By Jack Clark
Imagine a Chicago without angle streets. No Broadway or Ridge, Milwaukee, Ogden, Archer, or Elston. No Blue Island or South Chicago. No Clark. What a boring town that would be.
It's like trying to imagine the city without Lake Shore Drive and its gentle curves, without Rush Street late on a summer Saturday. There would be no Fifth Avenue, that terrifying stretch between Kostner and Cicero with all the lights out on a moonless night. Or Milwaukee and its blocks with the signs in Polish. No Grand as it starts to shift northwest and every light turns green just for you. Try to imagine a Chicago without those wonderful buildings wrapped around a corner, without those enormous six-way intersections, completely gridlocked on a rainy Friday evening, and that chorus of horns almost beautiful in its angry futility.
It's not easy to picture that other city, that boring place, but it exists. I know, because I grew up there--out on the far west side in Austin, almost two miles from the nearest angle street.
It wasn't a boring place, of course, not when I lived there. It was my city. The place I loved. I was 21 before I would move to the north side and find another city going by the same name and get lost in all those peculiar angles that I've since grown to love.
My city. There are so many different cities wrapped up in Chicago.
My new city and my old city had a few things in common. I still went to the same places downtown: the library on Michigan and Randolph, the Kroch's and Brentano's bookstore on Wabash, the Wabash Inn, the Dill Pickle on Van Buren.
But whenever I hear someone say, "Chicago's like a big small town," I remember countless afternoons walking the Loop, scanning the crowds for people from the west side, my old city. Years went by and I never spotted any of them. Then one day I realized I'd stopped looking.
The last car my father owned was a '57 Chevy. Actually, I think it was a company car, and when the job went the car went with it. And that was it--he never had another. But he'd rent one now and then or borrow a friend's, and it was always a big deal to go for a ride.
There were seven kids, so he'd usually rent a station wagon. We'd stop at a light and people in other cars would start counting us. Once he rented a Volkswagen bus, in the days before they became famous as hippie mobiles.
My father loved to drive. He'd lived all over the city in his youth and he knew it well. He'd worked his way through law school by taking photographs of accident scenes for an insurance company. He was always pointing out old accident sites and places where he'd lived and worked. Anywhere we went he had stories to tell. And I hate to admit it, but as a kid they didn't do much for me.
Now I'm older than my father was when he died, and I've inherited at least a couple of his traits. I love to drive but I don't like owning cars. I've come to regret that I don't have a better memory of those rides, that I didn't listen more closely and ask more questions.
Recently I went downtown to the library to go through microfilm of old phone books and city directories with their listings of addresses and occupations. I was looking for some those sites that I'd never quite remembered. Phone books don't tell stories, but they did reveal some places where my father once lived.
I couldn't find anything for 1937, the year my parents met at night school at Austin High. There was no listing in the phone book, and by that time the city directory had been discontinued. "You know, I never was at his house," my mother says. "His mother would never let him bring me there because they lived in an attic apartment." My father's mother was a single parent. She'd always had good jobs but with the Depression lingering she couldn't find anything.
"It was on Latrobe Avenue, right near the Lake Street el," my mother recalls. "A few years ago a bunch of houses burned down over there. I read about it in the paper and I was thinking, I'll bet that was one of the houses."
On a sunny afternoon, I borrow a car and take a ride. My first stop is on the 4100 block of North Saint Louis, where I find a nondescript redbrick two-flat. There's a glass-block window in the basement, which is where my father lived before he was drafted during World War II. I'm sure the glass block came after my father's time, but it looks like it's been there quite a while. The neighborhood's OK: middle-class, working people, white, Hispanic, Asian. There's a side-street bar one corner up. It doesn't look inviting.
My father was courting my mother when he lived here. She'd say to him, "What are you living on that dumpy north side for? Why don't you come down to the great west side?" My mother answers her own question: "Of course, he wasn't paying any rent." He was staying with a family friend.
Now my mother lives a few blocks away, on that same dumpy north side she used to complain about back when the west side was frequently called the best side of town.
My mother has a photograph of a wooden sign that once stood on Saint Louis Avenue, thanking all the men on the block who had served in World War II. My father's name is there, but I doubt if many people in the neighborhood remembered him. He was working full-time, going to college nights, and courting my mother while waiting for the letter from the draft board. It was probably just a place to sleep and study.
At one time there were signs on corners all over the city commemorating local guys who died in WWII. Like the one on Saint Louis, most of them are long gone. I have one hanging on a wall at home. "George P. Sepsis Sq.," it says, and there's a white star on a black background. It once hung on a light pole at Madison and Menard. My little brother found it in the gutter one day and brought it home. The back of the sign had rusted away.
I drive west to Cicero Avenue, and then five miles south to the 4800 block of West Monroe. This is where my parents moved after the war. Apartments were hard to find, so they moved in with my grandparents on the second floor of a two-flat. The building's still there. It's in decent shape, but the neighborhood has seen better days. The two-flat next door is boarded up, and across the street are several vacant lots. I can see clear to Madison and the alley where my cousin was murdered in a holdup back in 1970. A block away young men appear to be selling drugs.
I head west on Jackson, past the empty lot where Resurrection Church once stood. A few blocks later there's a collection of new houses: single-family homes starting at $129,900, a sign says. Maybe the west side really will rise again.
I go into Columbus Park. It's magic as always. That exquisite landscape, the sun shining off the lagoon, the curves of the boulevard. There's something else too--something I can't explain--and it takes my breath away. Maybe it's that the park has never changed. Maybe it's because I can still see myself here.
I cut up Menard. The house where I spent most of my childhood looks good but different. No doubt this was my father's favorite home, and it was his last.
My mother would probably still be living here if the neighborhood hadn't changed. It's getting better, I hear, more middle-class, more professionals. They're remodeling my friend Joey's old house. The places look smaller than they once did and now there's a cul-de-sac at the north end of the block. You can no longer drive up to Madison.
I head west on Adams, across from the park. It's one beautiful building after another. There used to be one of those World War II signs on the corner of Mason. I don't remember the soldier's name, but his family lived in the house on the corner.
