Monday, May 29, 2006

See, Hear, Think: 2 Shapiros Abound

Busy days are ahead for cousin Neil Shapiro and me, Elaine (Shapiro) Soloway: On Friday, June 2, 2006, from 6-10 p.m., Neil is a featured artist at Gallery 203, 1579 N. Milwaukee, Ste. 203, √áhicago, 773-252-1952. If you haven’t viewed Neil’s wonderful work (see above), you can check out his website, and attend the opening, too. The show runs through June 25, and wine and cheese awaits reception guests on the 2nd. Stop in.

On May 31st, Vanessa Bush, a talented reviewer for Chicago Public Radio’s “848” interviewed me re: THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS. The WBEZ radio program will air during Steve Edward’s hour, sometime between 9-10 a.m. on Thursday, June 1. Luckily for me, the station posts episodes on its website, so you'll be able to hear the interview later that day, and forever after. Tune in.

Finally, I’ll be part of a panel at the Printers Row Book Fair on Sunday, June 4, 2 p.m., at the Nelson Algren Stage, Harrison St. between Dearborn and Plymouth, Chicago. Authors Faith Sullivan (GARDENIAS) and Chris Burks (NEECEY'S LULLABY) will join me in a discussion moderated by Mary Davis Fournier, project director with the American Library Association’s Public Programs office and a member of the Printers Row Book Fair advisory committee. Come by.

Postcript: The May 25th event at Chicago’s Women and Children First bookstore was a smash, with 100 people attending and 70 books sold. Watching and hearing my family and best friend as they joined me in reading passages from THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS -- while outfitted in grocery store aprons -- was incredibly satisfying for me, and our terrific audience. Here are a few photos from the occasion; but if you want to view lots more (and spot yourself), check out

Left to right: cousin Neil Shapiro, brother Ron Shapiro, me, grandson Isaac Soloway-Strozier, daughters Jill and Faith Soloway, cousin Renee Elkin.

Best friend Ruth Gilbert.

A giant thank you to Felicia Dechter of Pioneer Press for the article that appeared in the Weds. May 24, 2006 issue:

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Happy 90th Birthday, Aunt Etta!

Today, May 20, 2006 is my Aunt Etta’s 90th birthday. To celebrate, I’ve gathered a few photographs to share, as well as an excerpt from THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS.

Joining me in honoring my wonderful aunt, are Etta’s two children: David and Estherly
(and spouse Leonard Reifman), as well as Etta’s grandchildren Alan, Lynn (and spouse Jeff Richman), and Steve; and her great granddaughters Ari and Jordyn. Estherly describes her mother as, “caring, loving, smart, and thoughtful, with an amazing inner strength.” Those of us who know and love Etta couldn’t agree more, and we encourage you to leave your good wishes for this kind and compassionate woman in the Comment section at the end of this post. Your greetings will be shared with her as a special birthday surprise.

For background: Etta Elkin Kaplan, my mother’s younger sister by three years, is in many pages of my memoir, as is Estherly, who is one year younger than I. When we in lived on Division Street in the 1940s, all of the Elkins – including their spouses and children -- were close- knit. (We still are to this day.) Back then; we often counted on one another for support, companionship, and at times, food and housing.

There are many excerpts I could have selected that would have illustrated the love between my mom and her sister, as well as between Estherly and me.

The one I chose is from a chapter called “Searching for the Spotlight,” in which I describe my brother Ronnie’s Bar Mitzvah (58 years ago to the day!) and Estherly’s and my dance recital. This is poignant because it marks the time the Kaplans left Division Street for Chicago’s South Side (to be closer to Uncle Maury's butcher shop), and when the neighborhood itself was beginning to drift away.

But first, more photographs:

A surprised Aunt Etta, sometime in the 1940s or 50s.

A Division Street scene in the late 1940s. From left to right: me, my dad, my mom, Estherly, Etta, Rose Elkin Levy. In the front row, cousins David Kaplan, Jay Levy, and Norman Levy.

My Uncle Maury (another prominent character in my memoir) is pictured between his children David and Estherly.

The Elkin family passport in 1922 with six children who were born in Russia (two more were born in the U.S.) My mom, with the big eyes, age 9, is on the far left, and Etta, age 6 is front and center. (You can meet all of the Elkins in my book.)

