I lived for a time in 1970s Chicago along what was a predominately Latino slice of Halsted Street between Madison and Harrison. Madison was also known as Skid Row, a place where drinking men slept in their clothes on the sidewalk if they couldn’t afford the nearby flophouses. South of the expressway at Harrison was Maxwell Street, home to Jews and African Americans and a vibrant outdoor market. Once known as the Main Stem, the area as a whole had been for many years a gateway for men and women seeking work from all parts of the country. A decade later the combined forces of social change, the University of Illinois expansion, and other real estate development would wipe it out for good. The Mexicans would move south to Pilsen and Little Village, the Italians west to Little Italy. Most of the Germans, Poles, and others had already moved further north to more residential neighborhoods, but would soon flee these areas as well when non-whites joined them. But for a time, in this most segregated of cities, the area was anything but segregated.
My mother, because she favored Latino men and the kind of nightlife found there, made it her home. She was a Catholic Italian who had been earning her own living since she was fourteen, married at eighteen, divorced a year later, then had married my Mexican father, whom she would divorce as well right after I was born. Her dream was to live among “her people,” as she called them, She left my twelve-year-old brother behind, and we were never a whole family again.
It was hard to tell what exactly made them her people. Her parents and siblings lived in a completely white part of town, not in Little Italy, but side-by-side with other landowners. They were not anything like the folks I got to know in our new home. Sure, they were of all colors, but the Latin Kings were going strong, and there was a murder or a knifing every Saturday night. Prostitution flourished out in the open, gambling took place in the basements of restaurants and bars, and police presence was very, very limited. She and her boyfriend Gustavo rented three storefronts within blocks of each other over a period of about fifteen years for his restaurants, all named “Gustavo’s.” He was a great chef, and my lifelong obsession with food is directly connected to him.
A short man with thick dark hair and eyebrows who looked more Filipino than Mexican, he worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day, did all of the cooking himself, and served as his own bouncer when things got rowdy. I cannot hear the sizzle of rice toasting in a bath of oil, smell garlic slowly softening in that same oil, or taste a perfect pork short rib without thinking of him. I can still picture his diamond-shaped paper chef’s hat perched on the oiled black hair, black-and-white checked baggy trousers, and white shirt. I don’t think I ever saw him wear anything else. He ended each day around 1a.m., with a six-pack of Budweiser and whatever was on a small television in the back, which he watched in the dark as he opened beer after beer. He was a good guy, as far as I could tell, though not handsome by my estimation. I had no idea why my mother was so desperate to leave him–other than the fact that she was being worked to death trying to keep the same hours as he did–but she was.
My favorite of the three places was at the corner of Halsted and Adams, right across from the–was it legendary? everyone then thought so–Adams Tavern. We lived in the back, in a small blue-shingled shack built to look like a house. It had fake plexiglas windows fitted with curtains, and window boxes full of plastic flowers underneath them. The front, where the customers were served, was cheery, with old inlaid black and white tiled floors, big windows looking out onto the street, and a jukebox–my jukebox–right near the front door. I still can feel the excitement of building the place out to order, all the new appliances being delivered, the booths made on site. We slept the very first night on mattresses in the huge empty space feeling very lucky and alive.
By day I loved it there. But by night in the airless little house the cockroaches were free to roam and the toilet and shower were down a long cement hallway near the back, where the dogs were kept on long chains so they could go in and out through a flap in the metal back door on their own. You tried not to go back there unless absolutely necessary. At night when I was supposed to be asleep, the drunks stumbled in up front and the music blared from what was not my jukebox anymore. I’d wait until the last customer had left and Gustavo had finished his last beer and gone to bed to creep out to be with her as she counted her tips, watched black-and-white movies, and slid small pills into brown containers. She did this for hours. It was the only time she could be alone. In the dark with the flickering silver of the television above the dairy case as our only light I waited for her to finish up, trying to keep my eyes open and avoid stretching out on the cool orange vinyl of the booth we were sitting in. I could never make it. So many mornings found me opening my eyes to the ashy sky and her figure standing over me, wearing a coat, suitcase in hand.
“We’re leaving this time, for real. I put some of your stuff in with mine in this case. We can get the rest of our stuff later.”
I would panic as this scenario played out, even though we’d been through it so many times before. Each time it seemed new. We were leaving, that was it, no doubt about it. As the sky grew brighter I’d rub my eyes and ask about Suzy, my doll. Did she pack her? I needed to have her with me, my mother knew this, didn’t she? We couldn’t go back into the little house for fear of rousing Gustavo, who would put an end to our plans. She hadn’t. “Well, no. I couldn’t find the damn thing.” Suzy. Not a damn thing, but something precious to me. She’d flop down and sigh, “Well, I guess we can’t go then.” It was all Suzy’s fault. Or mine. Most of the time I was glad. I didn’t really want to leave. There was school to go to, and sometimes the smell of the rice cooking as I got dressed and ready.
