January 12, 2018
Algren: A Life
Excerpt of Algren: A Life by Mary Wisniewski
Winner of the Chicago Writers Association 2017 Book of the Year Award for Traditional Nonfiction
Nelson Algren’s first memory was of getting lost, looking for a hero. He was two and a half. Taking another small boy, he walked up the sidewalks of Detroit in 1911, away from the house where he was born at 867 Mack Avenue, away from his mother’s candy store, into the vastness of the booming city, a golden-haired boy in short pants. He was looking for his uncle Theodore, a sailor who had worked on the big boats on the Great Lakes. Nelson’s mother, Goldie, who never entertained notions, only convictions, loved to talk about Theodore and her other astonishing brothers. She told how Theodore had gotten into a fistfight with the ship’s cook on the desk of the steamer Chicora. The captain said one of them had to leave. Theodore was proud—he knew he’d work again on one of the thousands of steamers and barges filling the country’s upper Midwest, on Superior and Erie and Michigan, the lake Nelson later referred to as the “secondhand sea.” So Uncle Theodore shook hands with everybody except the captain, and got off at Benton Harbor, Michigan. On its next trip, in January of 1895, the Chicora left from Milwaukee and sank without a trace beneath Lake Michigan’s wintry waters. Even a secondhand sea can be a devourer of men.
But this was not the best part of the story, Goldie would insist, speaking from atop a step stool, where she was sponging a wall, or from her knees, scrubbing a floor, her thick, blonde hair frizzing in the heat. The son of a fireman on the Chicora went looking for the wreck in a glass-bottomed boat called the Chicago. But in less than a week the glass-bottomed boat and the fireman’s son went down too. The glass-bottomed boat story was a bit much, and Algren’s father, Gerson, an overburdened working man always waiting to go another shift, had his doubts. He thought the son was a damned fool to follow his father.
“Not all the damned fools are at the bottom of the lake,” Goldie would snap back. Algren’s memories of his parents’ relationship were mostly of quarrels, the two of them circling round and round the ring, with Goldie forcing Gerson into rhetorical corners, where he would hide, rope-a-dope, behind the evening paper, his lips moving as he read.
But Uncle Theodore was no fool. Nelson urged his companion down one sidewalk after another, past the wooden balloon frame houses of laborers like his father, working for “the screw works,” or for Packard or Ford. What’s the screw works compared to the open water? Goldie had taught contempt of ordinary labor early.
A train came by and the tiny boys waved to the engineer. “That was Uncle Theodore,” Nelson told his friend, trying out an early gift for improvisation. He was satisfied, but still lost. Everything was so enormous. A Jewish tailor found them and gave them rye bread before calling the police, his many children looking on. Perched on a policeman’s desk, eating ice cream, Nelson remembered the guns behind the desk, black and mysterious.
Nelson Algren was born on March 28, 1909, in Detroit, as Nelson Ahlgren Abraham to Gerson Abraham and Goldie Kalisher, two Chicago transplants and nonobservant Jews. He was a late baby and only son—his sister Irene was nine, and his sister Bernice was seven. Gerson was already forty-one, and Goldie thirty-one. Both his parents had come from big families. Besides the heroic Theodore, there was Goldie’s big brother, Abraham, and little brother, Harry, a sailor on the USS Chicago who had served in the Spanish-American War. He died at age twenty-nine, the year before Nelson was born, becoming the family saint. There were Goldie’s sisters Hannah and Toby, who on a summer evening used to sing, accompanied by the player piano, in memory of Harry:
My brave boy sleeps in his faded coat of blue
In the lonely grave unknown lies the heart that beats so true
His grandfather, who treated Nelson as a special favorite, showed him how he could blow real smoke through a little wooden clown.
The Kalishers were a “prosy family,” Nelson remembered. Goldie’s parents, Louis and Gette, were middle-class German Jews who came from Prussia to Chicago in the nineteenth century, and became embarrassed at the Polish Jews who followed them and looked so Jewish, with their yarmulkes, beards, and prayer shawls. Families like the Kalishers “knocked themselves out to repudiate their Jewish roots immediately,” Nelson said. As in Germany, “They were anxious to become blonde and blue-eyed, which they succeeded in doing.” Tow-headed Nelson must have pleased them.
German, not lower-class Yiddish, was spoken at Grandpa Kalisher’s home at 862 North Washtenaw in the West Town neighborhood, where he made red-banded “Father & Son” cigars and kept a sommerhaus, a European-style cottage in the back. Goldie taught her son the German version of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” which starts: “Ich bin klein / Mein Herz ist kein,” translated as “I am small / my heart is pure.” Nelson would tell his friend Art Shay that Goldie gave him some of his German toughness.
