by Nelson Algren, 1951
transcribed by Jack M Silverstein
2. Are you a Christian?
It’s still an outlaw’s capital—but of an outlawry whose colors, once crimson as the old Sauganash whiskey-dye, have been washed down, by many prairie rains, to the colorless grey of the self-made executive type playing the percentages from the inside. Under the pale fluorescent glow.
We’ve abandoned the neighborliness of the Middle Border while sharpening its competitiveness—to lend it a bloodier, more legal edge than the Middle Border ever knew.
For in the time that Dwight L. Moody went about these streets straight-arming strangers with the simple and terrible question, “Are you a Christian?” the answer was simpler and less terrible than now.
Certainly the thief calling himself John the Baptist wasn’t one even though he left a religious tract at the scene of every tract. Even though wearing the ministerial black with the Come-to-Jesus-or-Else collar. For he also wore a bright red bandana about his dirty throat and never a shirt below or beneath at all.
Either you were or you weren’t. John the Baptist wasn’t one and the bumboat pirate called Black Jack Yattaw wasn’t one either. Nor was Paddy the Bear nor Cooney the Fox nor Duffy the Goat.
Nor Red Jimmy Fitzgerald, who conned Charles Francis Adams out of $7,000, and Hungry Joe Lewis, who took Oscar Wilde for another small fortune in that same unchristian year.
Nor speckled Jimmy Calwell nor Saffo the Greek nor Jew Kid Grabiner. Nor Fancy Tom O’Brien, the King of the Bunko Men; for he murdered Reed Waddell, the inventor of the gold-brick fraud.
Nor the little monster named Mickey Finn, who openly advertised the horror he had devised for the simply pleasure it afforded him to hear some curious innocent order it with his own lips—just before being spun off the stool and into the alley behind the bar. To wake up with the cats looking at him. If he wakened again in the great world at all.
But the Mick was the last of the true infidels.
By the time Hinky Dink Kenna came along you had to cut in closer to answer the reverend’s question. For in The Hink the border apache became a working citizen, a property owner assuming civic responsibilities, commanding a ward-wide loyalty and professing some sort of faith or other come Sunday morning. A hustler’s hustler, part philanthropist and part straight brigand, The Hink sought his personal salvation in the ballot box.
Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler’s imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman’s Exchange.
He’d paid fifty cents in gold cash for every vote he’d bought, he let the archangels know—but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.
Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs—while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.
Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running on bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody’s evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston’s command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.
Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?
For always our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes somebody like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot run and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one.
Somebody like The Hink’s Bathhouse John calling on the city, in the name of its little children, to ban the sale of the deadly coffin nail from within two hundred yards of every schoolhouse. Thus earning himself, a buccaneer to his balbriggan underwear, the sanctimonious applause of the Tribune:
By this measure he will drive from the school areas the petty peddlers in death who have been inviting the children to ruin.
Applause which The Bath acknowledged grandly, bowing first to the left and then to the right, in a wondrous tailcoat of billiard-cloth green, lavender trousers, pink gloves and a cream-colored vest flaring with diamonds—to the greatest rogues’ circus ever pitched under a single tent.
For all his strutting piety in Lucy Page Gaston’s name didn’t stop him for one moment from leading his harlots and hopheads, his coneroos and fancy-men, his dips and hipsters and heavy-hipted madams—his “willing hands and honest hearts” as he termed them—to flaunt their soiled banners at the Annual First Ward Ball.
Out of their dens and out of their dives, out of their traps and curtained parlors—most of them carefully masked—The Bath led his willing hands and honest hearts with his victory over the tobacco trust in his pocket. And, in the other, plans for a private zoo. What did his take from the cribs have to do with whose little children anyhow, The Bath would have just liked to know.
The fact being that The Hink and The Bath were the first of the big-time operators. Both living on to see their territory taken over by the business tweeds who put a stop to free lunches as being unbusinesslike.
The Hink and The Bath being the first to suspect that appeals to Civic Loyalty were appeals to empty air: that the place had grown up too fast to be conscious of itself as a unified city requiring any loyalty beyond that to the American dollar. “The cult of money which one encounters here does not spring from avarice or meanness,” one European observer put it quaintly, “but making money is the only aim one can set oneself in a city wherein the dollar is the spiritual denominator as well as the financial one.” The Buck alone lending purpose to the lives of the anonymous thousands living in anonymous rows along anonymous streets, under an anonymous moon.
And sining the old crossroads hymns of Faith Everlasting can’t help any more, for you can’t call anonymous souls to the Lord. He doesn’t know who they are.
And the Lord Himself couldn’t get some of them that far out into the light anyhow. They’d think Here Comes That Tuesday Night Lineup Again.
