Part Seven: Nobody Owes You a Living | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Part Seven: Nobody Owes You a Living

A Serial in 12 Parts


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One night in the winter of 1937, a man named John Galambos stayed out late at his favorite tavern. John was a Hungarian immigrant who'd worked most of his life at a German-language printing press on the north side of Chicago; he'd married the boss's daughter and had ultimately inherited the family's three-story brownstone on Sacramento Avenue. The tavern was one of those corner places that were scattered through the residential neighborhoods of Chicago. It was a dark storefront on an elm-arched side street and was marked by a small neon sign in the window. Such signs were like the magic words in fairy tales--Blatz, Pabst, Hamms, Schlitz. The tavern's interior was dank and somnolent. The regulars nodded at the bar like shaggy toadstools; for whole evenings, the only noise might be the buzz of a boxing match on the radio. John could spend hours there undisturbed, alternating beer and peppermint schnapps.

That particular night he exited into a snowstorm. The sidewalks were deserted and the windows of the brownstones were dark. He launched himself across Irving Park Road in the middle of the block, and had almost reached the other side when a car came roaring out of the glittery murk and hit him. He landed in a bank of ice and snow between two parked cars. Fresh snow gradually covered him over. In the morning, somebody noticed the weird shape in the snowbank and the frozen blood trailing down toward the pavement. The driver of the car that killed Galambos was never identified.

His widow Eva couldn't bear to stay in Chicago. She moved to Arizona to live with her sister, and the family brownstone passed to John and Eva's daughter Mary and her husband Clarence Sehnert--my grandparents. They had been living with their children on the southwest side, near the airport where Clarence worked, but Clarence gladly accepted the commute to and from Ravenswood for the chance to be a home owner.

Clarence and Mary had three children: my mother Dorothy, my uncle Bob, and my aunt Nancy. They knew every side street and alley in Ravenswood and absolutely nothing about the city beyond. The family did its shopping at the big commercial district at Belmont and Ashland, and on summer nights rode the streetcars down Western Avenue to Riverview; the kids went to double features at the movie palaces on Kedzie, and drank their phosphates and root beer floats at the drugstore fountains on Lawrence. Dorothy doesn't remember ever going as far from home as the Loop before she was a teenager.

It was a world wholly enclosed by the low, steeple-spiked skyline. Within its maze of ancient brownstones the kids played jump rope and jacks and stickball beneath endless corridors of elms; the leaf canopy was so tightly interwoven the streets were like twilight at high noon, and Dorothy remembers you could walk for a block during a summer thunderstorm without feeling a raindrop. Everywhere the kids went they were watched over by an unobtrusive network of neighborhood monitors: flocks of clucking hausfraus and idle men sitting in front of lodges and social clubs. Anybody odd or unknown or threatening would set off warning bells in bakeries and cafes and butcher shops and brauhauses all over the north side.

The Sehnert home was gloomy and stifling. Clarence and Mary kept it as it had been in her father's time: overstuffed furniture and tasseled lamp shades, prints of Hungarian country scenes on the walls and a row of painted beer steins on the mantel. Nor was it livened by Clarence and Mary themselves. They were stern parents, neither unloving nor indulgent. They expected obedience from their children and they got it; they didn't much care about child rearing otherwise. Dorothy says she can't remember a single time in her childhood when her family did anything relaxed and companionable, even sit around the kitchen table and laugh.

Clarence had become a diffident, secretive man. He took over the basement and turned it into his workroom, and he spent every available moment hidden away there, carving or drilling or lathing or sanding. He was never happier than when he was fitting together the dowels of a rebuilt chair. He was affectionate towards the children at times, but his affection tended to emerge in oblique and ineffectual ways. One autumn he disappeared from their lives entirely, only to reemerge at Christmas with a gift from Santa: a fantastically carved miniature zoo where they could keep all their toy animals. When he was present he tended to be taciturn and abrupt. He thought his main duty as a parent was to enforce Mary's orders. To this end he manufactured a series of handmade paddles for Mary's use in disciplining the children--and long afterward, when the children were all grown and married, he presented each of them with a paddle for the disciplining of his grandchildren.

