Uptown Girl

Old pics from the neighborhood. Window to the right is the one I climbed out of getting away from Big John.

Old pics from the neighborhood. Window to the right is the one I climbed out of getting away from Big John.

While living in Chicago with mom and Melvin, we lived in the heart of Chicago Gaylord Nation; the Lords of Sunnyside and Magnolia. We had what you call a front row seat to all the action, misfortune and crime. The Gaylords are known as being one of the oldest white street gangs in the city of Chicago. It was a very rough neighborhood in the 1970’s and that’s putting it mildly. Shortly after moving into the neighborhood, while walking to the corner drugstore to buy mom a pack of cigarettes, someone was walking behind me throwing rocks at me, just barely missing me as they skidded past my feet. Thankfully, they missed. Scare tactic I’m sure. I never did turn around to see who it was. I was too afraid and in fear that I would get my ass kicked if I acknowledged them. Whoever it was, surely thought it was a welcoming to the neighborhood no doubt.

One late evening, I was being walked home from a date with my boyfriend, Bill. We were walking down Wilson Avenue and just made a right onto my street Magnolia. Bill lived on Hermitage off of Wilson and thought it would be a straight shot to walking me back home. We were about a half block away from my apartment building when suddenly a group of guys came out of nowhere, walking very close behind us. Taking a brief look behind me, I noticed they had boards and baseball bats, slapping them into the palm of their hands, hard and with intimidations, making sure we heard every loud crack of their threatening intentions. Neither Bill nor I reacted to their hostility which, for some reason, was obviously directed toward us. Surely, it was a few of the Lords protecting their territory as we just entered their home turf on Sunnyside and Magnolia. They were making their presence known. Bill was not known there, as he never hung around the neighborhood. The gang could tell that he didn’t belong and could have easily started things up. Luckily, the Lords never carried through with their threats. Perhaps, they recognized me, knowing that I was Steve’s sister and lived in the neighborhood, just doors away, therefore leaving us both alone. The next time Bill walked me home; we decided to walk down Montrose Avenue instead, stopping at Mr. Jazz for a shake. For Bill, chocolate chip mint and for me, a banana shake, with a real banana in it. There was even one time where the Guardian Angles themselves walked us home, making sure that we arrived safely to our destination. Yes, it was rough living on Magnolia and Sunnyside, a.k.a. Gaylord Territory, which is now the home of a CPD blue light camera watching every move that is made.

Being surrounded by gang members in the neighborhood, my brothers would hang out with some of the kids from the gang. Ironically, they never tried to recruit them. I guess after a while they realized that my brothers were more into school and sports than being initiated by a gang banger. Over time, my brothers were accepted into the neighborhood by the Gaylords and weren’t hassled, which meant the trouble makers left me alone as well. We were good kids; we weren’t looking for any trouble.

Not being able to travel too far from the neighborhood, we mainly stuck close to home. We would gather up a team and venture one block west to the empty sandlot behind Beacon Street, where we would play softball. As Steve tossed the bat, and as hand went over hand to see who would choose their first team member, I was always picked within the top three. Either I was that good or my brothers felt sorry for me. My brothers and I, along with a few neighborhood friends would absorb ourselves with a few games, playing until the sun was setting low enough, taking the light away from the game. I was a straight up Tomboy to say the least. There were really no girls to hang out with so I just hung out with my brothers and their friends. I had more boy in me than Rue Paul! If we weren’t playing softball, we were playing pinners up against the apartment stairs or fast pitch in the Stockton daycare schoolyard. We would also hang out at Truman College when it was first built and had many football games there behind the school. I did get into the occasional wrestling match. My brothers and I, along with our friends, would play tag team wrestling in our front yard. I remember losing a tooth that way once. One of the guys elbowed me directly in the mouth and out popped my tooth. Tossing my hair into a ponytail, I would wear tennies and gym clothes and wrestle with the best of them. Eventually, when I had enough of being a Tomboy, I’d go into the house and change my wardrobe, only to come strolling out all decked out wearing a short dress, pantyhose and four inch black platform shoes that women today would kill for! I wanted to show the boys that I was also a young lady, dainty, proper… with a missing tooth!