You can live your whole life out somewhere between Goose Island and Bronzeville without once feeling that, the week after you move, the neighbors are going to miss your place. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, “One side or a leg off, I’m getting’ mine!” It’s every man for himself in this hired air.
Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.
Jane Addams too knew that Chicago’s blood was hustler’s blood. Knowing that Chicago, like John the Baptist and Bathhouse John, like Billy Sunday and Big Bill, forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares.
One for the open-eyed children of the thousand-windowed office buildings. And one for the shuttered hours.
One for the sunlit traffic’s noontime bustle. And one for midnight subway watches when stations swing past like ferris wheels of light, yet leave the moving window wet with rain or tears.
One face for Go-Getters and one for Go-Get-It-Yerselfers. One for poets and one for promoters. One for the good boy and one for the bad.
One for white collars as well as blue, for our museums like cathedrals and our cathedrals like museums, for the windy white-and-blue miles of our beaches, the Saturday night moonlight excursions to Michigan City, the afternoon at the zoo washed into mists of sunlit remembrance by a sudden warm, still rain; and for that night-shaded honkytonk where Sherry Our Shivering Sheba shook the long night’s last weary shake to twenty empty tables and one middle-aged pimp wheedling a deaf bartender for a final double shot.
One for early risers, one for evening hiders.
One for the White Sox and none for the Cubs.
One for King Oliver and Louie Armstrong improvising half an hour on end at the old Lincoln Gardens Bandstand, for Baby Dodds and Dave Tough and all the other real-gone senders, sent-for-and-gone too soon, who brought jazz up the river from New Orleans, made it Chicago’s music and then the world’s.
For the soldiers and the sailors and the far-from-home marines, who’ll tell you, no matter where you’re from, that it’s the most open-handed town in the country for any far-from-home soldier.
As well as for old soaks’ goat’s nests, backstreet brothels, unlit alleys and basement bars: for tavern, trap and tenement. For all the poolroom tigers in checkered caps who’ve never seen a cow, and all the night-club kittens who’ve never seen a cloud.
For white-lit showups, dim-lit lockups and the half-lit hallway bedrooms, where the air, along with the bed, is stirred only by the passing of the Jackson Park Express. For all our white-walled asylums and all our dark-walled courtrooms, overheated district stations and disinfected charity wards, where the sunlight is always soiled and there are no holiday hours.
For hospitals, brothels, prisons and such hells, where patronage comes up softly, like a flower.
For all the collarless wanderers of the hose-and-wagon alleys of home.
It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet. Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too. Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear the anxious midnight eyes of strangers a long way from home.
A midnight bounded by the bright carnival of the boulevards and the dark girders of the El.
Where once the marshland came to flower.
Where once the deer came down to water.
Wheeling around the loop of the lake, coming at Chicago from east and south, the land by night lies under a battle-colored sky. Above the half-muffled beat of the monstrous forges between Gary and East Chicago, the ceaseless signal-fires of the great refineries wave an all-night alarm.
Until, moving with the breaking light, we touch the green pennant of the morning boulevards running the dark-blue boundary of the lake. Where the fortress-like towers of The Loop guard the welter of industrial towns that were once a prairie portage.
It remains a midland portage. No railroad passes through the city. Passengers shift from one to another of half a dozen stations. Freight trains are shunted around belt lines. But the Constellations overhead begin to lend it the look of a mid-world portage, with all the sky for its ocean–port.
The city divided by the river is further divided by racial and lingual differences. The Near Northside, centering around the comical old humpty-dumpty water tower which survived the fire, is, for example, almost as different from the Near Northwest Side, just over the bridge, in manners, mores, vocations and habits of speech, as Bronzeville is from Rogers Park.
So if you’re entirely square yourself, bypass the forest of furnished rooms behind The Loop and stay on the Outer Drive till you swing through Lincoln Park. Then move, with the lake still on your square right hand, into those suburbs where the lawns are always wide, the sky is always smokeless, the trees are forever leafy, the churches are always tidy, gardens are always landscaped, streets are freshly swept, homes are pictures out of Town and Country. And the people are stuffed with kapok.
For the beat of the city’s enormous heart, at the forge in the forest behind the towers, is unheard out in this spiritual Sahara. Where the homes so complacent, and the churches so smug, leave an airlessness like a microscopic dust over the immaculate pews and the self-important bookshelves. The narrow streets of the tenements seem to breathe more easily, as though closer to actual earth, than do these sinless avenues. Where Reader’s Digest is a faith, the Reverend Bradley is a prophet, and nothing but Sunday morning services can dissuade the hunter one moment from the prey.
NEXT CHAPTER: The silver-colored yesterday
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