunt went about creating cozy castles out of rented flats, her husband quietly returned to his prewar job in a machine shop, where the only item of less significance than the tiny industrial springs he coiled was the paycheck he brought home. Yet they managed and soon bore two children, raising them with love and care, assisting them through college, and sending them successfully on their ways.

The joke is that life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies. Well, the kids did leave home and the pet gerbil died on cue, and life was to have begun for my aunt and uncle when the joke turned to black humor. My uncle was suddenly taken in his sleep from a literal broken heart at age 57.

With no spouse's veteran benefits forthcoming and no pension from her husband's employer when he died, and too young and too proud for government compensation, my aunt swallowed her grief and headed for Marshall Field's, where she added 13 years of daily-wage labor to the 17 years she'd worked in the Loop before marriage.

She supported herself on an entrance-level wage and changed rented flats as dictated by the constraints of income and the fiscal whims of landlords, living always within the vague periphery of Logan Square, within literal and comforting sight of the steeples of her spiritual home, Saint Hyacinth Church. Eight years ago she retired, earning for her years of work a small social-security allotment and a monthly Field's pension--since rescinded by the new owners--not large enough when it existed to pay a three-room electric bill.

Nevertheless last Christmas was to have been an especially exciting and happy one for her. The doctor marveled at her sparkling state of health; her daughter was to fly in with a new suitor, a mature executive with a major firm, as was she; her son would be home, too; her apartment had taken on its special warmth of the season with her magic touch at work: the home-baked cookies and cakes sat wrapped and awaiting the taste tests of her family, while a turkey reposed in the freezer in anticipation of the oven.

One week before Christmas, late on a crisp, bright Sunday morning, she attended high mass as usual at Saint Hyacinth's, then decided to celebrate her 77th birthday in her own typically private way. She took the bus and subway downtown to her beloved Marshall Field's for an elegant brunch and some holiday shopping for herself and the kids and guests. Her mood, I know, was ecstatic.

At dusk she returned laden with gifts, exiting the Diversey Avenue bus near Pulaski. She paused to prepare to walk the two blocks to the ten-flat apartment complex she had called home for the past several years, a pause necessitated by her only infirmity, one she tried to conceal: an acute arthritic condition in both hands, causing her fingers to crisscross and denying her flexibility of grasp and dexterity. For that reason, she was unable to carry anything of weight in either hand.

She delayed that instant at the bus stop first to hook the straps of her ample purse over one arm and up to the crook of her elbow, then to do the same with the straps of her two large shopping bags, one on each arm. Then, holding her forearms and mittened hands straight up, like a surgeon who has just scrubbed, she made her way down the side street toward the warmth and charm of the three tiny rooms she had lovingly fashioned over the years into her sanctuary, despite an absentee landlord's malignant neglect of the entire building. But it was affordable at least, and she had not once complained or asked for financial help. And soon the Frango mints and imported tea she was then carrying, amid an array of other gift items, would serve as a balm and nightcap to what had been an exhilarating day.

She'd walked the length of one block and started up the second when she noticed in the dimming daylight a car that slowly passed her for the third time. Its occupants were three men and a woman. One in the backseat had his face pressed to a side window and appeared to be scrutinizing her. Their presence and actions did not trigger concern, much less alarm, however, since her immediate neighborhood was "changing." Realtors' sale signs dotted the block and her ten-flat alone had a vacancy of six.

House and apartment hunters were common intruders, usually circling the block, then double-parking and dashing to a doorway to inspect the particulars on a rental or sale notice taped to the glass. Nothing new here.

She turned the final corner and walked the short span to her entranceway in the direct center of the two-story yellow-brick building, which was flush with the sidewalk's edge and stretched almost one-half block long, from a cross street in front to an alley at the rear.

Burdened and tiring as she was, it took her a bit of clumsy effort to navigate the one high concrete step and unlatch the unlockable outside door with its checkerboard of glass panes, some of them senselessly smashed out by vandals and never replaced. But she succeeded with the step and the door, then paused again in the tiny foyer, its cement floor littered with pre-Christmas handout ads from local merchants, none of which had been there when she left for church that morning, since she had stopped then to clean away the previous day's litter, an action dictated by her need for neatness and order and privacy.

As the outside door closed on its squeaky spring behind her, with a practiced motion she extracted her ring of keys from a pocket in her purse without having to place her bulging burdens down, then unlocked the inside door, which led directly to a steep stairway. That inner second door, unlike the first, had no spring or tension on it and swung open wide at the touch of the proper key, then because it had been mounted on a bias, it slowly swung shut on its own volition if left alone for a second or two after opening. When one ascended the stairs, the door usually gave off a reassuring click from behind as its lock closed securely into the jamb.

But as she climbed the stairs at dusk that Sunday, my aunt did not hear the inside door click behind her. She was about to turn around in exasperation to descend the stairs and help it along when a violent downward jerk brought her heavily to her knees and spun her around in a pretzel-like twist of legs and arms and bags and purse and long winter coat and awkward boots and suddenly loosened scarf and cap. Her glasses flew off and down the stairs.

Grunting directly into her face just inches away was the face of the man she had seen watching her--stalking her--from the car a moment before. As she lay painfully entangled in the stairwell, he began repeatedly jerking on the two shopping bags.

Their thick plastic-and-twine straps were by then tourniquets, torturously twisted around her upper forearms. He continued to violently jerk at both bags, apparently expecting them to pull free and confused as to why they didn't.

That is when my aunt remembered beginning to scream. As the man stumbled backward pulling at the bags, he pulled her along, face forward, down the steps.

He dragged her prone and screaming across the cement lobby floor.

He yanked open the outside door and dragged her prone and screaming down the high concrete step to the sidewalk where she lay on her face.

He jerked again and again at the Marshall Field's shopping bags, which would not come free, while her body and face bounced up and down against the sidewalk in rhythm with his jerking.

He apparently tired of jerking and pulling and, obviously enraged, began stomping repeatedly with both feet on her arms, her wrists, her gnarled fingers, even her toes until her toenails broke off inside of her boots.

Finally her arms became pliant--gross crush fractures to human bone will tend to have that effect--and the straps holding their prized bags slipped free.

He dashed with his hard-won Christmas booty to the car waiting at the curb, which began to speed away in a squeal of rubber and musk when one of the four noticed my aunt's purse jutting out from under her sprawled and motionless body. The car backed up, the same man leaped out, ripped at the purse until it too jerked free, then stepped on her fingers as a farewell gesture before returning to the car and speeding away again.

My aunt lay quiet, bleeding and broken on a sidewalk in her Chicago. My aunt. Quiet, bleeding and broken. A sidewalk. Her Chicago. My aunt lay quiet, bleeding and broken on a sidewalk in her Chicago.

Shame on you, Chicago, shame on you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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