Silence from me. Mumblings from her about why she needed to leave, “Gustavo is a good man, but…” He worked her night and day, no breaks or holidays or even trips downtown, which was only a few miles away. And then there was the sex. “He wants it all the time. I can’t take it anymore.” Yes, I knew that, because our beds were close to one another in the one room we shared. Sex was all around me, everywhere, on every set of lips, in the slippery, made-up eyes of every woman, and sometimes even happening in the vacant lot next to us, fragrant with prairie weeds and the smell of Blommer’s Candy factory filling the air like the sweet smoke from an old bong. Men with nothing better to do and no money to pay for sex stood in this lot or in doorways nearby, offering their penises like a gift. Here, take it, it’s all yours. The mix of food, sex, trafficking, gambling, and street activity was exciting. I understood why my mother wanted to be there. And also why she and I had to leave. But she couldn’t, not yet.
Her way of escaping was to have even more sex. With someone else. Her escape route led us to the local hotel, the Van Buren, to visit a beautiful, dark skinned Cubano named Gonzales. He had short, wiry hair, thin, lithe limbs, and a sweet spot for my mother, Pall Mall cigarettes, Early Times whiskey, and sad songs about leaving women behind in beautiful countries. When he wasn’t fucking my mom on the cool, thin hotel sheets so bright they blinded me, he was working shifts at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue as a bellboy. We’d go to the Van Buren on her lunch break three or four times a week. Toys and comic books were my reward and bound me to be silent. I began to keep track: combined with the times she did it with Gustavo, it meant she was having sex every day, sometimes twice a day. And working those long shifts. The pills in the brown bottles were speed, which she certainly needed.
I was intrigued by this creature, married twice before she was thirty, and doing this, now, with an almost eight-year-old me in tow. Fascinated. It was as if we were not from the same species: I read books, wore glasses, and fancied myself a future singing star. She, I could only surmise, was a half-formed thing surviving only on pills, sex, and Coca Cola. I barely saw her eat, which was amazing considering the abundance of food all around us. When she didn’t notice me watching I’d get a glimpse of her chewing cup after cup of crushed ice, jaws working, eyes roaming the street for who knows what. If she did notice, or if I answered her back one too many times, I’d be invited to spend some time in the little house. She didn’t need any smart-mouthed know-it-all spying on her. I was to keep quiet, and make myself useful. We had no money of our own, only the tips she made. If I needed things, I had to figure out a way to get them.
“Tell Old Mr. Jeffries he looks handsome in his new tie.”
“You look great in that tie, Mr. Jeffries.”
Mr. Jeffries would bring me on shopping trips to Maxwell Street. There would be new outfits then. Sometimes a new bike. Sometimes other stuff. Hours and hours spent eating pork chop sandwiches, listening to the Blues in an empty lot barren of anything but inches-thick dry dirt. Table after table of local wares, records, produce, tacos, churros, clothing. Everything, the whole world, right there waiting to be bought.
“Ask Lourdes (my favorite prostitute, a Puerto Rican with green eyes) for a few dollars. Tell her the nuns are bugging us for a donation.”
Lourdes would give me five bucks, and sometimes take me down the street to her apartment. She did well, and to have three furnished rooms with a fully functioning bathroom was truly luxurious. She would show me how she layered on the make-up to hide her pretty freckles. “Dudes don’t like them,” she’d say while she applied coat after coat of Max Factor stick, foundation, and powder. False eyelashes. A hairpiece called a “fall,” which heightened her dark ‘do. A girdle she needed help getting into. Chunky wooden platform pumps. Gloves. All of this took about two hours, with me watching rapt and speechless. How did she manage to have sex with all of that on? “Oh, I don’t take anything off, baby. They want the whole package.”
Most nights Gonzales would come in for his evening meal. He and my mother hardly spoke, never acknowledged any intimacy. Still, I could feel Gustavo watching them from the kitchen. How could he not know? Couldn’t he smell it on my mother when she came back from those afternoon trysts? She never showered afterwards. When I heard them arguing late at night I became certain that he did know, and worried he’d find out about my part in it. We needed to get out of there. He’d never been violent before, but there could be a first time. And really, I was tired of watching adults have sex. After the arguing would come the scene with coat and the suitcase. We would go live with my aunt, she would say. But I knew she, at least at that point, wouldn’t be able to stand the middle class monotony of her elder sister’s life. They went to bed at ten, ate three meals a day, prayed. I knew because I’d live with her for long stretches of time, when things got too hectic on Halsted Street.
