4. Love is for barflies (Chicago: City On The Make…Nelson Algren, 1951)

Nelson Algren's "City on the Make"

Chicago: City On The Make

by Nelson Algren, 1951

transcribed by Jack M Silverstein

4. Love is for barflies

Before you earn the right to rap any sort of joint, you have to love it a little while. You have to belong to Chicago like a crosstown transfer out of the Armitage Avenue barns first; and you can’t rap it then just because you’ve been crosstown.

Yet if you’ve tried New York for size and put in a stint in Paris, lived long enough in New Orleans to get the feel of the docks and belonged to old Marseille awhile, if the streets of Naples have warmed you and those of London have chilled you, if you’ve seen the terrible green-grey African light moving low over the Sahara or even passed hurriedly through Cincinnati—then Chicago is your boy at last and you can say it and make it stick:

That it’s a backstreet, backslum loudmouth whose challenges go ringing ‘round the world like any green punk’s around any neighborhood bar where mellower barflies make the allowances of older men: “The punk is just quackin’ ‘cause his knees is shakin’ again.”

“What’s the percentage?” the punk demands like he really has a right to know. “Who’s the fix on this corner?”

A town with many ways of fixing its corners as well as its boulevards, some secret and some wide open. A town of many angry sayings, some loud and some soft; some out of the corner of the mouth and some straight off the shoulder.

“You make rifles,” the Hoosier fireman told ten thousand workingmen massed at a Socialist picnic here, “and are always at the wrong end of them.”

“Show me an honest man and I’ll show you a damned fool,” the president of the Junior Steamfitters’ League told the visiting president of the Epworth League.

“I don’t believe in Democracy,” the clown from the National Association of Freal Estate Boards reassured his fellow clowns. “I think it stinks.”

“I’ll take all I can get,” the blind panhandler added, quietly yet distinctly, in the Madison Street halfway house.

“You can get arrested in Chicago for walking down the street with another man’s wife,” the cops foreworn the out-of-town hustler smugly.”

“I despise your order, your law, your forced-propped authority,” the twenty-two-year-old defied the ancient remaindered judge. “Hang me for it!”

And the dark strange question inscribed for posterity on every dark, drawn shade of the many-roomed brothel that once stood on Wells and Monroe, asked simply:

WHY NOT?

      “A lot you got to holler,” the wardheeler who protected many such drawn shades subsequently advised the crusading minister. “You live off the people down in your patch too, don’t you?”

“If you’re that smart”—the hustler put a stop to the argument—“why ain’t you no millionaire?”

Cruising down Milwaukee Avenue on any Loop-bound trolley on any weekday morning, the straphangers to Success who keep the factories and the ginmills running stand reading the papers that could as well be published in Israel or Athens, in Warsaw or in Rome. On either side of the tracks are the shops with the American signs in one window and alien legends in the other: Spanish, Polish, Italian, Hebrew, Chinese or Greek.

Between stops stretch the streets where the shadow of the tavern and the shadow of the church form a single dark and double-walled dead end. Narrow streets where the summer sun rocks, like a Polish accordion, with a louder, shinier, brassier blare than American music anywhere. Churches that look as though they’d been brought over whole, without a brick missing, from Stockholm and Lodz, Dublin or Budapest: from all the old beloved places. Negro churches, as often as not, bearing Hebrew characters out of some time when the building was a synagogue.

Yet the city keeps no creed, prefers no particular spire, advances no one color, tolerates all colors: the dark faces and the blue-eyed tribes, the sallow Slavs and the olive Italians. All the creeds that persecution harassed out of Europe find sanctuary on this ground, where no racial prejudice is permitted to stand up.

We insist that it go at a fast crawl, the long way around.

The Negro is not seriously confronted here with a stand-up and head-on hatred, but with something psychologically worse: a soft and protean awareness of white superiority everywhere, in everything, the more infuriating because it is as polite as it is impalpable. Nobody even thought such a thing, my dear.

So we peg the rents just a teensy-weensy bit—say twenty-five per cent—if you happen to be a Negro and so can well afford it.

If you’re black you’d better afford it.

