This is the first in an occasional series on Chicago’s West Side, where John Fountain grew up.
I’m so West Side I can remember the new morning song of birds, spilling sweetly through my second-floor bedroom window after a serene city night uninterrupted by gunfire.
I can still taste the fresh morning breeze. Still touch childhood memories of splashing through an icy, gushing fire hydrant amid a cacophony of joy on a hot summer’s day. Still — after all these years — feel West Side love.
I’m so West Side I remember the music of the Isley Brothers, “drifting on a memory…” The smoke of backyard grills across K-Town, billowing into sun-drenched blue skies, the aroma of barbecue ribs teasing seductively.
I remember when brothers on the block waxed their cars on Saturdays. Their stereos blared as they polished until metal and chrome glistened brighter than spit-shined shoes.
I remember Holland’s burger joint on Pulaski and Roosevelt Roads. The “Peanut Man” who sold two-for-one penny candies on the steps of the dry cleaners on the southwest corner of 16th and Pulaski.
The Peanut Man’s face was chocolate and leathery. He wore a pleasant pearly wide smile as he exchanged dime bags of red-and-white striped roasted peanuts.
I remember the Milk Man, the Ice Cream Man, the Extermination Man and the Watermelon Man. “Wa-terrr mel-l-l-on. Get your fresh wa-ter mel-on!” he crooned as his truck rounded the corner. “Water mellonnn mannn.”
I remember the caged basketball court at the Better Boys Foundation, the A&P grocery down on 19th, and Kuppenheimer on 18th, where Grandpa and uncle Gene moonlighted as security guards.
I remember the Jewish-owned shops that lined Pulaski — how we didn’t have to leave our neighborhood to shop.
I remember the Alex Theater on Madison Street; Smokey Joe’s and Flagg Brothers, where I bought my first — and only — pair of platform shoes (pink); Three Sisters, where my mom and sisters shopped; Woolworth’s… I remember how we had our own thriving shopping center that was the next best thing to going downtown.
I remember slap boxing in the middle of the street, playing Hide And Seek. Johnny Come Across. Mother May I. Red Light Green Light. Playing alley ball on a bicycle rim nailed to a fat light pole until the sun sank — the glow of streetlights our first signal that it was almost time to go in.
I remember boys and girls and our fathers — playing softball in the vacant lot while the whole block cheered as if they were watching the Big Leagues.
I remember when boys fought with their fists. No one got shot. And the air on this side of the tracks ran thicker with hope, faith, promise and community.
I’m so West Side I remember when it felt like it was “us” against the world.
I remember being made to feel, mostly by some South Siders, that we black folks on the West Side were their poor step-cousins. Unsophisticated. Uneducated. Prone to violence. Ugly. Dirty.
Indeed, many years since my West Side exodus, I have, over time, become keenly aware of the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions about my beloved community. I have witnessed documentarians, historians and the like bypass my old part of town as if we are unmentionable, undeserving, invisible, except for an occasional horrid tale of intractable urban poverty of the worst kind.
But we are not invisible. We are not your “American Millstone.” Never have been. Never will be.
There is a richer, fairer, portrait. A fuller story yet to be told by those who once lived there and those who still do. People working to rebuild and restore what’s been lost.
People who — after all these years — still feel and know West Side love.
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