My neighborhood back in the seventies was mostly low income people; nothing short of being a bunch of hillbillies and some being low white trash. The kids were always playing in the streets, dirty, wearing no shoes, and climbing the wooden light poles just to see how high they could go. You either worked for daily pay or you were on welfare, mom and Melvin included. It seemed as if every southern soul from Arkansas to Mississippi, all the way from Tennessee to Kentucky were living on the same block as I was. I never heard so much southern twang; almost thought it was a prerequisite just to live in the neighborhood. It also seemed that every kid on the block had a combination of two first names; Roger Dale, George Lee, Brenda Gayle or Bubba Junior. They should have renamed the street that I lived on from Magnolia to Hillbilly Hell. The adults were tough and the kids were even tougher. It appeared as if there was always a fight breaking out between kids, gang bangers or someone getting their ass kicked, which, unfortunately, at times, involved me.

Nobody liked the quiet kid, especially in school and, because I kept my mouth shut, did the work and showed up every day for class, teachers would take it upon themselves to use me as an example, not realizing that they just stamped, “Kick My Ass” directly across my forehead! They would always ask me to do special tasks to help them out; erasing the board, passing out those wonderful smelling ditto sheets that everyone sniffed the moment they held them in their hands. I was always asked to help. This was known as Teacher’s Pet and nobody, absolutely nobody, liked the Teacher’s Pet. I couldn’t tell you how many times I got picked on at recess or got my ass kicked after school by big black burly girls. They enjoyed the extracurricular activity and I just happened to be their main hobby. I was getting bullied so much, that it was getting to the point where my teacher had to let me out of school five minutes early before the dismissal bell would ring, just so I could get a head start at getting home. Clearly feeling sorry for me, my teacher would stand on the school stairs at Stockton Elementary, just off of Montrose Avenue, yelling at me to, “Run Jackie Run!” I’d run down Montrose Avenue so fast that I felt my shoes slapping me in my rear end with every mad dash I took. Finally making it home, I felt safer. Little did my teacher know that the girls who would kick my ass lived on the same block, directly across the street from me. So, if they didn’t catch me after school, then they caught me while playing outside. I was never the type to fight back. I was submissive, as I stood there while they took their pokes at me. I think they were waiting for me to fight back, giving them the opportunity to really let me have it. But, I always stood there watching them, with their nostrils flaring up with every tormenting breath they took, and their eyes that were so big they looked like they were going to pop out of their skulls. Poke, poke, poke, they did until they had enough and decided to torment the next poor kid. I would tell mom that girls were bothering me, but all she would tell me to do is stay away from them. Yes, sure, that seemed easy enough. Eventually, as I got older, I hung out with my brothers and their friends, playing softball or fast pitch. It was then that I was finally left alone and not bothered anymore. Having friends in that neighborhood that liked you was tough!

