He poured himself more hot water. “What do you know about Chicago anyway?” I thought a moment. “Hog butcher to the world,” I said finally.
Marty shook his head. “The butcheries closed a while ago.”
“The Cubs never win.”
“America’s most segregated city,” I said. “A black man, Harold Washington, was just elected mayor, and white people don’t like it.”
“So you’ve been following Harold’s career,” Marty said. “I’m surprised you haven’t gone to work for him.”
“I tried. His office didn’t write back.”
Marty smiled and took off his glasses, cleaning them with the end of his tie. “Well, that’s the thing to do, isn’t it, if you’re young and black and interested in social issues? Find a political campaign to work for. A powerful patron-somebody who can help you with your own career. And Harold’s powerful, no doubt about it. Lots of charisma. He has almost monolithic support in the black community. About half the Hispanics, a handful of white liberals. You’re right about one thing, though. The whole atmosphere in the city is polarized.
A big media circus. Not much is getting done.”
I leaned back in my seat. “And whose fault is that?”
Marty put his glasses back on and met my stare. “It’s not a question of fault,” he said. “It’s a question of whether any politician, even somebody with Harold’s talent, can do much to break the cycle. A polarized city isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a politician. Black or white.”
He offered to start me off at ten thousand dollars the first year, with a two-thousand-dollar travel allowance to buy a car; the salary would go up if things worked out. After he was gone, I took the long way home, along the East River promenade, and tried to figure out what to make of the man. He was smart, I decided. He seemed committed to his work. Still, there was something about him that made me wary. A little too sure of himself, maybe. And white-he’d said himself that that was a problem.
The old fluted park lamps flickered to life; a long brown barge rolled through the gray waters toward the sea. I sat down on a bench, considering my options, and noticed a black woman and her young son approach. The boy yanked the woman up to the railing, and they stood side by side, his arm wrapped around her leg, a single silhouette against the twilight. Eventually the boy’s head craned upward with what looked like a question. The woman shrugged her shoulders and the boy took a few steps toward me.
“Excuse me, mister,” he shouted. “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?”
The woman smiled and shook her head, and I said it probably had to do with the tides. The answer seemed to satisfy the boy, and he went back to his mother. As I watched the two of them disappear into dusk, I realized I had never noticed which way the river ran.
A week later, I loaded up my car and drove to Chicago.
I HAD BEEN TO CHICAGO once before. It was during the summer after my father’s visit to Hawaii, before my eleventh birthday, when Toot had decided it was time I saw the mainland of the United States. Perhaps the two things were connected, her decision and my father’s visit-his presence (once again) disturbing the world she and Gramps had made for themselves, triggering in her a desire to reclaim antecedents, her own memories, and pass them on to her grandchildren.
We traveled for over a month, Toot and my mother and Maya and I-Gramps had lost his taste for traveling by this time and chose to stay behind. We flew to Seattle, then went down the coast to California and Disneyland, east to the Grand Canyon, across the Great Plains to Kansas City, then up to the Great Lakes before heading back west through Yellowstone Park. We took Greyhound buses, mostly, and stayed at Howard Johnson’s, and watched the Watergate hearings every night before going to bed.
We were in Chicago for three days, in a motel in the South Loop. It must have been sometime in July, but for some reason I remember the days as cold and gray. The motel had an indoor swimming pool, which impressed me; there were no indoor pools in Hawaii. Standing beneath the el tracks, I closed my eyes as a train passed and shouted as loud as I could. At the Field Museum, I saw two shrunken heads that were kept on display. They were wrinkled but well preserved, each the size of my palm, their eyes and mouths sewn shut, just as I would have expected. They appeared to be of European extraction: The man had a small goatee, like a conquistador; the female had flowing red hair. I stared at them for a long time (until my mother pulled me away), feeling-with the morbid glee of a young boy-as if I had stumbled upon some sort of cosmic joke. Not so much the fact that the heads had been shrunk-that I could understand; it was the same idea as eating tiger meat with Lolo, a form of magic, a taking of control. Rather, the fact that these little European faces were here in a glass case, where strangers, perhaps even descendants, might observe the details of their gruesome fate. That no one seemed to think that odd. It was a different sort of magic, these harsh museum lights, the neat labels, the seeming indifference of the visitors who passed; another effort at control.