Mary was quick-witted, hot-tempered, and unsympathetic. Her ideas of parenting boiled down to "Spare the rod and spoil the child" and "Children should be seen and not heard"--maxims she would repeat with firmness and immense good humor, as though savoring the misery they caused her kids. But she was also determined that they be intelligent and literate. She bought a set of classic illustrated novels and required them to read chapters aloud to each other every night. They made their halting way through Treasure Island (their favorite) and Northwest Passage (a bore) and Howard Pyle's King Arthur (too hard to read, but the illustrations were magical). Sometimes Clarence hung back in the doorway and listened, and though he'd never read a book in his life he found himself rooting for Jim Hawkins and sneakily admiring Long John Silver.

Mary enjoyed laying down the law to the kids about what the world was like and what they should expect from it. "Nobody owes you a living," she was fond of saying. "It's a cold world out there." She was nominally Catholic--at least, she took the children to mass every Sunday--but she had no interest in Christian doctrine and was particularly scornful of the idea of charity. "Anybody who'd take a handout," she'd say, "is the lowest of the low." During the 30s she regarded the swarms of homeless and destitute as object lessons for her children: the trash-can scavengers and the somber-faced sleepers in the parks were layabouts who'd brought their troubles on themselves.

But that's not to say Mary was cold. She and Clarence were furiously passionate about each other. This made them the subject of endless gossip around Ravenswood. Everybody watched them with a kind of astonishment, as though there were something unnatural about a husband and wife so much in love. Even their children shook their heads about it 50 and 60 years later. They'd always known they weren't even in the running for their parents' affection. Dorothy says that all her life when she thought about a warm and loving family, she pictured the house in Edwardsville.

This was their annual expedition: as soon as school let out for the year, Clarence and Mary took the kids down to Edwardsville and left them there for the summer. They invariably set out right at dawn on a day in early June. By midmorning they were out of the city and headed southwest on Route 66--the great "mother road" that cut diagonally across Illinois and swept on through the heartland and the southwest to California. In those days it was notorious for its awful traffic. Wrecked and abandoned cars were heaped on its shoulders; the billboards were so thick on either side that the landscape for miles at a time was blotted out. Sometimes they'd top a rise and see nothing ahead but a motionless, hooting double column of cars, trucks, buses, and tractors stretching through the wind-ruffled fields out to the horizon.

They never reached Edwardsville before dark. There was always a big party to welcome the children for their summer stay, with the whole neighborhood invited. But Clarence and Mary were usually so restless to get back on the road they wouldn't even stick around through dinner. Today, asked where her parents went, Dorothy expels a long, slow sigh and says, "I have absolutely no idea." Nancy laughs and says, "God knows."

The first sound the kids heard in the morning was the squall and squeak of the hand pump just outside the kitchen door. Hilda was beginning the day by drawing a bucket of water. The kids lingered in bed, watching the leaf-dappled sunlight spread across the ceiling and seep down the floral wallpaper. More sounds came to them: skillets banging, the cat-hiss sizzle of melting butter, the clunk of plates on a tablecloth. And meanwhile muffled voices were rising from the master bedroom--Agnes and Helen were awake and quarreling. Then Hilda barged into the room and demanded to know if the kids were going to lollygag in bed all morning. Breakfast was a hurried affair because Helen was always running late: she barely had time to gulp down the scalded coffee and tear apart a sweet roll smeared with Hilda's peach preserves before she was out the door. Then Agnes settled in her rocking chair, Hilda began clearing the kitchen table, and the day began.

They always thought of Hilda as the perfect surrogate mother. She was constantly fussing over them, cooking special treats for them, thinking up games for them to play, and assigning them chores if they made the mistake of looking bored. They'd all sit in a circle in the shade of the backyard on the hottest days, peeling peaches for preserves or snipping green beans. Sometimes unlucky neighbors would get roped in, and Hilda would come bustling out with a tray of lemonade glasses before clucking with disapproval over their sloppy work.

