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Alice Kahn

In the Windy City, a Gust of Memories

February 05, 1989|Alice Kahn

I wasn't planning to visit the folks this year. I was on a business trip. Yet as soon as I got in the airspace above Chicago, I heard my father's voice. He was telling the same old story, the story he told a thousand times. The story of how he started down the road of fame and fortune and misfortune.

"We had the parks, we had White City, we had Navy Pier," I heard him saying as the plane circled above the town with streets so straight you'd think a giant ruler had marked out the prairie.

My father died here almost a quarter century ago while I was still in my teens. I left Chicago shortly after that, wanting never to return again.

Now I like to come home because it's the only place I can still hear my father (and my mother, who is buried here also). It took me years to make peace with this town, years to make peace with my parents, longer still to make peace with their deaths. Now it's all buried here in Chicago--that toddlin' town.

The story my father told over and over again was how as a young man hanging out at Puddies, the local pool hall, he met Jimmy McGrat, "the Irish boss of Madison Street." At night, he said, he would "put long pants over my short and go out cabareting with Jimmy." At some point, he quit school and went to work as Jimmy's "right-hand man." He would have been about 15.

I picture him like a young ghetto hustler today, working for some big crack king, living in style, taking crazy risks with his life, thinking work was for "chumps."

He spent the Roaring '20s with Jimmy. I don't know if he packed a piece or just carried around bags of cash for the man. I'm not even sure what he meant by "we had the parks, we had White City, we had Navy Pier." I think they were all places where games were played and food was sold. I assume it meant they controlled these operations or got paid protection money by the proprietors.

At some time my father started wearing silk shirts and calling himself the "Silk Shirt Kid," and he used that name when he was old and fat and bald and reminiscing. He talked about "a broad with two Russian wolfhounds," who would have been my mother, I guess, if things had worked out.

Things went badly for Jimmy. And as he fell, so did the Silk Shirt Kid.

According to the legend, "Jimmy McGrat fell in love with a burlesque queen. He bought the Columbia Burlesque wheel to make her a star." But Silky knew better. "I told him, 'Jimmy, burlesque is going out, and musicals is coming in.' But he was in love. He wouldn't listen. Two years later--he went bust."

"What happened to Jimmy, Daddy?" I would ask over and over again, although I knew the story always had the same tragic end.

"We bought him a little restaurant at the train station," Silky would say. "But here's a guy used to spending a G a day. Now he was making that much maybe in a month. So within a year--he went under."

In time I learned the key to this story. Going bust referred to your money. But going under referred to your life.

Eventually, the Silk Shirt Kid went legit. He got married, had kids, worked at running some movie theaters. To the day he died, he missed the risky days of his youth, regretting that he could not have high times and peace of mind. As a result of regretting, he had neither.

I like being a Californian. I like living in a place where I have no history, no memories, no roots beyond the ones I've planted myself. So there is a dreamlike feeling when I'm back in my hometown. Walking along Lake Michigan at 8 a.m., I feel more at home than near San Francisco Bay, where I've lived most of my life.

I never hear my father's voice in San Francisco, the new world. It's something I left behind, as he left his father's voice back in Europe.

Lake Michigan is not the Pacific Ocean, of course, but it's still a great lake. The ornate brick buildings lining its shore did not have to withstand a major earthquake. And the humidity sits on your shoulders worse than gravity. I would never leave California to live here, but it is my home. It's the place my father helped build before he went under. He'll always be here.

Out on the lake I see two building at what they call Navy Pier. Lake Michigan was really something in the old days. At one time, we had the parks, we had White City, we had Navy Pier.

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