It’s Monday, 7:15 in the morning, and I am waiting for the bus to take me to my first job. I just graduated high school and I have a sense that this morning begins a new phase of my life – working life.
More people arrive at the bus stop. I must have narrowly missed a bus. I am familiar with the Archer Avenue bus, the only direct route downtown for me, but I had never taken it during a workday. On weekends I always had a seat. As the crowd grows I realize that my chances of finding a seat evaporate. I am standing precisely where the bus would stop on a Saturday morning. To my left expectant passengers are now lined up along the curb for a number of yards.
Minutes pass slowly, but then two buses appear, one right behind the other. The sight of the buses stirs the early morning commuters and some began to scurry down the block to enter the second bus. I stand my ground, though I feel the pressure of people on both sides and even behind me. The light turns red and rush hour traffic brakes. A car blocks the bus stop and my primo position immediately becomes worthless. Before I can make a move, those around me push me in the direction of the open bus door.
Gaining entry into the bus doesn’t relieve me of the press of bodies until I gain a position near the rear. Now I realize I am immobilized – clutching onto a strap above me with one hand while the other, holding my lunch, does double duty as I manage to extend a finger, or two, to steady myself on the metal handle of a seat back. There is no way to retrieve my paperback from my back pocket.
The bus, over-crowded as it is, ceases to be the weekend bus I know. It has been transformed into something more like a boxcar filled with animal stock. Or rather, more like a shipping container taking its contents to rendezvous with jobs.
The bus is built like a tank with only narrow slits on the sides to serve as windows. How different were the old red electric trolley cars I road on as a kid. They had huge windows and I could sit on the cane seats legs stretched out in front of me and easily peer out at the world. Kids on these buses can’t do the same because the windows were too narrow for them see out of while sitting. They have to stand precariously on the seats and, of course, get yanked down by fearful parents. While I looked forward to rides on the trolleys, that certainly can’t be the case with the kids on these buses. They must hate bus rides.
It’s already pretty warm and humid – a typical summer day morning – and a bit of breeze refreshes. Thankfully, many of the narrow windows are open, or to be precise, half open, as only one panel is adjustable and can be slide back over the other.
Despite the heat, the crammed quarters and the jolts of the bus ride, most people seem to have mastered the art of reading a paper while holding onto either a seat back or a vertical pole or the overhead leather straps (luckily I can reach those). Being a novice in this lumbering shipping container on wheels, I have to concentrate to maintain my balance as the bus heaves and lurches its way through traffic. I have nothing else to do. I try to look out the window slits but given the angle of sight while standing all I can see are the roofs of cars or the pavement. This was going to be a miserable half an hour I tell myself.
To pass the time I drift into reverie. On my previous solo trips downtown, in the last years of elementary school, I had a window seat to see the passing scene. It may have been unnoteworthy to an adult, but to a kid, it was fascinating. The Archer Avenue bus quickly passed a commercial area with the occasional store window to peer into and entered an industrial stretch that continued for most of the ride, until the last ten minutes which was desolate, filled with junk-strewn empty lots, crumbling brick storefronts and bedraggled and grimy hotels . At one time, these structures may have been semi-decent housing but they now served as hovels for derelicts. As the bus entered the Loop from the south one had to pass through this Skid Row. The anticipation of going downtown, despite the last few minutes, never waned. In fact, I marveled at the change of scenery more than got depressed viewing it. I accepted the grittier parts of Chicago as just the way things were.
Not all of Chicago I traveled through felt like a dour tour through a gigantic, partially dilapidated industrial plant. My bus trip to high school, in contrast, took me through a tree-lined parkway system and passed stately apartment buildings and majestic mansions. These grand dames had seen better days. When I passed them, half-century past their prime, they had been sub-divided by greedy landlords and appeared shabby and badly in need of more than cosmetic repairs. But there remained, hidden under the gauze of neglect, enough beauty in these structures to imagine their original elegance.
For me the city had a variety of landscapes to offer. I lived near a park in one direction and, in the other, a block away from an area of empty lots waiting for development by small manufacturers. Since that land abutted the main rail corridor on the Southside, it was not prime real estate for housing. No one seemed to want it for any use however, and so for us local kids it became our urban prairie, the site for clubhouses, forts or trench warfare, especially in winter when snow provided all the artillery needed for battles.