This was one kind of immigrant—hardworking, home owning, joining the American Legion and assimilating. On Gerson’s side was the opposite kind: the renegade, the lunatic, the crook. This was the type that fascinated Nelson, and this type keeps reappearing in his fiction, the one with the hustler’s blood, and in his own life of petty thefts, swindles, and sometimes ruinous gambles. This was Nels Ahlgren, his Swedish grandfather, born in Stockholm, Sweden, to a shopkeeper in about 1820. When Nels was a teenager, his father—Nelson’s great-grandfather—died, and Nels read his much-marked copy of the Old Testament. “When he did, it drove him bonkers,” Nelson recalled. Nels memorized the book, became an Orthodox Jew, changed his name to Isaac Ben Abraham, and moved to America before the Civil War.
Isaac went first to Minnesota as a fur trader, where he was burned out in an Indian raid. Then he went to Chicago and brought misfortune to a little servant girl from Koblanz, Germany, named Yetta “Jettie” Stire, sixteen years his junior, by marrying her and moving her to the swampy wilds near Black Oak, Indiana, which later became part of Gary, squatting on land he did not own, as Nelson recalled the story. Before trying his hand at farming, Isaac opened a country store and conceived an ingenious con, giving his customers Swedish pennies instead of American ones in change. The Swedish coins were worth about a third less. When he ran out of them, he tried making his own. Though Nelson does not elaborate on Nels’s methods, he believed his grandfather also experimented with perpetual motion, the eternal chimera of shiftless intellectuals.
A squatter farm and a crooked store among the mosquitoes and coyotes of Black Oak were not scope enough for a man of Abraham’s peculiar genius, so he took his wife to San Francisco, leaving at least one child behind to collect later. On the West Coast, while waiting for a boat to the Holy Land, Abraham became a sort of freelance rabbi, scolding his fellow Jews for their lack of orthodoxy, able to quote the Bible word for word. He made such a nuisance of himself in San Francisco that the chief rabbi would hide from him. When Swedish Isaac came knocking, someone would be sent down to say the rabbi was not home. Abraham would leave abrasive notes, mocking the rabbi’s intelligence. “He was an intellectual before his time, which was his trouble, inasmuch as he didn’t want to work,” recalled Nelson, who looked like him. Nelson’s father, Gerson, named for the son of Moses, was born in San Francisco in 1867. His sister Hanna was born later.
Through some mysterious appeal, Isaac gained enough money for passage to Jerusalem for himself and his family. Nelson doesn’t explain in his memoirs, but Abraham may have hooked into one of the early Zionist movements to create Jewish settlements in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, settlements that included Mishkenot Sha’anim in Jerusalem. Gerson would later tell his own son he remembered camels as a small boy. How terrible this strange land must have appeared to poor Jettie, this desert country full of hard men, speaking a language that was neither German nor Yiddish nor English. As Nelson told it later, she was stuck doing all the work for Isaac and his hangers-on, sewing and cooking while missing Indiana. She soon had enough of the Promised Land. She went to the American Consulate, begging for release, and miraculously was given passage money, in one version of the story. Gerson walked down a dusty road with his mother, leaving Jerusalem as a young boy in 1871. What visions Jettie must have told him as he trotted in the strong Palestinian sun, of lush trees and fat cows, of actual rather than prophetic milk and honey. Gerson must have loved his mother, for as an adult he worked always with hands, and despised men who wouldn’t work and follow the rules. But as mother and children walked away, the Swedish prophet called after his meal ticket, “Hey! I’m coming with you.” So what could she do but take him back?
On the steamer back to the states, the blue-eyed prophet struck again. He looked at the American Consulate’s money and decided that here was a sin—thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, sayeth the Lord, but lo, were not these graven images of George Washington on the bills? So Isaac threw the money into the Atlantic. He did this publicly, for the edification of the horrified passengers, as Nelson told the story. Someone took up a collection for Jettie, and she kept the money hidden, to spare everyone another commentary on the first commandment.
In Indiana, Isaac stayed on the farm with his family at least until 1880, when Gerson was thirteen, fathering two more children—Rosa and Adolph. Then Isaac abandoned his family and Judaism, first for socialism, then for Methodism, then for whatever would pay, going around the world as a mercenary missionary, as Nelson recalled. His sister Irene described the old man in softer terms, as a “writer and a lecturer and a champion of the underdog,” like her brother. The Abraham family went to Chicago, to the colonies of Jews on the West and North Sides. But when Gerson was about twenty, the old man returned, small and poor, with a long white beard and a new humility, ashamed that he had abandoned his family. “There is no truth, there is no religion, no truth,” he told them. “It is all nothing.”