Every Saturday afternoon she'd drag a big galvanized tub into the middle of the kitchen floor and fill it with buckets of hot water boiled on the stove. She'd watch over Dorothy and Nancy as they scrubbed, and offer peremptory commands for places missed (she withdrew discreetly to the backyard when it was Bob's turn). The next morning she'd dress them for church and pinch them for the dirt they'd managed to accumulate overnight. "Being around her," one of my relatives remembers, "was like drowning in love."

But the kids felt closest to Helen. She was the youngest in the household--only 17 years older than Dorothy. She was much more relaxed around them than she was around adults. She lost all her shyness and joined in all their games. She'd get a sly, crafty grin on her face when she won, as though nobody could know how deep her pleasure ran. She seemed magically attuned to their feelings--particularly when it came to public embarrassment. One summer she taught them to roller-skate by clearing a practice space in the basement, where none of the neighbor kids could see them take a fall. She was also the one who'd uncomplainingly get out of bed in the middle of the night to take the girls to the outhouse, and she'd always sit on the second seat and keep them company. "That was our time for exchanging confidences," Dorothy remembers.

Agnes was more aloof. "Hilda and Helen doted on her," Nancy says, "but none of the kids ever got to know her." She remained on her rocking chair in the dining room bay. If she started up to try to help with something--a pot boiling over, or laundry left on the line as a train approached--Hilda would furiously shush her back to her place, like a mother hen corralling an escaped chick. She did rouse herself once a week for church, which was her main pleasure in life. The preacher was as gnarled as an old oak and his voice was like two branches rubbing together, but Agnes loved the way he'd work up a fury denouncing the enemies of America: Catholics, Jews, Freemasons, and Communists.

Mostly the children were on their own. Each day Hilda scooted them out of the house after breakfast, and they were sometimes out till sundown exploring the neighborhood. They were particularly fond of the landscape along the railroad corridor. Toward town the tracks led past the abandoned coal mine: they sometimes found fresh footprints in the dirt outside or boards pried from its sinister entrance, warnings that hoboes had taken shelter there. On rainy days they dared each other to get as close as they could to the smoldering slag heap, until they could hear it hissing like a nest of snakes. Further on was the brick factory, and around back were huge hills of sand. The sand had been brought by barge up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico, and it sparkled with constellations of seashells. The kids could spend hours there, whooping and yelling and sliding down the slopes until a security guard heard the racket and chased them off. In the other direction the tracks led into the woods. Sometimes the kids could summon up the nerve to venture there. Deep within the trees was the hobo jungle, and if any of its denizens spotted them they'd bolt in hilarious terror, screaming the old jump-rope rhyme "Hobo, hobo, where have you been?"

At twilight the kids would wait by the front fence for Helen to come home from work in Saint Louis. She'd turn the corner bedraggled and weary, but when she saw them she'd immediately brighten and hurry the last few steps home. Sometimes she brought presents for Nancy, the youngest child: doll clothes she'd secretly sewn from the scraps of fine fabric left over from her shift. Before dinner she and the kids would sit together on the front porch and play a game they'd invented called "movie stars." As the twilight sky dimmed, each time a new star appeared someone would call out the initials of some actor or actress, and Helen would have to guess who it was. She proved to be invincible at it. If anyone said "C.G." she seemed to know by telepathy whether it was Cary Grant or Clark Gable.

Then everyone gathered around the enormous old dining table for dinner. Agnes said grace. She always included a prayer for her son Eugene, wherever he was on his travels--that was the only time the kids ever heard him mentioned. After dinner was the washing up, when the kids were expected to handle the towel drying and the placement of dishes in the drainer with solemn dignity. Then Hilda cleared the yellowed linen cloth from the table and everyone returned to their places to play cards. The windows were opened to the night air, and countless moths batted at the screens. Sometimes the kids would hear the first gnawing grumbles of thunder as a big storm came over the Mississippi. By bedtime the rain would be bombarding the roof and hurtling down the gutters and tumbling out into the hedges. Afterward the children would lie awake and listen to the slow return of ordinary night sounds: the rustling of the trees, the sigh and roar of traffic on Troy Road, and the remote thunk of a steeple clock. And sometimes, long after midnight, a long caravan of boxcars and tanker cars and flatcars and hopper cars would come creaking down the tracks, and the house would slowly fill up with an immensity of sound as mournful and comforting as the sea.