It was only many years later that I realized that we neighborhood kids had an “adventure playground” – a free-ranging space for creative play, pretty much designed and constructed by us and what we could scrounge from around the small industrial district nearby. There was always a ton of discarded wood, paper, plastic sheeting, boxes and storage cans, metal shelving – the list was endless. All of it magically repurposed for our play.
My jostling bus ride continues this morning and so too my reveries. I recalled my first visit to the Loop. The Loop is the popular name for Chicago’s commercial and financial center. The name derives from fact that an ancient, wooden track encircles the downtown area at the second story level. A local train, coming from the Northside, rattled and shook the structure every few minutes.
I was five years old when my mother took me to see the Christmas Parade. Being a small child in a crowd can be a major disadvantage, but not for parades. Children are afforded front-row access to enjoy the spectacle. From my privileged position at the curb, I had a close-up view of the magical event: wildly decorated floats, like islands of colorful Christmas ornaments, drifted by. And elaborately outfitted marching bands, in lock step, blared away on their impressive assortment of horns, and gaudily costumed dancers (actually cheerleaders from various high schools) followed the bands twirling batons and high stepping. Even though it was winter, the frigid temperature couldn’t hamper the merriment. It came as close to a Brazilian carnival that frostbit Chicago could pull off.
After the parade, we went on a grand tour of the shopping palaces along State Street, the major commercial street in downtown Chicago. We took this tour each Christmas for the next few years and it was always the same: we began at Marshall Field’s, at the north end of State Street, and proceeded south on our way to the elevated tracks that crossed State Street to board the Archer Avenue bus back home.
Our tour was like a trek through the American class structure made material by the three department stores we visited. Marshall Field’s was the most ostentatious – a block-long castle of consumerism. Before we entered to warm up, we viewed the street level windows. Each window was like a picture book fairy tale transformed into three dimensions. Some windows featured life size, exquisitely attired mechanical dolls performing simple turns and bows to better display a cornucopia of toys. Other windows revealed Santa’s elves methodically working away at work benches creating toys. And of course, in the main window near the grand entrance to the store, like a monarch from a snowbound land far away, there was a mechanical Santa himself resplendent in his huge white beard, curls of long white hair trailing down from under his red cap and his red cheeked face in perpetual laughter. He rocked back and forth, his large hands grasping his enormous stomach, as if he would burst a gut. A Christmas Buddha.
We entered Marshall Field’s through the rapidly revolving door as if a vacuum sucked us in and a split second later we were in the midst of an awesome atrium six stories tall and half block long, decorated with a cascade of wreathes, large blinking Christmas lights and red and green ribbon descending down from the balconies above. Looking up, I saw enormous silver chandeliers suspended as if from heaven and, under all the sparkle and holiday glitter, marble and polished wood peaked out all around us.
We made our way through the grand main floor, to climb the stairs for a better view over the railing. Above us, four more stories with identical railings circled the atrium. This was by far the most stupendous building I had ever been in. By comparison our parish church, not a small structure itself, and the largest I had ever been in, could fit inside this building with ease. This was indeed a palace to shopping far more impressive than the house of worship I knew.
I hurried along in tow by my mother past display cases with watches and jewelry, past the shoe department and past radios and furniture, and beautifully attired manikins everywhere, before winding up at Santa’s village. It seemed like a high rent district for sure. Santa sat in an enormous chair within a kind of grotto of fake ice and snow. And elves entertained the kids in the long line waiting to tell Santa what they wanted for Christmas. We didn’t get in line. In fact, on the several trips over the next two or three years, I never got to sit on this posh Santa’s lap to tell him what I wished for. My mother’s excuse for discouraging me to wait was the long line, but maybe the fur coats of the mothers intimidated her. She always wore a cloth coat, except on Sunday when she wore her Persian Lamb coat.
There was no way to quickly leave Marshall Field’s – its enormous size prevented a speedy exit, but eventually we got back into the cold weather and walked a few steps down State Street and into another department store. This one, Carson Pirie Scott & Company, had a more elegant exterior than Marshall Field’s, designed as I discovered much later by Louis Sullivan, the “father of skyscrapers” as historians noted his claim to fame. The interior, though overwrought with crystal chandeliers, was far less impressive to me.
