Stories I Know
People are so soon gone; let us catch them.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves
My daughter is two years old, and she and I are sitting on the front steps outside my mother’s house on Mozart Street in West Rogers Park on the North Side of Chicago. The sun has long since set and it’s way past Nora’s bedtime, but she shows no sign of falling asleep anytime soon, so I’ve been telling her stories about the neighborhood.
This is the same stoop where I would sit with my dad when he was still alive, I say, the same place where the two of us would watch and greet the neighbors going by—Loping Leemie on his way to the Jewish academy; Mr. Primack with his briefcase, off to work; Rabbi Michael Small, cigar in hand, heading for his shul on California and Albion.
A peaceful neighborhood, I tell Nora, a good place to grow up. In the 1970s, we never locked our doors. When we went out, we wouldn’t even take our house keys along—until the night we returned to find our side door open, the dresser drawers upturned, clothes and papers everywhere. Our lockbox was gone, the one full of silver dollars my mom had received from her mother.
I ask Nora if I should tell her more about this block.
She nods, so I keep going.
Well, I say, see that house across the street, the one that’s a little farther back than the others? An old couple lived there with their motorcycle- riding son, who moved out when I was a kid. When the blizzard of 1979 hit Chicago and the city didn’t plow our streets, everybody on our block except the couple across the street pitched in twenty dollars to hire a private tow-truck driver to shovel. Everything got shoveled except their parking space. Their car just stood there like an igloo on asphalt until the woman sheepishly ran out with her twenty-dollar bill, and then everyone started working together to dig out her car.
As the night grows darker, I tell Nora more little stories about our old neighbors—Mrs. Golnick, who rushed over to our house the moment after she learned hers had been robbed; Sol Zimmerman, who dispatched a dead mouse from our kitchen when my mother and I were too frightened to do it ourselves; Irv Ellis, the onetime high school basketball star; Mr. Joe Small, the one-man neighborhood watch committee; Dr. Friedman, whose sister taught me in Hebrew school; an Orthodox Jewish man who wore shiny black shoes and played catch with me—he told me he used to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I tell Nora more stories about myself, too. This is the same block where I’d ride up and down on my red tricycle with its Mickey Mouse bell and later on my yellow Schwinn, I tell her, the same block where I’d walk to kindergarten with my pal Beth Goldberg and debate the existence of God. “He’s everywhere!” she’d say. “But how can He be everywhere?” I’d demand.
I say that these are the same steps where I’d play ball-against-the-wall after school with a white rubber ball and a Ron Santo mitt. “Play ball, Adam,” Joe Small would shout whenever he saw me, and when I was done, he’d tell me about the trips he’d taken to Vegas, the appraised Omega watch he’d purchased there with his winnings, the Phyllis Diller show he’d seen. On weekends, my grade school pals and I would play Wiffle ball, making up our own rules—hit my dad’s black Ford, get a ground-rule double; smack the ball over Mr. Small’s red Lincoln, get a home run.
But I don’t know how much Nora understands of what I’m telling her. It’s really late, I finally say; it’s time to go to bed. See, everybody’s lights are off; everyone is asleep. The Friedmans are asleep and the Smalls are asleep and the Seruyas are asleep and the dogs and the cats and the squirrels and the birds are asleep, so maybe we should go to sleep, too.
But Nora says no.
“Okay,” I say. “What do you want to do?”
“More stories, Papa,” Nora says. “Tell more stories.”
And at this moment, I realize that this stoop where my daughter and I are sitting, this street, this neighborhood in this city, this is the place that first made me want to become a writer, listening to our neighbors’ stories, looking at houses and imagining what was going on inside. And at this moment, I realize, too, that this is what I still miss most about my father—the stories he isn’t here to tell me anymore, the stories he never got around to telling me at all. I long to hear the stories about where he grew up, a place he never took me, the stories about his dreams, which he never shared.
“All right,” I say to Nora, “let’s tell more stories.”
Memories of my father, a brilliant but contradictory man who was so present in my life and yet sometimes so distant and difficult to know, begin to return to me, appropriately enough, when I’m flying twenty thousand feet above the ground, looking down at the city where he and I were both born. It’s wintertime, and I’m sitting in the window seat of a half-empty Embraer RJ-145, flying from Indianapolis to Chicago, where I will board another plane to head to New York. My dad died two months ago, in November, at the age of eighty, and this will be the first time I will ever pass through Chicago without stopping at my parents’ house.
The last plane ride I ever took with both my mom and dad was in 1978, when I was ten; we went to San Francisco for Memorial Day weekend. At the time, little seemed remarkable about our trip—we stayed at the Stanford Court Hotel, dined at Kan’s in Chinatown, watched the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company perform H.M.S. Pinafore, hung out with one of my dad’s old medical school pals, a chatterbox named Stan, who had struck it rich in Australian opal mines and referred to himself in the third person. I wore a brown nubbly suit to meet Stan; he told me I looked like David Copperfield.