His family pressed him to stay, and he did for a little while, at least long enough to be on the 1890 voter registration records in Chicago. Then Gerson remembered giving Isaac a half dollar and watching the little, hunched old man go down the aisle on the Madison streetcar, never to be seen again. He eventually died a pauper in Florida. In 1900, Jettie was living in Chicago with her oldest son Moses and daughter Rosa, at the same address as the newly married Gerson and Goldie. By 1921 Jettie was living alone as a widow, in the rear of a building in Hammond, Indiana. There was a long connection between Nelson’s family and northwestern Indiana, from the 1860s, with the farm, into the 1930s, when his sister Bernice and her friends bought a cottage there, through the 1950s when Algren bought his own home in Gary, in the Miller Beach area. Northwestern Indiana was Algren’s alternate home, outside of Chicago, his version of the country and a green place of escape. He always longed to be able to look out on a big body of water.
It is a sign of Algren’s eccentricity that he later sees Isaac Abraham as his true spiritual father. But the homage started at Algren’s birth. Despite memories of the lonely road with camels, Gerson named his only son for the prophet wanderer: Nelson Ahlgren Abraham. Maybe this was a measure of Gerson’s own search for a hero, and hopes for something that only occasionally materialized.
Gerson got little schooling and was a working man from early adolescence, from a time when men worked from first light to 6:00 pm. He had seen the belly dancer Little Egypt at the 1893 World’s Fair, and a band called McGuire’s Ice-Cream Kings at the Columbia Dance Hall on North Clark Street, but these were short breaks in a life of constant effort. The great machinery of industrial age Chicago wanted workers who weren’t throwing bombs and would endure a sixty-hour, six-day week. Gerson worked for McCormick Reaper Works, Otis Elevator, and Yellow Cab, fixing what was broken. He is described as a “screw maker” in the 1890 census. He was, Nelson remembered, “a fixer of machinery in basements and garages,” working hard and trying to avoid trouble at a time when trouble was everywhere, in greedy owners or threatening union agitators. Nelson suggested that his father was a scab, a strike breaker, who would earn two times what others were getting for doing the same work until “some picket would take him aside and ask him how he would like to have his head blown off his shoulders.” Simple Black Oak Gerson replied he would like to wait until after lunch. Gerson saw the police clash with union activists advocating for an eight-hour day near the McCormick works in May of 1886, perhaps ducking his head as he crossed the picket lines. Two workers were killed when police fired into the crowd. This incident was followed the next day by the notorious riot at Haymarket Square, in which a homemade bomb led to the deaths of seven policemen and four civilians, and later to the hangings of four anarchists on dubious evidence. Gerson also recalled seeing the fierce, bearded preacher-anarchist Samuel Fielden, who was later convicted of inciting the crowd to violence, speaking at the lakefront, which suggests that Gerson was willing to see all sides of the matter. But Nelson said with a note of scorn that Gerson did not remember these epic events as well as he remembered popular songs from the past—Gerson was not trying to be anybody’s hero; he was just trying to fix things.
In 1899, at age thirty-two, Gerson married twenty-two-year-old Goldie Kalisher and lived for a time on Chicago’s South Side. Then they moved with baby Irene to Detroit, a growing city where the auto industry was just starting to take off and jobs were thick on the ground. Goldie worked as a candy maker. Nelson’s adored older sister Bernice was born there in 1902, followed by Nelson seven years later. His sisters helped care for him, pushing him around the neighborhood in a baby carriage to give Goldie a break. They moved back to Chicago in 1913. Gerson and Goldie must have saved some money from Packard, since they came back not to the bustling Near Northwest Side, under the eye of Goldie’s family, but to the pleasant, almost rural Park Manor neighborhood, to buy a two-story house at 7139 South Park, now Martin Luther King Drive, when Nelson had just turned four.
Then as now, Chicago’s neighborhoods were defined by Catholic parishes, and Park Manor was under St. Columbanus, the patron saint of motorcyclists, the cross of its combination church-and-school building standing sentinel over all the little one- and two-story brick and frame homes. Park Manor had yards and open prairies for playing Run, Sheepy, Run, cowboys and Indians, or baseball, with boys discussing the heroic White Sox—Shoeless Joe, Eddie Cicotte, and Nelson’s favorite, Swede Risberg. In the war years, it was the Huns versus the brave Americans and English, with boys taking turns as enemies and allies. They used sunflower stalks as bayonets, and garbage slop tied up in scraps of burlap as grenades. They talked over tin-can field telephones, connected by wires through wooden fences, and feigned dramatic deaths in trampled prairie grasses. Trenches could have been reinforced with stolen red bricks from the St. Columbanus construction projects—ambitious pastor Dennis O’Brien finished a convent in 1917 and later started building a big, double-steepled church, which was completed in 1923. Nelson grew up with this example of constant progress outside his window, of the city around him constantly expanding, with scaffolding and walls rising and the clanking noises of machinery.
