3. The silver-colored yesterday (Chicago: City On The Make…Nelson Algren, 1951)

Chicago: City On The Make

Chicago: City On The Make

by Nelson Algren, 1951

transcribed by Jack M Silverstein

3. The silver-colored yesterday

All that long-ago August day the sun lay like shellac on the streets, but toward evening a weary small breeze wandered out of some saloon or other, toured Cottage Grove idly awhile, then turned, aimlessly as ever, west down Seventy-first.

The year was 1919, Shoeless Joe Jackson was out-hitting Ty Cobb, God was in his Heaven, Carl Wanderer was still a war hero, John Dillinger was an Indiana farm boy and the cops were looking cautiously, in all the wrong corners, for Terrible Tommy O’Connor.

And every Saturday evening the kid called Nephew and I hauled a little red wagon load of something called the Saturday Evening Blade, a rag if there ever was one, down Cottage Grove to the wrought-iron Oakwoods Cemetary gate. There to hawk it past the long-moldering graves of Confederate prisoners who had died at Camp Douglas in some long-ago wrought-iron war.

When we sold out we’d just hang around the gate waiting for Nephew’s Uncle Johnson to break out of the saloon directly across the way. The bartender ran us off if we came near the doors without the iron-clad alibi of having a fight to watch, and Uncle J. was the white hope of that corner.

If no brawl developed of itself the barflies were certain to arrange something for poor Johnson, an oversized spastic with a puss like a forsaken moose, whose sole idea in battle was to keep his hands in front of his eyes. Some white hope.

Uncle’s whole trouble, Nephew confided in me as half owner of the little red wagon, was that he had gone to work too young.

Some Uncle. We used to hear him hymning at the bar—

Oh he walks wit’ me

‘N he talks wit’ me—

and the barflies encouraging him mockingly.

He was deeply religious, and the barflies encouraged him in everything—drinking, hymning or fighting, fornication or prayer. As though there were something wondrously comical about everything Uncle attempted.

I remember that poor hatless holy Johnson yet, lurching upon some unsaved little tough with a face shadowed by a cap and a lit cigarette on his lip—the cigarette bobbles and Uncle reels back, blood from his nose coming into his mouth. The Cap yanks him forward, feints his hands down off his eyes and raps him a smashing banneger in the teeth. “It’s a case of a good little man whippin’ a good big man, that’s all,” Nephew advised me confidentially, holding our little red wagon behind him. Then the soft shuffle-shuffle of The Cap’s shoes imitating the White City professionals.

“Finish the clown off,” Nephew encourages The Cap softly. That’s the kind of family it was.

Uncle had never learned to fall down. He’d reel, lurch, bleed, bellow and bawl until the bartender would break the thing up at last, wiping Uncle’s ashen face with a bar towel in the arc-lamp’s ashen light. Till the others came crowding with congratulations right out of the bottle, pouring both into Uncle right there on the street. Then a spot of color would touch his cheeks and he’d break out into that terrible lament—

‘N he tells me I am his own.

to show us all he’d won again. Uncle had some such spiritual triumph ever Saturday night.

I used to hang open-mouthed around that sort of thing, coming away at last feeling nothing save some sort of city-wide sorrow. Like something had finally gone terribly wrong between the cross atop St. Columbanus and that wrought-iron gate, out of an old wrought-iron war, forever guarding the doubly-dead behind us.

No one could tell me just what.

The wisest thing to do was simply to go beer-cork hunting behind the saloon. With the city spreading all about. Like some great diseased toadstool under a sheltering, widespread sky. Then to haul our little red wagon slowly home, with Nephew humming all to himself, “Be my little bay-bee bum-bul bee, buzz buzz buzz.”

Maybe the whole town went to work too young.

For it’s still a Godforsaken spastic, a cerebral-palsy natural among cities, clutching at the unbalanced air: topheavy, bleeding and blind. Under a toadstool-colored sky.

Maybe we all went to work too young.

Yet that was a time of several treasures: one sun-bright-yellow beer cork with a blood-red owl engraved upon it, a Louisville slugger bat autographed by Swede Risberg, and a Comiskey Park program from one hot and magic Sunday afternoon when Nephew and I hid under the cool bleachers for three hours before game time. To come out blinking at last into the roaring stands, with the striped sun on them. And Eddie Cicotte shutting out Carl Mays.

