Chicago 1919

"The dirigible fell that fast..."

(From, The Reason for Time, Allium Press of Chicago)

"The dirigible fell that fast gusts of pushed out air rustled my skirt around my ankles, and wasn’t I across Jackson Boulevard by then, not knowing whether to tilt back my head to look or duck for cover? First the spreading shadow, then the odd shout sprung up from here and there, bunching into a roar when that big silver egg dropped flaming from the sky right onto the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank. And one of the parachutes meant for escape? Didn’t that fall flaming too, a candle soon snuffed on the ground barely a block beyond. Others floated through the billows so thick you couldn’t see what was attached to them, but you hoped it was someone made it out alive. “Look!” But where to aim your eyes first? The Wingfoot Express. Looked so impressive on the ground, it had, over there at the Grant Park field, but knowing how flimsy it turned out to be had me wondering what fools’d wanted to go along for what the papers called a joy ride. No joy for them that day, maybe never again.

The screaming started with the plunging made it more terrifying. A great boiling soup of sound, roar of fire, shattering glass, clanging bells, keening voices, clattering metal. Then an unholy minute, sure not even as long as a minute after the explosion, when them gas tanks fuelled the airship went up and I might a been deaf. It was that still I thought I’d been killed, like all them in the bank and the fellows crashed into it. But I was not about to die then, no, not killed, only bleeding, and just a dab of blood it was on my neck, like something’d bit me."

An Irish Girl in Chicago, July, 1919

(From, The Reason for Time, from Allium Press of Chicago, April, 2016)

      "I could tell Margaret he’d stood me up—she didn’t have to know who—and, feeling sorry for me, she’d ply me with something, as our mammy used to do. Let me cook you an egg, she’d say, for we had eggs for comfort more than anything else. A nice soft-boiled egg with the skin clinging to the rounded knob at the end I’d pop in my mouth while she salted the rest, scooped it into a cup. Two mouthfuls and gone. Something so delicious coming out of that button-eyed hen clucked at the back stoop and wouldn’t lay in a proper nest, but wherever she felt like it, so some went wasted even though we thought we knew all her hidey places.

"Thinking of home, more than eight years after I squeaked open the wicket gate and crossed into the single room housed us all. Even though I could buy myself eggs and eat them every day, they never tasted savory as that surprise Mammy would find for one of us. To think she might find only one, too, while there in the shops along Halsted were dozens displayed, creamy white, fawn, brown, and speckled.

"I crossed the street, right past the policeman winked at me as I went, must a been he’d decided me an honest woman. I tried to look up and admire the buildings and thought I might even stroll into the Palmer House a few blocks away, as once I’d done, venturing past the liveried boys, onto the marble walkway, up the stairs into the grand lobby with the ceiling painted like a cathedral, angels and cherubs and gold leaf. The same year we arrived in Chicago, me just turned sixteen, and one of them in livery thinking me there to pick up the laundry or polish the silver. The gilt, the marvelous designs in the plaster, the chandeliers with lights Bridey never would have believed, bright, yet spreading gently onto the seating area as if breathed down from the ceiling by one of them broad-winged angels. The liveried one took my arm and tried steering me over to the housekeeping department, thinking I wanted a job.

"But my bold words saved me, me who doesn’t talk much, something made me different from the start at home where, if talk were money, we’d all a given Potter Palmer and his kind a run for theirs. I lifted my chin and said, 'No, I am not here for work, but to meet my father.' Did he believe me, the bell captain? If not, he pretended to and escorted me to a straight chair, velvet, in my favorite blue, color of twilight. I rested from the outside bustle, imagining my da limping up them marble stairs in his cap and his black jacket going orange with age, collarless shirt, stubble on his cheek, the way he’d come through the door at home some days, smiling, smiling, like he’d a secret when he was only imagining something and how he would be reaching for his book to describe every thought."

Stop the Presses!

In the mid 1960's, a column began to appear in the The Whitehorse (Yukon) Star. It was written by Edith Josie about the going's on in her community of Old Crow, Yukon, which is situated on the Porcupine River, just north of the Arctic Circle. The newspaper's publisher decided to leave Miss Josie's words unedited, to reflect her unsophisticated voice.  Over the forty years it ran, the column gained worldwide recognition for its simple charm, but was also the subject of some debate about whether leaving it unedited--and perhaps reflective of someone who grew up in an oral tradition--was condescending. "Lots of things is going on in Old Crow. Even helicopter take Elder up river to Whitestone, Johnson Creek and Elder are glad to see their country. Where they use to stay there summer and winter they all happy. Some boys working in Old Crow. They fix the house and busy every day. And some boys set net for fish some of them they one or two king salmon and beside that they get whitefish so it was good. Band Office are busy working and everything is good."