But after we returned to Chicago, for more than the next twenty-five years, my father never left the state of Illinois. Sometimes, he’d talk about taking a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, to view Civil War sites; about driving to Poughkeepsie, New York, to visit me in college, and to West Branch, Iowa, to research a book he’d always wanted to write about the 1932 Bonus March, a historical incident that fascinated him. He talked about taking a plane to London and leaving America for the first time; and one time not all that long ago about flying to Minnesota so that he could find a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who might be able to help him.
But he never went any of those places.
My dad, who rarely seemed to bother with introspection, never talked much about himself to me. He didn’t talk about his inner life, never told me how he felt about flying or why he eventually stopped, but he never seemed to like giving control to anyone else—he boasted about once being on a plane that was taking too long to leave its gate; he insisted the flight attendants open the exit door so that he and my mother could get out, grab their luggage, and go back home. That was the man I knew—doing everything his way, always in a rush. If it couldn’t be done fast, it wasn’t worth doing. He told me that on a trip to Los Angeles before I was born, he and my mom were in the audience of a sitcom and he had had enough of the show.
“You can’t leave, sir,” the usher said.
“Like hell I can’t,” my dad replied.
Yep, that was the dad I knew.
When I close my eyes, I can still easily picture my father. He was a broad-shouldered man, stocky, crew-cutted, and he stood five seven, just about the same height as I am. He wore black or brown dress shoes and Brooks Brothers button-down shirts—white or light blue, pale yellow in the 1970s. He walked with a limp and during the last years of his life, he had considerable difficulty with his knees and hips; still, he always moved fast, as if he was on his way to someplace more important, and if he was ever feeling any pain, save for the occasional moan of “Oy vey,” he wouldn’t let you know about it. His default facial expression split the difference between knowing smirk and dubious sneer, as if he was in on a joke he wouldn’t bother telling you, or as if you’d just told him something but he wasn’t certain he believed you. “I don’t know if I do or I don’t,” he liked to say. “I don’t know if it’s true or it isn’t.” Tough guy to get to know, even if you saw him every day.
Earlier tonight, when this plane took off from Indianapolis, a light snow was falling, but the night is now clear and the plane is flying relatively low; this is a short flight, only about a half hour in the air, and as we begin our approach to O’Hare Airport, I look out my window at the lights of Chicago. My father worked for more than fifty years as a radiologist, and looking at the city below me, I can almost envision an entire X-ray of his life developing—just about every place he ever went is becoming visible through this small window. I can actually make out where he was born, where he grew up, where he lived, where he worked, and where he died. And in everything I can see tonight, in all the lights and in all the blackness, are fragments of stories he told—in my mind, those stories are all the pieces I still have of him.
From this window, I can see Chicago’s old West Side, which was essentially the Jewish ghetto when my dad was born there on March 16, 1925, in Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital, the son of immigrants Rebecca and Samuel Langer. My dad was born with the name Sidney Langer, but he was hospitalized for pneumonia at the age of two and his parents changed his first name to Seymour, on the advice of a rabbi, to fool the dybbuk so that the boy would survive.
My dad’s father was a hardworking army veteran who served as a mule skinner during World War I, when mules were still used for pulling heavy artillery. I know little about my father’s European ancestors—the only story I remember my dad telling me about them concerned a cousin who supposedly served in the Polish army and fought the Russians during World War I. As for my grandfather, my father said he came over from Langerdorf, Austria, to Ellis Island during the early part of the twentieth century, and worked in Chicago as a bartender in a Levee District speakeasy frequented by “Big Jim” Colosimo and Al Capone. Whenever federal agents would come to investigate the place, my grandfather flushed the hooch down the loo.
At night, from this high up, Chicago resembles a giant Lite-Brite board, but every so often, an angled street cuts through some of the illuminated squares. When I was in second grade at Daniel Boone Elementary School, Mrs. Schachter taught us that all the city’s angled streets had once been Indian trails. Way down there on the West Side is one of them—Fifth Avenue. That’s where Seymour Sidney Langer lived with his parents and his younger brother when he was growing up. He attended Penn Elementary School and Sumner Elementary; won a scholarship to take drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago; went to John Marshall High School with all the other first-generation kids of Yiddish-speaking immigrants on the West Side.
Marshall High was the school where all the best and brightest Chicago Jews went, my dad told me—in his stories, just about everyone at Marshall turned out to be a war hero, a lawyer, or a doctor, like him; the basketball team went to State; Irv Ellis, our Mozart Street neighbor, played on the team; two of my dad’s buddies had tryouts with the Chicago Cubs; there were talent shows written by future Hollywood scribes Larry Gelbart and Sheldon Keller. When my dad talked about the West Side, it always sounded like such a wonderful, vibrant place to grow up, so much more exciting than my West Rogers Park, but he never took me there, even after I asked—the neighborhood had changed, he’d say, everyone was gone. “Who’d want to go now? You could get yourself killed just driving by.” Until I was old enough to drive and brave enough to go to the West Side by myself, I could only imagine what my father’s youth had been like, even though it had taken place less than a half hour away from where I grew up.
I can see two parallel rows of streetlamps just south of the Loop; they’re lighting up Martin Luther King Drive, which was called South Parkway back in the day when my dad’s father ran a soda-pop factory on the South Side of the city. The company was called S & L Beverages—L for Langer, S for some guy named Segal.