The kids made bonfires in the vacant prairie lots on the chilly autumn evenings, and roasted potatoes, making them black on the outside, and soft and white within. In winter, they skated on a pond by the church. For the hot summer days, Goldie made homemade root beer. People kept ducks and geese, and grew big vegetable gardens, following the motto “Garden Plots to Kaiser Blot.” Gerson himself had a half acre of tomatoes and onions planted across the street—which he worked joyfully, missing the farm, though Goldie did not want him working there on Sundays. Even if they did not go to church, she did not want others to see him working like a farmer with everyone else in their Sunday clothes. Horse-drawn wagons brought blocks of ice from Wisconsin for wooden iceboxes, and neighbors like Mrs. Sheeley kept cows, employing her oversized, feeble-minded son Johnny to carry bottles of milk to customers, and whacking him across the head when he got distracted. Father O’Brien bred Belgian hares on the church grounds. There was a country smell, of manure and cut hay, mixed with coal smoke from the Illinois Central Railroad, which gave the sunset sky a reddish glow.
The neighborhood was mostly Irish, which must have pleased Goldie, since it gave her something to complain about. “It’s those Irish bums again,” she’d mutter when there was trouble anywhere in the neighborhood. She even worked for the Republican presidential candidate, Charles Hughes Evans, in 1916 because Woodrow Wilson was another “Irish bum.” Wilson’s ancestors were English and Ulstermen, and had as much to do with the Sheeleys and O’Connors of Park Manor as the man on the Moon, but that did not concern Goldie, who could not be moved from an opinion. In boxing during the 1920s, she picked handsome Gene Tunney over Jack Dempsey because Tunney was a gentleman and Dempsey was an “Irish bum.” No, Gerson would argue, Tunney was a sissy—Dempsey was the real fighter. In reality, Tunney’s parents were from County Mayo, while Dempsey was part Jewish and Cherokee. But Goldie had her convictions, and always won by the long count.
Nelson’s unorthodox religious education began in Park Manor. Despite being ostensibly Jewish, the family kept a Bible with both testaments, in which the dates and addresses of the children’s births were recorded. Though Nelson was attracted by St. Columbanus and wanted desperately to attend, Nelson’s mother sent him to the public Park Manor school and the nearby Congregationalist Church Sunday school, to counter the Irish Catholics and because he “ought to go and learn something.” Gerson disagreed—why should his son learn about Jesus Christ? “He gave us nothing but trouble,” Gerson scowled. But Nelson liked Sunday school—especially after he found a five dollar bill at the annual picnic. He also got his first exposure to the impractical philosophy that blessed are the poor in spirit, and that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It was a curious lesson in a material age, in a material city, about which Rudyard Kipling complained that people “talked money through their noses.”
Nelson’s other early religious instruction came from his little girlfriend, Ethel, whose mother rented the upstairs flat. Ethel had lost her father, and she filled her imagination with a highly colored, pierced-bleeding-Sacred-Heart-and-holy-card style of Catholic faith, infecting Nelson with its violent poetry. Older by one year, Ethel would command little Nelson to watch the sunset behind the St. Columbanus cross to see God’s face. She would baptize him repeatedly—even if it was just with the ice water from the candy store on Seventy-First Street. When Nelson flew an orange kite on a spring day near the church, Ethel sent up a message of love to her savior. “It became a Jesuit kite, scouring Heaven for proselytes,” Nelson remembered. Nelson was not allowed to go into the church itself, but Ethel introduced him to the symbols he later gave to his characters—the crosses for suffering, the nails for punishment, God’s sudden abandonments. As Ethel marked crosses on store windows on Halloween, the children Sophie and Frankie in The Man with the Golden Arm marked them on doors on the Feast of the Epiphany.
Over supper one evening, after Ethel had instructed Nelson to imagine God’s blood burning in the sooty sunset sky, Nelson told the family that he had become a Catholic. No, his mother told him, you need a priest for that, Nelson recalled in his memoirs. Then Ethel came down into their kitchen, in tears. Her father had died without last rites, and her mother had paid a priest $100 to save him from purgatory. The priest felt another $100 was needed for full salvation, but Ethel’s mother thought he could make it the rest of the way himself. Ethel had fled from the blasphemy, weeping that her father would never see God’s face.
“Then let him look at his ass,” retorted Gerson.
On another occasion, Nelson remembered how he and Ethel had lured poor backward Johnny Sheeley from his milk rounds to give a little white terrier, struck by a car, a Christian burial. Johnny got in trouble from his harridan mother, and Gerson told Nelson he was excommunicated.
