Sunday, March 27, 2011

Faded Dreams On Division Street

By Wayne Allen Sallee
    “A writer does well if in his whole lifetime he can tell the story of one street.” Nelson Algren lived those words hard and unflinchingly, delineating Division Street with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. The avenue was Polish Broadway in postwar Chicago. Algren revealed to us the rules of the con games, had us examine the failure in the faces passing beneath billboards unattainably high–higher than the El tracks in the days before those viaducts were barricades protecting the gentry from the housing projects, days when a shot and a beer only set you back fifteen cents.
    Division Street has changed over the last sixty years, surviving a Jeykll/Hyde transformation (like the old Sinatra hangout that became a Mexican Laundromat) to reemerge as a gentrified hangout for a new breed of clubbers. The Monarch beer signs are long faded, and no one urges you to open a bottle and draw off a glass of Drewery’s. These nights it’s a Leinie–Leinenkugel–on tap, or Rolling Rock, and the bartenders bring their own CDs to play during their shifts. Screw the juke, give the boys and girls a photo booth to drop their jingle in.
    The Leinies are two-fifty for an eight-ouncer, and you won’t find factory workers down this sad street anymore. What you will find are wannabe hipsters and perpetual grad students, skinheads, all-nighters and more than a few greying Svengalis nursing house bourbon with toothless mouths.
    The old men are the only ones who wince when the flash in the photo booth goes off. They know, better than any of us, that frozen moments are the worst of memories.
    In Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm, first published in 1949, Frankie Machine dealt illegal card games in the hushed back room of Schwiefka’s, with his pal and partner, Solly Saltskin steering the marks through the door: monotone poker faces in a seven-to-three world, the elevated train reminding them when it was time to move on. Sinatra played the starched-collared, morphine-addicted Francis Macjinek in Otto Preminger’s film, and his words”It’s all in the wrist with a deck or a cue” were a litany for the next minute being better than the last. Or, at least, no worse.
    The elevated train itself has moved on. Where Algren’s iron thunder once moved level with the second floor flats down Paulina, there is now only the occasional gunshot from one of the seven gangs that populate the neighborhood streets. The O’Hare-Douglas line–The Blue Line–is now a subway. The face of the North Side changed twenty-five years ago with the creation of Interstate 94, the Kennedy Expressway.
    Where Schweifka’s used to be, on the corner of Damen and Division, is a bar these days called The Rainbo Club. The steerer is gone, replaced by a bouncer, a black man with veins in his biceps as big as a nun’s reproaching finger, and the neon in the window clots his face. At seven in the evening you can still hear your own breath in the place. Eleven o’clock and it’s a hive of opinions.       
    Most of the crowd consists of students from the Art Institute downtown. The cheap housing and cheaper regentrification–you won’t see health bars or luxury condos crafted in incomprehensible shapes and colors–have kept the neighborhood from going to hell as more of the old-country people die off. And they do die off, because nobody along Division Street ever retires to a different city.
    A television series about people trapped on an island has ended, a show about advertising set in the 1960s is running a marathon so new viewers can play catch-up: a corner table of students discuss the good and the bad of both, a method of bonding that in Algren’s day involved the cheapest portable radio on wrestling nights perched behind the guy pouring the cheapest swill off the stick.
    Sarah is working on her Master’s in journalism at Northwestern and thinks the former show referred to the American Dream. Joe found the former to be an audience participation thing, noting that similar shows in the nineties didn’t rely on computer and marketing tie-ins. Yong Koo, an Art Institute expatriate who both smiles and sneers in a zippered leather jacket befitting the best of the Elvis impersonators, would rather talk about Japanese monster movies.
    R. E. M. starts in “Electrolite,” Michael Stipe singing about a girl whose eyes are burning holes into some guy, he’s gasoline, he’s burning green, dig? There’s a painting of a group of people with bowling-ball shaped faces that shines when the flash in the photo booth goes off. The bouncer bouncing as he sees fit.
    File in, fill up and fall out.
    Where the poker table at Schweifka’s would have been, a Road Kings pinball machine now sits, with one of those Hamm’s waterfall signs off-center to the right. The music mix runs from the smooth piano of Duke Ellington, new waves bands that were famous when most of the clientele were in diapers, then back the Stan Getz on the sax, followed by John Coltrane, the essential sixties hard bop blower himself. Then back to Echo and The Bunnymen. Flashbacks and deja vu by the bottle.
    And you have to shout to be heard, so you know who smokes because they have nicotine breath. Or the kids just old enough to tentatively try Schnapps. No apple martinis in this joint.
    In the men’s room, once you look past the lolling skinheads, faintly visible in pencil on a pocked grey wall, you read “All in the wrist with a deck or a cue.” Someone hadn’t forgotten. The Svengali, perhaps? Below it, a cartoon caveman tells the casual reader that his two-dimensional dick is as hard as bedrock.