It's 19 miles--east on the Eisenhower, south on the Dan Ryan, then east on 83rd Street--to the 8300 block of Blackstone, where my father came as a child in the mid-1920s to visit his aunt and his six cousins. Some of the cousins got the measles, and then my father got them too. His mother decided to postpone their return to New York. "So she decided if she was stuck in Chicago she might as well get a job," my mother says. "She liked the job, and she decided it was better than the one she had in New York, so they stayed here.
"When he wasn't in boarding school or summer camp he lived on South Blackstone. Whenever he talked about the good things of his childhood, it was when he was with Aunt Agnes and her six kids."
As I drive east on 83rd, I come to Dante Avenue, and though I don't know this
part of town that well, I know without a doubt that Blackstone is the next street.
It must be a memory of those drives with my father.
The house is just a small bungalow. It sits right on the alley--it's a nice-looking place, one of the few frame houses in the area. There are a few old guys sitting on the enclosed front porch, whiling away the afternoon. Across the street is a Catholic church and school, Saint Felicita's. Did my father go there? The neighborhood is black, solidly middle-class, almost completely residential. Avalon Park is the nicest-looking neighborhood I'll be in all day.
A block east is Stony Island, which has to be the widest street in town. I take it north and pass under the Skyway. We never came over that bridge without my father pointing out his old neighborhood.
I cut through Jackson Park and out to Lake Shore Drive. It's 13 miles up to the corner of Wabash and Chicago. This is where my father lived in 1931, when he was 13. He lived with his mother in the Hotel St. Benedict Flats, which was never actually a hotel. Several years back there was talk of tearing the building down, but it was saved after being designated a landmark.
There's a historical marker on the corner of the building. "This rare surviving example of Victorian Gothic design is also one of the city's finest late 19th century apartment buildings. Because early luxury apartments were viewed with skepticism this building was designed to look like a series of four separate townhouses. It was named for the Benedictines, a religious order that had operated a church on the site before the fire of 1871."
There's a For Rent sign on the door. They're asking a bit more than $1,000 for a one-bedroom. This is once again a luxury neighborhood, but it wasn't in my father's time.
In his 1929 book, The Gold Coast and the Slum, Harvey W. Zorbaugh describes the neighborhood then known as Towertown: "The Towertown of today...is largely made up of individuals who have sought in its unconventionality and anonymity--sometimes under the guise of art, sometimes not--escape from the conventions and repressions of the small town or the outlying and more stable communities of the city. Some of these individuals have a genuine hunger for new experience, a desire to experiment with life. They run the tearooms and art shops and book stalls of the 'village,' or work in the Loop by day and frequent its studios and restaurants by night....Most of these experimenters are young women. For Towertown, like Greenwich Village, is predominantly a woman's bohemia....It is the young women who open most of the studios, run most of the tearooms and restaurants, most of the little arts shops and book stalls, manage the exhibits and little theaters, dominate the life of bohemias of American cities. And in Towertown the women are, on the whole, noticeably superior to the men."
It sounds like an exciting neighborhood to be 13 years old in, but, then again, my father might have hated it. There was the infamous flower shop around the corner on State and Superior where gangster Dion O'Bannion was murdered in 1924, setting off the "beer wars" that eventually led to the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929.
The city directory for that year has my father and his mother living on the 400 block of Belden, just a block and a half from the garage where Capone's men, dressed as police, killed seven but failed to find their primary target, Bugs Moran. I remember my father saying he'd walked by the site of the massacre on his way home from school that day.
Frank Gusenberg, shot 22 times, was still alive when the real police arrived at the S.M.C. Cartage Company, 2122 N. Clark. "Who shot you?" they asked. "Nobody shot me," Gusenberg's reported to have said, and he died without ever changing his story.
The address on Belden leads me to a yellow-brick courtyard building on a trendy Lincoln Park block. It doesn't look like much. There's no grass in front of the building, just bricks. A For Rent sign advertises studio apartments. According to the city directory, my father and his mother lived on the third floor on the east side of the building. Was it a studio? I park the car and walk into the foyer. It's like a thousand other buildings. I walk back out to Belden and then around the side. I stop as I recognize the narrow gangway and I realize just where I am.
It was a Saturday night sometime in the early 80s. I was walking east on Belden, coming from a bar on Lincoln. I'd been drinking most of the night, and it was almost five in the morning. Drunks tend to stumble, so maybe I was just lucky and happened to be looking up when someone jumped out of the gangway and swung a car antenna at my face.
I ducked and the antenna swished over my head. I scrambled to get out of the way as the guy swung again. I crouched and pulled off my belt--it had a nice big buckle, which I swung at the guy, a Hispanic kid, maybe 15 or 16.
Ambush is a coward's way of attack, so it wasn't a big surprise when the kid suddenly didn't want to fight. I remember he came up with some lame story about how he thought I was somebody else, someone who had jumped him earlier in the night. I looked around for the police, but there weren't any in sight. So I called the kid a few choice names and continued on my way. When I got to Clark, I turned to look back. The kid was staring at me, and about a half block behind him another drunk was stumbling our way. The kid still had the antenna in hand.
"Come on," I said. "I'll buy you breakfast."
He must have thought I was joking, because it took a while to convince him that either I was buying him breakfast or flagging down the first squad car that came by. He tossed his antenna to the curb, and we walked up the block to the Parkway Restaurant at Fullerton and Clark, which is where I'd been heading anyway. The joint was packed, as it always was in the days before cocaine took over the bar scene and nobody could shut up long enough to eat breakfast.
We both ordered steak and eggs, and I tried to convince him that he was in the wrong profession. If I could fight him to a draw, someone who could really fight would leave him bleeding on the pavement. If he didn't get killed, he'd end up in prison.
I was making more money than I could spend back then, working as a truck driver and furniture mover. I suggested he try something similar--you could make out OK without hitting people over the head.
He didn't like homosexuals, I remember, though that's not the term he used to describe them. He was hoping to find one stumbling down Belden, I surmised. I gave him a little lecture. It boiled down to a simplistic live and let live and there will be more girls for me and you.
