Parque Marquette


Taste of México, Marquette Park, Chicago, Illinois

My oldest son found a frog at the forest preserves and decided to keep it. He bought an aquarium, but soon the house smelled of stagnant water. He really didn’t clean the aquarium regularly or properly. Then he got bored of having a frog. He thought of releasing the frog in our backyard, but I told him it would die there and that would be inhumane. I suggested he take the frog to the Marquette Park lagoon where it would at least stand a chance to survive. A week passed and the frog was still our roommate and the aquarium water was still polluting the air we breathed. Yesterday, we both were home at the same time, with free time at the same time–something that rarely happens with our busy schedules (even though I’m on summer vacation now!).

So, I said, “Let’s take the frog to Marquette Park now.” Amazingly, he agreed. However, he didn’t want to touch the frog because of the putrid smell. He brought the aquarium down from his bedroom and put it on the front porch. He almost threw as he set the tank down. So, I was the one who took the frog out of the smelly tank and put it into a five-gallon bucket to take to Marquette Park.

I’ve been going to Marquette Park since the 1960s. My parents always loved taking us to parks or beaches whenever possible. When my mother got her driver’s license, she ventured further away from our house. Once she took us to Brookfield Zoo! But first she had to build up her courage. So she took us to Marquette Park. She had heard that it was a nice park. She drove us there in her 1964 Chevy Impala convertible. I remember driving on Marquette Road to get to Marquette Park. My mother was amazed by the houses we saw there. When we drove back home on Marquette Road, my mother said, “Some day we will live on Marquette Road!”

Eventually, we did live at 2509 W. Marquette Road! Many Lithuanians lived in Marquette Park. There were very few Mexicans in the neighborhood back in the early 1970s. But that didn’t stop my mother from moving in. I missed my old friends at Back of the Yards, but Marquette Park was a much bigger and better park than Davis Square Park. Marquette Park had a lagoon for fishing, sailing, RC boats. There were plenty of activities at the field house where I eventually joined the Mar Par Chessmen. Years later, I joined the Marquette Park Track Club that was coached by Jack Bolton. There were soccer and baseball leagues. I went there for a wrestling match when I was in the eighth grade. I got to know Marquette Park very well. There were very few Mexicans at the park then.

So, imagine my surprise when I returned with my sons to Marquette Park to release the frog (I bet you thought I forgot all about the frog!).  Over the past few years the neighborhood has been changing. African-Americans started moving in. Now, Mexicans are moving in, too. Whenever I drive through the neighborhood, I see more store signs in Spanish. Since I don’t spend all that much time there, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the park. Marquette Park was filled with mostly Mexicans. Several soccer–actually, fútbol–games were in progress. Unlike the 1970s, all the players were Mexican. Ditto when I drove past the concrete basketball courts. I was also surprised by the Mexican food vendor in the picture above. They sold the usual Mexican food items: elotes, tacos, gorditas, raspados. My son was hungry, so he bought a couple of tacos de carne asada and an elote in a cup. I didn’t even know you could buy elote in a cup! I always buy it on a stick! As Dios intended. But, I’ve also seen pizza in a cup. So why not elote in a cup?

Anyway, we placed the frog (See! I still remember that this post was about the frog!) on the grassy shore of the lagoon and the frog immediately jumped into the water. Live long and prosper!

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Holy Cross Church


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

I went to Holy Cross Church today after an absence of about thirty-plus years. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew things would be different, but I didn’t quite expect to see so many familiar sights.

Well, to begin with, the church was founded by Lithuanians in Back of the Yards In the early 1900s and they finally built their church in 1913. When I attended Holy Cross in the 1960s, most of the parishioners were Lithuanian. Mexicans were just starting to move into the neighborhood in larger numbers. Mexicans had been moving to Chicago since about the time of the Mexican Revolution around 1910, but they started moving into Back of the Yards in large numbers in the 1930s.  By the time I attended Holy Cross, there were many Mexican parishioners. However, Mexicans also had their own church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, about a half-mile away from Holy Cross.