My dad, who said his first language was Yiddish—even after I was born, he peppered his conversation with Yiddish words and epithets: Vuss? Cock ihm ohn!—worked in the pop factory as a boy, tallying accounts. My father told me brief stories about life in the factory: gun-toting union men demanding dues; a holdup, during which Troubles, the factory’s dog, was shot; a lawsuit filed by Pepsi-Cola against S & L for manufacturing a product called Pep Cola—my father suggested the company rename its cola “Loyal Clown.”
S & L didn’t last long, though. My father blamed its demise on the fact that sugar became scarce and expensive during World War II, and the factory never recovered from the economic hit it took. Afterward, my grandfather returned to work as a trucker delivering Jewel soda water to stores.
Perhaps in the 1940s, if you were on a plane flying into Chicago and gazing out the window like I am now, you could have seen the sparks from the streetcars my father rode from the West Side to downtown Chicago while he was still in high school and worked nights and weekends at the old Chicago American newspaper pasting up display advertisements. But the last Chicago streetcars stopped running long before I was born. And in the thirty-eight years of my life when my father was alive, I never took any streetcar or even any train or bus with him—only a car, a taxi, and once in a while an airplane. When I was a kid, my dad would drive north to Howard Street, where we’d sit in his car and watch trains coming in and out of the CTA yards, but we never got on any of them. I’d just sit on his front passenger seat, no seat belt. Sometimes, he’d let me sit on his lap and help him steer.
Below me, tiny cars speed east and west on some West Side boulevard. That’s probably Roosevelt Road, with the long-ago-demolished vaudeville houses and Yiddish theaters where my father used to go with his high school buddies. And that dark patch to the west could well be Waldheim Cemetery out in Forest Park, where Sam and Becky Langer are buried and where my dad and his brother, Jerome, used to go every Father’s and Mother’s Day. Becky Langer died before I was born, when my dad was still in medical school. And when Sam Langer died, I didn’t go to his funeral; in fact, I didn’t even figure out he had died until several years afterward. Although one of my dad’s favorite pastimes was thumbing through the obituaries in The Chicago Daily News and the Tribune, death was a topic he usually left out of the stories he told me. It took a trip to the dictionary for me to learn what my father meant when he said his uncle Harry Bell had long since “met his demise.” And as far as Sam Langer’s demise is concerned, the only reason I know he died in 1974 is that once I saw on my dad’s desk a note from a Jewish funeral home reminding him to light a Yizkor candle on the date of his father’s death.
Even when my dad’s father was alive, I never saw much of “Sam” anyway—my dad never referred to his father as “Dad” or “Pop” or “Pa,” as my mother called her late father, Abe Herstein, an inventor who died before I was born and is probably worthy of a book of his own; it was always “Sam.” An 8-mm film my father made of his dad was labeled simply “SAM.” Sometimes, I would watch from a distance as my dad gave Sam a shave with a Norelco electric razor, but I never heard Sam tell any of his stories, never heard him discuss delivering pop, pouring bootleg liquor, serving in World War I, or being related to a general who fought for the Polish army. All I can remember is Sam living with his second wife, Rose, who pinched my cheek too hard and said “nowadays” and “shayna punim” a lot, in an apartment east of California Avenue on North Shore, then later in a nursing home near Lake Michigan. My dad never took me to visit him there—he was “in a bad way,” my mother would explain, meaning, I learned much later, that he had had a stroke, had lost the ability to speak, and was suffering from depression.
Over the airplane’s PA system, the flight attendant announces connecting gate information: “The Atlanta flight will leave from Gate B7 . . . For those of you traveling to Boston . . . If you are traveling to Urbana-Champaign . . .”
My dad went to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he boasted of being chugalug champion of Newman Hall and of befriending future NBC television personality Gene Shalit, who had a column in the Daily Illini called “What Shalit Be?” My dad finished college in two years, he said; classes were so easy that he loaded up on his courses to graduate as fast as he could.
We’re zooming over Uptown now on the North Side of the city, where my dad lived in a room in his uncle Harry Bell’s New Lawrence Hotel, a 1920s Art Deco building just east of the storied Aragon Ballroom, when he was attending the U of I medical school in Chicago. Uncle Harry was one of my father’s relatives who made it big, a man who, in my dad’s tales, brought to mind Uncle Ben in Death of a Salesman. (“Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich.”) My dad told me that Uncle Harry owned not just the New Lawrence in Chicago but also the Edgewater in Madison, Wisconsin. A big man, my dad’s uncle Harry, and my father spoke of him in the same respectful tones that he used to describe my cousin Sam Berkman, who, my father told us, invented the formula for Kayo chocolate drink and later started Bio-Science Laboratories, then became chairman of the board of Dow Chemical. My father liked to tell stories about the important and colorful people to whom we were related—not only the Polish general but Governor William Langer of North Dakota; also, Izzy Tuchman, a bread baker with supposedly Communist leanings who spoke on a soapbox at Chicago’s legendary Bughouse Square.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from My Father's Bonus March by Adam Langer. Copyright © 2009 by Adam Langer. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.