Another current event that would always happen in my neighborhood was the fires. It seems that apartment buildings were always getting torched to the ground, including two of the buildings that I had lived in. I’d hear the fire trucks blaring down the street and wonder which building is burning now, hoping that it wasn’t my own. However, I always found it amazing that one building in particular on the block never had a fire. This was the tallest building on Magnolia toward Wilson Avenue. It was years later that I realized that the building was never torched because all the pyromaniacs who set all the fires to begin with lived there. Wouldn’t be wise to burn down your own building, now would it? In 1976, one late evening, one of the buildings we lived in on Magnolia was set ablaze. At the time, I was in seventh grade and getting ready for another summer vacation, waiting for the school year to end. I had dreamt of fire, only to wake up with smoke filling our apartment. I woke up my family, telling them that something was burning. Fortunately, we lived on the first floor and it was easy to get out of the building. Unfortunately, there were two other floors above us and others wouldn’t be as lucky. As I was leaving to run outside, I took a quick glance at the stairwell, only to see them engulfed in flames; almost memorizing as I stood there watching the orange flames lick the ceiling and staircase, making their way down to the main floor. My family made it out in front of our burning building and waited for the fire trucks to arrive. I see other family members coming out of the same door. Knowing that they lived on the upper floors, I couldn’t understand how they made it down to the first floor and out of the building. It was only moments later, after seeing them, I realized that they walked right through the flames to escape. Some tenants jumped from the second floor, ending up with broken bones, as they knew they couldn’t escape any other way. A mother was severely burned from her waste up. She ran out of her apartment with no shirt on and you can see her breasts starting to blister up and skin peeling away from her body. Her two young sons were badly burned, as well. Their hair was almost gone and the skin on their scalps had melted. We were all in shock. It was months later when we saw them again, their bodies healing and full of scars, trying to recover from this horrific ordeal that they went through just months before. The mother had scars all up and down her arms, breasts and back and, sadly, her sons reflected her image, wearing baseball caps to hide their head and faces. On the evening of the fire, there were news crews covering the story and Red Cross was handing out blankets to stay warm. Sitting in the Red Cross van, I was afraid, terrified, wondering where we were going to live. It was a three story brick building and the two top floors were badly damaged. It was reported by the news that the tenants on the second floor were having a late night party and certain individuals from the outside wanted to attend, but the tenant of the apartment declined their proposition. Therefore, these individuals threw a Molotov cocktail through their second story window, directly above us, causing the apartment to be instantly engulfed in flames and spreading through the whole second floor and eventually to the third. Many lives were scarred that night… literally and figuratively. I thought we would move, but it was decided that we would stay in the building. My mother and Melvin had nowhere else to go and had no money to do so. Eventually, the building was in the process of being renovated; surely, a health hazard, not to mention against the law, especially with three young children still living there. There was no electricity in the building and, eventually, it was being pumped into the building via the light poles in the alley. There was a lot of water damage and smoke damage to everything we owned and a lot of our things had to be thrown out. We had no gas for cooking. The smell of burnt wood was horrible and it permeated everything in the apartment. I was finalizing my days at school, wearing the same clothes that were in the fire and that had been permeated with smoke damage. We had no washer or dryer to wash our clothes. I would spray my clothes down with perfume from Avon so that my clothes wouldn’t have a stench. But, I know they still did, if not making my clothes smell worse. Surely, my classmates realized something was wrong. I did confide in my best friend, Donatta, that my building had a fire and we had no gas to cook nor did we have any clean clothes. Upon hearing this, Donatta and her mother, Nada, brought my family over shopping bags full of clean blankets, sheets, towels, and even an electric frying pan so that we could at least cook some meals. I’ll never forget looking out the window, watching as these two angels got out of their car, with bags full of items for us to use. What a beautiful and unselfish act of kindness. I will never forget this for the rest of my life. Because of Donatta’s kind gesture and concerns, my family and I were able to stay warm and at least have a couple of warm meals. As life always does, we managed to move forward with this tragedy and, eventually, the building was rehabbed, allowing us to continue to live in this apartment building for at least several more years thereafter. The neighborhood experienced many buildings that went up in flames, some from neglect or vandalism and others just for profit, leaving many families homeless if not dead.

Years later, we eventually moved from the building that was set on fire into another building just a few doors away. It seemed as if we always lived on Magnolia, on the east side of the street, never venturing to live anywhere else. Mom and Melvin agreed to manage the apartment building that we moved to for a reduction of rent.

