Tuesday, October 24, 2006


In 1999, just one year after Tommy and I had married, I convinced him to move with me to a small town 40 miles west of the city. Although Tommy was a lifelong Chicagoan, he agreed, imagining I suppose, that he’d spend his retirement years puttering in a country garden. Alas, my new spouse was unaware he had wed a serial mover, and in less than a year he’d be uprooted and replanted back in the city.

Perhaps I should have confessed – told him the house on Henderson St. in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood where I was living when we first met was my 12th residence since my first marriage in 1960. (A few houses and favorite places are pictured in this post and identified at the end.) But honestly, I had thought my moving days were over, filed away with my divorce papers, so there was no need to share my secret addiction.

I had pinned a few of those dozen moves to natural causes; i.e., the army, a growing family, first husband’s new career. As for the rest of our family’s moves, my theories included: empty nest syndrome, projects to recharge a long union, and my short attention span. But, no real answer. Now, though, thanks to a report I found on the Internet, I can blame my grandparents (aka Bubbie and Zadie), and the immigrant roots unearthed in my memoir, “The Division Street Princess.”

You see, according to Dr. Fred Goodwin, a psychiatrist and former director of the National Institute for Mental Health, ”Some 40 million Americans move every year. We’re a country of movers,” he said. “It’s as American as apple pie.” In an August 5, 2001 interview with CNN, Dr. Goodwin suggested that while some in the same situation stayed behind, “many of our forbearers bravely left their own country, old language, to better their circumstances or avoid religious persecution. The immigrants that came to this country were the risk-takers, explorers,” he said.

Could I have inherited this tendency to courageously seek new vistas from the Shapiros and Elkins who left their Russian shtetls for the concrete streets of Humboldt Park? Although my excuses for 14 homes (last count) have been paltry in comparison to my ancestors’ voyages from Russia to the U.S. in the 1920s, it’s clearly their fault Bradke Movers has been on my speed dial.

As I review my list of addresses, surely the strangest was that 1999 move to Geneva, IL. with Tommy. What possessed me to obscure the Yiddish of my childhood for the Swedish of the Fox River Valley? How could I ignore my liberal Democratic leanings (not to mention my tattooed biceps) to settle in a town almost totally Republican and conservative?

The excuse I gave Tommy at the time was that I wanted to see trees before I died. But looking back, I think I believed my narrow city row house too small to accommodate my new marriage and my two daughters who would occasionally visit from Boston and Los Angeles. A spacious home in the country – certainly more affordable than a similarly sized one in the city –could provide ample room for all.

My friends and family scoffed, taking bets on how long I would last. “If it doesn’t work out,” I told them, “I can always move back.” Tommy -- still unaware of my addiction, but knowing my talent for organization would ease the move and quickly find us new friends and activities – was optimistic.

My spouse was right: the move to a 50-year-old house on a half-acre of land with giant trees and wildflower garden, across the road from wooded trails, and walking distance from the train station, was a breeze. Within days, we joined the Delnor-Community Health and Wellness Center. Tommy planted a vegetable garden, and discovered enough golf courses to keep him puttering and putting. I became a member of the St. Charles Library Writing Group, as well as of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville. For a time, I was content.

But to keep a link to the city, and to attend Weight Watchers’ meetings with my old group, I’d climb aboard the Union Pacific/West Line’s 7:25 a.m. to Chicago once or twice a week. And each time the train pulled into the Ogilvie Transportation Center, and downtown skyscrapers magically blossomed before my eyes, I could feel my heart tug for the city I had carelessly forsaken.

Ten months after our move to Geneva, I pleaded with Tommy. “I have to move back.” “You’re nuts,” he diagnosed. Too late. On August 10 (my birthday), 2000, we waved goodbye to Graham’s Chocolate shop, to The Little Traveler, to charming Third Street, to the great group of writers who encouraged my memoir, to the women I met while exercising or praying, and to the other places and people who tried to woo me to beautiful Kane County.

Surprisingly, even though I really was fish out of water, that wasn’t my reason for returning to the city. Folks in Geneva were genuinely friendly, and curious about my pursuits and me. I never felt unwelcome. It was Chicago, the home of my birth, that I missed. Certainly Geneva possessed the trees I thought I needed, and tranquility and charm I believed to be a bonus. But I never realized how much the city’s vitality and variety meant to me. At the end, my twice-weekly Metra visits only stoked, not satisfied my need for tumult, a longing likely sown in Eastern Europe and nurtured on the streets of my childhood.

In January of this year, Tommy and I marked our eighth year of marriage and in August, our sixth year in our home in Chicago’s Independence Park neighborhood. Trees abound in the namesake park across the street. A mix of neighbors stop by our wide front porch to pet our dog and trade news. Tommy tends the backyard flower and vegetable garden when he’s not golfing or bowling. Tommy renewed his YMCA membership; I returned to the East Bank Club. I take the Blue Line to the Loop to window shop and wander.

