Taking refuge in my apartment is how much of my summer will be spent. When it comes to violence and murder, Chicago has definitely seen better days. With the sexual revolution of the 1970’s came freedom in the bedroom but we raising our inhibitions in every other matter.
“There was a time that you could sleep all night in Lincoln Park under the stars,” mother would say while shaking her head over some rape or murder that was reported. “No one would bother us. Kids could go trick or treating without checking for razors in their fruit. A stranger could give you a ride home. Now look at what things have come to.”
Again, Chicago has seen better days. Unlike myself, mother did not have to worry about being shot by a drive by on a nice summer day.
Yes, better days indeed.
The same goes for the people the citizens of Cook County elect to its highest office. Chicago has seen better leaders in its past.
Or has it?
On the evening of Monday December 20th, 1976, an emergency bulletin diverted my mother’s attention as she prepared my dinner in the kitchen. Our component set radio was tuned to ABC news in the living room where I was playing with my calico cat “Taco”. We had developed a game of chase the Fisher Price person. I would fling the piece across the linoleum – usually the father piece- I always abused him. The cat would chase him to some narrow corner and roll him about. The radio was of no concerned to me. It was only news and for some reason, mother loved to hear the news during the evening. She preferred to receive her daily dose of happenings by radio- as if we failed to possess a television. Never quite understood why she was like that but even at night, we would listen in the dark to old broadcasts of “The Shadow” or another station that played ghost stories.
“Listen and picture what they are describing in your mind,” she instructed.
I would nestle in bed and close my eyes. Some nights, the stories were just as frightening as if they were on television. Others, they would make me go to sleep. I was indifferent. I could take it by sight or sound. But for my mother, something about the sound of the radio satisfied her. She liked to create her own photo-journalistic pictures without help from the restraining eye of the media.
On December 20, 1976 she saw a powerful man- who was either loved or hated -dead on a sofa in his doctor’s office. Her vision needed no assistance. Just the sound words told the story.
I smelled smoke coming from the kitchen. Taco stopped playing with her captive toy. Mother came running into the living room. At first, I thought she was angry with me for not having changed out of my Catholic school uniform but once she kneeled down by the radio, I realized that something bad must have occurred.
The gruff voice on the radio was saying that Richard J. Daley, our mayor, had died of a heart attack in his doctor’s office. He had been in office since 1955–the year my brother was born which was a long time ago. Chicago had lost its father. He was 74.
This is a big deal, I thought to myself. The mayor was the king of the city. His name was on everything from garbage trucks to the big tall concrete apartment building where my cousin lived. A sensation of excitement and fear could be heard in the announcer’s voice. My mother was clearly shaken. Chicago would never be the same ever again and depending upon through what lens one looked at things, that could be a good thing. Daley’s death would herald the end of the ” Chicago Machine“- a system of political patronage and corruption. Dependency upon the machine would be a hard habit for Richard J. Daley’s chicken hearted cronies to break.
Though the impact of the mayor’s death upon my mother was not as directly felt as that of a Chicago politician, I could see that she was having a difficult time processing the tragedy.
“What will I do now?” she asked herself aloud. “I was thinking of paying that old man down at the City Hall to let me sit for a test to be a caseworker.”
Mother had wanted to be a welfare caseworker for sometime. She was convinced that you could only get jobs with the city and state if you knew or payed someone on the inside. Often, her assessment was correct. Nepotism was an essential component of the Chicago Machine. It was about who you know and how much you paid them. Feeding the machine was essential to your ability to rise in social stature on the waves of the mighty “big shoulders”. Your job relied upon it as well as the schools that your children attended- particularly at the high school level. A dramatic sum of cash was not easy for a mid-thirties single welfare mother to come up with.
The following Saturday was Christmas Day but for the city, the death of its King burdened the normally happy day. But for a child, there is very little that can ruin Christmas. Gifts were opened at home and later we rode the bus to Grandmother’s house. Upon entering, I could smell bay leaves and sage. Grandmother was singing, which was not like her at all.
Somehow the holiday was extra special for Grandma. Our visit would later reveal that my mother’s concern about Daley’s death was not a meeting of the minds when it came to the reaction of her own mother.
“The machine is dead!!!” Grandma exclaimed, laughing, chopping celery. She did not have any teeth and had a gummy smile but it was still beautiful . “I bet ol’ Daley is down there with Satan fit to be tied,” she continued. “Fussing about ‘who gonna take my place?Lordy be’ “
“I feel sorry for his family,” mother said taking her seat at the kitchen table. “Losing him during the holiday and all. What family wants to deal with that?”
Grandma twisted her lip and rolled her eyes, “Hmphf!! That man is responsible for more dead men than anyone in the city. Running ’round with mobsters, the likes of Sam Giancana, blockbusting. I don’t feel one bit of sorry.”