On Sundays, we usually went to mass at Holy Cross Church, but sometimes our family went to the mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priests said the mass in Spanish. I enjoyed hearing mass in Spanish, so I never complained. Apparently, too many Mexican parishioners from Holy Cross started attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary on Sundays. Well, the priests and nuns from Holy Cross didn’t like this at all. Suddenly, we were required to attend Sunday mass at Holy Cross Church. We had to sit with our class and the nuns took attendance. If we didn’t come to Sunday mass at Holy Cross, we had to bring a note from our parents explaining where we were. This was directed at the Mexican students only. But everyone understood the rule. There was no racism involved. If you belonged to a parish and enjoyed the benefits of their Catholic education, you must attend their mass.

Imagine my surprise when I went to Holy Cross Church today and I observed that at least 99% of the people in mass were Mexican, all except the priest who I’m guessing was African and spoke fluent Spanish. The mass was said in Spanish and the children’s choir sang in Spanish to marimba music. I really didn’t expect to see any of my former teachers or classmates, and I didn’t. Well, it turns out that Holy Cross Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church have merged since most of the neighborhood is now Mexican.

The new Holy Cross.

I was wondering what the priests and nuns of my school days would say if they saw the church today. Well, at least the church is still alive and well. The Polish parish of Sacred Heart no longer exists. I walked there before mass and was surprised that most of the buildings were demolished and a Chicago public school stood in its place. Holy Cross School no longer exists, but the parish rents out the school building to the Chicago Public Schools. C’est la vie.

Confessions


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

Some people have more secrets than others. Those who seem to have the most secrets approach me and ask me how I can reveal so much about myself on my blog. Well, I see my blog as a confessional of sorts. This where I purge myself of my past and afterwards feel renewed.

On several occasions, over the past ten years, people have pointed an accusing finger at me and said, “You’re Catholic! What do you think about all the sex scandals in the Catholic church?” Well, the first time, I was caught off-guard by this verbal assault. I didn’t know what to say. I often think about the sex scandals in the church every time I read about them or see them in the news. My whole life has revolved around the Catholic church, either by being an active participant or avoiding it when I didn’t agree with their teachings.

So, I have a confession to make. Despite having spent my whole life actively involved with (or actively avoiding) the church, I have never been sexually molested! And I never witnessed or even suspected anyone of being sexually molested by the Catholic clergy. I don’t deny that the sexual allegations are real. I’m merely saying that I never personally witnessed any or even heard any rumors about any sexual improprieties by the priests or nuns while I was a Catholic student.

At Holy Cross in Back of the Yards where I attended school and church from kindergarten through eighth grade, I was often alone with the Lithuanian priests and nuns. I enjoyed staying after school to help in the classroom with my teachers who were all nuns. I was an altar boy and I was often alone in the sacristy with the priest who said mass. No matter with whom I was, he or she would strike up a conversation and we would talk about school or church. We always had a mutual interest in each other. During my time at Holy Cross, I often thought about becoming a priest because I admired the holiness of the priests and nuns of Holy Cross Church.

After graduating from the eighth grade at Holy Cross School, I began my freshman year at Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. While visiting DHS in the seventh grade, I was surprised that the seminarians used profanities and were allowed to smoke cigarettes! At Holy Cross these acts were sins and were subject to discipline! After that weekend visit, I decided that I would not attend DHS. However, in the eighth grade, DHS contacted Holy Cross about my attending DHS and Sister Cecilia the principal was so thrilled that I was going to become a priest! So she called my mother with the good news, who was ecstatic that I would become a priest! My pastor also congratulated me on my decision to become a priest when I served mass for him.

No one listened to me when I said that I didn’t want to attend Divine Heart Seminary, nor that I didn’t want to become a priest. But I never said anything bad, or at least what I conceived as “bad,” about the seminary. My fate was sealed. I would attend DHS the following fall. Sister Cecilia announced to my eighth grade class that we were extremely fortunate because we had a vocation in our class. She called my name and I had to stand up at the front of the class so the class could acknowledge me. My life in the eighth grade would never be the same! The girl I had a crush on no longer waited for me after school. When I met up my friends at the park, they would say, “Here comes Father David” and change the subject to something more innocent in the presence of a “priest.”

At DHS, I spent a lot of time alone with priests and brothers. In fact, they were responsible for supervising us. As a teenager, I enjoyed the company of adults who seemed to take a genuine interest in me. We also had to pick a priest for a spiritual adviser. Once a month or so, or more often if necessary, we would meet with our spiritual adviser and discuss our spiritual development. The two of us would be alone in an office for this meeting. Looking back, I suppose this would have been an opportune time for sexual abuse, but nothing of the sort ever happened.