Fourteen years later, the city appeared much prettier. It was another July, and the sun sparkled through the deep green trees. The boats were out of their moorings, their distant sails like the wings of doves across Lake Michigan. Marty had told me that he would be busy those first few days, and so I was left on my own. I had bought a map, and I followed Martin Luther King Drive from its northernmost to its southernmost point, then went back up Cottage Grove, down byways and alleys, past the apartment buildings and vacant lots, convenience stores and bungalow homes. And as I drove, I remembered. I remembered the whistle of the Illinois Central, bearing the weight of the thousands who had come up from the South so many years before; the black men and women and children, dirty from the soot of the railcars, clutching their makeshift luggage, all making their way to Canaan Land. I imagined Frank in a baggy suit and wide lapels, standing in front of the old Regal Theatre, waiting to see Duke or Ella emerge from a gig. The mailman I saw was Richard Wright, delivering mail before his first book sold; the little girl with the glasses and pigtails was Regina, skipping rope. I made a chain between my life and the faces I saw, borrowing other people’s memories. In this way I tried to take possession of the city, make it my own. Yet another sort of magic.
On the third day I passed Smitty’s Barbershop, a fifteen-by-thirty-foot storefront on the edge of Hyde Park with four barber’s chairs and a card table for LaTisha, the part-time manicurist. The door was propped open when I walked in, the barbershop smells of hair cream and antiseptic mingling with the sound of men’s laughter and the hum of slow fans. Smitty turned out to be an older black man, gray-haired, slender and stooped. His chair was open and so I took a seat, soon joining in the familiar barbershop banter of sports and women and yesterday’s headlines, conversation at once intimate and anonymous, among men who’ve agreed to leave their troubles outside.
Somebody had just finished telling a story about his neighbor-the man had been caught in bed with his wife’s cousin and chased at the point of a kitchen knife, buck naked, out into the street-when the talk turned to politics.
“Vrdolyak and the rest of them crackers don’t know when to quit,” the man with the newspaper said, shaking his head in disgust. “When Old Man Daley was mayor, didn’t nobody say nothing about him putting all them Irish up in City Hall. But the minute Harold tries to hire some black people, just to even things out, they call it reverse racism-”
“Man, that’s how it always is. Whenever a black man gets into power, they gonna try and change the rules on him.”
“Worse part is, newspapers acting like it was black folks that started this whole mess.”
“What you expect from the white man’s paper?”
“You right. Harold knows what he’s doing, though. Just biding his time till the next election.”
That’s how black people talked about Chicago’s mayor, with a familiarity and affection normally reserved for a relative. His picture was everywhere: on the walls of shoe repair shops and beauty parlors; still glued to lampposts from the last campaign; even in the windows of the Korean dry cleaners and Arab grocery stores, displayed prominently, like some protective totem. From the barbershop wall, that portrait looked down on me now: the handsome, grizzled face, the bushy eyebrows and mustache, the twinkle in the eyes. Smitty noticed me looking at the picture and asked if I’d been in Chicago during the election. I told him I hadn’t. He nodded his head.
“Had to be here before Harold to understand what he means to this city,” Smitty said. “Before Harold, seemed like we’d always be second-class citizens.”
“Plantation politics,” the man with the newspaper said.
“That’s just what it was, too,” Smitty said. “A plantation. Black people in the worst jobs. The worst housing. Police brutality rampant. But when the so-called black committeemen came around election time, we’d all line up and vote the straight Democratic ticket. Sell our soul for a Christmas turkey. White folks spitting in our faces, and we’d reward ’em with the vote.”