The Parkway was a big gay hangout. It was also popular with the punks and dancers from Neo down the street. It was a great mix. Dorothy was the best waitress in town. She always kept the coffee cups filled and usually managed to have her lighter ready before you got the cigarette out of the pack. She wore plenty of gaudy jewelry. I remember she gave me a quizzical look that night, but she didn't ask any questions. She later moved up the street to the Melrose on Broadway, but I haven't seen her there in years.
We finished our breakfast, went outside, and found a taxi. The sun was just about up and most of the drunks were safely home. The kid lived near Willow and Larrabee. He got out on the corner, and the cab headed back north to take me home.
Many of my friends couldn't stop laughing when I told them the story; others were seriously pissed. I was a chump, they said: I should have beat the shit out of the kid and then called the police.
Thinking about it today, I decide my father would have enjoyed my story. I don't think he would have laughed because, given the chance, he probably would have bought the kid breakfast too.
I'd like to think he was watching over me that day on Belden and that's the reason I looked up and don't wear a scar on my face today. But I know that's ridiculous. Addresses are just that, numbers stuck on buildings, and buildings are only brick and mortar, nails and wood. All I really know about my father's time on Belden is that he walked by the site of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre on his way home from school. And I just know that because he told me.
So the only things I discovered on my drive around the city were some old buildings and a few traces of myself. All the places where my father once lived still stand, with the possible exception of the building on Latrobe that I couldn't find in the phone book.
But my father's in the phone book today, 32 years after his death. My mother
has moved twice, but she's never changed the listing.
When I was 16, my father handed me a paperback copy of Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm. "Here," he said, "you might like this." The novel won the first National Book Award in 1949. Last year I picked up the special 50th anniversary edition. "A novel of rare genius," the back cover says, "The Man With the Golden Arm describes the dissolution of a card-dealing WWII veteran named Frankie Machine, caught in the act of slowly cutting his own heart into wafer-thin slices."
That's the first time I recall seeing the book so clearly connected to the war. It's such a strong Chicago story it's easy to forget it's a World War II novel too. Frankie gets his first hit of morphine after being wounded by a German artillery shell. He comes home with a piece of shrapnel in his liver, a Purple Heart, and a small disability pension. He celebrates by driving drunk down Ashland, singing, "War's over for Frankie."
There's a nice photo of Algren at the front of the book. He has one arm draped over a big manual typewriter; his other hand is holding a manuscript page. Out the window you can see the saloon that once stood on the corner of Wabansia and Bosworth, which is where Algren lived when he wrote the novel. In the background there are a couple of water towers. Water towers dot the skyline in many old photos of Chicago. Like side-street saloons, most are now gone.
There's still an intersection at Wabansia and Bosworth, but it's not the same corner. When the Kennedy Expressway was built, the tavern and the building Algren once lived in were torn down--along with a lot of other buildings--and Bosworth was shifted a little farther west.
Once a month, a Social Security check is dropped in my mailbox. I add it to a stack on the bookcase. There are 30 checks to date, going back to October 1998. The checks are made out to my friend Sam Sarac. His picture is on a photocopy of an immigration document that I keep on the same shelf. The document is from 1964. I assume the photo is from that same year, when Sam was granted permanent resident status after entering the U.S. in 1961.
Every check is like another nail in Sam's coffin, and I've got $11,000 worth of checks so far. He must be dead, I keep telling myself. It's undoubtedly the most money he's ever had to his name.
I first met Sam in 1979 when he started to work at the moving company where I was a long-distance driver. I needed help loading a shipment one day and the boss gave me Sam, an old guy who barely spoke English. That is generally how the business works--when a road driver needs help, he ends up with the least experienced helper in the yard.
But Sam was a good mover. He'd been bouncing around the business for years, and we hit it off right away. I usually requested him whenever I was in town. And I paid cash, which is how it's done: Straight cash at the end of the day. No taxes, no Social Security deduction. The standard rate back then was ten bucks an hour. Being a big spender, I usually bought breakfast too.
Sam was happy. He wasn't making that much when he worked directly for the company, and he didn't like bosses. He didn't like anyone telling him what to do. That meshed with my style. I didn't like having to keep on top of helpers, and I didn't have the photographic memory that some drivers have. I couldn't say, "Bring me that hamper from the back bedroom closet." I'd say, "You got anything to fill this hole?" And Sam would find me something. He could work on his own. While I did the inventory, he'd break down the beds, pack the mattresses, take the legs off the tables, disconnect the washer and the dryer, and do whatever else he could.
I never had to tell him what to do next. I'd just about be finished with a tier when he would say, "Clark, I got sofa, I got refrigerator, I got washing machine." And that's what we'd start the next tier with. We might go up with overstuffed chairs, and I'd be six feet atop a wobbly ladder, with a chair in my hands, trying to find the hole that had looked so clear from the ground.
"Turn it, Clark," Sam would shout.
"I am turning it," I would shout back, turning it so much the back was about to break, which was just what I needed--another damage claim.
"Other way! Other way!"
I'd turn it the other way. "Little more, little more," Sam would say. "Right there! Now push! Push!" I'd push and usually the chair would slide into the hole without breaking.
There were days I might have kissed Sam if he weren't so ugly.
When I tell people I was once a mover, many of them give me a sympathetic look and say something like "That must have been tough" or "What were you thinking?" But the truth is it's one of the best jobs I've ever had.
Yes, it can be backbreaking, but usually not for long. How many pianos do people have? There's plenty of couch cushions and lamp shades too. And there's the art of moving. Sam, like many good movers, wasn't particularly strong, but he was good at finding the easy way--moving a piece only once.
And there are joys that go with the job, like the windshield time while riding from place to place. You really get to look at the city, or at the country if you're out in the boonies. Usually somebody has a good story to tell, and there are pretty girls to look at. If you toot the horn, they'll sometimes wave back--they know you're not going to pull that big truck over to offer them a ride.
There are great restaurants to eat at. The Holiday Grill at Belmont and Southport, Chris's Grill on Halsted and Milwaukee, Angie's on Broadway, the German American Club on Clark. They're all gone now, but they were great joints. Often there'd be four or five moving vans parked out front. I get hungry just thinking about them.
One day we pulled into Hackney's roadhouse on Harms in Glenview. It was a little too upscale to be a movers' stop, but Marilyn, my codriver, liked the place and we were in the neighborhood, so what the hell. As we pulled into the parking lot, a guy came running out, waving his arms. I stopped the truck. "No deliveries until after two," he said.
