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Nostalgia--growing up in Chicago before you were born

Updated on April 29, 2016

NOSTALGIA-- GROWING UP IN CHICAGO BEFORE YOU WERE BORN

By Roger Lippman

Yes, I was probably born before you. So many things were different when I was younger. Modern day young people do not think back to what it was like eons ago but my friends typically say “ do you remember…….” Or “you recall what it was like………”

So let me share a few things, that were good about the old days. Caution, this is a narrow view of growing up in Chicago even though the world was facing end of WW2 and the Korean war, Vietnam war and various conflicts were happening around me.

First off, Things were safer, at least locally. If you are young today your mother would probably kill you if you just took off with your friends and traveled across the city on public transportation at age 7, 8 or 9. Or at least I hope she would want to kill you and not just ignore you and not be a good parent which some are today. Well my friends, we did it. Yes, it was safe in our area. Young kids did not fear getting shot. In fact I do not recall one instance growing up when gangs shot at each other or there were drive by shootings or anything else in the headlines. In fact I don’t know anyone who had a gun. Gee, that seems to be telling me something. No guns, no shootings. Safe.

We all walked to school, no school busses. I walked about 9 blocks in winter and summer with my friends. Yes we did have a card to get on a Chicago Bus for five cents and ride public transportation but typically no one did it. We did not worry about gangs or bad things happening to us on the way to school.

So when I wanted some new fish for my aquarium, I walked 10 blocks to the street car (yes we had them when I was a kid and if you had a car, you had to make sure you did not ride on the steel tracts or your car might skid) and rode it about 40 blocks to Park View Pet shop and looked at all the fish, including the Angel fish that were about a foot long that were always in he window, and bought my fish and reversed my route home with fish in a plastic bag in my hand. Sometimes I went with friends who had tropical fish as well and sometimes alone.

We also collected coins so every month of so, we walked 9 blocks to the “ L” and went to Cubs park as Casey’s coin shop was under the L at that stop. Sometimes we just went to see a Cubs game. How often do you know someone who is not even a teen ager doing this today? You would be nuts to let them. And if they had a cell phone, someone would probably take it before they arrived.

A great treat was going monthly to the Museum of Science and Industry that was as far South from the downtown area as we were North. So, we walked to the L and took it to the end of the line and got off about an hour later. Then we spent about five hours in wonderment looking at all the exhibits. It was truly the push button museum of the world. AT&T had the first phone that you could see yourself, like Skype of today but not many companies bought it and not the public. We loved the exhibits like the inside of a human heart, the coal mine in the basement, the toy trains that were about a block long and represented a whole city, or he vintage street with shops from the 1800’s Also the old fashioned cars, covered wagons and airplanes. Many of these exciting exhibits over the years changed and the museum made more modern lost its magic and appeal.

By the way things were so safe, after the war was over and before air conditioning came into vogue, it was not unusual for those of us living several blocks from Lake Michigan to take our mattresses down to the beach and sleep there at night. So my parents and others did this on particularly hot nights.

Grocery stores were a real throw back to anther time. Large stores were rare so you went to your local grocer whose shop was typically one room. When you wanted cereal, it was stored on shelves going up about 30 feet and they used a pole with metal hands to grab your cereal box. You only bought enough to fit in one paper bag and the clerk who was often the owner would write the prices with on the bag with a pencil and you paid after he “rang it up”. Your family went to the grocer several times a week.

I remember being amazed when I saw the first big store; it was a Centrela and they had eggs stored on display that were packed in wooden drums on the floor. Also they had a freezer to store cold items. Now that was really new. Everything centered around where you lived as no one has second cars and many did not even have one. I recall sitting in a relatives car. Three of us were in the front, with me in the middle but it had a floor shift so I constantly had a stick shoved against my leg when my uncle put the car into third gear. Oh that third gear!

My own car came when I was a teen, all right almost 18. It was a used 59 Studebaker convertible. I was really impressed with myself until a friend said he could race me to the end of the block in his Schwinn bike and he could beat me. Oh yah, but low and behold, I lost. How humiliating. Now I know why that car did not do so well. Then too, when I went to the gas station and asked them to “fill it up” (no self service in those days), I said fill it with oil. I used about 3 to 4 quarts with each fill up but not so much gas.

Oh and who can forget the sweet sounds that came from your radio when Jay Andre was on late at night. His melodious baritone was sweet and he played crooners like Nat King Cole, or the Jackie Gleeson orchestra or Roger Williams on the piano. Whether out on a romantic date, driving home late at night or studying in your room or at the dorm, we had Jay on and his soothing voice and records filled our time. Not so with todays Rap. I somehow do not see playing it on a romantic date.