The morning we moved from the far Southside to North Troy Street I had all three treasures on me. And Troy Street led, like all Northside streets—and alleys too—directly to the alien bleachers of Wrigley Field.

“Who’s yer fayvrut player?” the sprouts in baseball caps waiting in front of the house had to know before I could pass. I put the horn of the Edison victrola I was carrying down on the sidewalk at my feet before replying. It didn’t sound like something asked lightly.

But the suddenly far-distant White Sox had had a competent sort of athlete at short and I considered myself something of a prospect in that position too. “Swede Risberg,” I answered confidently, leaning on the Louisville slugger with the autograph turned too casually toward the local loyalty board.

I didn’t look like such a hot prospect to North Troy Street, I could tell that much right there and then. “It got to be a National Leaguer,” the chairman advised me quietly. So that’s how the wind was blowing.

I spent three days leaning on that autograph, watching the other sprouts play ball. They didn’t even use American League bats. “Charley Hollocher then,” I finally capitulated, naming the finest fielding shortstop in the National League, “account I t’row righty too.”

“Hollocher belongs to Knifey,” I was informed—but I could fight Knifey for him, I had the right.

I wouldn’t have fought Knifey’s baby sister for Grover Cleveland Alexander and Bill Killefer thrown in. And could only think nostalgically of the good simple life of the far Southside, where kids had names like “Nephew” and “Cousin,” and where a man’s place among men could be established by the number of Saturday Evening Blades he sold. I went through the entire roster of National League shortstops before finding one unclaimed by anyone else on Troy Street—Ivan Olson, an ex-American Leaguer coming to the end of his career with the team then known as the Brooklyn Robins.

But Olson was taking a lot of booing from the Flatbush crowd that season because he had a habit of protesting a called third strike by throwing his bat in the air—and every time he did it an umpire would pick it up and toss it higher. No eleven-year-old wants to be on the side of any player who isn’t a hero to the stands. “If I got to pick a Swede”—I stood up to The Committee at least—“I’ll stick to Risberg—I seen him play once is why.”

Well, you could say your old man was a millionaire if that was your mood and nobody would bother to make you take it back. You might even hint that you knew more about girls than you were telling and still get by. But there wasn’t one of those Troy Street wonders who’d yet seen his “fayvrut player” actually play. You had to back that sort of statement up. I pulled out the Comiskey Park program hurriedly.

They handed it around in a circle, hand to grubby hand, examining the penciled score for fraud. When it came back to my own hand I was in.

In without selling out: I’d kept the faith with The Swede.

The reason I never got to play anything but right field the rest of that summer I attribute to National League politics pure and simple.

Right field was a coal-shed roof with an American League sun suspended directly overhead. A height from which I regarded with quiet scorn the worshipers of false gods hitting scratchy little National League bloopers far below. There wasn’t one honest-to-God American League line drive all summer.

It wasn’t till a single sunless morning of early Indian summer that all my own gods proved me false: Risberg, Cicotte, Jackson, Weaver, Felsch, Gandil, Lefty Williams and a utility infielder whose name escapes me—wasn’t it McMillen? The Black Sox were the Reds of that October and mine was the guilt of association.

And the charge was conspiracy.

Benedict Arnold! Betrayers of American Boyhood, not to mention American Girlhood and American Womanhood and American Hoodhood. Every bleacher has-been, newspaper mediocrity and pulpit inanity seized the chance to regain his lost pride at the expense of seven of the finest athletes who ever hit into a double play. And now stood stripped to the bleacher winds in the very sight of Comiskey and God.

I was the eight. I climbed down from right field to find The Committee waiting.

“Let’s see that score card again.”

I brought it forth, yellow now with a summer of sun and honest sweat, but still legible. When it came back this time I was only allowed to touch one corner, where a grubby finger indicated the date in July of 1920. Risberg had sold out in the preceding September and I was coming around Troy Street almost a year later pretending I believed Risberg to be an honest man. I’d gone out to the ball park, seen him play in person and was now insisting I’d seen nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all. The moving finger stopped on Risberg’s sorrowful name: four times at bat without a hit, caught sleeping off second, and a wild peg to first. And I still pretended I hadn’t suspected a thing?