      If you’re white,

a Forty-seventh Street minstrel sometimes sings, mostly to himself,

      Well, awright.

      If you’re brown, stick aroun’.

      If you’re black, step back

      Step back

      Step back

      Step back.

And no one will ever name the restaurants you musn’t eat in nor the bars you musn’t drink at. Find them out for yourself, greyboy. Make your own little list. Of the streets you mustn’t live on, the hotels where you can’t register, the offices you can’t work in and the unions you can never join. Make a good long list to Senator Douglas and one to King Levinsky.

The King and the Senator are equally concerned.

You can belong to New Orleans. You can belong to Boston or San Francisco. You might conceivably—however clandestinely—belong to Phildadelphia. But you can’t belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to the flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a drafty hustler’s junction in which to hustle awhile and move on out of the draft.

That’s why the boys and girls grow up and get out.

Forever fancying some world-city right out of the books wherein some great common purpose lends meaning to their lives. As no brokers’ portage ever can.

So they go to New York and merely grow sharp. Or they go to Hollywood and soften like custard left in the Sunset Boulevard sun.

Or to Paris, the top of the sky and the end of the world, for the special sort of wonder they cannot live without—and find nothing but American pansies packed three deep at the bars and aging American divorcees in summer furs carting pekes around in baskets especially constructed for the peke trade. When the peke-and-pansy season is past they get one fleeting glint of the City of Light like their world-city out of the books—and know, in that swift homesick moment, that they’re as close to home, and as far, as ever they’ll be.

For Paris and London and New York and Rome are all of a piece, their tendrils deep in the black loam of the centuries; like so many all-year-round ferns tethered fast in good iron pots and leaning always, as a natural plant ought, toward what little light there is. But Chicago is some sort of mottled offshoot, with trailers only in swamp and shadow, twisting toward twilight rather than to sun; a loosely jointed sport too hardy for any pot. Yet with that strange malarial cast down its stem.

You can be a typical Parisian, you can be a typical New Yorker if that helps when the cocktail lounges close. But if you can find anything in pants, skirts or a Truman Capte opera cape passing itself off as a typical Chicagoan we’ll personally pay his fare back to Flair.

New York as taken roots as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. Detroit is a parking lot about a sports arena. New Orleans is mellow where it isn’t sear. St. Louis, albeit still green in spots after lo these many springs, has definitely had it. Kansas City has gone as far as it can go. San Francisco is complete. Philadelphia appears finished.

But Hustlertown keeps spreading itself all over the prairie grass, always wider and whiter: the high broken horizon of its towers overlooks this inland sea with more dignity than Athens’ and more majesty than Troy’s. Yet the caissons below the towers somehow never secure a strong natural grip on the prairie grasses.

A town that can look, in the earliest morning light, like the fanciest all-around job since Babylon. And by that same night, south down State or north on Clark or west on Madison, seem as though the Pottawattomies had been the wisest after all.

Most native of American cities, where the chrome-colored convertible cuts through traffic ahead of the Polish peddler’s pushcart. And the long, low-lighted parlor-cars stroke past in a single, even yellow flow. Where the all-night beacon guiding the stratoliners home lights momently, in its vasty sweep, the old-world villages crowding hard one upon the other.

Big-shot town, small-shot town, jet-propelled old-fashioned town, by old-world hands with new-world tools built into a place whose heartbeat carries farther than its shout, whose whispering in the night sounds less hollow than its roistering noontime laugh: they have builded a heavy-shouldered laugher here who went to work too young.

And grew up too arrogant, too gullible, too swift to mockery and too slow to love. So careless and so soon careworn, so challenging yet secretly despairing—how can such a cocksure Johnson of a town catch anybody but a barfly’s heart?

Catch the heart and just hold it there with no bar even near?

Yet on nights when, under all the arc-lamps, the little men of the rain come running, you’ll know at last that, long long ago, something went wrong between St. Columbanus and North Troy Street. And Chicago divided your heart.

Leaving you loving the joint for keeps.

Yet knowing it never can love you.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: The silver-colored yesterday

Photo credits

Milwaukee Ave., Polish neighborhood

El platform, night

Big Bill Broonzy

King Levinsky

El platform, old timey


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