Clumps of hair fell into my lap as I listened to the men recall Harold’s rise. He had run for mayor once before, shortly after the elder Daley died, but the candidacy had faltered-a source of shame, the men told me, the lack of unity within the black community, the doubts that had to be overcome. But Harold had tried again, and this time the people were ready. They had stuck with him when the press played up the income taxes he’d failed to pay (“Like the white cats don’t cheat on every damn thing every minute of their lives”). They had rallied behind him when white Democratic committeemen, Vrdolyak and others, announced their support for the Republican candidate, saying that the city would go to hell if it had a black mayor. They had turned out in record numbers on election night, ministers and gang-bangers, young and old.
And their faith had been rewarded. Smitty said, “The night Harold won, let me tell you, people just ran the streets. It was like the day Joe Louis knocked out Schmeling. Same feeling. People weren’t just proud of Harold. They were proud of themselves. I stayed inside, but my wife and I, we couldn’t get to bed until three, we were so excited. When I woke up the next morning, it seemed like the most beautiful day of my life….”
Smitty’s voice had fallen to a whisper, and everyone in the room began to smile. From a distance, reading the newspapers back in New York, I had shared in their pride, the same sort of pride that made me root for any pro football team that fielded a black quarterback. But something was different about what I was now hearing; there was a fervor in Smitty’s voice that seemed to go beyond politics. “Had to be here to understand,” he had said. He’d meant here in Chicago; but he could also have meant here in my shoes, an older black man who still burns from a lifetime of insults, of foiled ambitions, of ambitions abandoned before they’ve been tried. I asked myself if I could truly understand that. I assumed, took for granted, that I could.
Seeing me, these men had made the same assumption. Would they feel the same way if they knew more about me? I wondered. I tried to imagine what would happen if Gramps walked into the barbershop at that moment, how the talk would stop, how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.
Smitty handed me the mirror to check his handiwork, then pulled off my smock and brushed off the back of my shirt. “Thanks for the history lesson,” I said, standing up.
“Hey, that part’s free. Haircut’s ten dollars. What’s your name, anyway?” “Barack.”
“Barack, huh. You a Muslim?”
He took the money and shook my hand. “Well, Barack, you should come back a little sooner next time. Your hair was looking awful raggedy when you walked in.”
Late that afternoon, Marty picked me up in front of my new address and we headed south on the Skyway. After several miles, we took an exit leading into the southeast side, past rows of small houses made of gray clapboard or brick, until we arrived at a massive old factory that stretched out over several blocks.
“The old Wisconsin Steel plant.”
We sat there in silence, studying the building. It expressed some of the robust, brutal spirit of Chicago’s industrial past, metal beams and concrete rammed together, without much attention to comfort or detail. Only now it was empty and rust-stained, like an abandoned wreck. On the other side of the chain-link fence, a spotted, mangy cat ran through the weeds.
“All kinds of people used to work in the plant,” Marty said as he wheeled the car around and started back down the road. “Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. All working the same jobs. All living the same kind of lives. But outside the plant, most of them didn’t want anything to do with each other. And these are the church people I’m talking about. Brothers and sisters in Christ.”
We came to a stoplight, and I noticed a group of young white men in their undershirts, drinking beer on a stoop. A Vrdolyak poster hung in one of the windows, and several of the men began to glare in my direction. I turned to Marty.
“So what makes you think they can work together now?”
“They don’t have any choice. Not if they want their jobs back.”
As we reentered the highway, Marty began to tell me more about the organization he’d built. The idea had first come to him two years earlier, he said, when he’d read reports of the plant closings and layoffs then sweeping across South Chicago and the southern suburbs. With the help of a sympathetic Catholic auxiliary bishop, he’d gone to meet with pastors and church members in the area, and heard both blacks and whites talk about their shame of unemployment, their fear of losing a house or of being cheated out of a pension-their common sense of having been betrayed.
Eventually over twenty suburban churches had agreed to form an organization, which they named the Calumet Community Religious Conference, or CCRC. Another eight churches had joined the city arm of the organization, called Developing Communities Project, or DCP. Things hadn’t moved quite as fast as Marty had hoped; the unions hadn’t yet signed on, and the political war in the city council had proven to be a major distraction. Still, CCRC had recently won its first significant victory: a $500,000 computerized job placement program that the Illinois legislature had agreed to fund. We were on our way to a rally to celebrate this new job bank, Marty explained, the opening shot in a long-term campaign.