    Division Street by day. Attain street level on the northwest corner of Milwaukee and Ashland and get assaulted by the smells of Mexican fajitas and chicken fried a la Kentucky. The neon stretches in the direction of the setting sun. Milwaukee used to be nicknamed Lunchpail avenue because of the large numbers of factory workers who walked to their places of employment, lunch boxes in their lunch hooks.
    These days, these years, there are plenty of listless bodies with ten-yard stares. Nobody back from Iraq or Afghanistan with the war jitters, just men who’ve had pet monkeys on their backs since Reaganomics. Your best bet is to just start walking west.
    Any Wood Street beat copper will tell you the only people who pay attention to their surroundings are cops and crazies. Writers might be added to that short list. Nelson Algren, in Chicago: City on the Make:
    “’s still a godforsaken spastic, a cerebral palsy natural among cities, clutching at the unbalanced air. Top-heavy, bleeding and blind. Under a toadstool-colored sky.
    “Maybe we all went to work too young.”
    But on a Friday night it’s time to put the week behind. Walk down the concrete under a sky of blue-green (maybe it was a bad day when Nelson wrote his prose poem), and see the horizon severed by three flats zigzagging down on either side. On an abandoned building just this side of Hermitage, flyers for new clubs further north are plastered over graffiti that most likely reads Long Live The FALN!, a throwback to the Puerto Rican terrorist movement of the 70s.
    And, for some inexplicable reason, the Cobras and the Latin Kings spray their gang symbols on garage doors along side streets.
    Bottles from a nearby liquor store litter the dead grass alongside each stoop where you can still hear the echoes of pitched pennies. Brown and white labels for the winos’ breakfasts, Night Train Express and Richard’s Wild Irish Rose. Nothing but the best, you can go find your damn malt liquor somewhere else, dad.   
    At the corner on Mary Court, there’s an apteka–a Polish drugstore–a vertical sign painted in the 1950s, there is no doubt, with a  nurse taking a man’s blood pressure. The man was had his hat and jacket slung over a vacant chair. A busy piece of art, no doubt. And we all know JFK killed the hat by not wearing one at his inauguration. Does anyone know why nurses stopped wearing those vaguely Puritanical white wedges on their lovely coiffed heads?
    Then there’s a Baptist church, its architecture made it look as if it was built by hand with whatever materials were handy. An empty lot. A taco joint with an overwhelming smell of jalapeƱos that is overwhelmed by the chlorine seeping from the Turkish-Russian bath house. Finally, the big time. A holdover from the last generation, and the one before that. No televisions, no air conditioning, and no more wars. For just a little while.
    Enough time for the baby boomer generation, and eye blinks that flip images like dated photos from a Polaroid Land camera, its 2011, and those post-war kids are half-century men who scratch their balding heads and wonder why this young hipster crowd feels the need to change everything.
    It’s the Polish Triangle, is what it is. This from a rumdum propped on a stoop littered with pennies and matchbooks from Sophie’s Busy Bee. Bright yellow, dull copper. No sun to make the colors wink. Milwaukee to Damen, then down Division, right back to Milwaukee. Remember RB’s, that big clothing store? Two stories, it was.
    It’s a gee-dee sports bar now is what it is, and you realize there was no bum, not even a stoop. Just a penny staring at you. Pick it up and toss it into the street, maybe it will fall in the gutter. Just cross the damn street already. Cross over to Hermitage.
    Phyllis’s Musical Inn, 1800 West Division, established 1954.
    The current owner, Clemont Jaskot, was born on the second floor two years after the grand opening. Sit down on a red-topped stool and tap the cigarette-scarred bar vas though you have caffeine nerves. A Wood Street squad rolls by outside. Clem draws an Old Style from the stick and tells his tale.
    He says how for most of the people in this neighborhood it’s a second home. Dressed in jeans with suspenders and a faded Cubs t-shirt, Jaskot, moving in on middle age, gesticulates alternately with hands and eyebrows as he mops up an errant spill from one of the kegs at the edge of the bar. As he turns, you can see Sandburg’s name on the jersey. Ryan Sandburg, another Chicago ghost.
    Algren would grin that lop-sided grin. He wasn’t Bukowski, he wasn’t Burroughs. Hell, he wasn’t even Philip K. Dick. He wrote a handful of novels, a couple dozen short stories, all self-contained within a mile radius. Henry Chinanski made the rounds, he’s still alive unlike Bukowski. Algren died in 1981 and left his ghosts in every doorway. Molly-O might just be freshening up in the ladies’ room at Phyllis’s. There’s a mermaid on the door.   