“I wasn’t there when he really thrun the game,” I tried to hedge. “It was a different day when he played bum on purpose.”

The Tobey of that committee was a sprout who had a paying thing going, for weekdays, in the resale of colored paper-picture strips of major-league players. He bought them ten for a penny and resold them to us for two, making himself as high as a dollar a week, of which fifty cents went to his Sunday-school collection plate. I’d once seen his lips moving at the plate, praying for a hit. “What do you think he was doin’ tossin’ wild to first?” this one wanted to know now.

“I figured he was excited, it was a real close play.”

“You mean for your all-time All-American fayvrut player you pick a guy who gets excited on the close ones?”

I didn’t know it was for all time,” was all I could think to reply. “I thought it was just for this year.”

“What kind of American are you anyhow?” he wanted to know. He had me. I didn’t know what kind I was.

“No wonder you’re always in right field where nothin’ ever comes—nobody could trust you in center.”

He was really cutting me up, this crusader.

“Well, I asked for Hollocher in the first place,” I recalled.

“You could still fight Knifey for him.”

“I’ll just take Ivan Olson.”

“That’s not the question.”

“What is the question?”

“The question is who was the guy, he knock down two perfec’ pegs to the plate in a world-series game, one wit’ the hand ‘n one wit’ the glove?”

“Cicotte done that.”

“ ‘N who was Cicotte’s roommate?”

Too late I saw where the trap lay: Risberg. I was dead.

“We all make mistakes, fellas,” I broke at last. “We all goof off, we’re all human—it’s what I done, I goofed off too—it just goes to show you guys I’m human too. I ain’t mad at you guys, you’re all good guys, don’t be mad at me.” Choked with guilt and penitence, crawling on all fours like a Hollywood matinee idol, I pleaded to be allowed, with all my grievous faults, to go along with the gang. “Can I still have Olson, fellas? Can I keep my job if I bum-rap some people for you?”

Out of the welter of accusations, half denials and sudden silences a single fact drifted down: that Shoeless Joe Jackson couldn’t play bad baseball even if he were trying to. He hit .375 that series and played errorless ball, doing everything a major-leaguer could to win. Nearing sixty today, he could probably still outhit anything now wearing a National League uniform.

Only, I hadn’t picked Shoeless Joe. I’d picked the man who, with Eddie Cicotte, bore the heaviest burden of all our dirty Southside guilt. The Black Sox had played scapegoat for Rothstein and I’d played the goat for The Swede.

So wound up that melancholy season grateful to own the fast-fading Olson. When he went back to Rochester or somewhere they started calling me “Olson” too. Meaning I ought to go back to Rochester too. I took that. But when they began calling me “Svenska” that was too much. I fought.

And got the prettiest trimming you’d ever care to see. Senator Tobey himself administered it, to ringing applause, his Sunday-school change jingling righteously with his footwork. Leaving me at last with two chipped teeth, an orchid-colored shiner and no heart left, even for right field, for days.

However do senators get so close to God? How is it that front-office men never conspire? That matinee idols feel such guilt? Or that winners never pitch in a bill toward the price of their victory?

I traded off the Risberg bat, so languid had I become, for a softball model autographed only by Klee Brothers, who were giving such bats away with every suit of boy’s clothing bought on the second floor. And flipped the program from that hot and magic Sunday when Cicotte was shutting out everybody forever, and a triumphant right-hander’s wind had blown all the score cards across home plate, into the Troy Street gutter.

I guess that was one way of learning what Hustlertown, sooner or later, teaches all its Sandlot sprouts. “Everybody’s out for The Buck. Even big-leaguers.”

Even Swede Risberg.

NEXT CHAPTER: Love is for barflies

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: Are you a Christian?

Photo credits

Oakwoods Cemetery

White Sox 1919 home schedule

Shoeless Joe card

Ivan Olson

Arnold Rothstein

Young Charles Comiskey

Eddie Ciccote

Swede Risberg


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