Tommy warns me that the only way I’ll move from this house is “feet first.” I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, but if the urge should strike, I can honestly say I’m innocent. “It’s in my DNA,” I’ll insist. “Blame those adventurous peasants from the old country. Unwilling to stay put, hungry for the taste of new cuisine, the smell of fresh paint and untreated wood, the sound of hammers and saws, the feel of bubble wrap and corrugated boxes, the sight of blueprints and floor plans. Don’t look at me.”

Photo Captions:
1. Tommy and I pictured in 1999 on a card announcing our move to the country.
2. The Henderson St. row house, which we left for Geneva.
3. Officer’s quarters in Ft. Devens, MA.
4. A first marriage townhouse on LaSalle St.
5. One of my favorite homes, on Maud St.
6. Our Geneva home on Fargo Blvd.
7. The Little Traveler, on Third St., Geneva
8. My office within a Michigan Ave. high-rise condo.
9. Grahams Chocolate shop, on Third St., Geneva.
10. The Independence Park field house.
11. Our current Chicago home with our golden retriever, Buddy, on the front porch.
12. Some of our neighbors posing at a recent block party, which is held annually to welcome new neighbors. Tommy and I were the year 2000 guests of honor.


Fans of Chicago history and old neighborhoods should check out "The Pied Piper of South Shore, Toys and Tragedy in Chicago" by Caryn Lazar Amster, a fascinating true crime story set in the 1950s and 1960s. To subscribe to "South Shore News," Caryn's free monthly e-mail newsletter, write to her at: Caryn Amster

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bookies, Peddlers, and Junkmen

Marty Robinson refuses to sue me. Even though in my memoir I labeled his dad a bookie, the legendary voice of Chicago radio and TV insists on being a mensch, thus robbing me of a controversy that might have spurred headlines and boosted book sales.

Here’s the edited passage from "The Division Street Princess" where we first meet Marty’s dad, Emmanuel “Coffee” Robinson (All photos in this post are identified at the end.):

“I don’t know if Irv can handle the store alone,” my mother said.
“It’s not the store you’re worried about,” Aunt Mollie said. “Irv will behave himself. He knows you mean business.”
“What about Coffee and Major?” my mother said.
“I thought you told me that dreck was finished.”
“Yeh, the police closed them down and Irv promised no more. But who knows, maybe with me out of town, they’ll be back.”
I knew what Mom was talking about, and for a moment, my mind wandered from the Elkin sisters at the kitchen table to a pleasant memory of Coffee and Major, the neighborhood bookies who often visited us in the kitchen in the rear of our grocery store.”

According to Marty, his dad – my Coffee -- “was not a bookie, but a junk peddler by trade, a gin player and a fisherman by choice, and an occasional overseer of the card games at Humboldt Billiards.” Marty does allow that perhaps an episode in my book was his dad’s “effort to get into the field.”

Here’s what I wrote:
“I also knew why Mom was worried about Dad and the bookies, for I had learned details just the week before when my parents’ loud voices awakened me from sleep.
“A hundred bucks a week,” my dad had said. “We can’t throw that away.” I heard the click of glass, likely an ashtray, then smelled cigarette smoke, and knew my dad would be lighting up one of several Camels.
“I don’t care what he gives you. I don’t want a bookie joint in the back of my store,” Mother had said. “Even if it’s after we close up.” She was moving around the kitchen, the sound of her wedge house slippers mingling with the swish-swish of a broom across the linoleum.

A bookie joint! I projected a scene straight out of the movies: Jimmy Cagney-types in wide-shouldered suits and dark fedoras, banks of ringing telephones, cigar smoke, stacks of cash.
“Whadaya worried about?” my father had said, interrupting the film I was directing.
“The police, like the last time.” My mother’s voice had risen as the sweeps came faster and louder.
Police! There were police in our store! I leapt from my bed and opened the bedroom door several inches wider, anxious not to miss a word.
“That was bupkis,” Dad had said laughing. “Major paid off the cops like always, but some schmuck thought he’d make detective if he blew the whistle.”

Major’s family has weighed in about his depiction in my book, too. Janice Lipinski, his niece, remembers her uncle, Irving “Major” Kasoff, as a masseur at the schvitz on North and Damen. She claims ignorance of the pair’s shady sideline, but admits “Major hung out at the poolroom on Division Street and always knew somebody who could get you a deal on anything.”

Marty says he can speak to Major's expertise as a masseur: (Imagine Marty’s melodious voice reading you this part.) “He was much in demand at the schvitz. When he used that broom made of oak leaves and dipped in hot suds on your flesh, the glow lasted the rest of the day. The soap was rinsed off with buckets of hot water, and then custom demanded you jump into the plunge pool. The water temperature was about 60° but it felt like 32. Then it was back into the steam room. I never made it to the top (hottest) shelf.”