The community news Miss Josie recorded is an example of hyper-local reporting. Where I live, we have a weekly newspaper, but in between Friday publication days, news gets disseminated through a community Facebook page. It's a great source and reflects life here, from the worry about a stray dog without a collar, to the breaking story about permanent layoffs at the regions's largest employer, Howe Sound Pulp and Paper. The community page was also the first to report that a popular lifelong resident and tree faller, Johnny Phare, died while fighting a forest fire that had been smoking up skies and dropping ash all the way to Vancouver.

It's an all purpose site, with room for complaints such as:
"Behind the school in Davis Bay... Bags and bags and bags of drywall dumped... Of course dumped on the side that didn't have the No Dumping sign!"

For complaints that include advice:
"OK Everyone ! It's a Long Weekend and a Full Moon...Drive Safe Please..So many in a hurry (smile emoticon) you want to get there Safely the person In the dark grey Rav4 282ntb YOU suck ! I waited a long time on turn on to the Highway safely from Flume..during ..just after the ferry traffic this afternoon just after 12pm and you come out of no where and turn right in front of me from Lockyer rd...after I was there first waiting for a clear spot to get on the Highway!"

For breaking news:
"Just saw four emergency police vehicles lights and sirens going,racing past Davis Bay, going towards Gibsons.'
"The grey whale is back at the foot of Maskell Road, lolling about, but generally heading toward Roberts Creek."

For consumer reports:
"A quick note to anyone who likes the cooked meat packages in Super Valu, there's about a dozen packages there as of ten minutes ago, turkey, chicken and sausages. $6.99 a kilo. But, all marked with 50% off stickers. Will be gone soon I expect."

And want ads:
"Anyone have a 1730 drill bit available to use borrow buy asap?"

In the last stages of editing my novel about Chicago in 1919, when there were nine general circulation newspapers, several of them dailies with more than one edition, I see that our appetite for information about what's going on around us--that is to say right around us, as well as in Syria and Yemen--hasn't changed a bit. Despite the demise of hundreds of newspapers, stopping the presses doesn't mean stopping all the news that's fit to post, podcast, stream or even pass by word of mouth, the oral tradition Miss Josie carried over to her long-running column, "Here Are the News."

Presto steps out

Something I have seldom done, read from a work in progress. But an invitation to join the monthly cultural soirée at the U. S, Consulate in Québec gave me an opportunity to try out the voice of my character, my first attempt at a novel-length first person voice and my first historical novel. The tenor of the room indicated that people were paying attention, and comments afterwards assured me that I achieved what I am trying to do, ie create the authentic voice of a young Irish immigrant woman adrift in Chicago in 1919. The rhythm worked, and her quirks of narrative -- mixing tenses, for example. I don't think it was confusing. The next time I do something like this I want to do a better job of setting up the period. Also, it is clear that my idea of paying stylistic homage to Dos Passos needs boosting. Also clear, how important the newspapers are to me, to my character, to my idea for the novel.


Back to the novel I began... could it be ten years ago? No, but it was almost seven years ago when I was leafing through materials at the beautiful Newberry Library in Chicago, viewing microfilm of newspapers from 1919, and  happened upon the week I soon after decided to use as the basis of an historical novel I am now calling Presto. I talked a bit about this on artchat podcast, 11/12/12 The title could change. With so much having happened that week, I would need a long story, I thought, but in the process of discovering and writing my first historical novel, I came to the simple and not so simple story of a young woman who happens to be living in Chicago during a week when catastrophe after catastrophe filled the pages of the many newspapers published in the city. Ah the old days. Newspapers! Part of what amazes me is what must have been so absolutely memorable to the people who lived through that week, in the same sense that we who lived through Kennedy's assassination or the  attack on the World Trade Center towers ask...what were you doing then? .. are virtually unremembered now. Until I read the front pages of the  Daily News and the Trib, I had no idea what a dramatic week began July 21, 1919.

A commission to write a play, Imperfect, interrupted my progress and gave me time to reflect. Now I am back for the finish.