Nelson mimicked his father’s skepticism. When Ethel warned him against stepping on sidewalk cracks, for fear God would strike him dead, Nelson stepped on them all. He triple dared God, and nothing happened. Ethel warned that trouble would get him yet. He still planned to marry her. Using the dime allowance he got on weekends, he squired her to his own church, the candy store church of John the Greek, who was “a dirty old man,” another neighbor girl remembered. But for Nelson, here was an ice cream paradise, with whipped cream and butterscotch, pecans and cherries, ginger ale and root beer and strawberry syrup. John the Greek would sit at the player piano and sing a warning for immigrants who did not love their new country enough:
Go back from whence you came
Whatever land its name
Nelson started selling newspapers by a corner tavern—the two-cent, red, white, and blue Saturday Evening Blade and the Abendpost—for Mr. Kooglin. To carry them, Nelson, likely with his father’s help, made a pushcart out of an upright wooden orange crate and a single roller skate. Nelson sometimes enjoyed the punk thrill of skimming off a customer’s change—returning two cents for the nickel instead of three, or giving no change at all. He fixed a mount for a candle at the top of his pushcart, and a bell to ring. The little candle flickered and glowed far below the gaslights, as he went to meet his father in the evening, getting off the Seventy-First Street trolley with its green window shades after a long day’s work. Father and son would walk home, holding hands. The neighborhood bully, Baldy Costello, once stole Nelson’s cart, sending copies of the Abendpost flying. Baldy put it on the trolley tracks, and Bernice rescued it before it was run over. But it was Gerson who fixed everything with Mr. Kooglin over the missing papers. Nelson made another cart out of a wagon top he found in a weekly excursion with Gerson to the junkyard and wheels from his old baby carriage. Gerson was happy to have a son to provide for because his own father hadn’t done so for him.
But for all his heavy sense of responsibility, Gerson had a temper problem. After a few years of holding some machinist job, he would hit a foreman for some mysterious reason. “When he walked into the kitchen at noon with his tool chest under his arm, my mother knew it had happened again,” Nelson remembered. Typically, there was raging by hot-tempered Goldie, who never let Gerson forget that he never made foreman. For days the family “lived under an oppression of which none but the tool chest spoke.” Then Gerson would find work again.
Despite these lapses, the family managed to stay middle class, in the go-go days of Chicago’s teens and twenties, when the city surged and sprawled into the prairie, pushing up skyscrapers, and there was work for the skilled, even if they were occasional brawlers. They never had a car, but Gerson was enterprising enough to build a one-car garage in the back of their two-flat to rent. They did not go hungry. Besides his Sunday nickels, Nelson got pennies on weekdays, to spend on licorice whips or yellow jawbreakers or strips of ten White Sox player cards, dipped in wax to keep them sturdy for use as currency in junior dice games, or to trade for marbles. The Abrahams kept a cat, which Goldie believed would not hunt mice because Nelson had snipped its whiskers short with nail scissors in a moment of childish sadism or curiosity. There was a piano and an Edison Victrola with a trumpet in the front room. Irene might have played the piano—she later worked for music publishers. Nelson liked to play the Victrola, especially the record “America, I Love You,” which had a crack in it and got stuck at the line “A nation’s devotion-devotion-devotion,” which drove his sister crazy.
A portrait of heroic Uncle Harry was framed above the piano, and Harry’s woolen coat of faded blue with its brass buttons hung in a closet. Goldie offered, or threatened, to cut it down for Nelson to wear to school on the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine. Nelson begged off that one, but he could not get out of other embarrassing Goldie notions, like her insistence that he had to wear long woolen underwear under his bathing suit on a trip to the Jackson Park lagoon. The saintly Ethel laughed at him.
Goldie used to do more than nag Nelson into compliance—she had a furious temper and would hit him, sometimes with a broom. He remembered how she once knocked him halfway across the kitchen, though it is hard to say if she was unusually brutal or just typical of her time, when most children were hit regularly. Gerson hit him, too—Nelson remembered how his father knocked him over when he tried to imitate a tightrope walker by standing on his head. This was a little too much eccentricity for Gerson, too much art. “Why can’t you be a good boy like I was when I was a boy?” he wondered.
Nelson came to regard Goldie as clumsy, always cleaning like a servant, singing to herself as she worked:
I’m as reckless as I can be
I don’t care what becomes of me.
But she did care—she was relentlessly middle class, and Algren’s friend Dave Peltz thought this was part of Nelson’s problem with her. Goldie was a “loving, concerned mother,” but “straight as an arrow,” and Nelson did not have much patience with that, Peltz recalled. “If his mother had been a whore he would have loved and adored her.” Nelson also disliked her cooking—Art Shay joked that Algren’s warning “Never eat at a place called Mom’s” came not from bad diner experiences but from his mother’s kitchen. She would say “pregrant” for “pregnant” and “anulimum” for “aluminum”—perhaps because of her lack of education, or her own stubbornness. In 1921, crazy Baldy Costello was convicted of murder and “elexecuted.” “Electrocuted, Mother,” Nelson would correct, exasperated. He paid attention to the sounds of words—his sensitivity to the way they could be bent and spindled was fed by one of his favorite books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Algren biographer Bettina Drew recounted a story Nelson told his first wife about how his mother ordered him outside to go ice skating, but he did not want to, and rather than openly defy her, he sat shivering in a box for hours. The story may demonstrate Goldie’s fierceness, but it also says something of Nelson’s own perverse stubbornness—he would have been warmer skating, but he would rather suffer than do something he had not chosen to do.
