by Nelson Algren, 1951
transcribed by Jack M Silverstein
5. Bright faces of tomorrow
Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.
In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.
Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance to prove ourselves more abject than anyone yet for expenses to Washington and return – You Too Can Learn to Trap Your Man – and applaud the artist, hanging for sale beside his work, with an ancestral glee. And cannot understand how it can be that others are happier than ourselves. And why it seems that no one loves us now as they once did. No giants live on Rush Street any more.
Since the middle twenties the only party of over-average height to stop off here awhile was a Mississippi Negro named Wright. And he soon abandoned his potentialities, along with his people, somewhere along Forty-seventh Street. Potentialities still lying around behind some chicken shack or other down there, gathering mold about the edges but still too heavy for any one else on Forty-seventh, or anywhere else in town for that matter, to lift. While, rumor has it, he preoccupies himself with the heady task of becoming a Café Flore intellectual. With approximately the same equipment for such a task as Herb Graffis. For the artist lucky enough to come up in Chicago there ought to be a warning engraved on the shinbone alley treatment which was once Wright’s home: Tough it out, Jack, tough it out.
“With two exceptions,” Mencken observed in 1930, “there is not a single novelist deserving the attention of the civilized reader’s notice who has not sprung from the Chicago palatinate.”
Out of the Twisted Twenties flowered the promise of Chicago as the homeland and heartland of an American renaissance, a place of poets and sculptors to come, of singers and painters, dancers, actors and actresses of golden decades yet to be. Jane Addams and Bix Beiderbecke and Mary Garden and Billy Petrolle and Grover Cleveland Alexander were working their happy wonders then. Gene Field had gone, but Dreiser and Anderson and Masters and Sandburg were still here.
Thirty years later we stand on the rim of a cultural Sahara with not a camel in sight. The springs dried up and the sands drifted in, and the caravans went the other way. The names of our writers are one with the fighters whose names are legends: Battling Nelson and Barney Ross, Willie Joyce and Tony Zale, Tuffy Griffiths and Miltie Aron, Billy Marquart and Davey Day. Today, whether speaking of writers or fighters or ballplayers, the only true major-leaguers batting hereabouts are all working out of Comiskey Park.
(And what became of No-Hit Charley Robertson, who stepped off a sandlot one afternoon to pitch that perfect game for the White Sox? What ever became of No-Hit Charley, who put twenty-seven men down on strikeouts and infield popups – and then stepped back to his sandlot and left nothing behind but that perect afternoon when nobody in the world could get a hit?)
And what became of the old Bismarck Gardens, that stood where the Marigold stands now? What became of Sam T. Jack’s Burlesque and the old Globe on Desplaines? Who remembers the electrified fountain that was once the showpiece of Lincoln Park? Who now knows the sorrowful long-ago name of the proud steam Chicora, down with all hands in the ice off South Haven? Or where all the high-wheeled open-front hacks went, with the velvet robe in the back and the jack handle in front in case of trouble? Gone with the days when Patrick Henry beer sold for four dollars a quarter barrel and White Swan gin for twenty-nine cents a half pint; gone with Emile Coue, gone with old Sam Insull, gone with Billy Sunday, gone with Great Man Shires. Sunk under the ice in the waves off South Haven, sunk with all hands for good and forever, for keeps and a single day.
The city today is more a soldier’s than an artist’s town. It has had its big chance, and fluffed it. Thirty years ago we gave musicians to the world; now we give drill sergeants and “professional informants,” formerly just “informers.”
You can live in a natural home, with pictures on the walls, or you can live in a fort; but it’s a lead-pipe cinch you can’t live in both. You can’t make an arsenal of a nation and yet expect its great cities to produce artists. It’s in the nature of the overbraided brass to build walls around the minds of men – as it is in the nature of the arts to tear those dark walls down. Today, under the name of “security,” the dark shades are being drawn.
Yet, looking east to the cocktail-lounge culture of New York or west to the drawn shades of Hollywood, where directors go on all-fours begging producers, “Please kick me, it will show the world how deeply I respect you,” we can agree complacently with the old ward-heeler from Wells and Monroe telling the visiting crusader, “A lot you got to holler.”
A lot we all got to holler.
“Watch out for yourself” is still the world. “What can I do for you?” still means “What can you do for me?” around these parts – and that’s supposed to make this the most American of cities too. It’s always been an artist’s town and it’s always been a torpedo’s town, the most artistic characters in the strong-arm industry as well as the world’s most muscular poets get that way just by growing up in Chicago – and that’s an American sort of arrangement too they tell us.
So whether you’re in the local writing racket or in the burglary line, if you’re not a bull then you’d better be a fox. Wise up, Jim: it’s a joint where the bulls and the foxes live well and the lambs wind up head-down from the hook. On the day that the meek inherit the rest of the earth they’ll be lining up here for unemployment insurance and be glad to be getting it.
A town where the artist of class and the swifter-type thief approach their work with the same lofty hope of slipping a fast one over on everybody and making a fast buck to boot. “If he can get away with it I give the man credit,” is said here of both bad poets and good safe-blowers. Write, paint or steal the town blind – so long as you make your operation pay off you’ll count nothing but dividends and hear nothing but cheers. Terrible Tommy O’Connor was never a hero till he walked past the hangman and out the door and never came back any more.