"We were thinking about lunch."
He smiled. "Oh, hey, great. Park back in the corner, OK?"
We had our bad days too.
Once we went to Milwaukee to load a small shipment for Florida. I had four or five loads already on board, and then there was a living room set I was sneaking down to a friend in Fort Lauderdale. There was very little space left in the trailer.
It was a hot day. We were moving a young couple with kids. They lived in a small frame house on a corner lot. The wife made us lemonade. They didn't have that much furniture, but there was a bit more than the estimate. And I had a bit less space than I should have because of that living room set.
We dismantled everything we could--took bookcases apart, the pedals and the tires off the bicycles, the legs off the picnic bench--any trick we could think of to save space. And there are plenty of tricks that I would never think of mentioning outside of the trade.
Sammy kept encouraging me. "We'll get it, Clark. We'll get it." This attitude set him apart from the typical helper, who usually takes one look at the house at eight in the morning and then says with a voice as sure as the word of God, "Driver, you ain't never gonna get it all."
And if you don't get everything, nobody's going to be happy, except for the helper, of course. The van line will have to send another truck to pick up the overflow. Most of the time that truck will take the remnants to a nearby warehouse, where they'll wait--who knows how long--for another truck heading in the right direction. And you can bet your Peterbilt that the carton marked "Misc. Hall Closet" is actually going to have the coffeepot and the toothbrushes in it.
I was proud that I'd left few overflows in my career, and I especially didn't want to leave one now. But that bootleg living room set wasn't my only problem. I was hungover; I'd been out late the night before. Truth was, like a sailor on shore leave, I'd been out every night since I'd gotten back to town, and the effects were starting to show.
Loading a truck when space is tight is sometimes like working a giant jigsaw puzzle--there's only one right way to get it done. And that day I kept second-guessing myself. I'd start a tier, then change my mind, and start handing the furniture out to Sammy standing on the lawn.
Soon the lawn and the sidewalk were covered with furniture and cartons. No one wants their belongings spread out for the neighbors to see.
I started reassembling the tier and then realized it wouldn't work that way either, so I started to break it down again. Soon we'd moved some of these pieces not once, not twice, but three times. And they still weren't on the truck.
"Clark, you have to get more sleep," Sam said as I passed him the furniture.
"I can't work like this," he said forcefully. "We should be back in Chicago."
And I knew he was right. If I'd been in decent shape, we would have been long gone. That was another sign of what a good helper he was. He didn't want to milk the job. He wanted to do it right, get it over with, go home, and have a beer on his own time. But I forgot that for a moment.
"Sammy, what do you care how long it takes? You're getting paid by the hour. The longer it takes the more money you make."
"But it's blood money, Clark!" he shouted. "It's blood money!" And he stalked off into the house.
Well, that gave me all the adrenaline I needed, and the third time was the charm. I got the tier built and the shipment loaded. I even managed to do it without using the sleeper berth. We got a nice tip too, probably because I'd made an easy job look incredibly difficult.
When I came out of the house after getting the paperwork signed, Sam had put the walkboard away. It was a 12-foot magnesium ramp, and it must have weighed 300 pounds, maybe more. It was stored in a rack under the trailer. I could put it away without help too, but I had to use a four-wheel dolly. Sam could do it without the dolly, and he'd never show me how.
We worked together for several more years, and we used to laugh about Sam's "blood money" line. But eventually the work got too tough for him, every dollar became blood money, and he hung up his hump strap for good. A few years later I did too.
I'd still run into Sam occasionally. His city wasn't very big. He seldom got south of Armitage or north of Foster. I'd be driving down Lincoln or Clark or Broadway and I'd spot an old guy wearing a baseball cap. Even in the summer his jacket was zipped up tight. I'd tap the horn and wave. "Sammy!" Sometimes I'd stop and we'd have a beer, a cup of coffee, or a quick lunch. He knew the best places for good, cheap food.
Sam's city was low-rent. He moved around a lot, from rooming houses to cheap apartment hotels, places with a pay phone out in the hallway. When someone answered I'd ask them to knock on his door. Half the time they wouldn't know who I was talking about. Frequently he didn't pay rent. He lived in an unfinished basement while he painted the apartments upstairs. He lived in a vacant storefront. For several months he stayed with a dying friend in a senior citizen's high-rise. When the friend died, Sam moved on.
He always had some kind of job. He'd walk into a small business and ask if they needed anything done. He'd paint, wash windows, and clean out basements. Most of Sam's friends were other Yugoslavian immigrants. He'd always be introducing me to them, and I could never keep them straight. He was proud when the Olympics were in Sarajevo. His hometown was nearby. And he was sad when the fighting started, though he assured me the war hadn't reached his village yet.
Sometimes the phone would ring. "Clark, I need money," Sam would say with an edge of desperation in his voice. He had the world's worst timing--he always called when I was broke.
"Jesus, Sam, how much?"
"Hundred dollars." This was the usual amount.
"Let me think," I'd say before realizing I wasn't nearly as broke as I'd thought I was. Nowhere near as broke as Sam.
I'd lend him the money and in a week or so--or a month or five or six--he'd pay me back. Sometimes he'd pay in installments, sometimes all at once. When I had a stepson living at home Sam always gave me a couple of extra dollars "for the kid." More than once the money arrived when I really needed it.
One day he called and out came, "Clark, I need money. Big money."
"I'm really broke, Sam. How much?"
He hesitated. "Two hundred," he said softly. I had the feeling he'd intended to ask for more.
When he paid me back a few weeks later, he said, "You're always lucky for me, Clark. When I borrow from you, I always get lucky and find work."
He called me soon after he turned 62 in 1998. He was now old enough to collect Social Security and thought I might be able to help. He'd lost his card years before, but he still knew his number. He'd lost all his identification--he didn't have a single piece. He had other problems too. He hadn't worked on the books in years, and he'd had a run-in at the unemployment office back in 1985. They'd threatened to report him to U.S. immigration. He was afraid the argument had somehow gotten on his record.