Helen always set off to work with a movie magazine in her purse. That was a concession to her mother's sense of propriety: Agnes didn't allow them in the house. (She didn't actually approve of women reading anything; she liked to say that an education never did any woman she'd ever heard of any good.) Helen waited until she was on the train before turning to the latest: whether Bette Davis or Paulette Goddard would get the lead in Gone With the Wind, or whether Ruth Etting would be able to escape her disastrous marriage to that shady New York mobster Moe the Gimp.

The train took her through the industrial zones and working-class neighborhoods east of the river, then across the wide, barge-crowded water into the smoke of Saint Louis. She worked at a succession of high-end dress manufacturers in the garment district. She didn't bother to keep track of them. Her loyalty was to the union and she didn't care where they sent her. Sometimes she got lucky and spent a long spell in a modern, federally approved factory, the kind with ventilation and sunlight. Even better was one with big windows that could be opened to the air on sweltering summer afternoons. Other times she was consigned to purgatorial ovens with bolts of fabric in mountainous heaps and air thick with floating threads and tufts of cotton.

But in any case she always returned home each day so tired she could barely move. After dinner she would sit at the dining table, listening to the radio and dealing out game after game of solitaire. The radio was in the parlor, so she would listen to it through the open door: the parlor was reserved for guests and she never felt right sitting in there by herself. She liked soap operas like Amanda of Honeymoon Hill and Mary Noble, Backstage Wife--anything where the heroine was long-suffering and where happiness stayed out of reach.

Then it was bedtime. She settled in each night next to her mother. Agnes was a heavy sleeper and often snored; Helen tossed and turned through the night, seething at the noise Agnes was making. They wore heavy nightgowns even in the summertime; on all but the coldest mornings they woke up sweaty, miserable, and snappish. Before Helen left for work she combed out her mother's waist-length hair. Agnes submitted with bad grace. She used the time to denounce Helen's attitude. Helen had a knack for getting on Agnes's nerves. She seemed to know just which brand of patent medicine would be most exasperatingly wrong, and which brand of soap most stung the skin, and how to put off errands until the last nerve-racking moment before the stores closed. Helen listened submissively, but when Agnes went on too long she'd fling the comb against the wall in a fury and stalk out of the room.

Her life had no obvious opportunities for adventure. But over the winter of 1939 she met someone. Nobody in the family ever knew his name. He was just a man who struck up a conversation with her at a Sunday evening church dance, where she had gone to keep Hilda company. A week or two later she bumped into him again when they were standing in line at a movie theater. And a few days after that, they met for lunch surreptitiously in Saint Louis, at a drugstore counter amid the tumult of the noon rush. They looked prim, shy, and uncomfortable, for all the world like a minister and a church secretary discussing an awkward detail regarding the next week's service. But for Helen it was the most exciting moment of her life, because he was married.

Somehow Agnes found out. Maybe Helen had let something slip to Hilda, who then turned around and informed Agnes on her. Or somebody in town spotted them, and the word came to Agnes over the back fence with the laundry-day gossip. In any event it roused her to a fury no one had seen in years. She confronted Helen and told her to break it off immediately. Ragingly defiant, Helen said she and her beloved were going to be married. Agnes said she would never agree, and she told Helen it was a daughter's duty to obey her mother. Helen, attaining a clarity of anger that Bette Davis or Joan Crawford might have envied, swore that in that case she would never again mention men or marriage as long as she lived.

Things went back to normal after that. Helen resumed her daily commute into the city. As each day's shift began, she bent over in her long-familiar hunch of pain. Her back ached, her legs cramped, her shoulders creaked in their old agony, and the tendons in her hands were aflame. Then the roar of the sewing machines drowned out every thought in her head.

Next week: War Fever.

Previous installments are posted at

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