Snowstorm


The Big Snow of 1967

The Chicago snowstorm is more than just a meteorological event. For my brothers and me, this was the perfect time to go out to play in the snow and make snowmen and snow forts. We actually enjoyed staying out all day in the snow if possible. My mother would send me to the store so we could stock up on milk and bread. She was afraid the stores would run out of milk whenever she saw the first snowflake falling. I had to buy at least two gallons of milk and bread. We were tortilla eaters. We never really ate bread at home unless there was a snowstorm. So I had to buy as many loaves of bread as my mother could afford. We would eat sandwiches and toast for weeks after a snowstorm. My brother Jerry and I used to go door to door with shovels knocking to see who wanted us to shovel their sidewalk. We would earn some money that way. We watched Ray Rayner to see if our school would close for a snow day. But they never did. All the teachers at Holy Cross were nuns who lived in the convent next to the school and most of the students lived within a three-block radius anyway. Ray Rayner would announce school after school closing, but he never called out Holy Cross! Going to school cut into our snow playtime.

So it’s snowing now, and has been since early this morning. I’m hoping for an e-mail from UIC telling the their calling a snow day. But they can’t close down the campus because they also have a hospital. UIC has never shut down the campus for a mere snowstorm. Not even the Big Snow of 1967. So, I better get up early tomorrow morning so I can shovel my car out and drive to school. Actually, I don’t mind going to school in the snow. I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, so I actually enjoy the snowfall. I enjoy shoveling the snow. As an adult, that’s how I now play in the snow. And I love it!

Advertisements

Construction paper


My son's homework.

When I was in grade school, we used construction paper for just about every art project. I’m reminded about this because my son Adam was working on a school project and was coloring white sheets of paper with a purple marker. If he would have asked me for advice, I would have brought out an aging pad of construction paper that I’ve had for years (mainly because my sons never think of using construction paper) in order to speed up his project. Could it be that because he’s been trained to do many homework assignments on the computer he no longer thinks of using his dear old dad’s techniques? On the plus side, he has become very independent and he is intelligent enough not to need my help for his homework very often.

When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, art class was a very special time of day. If a student misbehaved, he or she was deprived of participating in art class and would have to sit in the corner with his head placed down in his or her folded arms for the duration of art class. And take it from me, that was no fun at all.

Okay, okay, I was deprived of art class one time or two or three, but I was framed! Each and every time! When we had art class, we always–I do mean always always–started with one sheet of construction paper. Usually, it was manila-colored, but for those special art projects we could get several sheets of construction paper–each a different color!

I remember one class, Sister Francine told us told us to hold the sheet of construction paper–I can still smell it!–vertically. Meaning standing up and not lying down. She even showed us the sheet of construction paper in the upright position from the front of the classroom and then she walked between every aisle between all the desks to ensure that every third grader in the class had the construction paper in the correct position. I was certain that the health and wellbeing of every American citizen depended upon our completing our art project successfully because Sister Francine’s face reddened every time she observed a student with the construction paper in the wrong position.

Finally, every student had the paper vertically in front of them on the desk, including Claudia who sat next to me. Sister Francine then instructed us to fold the paper vertically, from left to right. Not from right to left, but left to right. She repeated several times, in such a stern voice that I thought I would crack from the tension that was building up in the classroom. But lo, I correctly folded my sheet of construction paper in half vertically, as instructed, and I even passed Sister Francine’s eagle-eyed inspection. I was spared her wrath for the moment. However, she turned to Claudia and Sister Francine blew a gasket! Claudia had folded her construction paper–not vertically–but horizontally! Widthwise instead of lengthwise! Much to Claudia’s embarrassment, Sister Francine led her up to the front of the classroom to show her construction paper folded horizontally. She was the only student who could not–no would dare to defy a direct order from Sister Francine–follow instructions.

I don’t even remember what art project we did that day, but I do remember how badly Claudia felt. Now that I think of it, why did I like art class so much?

