So I am sitting here in a random Panera Bread, trying to get my thoughts together about this week’s column. How it generally happens is my weekly topics just come to me. I open my computer and begin typing. In my head, its one long sentence, so if sometimes my punctuation is off a bit, now you know why.
As I was contemplating a Led Zeppelin vs. The Who comparison, I couldn’t help but notice a table of mature ladies talking recipes and grandkids at the next table. I never had the privilege of meeting any of my grandparents, so I have always had a soft spot in my heart for seniors.
One of the ladies happens to look over at me. She walks up to my table and says, “I love your column in the Daily Herald!”
After a short blush and a thank you, I asked her who would be someone she would like to see at The Arcada.
“I’m from that Bill Haley and the Comets era,” Roberta said. “That’s from the early Sixties, and when I read your column, so many times it brings me back to those days.”
We continued to talk about the “old days” and if you are from Chicago, you can’t talk about that without declaring which neighborhood (or Catholic parish) you are from.
She is originally from the Chicago Avenue and Cicero Avenue area. I was born on Taylor Street. Then we moved to the Our Lady of the Angels Parish, the one that had that tragic school fire in 1958.
When we spoke of neighborhoods, we reminisced about what really made up those areas. Each neighborhood had to have certain elements that qualified it to be deemed a “neighborhood.”
There was a “corner store” in every neighborhood. It had the basic necessities. Rarely could we afford to go to the National, Jewel Tea or A&P supermarkets. The corner store had a “Fasano Pies” push bar on the door, and a cash register that had a handle like a slot machine.
But if you wanted meat, you had to patronize the local butcher. It was usually a guy with a lit cigarette in his mouth and a white, blood-soaked apron as he chopped through beef bones on a worn-down butcher block. The floors were covered in sawdust to soak up the grizzle that would make them slippery.
Then there was the bakery. It was more of a bread bakery but it had pan pizza on the counter. The baker would cut you a slice with an old pair of black-handle metal scissors. There weren’t that many sweets there outside of a few cookies, but you could order a birthday or a wedding cake there any time.
The local hardware store was a place that really looked like the hardware guy built it himself. All the shelves were built out of wood and painted with lead-based gray paint. The only way to buy nails and screws were by bulk, as the counter was flanked with lead pipes and wooden bins filled with different nails.
The cleaners were also a big part of the neighborhood. In my case, my dad WAS the local tailor and cleaners. The smell of steamed clothing still resonates in my nose today. Some of my fondest memories are playing dress up as a kid with unclaimed clothes from the ’50s and ’60s.
The drugstore also had that certain “smell” to it. It had a “Rexall” orange sign in front; I can remember it looking like a chemistry set exploded there. We could get “sundries” there. I never really found out what that was, but I knew where to get them! But its candy counter was like none other!
There was also the local kid’s shoe store and a florist. Each neighborhood had a pizza parlor, ice cream parlor, doctor’s and dentist offices and a funeral home. If you were lucky, there was also a hot dog stand and a penny-candy store, too. All the basic necessities.
It’s really amazing that all of these services were available pretty much within each six-block radius of the city. I have such great memories of these things. Now, it’s a quick click on an Amazon app, and you are done.
When you talk about customer service, nothing can compare to those days. I can only hope that future generations can somehow experience what we did as kids. But the reality is all that has gone the way of 45 rpm records and Saturday morning guitar lessons.
It was great reminiscing with Roberta. She thinks I am doing her a favor by writing this column. If she only knew what she did for me today.