Young Chicago Boy Talks to God
On State Street, just past the Wig Center—its window filled with plastic heads of Afros and page boys—I begin to talk to God. Not out loud like so many people do in this city. Or the way the devoted do when they bow their heads in churches and synagogues. My God is an interior voice, a running dialogue only the two of us can hear. Today I am walking with my mother to Marshall Field’s. She doesn’t know God shares the sidewalk stride for stride with us. The three of us approach Wabash Avenue. The trains rumble overhead on the elevated tracks and God talks right back to me. He says to tell him a story. So I tell him one of the secrets I’ve never told my mom: the time an impeccably dressed businessman, using his briefcase as a shield, walked his hand up my thigh on the rush-hour Red Line el. The businessman had me trapped against the window, his leg resting warm against mine. He stared ahead the whole time pretending to be a normal commuter. I finally jumped up, pushing past the standing-room-only crowd, and exiting at an unfamiliar stop. Why did I begin to shake? Why tears? God says it wasn’t my fault. These things can happen to a boy. That’s when I tell him sometimes it takes all my willpower not to burst into a thousand pieces of glass. He says that is certainly a possibility but advises against it.
God knows I am a Peeping Tom, staring through the security bars of our first-floor apartment across the alley into a basement window, where a woman undresses each night at about eleven. Bras and panties and whatever hides beneath them are my passion. I don’t know why yet but something is stirring inside me…and under the covers. God knows this but says nothing. I tell Him I think I am in love with the woman. He says go to sleep, He’s tired.
Marshall Field’s is the store where my mother tries on dresses, suits, and sweater sets for hours while I escape down the escalator toward the new color televisions. When the clerks asks if I am alone or I if might be lost, I reply that my mother is on Third Floor, Women’s Wear. Inside I am saying, “You gotta problem with that? Bug off!” I am that way: tougher on the inside. Other kids, black and white and all the hues in between also make their way to the appliances floor to watch Bugs Bunny and Wiley Coyote run, screech, and explode from a hundred screens. We never talk to each other, but we are all part of the Wait-For-Mother Tribe, whose initiation involves long bus and subway rides so our mothers can check out the latest fashions. We are promised Wimpies burgers and Jay’s potato chips, fresh roasted peanuts at Montgomery Ward’s, and maybe, if we are especially well behaved, we might go to an old theater that shows news reels during the day. It is winter. Our uniforms are frayed corduroy jackets and cotton stocking caps, hopelessly inadequate against Lake Michigan’s arctic air that sucks the warmth from our bodies. We are wind-chill kids, all of us, with the patience of the stoic stone lions that guard the Art Institute.
To onlookers it may look I am glued to the cartoons, a ten-year-old wasting time and erasing brain cells, but I am actually talking to God. He likes television, too. He helps me sort out what it means to be a thin-shouldered boy in the city of broad shoulders: A city divided into neighborhoods, which are further divided by race and ethnicity. We Chicagoans know the unmarked borders; know how far to venture and where to turn back. Still, even with the boundaries, we rub up against each other in the parks and playgrounds, the zoos, and on the public transit. We cannot escape each other: Poles, Blacks, Germans, Latinos, Jews, and American Indians—the city takes us all in and gives everyone a more or less equal shot at success and failure. My Mom tells me we are all the same and to try to love everyone. God says stay away from the projects and buy Converse high top gym shoes. They will make you run faster. I think God is paranoid, but I forgive Him. I mean, consider his past.
Chicago is a tough, raw knuckles place. Violence always lurks around the next corner, and down the alley behind our apartment. Gangs patrol the neighborhoods and hunt the lost souls who dare to cross their paths. Packs of older boys are always hassling me. In the winter they throw snowballs filled with broken glass. In the summer they take their shirts off and their muscles ripple. I see them playing basketball on the lake front courts. The baskets have chains instead of nets like the ones in the suburbs. The older boys play with a physical abandon I will never have. No one ever calls a foul and that when a body slams into another body it sounds like a pumpkin dropped from a rooftop. One year a thousand people were murdered in the city, almost three a day. Mafia kills mafia. Drug dealers settle grudges with paw shop guns and baseball bats. Hikers find bodies partially decomposed in the forest preserves or washed up against the banks of the Sanitary Canal, which by the way, is not sanitary at all.
I tell God you have to be so brave to grow up here. Not everyone is as immortal as Him. From the moment I became conscious, I felt all the violence the city had to offer. The evening newscasts led off each broadcast with the latest installment of mayhem. “If it bleeds it leads,” was the rule. Headlines from newspapers screamed with the chilling details and the gruesome photos: Twisted bodies on sidewalks lying in haloes of blood, a crowd peering in. These were tragedies, no doubt, but they could not compare with the random murders. The couple pulled from their car and beaten to death because they got off the wrong exit at the wrong time on the Dan Ryan expressway. The honors student shot through the heart by a stray bullet while she did her geometry homework in her bedroom—three floors above the street. No one could quite prepare for that sort of roll of dice. I always knew I could be next so I learned not to make eye contact, and to wear a protective garment of toughness and street smarts.