    Jaskot wipes his hands off, the guy grins like he could talk anybody into anything at all. He tells of the type of clientele, construction workers, painters. The nine-to-fivers from downtown. (Not the Loop, that phrase is unknown here, because nobody on Division Street goes further than Ashland Avenue.) The hipsters show up on the weekends, for the bands. Their kind slowly bleeds into the side streets.
    Few have the confidence of fictional Frankie Machine.
    Jaskot said they worked hard to keep the place, he’s talking about mom and dad, keep the place going after the riots. He was a kid back in 1968, but the near north side was a war zone all the way to Humboldt Park and those FALN bastards. Soon after, Martin Luther King’s death made the city burn. Everything cooled down, the world revolving like an empty barstool after last call.
    Jaskot goes back to work, the crowd builds and fades. Outside, a new glass high-rise royally screws with the horizon, and just next door, a man looks down at his waist and he could easily have been checking for a gunshot would as to see if his fly was open.
    Division Street: Irregulars welcome.
    The man checking his fly intended to become drunker than a hoot owl. Standing beneath an Old Style sign that read Zimne Piwo, he had hard muscular arms with liver spots on his hands that seemed out of place.
    Francis Majcinek, our ghost guide, used to lament in the pages of Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm that every other doorway led into a tavern and you had as much on the other guy as he had on you. You find a place, you make it your territory. Liver Spots reminisced on the Orange Lantern, a place from back in the day when taverns put something behind their names. No gee-dee sports or theme bars. Dice girls, cigarette girls, cats that sleep atop a framed picture of Pope John Paul II , and a light behind the bar that went from green to yellow to red. Open to last call to get the hell out, all of you bums.
    He goes back in the way he came, into the Gold Star, an SRO motel above it, the weight crushing down on the painted logo. There’s a lipless wonder that everyone calls Cocobolo, making advances down the bar as if each stool inhabited by a female is a slot machine. Accordion music pumps out of an old jukebox and Cocobolo I shooed out like a fly ball 1moving past the Toyota sign out onto Sheffield.
    Time slows and backs up, the last stop being The Bop Shop, at 1807 West Division. Home to live jazz bands, in present day it is a failed sushi bar, the insides gutted to flecks of grey. What did they expect?
    Ten years back, huge booths with pea-green upholstery, a painting of Charlie “Bird” Parker wailing away, not far from Charlie Minus, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, and Lester Young. All observing the stage from their individual places above those pea-green booths. The guy running the bar smoked Wantons, talk was small, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet. In a few minutes Ron Dewar on tenor sax will play with The Holly Cole Trio. Until then, a generic cop show flashes silently on a television angled below a Hamm’s sign. The beer refreshing.
    There’s a cat named Boogie, he used to come in during the summer, same as it is now, whenever the music was playing. The cat’s owner moved, the jazz cat of Division Street stayed. Word was he somehow helped a cop named Rizzi arrest a felon in the Norbe Laundromat, but that is open to conjecture.
    Before the Bop Shop, the joint had been the Lucky Stop, and it was Stanley Wozieniek that had installed those pea-green booths that were turned to rubble by fools a half century later. After he died, the place was run by his widow Mania, until her death in 198. Remember: no one retires to the suburbs from Division Street.)
    The Szostaks and the Mamachs who lived out their downtime away from the factories are slowly being replaced by any number of ethnic names. Mexican, Hindi, Jamaican, throw a pin on a wall map. You find them all, some of them students, others professionals, at Leo’s Luncheonette, next to...
    The Bop Shop is gone. Phyllis’s has evening hours now, the construction workers are building townhouses in Wicker Park now. It’s early summer 2011. A redhead named Kara serves eggs sunny-side up, hash browns and steaming coffee. Nix on the decaf.  The counter is a backwards L, taking quick glances at Kara’s green eyes is like looking at the moon before it fades behind the nighttime clouds. Leo’s is another holdout in a city that is perpetually changing.
    Algren’s Frankie Machine was a card dealer strung out on morphine who ended up swinging, in the worst sense, in a flophouse on Maypole Street back in 1948. Forget the spoon-fed crap Preminger put into the film with Sinatra and Novak. Forget celluloid, look for the word.
    Read about the real Machine, strung out on hope and trouble, on bad dreams and trouble. That was Division Street, then. The neighborhood changes, ever so slowly. Most trendy clubs look the same from the outside but for the Bud Lite neon signs shoved into the windows.
    The horizon of buildings is the same, the broken grin of a prizefighter. Sonny Liston. Gorgeous George. More ghosts. Why the hell would you want to leave anyway, baby? Where else can you haunt in peace.
    Sure, that tenor sax from a decade ago, moving up and down can still be hypnotic, but it doesn’t produce troubled dreams anymore. Division Street is on its way back up. Most of us never knew it was gone.
                                Wayne Allen Sallee
                                Burbank, Illinois
                                27 Mar 11