Sam came over one day in May and we filled out an application for a new Social Security card. The application said, "If you need a DUPLICATE CARD (no name change), you must show proof of IDENTITY. IMPORTANT: If you were born outside the U.S., you must also show us proof of U.S. CITIZENSHIP or LAWFUL ALIEN STATUS."
We decided to pretend we couldn't read capital letters. But apparently Social Security could. They answered in early June. "We cannot give you a Social Security card because: You have not given us the document(s) we need to show U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status."
A few days later Sam knocked on my back door, and we walked over to the Social Security office at Lawrence and Western. We filled out an identical form, then waited in line for a while.
The woman behind the counter looked down at the form, then up at me. "Who are you?"
"I'm just a friend," I said. "He doesn't speak English all that well."
That seemed to satisfy her and she punched his number into a computer. She stared at the monitor for a while, and I knew if she were looking at a record of Sam's Social Security payments the last entry would have been from years before.
She asked Sam for an ID. He smiled and shook his head. "He doesn't have any," I said.
She asked if he had a green card. Sam shook his head again. "He lost it," I said.
"1970," Sam said. That was when he'd lost his wallet in San Francisco. He hadn't had an ID since. Twice he'd applied for a replacement green card, and twice he'd had his picture taken, filled out applications, and paid money to the INS. The cards never arrived.
Neither did his Social Security card. The woman said she couldn't issue a replacement without identification. This was what we'd expected, so we both took the answer well. I explained that Sam hadn't worked steadily and that he hadn't made much money. I wondered whether she could tell us if he was due any benefits. She looked at her computer screen briefly, but said she couldn't give out that information.
I thought that must be bad news. If she couldn't give out the information, what was she looking at?
Out on Western, I told Sam my suspicions. "I work enough, Clark," he said.
"Sam, you gotta have ten years in, 40 quarters." At least, this is what I'd been told.
"I got more than ten years, Clark. Much more."
"Yeah, but a lot of it was under-the-table."
"No. I pay taxes. At least ten years. Ronnie, he not work as much as me. And he got $500."
Ronnie was a friend of Sam's, another Yugoslavian. He hadn't been in the country as long as Sam, but he paid a lawyer on Montrose $1,000 and now was getting a $500 Social Security check every month. Sam would have gone to the same lawyer, but he didn't have the thousand.
We were waiting to cross the street. Sam would never cross against the light. He'd wait for the "WALK" sign and then step off the curb without looking left or right. This always scared me to death.
"They probably thought you were dead," I said when we were safely across the street. "I mean, they haven't heard from you in years, and then all of a sudden here you are looking for benefits."
We decided to try to get him a new green card. I called a friend at Travelers & Immigrants Aid, and she gave me another number for assistance. The woman who answered told me to file a Freedom of Information request, asking for a copy of Sam's immigration file. "Whatever you do," she said, "don't go to immigration unless it's absolutely necessary. You'll be there all day."
In a followup letter, which included a blank Freedom of Information request form, the woman wrote, "Your file will provide you with your alien number, which begins with the letter 'A' and is followed by eight numbers. With the alien number you can complete the I-90 form I have also sent you for you to be able to replace your lost alien card. Thank you for your consideration and good luck."
We filled out the form and mailed it in. Barely a week later, we got a letter from the INS: "A copy of all the material we located is being released to you with this letter." Enclosed was a single sheet of paper. "MEMORANDUM OF CREATION OF RECORD OF LAWFUL PERMANENT RESIDENCE," the heading said. The file number began with an "A" and had eight numbers behind it. We'd found what we were looking for.
"Status as a lawful permanent resident of the United States is accorded Zihnija Sarac," Sam's real name. His address was shown as 715 W. Aldine, and his date of birth was listed as April 7, 1935, though Sam claimed he'd actually been born on the Fourth of July, 4-7-35 in the European notation. The form said Sam had entered the country at New York City on September 16, 1961, and he'd applied for permanent resident status on April 27, 1964. His alien registration card had been issued one month later.
There's a picture of Sam at the bottom of the page. He would have been 29 back then, but he had already lost most of his hair. He was wearing a suit and one of those incredibly skinny ties. A young man full of hope, I like to think as I look at the picture now. But I don't see much hope. His eyes are in shadow; it's hard to determine if this is the result of a bad photocopy or a bad photograph. Maybe Sam had already discovered his new country wouldn't be his land of milk and honey.
I thought the form might be all we'd need to get Sam his Social Security card. It had his name and his picture on it, and it was an official government document. What could be better identification than that? And Sam still looked the same. He was older, balder, and heavier, but there was no question he was the man in the picture.
We went back to the Social Security office, filled out another application, and waited in line. I don't remember if it was the same woman at the counter, but I do remember the answer: They couldn't accept photocopies, only original documents. "Do you really think immigration is gonna give us the original?" I asked.
That same day we filled out form I-90 and got Sam's photo taken. He reminded me that he'd twice before filled out an application and paid for a replacement green card but the card had never arrived. I didn't see any other option, except maybe that lawyer on Montrose, so we went downtown one hot morning to stand in the long line at the INS.
I brought a check along in the amount of $75 to pay for the green card. We'd been warned that the U.S. government--at least the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States Department of Justice--wouldn't accept U.S. currency.
It took about four hours to get up to a clerk and then about three minutes for the clerk to process the form and take my check. That was almost three years ago. The check cleared my bank account, but the replacement green card has yet to arrive.
As luck would have it, I picked up a lawyer one day while I was driving a cab. When she mentioned that she specialized in Social Security matters, I told her about Sam's problem. She suggested we go back to Social Security and apply for benefits. Chances are we'd be denied, she said, but if benefits were granted later they would be retroactive from the date of application.
On June 25, we once again walked over to the Social Security office. I told Sam I thought that retroactive benefits might help him. He wanted to move back to Yugoslavia, or more specifically Bosnia, as it was now generally known. If he got six months or a year of benefits in one lump sum, he'd be able to buy his airline ticket and still have a nice nest egg when he arrived. He had a brother living there, he said. Though he hadn't talked to him or heard from him since leaving in 1961, he was convinced this brother was still alive and living on the family farm.