Despite her own deficiencies, Goldie was literate and wanted her children to better themselves. The first book he remembered—which he thought his mother may have read to him—was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses:
In the darkness shapes of things;
Houses, trees and hedges,
Clearer grow; and sparrow’s wings
Beat on window ledges.
Bernice also joined in this campaign of education, reading Nelson George Eliot’s Silas Marner when he was ten. Nelson later said he did not remember much about this story of disgrace, false accusation, and redemption by love, but he loved having it read to him. Lying on his bed, he studied the book’s cover and title while watching Bernice, slim and fair, silhouetted by the lamplight. Bernice loved books and disdained convention, declaring herself an atheist as a teenager. She was also a theater buff, and regularly brought home the glamour of the motion pictures from the Park Manor Theater. Nelson ate Goldie’s chicken soup and bread pudding out of free dishes decorated with the faces of silent-screen stars—Daphne Sweet, Wallace Reid, and Viola Dana.
Goldie was interested in disasters, like the “fatal accidence” collected by Sophie in The Man with the Golden Arm. When Nelson was six, she took him all the way downtown to see the SS Eastland turned on its side in the Chicago River, where 844 men, women, and children had died. They had been working families, about to go on a summer picnic sponsored by the Western Electric Company on July 24, 1915, and the misbalanced tub with a concrete floor had tipped over as they waved good-bye to their friends on shore. It was a popular spectacle—on the day of the tragedy, a janitor from a nearby building charged a dime each to let the curious see the bodies laid out in a makeshift morgue. Nelson stared into the sulky brown water, imagining the little boys and girls in their summer best, sailor suits and pale lawn dresses, hopelessly sucked below the steel hulk. All the way home, Goldie spoke of the Chicora as the great maritime tragedy of the age.
Goldie could also be ahead of her time, too far ahead for Nelson’s childish inclinations. The South Side in the teens was still mostly dominated by the Irish and Poles, Lithuanians and Slovaks, working for McCormick and the stockyards. But black people were also coming in from the South for the plentiful factory jobs, escaping lynchings and near-slavery as sharecroppers to find a better life of hostile white immigrants, brutal cops, and restrictive housing covenants in the North. Chicago’s black population more than doubled during World War I to 125,000 people. Most lived in the Bronzeville area, around Thirty-First Street and Michigan Avenue, but at least one family had settled in Park Manor, for in Nelson’s enormous class of forty-eight children, there was one black girl, Mildred Ford, her pigtails tied in blue bows. Nelson remembered addressing valentines to forty-six children, but not Mildred. Goldie wondered where Mildred’s card was. When Nelson protested that nobody sent valentines to blacks, Goldie scooped up his bundle of penny greetings and said if he did not send a valentine to Mildred, he could not send one to anyone. So he had to comply. The card showed a tearful puppy with the plea “Don’t Treat Me Like a Dog, Be My Valentine,” Nelson recalled. Mildred looked at the card but would not speak to him. On the way out of the classroom at Park Manor School, she gave him a look that said clearly that there were two sides, and he was on the other one. Later, Ethel, snickering at the wool underwear beneath Nelson’s bathing suit, mocked him for it: “You send valentines to niggers.” Nelson, already a Swedish-German-Jewish alien among Irish Catholics, had somehow ended up with Mildred, whether she wanted him there or not, among the most outside of outsiders.
That next summer, he learned just how apart the sides were. A seventeen-year-old black youth named Eugene Williams swimming at the Twenty-Seventh Street beach drifted across an imaginary segregation line to Twenty-Ninth Street. He did not know about a confrontation earlier in the day when some African Americans had walked into what was considered a white space. White boys threw rocks at him, and he drowned. Black onlookers asked a policeman to arrest the boys who had thrown the stones, but the policeman refused. Fights broke out and more rocks were thrown, leading to Chicago’s biggest race riot. After four days, 23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, 342 blacks and 178 whites were injured, and 1,000 homes had burned. Black commuters going home from work were dragged from streetcars, beaten, and killed. Most of the fighting took place a couple of miles north of Park Manor, but Nelson would have seen the smoke that summer floating beyond the White City amusement park at Sixty-Ninth Street, and Goldie would have been eager to explain what it all meant.