One of my favorites was the telephone man who came to our apartment once a month to empty the box and wrap up the nickels we paid in for each call. First we had to use the operator but then we got a dial phone. You could not complete a call without depositing five cents. Sometime we used “ slugs” which were round metal disks the size of nickels when we did not have the change. When the phone man came he gave the slugs back and we paid him. Luckily we do not have a “ party line” and did not have to share the phone connection with people living somewhere else. Otherwise, you had to wait until the line was free to make a call. Some customers had several “ parties” on their line. Our first phone line was Briargate 5148. Later it became Briargate 4-5148 as more lines were needed to accommodate customers after the war with military personnel returning . Then you just dialed BR4-5148 unless you did not have a dial phone.

Life was pretty simple in those days. The world around us was in turmoil from time to time but we felt safe at home and people seemed better and more friendly then today. My earliest memories of the big war was when Japan invaded and my extended family was worried as we had an uncle who was a doctor in Hawaii and they did not know if he was safe. Heck, I did not even understand the concept of war then. However when I was just six one hot summer during the war, my parents sent me off to a relative in Oklahoma for a two week family vacation. They could not go due to working at home in the war effort. However they thought it safe enough to put me on a sleeper train with a note pinned on me and told the porter I would be picked up in Oklahoma City. Yes, it was safe back then. I recall the entire train was filled with troops going somewhere to a port to get on ships destined for fighting in either Europe or in the Orient. I wonder how many of them did not come back as we had tremendous casualties wining that war. Many of our troops were as young as 17. Brave people who volunteered because they wanted to make America safe and they loved our country. I of course was too young to understand that concept yet. I do now but see far less love of country and more “ what’s in it for me—especially in politics”.

Television was mostly black and white with a lot of westerns. The good cowboys wore the white hats and the bad cowboys wore the black hats. There was also uncle Miltie (Milton Berle) and lots of comedy. I watched first on our 7 inch TV set which got larger when I put on a huge magnifying glass in front of the screen. Okay it may have been blurred by that time but who noticed. We ate meals glued to the TV. Later there were TV Dinners at the store just to help us watch more and mom do less cooking.

What were some of the exciting events growing up? Well we had a railroad fair down by lake Michigan one year. All the big railroads exhibited cars that were on tracks they set up on the beach and while many of us had never ridden on a train, tons of people all over Chicago came to the event. It was almost like the Worlds fair the century before that later formed the permanent buildings of the lake front—Field Museum, Art institute, Aquarium and the Rosenwald Museum—renamed the Museum of Science and industry. Chicago was truly a world class city.

At the railroad fair my cousin and I took a ride on a bi-plane. I think I was about 8 and here we were flying in an open cockpit around the lake front.

Later my kids had a treat when they were young. United Airlines was offering flights around Chicago for families for $25.00 as a promotion to get more people to fly. So we took our young kids and off we went to Midway airport to fly around for an hour.

I would like to also comment on flying. Long ago, people got dressed up to fly. They did not get on a plane looking like a slob. The stewardesses greeted you as guests and guess what, it was comfortable. You were not packed in like sardines. I did not really start to fly until our honeymoon when we took a flight to Miami. Talk about being naïve. My seat did not go back so I asked the stewardess if they could get a mechanic to fix my seat before they took off. Shows how ignorant I was of air flights because with the exception of the open air bi-plane I rode in when I was a kid, I had not been on a big plane, let alone a “fanjet”. But later I took trips domestically and around he world on planes that had a piano on them, an open bar and much more. We were comfortable and your luggage was not lost. Enough said, you know the difference now. It seems the more airlines merge and tell us things will improve, the only thing we know for sure is prices will go up and seats will get closer.

For vacation, we loved going to Acapulco, Mexico. What a great place, weather, water and food, all the best as long as you did not drink unfiltered water. We went several times with other families. Flash forward to today and I do not think anyone would be stupid enough to spend their vacation there with the gangs. Sadly, tourists are gone along with most businesses as it becomes open season for the cartels.

As for learning, I do wish the teachers were better back when I was young. I cannot recall being enthralled or really engrossed by any of them and it was not until college that my eyes were really opened up when I had a couple of really good professors. Sad. I’m not sure things have improved that much today with many acting militant and forgetting education should come first.

