Freedom, Of A Sort
Shivering in the slush by the Kedzie streetcar stop, I wished that I had used the toilet again before leaving. My head ached and I was a little dizzy, but I understood when Mom explained why my errand was so important. I was not to dawdle; I was to go straight to the Loop, deliver cash to an office in a big building, get a receipt, come directly home. She pinned the envelope inside my coat with a giant safety pin, the kind used by laundries, then wrote out directions for the streetcar and bus.
Mom gave me two nickels for carfare. I put them in my pocket, but she took them out, felt around inside.
"When I'm feeling better I'll mend that hole," she said. "Keep the money in your mittens."
I was a little scared. At nine I had traveled by trolley, but always with Mom or Dad. Not even Freyda, who was 12, was allowed alone on a bus or streetcar.
"Why can't Freyda go?" I complained while buckling my galoshes.
"She has the flu."
We all had the flu. Even Dad was sick, but since he couldn't afford to lose a day's pay, he went to work. Mom was the sickest, and she also had to take care of Ted, who was in kindergarten, and Ila, the baby.
"Anyway, it isn't safe to send a young girl by herself," she continued. "Nobody will bother a boy."
"But you never let me go on the bus or streetcar by myself," I whined. "Who do I give the nickel to?"
"You've seen me do it," she said. "Drop the nickel into the box by the driver. Be sure to ask for a transfer. Both ways. You'll need one transfer to get there, and another one to get home."
I paused at the door. "Mom, can I have another nickel?" I asked.
"In case I get lost, then I could call home."
"Don't get lost," she said.
When the streetcar stopped, I climbed the high steps, nearly losing my balance as it started with a clang before I was all the way up. I clung to the rail, then dropped my first coin in the box.
"Transfer?" said the driver, and I said yes, please.
"I have to get off at Jackson Boulevard," I said.
"Don't call stops," said the driver, looking me over. "Ask somebody or watch the street signs."
Down the aisle I went, pushing past people clutching dangling straps. The car lurched as we braked, and I had to grab at the handle in the corner of a seat to keep from falling. An older woman smiled at me, and I smiled back.
"Would you please tell me when we get to Jackson Boulevard?" I asked.
"Oh, honey, I get off before that," she said. As we rolled south down Kedzie the sun vanished and the morning sky grew dark. A brisk lake wind shook the streetcar and pelted the windows on the driver's side with big flakes. I worried that I would miss Jackson, but agonized more about the fiery pain wrenching at my gut: I was afraid that I might soil my pants. Trying to ignore the throbbing, I peered out the windows at a billowing white curtain.
When the woman who had spoken to me got up, she said, "It's about six or eight more blocks to your stop, I guess." She pulled the cord that ran above the windows, and stepped into the blowing snow.
I counted the stops, thinking about what to do if I got off too early. I knew the car usually stopped every two blocks, so I would just walk the rest of the way, I decided. As what I hoped was Jackson approached, I asked a man to pull the cord; jumping down from the step, I slipped and fell. In my fear I lost control, and the thing that had worried me more than getting lost happened.
The sign at the corner didn't say Jackson. At the next block, I crossed to a service station. In the rest room I peeled off my galoshes and tennis shoes and finally the long johns, my teeth chattering. There was no toilet paper, only a dirty towel jammed in a wall roller. I used my shorts and tap water to clean myself, dried my hands on my shirt, left the ruined shorts in the wastebasket. I sat on the filthy floor to pull on my overshoes.
It was three more blocks to Jackson. Waiting for the bus there, I pulled down my cap earflaps and sought shelter in a doorway. I had no watch, but after what seemed like a very long time, I realized that almost nothing was moving on the streets. Cold and thirsty, stamping my feet to restore circulation, I weighed my options. I must deliver the envelope before five, when the office closed, or the finance company -- Dad called them "loan sharks" -- would take our furniture. I was closer to the Loop than to our apartment on Irving Park Road. Maybe the snow would stop soon, I thought.