Park Manor held its own horrors. On Halloween, Nelson and Ethel put on false faces and went up and down Seventy-First Street chalking store windows. Nelson wrote “Everything inside is a penny!” on John the Greek’s candy store, and the kids ran off screaming. The next day, all the windows were washed clean but John’s. The police broke the lock and found the amiable priest of Nelson’s ice cream cathedral hanging by his belt. Perhaps whatever the neighborhood suspected him of doing had caught up with him, and he wanted to avoid shame and the Cook County Jail. Terrified, Nelson now avoided the sidewalk cracks in front of the candy store. That winter, he rubbed the frost off the window of the abandoned shop and saw how the chocolate and pineapple syrup had burst from their jars, flowed over the counter, and stiffened in the cold. He remembered how the long drip of strawberry hung frozen from the counter “like a strip of raw meat.”
There were other sorrows—at school, he fell in love with a girl named Geraldine Crow, who played Snow White in the school play. Nelson was the magic mirror, telling the wicked queen with earnest passion that while she was fair indeed, “Snow White is fairer far.” Geraldine died during an epidemic of black diphtheria that winter, along with two other children from Park Manor School. When Nelson was nine, the Spanish flu swept the city, killing over ten thousand Chicagoans in October of 1918 alone. People wore handkerchiefs and gauze masks over their faces, and the vaudeville and movie theaters were shut down. The war had also taken casualties from the neighborhood, sending home survivors crippled by mustard gas. There was death and mutilation of all varieties under the gaslights of Nelson’s childhood.
As a South Side kid, Nelson developed his lifelong obsession with baseball, and its ensuing disappointments. One summer day in 1920 when he was eleven, Nelson set out with a fellow newspaper seller nicknamed Nephew to see the “Miracle Sox” in the pennant race against the New York Yankees. In one version of this story, Nelson was part of a gate-crashing riot that got him a seat behind left fielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson; in another, he and Nephew hid out under the bleachers before the game, to emerge when play began. He remembered seeing the French Canadian pitcher Cicotte strike out Babe Ruth, and he somehow acquired a Louisville Slugger wooden bat autographed by Swede Risberg, whose nickname Nelson adopted for the next ten years. He even tried walking pigeon-toed because the Swede did it.
In 1920, Gerson bought a brick two-flat at 4834 North Troy Street and the family moved to the North Side, to Albany Park. It was a busy, prosperous, mostly Jewish neighborhood, at the end of the Ravenswood elevated line—businesses along Lawrence Avenue included a bookstore, the Kosher Purity Restaurant, a Spiegel’s department store, and in 1926, a palatial 2,500-seat Balaban & Katz Terminal movie theater, which had a make-out corner for hot dates and had replaced a smaller venue. As in Park Manor, the family rented one floor, and Gerson had a tire and battery shop on nearby Kedzie Avenue. Bernice, the family’s strongest character, was studying to be a teacher at Chicago Normal College. Nelson needed some time to adjust—the North Side culture was different: no one would be nicknamed Nephew or Cousin up here, and no one liked the Sox. The North Side was the home of the National League Cubs, who in 1920 had shamefully gone a whole twelve years without winning the World Series. For a South Sider to come into a Cubs neighborhood was like a Muslim moving into a Jewish neighborhood, Nelson recalled. “Baseball was the most important thing in everybody’s life.” Asked for his favorite player, Nelson named Swede Risberg. They grudgingly accepted his choice when he was able to produce a program showing he had actually been to a Sox game.
But something terrible happened that fall: eight talented but underpaid heroes of Nelson’s childhood—including Cicotte, Risberg, and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson—were indicted for taking money to throw the 1919 World Series. They were acquitted the next year, but commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned then from ever playing baseball again. The Troy Street boys made it clear that Nelson could no longer keep faith with the Swede, heavy with the shame of the South Side. “We all make mistakes, fellas,” Nelson told them, oily and cowering, eager for acceptance. He even traded off his Risberg bat. For the rest of his life, he saw the indictment as a great symbol of institutional injustice. He acted like a clown on the field—when he missed an easy fly ball, he’d follow through by falling on his face in the alien North Side grass—anything for a laugh.
Nelson went to Hibbard Grammar School, and then Hibbard High, later renamed for Theodore Roosevelt. Here again, he wanted to be accepted. He kept a clothbound autograph book, into which he had pasted fingernail-sized pictures of his classmates and teachers. It was filled with what passed as wit among thirteen-year-olds in 1923: “Dearest, sweetest, funniest Nelson—Don’t be #, Don’t be ♭. Just be ♮.” He was proud of his red-and-gold high school sweater, and hoped to get a letter on it someday, trying track and civics club. When he was sixteen, he and his friends formed a neighborhood basketball team—the Uptown Arrows—which had a single miserable season, soberly chronicled, apparently by Nelson, in a notebook that ends with a sketch of the Arrows’ name on a tombstone, a flowerpot over the mound. Nelson also managed to get on the Hibbard lightweight baseball team, which won the city championship in 1927, as a sub. In the gushing two-page description of that season in The Lantern yearbook, Nelson is mentioned only briefly at the end, with a compliment just short of a sneer: “Nelson Abraham’s great height helped him considerably in gaining the honor of membership on our city championship team.” The win was celebrated in grand hooligan fashion. Dozens of students took over a Western Avenue streetcar from downtown on the night of their victory, singing and shouting. When the conductor tried to collect their fares, some broke lightbulbs and windows, causing women to scream and the police to be called. Police caught eighteen or nineteen students and put them in paddy wagons. Nelson may not have been among those arrested, since he generally bragged of all encounters with the law.