At Social Security we filled out the form requesting benefits and then were led to a desk in a back office. The hearing officer was tall and broad shouldered. He looked at the Social Security form and then at the copy of the immigration form with Sam's picture on it. I volunteered that I'd worked with Sam for years and I knew he was who he said he was. The man asked why Sam hadn't applied earlier--he would soon turn 63. We explained that he'd lost his Social Security card and we couldn't get a replacement.
The hearing officer stood up, left the room, and came back with a photocopy explaining how to get official records from various countries. He circled the listing for Bosnia and Herzegovina; it said birth, marriage, and death certificates could be obtained by writing to the public registrar's office "in the town/village in which the event occurred." The cost was $1 in dinars.
While we studied the photocopy, the examiner fiddled with his computer, then a printer kicked in. He tore off a sheet of paper. It showed Sam's earning history from 1961 to 1990, when he'd dropped from the books for good. He'd made $422 the first year and $280 the last. His biggest year was 1979, the year we met, when he earned $6,863, plus whatever he made off the books.
In 1963, his second full year in the U.S., he made $4,512, which was pretty reasonable money for the time. But in 1982, '88, and '89 he made no money at all, at least no money that was reported to Social Security. In 1977 he made $52.80. Most years he made at least a thousand or two, but in six of the years listed he never even reached a thousand. Though Sam mostly worked off the books, there were probably employers who took out taxes yet never bothered to report his income to the government.
Sam expected to be questioned about how he'd managed to get by, but the hearing officer never asked. He told us Sam was right at the cutoff line for the July check but he would process the application as soon as possible. If Sam didn't get a check in July, he would get one in August.
We managed to keep straight faces, thanked the hearing officer, and walked out to Western, where we were soon skipping along the sidewalk. Sam had a huge smile on his face. His benefits would be $373 a month. That may not sound like much, but Sam could live on it. And if he took it back to Bosnia, he could even live fairly well on it. It came to $4,476 a year, which was more than Sam had made officially in all but two of his years in the U.S.
About ten days later the mailman rang my bell. I went down and opened the box and there was the first check. Sam used my address because he bounced around so much. At first I'd tried to talk him into direct deposit, which was what Social Security suggested, but Sam knew he'd have problems. "I got no ID, Clark. No bank give me money."
At the time Sam was working in a building on Grace, employed by a guy who bought buildings and remodeled them, usually into single-family homes. His job was to strip everything down to the studs, leaving only the outside walls, the roof, and the foundation. He did this with a crowbar, a large screwdriver, a hammer, and a shovel.
The place on Grace was the biggest building Sam had stripped. The developer was turning it into condos. The best part about the job was that Sam got to work alone. No boss, nobody looking over his shoulder, nobody telling him what time to start or when to quit. He worked at his own pace.
He'd found the job by accident years before, when he spotted a guy standing on a sidewalk swearing at a vacant building. Sam asked him what was wrong, and the guy explained he was stripping the building but having problems getting the old floor up. Sam told him to come back in an hour, and when he did Sam had the entire floor up. Sam once tried to explain to me how to roll up a wooden floor. I never understood the process, but I was sure he was telling the truth. It sounded a bit like stowing a 12-foot magnesium ramp by yourself.
After that, the developer hired him to do all his stripping. It might only last a month or two a year, but Sam could make that money stretch.
He got paid $300 for every Dumpster he loaded. Cash money, no taxes. And Sam did the job right, even though it cost him money. He'd stack the lumber neatly, so he fit as much into a Dumpster as possible. He gave the radiators away to alley pickers. If you were his friend and you wanted anything, it was yours for the taking. I took an almost new refrigerator (Edison later blew it up with a power surge), a sink, a door with a full-length mirror, a cabinet, some cleaning supplies, a mop and bucket, paint from the basement, and some other odds and ends.
I found Sam working in the basement on Grace. There was another guy there too, a homeless guy I sometimes saw around the Sulzer Library and Welles Park. He was squatting naked on the cement floor, taking a shower with a garden hose. Sam led me outside. "He's embarrassed," Sam said. "He sleeps in the park. I give him a little work."
I pulled out the check and Sam took it. "Clark," he said and fell silent. He opened the check and looked at it before putting it back in the envelope. He went into the basement and returned with two cans of pop. We sat on the steps and talked for a while. Sam was hoping his green card would come soon, because then he could return home.
"I don't live too long, Clark," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I can feel it right here," he said as he put his hands to his chest. "Maybe two, three years, that's it."
"Oh, come on, Sammy."
"It's OK, Clark," he said. "It's OK. I live enough. I just like to get back home for a while."
"You'll be a big shot over there with all this money."
"Not too big," he said, and then he smiled. "But big enough."
As I got up to leave, he said he wanted to buy me a present for helping him. "It's OK, Sammy," I said. "You don't owe me anything." I reminded him of all the things I'd taken from the building.
A few days later he called and asked me to stop by. When I did, he handed me a hundred-dollar bill. "Sammy, you don't have to," I said and tried to give the money back. But he wouldn't take no for an answer.
For weeks I went around telling everyone the story. The punch line was always the same: "So they won't give him a Social Security card, but they'll give him $373 a month for life! Isn't that wonderful? Isn't the U.S. government a trip?"
The guy Sam should have bought a present for was that hearing officer at Social Security. It's only while writing this that I realize how easily he could have said no.
Sam picked up his next check, which came right on schedule on August 12, the second Wednesday of the month. Once again the mailman rang my bell, a nice touch, like a call up the stairway: "Check's here!"
In September the second Wednesday came on the ninth; Sam called and then came over to pick up the check. In October, he called me on the seventh, which was the first Wednesday. I told him that the check wouldn't come for another week. I remember he had a hard time understanding why the check would come on the ninth one month and on the fourteenth the next. He also told me he'd quit his job. The developer had wanted him to strip the heating pipes from the basement, but they were wrapped in asbestos. When Sam refused to do the job, he'd argued with the boss and quit.
"Blood money," I said, and we both laughed.
"I see you next week, Clark," Sam said. That was the last time I heard from him. The check came on schedule, but Sam never showed up.
I went out of town in early November, so I put the check inside a plastic bag and tucked it behind my storm door, which was the plan we'd agreed on. But when I got back to town, the November check was in my mailbox and the October one was still in the bag by the back door.