The last store we stopped in was Goldblatt’s. Goldblatt’s, the name says it all. Compared to the previous stores this place looked threadbare, despite the Christmas trees and wreathes and yards of red bunting draped all over. This was the only store my mother actually shopped. And it was here that we made our way to the more modest Santa village, devoid of elves, where I got to sit on the proletarian Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas – a train set, a dump truck (I had seen a big steel one someplace) and a cowboy six-shooter. The usual toys a working class boy dreamt of.
My bus finally enters the Loop on State Street and begins disgorging passengers. I leave the bus near the end of the line and now I have a to walk six blocks West along Randolph Street. I am early for work and return to my memories.
My holiday trips to the Loop continued for a few years until I resisted the routine and I didn’t return to the Loop until my last years in elementary school. It was then that I began to explore the Chicago Public Library downtown where books I wanted were stored.
The library surpassed my early impressions of the Loop as commercial splash. The thick granite exterior of the library had the imposing stature of a Greek temple. The grandeur of the building extended to the inside, because after climbing the imposing stairs to the entrance, I encountered an even grander staircase inside. I stood before white marble steps fifteen feet wide. And each riser too short for easy climbing and each step deeper than average. Ascending these giant-like stairs heightened my sense that I was visiting an ancient temple on my way to a shrine. Half way up the stairs the sight of a dome appeared forty feet above. Busts of the great philosophers encircled the room near the dome and peered down on the occupants below. Above the busts, a band of color framed the dome with quotes inlaid in green marble against the white. If Marshall Field’s was a spectacular showcase for commodities, here, at the central library, I was in an awe-inspiring sanctuary of knowledge.
Huddled in the middle, dwarfed by the empty space, stood not a shrine, but the brain of the library – the card catalog. It consisted of several rows of yellow-orange, twenty-five feet long wood cabinets holding many drawers. Alternating between them were rows of high tables. The tables served as resting places for the extracted card drawers, each a yard long. The cards where 3” x 5” with a small hole near the bottom of the cards so that they could slide on a metal rod that ran the length of the drawer. Each drawer contained hundreds of cards – one for every book in the library. Some so worn and weary from the long service in the pursuit of knowledge that they practically collapsed when they were shuffled past in search of a card behind.
While thumbing through the cards, to be inspired by the titles of books, was entertaining, I preferred slipping into the public stacks to find books. And here too, the library provided a sense of awe. To access the stacks one walked upon a glass floor, with the metal shelves arising from the floor below. The glass floor allowed light to stream into the stacks and alleviated the sense of claustrophobia that, I am certain, would have driven some patrons out in horror. Delving into the stacks was an adventure of serendipitous discovery, with chance as my sole guide.
No building in Chicago had greater impact on me than the Public Library. It was so perfectly appropriate for its honorable task – making available the range of human intellectual endeavor. The only structure that equaled its imposing presence was the Auditorium Building, another Louis Sullivan masterpiece. This magnificent structure, unlike Sullivan’s other buildings, had an exquisite location across from the lakefront park. In the mornings, it took the full brilliance of the sun as it arose from Lake Michigan to illuminate its beige orange stone facade. I didn’t enter the building until much later in my life when I attended Roosevelt University. In the late 40s, the dissident faculty of Chicago’s Central YMCA College, in rebellion against institutional racism, sought to create a progressive college and purchased the building. After 40 years of service as Chicago’s premier music venue, it had been abandoned when the Civic Opera House was built in 1929 and fell into disrepair for decades. The idealistic faculty, when they weren’t teaching classes, cleaned, repaired and painted their desolate queen of a building.
I am about half way to my job when I realize that I am passing a building where, three years earlier, I encountered books that the Library did not shelve.
During high school, weekend excursions into the Loop grew rare, but come the summer I explored the offerings of the public library more thoroughly. My frequent visits to the Main Library served as a prelude to venture beyond the blocks adjacent to it. I always preferred weekdays for my summer exploits because I enjoyed the liveliness of the sidewalks and streets. The near mayhem of lunchtime always intrigued me.