And now, the excerpt:

“A few weeks before the recital, Aunt Etta and Estherly came to our store to meet Mom and me for our Saturday activities. The two sisters would be joining Molly and Rose for department store browsing, and my cousin and I would be off to final rehearsals.

That’s when Aunt Etta broke the news. ‘Maury found a place,’ she said. My mother remained silent. ’It’s a butcher shop in South Shore, and we’ll be renting a beautiful six-room apartment nearby. Maury can walk to work from the building.’

‘Are you moving’ I asked, turning from my aunt to my cousin. To myself I thought, no more Sunday rides together in Dad’s car? No more play-acting on the streetcar? No more dance lessons taken together?

As my cousin looked to her mother for an answer, my own mother found her voice. ‘I’m happy for you, Etta,’ she said, but her tone was serious like the time she challenged her father about the cost of Ronnie’s party. Then, she put her arms around her younger sister and said, ‘Six rooms? So Estherly and David will have their own bedrooms? You’ll have a dining room?’

Stepping back from her sister’s embrace, and taking both of my mother’s hands in hers, Aunt Etta said, ‘Wait and see, you’ll move from Division Street one day, too. You’ll get rid of the store. You’ll get a bigger apartment in a better neighborhood. Be happy for me; this is good for Maury, for our family. We’ll still meet downtown on Saturdays. We’ll still see each other, just not every day.’”


Sunday, May 14, 2006

The 47th Street Goddess

With her wildly printed silk ensembles, strappy high heels, and blonde coiffure, Hedy Ratner has come a long way from the 12-year-old girl who once worked at her family grocery store at 227 E. 47th St. in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood.

The muscles Hedy is flouting in a recent photo taken at the old location, first sprouted in the 1940s when Hedy helped her dad Joe and mom Rose in the store. “Unloading daily deliveries of meat and produce from vendors’ trucks,” Hedy claims was the regular exercise responsible for birthing those biceps.

“My dad was proud of those muscles,” Hedy recalled. “He bragged about them to all of our customers.” The Ratners held onto Joe’s Grocery for more than a decade until supermarkets (the same culprit responsible for the demise of my family store) invaded the neighborhood.

Hedy, 65, is now co-president of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. She says her entrepreneurial spirit was first sparked at Joe’s Grocery, and by her dad’s memorable words, “I’d rather clean toilets than work for someone else.”

While on tour of Hedy’s old neighborhood, we stopped in at Palace Loan Co. where Hedy was delighted to find her old pal and fellow South Shore high school alum, Dave Lowis, manning the counter. Founded in 1918, the Lowis family has operated this shop that Hedy retreated to when things got boring at her grocery store across the street.

Hedy and I first met in 1980 when I was a press aide for Mayor Jane Byrne and Hedy was trying to get the City interested in her film studio project (that’s a whole other story). I was immediately dazzled, we became fast friends, she became a quasi role model for my brazen daughters Faith and Jill, and I have acted as occasional writer (most recently, the 20th Anniversary and 2005 Annual Report) and P.R. consultant to the WBDC.

The coincidence of both of us being grocery store kinderlach only makes our longtime friendship absolutely natural and enduring.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Neither rain nor sleet

Meet Joanne Samuels and Zeta Horton-Tyler, two outstanding representatives of the U.S. Postal Service who are pictured at my neighborhood Daniel J. Doffyn Station on N. Kedzie Avenue. These women have enthusiastically helped me mail copies of THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS to addresses throughout the U.S. and internationally.

Thinking about the postal service sparks this excerpt from THE DIVISION STREET PRINCESS:

“Summer days on Division Street children claimed our concrete playing field, but by early evenings, we’d relinquish a portion to our parents. The sidewalk in front of our store was the customary gathering spot. And since our block was made up of six- and twelve-flat apartment buildings -- absent of porches or stoops -- the adults, like their creative children, improvised.

‘Here, put them here,' Mrs. Levinson said to her husband Saul one evening that July, as she pointed to a spot to the right of our grocery’s front door. Rose Levinson was the apple of her husband’s eye, as well as of her three sons. Mr. Levinson, bulky as my dad, was schlepping four metal card chairs -- two for his wife and him, the others reserved for my parents.