I put all the paperwork from immigration and Social Security on the bookcase with the two checks. Together they totaled just over $750. A month later I added another check to the pile.
Around Christmas I called 311, and they told me to go to the police station and fill out a missing persons report. I went to the 19th District at Belmont and Western, and a guy behind the desk told me to call 311.
"They're the ones who sent me here."
All the cops in the station agreed that 311 didn't know what the hell they were talking about. One of them gave me the phone number for missing persons.
I called the next afternoon. I didn't know where Sam had been living, I had to admit. Somewhere around Montrose and Hazel, I thought, but I didn't have an address. I told the guy on the phone that I was sure Sam was dead--there was no way he'd leave this kind of money sitting around. I just wanted to find out what had happened. He ran Sam's names through a computer and told me that no death certificate had been issued under either Sarac or Zihnija. He offered to send an investigator out to take an official report.
I thought that would be a waste of time.
If no death certificate had been issued, Sam was probably at the morgue, an unidentified body. But when I called the medical examiner's office, they said they had no one by either name and no unidentified white males. It was late on a Friday when I made this call, and it occurred to me they might have been trying to get off the phone.
I kept intending to go to the morgue in person. I'd been told there was a "Death Book" that had photographs of all unidentified people. Someone also gave me the name of a missing persons investigator who worked for the medical examiner's office, but I never made the call. Months turned into years and the checks kept piling up.
I found out just how smart some of my friends thought I was. "Jack, whatever you do, don't cash those checks."
"Really?" I'd say. "Why not?"
"You could go to jail."
"Oh, I don't think so," I'd scoff. "I mean, my name's on them."
"He's gotta be dead," I told one friend, and she reminded me that I'd thought the same thing once before, when Sam had dropped from sight for a year or two.
"I didn't have all his money back then," I replied, but she was right: I had thought he was dead once before. He was just that kind of guy.
I felt guilty, but obviously not that guilty. He was a friend, I told myself--the least I could do was find out what had happened to him. I tried to excuse my inaction.
Was he my friend? What did I know about him? Not much, really. We'd spent a lot of time together but we hadn't talked much. I'd probably said "Let's go get the sofa" a couple of hundred times. And he'd probably shouted "Turn it, Clark, turn it" more times than should have been necessary. But I don't remember much else beyond small talk, and even that was a problem because of his difficulty with English. I knew about his brother in Yugoslavia, and I thought they'd had a falling out. But I don't remember if Sam actually had told me that or if it was just something I had decided by myself.
I thought Sam had never found a place to call his own. If he'd ever got ahead, he might have written to his brother and sent some money back home. But he never got ahead. He wandered from one low-rent dive to another, from one hard physical job to another, barely scratching out an existence. Only once do I remember him talking about a woman in a serious way.
I knew he drank too much. Not every day, but he went on long benders. When a doctor at Weiss Hospital told him he would die if he kept drinking whiskey, he switched to beer. I always thought he was older than he actually was. When I first met him in 1979, he was 45. He looked 60.
A few months after my father gave me The Man With the Golden Arm, I quoted from the book in a high school paper. Algren referred to the "great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one." Years later, these same words made me think of Sam:
"These were the luckless living soon to become the luckless dead. The ones who were fished out of river or lake, found crumpled under crumpled papers in the parks, picked up in the horse-and-wagon alleys or slugged, for half a bottle of homemade wine, in the rutted tunnels that run between the advertising agencies and the banks....
"When thirty had gathered together, resigned to their fortunes at last, the
merry county carpenters would come with bright new pencils behind their ears, black lunch buckets in their hands, nails in their teeth and Social Security cards in their pockets to make thirty clean pine boxes. Thirty stiffs in a whitewashed basement room, heavy with disinfectant in place of flowers, listening, with an inscrutable disdain, to the cheerful ringing of happy hammers and the pleasant talk of living men....
"When the boxes were ready and paid for the We Haul Anything Cartage Company would send around a moving van which fancied itself a hearse. The driver wheeled the dishonored dead out to Elm Forest, where a county sewer digging machine excavated a trench long enough to hold thirty boxes, no more and no less. Over that single trench, in a cemetery like a forgotten battlefield, the inevitable and inimitable mimic, with the Holy Book in hand and hat held to the side out of respect to his modest fee, would say a few words--all holy--over these unholy dead."
I began working as a mover in 1973. "Why don't we ever use that old truck?" I asked one day, pointing to a van that never seemed to leave the back corner of the yard.
"That's the grave truck," somebody said, and then told me why it was called that. This was how I discovered I was actually working for the company Algren had dubbed "We Haul Anything Cartage."
After a year of asking I persuaded my boss to let me go along on one of the trips, which happened about every three weeks. So I spent part of a morning at the morgue, helping a moonlighting fireman named George load 30 clean pine boxes into a rental truck. (After the old van finally died, the company decided it was better to rent a truck for this particular account.)
I got a complete tour of the morgue, from the decomposing room to the autopsy tables, and then we took the ride out to a suburban cemetery to unload all that remained of 30 people whom no one wanted. Most of them were older white guys like Sam. Many of them had died in the same Uptown neighborhood where Sam lived.
The minister never arrived the day I took the trip, and the sewer digging
machine dug a trench only 15 boxes long--county paupers were now buried two deep. But other than that everything went pretty much as Algren had described it almost 25 years before. George and his brother who held the job before him
had already filled up the cemetery Algren had called Elm Forest.
After we dropped off the truck, we stopped for a couple of beers. "To wash the poison down," George said. "You'll still be smelling the morgue tonight. I don't know if it's in your lungs or what. But every once in a while you'll get the odor of that place. As soon as I get home I take a shower and change clothes, but I still get that smell. I don't know if it's in your mind or what."
I couldn't shake the smell for days. I told friends the next time I went to the morgue I planned to be one of the customers.
I had 30 checks stacked on my bookcase last month when I decided to go to the county clerk's office instead. I went down to the basement of the county building, filled out a form, and paid seven dollars. They told me the search would take about 45 minutes. I walked around the Loop. It was a cool, windy day, and all my old hangouts were gone. I finally settled for the Borders bookstore at State and Randolph, where I killed time thumbing through the mysteries.