On my first such stroll up the street from the library, I found a large multi-story bookstore, where, several years later, I worked for six months. On subsequent walks I explored a few more bookstores, but what really intrigued me were the used bookstores I discovered. (I will return to this subject of bookstores, since not only did I work in one, I co-founded one.)
During the second summer of my explorations in the Loop, I came across one book store that made a great impression on me. While walking in one of the lower rent areas amongst older office buildings, I noticed a small sign near the entrance to one of these wilted structures: “Books, Second Floor.”
I thought it was odd that a bookstore would be on the second floor. I opened the door and entered a charming marble and wood lobby that hinted at a more prestigious past that belied the aged exterior. There were only two elevators and across from them, along the wall, a wooden staircase showing considerable wear with a finely designed wrought iron railing that carried its age well. I had been in a number of five or six story office buildings to recognize this arrangement as a customary feature of the period. On the wall at the foot of the stairs was another relic of the age: a small, embossed metal sign of a hand with the word “Books” and an extended index finger pointing upwards.
On the second floor, I found myself in front of a door with a large rectangular frosted glass window. My eyes focused on the gold leaf letters that spelled out a surname with an apostrophe “s” afterwards and a word I was unsure of. As I hesitated, a little unsure of opening such a prestigious door, it opened and a man exited carrying a parcel. Seeing me there, he left the door open and as I peered in, I realized immediately what the “Antiquarian” written below the gentleman’s name on the door meant. I sheepishly entered what I imagined was a kind of museum for books and maps, except I presumed they were all for sale. That someone could take these ancient books that I imagined must cost a fortune to their home amazed me.
I gazed up and around the large room lined with heavy dark wood shelves extending up to the ceiling. In one corner I saw a ladder attached to a rail at the very top of the shelving, like the kind I remembered seeing in a comedy silent film. In that film, the rolling ladder was in the library of a stately residence. And here I was in a nondescript old office building standing in a room that could have been extracted from a similar mansion and wedged into place on the second floor of this building. The lower shelves held tall, thick-spined leather tomes. Tomes – a word I knew but had never found a reason to use. Before me were large tables which held glass cases containing enormous books opened to illustrations of birds, flowers and plants, all in beautiful, subdued washes of color. Other tables displayed ancient maps. Spellbound by this incredible sight, I was shocked to see an elderly man sitting off to a side at a huge old desk with a roll down cover. It too belong in silent movies I had seen.
I expected that the caretaker of these precious specimens would turn to me and snarl, “get out of here!” I purposely adverted my eyes from him to avoid what I feared – eye contact with an angry face. Of course, I didn’t touch a thing and inched my way quietly towards the door and realized, as I approached it, that it remained open. Undoubtedly, the man bent over at the desk was oblivious to my presence amongst his treasures. This made me even more nervous, but just as I was about to escape, another man entered the shop and closed the door. The door boomed and my eyes darted over to the desk and, sure enough, this had prompted the elderly gentleman to rise and approach his new customer.
The old man must have thought I came in with the fellow he was greeting. Without a second thought, I very slowly press down the handle (yes it has a handle like a latch, not a knob) and eased out like a mouse. Once in the hallway, I closed it as quietly and scrambled down the stairs to the street, my heart pounding. As I turned to see if someone was pursuing me I noticed that the sign I first saw that said “Books” had the same surname above along with “Antiquarian” as appeared on the glass door upstairs. I had not tied all those words together. I’m not sure I would have ventured up the stairs if I had realized I was not going to a used bookstore. And if I had actually climbed the stairs and faced that frosted glass door with the gold lettering, would I have entered? Very likely it all would have intimidated me. I was thirteen years old after all and had no idea what antiquarian books were and felt like I was trespassing into adult territory.
By chance I was ushered into a world of books that I had no idea existed beyond photos or engravings in regular books. I stood before tomes more than a hundred years old, I thought to myself. In fact, some were much older than that. I never returned. What would I do if I entered that sanctuary again? I couldn’t buy anything and I didn’t know enough about books then to enter into an intelligent conversation with the gentleman bent over his antique desk. For me it was enough to see these books and know they existed. Not like saintly relics, removed from everyday life, but as historic, material testimony to the knowledge contained within. They were vessels. But vessels that, because of their size, the beauty of their exteriors, the covers and bindings, and exquisiteness of their interiors, the illustrations and the type, impressed me more than the content.