There was another priest that I enjoyed visiting in his office. I spent a lot of time talking to him because I enjoyed talking to him. Once when the Explorers went camping he went with us. He said we could share the same tent. At the campsite, my friends were all having fun in their huge tent, so I said I would set up my sleeping bag with them. The priest I came with said that I had already made a commitment to share a tent with him. I reluctantly put my sleeping bag in his tent. I wasn’t happy about the situation, but I accepted it. That night, I slept with my hand on the handle of my hunting knife. I was angry about having to be in that tent instead of with my friends. Of course, whenever I went camping, I always slept with my hunting knife in my hand. I was a city boy who was dreadfully afraid of the ax murderer!

Years later as an adult, I would look back at this incident and realize that this priest had taught me a valuable lesson about commitment and making promises meant keeping them. In fact, I would often feel guilty that I suspected this priest would do anything to me while we were camping.

Although I didn’t want to attend DHS, I have to admit that I still warmly recall many memories from my seminary days. I left DHS after the Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year. Every time I came home, I would beg my mother not to make me go back. Eventually, after much begging, she agreed to let me stay home.

Now, whenever DHS has a reunion, I always attend. I enjoy meeting my old friends and talking about the good old days. Once I met two of my former classmates for lunch. We were talking about the good times at the seminary. I don’t know why, but I brought up the sex scandals of the Catholic Church and how we had avoided them at DHS. There was an awkward pause. Then, one of my classmates told me how DHS had sexual abuse. They both knew about them. I didn’t ask them how they knew about it. How could I have not known about sexual abuse at DHS? They mentioned two students from our freshman class who didn’t return for their sophomore year. They were molested by the priest with whom I had shared a tent while camping. Then they asked me if I left the seminary because I had been sexually molested at DHS. I was shocked by these revelations and this line of questioning! I was never sexually molested! I left the seminary because I never wanted to attend in the first place! Many students left DHS for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure if I convinced my former classmates that I was never sexually abused, but that’s the honest to God truth.

Well, in the end, I guess I didn’t make any kind of confession, but rather, I spilled my guts.

The Lithuanian Jungle


International Union Stockyards, Chicago, Illinois

So after I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, I read some of the ancillary material in the end of the Norton Critical Edition that added to my understanding of the novel. I read an interesting statement from Wages and Family Budgets in the Chicago Stockyards District: “The Lithuanians, Poles, and Slovaks will work for wages which would seem small to the average American workingman. The standards of living of these workers are comparatively low and over half of them are boarders without families to support, so they can easily underbid Americans Germans, and Bohemians.” In the novel, we see Jurgis and many other Lithuanians working for low wages that take away jobs from Americans. And they live under deplorable conditions. Well, this accurately describes today’s immigrants, regardless of their origin.

I also read a very interesting book that researched the places described in The Jungle: Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle by Giedrius Subacius, whom I actually met since he is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This book simply enthralled me because I remembered the areas Subacius describes. When I met him, I had not yet read his book. He described how he went and spoke to people from Back of the Yards. The book has recent pictures of the neighborhood and some from the archives for places that no longer exist. After speaking to him, I tried checking out the book from the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, but it was constantly checked out. I finally checked it out over the summer when no one was using it for class. This book is a must-read for any Chicago history buff.

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.

Marina


Mariachis

Marina was a Mexicana whom I met when I was in the police academy. We met just by chance because the Chicago Police Department, in its infinite wisdom, divided all the new recruits into four different classrooms based on race, ethnicity, and sex in order to be politically correct. There we were, in the police academy gym, and the instructors asked all the white males to step forward. They were immediately divided into four groups. Next, they called the females who were sorted out on the basis of their gender regardless of their race or ethnicity. Then, the African-American / Black males were equally divided into the four groups. And last, but not least, the Hispanic / Latino males were assigned to a classroom. The department tried to avoid racial and sexual discrimination lawsuits using this system for hiring new police officers.

Anyway, Marina and I were assigned to the same classroom where the entire class was assigned desks by alpabetical order. Since her last name was Perez, she sat directly in front of me. Well, we became good friends because we were partners for many of the training activities. She was a very pretty Mexicana, but a little on the plump side. However, she could meet all the physical requirements for calesthenics, running, and self defense. I was single at that time, but she had a boyfriend then, so we remained just friends.