On that evening, the Friedmans and the Rosenbergs soon joined the Levinsons on the sidewalk. Each newcomer carried a card chair that squeaked as it was unfolded. These were the same chairs that were stored flat in a hall closet, then opened weekly for rounds of Pinochle and Gin Rummy, or Canasta and Kalukee. This night, as our neighbors settled in on their metal chairs, the men unbuttoned shirt collars and lit unfiltered cigarettes, and the women fixed their eyes on their wild kinderlach on the concrete stage before them.

A few of the men, including my father, shunned chitchat and folded damp arms under heads, and leaned back against the brick building. Subdued by a day of labor, several helpings of heavy Jewish cooking, and gasoline fumes from the street, they schloffed. Nothing could rouse our dozing fathers -- neither the screams of their flying children, nor the sounds of radio programs that leaked from open windows overhead. The crackley broadcasts of The Goldbergs or The Jack Benny Show, with their familiar characters and easy going plots, lulled -- rather than disturbed -- the drained men.

This particular evening, my mother was unfolding a flimsy blue envelope and reading news of her four brothers who were stationed overseas. ‘Listen,’ she said, pulling on her girlfriend’s bare arm to catch her attention. ‘You’ll never believe what my brother Nate did. He’s in the Army Engineers, you know.’ Then, she smoothed the airmail letter in her lap and read, ‘One of my pals told me he had seen a guy named Elkin in a military hospital, and that the soldier had malaria. I figured it was our brother Carl, because I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks.’ As my mother continued Uncle Nate’s airmail, Mrs. Levinson’s eyes darted from my mother’s face to her kids’-- as if she was watching a tennis match at Humboldt Park. When the ball returned to Mom’s court, she read on, 'So I went AWOL until I found Carl. The docs said he’s okay, just resting up till they send him home. But guess where I am?' Mother paused here for dramatic effect. When Mrs. Levinson failed a guess, Mom read, in a loud voice mixed with humor and surprise, ‘In the brig! I have to serve seven days, one for each day I was gone from my outfit.’”

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Princess and the Pool Room

I was delighted to find me and The Division Street Princess as a sort of centerfold in the May 1, “Calendar, Girls” section of the Chicago Sun-Times. Of course, this calendar was nothing like the calendars of my childhood, especially the ones hanging on the walls of my dad’s favorite hangout, the neighborhood pool room. Here’s a few passages about that pool room that I’ve excerpted from my memoir:

"I never willingly entered the place, but occasionally Mom would ask me to go there and bring Dad home for supper. It wasn't the other men who hung out at the place that I was shy about, guys who rumpled my head like my young uncles who joined Dad for pool or cards before they were drafted, or the other men whom I knew from the neighborhood.

The disturbing part about the pool room were the Varga Girl calendars tacked on every wall. These pictures of blonde-haired beauties, with torsos that stretched from the top of the calendar to the page of the month, pulled my eyes towards them the moment I entered the smoke-filled room. Although Miss February might dangle a sheer scarf from a manicured hand, or Miss July would use a wide-brimmed hat to mask her anatomy, my youthful eyes would be dragged to the perfect breasts of these painted ladies.

'It’s my princess. One minute, one minute, sweetheart. Let me finish the hand.' the sound of Dad’s voice had broken the calendars’ hold and I took a seat at an empty card table, pushed away a butt-filled ashtray, and waited. My dad was wearing a short sleeve white shirt, his bloodied butcher’s apron abandoned in the store. His left arm was oddly tanned, fingers to elbow, a weird stain from hanging his arm out the window on Sunday drives.

Like he did at home; here at his spot in the pool room, Dad had unclasped his belt buckle, released his pants’ zipper and pushed his card chair a few inches from the table’s edge. The pool room smelled stale, damp, and smoky; and it was loud. A radio dial was turned to the baseball scores and met by occasional shouts of, 'Those momsers [bastards]!' I could hear calls of 'Gin!' -- and the slap of playing cards against the metal tables, and the pings of billiard balls as they batted into each other. Someone whose Poker hand had just been bested, let out 'Son-of-a-bitch!' then halted in mid-air as he glanced in my direction. 'Oh, sorry, honey, forgive my big mouth,' he had said.

Finally, Dad had zipped up his trousers, buckled the belt, scooped a handful of coins from the middle of the card table into his pocket and rose from his seat. 'Okay, Princess, let’s go home,' he had said, lifting my hand to his lips for a kiss, then sealing the same hand into his moist palm."