“I bet they gonna have to torch his name off every building in Chicago.”
Grandma saw the war against the infamous Machine as one that had been won. The king was dead, lying in state downtown. His loyal subjects were powerless. Without Daley, there would be no machine, no antagonism, no forced patronage. No Irish blue collar thug bosses.
“The machine will never be dead,” mother injected. ” What makes you think that?”
“There are lots of folks that want things in this city to return to the honest way, ” Grandma replied. ” No threats on your property taxes if you don’t vote how they say. That is why I clean homes. I don’t want no part of those city jobs.” Grandmother got up from the table and walked over to her backdoor which led to the porch where she kept vegetables in bins to stay cool. She needed some potatoes and onions. The porch was enclosed and adjoined by a flight of stairs to porch of her landlord Mr. Brown,who lived upstairs.
My mother followed her onto the porch and taunted, ” I bet your perfect landlord who works for the mayor ain’t feeling too good about his job.”
“SHHHHHH!” Grandmother hissed. “Their door may be open.”
Mother continued by whispering “Mr. Brown is always out there ‘Vote for Daley’ -“
“Cause he has gots to,” her mother whispered back. “That is what you have to do when you get them city jobs. Campaign day an’ night for Daley and his peoples or they fire you like Mr. Watson. Even when it comes to the President of United States you had to do what Mr. Mayor say. Vote for Kennedy. Vote for Mr. Johnson. Mr. McGovern.”
Being stubborn, my mother threw her hands and walked away from the porch, leaving the old woman standing there with a handful of potatoes. She returned with a metal stockpot and began taking the potatoes from Grandmother’s arms. Each potato, one by one made a loud clang in the pot.
“Some people do what they have to do momma,” she said. She looked cross. Her mother was often the source of her irritation. She had abandoned her and her seven siblings to live with another man in sin. Despite my grandfather being an abusive ass, mother never quite forgave her mother for leaving her to raise her younger children. “Isn’t that why you scrub the Jews floors?”
Now the Browns were a respectable black middle class family. A complete family. Father, mother, two sons, pet Siberian Husky. No food stamps in that household. They were Catholics, which was rare during that time in the West Side neighborhood. Mr. Brown worked for the city of Chicago. Doing what I cannot exactly recall. He was a black man with a job who wore a three piece suit everyday and for my fatherless butt , that was all that mattered.
Mrs. Brown worked as a nurse at Illinois Masonic Hospital. They owned a yellow Pinto, barbecued most weekends, and shopped at Sears – Roebuck Department Store.
I was insanely jealous of them but expressed my class envy rather positively by inserting myself into their lives at any given opportunity. Running upstairs to knock on their door for nothing. When it opened , I would peek around them to see what sort of furniture they had. This was about as close as I was going to get to a real complete black family.
Every moment with the Brown’s counted towards my “black middle class” patch. A patch I wanted desperately to sew onto my history as if it were my very own life.
I watched them from the Viewmaster of my sagging self-esteem. I could not stop looking at them. They were fascinating because they were not me.
A Brown family backyard cookout was sure to get crashed by Afrocity. I would plop in a lawn chair and sit there watching them eat until they offered me a hot dog. Grandmother would come to the yard and rescue them after she noticed I had gone missing.
“Afrocity stop bothering the Brown’s,” she laughed with a tinge of embarrassment.
“Oh she’s no bother,” Mrs. Brown lied.
Grandmother would steer me by my shoulders back into the house. That was not the end of it. I would continue being psycho kid by gawking at them from porch window. Watching them eat, laugh, playing badminton the entire time they were in the yard until they retreated inside.
My perfect black family.
If they could have fit into my back pocket, I would have never washed my jeans.
Now grandmother’s portrayal of Mr. Brown as a city employee contradicted the image I had of him as a strong black man. He sounded more like a slave to the white man’s machine. Are all black men weaklings even when they do have a job?
Young Afrocity did not know any better but the Chicago Machine ate the balls of plenty of white men as well as Latinos and women. Chicago was no liberal’s haven.
The public librarians, court clerks, dog catchers. Even kids are not spared when you think about the role city politics plays in the control of crime and racial segregation/
My mother was correct. The machine never died. It only went on a short hiatus until one day Richard J. Daley’s son Richard M. would be king. Heir to the Chicago throne.
Chicago just couldn’t quit the Daley influence. Everywhere you look, the name is there again on buildings, signage. Burned in by years of sun and sub-zero temperatures, as if by blood oath:
HERE REIGNS KING RICHARD! LONG LIVE THE MACHINE.
Pity those who question the machine, you may be told to stick a gun up your butt. As King Richard instructed this reporter who addressed his highness about Chicago’s failing anti-gun policies.
Why Chicagoans? Why do you continue to elect this man term after term?
Autographed Letter Signed,