“My Kind of Town” Contest Winners!

by Juli Schatz

Congratulations to our three winners of the “My Kind of Town” writing contest: First place to Cynthia Clampitt for "Open Roads, Open Minds, Open Hearts;" second place to by David W. Berner for "The Ukelele; " and third place to Geralyn Magrady for "60707."

Following are their stories.

“Open Roads, Open Minds, Open Hearts”

by Cynthia Clampitt


As I walk down the street, between imposing, gray buildings from another era, the elevated train rumbles into view, and I smile. Seeing the el pass overhead always makes me smile. It is so Chicago. This is a city that moves, but it moves in its own way.

People think I'm joking when I say that one of the great virtues of living in Chicago is O¹Hare International Airport. I'm not. That, too, is Chicago. Chicago is the hub, the center, not just of air travel, but of all travel. Look at flight plans, train tracks, highway systems, and shipping routes.

They almost all radiate from Chicago — out of Chicago and into Chicago. It is a restless city that lets its children wander, knowing they will return.

It is a city of motion and of dreams.

Chicago is a city built on dreams - big dreams. More than a hundred years ago, Chicago became the birthplace of American architecture and of the first skyscraper. While New York was still trying to be Europe, Chicago was inventing a new city true to the developing identity of the bold, brash, big-hearted land that it holds together with its web of highways.

Dreams draw people to Chicago. They bring their cultures, their foods, their ideas. They feed
Chicago’s spirit, and the city grows. Driven by hope, fueled by ambition and hard work, they
come here to make their dreams come true.

It is a city shaped by dreams and vision. The whole look and feel of the city is anchored in foresight and imagination. South Michigan Avenue is among the world’s few famous one-sided streets, along with New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Chicago has more gardens and parks than any other city in the world. Add the lakefront, and you have a combination that is unparalleled.

And Chicago loves. I can remember when British actress Jean Marsh came to Chicago many years ago to appear in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." In an interview, she said that she preferred acting in Chicago to acting in New York, because in New York, people go to the theater because they're supposed to, but in Chicago, they go because they love theater. Chicago loves theater. It loves food. It loves its teams. It loves life.

Still young by world standards, Chicago is filled with energy and hope, a hope that buoys and attracts. But there is grace and a growing maturity, too. Like the great lake that is her front yard, Chicago is beautiful, changeable, sometimes cruel, but always interesting. A vibrant giant permeated by a blend of urban hip and Midwest warmth, diversity and solidarity, art and
commerce, Chicago is remarkable in all ways. It embraces. It engages. It excites.

It is Chicago.

2nd Place: “The Ukelele”

by David W. Berner


My father was a music man. Not because he could play an instrument with any virtuosity, but because he simply loved music. He found pure joy in the sounds. Delight would spring out of him when he heard his favorites. It was not the kind of pleasure a man experiences when he listens to an opera and permits the soaring aria to bring him to tears, or the way a skilled pianist
might allow his senses to overflow as he strikes each note of the tender melody of a Beethoven piano sonata. For Dad, the emotions came less from the heart of a cultured man and more from the gut or a workingman. He’d cry when he heard the heartbreaking melody of a Merle Haggard
song, smile through the playfulness of a honky-tonk keyboard, and snap his fingers to every beat of the tough-guy smokiness of Sinatra’s My Kind of Town.

Still, as much as Dad loved listening to what gave him a musical kick, what he really wanted was to be able to play an instrument well enough to be called a musician. He’d listen to the big Magnavox console hi-fi stereo in our home, point to the speakers and say, “I want to be able to do that.” That was usually the twinkling sound of piano keys, the strum of a banjo, or the snappy
sax or horn in a Rat Pack melody.

It wasn’t as if Dad knew nothing about musical instruments. He could knockout a pretty solid version of Chopsticks on the piano and he knew a one-handed, ten-note ragtime lick. He could also blow a little Chicago-style harmonica, playing the same simple blues notes over and over.