“It’s going to take a while to rebuild manufacturing out here,” he said. “Ten years, minimum. But once we get the unions involved, we’ll have a base to negotiate from. In the meantime, we just need to stop the hemorrhage and give people some short-term victories. Something to show people how much power they have once they stop fighting each other and start going after the real enemy.” “And who’s that?”
Marty shrugged. “The investment bankers. The politicians. The fat cat lobbyists.”
Marty nodded to himself, squinting at the road ahead. Looking at him, I began to suspect that he wasn’t as cynical as he liked to make out, that the plant we’d just left carried a larger meaning for him. Somewhere in his life, I thought, he, too, had been betrayed.
It was twilight by the time we crossed the city line and pulled into the parking lot of a large suburban school, where crowds of people were already making their way into the auditorium. They appeared as Marty had described them: laid-off steelworkers, secretaries, and truck drivers, men and women who smoked a lot and didn’t watch their weight, shopped at Sears or Kmart, drove late-model cars from Detroit and ate at Red
Lobster on special occasions. A barrel-chested black man in a cleric’s collar greeted us at the door and Marty introduced him as Deacon Wilbur Milton, copresident of the organization. With his short, reddish beard and round cheeks, the man reminded me of Santa Claus.
“Welcome,” Will said, pumping my hand. “We been wondering when we’d actually get to meet you.
Thought maybe Marty just made you up.”
Marty peeked inside the auditorium. “How’s turnout looking?”
“Good so far. Everybody seems to be making their quota. Governor’s people just called to say he’s on his way.”
Marty and Will began walking toward the stage, their heads buried in the evening’s agenda. I started to follow them, but found my path blocked by three black women of indeterminate age. One of them, a pretty woman with orange-tinted hair, introduced herself as Angela, then leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re Barack, aren’t you?” I nodded.
“You don’t know how glad we are to see you.”
“You really don’t,” the older woman next to Angela said. I offered the woman my hand, and she smiled to show off a gold front tooth. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking my hand, “I’m Shirley.” She gestured toward the last woman, dark and heavyset. “This is Mona. Don’t he look clean-cut, Mona?” “Sure does,” Mona said with a laugh.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Angela said, her voice still lowered a pitch. “I’ve got nothing against Marty. But the fact is, there’s only so far you can-”
“Hey, Angela!” We looked up to see Marty waving at us from the stage. “You guys can talk to Barack all you want later. Right now I need all of you up here with me.”
The women exchanged knowing looks before Angela turned back to me.
“I guess we better get going,” she said. “But we really do have to talk. Soon.”
“Sure do,” said Mona before the three of them walked away, Angela and Shirley busy chatting away in the front, Mona leisurely bringing up the rear.
The auditorium was almost filled by this time, two thousand people in all, maybe a third of them blacks bused in from the city. At seven o’clock, a choir sang two gospel songs, Will took a roll call of all the churches represented, and a white Lutheran from the suburbs explained the history and mission of CCRC. A procession of speakers then mounted the stage: a black legislator and a white legislator, a Baptist minister and Cardinal Bernardin, and finally the governor, who offered his solemn pledge of support for the new job bank and recited evidence of his tireless efforts on behalf of the working men and women of Illinois.
To my mind the whole thing came off a bit flat, like a political convention or a TV wrestling match. Still, the crowd seemed to be enjoying itself. Some people hoisted bright banners bearing the name of their church. Others broke into boisterous cheers as a friend or relative was recognized from the stage. Seeing all these black and white faces together in one place, I, too, found myself feeling cheered, recognizing in myself the same vision driving Marty, his confidence in the populist impulse and working-class solidarity; his faith that if you could just clear away the politicians and media and bureaucrats and give everybody a seat at the table, then ordinary people could find common ground.When the rally was over, Marty mentioned that he had to give some people a ride home, so instead of riding with him I decided to take one of the buses heading back to the city. As it turned out, there was an empty seat next to Will on the bus, and in the glow of the freeway lights, he began to tell me a little about himself.