Many are cold, but few are frozen


Pilsen, Chicago, Illinois

I’ve heard a lot of complaints this winter about how much snow we’ve had in Chicago this winter and last. People are also complaining about how cold it’s been lately. Most of these complainers are either too young or haven’t lived in Chicago very long. These are the cold, bitter winters that I remember as a boy! No, I won’t exaggerate about how cold and snowy winters were in Chicago in days of yore. I don’t have to. Just recall the weather since December and you’ll see how much snow we used to have and how cold it used to be. Once you get used to the weather, you can actually still enjoy living in Chicago. There are, after all, much colder places than Chicago.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time outside during the winter. I delivered newspapers, shoveled sidewalks for money, played ice hockey, and occasionally, played baseball in the snow. We liked to do things that would make adults shake their heads at us. Like staying outside in the cold. The one thing I did learn–although somewhat accidentally–was to dress in layers. We didn’t have very much money for proper winter clothing such as down coats, wool socks or sweaters, or insulated gloves. One day, while ice skating at Davis Square Park across the street, I got cold, so I went home and put on some more pants and socks and shirts, eventually experimenting until I learned the correct amount of layers to wear. I would wear two or three t-shirts, three or four pairs of pants, and four or five pairs of socks, depending on the temperature. When everyone else went into the park fieldhouse to warm up, I continued skating outside. I never got cold again once I learn to dress for the weather.

And I also taught my brothers how to dress properly for winter. One extremely cold, snowy winter, our school, Holy Cross School, had a fundraiser for which we had to sell Christmas cards door to door. There had been snow on the ground since Thanksgiving Day. Even though the sidewalks were shoveled, there was snow pile up everywhere where no one walked or drove. My brother Tato and I started knocking on doors trying to sell our Christmas cards–unsuccessfully. We were at the third house and the woman who answered the door told us she was interested in buying Christmas cards. So, we turned around and started walking down her front porch stairs. When I reached the sidewalk at the bottom of the wooden stairs, I heard my brother Tato slip on the ice and fall down the stairs. I checked to see if my brother was okay and I helped him up. The woman who was watching us through the front window opened the door and called us back up to the porch. “I’ll buy a box of Christmas cards,” she said. Well, we sold her a box of Christmas cards and went on our merry way to the next house. This woman also refused to buy Christmas cards from us. As we were walking down her front porch, Tato again “fell” down the stairs. Of course, the woman called us back and bought a box of Christmas cards from us. We persisted with our sales pitch until we sold all of our Christmas cards. In fact, the next day, we asked Sister Cecilia for more Christmas cards for us to sell. She was suprised that we could sell that many Christmas cards!

La casa de mi tía Jovita


México City

Whenever I go to México City, I’m always certain to visit mi tía Jovita. I believe she was my mother’s favorite sister. And tía Jovita has always paid me a lot of attention whenever I’m in México. I know I can go to her house anytime and I’ll be welcome there. The earliest I can remember visiting her is 1965 when we spent about two months in México from December to February. My mother had told the nuns at Holy Cross School that we were going to México for two months and the nuns told mother that if my brothers and I missed that much school we would all fail to be promoted to the next grade. My mother didn’t take the nuns seriously and we stayed in Mexico for two whole months and didn’t come back until the end of February. And guess what! My mother bragged that the nuns didn’t fail all of us! They only failed to promote me! Danny and Tato were promoted, but I wasn’t. Well, two out of three ain’t bad! I had to repeat the fourth grade, but my mother viewed this as a victory against the Holy Cross nuns. I, however, was distraught about being considered a retard! Kids were cruel like that back then. Now, I look back and think of it as 4th Grade 2.0.

Anyway, when we first went to tía Jovita’s house it only had one floor. The house is built on the side of a steep mountain slope. At the top, stood a little brick building that served as the bathroom. It’s now a two-room house where my cousin Mauricio lives with his daughter and her daughter. But when I first went there, it was a very small house with all of tía Jovita’s children living there. She eventually had ten children and her grandchildren would often be there, too. There were always a lot of children there because her brother-in-law lived right next door and there was a door that opened to my tía Jovita’s back yard. I remember my cousins would call their cousins primo or prima I would also call them cousin. But they would tell me that they weren’t my cousins. They were just their cousins. And they were right. But as a nine year old, I just didn’t get it. Now that I think of it, I’m still confused by our family tree.