To earn his allowance, Nelson worked in his father’s garage. They jacked up Ford Model Ts and Chrysler B-70s all day, to take the wheels off and then pry out the inner tubes. The rubber tube would go into a tin trough full of water, and they would watch where the bubbles formed. That would show the leak. The spot would be marked with a pencil, cleaned with gasoline, and patched with rubber. For all this, Gerson charged a dollar or a dollar and a half. As they worked in the extremes of Chicago’s heat and cold, Gerson told the same jokes, over and over. He had to have the plots of movies explained. Nelson tried to talk him into taking more money from the young North Side swells who came in, in a hurry for their dates. Gerson’s idea of a profit was the half dollar he charged for taking out the old tire and putting in the new one. Nelson tried to explain that this was the cost of his labor—the profit should be on top of that. Gerson got angry at that: “I can’t charge more than what I paid for it, can I?”
“Of course,” Nelson replied, exasperated. Did not the grocer sell his goods for more than he paid for them?
“That’s different,” said Gerson, holding an inflated tube under the icy water. “He’s a businessman.” Gerson was almost sixty, and the creases in his rough hands were permanently blackened from bits of rubber. It was the 1920s, and it must have seemed like everyone but Gerson was making easy money, buying Samuel Insull’s electric stock or selling bootleg liquor out of basements and garages.
Gerson also scoffed at Nelson’s assertion that cops went to drink at a speakeasy posing as the Hunting House Dance Academy above Johnson’s gambling hall on Kedzie. “A cop can’t do that,” Gerson protested. “They’d put him in jail.” He did not want to listen to crazy talk from Nelson about cops drinking, stealing, and taking bribes. As he had at McCormick Reaper, Gerson somehow missed or chose not to know what was going on all around—even Chicago mayor Big “Bill” Thompson had liquor served at his reelection party. Nelson hated to see the twenty-year-olds with their leather-gloved hands and pomaded hair, sitting warm inside the shop while Gerson worked out on the freezing pavement, wrenching up their fathers’ cars. “Hurry up, Abe, I got a date,” they’d call, and then drive off without paying, promising that their dads would make it up later. Nelson found something satisfying about the work, especially if they could save a badly damaged tire. “Yet I’d feel a pang of shame when I’d see the old man on his knees in the gutter,” Nelson recalled later. And every Sunday, when Gerson would write up his accounts in pencil in his little rubber-blackened book on the back porch, he would find himself a few dollars short. If Goldie gave Nelson his toughness, Gerson gave him his lack of business sense.
Nelson, meanwhile, had developed other interests. He started to hang out in a pool hall when he was fourteen, evading Goldie’s prohibition against the premature wearing of long pants by buying his own pair and changing in the pool hall washroom. He had become tall and handsome—his high school graduation picture shows a serious young man with dark eyes, a full mouth, and sandy hair combed carefully down the middle. He lost his virginity at seventeen—he did not say to whom. His fellow high school seniors named him as class prophet, apparently referring to the job of making joke yearbook predictions. The Lantern yearbook gives an early example of his absurdist humor. Two of his female classmates would open the “Kum-Inn,” a charitable organization to support the “Home for Feeble-Minded Mosquitoes.” Hazel Baron would swim the English Channel in four and half hours, stop for a breath, and then swim back. His basketball friend Ben Curtis, previously just in charge of the monkey house, would one day head the whole zoo. The prophecy for Nelson was in the form of an ad insert, “Tell your tire troubles to Nelson Abraham,” as if that was all the future held.
But Nelson was already finding other ways to make money. One Saturday night, he won forty dollars shooting craps and refused to get up the next morning to open the tire shop. “Open it yourself,” he called to Gerson from his bed, though this was the old man’s only day off.
His father did not reproach him for it, but something broke in their relationship on that Sunday. Gerson had worked hard his whole life to be what his father had not been, and now his beloved only son held him in contempt. Another hero had fallen along with the “Black Sox,” and Nelson was on the outside, looking up instead to the neighborhood pool sharks, gamblers, bootleggers, and sandlot baseball stars. He was looking for some way to be a man, and to be himself.
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