I think the reason Marty and Janice refuse to press charges – sending me fan letters instead of litigation – is that even if their relatives did dip their hands in the trade, bookmaking back in the 1940’s seemed to be more colorful than criminal, folklore rather than felonious. No matter. Coffee and Major remain in my memory as treasured characters who only added fun and sweetness to my Division Street childhood. Never anything scary, like other incidents back then.

If you’re wondering where the duo’s Runyonesque nicknames came from, Marty explains his dad’s tag this way: “During the depression, my father, like many others, rode the rails as a hobo. One night at a hobo camp, he was asked his name by a big fellow with band intent. My dad bore a striking resemblance to a boxer of that era named Awful Joe Coffee. That’s who he said he was, and no one challenged him after that. The name Coffee stuck.”

As for Major – who remained friends with Coffee until their deaths (Coffee in 1970 at the age of 64, and Major in 1976 at 68) -- neither Janice nor Marty know where that nickname came from. Perhaps it was simply because Major was a big guy who commanded respect.

Of course, bookies weren’t the only crafty hustlers of the era. Junkmen, like Marty’s dad, and peddlers, like my uncle Jack Silver, also added zest to Division Street and to other old neighborhoods. Immigrants saw these jobs as footholds to a better life for their families, and they schlepped from pushcarts to horse and buggy, to trucks, and some even to enterprises that grew into department stores or major businesses.

My brother, Ron, recalls Maxwell Street -- Chicago’s most famous gathering spot for immigrant peddlers – in this passage he contributed to today’s post. He says between the ages of 12 and 15 (1947-50), “ Dad and I used to go to Maxwell St. on Sundays, meet with the market master or whatever he was called and he would give us a spot and merchandise to sell. We had a minimum price and anything over that was ours. We sold all kinds of stuff, from softballs, watches, leather jackets, cashmere sweaters, etc. I learned more things about selling on those Sundays that stay with me today. You never lost a sale because of price. We had so much fun that the hours on our feet didn't matter, we were together and were a great team. I kept Dad in stitches with my carnie routine even back then. Good memories.”

You can learn more about Maxwell Street, which was sadly dismembered in 1994 and later sterilely resurrected by the city of Chicago, by going to the excellent website established by the Maxwell Street Foundation and by reading “Jewish Maxwell Street Stories” by Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz. Both visits will return you to the world famous bazaar of my childhood that gave generations of Chicagoans long lasting memories.

As for Coffee’s son, he’s been active in the communications industry since 1956 when he was on the air at WEAW in Evanston, then WAAF in Chicago, and of course, his long career as the preeminent voice at WTTW-TV (1971-1998), host of the annual Golden Apple Awards and Chicago Jazz Festival broadcasts, and producer and host of “The First Fifty Years” (1967-1992). He’s been a sought-after media consultant and trainer for Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, politicians, major league sports franchises, and more.

I imagine that Coffee, my former neighborhood bookie – oops, junk peddler – would be enormously proud of Marty. I can see him and Major, somewhere in the cushy Division Street afterlife, kvelling over his talented tenderhearted kid.

Photo Captions:
1. Marty Robinson in a photo taken by the late Sherwood Fohrman.
2. Marty, age 13, with his dad Coffee and their toy fox terrier, Midge. Circa 1945.
3. Coffee and Major, sometime in the ‘50s.
4. Photo of a book making operation. This is what I imagined our bookie joint to look like.
5. Photo, taken perhaps in the back room of Humboldt Billiards with Coffee in the back row center in the dark coat.
6. Jack Dempsey poses with Joe "Awful" Coffee, probably in Colorado. Joe was a successful boxer in his younger years, and then became the owner of the Ringside Lounge, a well-known Denver restaurant from 1942-1965. He was active throughout his life and honored for helping the handicapped, mentally impaired and orphaned.
7. Jack Silver, a fruit peddler in the 1940s, whom I describe as a shtarker in my memoir. The baby in his arms is one of his three children, but my cousins are at a loss as to which one of them it is.
8. The Maxwell Street of our childhood.
9. My brother, Ron Shapiro at his bar mitzvah with my uncle Hy Elkin. Perhaps Ron’s suit was purchased on Maxwell Street where he would’ve been dragged into a store by one of the street’s infamous “pullers.”
10. Marty Robinson with Renee Fleming and Lynne Redgrave in 1999 at Orchestra Hall during the taping of the PBS special "Star-crossed Lovers."

October 27, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Jealousy, not gratitude, was my first reaction when I was the guest author last week at my friend Michele’s book club. It wasn’t her beautiful Northbrook home I coveted, but the bond between the six women who had assembled to discuss my book. Girlfriends -- who gather often, travel together, and consider themselves a group -- I don’t have one of those.

Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty of girlfriends -- singly. No lack of close women friends to share woes, lunch, or advice. But they’re separate from one another; know each other through an introduction by me, not sewn together by a common thread.

Then there’s a tier of women whom I know and enjoy because we watch our dogs chase, fetch and tussle each morning at our neighborhood park. Or another number I’ve met over the years in writing groups, Spanish classes, and of course, Weight Watchers. But in all of these settings, if there was an inner circle formed outside the scheduled time or purpose, where women bonded, I was absent.

Why is this I wondered? Why did Michele, or some of the other women pictured in this post (captions at the end), have a posse, and not I? After much soul-searching, I’ve come up with an answer, and it’s not pretty: I’m a selfish, self-centered, inflexible, stay-at-home; and these traits fare poorly in a group setting.

In truth, I was a member of a foursome once – back in high school. I was reminded of the group at our recent Roosevelt High School reunion because in my memoir, “The Division Street Princess,” I had cropped out two of our four from an old photo to emphasize my long friendship with Ruth Gilbert that’s included in a chapter of my book. (The pair missing from the original photograph is resurrected in this post.)

The four of us teens were indeed a group back then, part of the Alpha Valedas, a school club of bright, popular girls, where, well, I never felt I fit in. It wasn’t because I wasn’t cute or well liked that made me feel like an interloper, but more that I came from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks. After all, to enroll at Roosevelt, I had lied about my place of residence, claiming to live at my Aunt Molly’s Albany Park apartment rather than my Division Street flat. So, I wasn’t really a Northsider. And, I had an after-school job at Harding’s-Chicago, a print shop and manufacturer of dance bids located on Irving Park and Kimball. I needed that employment to afford those cool tassel loafers, and I believed most of my club members (not all, though, as some were illegals like me, and also held part-time jobs) were better off.

Because I continued my job through Roosevelt University, I had no time for clubs or teams (then there’s that absence of athletic ability thing, too) that might have cleaved me to a group. Marriage followed graduation, then a teaching job at Suder elementary school, and lastly, two children. No time to be a member was my excuse, a pattern that continued whatever the job or family obligation.

Certainly there were groups of women I could have joined over the years, and I could never be labeled an introvert. Opportunities and invitations have come my way that might have led beyond the club, committee, sisterhood, or class to an inner group of four or six. But remember those unattractive traits I ‘fessed up to earlier? These are my barriers. If I were part of a group, I’d have to share decision-making, not be the center of attention, compromise, and most importantly, be forced to stay up late.

There. I’ve said it. Being a member of a group would require me to leave the house at night (Michele’s book club moved their regular evening meeting to a Sunday brunch just for me.), thus relinquishing couch time with TV, newspapers, Tommy, the dog, plus my 9 p.m. bedtime. So attached to these activities and routine that I’m willing to forgo ties to a quartet or sextet of amiable women, might make me seem pathetic or stubborn. So be it. But at age 68, having sunk even deeper in the divan, and admittedly sneaking up to bed before the big hand hits 12 to announce the hour, I’ve come to accept my hermit-like habit.

Instead of sympathy or criticism, you might consider indulging me and set your gathering for mornings (afternoons won’t work either because of naptime between 1 and 2 p.m.). Perhaps then, I’ll be enticed to participate and diminish the envy I experienced at Michele’s place. But then again there’s that sharing thing, or compromising, or forgoing the spotlight. Well, thanks for the invitation. I appreciate it, I really do. But unfortunately, I must decline.

Photo Captions:
1. Michele’s book club: Me, Michele, Libbey, Marilyn (a guest), Ruth (a guest), Patti, Leah, Kimeri, and Sue.
2. Members of our 6 a.m. dog group, sans pooches: Lucy, Molly, Susan, Mary, and me.
3. 1956 high school photo: Joan, Ruth, and Eve, with me seated in the center.
4. My sister-in-law Norma’s gang: Sue, Carol, Betty, Bonnie, and Norma.
5. A few members of the Jill Rohde network pictured at my May, 2006 Women and Children First reading: Brenda, Jill, Ann, Vicky, and me holding Vicky’s granddaughter. (I’ll be back at this great bookstore again, October 27, 2006, 7:30 p.m. with Hillary Carlip and Jill Soloway.)
6. Faith Soloway’s female cast in “The F Word:” Margie Zohn, Christine Canavo, Merle Perkings, Megan Toohey, Faith (her fake pregnancy is part of the act), and Jenny Benscome. (Apologies to Seth Bodie and Eric Schmider, actors I cropped out to keep with our Girlfriends theme.)
7. Jill Soloway’s showbiz friends who took turns reading from “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants” at a N.Y. book event: Amy Poehler, Jodi Lennon, Lili Taylor, Lauren Ambrose, and Molly Shannon. Jill and me are front and center.

Upcoming: October 27, 2006