When I got back to the county building I went to a counter and gave the clerk Sam's name and showed him my receipt. He went away and came back with a death certificate, which he slid across the counter. "This your guy?"
"Sam Sarac, Male, October 12, 1998," the top line read. Under the date of death was his birthday, "July 04, 1935."
I told the clerk, yes, it's my guy. "Thanks."
I stopped in the corridor to take a better look. He'd died in Weiss Hospital, where he was an inpatient, at four in the morning, five days after I'd last talked to him. The cause of death was listed as "Septicemia due to or as a consequence of Acute Meningitis." "Days" was written in a box asking for the approximate interval between the onset of illness and death. "Seizure, Atrial Fibrillation" was written in another box asking for "Other significant conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause."
At the very bottom of the death certificate, the funeral home was listed as the Office of the Medical Examiner. The cemetery was in Homewood. Potter's Field.
The certificate was filed on December 30, 1998, a few days after I'd talked to missing persons, which explains why they couldn't find a death certificate. But why hadn't the morgue known he was there?
I'm a block from home when an ambulance pulls up in front of the corner bar and grill. Not surprisingly, I know everyone in the place, which hasn't yet opened for the day. "What happened?" I ask.
"A guy took a header," the bartender says as he pantomimes someone diving. "Boom!"
I look out the window, where paramedics are working on an old guy who's sitting up with his back against the building. He's bald and skinny. His shirt is open, and his chest is heaving. He doesn't look familiar.
"I feel so bad for him," the waitress says.
"Why?" the bartender asks.
"Because he's old and he's bleeding and..."
"He'll be OK," the bartender says. He sounds like he really believes it. The waitress turns and walks away.
The paramedics load the man onto a stretcher and wheel him to the ambulance. A fireman washes down the blood.
I go home and look up septicemia in Webster's: "Invasion of the bloodstream by virulent microorganisms from a focus of infection marked by chills, fever and prostration and often by the formation of secondary abscesses in various organs--called also blood poisoning."
Ten of the sixteen boxes on the top of the death certificate are marked N/A.
But they must have talked to Sam, I realize. They got his birthday right, and the only ID he carried was a photocopy of that immigration document that listed it wrong. There's a Social Security number, but it's not Sam's. It's close, but a couple of numbers are wrong. Sam must have been in bad shape if he couldn't remember a number he'd had memorized for almost 30 years.
The next day I called Marilyn, my old codriver. She'd often worked with Sam. "Oh, that's too bad," she said when I gave her the news.
We talked for a while, and she said, "The thing I remember most is how sweet he was. He was always giving me a little special attention to make sure I wasn't picking up anything too heavy. I also remember that whenever he wouldn't come in Jerry would have a fit because he would never call. And I remember you saying, 'If he's coming he's always here early. So what does he have to call for? If he's not here when you open the door, he's not coming.'"
"I forgot about that."
"What are you going to do with those checks?" she asked.
"I don't know," I said.
"I hope you're not going to give them back to the government."
"It has crossed my mind," I admitted.
"Give them to me," she almost whispered. "I'll return them for you."
A few days later I go to Weiss Hospital. In the basement is a door marked Health Information and Recorded Services. I show the woman behind the desk the death certificate and ask for information about Sam. She goes away and comes back with a supervisor. I repeat my question.
"Are you a relative or legal guardian?"
I shake my head. "I'm just a friend."
"I'm sorry," she says. "There's nothing I can give you regarding that patient."
"Do you know if he was brought in by an ambulance or..."
"There's nothing I can give you regarding that patient."
The death certificate lists 851 W. Wilson as Sam's address, but there's no building with that number. The Department of Health's Uptown Neighborhood Health Center is at 845 W. Wilson; 851 would have to be the corner of Wilson and Hazel. Maybe Sam walked up from where he was living, somewhere around Hazel and Montrose, and collapsed on the corner.
I call the cemetery. Would it be hard to find a particular grave in Potter's Field?
"We could show you the general area," a woman says. "But call before you come. I'll have to find a card on him and get someone who's familiar with county burials."
"Do they still bury them in a trench?"
"It's a mass burial," she says. "Our men go down and pick them up, and we have a minister that comes."
"If I wanted to get him reburied somewhere else, is that possible?"
"If it's over a year they won't do it. They're just buried in wooden boxes, so they disintegrate with the elements and all. They're not in grave boxes. They're not in vaults. There's no way they'll go past a year."
She asks me for Sam's name. "OK, let me see if he's here," she says. "Hold on." She's back in a minute. "Yes, he was buried March of 1999. So it's two years."
"He died in October '98," I say.
"They do hang on to them, waiting for family. And a lot of times we have family come out here."
I call the morgue and talk to Mike Boehmer, an administrative assistant. "I don't have an exact count, but we do about 300 burials a year, something like that," he says. "About 30 at a time."
I remember that 25 years ago the moving company did a trip about every three weeks. "It hasn't changed much," he says. "It's about every month."
He tells me about the Memorial Ministry for Indigent Persons. "This W. Earl Lewis approached us about starting this service. And first we said, 'OK, what scam are you running?' We thought he was looking for money. But he really wanted to do this thing for people.
"At first, they did a memorial every six months. But then Earl Lewis died. I know they've had one service already, but I don't know if it's gonna continue, now that he's dead. He wanted it to continue. He died a year or two ago, and they buried him out there. He wanted to be buried in Potter's Field.
"You know, it's not the worst place in the world."
I could go out and place flowers on the grave, and, I suppose, say a prayer. But after taking 30 months to find Sam, it would seem a little hypocritical.
I never even would have looked for him if those checks hadn't kept coming like
persistent taps on my shoulder. Sam would have been just another in a long line of people I've lost touch with. If I'd thought about him, I probably would have decided he was dead one day and home in Bosnia the next. I'd have wondered if he ever paid me back that last hundred, or how he managed to put that heavy walkboard away without help.
Anybody who lives long enough can compile his own list of people he once knew. Move two blocks and half your acquaintances might disappear. Move from the west side to the north and you'll find yourself in a different world. Big cities are nothing like small towns.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Fitzpatrick.