I picture God as clean shaven. He is of no particular ethnic group and his step is long and graceful, not the fashionable pimp roll my friends and I love to imitate. God’s voice is not thunderous. Nor is it mousy. It sounds like my own, but all grown up and wise. He talks in clear, declarative sentences. He uses few adjectives. If he wrote books he would write like Hemingway. Nothing rattles Him.
I, however, am a fledgling sparrow tossed out of the nest without clear instructions. When I turned ten years old, my mother handed me some quarters and a map, and said, “Learn the subway and bus system. Put yourself forward into the world.” So I did. On Saturdays I would emerge from the subway cavern, a fiver hidden in a sock to thwart the gangs and pickpockets; the money earned from the bottle deposits I collected on a regular route of porches and stoops. I make my way to Kroch and Brentano’s bookstore—the latest Hardy Boys’ release on my mind. I pass the hobos and barkers on the corners conversing with their own God. I look in windows at shiny objects I will never have—fancy Lionel train sets and flashy three-speed Raleigh bicycles. I am used to this. I will catch my reflection in plate glass windows. It startles me to see my face, and my ragged clothes and uncombed hair among a sidewalk bustling with thousand-dollar suits and fashionable coiffures. I look so hungry, so young and insignificant in this big brawling city. I smell meat inside the steak braziers. I hear the doorman at the Palmer House blow his whistle for the next cab. People carry briefcases and newspapers. In the high rises appointments begin and end. I am intoxicated. This is my city, my home and my territory, a place of definable borders and an understandable grid. I don’t know what’s across the lake or beyond the western horizon of prairies and rivers. I have never seen mountains. I don’t know what to expect next.
God knows I never pray. The things that I want are too big, too unattainable. I want a new coat that’s in style and shoes that keep my feet warm. I want to eat cheeseburgers and shoe-string french fries at every meal. I want to be play basketball above the rim like the black boys by the lake. I want an older sister. I want a pair of those X-Ray glasses advertised in the back of my Batman comic book so I can see what’s beneath all those dresses and blouses. I want a four-inch switchblade. I want to be safe.
“What if something happens to my mom?” I suddenly ask Him, while Mom and I walk down Michigan Avenue towards the train station. The shopping trip is over and my mother carries several bags. She is happy, and beautiful with her perfect carriage. She will turns heads for many years to come. “Would if she gets killed by a gangster? Or pushed off the subway platform?” Back in reality, away from the televisions and my tribe of boys, I begin to get that discombobulated feeling. I am trying hard to stay in one piece, but everything seems menacing. The el tracks block the sun and cast long shadows on the street. The businessmen are secret molesters. Strutting pigeons look predatory.
“Are you OK?” my mother asks. At the age of ten I give her the same answer I use today. “Yes, I’m fine. Everything’s OK.” How can I tell her that I might explode into shards of glass? Or how this city overwhelms me? She expects me to follow the unwritten code of the city: to be an unflappable urban warrior. But mostly I feel like an alien unwillingly dropped onto Earth. My body doesn’t fit right. My mind fills and empties with pools of anxiety and violent imagery. My eyes won’t focus on the tide of humanity that swirls around me.
We are about to descend the gum-stained stairs that lead to the Randolph Street train station when God puts his arm around me. “Look,” He says, “I know how you feel. I’ve been around awhile and what I’ve learned is this: There is no other way but to be fearless. Otherwise you’ll end up on one of these street corners barking at passersby and trying to get my attention.
“Trust me. Life gets better. Just hang on, at least through your twenties. Find one thing to love and run toward it with abandon, Sort of like when you look at the woman in the basement apartment. But what I’m talking about is a bit more constructive.” I want to ask Him what he means by constructive, but He’s gone. I think he’s very busy, especially on the weekends.
After awhile the subway pops up from the tunnel and emerges into the afternoon light. With inches to spare, the train hugs and passes hundreds of three-story brick apartment buildings that are just like the ones I’ve lived in all my life. I see the familiar kitchen tables, shabby couches, and torn curtains, and refrigerators and stoves from the Industrial Revolution. The same laundry hanging on the back porches and the same grass-less vacant lots filled with dried weeds and car husks. Some men stand in a cluster and share a bottle. Expressionless women dream from open windows.
The subway makes one of those mystery stops between stations, and I look down and see a knot of scrawny boys playing stickball in an alley. They use their shirts for bases. They swagger and strut and scream. Next to me, my mother looks down at the same scene and smiles.
Maybe it’s the little pep talk from God, or maybe I’m simply worn out from hauling around all this fear and longing. Whatever the reason, for just a moment I become one of the boys in the alley. I hold the bat in my hands. I see the ball coming. It looks as big as a pumpkin. This time I don’t bail out. I hit it hard. I run faster than ever before. I touch all the bases. I am safe.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essay and journalism: The 1,000-Year Flood; A View from the Inland Northwest; Landscape of the Heart; and Going Driftless. He is a two-time recipient of a fellowship in prose writing from the Illinois Arts Council and a frequent contributor to The Sun magazine. In the last 18 months he has published op-eds in the Chicago Tribune, Toronto Globe & Mail, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter, @LyonsSJ55.