One day during self-defense class, we had to practice applying a wrist lock on each other. We had to command each other to walk in a certain direction, lay face-down, and then handcuff our “arrestee.” If the arrestee didn’t obey, we applied more pressure on the wrist lock until they complied. By then, I knew Marina well enough to joke around with her. The instructor observed everyone to make sure they were applying the wrist lock properly.

Well, when I had Marina in the wrist lock, the instructor told me that I did it well and then walked away. I took advantage of the fact that he wouldn’t be back for a few minutes. So, I steered Marina around the mat by tightening my grip on her wrist. I told her to get on her knees and she did. I told her to lie down and she did. Then, I asked her if she wanted to go out me. I was just joking, of course. She immediately said “No!” I applied a little more pressure on her wrist and she changed her answer to “Yes!” even though she had a boyfriend. Then, I told her to tell me that she loved me. With a little bit more pressure, she did. I just had to smile.

When I released her, she said, “You’re gonna get it!” Now it was her turn to restrain me! Well, I immediately apologized, but it was too late to be sorry. But I was surprised when she applied her wrist lock on me. I was able to control the pain. You see, I would just recall all the times that my mother used to hit me with the belt, the broom, the extension cord, or whatever else was within reach whenever I angered her. Thanks to my mother, I had a high tolerance for pain and Marina wasn’t able to make me do anything I didn’t want to do. Eventually, I just went through the motions and let myself be restrained. After classes were over, we saw her boyfriend and I told him what I had done. He wasn’t very amused, but I thought it be better if I told him instead of Marina.

Eventually, we finished our academy training, but I always saw Marina at traffic court since they assigned our courtrooms by alphabetical order. She later broke up with her boyfriend and invited me to go to her family Thanksgiving Dinner, which I did. Later, I went to her family Christmas party, but we remained merely friends. I didn’t see her again for a couple of years.

I met her again through her fiance who happened to work in my district. We just started talking one day after roll call and I learned that he would soon marry Marina. We became friends after that. He was Lithuanian so he had lived in the same neighborhoods as me. We had a few things in common. Well, when they married, they invited my wife and me to their wedding. When I asked Marina about his family, she told me that they weren’t too happy that he was marrying a Mexicana. They wanted him to marry a nice Lithuanian girl. So at the reception, the hall was evenly divided with the Lithuanians on one side and the Mexicans on the other. They had hired a DJ for the music, but they had also hired some Mariachis to play while everyone ate dinner to show everyone how wonderful Mexicans are. However, the Mariachis were late! And his side of the family was upset. Eventually, the Mariachis showed up, but dinner was almost over. The police had pulled over their van for running a redlight and the driver didn’t have a driver’s license or auto insurance. So it took a while before they got to the reception. Well, the Lithuanians were upset at the Mariachis and the Mexicans were embarrassed by them!

Labas


Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

Labas. That’s right. Labas. To all my Lithuanian friends: Labas! In fact, I’d like greet everyone reading my blog: Labas! That’s hello in Lithuanian. My Lithuanian friend Vito taught me that word because he always insisted that we greet each other by saying Labas. Now, I always greet Lithuanians with Labas and they always smile. I especially love to greet them with Labas especially if they didn’t think I knew they were Lithuanians. I’m not sure why, but they’re always thrilled to hear me say Labas. So to all my Lithuanian readers: Labas! I guess sometimes I go on and on, don’t I? Well, my friend Vito taught me another Lithuanian word: tylėk. Sometimes we would go to the show, I would just keep on talking even after the movie started. He would keep telling me tylėk until I finally shut up. That’s right, tylėk means shut up in Lithuanian. But I never did. And I never will.