I have come, with age, to balance the value of the content and the container, but I still interrogate the container first. And if disappointed there, I thread warily into the content. I hardly knew when I exited that antiquarian book dealer’s room, I would have a lifelong love of the art of bookmaking and play a modest role in the production of a few of them.
I arrive at the address where my job is waiting, but I am early and so I take a walk around the block. I am at the far west end of the Loop, in fact, I had to pass beyond the elevated tracks to get here. This is the light industrial part of town. The buildings look like old office buildings but they are no longer filled with office workers. The people presently working in these buildings work at tasks that support the offices. The small repair shops and the various sales and service centers that keep the battalions of clerks supplied with everything from paper clips to smooth functioning elevators.
Curiosity has sent me down these streets on several of my summer excursions, but I found this area of the city boring. Occasionally, a ground floor door would be open, to coax a summer breeze, and reveal a machine shop, or a clock repair shop or an office equipment sales office, but mainly all the work being done here was behind doors and shaded windows. What was happening on the upper five or six floors often remained a mystery to me. A name of a company at the entrance, many times, revealed no trace of its reason to exist. Seldom would a sign mention the type of company along with, I presumed the founder’s name, like Pauls’ Office Furniture Repair and Sales, or Fouty’s Electrical Services. These gritty, nondescript red brick buildings, unlike the diverse, and, in some cases, spectacular central downtown blocks, seemed to melt into a sort of anonymity. An anonymity that cloaked the workers who left these premises to enter into the world of the office to repair a device or to deliver a package.
After several summer trips into the Loop, however, the adventure of exploration ceased to excite me. And I began to see that the bleakness of the small manufacturers district to the west of the Loop stood on a continuum and was not an anomaly in an otherwise vibrant environment. The more I visited the Loop the less did I marvel at the energy of the place. I was amazed the first time I saw a large office building empty of animated clerks piling into local eateries for lunch. After witnessing this eruption of conviviality for a few times I recognized that their lively chatter erupted like carbonation from an uncapped bottle. Lunchtime provided temporary relief from a morning of stress that would be revisited in the afternoon with less dread since half the workday was in the can.
Accompanying the periodic rush of people, there was the ongoing horde of cabs, delivery vans and assorted trucks barreling down streets in one direction until a traffic light turned and a similar horde accelerated up another street. The vehicles and the crowds were like a giant mechanism churning away. But signifying what? The noise, the pollution and the frayed nerves increasingly repelled me. Visits on Saturday, with quieter streets, began to appeal to me.
What did continue to attract me, beyond the hubbub, were the buildings. Chicago led the industrializing world in architectural wonders at the end of the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth and though I was unaware of much of that history, I still appreciated the facades, lobbies, galleries, bookshops and the one movie house that showed foreign films. But it was a smoke shop, squeezed into a narrow storefront that drew me back with each trip to the Loop, though I hadn’t become a connoisseur of cigars or of pipe tobacco. I had passed this niche emporium of nicotine many times without realizing that it had a large selection of magazines in a back, in an area wider than the entrance. Of course, the addiction being pervaded besides tobacco was porn. However, the area was so large that all sorts of magazines were displayed including to my surprise a varied selection of European magazines, poetry and literary journals, and most amazingly, an incredible spectrum of radical political periodicals.
I discovered this treasure trove during the summer before entering my junior year and, at first, I bought a range of US magazines from newsweeklies to archeology until I discovered a jumble of radical political literature packed into a bottom corner of one of the massive magazine racks. I had to literally get on my knees to paw through the Communist Party pamphlets, smack up against the Trotskyist papers that in turn vied for space with the anarchist literature from England and the pacifist Catholic Worker paper. Methodically educating myself reading this literature took many months; the same months that coincided with the rise of the Cuban Revolution. When Castro triumphantly entered Havana, I was already an anarchist.
Completing the circuit of the block, I now stood at the entrance to my first job.