I saved food for last as I love food. Almost all of us had relatives from some other country in the world and while most of us were born here, maybe our parents, or grand parents or great grandparents were not. First from Europe, then Asia and then Latin America, people came here. Their names were changed at Ellis Island when clerks could not pronounce them but no one cared. All they wanted was to be accepted and part of the melting pot. Our country is rich in its heritage of being multi cultural and diverse. What is sad however is that as neighborhoods change, so too does many of the things we loved. I recall Cluckers as a place to go for great chicken that came in many flavors like peanut (yum) and Raspberry, although a bit sweet) There was another place that featured Bruschetta and I mean featured. It came in a huge mound on a plate with hunks of toasted bread to use with it;

There was the great French restaurants that you took your favorite date or wife to impress. Gone. There was the prime rib place with the white horseradish, Gone. The fish places that excelled, Also gone. We even had the millionaires’ club in Niles. The drinks were free to members. The food was high quality but a bit higher in price as you went there and ordered tons of liquor as well which was always free. Okay it was cheap bar liquor but that did not stop everyone from going and they had the theater in the round next door at Golf Mill. Everyone went.

Speaking of Golf Mill Shopping center, that in itself was a lesson in change. First open air, then enclosed. Great place and then one after another of the women’s shoe stores went out, then a main clothing store and another went out. What came next were like flea market stores and cheaper stores as the neighborhood changed and tastes changed with it.

Unlike many generations of wanting to be assimilated, what came at that time was more people who wanted to shop in their own kind of store and eat in their own kind of restaurant and grocery shop in their type of store and one by one everything changed in the neighborhood and merchants went out of business.

How about business? It did not help that one after another of our presidents convinced us that if we entered into new trade pacts that it would help America but our industries left. People wanted cheap everything. So out with the U.S. cotton, and it become imports. Out with American shoes; out with American TV’s and the list went on and on.

What were our leaders thinking? I recall Bill Clinton preaching that we now had to be a service nation and supplying service was the way to get ahead. I wondered, how can everyone be in the service industry if they are not trained for it? So I realized he was talking about lawyers, doctors, x ray technicians, etc. However soon they were offering outsourced x ray readings overseas; and then quality medicine that was cheaper in other countries and that too was outsourced. What was left? Not much. We needed to invent more to make more jobs but when we did, the company would find that the Chinese did it for less money.

Our industrial leaders responded not by trying to improve or lower prices but by moving offshore to make more problems and of course raising prices as they do for health care. Mergers were to make things more efficient and lower prices. However that was just the p.r. as prices always went up with less competition and then often they moved offshore.

My Internist remarked that his group was looking for a good new associate for several years without success. Why? No young doctor wants to be in general practice . Why would they with the amount of debt they incurred to get through school? I remember years ago, when doctors made house calls. Talk about being old.

Who reading this has called customer service for some product and found yourself talking to someone with an English type name who is actually in India? Outsourcing everything is the rule and increasing profits, cutting service and the public be dammed. Who do you complain to? The complaint department is probably outsourced too.

Donald Trump wants to being companies back to the U.S. Congress and all American Presidents have tried to get the Billions of Dollars they all have socked assay overseas back here but the companies want terms that let them use the funds on dividends and themselves as they did when Ronald Reagan first allowed it. It did not go to building more, research or investing more here or helping us.

Long ago we had the Robber Barons as they were called who had huge monopolies to cut off competition. Teddy Roosevelt first tried to break them up and President Taft followed though. So we outlawed the big monopolies to lessen that type of conduct. Hillary is in bed with wall street;

Ted does not get along with anyone. Bernie wants to kill business. Woe is me!

As things abated in the last few years and loosed up, we see the results. Higher prices, less competition, more offshoring, and the loosening of regulations which led to the last financial crisis when the banks were too big to fail. At the time we lent them money and they stayed in business, only to get bigger and pave the way for another crisis which is destined to happen sometime down the road.

So when my friends and I say “ do you remember when” we are thinking of a less stressful time when someone was not shot talking down the street, in school or the work place and we could get the service whether on the plane or where we did business because merchants wanted our business and went out of their way for the public.

Today it is the public be dammed and we cannot trust our politicians, and people are cynical. We have more guns on the street than the entire world and yet the NRA says this is good. If your dentist told you having a tooth ache is good, is it prudent to wonder who is it really good for, not you. People are still out of work because jobs they had before are gone forever. There is a lack of trade schools to teach what blue collar workers need to know.

Our companies are more motivated in profit for their shareholders then in being good corporate citizens. A few are different and we hear about it and admire them but it is the exception, not the rule. The tax code is so big, only a trained person can understand it because it is filled with ways experts have created to allow these good companies to avoid paying taxes while meanwhile wanting all the benefits our government offers. Make no mistake everyone is at fault. Our natural resources are up for sale to foreign companies as our government gives “away mineral rights to foreign companies out west and when we have some exclusive technology or industry, pretty soon it is done for less in China and away it goes either by theft or the company moves.

There is always some trade group or lobbyist who will prevail on Congress to act in ways that are not in our best National interest. That is America today and no one in government cares. It is no wonder that many citizens are upset while our elected officials refuse to get the message. It is no wonder my friends and I talk about how things were long ago.

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