But his best performance came from an unlikely instrument - a four-string ukulele. It was a beatup dark brown soprano version, the smallest kind made. I don’t know how Dad came to own the ukulele. Maybe someone gave it to him. Maybe he bought it. But the uke, as he called it, was always within arms reach, leaning against the wall in the living room next to Dad’s chair in case
he had the urge to play the one and only song he could perform with absolute pride.

“Five foot two, eyes of blue.” As Dad would belt out the words, his left hand would contort into simple chords on the ukulele’s tiny frets, and his right would skip a felt pick across nylon strings in a blurry rat-a-tat.

“But, oh, what those five foot can do!” Dad’s head would bob to the beat, eyes locked in concentration on the ukulele, making certain he played the right notes at the right time.

“Has anybody seen my gal?” When he finished a verse, Dad would speed-strum through a three-chord progression, creating an almost carnival-like sound.

I’m not sure how Has Anybody Seen My Gal? became the quintessential ukulele song. Maybe it had the perfect melody for the instrument, enough razzmatazz in the lyric to produce a smile from just about anyone, including a big one from my Dad. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn it was his favorite song – far above Haggard’s Working Man Blues or any of Sinatra’s
songs about Chicago.

“Turned up nose, turned down hose, never had no other beaus. Has anybody seen my gal?” Dad would play the tune flawlessly, giving the last chord a thwack-thwack-thwackity-thwack for a song-and-dance-man finish.

Before he would start playing at all though, Dad would take a minute to tune the ukulele, and
every time he’d joke, “Besides Gal, “tuning” is the only other song I know.”

“My dog has fleas. My…dog…has…fleas.” This is the phrase Dad would sing as he plucked the strings. There was something about the tenor of those words that helped to tune the instrument.

“My…dog…has…fleas. My dog has…fleas.” He’d hold out the last word – fleeeeeas – as he’d twist the key to stretch the final string.

Dad performed his ukulele concerts often, each one with delight. He never lost an ounce of enthusiasm for the routine, like the star of a Broadway musical that gives the same performance every night. These little musical events were Dad’s A Chorus Line, his Cats. And over the years, the sound of Dad’s ukulele became the soundtrack of our home.

When Dad got sick, the ukulele was left in its usual spot, leaning against the living room wall next to his chair. It was a particularly aggressive form of prostate cancer that quickly weakened my father, and it eventually forced him into a hospital bed in my parent’s bedroom. The ukulele fell silent.

Late one night, one of the many in those final months of waiting for Dad to die, I sat alone in my father’s chair and lifted the ukulele to my knee. I had learned to play the guitar years before and had fooled around with the ukulele a bit. I wiped the dust off the frets, put my thumb to the strings, and thought of all the songs Dad loved – the country tunes, the Sinatra standards, and of
course the classic ukulele song. But that night there was only one my limited ability could muster.

“My…dog…has…fleas.” I sang the line softly, picking each string and turning each key, hoping to find the perfect note. “My…dog…dog... has… my…dog.” I plucked the strings over and over, making tonal adjustments the best I knew how. “My…my dog…dog…dog.” I was having a hard time. The sounds were somehow off and the pitch of each string was unsteady and inconsistent. Still, I wouldn’t give up. I was determined to produce that familiar, sweet twang my father had once created.

As the long night sank into its deepest hours, I kept at it, singing and humming each note, plucking each string. And somewhere in the early morning hours, my eyes lost the battle with my heavy lids, and I fell asleep with my chin on my chest and the ukulele resting in my lap.

3rd Place: “60707”

by Geralyn Magrady


“Are you from Elmwood Park?”

“No.  I’m from Chicago.”