I went there in 1978 and it still had only one floor. And then I stopped going to Mexico for about twenty-nine years. But I got to see the house, because every time my sister Delia went she brought back pictures of the house. Well, not exactly pictures of the house, but rather pictures of the family. I couldn’t help but notice the house in the background in these pictures. One time, I told my sister, “Wow, tía Jovita now has a second floor!” When I returned last December, I saw that she now had a third floor. When I left, I asked her to build a fourth floor so I could move in.

So, tía Jovita has a son living on the second floor with his two daughters, a daughter living on the third floor with her husband, son and two daughters. And another son living in the little house at the top with his daughter and granddaughter. An NO ONE pays any rent to tía Jovita! Even in México, this just isn’t right! But she doesn’t say anything. She is just such a nice woman.

It's always very comforting to return to familiar places.

Church


Immaculate Heart of Mary, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I don’t often go to church, but when I don’t, I don’t feel guilty at all. When I was in grade school at Holy Cross, I went to church at least six times per week. So, now, I don’t feel any real need to attend church.If I average out my church attendance over the span of my life, I’ve gone to mass more times than many people who claim to be Catholic. Of course, I still go several times a year. This year, I’ve gone every time my son Alex went to mass before his football game. Last spring, I went to my second cousin’s confirmation. Last week, I went to my cousin Shirley’s funeral. But other than that, I haven’t gone to church. I’m not against going to church, but I never think of going on my own without any compelling reason for going.

I suppose the real question for me to answer is, “Do I believe in God?” Well, the answer is, “Once upon a time, I used to.” I was baptized a Catholic and I was confirmed by the time I was three months old. At one time when I was about twelve, I believed in God so much that I really wanted to become a priest. But then I saw the light. I realized that many Catholics were hypocrites, clergy included, and my faith in God was shaken.

When I was in the Marines, I used to go talk to the Catholic chaplain on a regular basis. I’ll be honest: I went to get out of my work detail, rather than discussing any true critical religious crisis. So I figured I had better make it good. I told the chaplain that I no longer believed in God. Which I didn’t at the time. And I still don’t. But I still feel Catholic. Since I was baptized and raised a Catholic, I plan to remain a Catholic and I will never convert to another religion. I’ve known Catholics who converted and became fanatical about their new religion.

I even baptized my sons as Catholics and sent them to a Catholic school. I’ve had friends ask me why I would do that if I’m not really Catholic. I like the sense of tradition.Two of my friends from Spain once grilled me about my Catholicism. “Are you Catholic?” “Yes.” “Do you go to church every Sunday?” “No.” “Then you’re not Catholic!” “I was baptized a Catholic!” “Are your sons Catholic?” “They were baptized Catholic.” “But you’re not Catholic! Why did you baptize them?” “If nothing else, we have something in common.” They were dumbfounded by my logic.

This morning I took my son Alex to his football mass at Most Holy Redeemer Church. I remembered most of the prayers, but there were some new ones. My mind drifted away from the mass several times. I recalled how mass used to be when I was a boy. Things were so different now. When I was an altar boy, only males were allowed near the altar during mass. Today, there were no altar boys. Only altar girls. And about half of the Eucharist ministers were women. And the dress code is no longer the stringent dress shirt with a tie and dress pants for males and nice dresses for females with their heads covered. I was shocked to see worshipers coming to mass wearing jeans, shorts, gym shoes, flip flops, and t-shirts. On the other hand, the church was fairly full and most people participated in the prayers and hymns. Overall, I got the feeling that they were true believers.

The Jungle


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I just finished rereading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is a book I knew about about since about the third grade because the Lithuanian nuns also mentioned it at Holy Cross School. The nuns always wanted to remind us that we didn’t always have life so easy. They would often describe the squalid living conditions of our neighborhood, The Back of the Yards, and the horrendous working conditions at the Union International Stock Yards. They stressed that education was the best way to improve our lives and that we should excel in grade school, in order to get into a good Catholic school, in order to prepare us for college. I always recall the incident about the boy who drowns in the street. Several nuns over the years described that scene. And we were so lucky to live in a neighborhood with concrete sidewalks, paved streets, and a sewage system. No one from our neighborhood ever drown in the street–that I know of.