There was a husband and wife tenant who lived on the second floor named Big John and Barbara. They called him Big John because he was well over six feet tall. He was a good looking man, gentle and somewhat on the quiet side. He reminded me of a greaser, with his black hair slicked back. His wife, Barbara, was petite and quite as well. We got to know them, as we would occasionally chat while sitting outside on the front stoop. One summer afternoon, mom and I were in our apartment when we heard a huge bang above us, followed up moments later with someone knocking on our door. Not knowing what to expect, I stood behind mom as she went to see who was at the door. There, standing before us, was Big John, who also happened to have a gun in his hand. Recognizing what it was, it scared me and I immediately took a step back. Very politely, he asked my mother to please call the police, as he said that he just shot his wife, Barbara. Suddenly, my body felt sick and numb and my instincts took over. I wanted to leave, but Big John was standing in our door way and with a gun in hand. There was no way out. I didn’t know what he was capable of or if he was going to continue shooting. I was beyond scared. Luckily, we lived on the first floor because it was at that point that I decided to climb out of the front window and slide down the building into the front yard, getting far away from Big John. I stood back, close to the curb, waiting for the police to arrive. Big John also made his way outside and stood in front of the building, as he, too, was waiting for the same visitors to arrive. It was then that I decided to cross the street, keeping my distance from him and his gun. Moments later, the police showed up and were entering our building to speak with mom. They didn’t realize that the man they were looking for was standing outside, right there in front of them, while still holding is gun. Once the police officers realized they walked past the man they were looking for, they went into action, drawing their guns, asking Big John to hand over his weapon. Within minutes, he was handcuffed and taken into custody. Meanwhile, his wife was still sitting on the second floor landing, bleeding all over the place from a gunshot wound that went through her right upper arm and directly into her side. An ambulance was called and they took Barbara to the hospital for emergency treatment.

I thought that that this was the end of the nightmare and that it would make a great story for everyone to share that evening while sitting on the stoop. But, I was wrong, as my mother instructed me to get a bucket of pine-sol and hot soapy water, along with a mop. At first, I didn’t understand why, but it soon became apparent that mom appointed me to be the cleanup crew and scrub the blood that was draped all over the stairs and carpet from when Barbara was sitting there earlier that day. I expressed to mom that I didn’t want to clean up the blood and that I wouldn’t know how, or what to do, but that didn’t seem to matter to her. Again, she commanded me to go get the bucket of water and clean up the stairs. I went to prepare the bucket and grabbed the mop and slowly made my way up to the second floor. The mop was huge and heavy; almost too big for a ten year old to handle. It was awkward and cumbersome to hang onto. I stood before the pool of blood that now resembled a bowl of firm Jell-O. Blood begins to coagulate once it hits the open air, thickening and becoming firm. Dipping my mop into the bucket of water, I rung the wetness out by hand and took my first swipe at wiping up the bloody mess that lay before me. It was like mopping up a large jar of red paint that broke open onto the floor, smearing from left to right, creating even a bigger mess. There was a lot of blood on those stairs and the mop just wasn’t able to absorb all the blood at once. Rinsing the mop out by hand several times, I watched as the blood ran through and over my fingers and back into the bucket. The strength of the pine-sol had burnt my nose, stinging my upper sinuses, and making my eyes water. Mom told me to make sure that it was all up from the stairs and, in particular, out of the carpet. I got sick to my stomach, along with having the dry heaves from the smell and the appearance of me smearing the blood from one end of the stair to the other. Eventually, I did manage to get enough of the blood up so that it wouldn’t stain and my mother was satisfied. I was very upset with mom and that she made me clean up what should have been an adult’s responsibility, her responsibility, anyone else’s responsibility except for her own young child. To this day, I can’t stand the smell of Pine-sol, as it takes me back to this moment in time where I was trying to scrub someone else’s blood from the floor.

I have gone back to the old neighborhood since these awful days and, with every trip I make, over forty years later; I find that it is always changing for the better or at least trying to anyway. The changes in appearance are tremendous, seeing how much it has transformed since we lived there so many years ago. Starbucks on the corner of Magnolia and Wilson, along with a gourmet bistro appropriately called, Magnolia Café. Buildings have been gutted and renovated, turning once cockroach and gang infested apartment buildings into beautiful, gorgeous condos, with their neatly manicured lawns and newly designed architectural structures that are going for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The last building we were burnt out, the same place where bloody Barbara sat waiting for help, has since been torn down and is now a beautiful park for the neighborhood and their families to play and spend time in. Today, as you hear the children’s laughter filling the air and as the parents push their young children in the swing or catch them as they come slithering down the slide, they will never know the horrors that this  particular spot once held for a young child back in the seventies, who not only endured, but survived being that Uptown Girl.

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