When it didn't, I left the doorway and began walking east through the snow. Flakes stung my cheeks and forehead, gusts pushed me backward. Drifts blocked my way or sucked at my galoshes. I bowed my head and kept moving, glancing over my shoulder every few minutes for the bus. I thought about turning back -- but back to what? I went on, concentrating on a cadence in my pace: Breathe in, step step step, exhale, step step step, inhale, step step step. On and on I tramped, the air searing my lungs, the breeze knifing through my coat and underclothing. My eyes watered from the wind, and freezing tears threatened to glue my lashes shut; I rubbed them with a mitten again and again. My feet grew sore and my legs ached with effort. Every fourth block I took a short break, catching my breath, huddling out of the wind against the wall of a corner building. I lost all track of time.
After an eternity the wind slackened and the snow stopped. I went on, keeping the rhythm of my pace for a long time, until skyscrapers loomed out of low white clouds. The Loop streets were mounded with snow, but with street signs I had no trouble following Mom's directions. I found the office on the lobby directory board, drank heartily from the water fountain, took a creaky service elevator to an upper floor, knocked fearfully on the closed door. After a few minutes, I knocked again.
After a time I heard footsteps. The door opened a crack. "We're closed," said a balding man in a brown suit. A clock was visible over his shoulder.
"It's not even four, you're open until five o'clock," I said, outraged.
"What do you want?"
"My mom sent a payment," I said.
"In this weather? Your mother sent you out in a blizzard?" said the man, opening the door.
"It wasn't snowing when I left," I said. "It was morning."
"How did you get here?" he asked, hanging his coat on a rack.
"Took the streetcar," I said.
"You found a streetcar running?"
When I explained that I had been forced to walk after leaving the streetcar, the man stared at me. "You walked from Kedzie?" he said.
"I kept hoping the bus would come, but it didn't," I replied, and asked if I could use the bathroom.
"Down the hall. You have a payment?"
Numbed fingers struggled with buttons. It felt hot in the office, and I was flushed and lightheaded. The safety pin was too big for me; finally, I handed him my coat. He counted the cash twice, and I buttoned the receipt into my pocket.
When I came out of the toilet, the man was waiting near the elevator.
"It's snowing again," he said. "How will you get home?"
"I have directions for the bus and streetcar."
"I'll drive you," he said. "Irving Park Road is only a little out my way."
I awoke when he touched my shoulder. "You're home," he said, parking near the corner. "Tell me, why didn't your mother mail the payment?"
"Maybe she was afraid it wouldn't get there on time."
"There's a ten-day grace period," said the man. "It's in our standard contract. She could have sent a money order, it would have been okay."
Who knew the ways of grownups? "My mother must have had a good reason," I said, meaning it but wondering all the same.
I gave Mom the receipt, and she fed me soup and put me to bed. I blamed my blistered feet on the combination of sneakers and galoshes, told no one how far I had walked, or that I had accepted a ride from a stranger.
And from that day forward it was understood that I had earned the right to roam Chicago alone by bus, streetcar or on the El, a privilege enjoyed by no friend or classmate. Armed with new self confidence, I went around the city as I pleased, discovering parks and big buildings and exploring distant neighborhoods that seemed like so many new universes. It wasn't yet manhood, but it was freedom of the sort that opened my mind to the fruits of inquisitiveness, a lifelong gift.
# # #
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
8/16/2017 12:29:54 pm
Another gem. I could feel the cold as you walked, and I remember the fear of riding a bus and not knowing when or where to get off. I think you could have made the "loan shark" a bit more terrifying.
8/16/2017 04:22:10 pm
I was feeling every emotion. The cold snow and the freezing wind. I too remember the buses and having to watch for your street. Seems like forever ago
8/18/2017 10:48:56 pm
Sent me back to my early childhood winters on the east coast. Cold! Cold!
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.