She had me call her several times a week, from the pay phone across the street, to let her know everything was okay. Things were, and they weren’t. They were when a new batch of music got delivered for the jukebox. When I managed to get to school at Old St. Pat’s and come home with a few friends. Most mornings I couldn’t get there. The front door was padlocked from inside, and I had to be there by 7:30. Gustavo didn’t always get up in time, and my mother, forget it. I missed much of first grade. They were okay on a hot summer day and there was no school to worry about and I could dance around in cut-offs with my friends and offer them free food. It was okay, for a lot of the time. And then it wasn’t. I kept getting hurt, because I was a kid and things happened. The problem was when they did, my mother didn’t bring me to the doctor, ever. I’d have to call my aunt and get her to intervene. Sometimes I waited too long because I was having fun and a burn or something else didn’t seem like such a big deal. Then I got hurt badly, my ankle cut by a thick piece of broken mirror in the little house that no one had cleaned up. She still would not take me to have it looked at.
It’s hard to explain why. Extremely paranoid, she believed signing up for anything–a checking account, medical insurance–was to ask for unwanted scrutiny. You weren’t to sign your name to anything. Then you were safe. Every year that went by with her made me realize that while I was getting smarter, she just seemed more and more stupid. Crazy. Fucking ignorant, and a liar about things that any sensible person knew were true. A liar about things I knew to be true. I wanted to scream at her: “There is no one spying on you, no one is trying to steal your personal information!” She had no information, and nothing else of value to steal. Everything she owned, from the fake rings she wore saying they were real, to the polyester pantsuits and Salvation Army shoes, none of it was worth anything. I was the only thing she owned that was, which is maybe why she held onto me. She wasn’t just a sweet, hardworking airhead like everyone seemed to be believe. She wasn’t right.
I don’t know. All I knew was that this very deep cut, which gushed blood for what seemed like forever, was open and obvious, the most brutal reminder that I shouldn’t be there. I needed to not be there. I called my aunt and invited her to visit. If she just saw, she could do something. I couldn’t spend another night watching my mother lug around her old suitcase. Not another day in the overheated hotel room with her and Gonzales. No more time worrying about this thing on my foot needing to be stitched up, and listening to this woman telling me why it couldn’t be done. She actually did that. After the flow of blood was finally under control she sat me down in our booth and tried in a rational tone of voice to explain the dangers of going to the emergency room. I listened, woozy, too tired to eat the ice cream in front of me. She seemed pleased then. “I’m glad you understand.”
It took less than five minutes after my aunt’s arrival the next day for her to tell me in a low voice, “Go and get your things.” I had never seen her so angry. I looked down at my ankle and saw what she saw. For a whole day and a half I’d not been seeing it, in cahoots with mom, who could also not see it. The wound was an inch long, and who knows how deep. My mother was chatting away with one of her favorite customers, and nodding over at us once in awhile in a cheery manner. It was three o’clock, when the speed combined with Coca Cola had kicked her into high gear. I knew this as the time of day when I could ask her for anything and get it, and when her libido sent her straight to the Van Buren hotel. I wasn’t going to be accompanying her on that trip, not this day, or any other day. I watched as my aunt went over and whispered something into my mother’s ear. Her eyes got big, and then she shook her head several times and said, “No, I didn’t know it was that bad! Really?” I saw my aunt back away and tell her, “You know damn well it is. We’ll call you later.” And then we left. I didn’t kiss my mother goodbye, I just waved as if I was going on a short errand. I heard her tell her friend, “She’s going to visit her aunt. Isn’t that nice?”
I didn’t see her for a whole month, until just after the twenty stitches in my ankle had been taken out, and would not live with her again until I was sixteen. She sat on my bed in her coat and said, “You know Mama loves you.”
“Yes,” I told her, with my face towards the wall, “I know.
Deborah Pintonelli is the author of Meat and Memory and Ego Monkey. She has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council, PEN Midwest, and the National Association of Arts and Letters. Her stories and essays have been published by Gargoyle, Conjunctions (website), Tribes, Autonomedia, Criminal Class Press, Chicago Literati, Noir Nation, Vida, the “First Time I Heard” series, and Sensitive Skin, and included in anthologies by NYU Press, Autonomedia, Thin Ice Press, and Arbre a Cames Editions in France. She is currently working on a novel, To The Last Gay Man I Will Ever Love, represented by Curtis Brown, Ltd. She lives in Chicago with her two children.
–Art by Jan Rockar
–Art by Plamen Stoev
–Art by Joel Hohner