Friday, August 29, 2008
Awhile back I went down the Lake Street el to Ashland, then walked up a block to Maypole, one of the city's ghetto streets in between more kept up streets nearby. More like a wide alley than a street. I went there because I knew that new condos would soon be filling the blight, and that street is where the final scenes happen in Nelson Algren's THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, to me the best book ever written. Frankie Macjinek--Frankie Machine--is on the run after spending most of the novel in the vicinity of Division & Hermitage, the Humboldt Park my parents knew. The book is set throughout 1947 and Frankie finds himself running to Molly Novotny's apartment on Maypole, even then a street where the very poor lived, and then ends up in a fleabag hotel. I may very well have photos of both the apartment building as well as said chicken wire ceiling SRO right here. No one around to tell me on Maypole Street. But I have the photos, within a year these buildings will be into the erff, brothers and sisters.
I've just taken my hardcover copy that is completely falling apart but its a hardcover copy from 1950, not some new release, from my shelf between a 1942 hardback of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce and Who's Who In Chicago 1926, because its a nice summer's night and it seems right to type in the epitaph of the book:
It's all in the wrist,with a deck or a cue,
and Frankie Machine had the touch.
He had the touch and a golden arm--
"Hold up, Arm," he would plead,
Kissing his rosary once for help
With the faders sweating it out and--
Zing!--there it was--Little Joe or Eighter from Decatur,
Double trey the hard way, dice be nice,
When you get a hunch bet a bunch,
It don't mean a thing if it don't cross that string,
Make me five to keep me alive,
Tell 'em where you got it 'n how easy it was--
We remember Frankie Machine
And the arm that always held up.
We remember in the morning light
When the cards are boxed and the long cues racked
Straight up and down like the all-night hours
With the hot rush hours past.
For it's all in the wrist with a deck or a cue
And if he crapped out when we thought he was due
It must have been that the dice were rolled,
For he had the touch, and his arm was gold:
Rack up his cue, leave the steerer his hat,
The arm that held up has failed at last.
Yet why does the light down the dealer's slot
Sift soft as light in a troubled dream?
(A dream, they say, of a golden arm
That belonged to the dealer we called Machine.)
Maybe I'm the guy with the arm that will one day fail, maybe Algren's prose is better than his poetry (the lines are jarring to me at first, but they grow on you. Its like the pot calling the kettle bald, as I have 1100 poems in print). But I'll say one thing, this kind of writing is how people used to talk in Chicago. Some of us still do, as if in the misty mother fog of another dead poet's troubled dreams.