Make the Tribune bestseller list and the Friends of American Writers, the Friends of Literature, the Friends of Shakespeare and the Friends of Frank Harris will be tugging at your elbow, tittering down your collar, coyly sneaking an extra olive into your martini or drooling flatly right into your beer with the drollest sort of flattery and the cheapest grade of praise: the grade reserved strictly for proven winners.
But God help you if you’re a loser and unproven to boot: the bushytails will stone your very name. “Hit him again, he don’t own a dime” is the rock upon which the Gold Coast literati have builded along with the blowsiest North Clark Street tart. “Let’s see your dirty gold, Jack,” is how you’re judged on either The Coast or The Street. “This is a high-class parlor, we ain’t doin’ business in no gangway, bud.”
Therefore its poets pull the town one way while it’s tycoons’ wives pull it another, its gunmen making it the world’s crime capital while its educators beat the bushes for saints. Any old saints. And every time a Robert Hutchins or a Robert Morss Lovett pulls it half an inch out of the mud, a Hearst or an Insull or a McCormick shoves it down again by sheer weight of wealth and venality.
Up, down and lurching sidewise – small wonder we’re such a Johnson of a joint. Small wonder we’ve had trouble growing up.
The very toughest sort of town, they’ll tell you – that’s what makes it so American.
Yet it isn’t any tougher at heart than the U.S.A. is tough at heart, for all her ships at sea. It just acts with the nervous violence of the two-timing bridegroom whose guilt is more than he can bear: the bird who tries to throw his bride off the scent by accusing her of infidelity loudly enough for the neighbors to hear. The guiltier he feels the louder he talks. That’s the sort of little loud talker we have in Chicago today. He isn’t a tough punk, he’s just a scared one. Americans everywhere face gunfire better than guilt.
Making this not only the home park of the big soap-chip and sausage-stuffing tycoons, the home cave of the juke-box giants and the mail-order dragons, the knot that binds the TV waves to the airlanes and the railroad ties to the sea, but also the psychological nerve center where the pang goes deepest when the whole country is grinding its teeth in a nightmare sleep.
Here, where we’ve kept the frontier habit of the Big Bluff most intact, the hearts of Americans, who must go along wit hthe Big Bluff or be investigated, are most troubled.
Congressman Lincoln once told Polk that he was “like a man on a hot shovel finding no place on which he could sit down,” meaning that the torch Polk’s brass was putting to another people’s fields was not Democracy’s torch after all. If he could say a word in Springfield again this morning he might assure us that we’ve got the wrong shovel again.
Here, where hope was highest, the disappointment digs deepest.
You can’t push nineteen-year-olds who want to be good doctors and good engineers into a war for the salvation of importers’ investments and expect them to come out believing in anything much beyond the uses of the super-bazooka against “gooks.” You can see the boys who stopped caring in 1917 under the city-lamps yet.
Under the tall lamps yet. As evening comes taxiing in and the jungle hiders come softly forth: geeks and gargoyles, old brown winoes, sour stewbums and grinning ginsoaks, young dingbats who went ashore on D Plus One or D Plus Two and have been trying to find some arc-lit shore ever since. Strolling with ancient boxcar perverts who fought all their wars on the Santa Fe.
Deserters’ faces, wearing the very latest G.I. issue: the plastic masks of an icy-cold despair. Where the sick of heart and the lost in spirit stray. From the forgotten battlegrounds on the other side of the billboards, on the other side of the TV commercials, the other side of the headlines. Fresh from the gathering of snipes behind the nearest KEEP OFF warnings come the forward patrols of tomorrow. Every day is D-day under the El.
By highway and by byway, along old rag-tattered walls, surprised while coming up in the grass by the trolley’s green-fire flare, their faces reveal, in that ash-green flash, a guilt never their very own.
Upon the backstreets of some postwar tomorrow, when the city is older yet, these too shall live by night.
Bright faces of tomorrow: whiskey-heads and hop-heads, old cokey-joes and musclemen on the prowl for one last wandering square to muscle before the final arc-lamp dims. When the poolrooms all are padlocked and the juke-boxes all are still. When the glasses all are empty. And, under the torn and sagging ties of the long-blasted El, the last survivors cook up the earth’s final mulligan. To toast man’s earth derisively with the earth’s last can of derail: “Let’s give it back to the squares.”
When traffic no longer picks up, as traffic used to do.
“When it come to Democracy they had to take our brand in them days,” surviving veterans may recall. “Our brand or else. The goon squads saw to that. They went out of business shortly after that.” We all went out of business shortly after that.
These are the pavement-colored thousands of the great city’s nighttime streets, a separate race with no place to go and the whole long night to kill. And no Good-Morning nor Good-Evening-Dears for the freshly combed tribe of Riders-to-Work-by-Morning nor the dusty-collared clan of Riders-to-Home-by-Dusk.
Tonight, just as the daylight’s last sleepy Boy Scout is being tucked in with a kiss and a prayer, the sullen evening’s earliest torpedo slips the long cue silently from the shadowy rack. Touches the shaded lamp above the green-baized cloth and turns on the night.
Every day is D-day under the El.
NEXT: No more giants
PREVIOUS: Love is for barflies
Charlie Robertson (note: Algren spelled Robertson’s first name “Charley,” though all other sources list it as “Charlie”)