Holy Cross Church

For as long as I can remember, I have always lived near Lithuanians in Chicago. In Back of the Yards, Holy Cross was the Lithuanian church I attended. At Holy Cross School, the nuns always praised The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because the protagonist was Lithuanian and the novel was set in Back of the Yards. When we moved to Marquette Park, 2509 W. Marquette Road, many Lithuanians lived there and they even had a street named Lithuanian Plaza Court. In fact, that neighborhood was the unofficial capital of Lithuania during the Soviet era. Maria High School, run by Lithuanian nuns, was at Marquette Road and California Avenue. Right on the same campus was the retirement convent for the Sisters of Saint Casimir at 2601 W. Marquette Road. The Lithuanians also had their own Holy Cross Hospital at California Avenue and Lithuanian Plaza Court. I met my friend Vito when I lived in Marquette Park. Vito and I used to eat at the Lithuanian McDonald’s at 68th and Pulaski. I don’t know if it was actually Lithuanian, but Vito told me that the tiles on the wall were typical Lithuanian colors, so it became a Lithuanian McDonald’s in my mind. When I moved to Bridgeport, there weren’t that many Lithuanians there anymore, but they did have a street named Lituanica Avenue. My favorite restaurant in Bridgeport was a Lithuanian restaurant named Healthy Foods at 3236 S. Halsted Street. When I saw the movie Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled to learn that the family of Harold Abrams were Lithuanian Jews.

When I was a student at Holy Cross, my best friend was Patrick McDonald, but when he moved away, I became friends with Adrian Stanislovaitis and Anthony Kivenas, both Lithuanians. Whenever I was with them, we spoke English, but when they were with their parents, they spoke Lithuanian. I never understood what they said and it didn’t bother me at all. However, I never even learned one Lithuanian word from them. And when they came to my house, I spoke Spanish with my parents and grandmother. I envied Adrian and Anthony because they got to go to Lithuanian classes on Saturday morning. I wanted to go with them. I wished Mexicans would have Spanish classes for Mexicans. Anyway, Adrian and I spent a lot of time together. For school holidays, we used to take the bus downtown and just wander around, but he showed me a few points of interest, such as the Prudential Building because it used to be Chicago’s tallest skyscraper.

When we moved to Marquette Park, we met more Lithuanians. Marquette Park has a monument for Lithuanian aviators Captain Steponas Darius and Lieutenant Stasys Girenas. This is where I met Vito and other Lithuanians. I went to Lithuanian restaurants and bars with Vito. At one bar on Lithuanian Plaza Court, it might have been Knight’s Inn, we met a Lithuanian improv group that was named Second Village, which is Antras Kaimas in Lithuanian. It was inspired by the name of Second City. We talked to them a while, and Jim, Vito, and I told them that we performed standup comedy. We ended up making a little skit/song/dance for them sung to the tune of “Skip to My Lou.” I still remember it, but don’t know how to spell it because it was in Lithuanian. Vito wrote most of the song. My contribution to the song? Labas and tylėk! No surprise there!

We once went to a Lithuanian festival on Western Boulevard near the Lithuanian V.F.W. Hall, which if I remember correctly was named after Darius and Girenas. Anyway, there were all kinds of Lithuanian food. One vender is selling empanadas, which really surprised me because as far as I knew, empanadas were Mexican food. The Lithuanian cook tells me that empanadas were invented by Lithuanians. He could tell that I didn’t believe him. He pressed on with his explanation and tried to convince me that I really didn’t know Mexican food. He was so convincing that I almost believed him. Almost, but not quite. Finally, he told me that he learned to make empanadas in Argentina. During WWII, his family went to Argentina before they came to America.

Marquette Park, corner of Marquette Road and California Avenue, Chicago, Illinois

That’s how I think of Lithuanians. They’re always ready to play a friendly practical joke on you. Vito was always the joker and had a great sense of humor that not everybody got. I could tell he got it from his father. Once I went to Vito’s house so we could go to the show. His father answered the door and I asked for Vito. He knew very well that I was asking for his son, Vito, my friend, but he said, “You’re talking to him.” I said, “No, Vito Junior.” He said, “I am Vito Junior!” This went on much longer than was comfortable for me, but Vito’s father was really enjoying this. Finally, he said, “Vito’s not home.” Why didn’t he just tell me that in the first place? Well, he wanted to play a joke on me. I laugh now that I think of it. But that day I learned that both Vito’s father and grandfather were named Vito. What really made me uncomfortable about them was how they greeted each other and how they said good-bye. Vito would always kiss his father on the lips. Talk about culture shock! For a while, Vito lived with his grandfather Vito. Before we would go out, Vito would kiss his grandfather on the lips before he went out. It was as shocking since I had finally gotten used to him kissing his father. But one day we were talking and Vito told me that his father was adopted. Suddenly, it hit me. “Vito, you kiss your grandfather on the lips and he’s not even related to you!” He thought nothing of it. I still can’t get over it!