Backroads: Chicago edition

By December 27, 2010

Seasons greetings from the heartland.

My father died two years ago, a couple days before Christmas. Since then I’ve been spending more time here in suburban Chicago with my mom.

I’ve just dropped my wife at Midway Airport on what will soon become a beautiful, Chicago day-after-Christmas. I’ll return home later in the week.

As experienced holiday travelers, we left mom’s house even earlier than normal this morning, expecting a crazy airport scene.

The sun’s just now coming up behind the snow and clouds as I exit Midway.

This place always reminds me of my dad. Like me, he was headstrong. We disagreed on many things. Many of our warmest embraces over the last 20 years happened here, during my arrivals and departures.

Beyond the security gates, where the expectant families await their loved ones, I still look for him instinctively. My mind’s eye sees the broad smile engulf his face when he spots me, and feels the ensuing bear-hug.

There was little of that sentimentality when he died. There was so much to do.

As the city wakes up on this post-holiday Sunday morning, the roads are slick and thankfully still uncrowded. Not even the churchgoers are out yet.

Leaving the airport, I slip into a reverie. In spite of the inclement weather I decide to take the cross-town surface streets rather than the faster, better plowed freeway back to the western suburbs.

There’s no rush today. Mom got up early to see us off, but she’s back in bed. Mornings are hard on her.

My route will take me several miles down 55th Street, a primary east-west commercial artery on Chicago’s legendary “south side,” the birthplace of urban blues and the home of Bad Bad Leroy Brown.

The neighborhood I’m driving through might have been his home. It oozes character. Once mainly Polish, it’s now an ethnic smorgasbord, as evidenced by roadside businesses.

Joe and Frank’s Homemade Sausage anchors the old school, but the newer businesses define the neighborhood’s evolving ethnic makeup: Chivon’s Afro Braiding, Dino’s Pizza, El Patron Burritos, Sammy’s Jerk House.

Most charismatic of all are the neighborhood taverns, each inviting in its own boozily unglamorous way. I’m surprised that none are open, despite the time and day.

The neighborhood is a standard Chicago urban formula consisting of dense middle class homes on parallel streets, fronted by busy perpendicular commercial arteries.

My reverie is interrupted by a hardware store parking lot that triggers a powerful memory. The recollection washes over me like a warm tropical surf.

My father would often take this same “back way” home from the airport to avoid the freeway traffic and, of course, the toll plazas. On one such trip, with me in the passenger seat, he spotted an elderly Polish woman, a “Babushka,” he called her, trying in vain to cross 55th Street.

The road at this point is a dangerous mix of four-lane, high-speed commuter traffic with on-street parking, side streets and parking lots. Crosswalks are far apart. Between them it’s not a friendly place for pedestrians, especially the “Babushka” variety.

Nonetheless, there she stood, hunched over her cane, shopping bag in hand, her thick, ankle-length cloth coat and requisite headwear blowing in the jetwash of each subsequent wave of careening traffic, released in torrents by some distant upstream traffic floodgate.

He had just enough time to swerve into the parking lot behind her. There he encouraged me, in his way, to play Boy Scout and assist said Babushka across the street.

I am shamed to admit that I protested the idea, arguing that crossing this busy street from where she stood would be dangerous and foolish for both of us, and that she should walk down to the corner, some corner, and avail herself of a crosswalk.

The old women ignored us, and continued to stare into the oncoming traffic, taking hesitant and potentially lethal steps into the street, only to retreat frustrated when the next automotive onslaught approached.

Sensing my father’s intransigence, I relented, got of the car and attempted to engage the old woman. My advance only heightened her agitation.

The neighborhood was, after all, a dangerous place. It would get worse in subsequent years, as she and her kind moved on, or were run over on 55th Street.

Her confused expression hinted that she didn’t understand me or my intentions. After some universal gestures of assistance on my part, she nodded in agreement and dutifully took my procured arm. That turned out to be the easy part.

The rush hour traffic was unrelenting. We stood for a couple minutes, the traffic descending on us like unleashed Mongolian hordes.

My father was a man who believed in the validity of instinct, a man of bold action. I looked back at him from the curb and saw his patience waning. With an upflip of his wrist, he motioned me into the street.

After the next thundering automotive cluster blew past us, I ventured into the street, pulling my compliant companion slightly behind. I stood tall, walking sideways beside her to be as visible as possible.

We’d just entered the second of four lanes when the next stampede approached. I stopped, stood facing the cars and held my free hand up, doing my best crossing guard imitation.

Thankfully, the drivers read the situation and slowed. We proceeded.

The exercise was repeated as we shuffled though the two eastbound lanes. Once again, they slowed to a stop without complaining.

Through it all, my fellow traveler stared at her feet, wordlessly stoic and trusting, or perhaps praying. When we finally achieved the opposite curb, she turned to face me, took my hands in hers, and broke silence.

“Gott bless… Gott bless” she repeated, each utterance accompanied by a nod that started at her neck and reached her waist.

The ensuing sensation felt spiritual, like a full immersion baptism or an intimate reunion with a loved one. It was good. Real good.

I assured her that “Gott” had little to do with it — although now I’m not sure — and pointed at the man in the Hundai across the street.

He waved. She gave one last deep nod. I sprinted back to the car with wings on my feet and thanked my father.

Now my mind is fogged by the lingering memory as I continue down 55th Street in the snow. I cross the 1911 Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal, which once contained raw sewage. My father once dangled his little sister over it from a bridge by her ankles.

East of the canal the neighborhood becomes industrial. I pass the huge Electro Motive diesel assembly plant which has employed tens of thousands of blue collars over its 50-year existence, a still functioning symbol of Chicago’s manufacturing past.

Farther on, I enter the western suburbs, leave 55th Street and encounter a stretch of black ice. A car has run off the road, buried fender deep in the snow.

I’m past it before I can pull over safely, but in one of those “what would dad do?” moments I decide to double back.

Six minutes later, emergency flashers throbbing, I carefully pull over and wade up to the car, shins breaking the snow crust, and find a woman busily texting. I get her attention with the universal circular wrist motion.

Her window glides down an inch. She tells me a tow truck is on the way. The window is back up before she gets the last word out. Her attention returns to the tiny screen. No Gott bless this time.

I exit the field and kick the snow off my boots when second Samaritan-in-training pulls up. “Tow truck’s on the way,” I report. “She’s just fine.”

So am I. Hope this finds you in the same condition.

Happy holidays. Thanks for reading the Village Life and Mountain Democrat this year.

Mike Roberts


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