When I worked at Derby Foods, we didn’t have a union even though Chicago has always been known as a union town. And I didn’t realize at the time, but we didn’t need a union because all the other factories around us were unionized. Our factory paid us above-average wages and we worked under better-than-normal working conditions. They followed bidding by seniority for different job openings in the factory.

Regardless, I hated working there because I was a lowly manual laborer. The money was good, but I was unhappy about not being able to go to college. I continued working there because … because–just because. When I started at Derby Foods, about three-hundred people worked there. But over the years, the company kept modernizing by buying machinery that would replace employees. By the time I had eight years on the job, I was still near the bottom of the seniority list of about 134 employees due to the lack of hiring because of the worker displacement caused by the new machinery. Since I was at the bottom of the list, I had to work an undesirable work schedule. In food production, the plant and machinery have to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Well, I had to work the midnight shift from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am the next morning. Regardless of what anyone says, the human body never fully adapts to a nocturnal life. The schedule was bearable until Saturday when I would get off at 7:00 am, but would have to return at noon to clean and sanitize the plant. Everyone else who worked the Saturday shift worked either days or afternoons, so they didn’t complain. Besides, they enjoyed working for time and a half because it was a Saturday.

I complained about my schedule to my foreman, the shift foreman, and the manager. No one thought it was a problem. I had no union with whom to file a grievance, so I called the federal labor law organization and they told me that my employer was not violating any federal laws by requiring me to return to work an eight-hour shift within four hours of working an eight-hour shift. Well, I was happy that I tried everything possible to improve my working conditions.

Then, it dawned on me! I’ll read The Jungle! I’ll find scenes in the novel that compare to my present working conditions! So, during my breaks and down time in factory, I read the paperback edition of The Jungle that I always carried in my back pocket. When I  was done, I was so grateful to be working for Derby Foods! I never realized how good I had it compared to the Stockyard workers in the early 1900s. Because of that book, federal laws were enacted, the Pure Food and Drug act in 1906 for one, in order to improve the lives of millions worldwide. The unions in Chicago and nationally became stronger. I had forgotten the lessons of my dear Lithuanian Catholic nuns at Holy Cross School. But upon rereading The Jungle, I was grateful, nay, thankful, to be working for Derby Foods. I never complained about my employer ever again.

Glasses


Holy Cross School, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I wear glasses. I’ve worn them ever since I was in grade school at Holy Cross. The optometrist told me if I wore them while I was young, I wouldn’t need them when I was older. What a lie! I’m still wearing glasses.

I bring up glasses because, as of today, all three out three of my sons (I have no daughters! Alas!) wear eyeglasses. Today, Adam and Alex picked up their new glasses from the optometrist. Adam wasn’t so happy about this, but Alex was exploring his newly corrected vision as if they gave him a new super power, like the kind of super powers that comic-book heroes have.

I knew Adam needed glasses a few weeks ago when we went to the concession stand after his Little League game and he couldn’t read the sign that listed the food for sale. Alex was wandering around the house looking at everything with a renewed appreciation of his eyesight and only now realizing what everything really looked like. For instance, he could read the titles of books that were way up on the top shelf. He never realized that there were words up there.

That reminded me of when I got my glasses at age ten; I should have gotten them three years earlier, but my parents didn’t want to spend all that money just for glasses. My grades would improve and then I would want to go to college!

So when I finally got my glasses, I saw a whole new world. I remember walking home from the optometrist and seeing the trees near my house, as if for the first time. I mean, the green part at the top of the trees consisted of many individual leaves! I knew that, but now I could actually see them for myself. At church before school, I always stared at the girl’s brown coat in front of me. I always liked the brown shade of her coat, the way it wasn’t consistently brown. Then, when I got my glasses, I was excited to learn that her coat was not just brown, but also made from corduroy. And corduroy has lines! I never saw the lines before I got my glasses.

My sons laughed when I told them that I discovered that her coat was made of corduroy. There was one downside to my new glasses until I got used to wearing them. When I looked down at the ground as I walked, it slowly waved up and down as if it were made from Jell-O. If I looked too closely, I wasn’t sure where to put my foot. My sons also thought this was funny.