This was my youthful response to many years of the same residential question.  Growing up on the last Olcott block on the city limits, I never swayed from my obstinate declaration that I was, and always had been, a city girl.  In all practical terms, those words were technically accurate, but there were many winters when I wondered if my city, too, had thought I was from Elmwood Park, having never seen a plow and witnessing my four brothers and father breaking backs and spirits on the mounds of powder and slush and frozen patches that paralyzed my neighbors during vicious months of blistering temperatures, dangerous ice, howling winds, and that never-ending drifting snow.  The cars would spin and bounce down our street; near miss collisions and fender bender parking were a daily occurrence.  But we participated in the infamous city-living spectacle, which put the rubber stamp on our true address... we placed lawn chairs on the street, marking Dad’s spot for the family station wagon when he went to work.

The residential question paused briefly when the area codes changed.  Elmwood Park became the 708 area, while we city folk maintained our 312 status.  There was no denying where I was from.  The line in the sand had been drawn.  If I had a 312 phone number, well then, I was definitely from Chicago, and I took pride in that fact.  I didn’t want to be a suburbanite.  I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but a working class girl.  That’s what I thought Chicago was, because my parents grew up in the city, always bordering onpoor and middle-class.  I heard glorious stories about “the old neighborhood” (not understanding, of course, that all the “old” places - homes, schools, hangouts, etc.- had been long gone, torn down or fully dilapidated beyond recognition of their memories).  I wanted to live in their city forever!  After all, Chicago was a nostalgic place and an exciting place, too.  Sure I went to school in a suburb each day, and I went to church in a suburb each Sunday, but didn’t the real fun happen in the city?  Field trips
to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium... they were in Chicago.  MY Chicago.  Even when I attended college in a suburb, we always looked forward to Schubas or the Green Mill, the Wild Hare or the Empty Bottle (depending on our musical whims.)  The city was alive all the time... it never slept; it kept rolling on and on without stops.  I admired that energy, and every time I picked up the phone to dial a 708 friend, I was reminded of where I lived, in a city unlike their town or village.  So when the area codes changed a second time, when the 312s got split, and we became a 773, we were still Chicago... maybe not the historic city, not the downtown city or lakefront city or ethnic city or inner-city, but still “city.”  We were Democrats, not Republicans.

Then the big blow came.  The dreaded zip code frenzy.

Our phone number started with 773, not 708.  Our address was listed on an “O” street, not a numbered one.  Our city was listed as “Chicago,” not some suburb.  We were NOT listed in the meager suburban directory, but in the mega book of the city directory.  So why, why, did my fine Chicago abandon us?  “Big Tony” was our alderman; we had massive block parties that
sometimes got a bit out of hand; we walked to our local dollhouse-sized branch of the Chicago Public Library system; we biked to Hiawatha and Shabbona parks; we took the bus to Cubs games.  Heck, Mom took the bus to her job as a deli worker every day, too.  We were Chicagoans!  Why did we get pushed on to the Elmwood Park zip code?  Couldn’t they handle just a few more blocks of 606s?  All of my city friends had a 606 beginning... 60634 or 60635.

But I was being forced to concede to the dreaded suburban 60707.  Belmont and Harlem were announced as the boundaries.  Being south of Belmont and west of Harlem, our little square of 16 blocks (eight streets with two blocks each), would have to take a big gulp, swallow our pride, give in to the woeful zip.  That dreaded suburban zip.

My parents are still there, in our humble home of city living.  Mom still takes the bus when she needs to, and Dad still shovels out the street, but his car is parked there most of the time now, so no need for lawn chairs.  During the warmer months, those chairs are on the front porch where the two of the them sit and look out at the new neighbors and new generation of children who head west toward our old suburban Catholic school.  I don’t know if they’re still Democrats, but they’re still Chicagoans with a 773 area code, living on an “O” block, with a city address and an Elmwood Park zip.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that zip code confusion, it’s this:  no matter where I place my head at night; no matter where I travel or work or raise my kids; no matter my phone number or full address... whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I still say I’m from Chicago.  I guess it’s just my kind of town.