Tuesday, November 02, 2010


This afternoon, I join Janie Isackson's Ethnic Chicago class to answer questions the DePaul University students have after reading my memoir, "The Division Street Princess." Thirty-four questions await. The first sent me thinking. It read, "If you could go back in time, what is the one thing that you would change about your childhood?"

That's easy. I'd toss my timidity. This excerpted selection from Chapter 3, Safe on our Shores, explains:

In July of 1944, my sidewalk play was simple and cautious because I was small for my age and a poor athlete. I snapped a rubber ball down and up, lifting my right knee as I recited: A, My Name Is Alice. My right hand palmed the ball, my left pressed my light-weight cotton skirt flat against my thigh so my underpants wouldn’t show. Because of my timidity, I admired girls who were tougher and braver, like Franny Jacobs—or F.J. as she preferred to be called.

“A tomboy, shmutzik and wild,” my mother had said when I first revealed my reverence for this older girl. I had just come in from playing outside, and Mother was combing my hair with her fingers when she unleashed her criticism, using Yiddish from the old country for emphasis.

“What kind of girl is that? A mieskeit. Makes up a name for herself. Does whatever she wants. Oye veh, her poor parents.” As my 31-year-old mother used a Kleenex moistened with her saliva to wipe dirt off my face,” she went on, “little girls should act like little girls, not wild Indians.”

I hated it when my mother tidied me up like that, trapping me in her firm hands like a feline pawing her kitten. I suppose I should have been used to it, for that was my mother’s reaction whenever she caught me coming in from play. Whether she was downstairs behind the cash register of our grocery store, or upstairs in our flat fixing supper, she’d interrupt her chore to attack my unruly hair and food-spotted mouth. Then, she’d seal my cleansing with, “Stand up straight.” What was she grooming me for? I often wondered. If it was to be a glamour girl like her, it was a lost cause.

Just once, I would have loved to have her welcome me with open arms—like the statue in Humboldt Park—instead of with nail-polished fingers poised to rearrange me.

When my mother harped on Frannie Jacobs, I didn’t defend or argue, because I was a good little girl who never talked back. Mostly I kept my hero worship to myself. I envied everything about F.J. She was skinny and tall, and nimble like Jane in the “Tarzan” movies. She could outrun any boy on the block, or push back if one were to lay a hand on her. Her wardrobe—untucked shirts and boy’s pants—must have been her choosing, unlike the dull matching outfits Mother laid out for me each morning.

And F.J.’s sandy-colored hair stood where the wind had styled it. She could hop off her brother’s bike without skinning a knee, and if she did scar, she’d display the mark proudly, as if she were a sailor with shore-leave tattoos. And I never saw her cry, not once.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Days on Division Street

Condensed from Chapter Three of
"The Division Street Princess"

Summer was the best time to be a kid on Division Street: School was out, daylight stretched past usual bedtimes, best pals lived on the block, and our playground was right outside our front door. True, our concrete field lacked grass or gravel to cushion a fall, and there were no regulation bases or home plates that our neighborhood park offered. But because Humboldt Park was seven blocks away at Sacramento Boulevard, and it was rumored that puny Jewish kids might get hassled by tough Gentiles, my age group stayed close to home.

Unlike Humboldt Park’s splendid shade trees, fragrant blossoms, and tranquil waters, our summer backdrop on Division Street consisted of brick apartment buildings, ground-floor businesses with plate glass windows, and cast-iron lampposts. To be heard by playmates, we had to shout above the screeches and horns of passing streetcars and automobiles. And the scents that assaulted our noses were gasoline fumes or cooking odors from open windows in the flats above our heads.

Nonetheless, the kids who lived on busy Division street or on nearby side streets like Campbell, Haddon, or Rockwell, considered ourselves charmed in 1944 -- the year I turned six --to have Chicago sidewalks as our playground.

All sorts of games took place on the hot pavement: Boys hurled pink Spauldings against brick walls to score runs, girls bounced balls and played jump rope and hopscotch, and everyone shot marbles, cast yo-yos, rode second-hand Schwinns, and roller skated on metal wheels that had to be clamped to our feet.

My child-sized summer seemed to be far from the world events that had gripped our country ever since Japan attacked Pearl Harbor three years earlier. Although I caught bits of news from my parents, or from Movietone newsreels, newspaper headlines, and evening radio broadcasts, I was untouched by the war -- like most of my playmates. We knew about D-Day on June 6, 1944, when a million Allied troops under General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in Normandy. But our families were intact: Our fathers were either too old or unfit, and our mothers sweated in cramped, humble kitchens, or behind store counters. If there was a Rosie the Riveter in my neighborhood, I didn’t know her.

Still, I was reminded daily of the war through public-spirited signs that were plastered on Division Street’s storefronts, “Buy War Bonds and Stamps. Keep America Free. Let’s All Back the Attack With War Bonds.” In the comics, Little Orphan Annie urged me to collect scrap metal, Joe Palooka joined the Army, and Terry --of Terry and The Pirates-- fought the Japs. And advertisements that my mother read to me from Life Magazine combined products with patriotism, like the one for the $10 Royal Stetson Playboy hat my father stored on the top shelf of our hall closet, “Loose talk can lengthen the war. So--whatever you hear, whatever you know, whatever you learn, don’t let it get to the enemy. Keep it under your Stetson.”

Despite these constant cues, I felt safe on our shores, believing my Division Street was a million miles from World War II, a million miles from danger.

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.

Although our store usually shut its doors at five -- when my mother flipped the light switch and my father reversed the “Open” sign -- on muggy nights like this one, they kept the doors unlocked until the last kid had been dragged upstairs for bed. It was Mom’s idea to extend business hours. “The kids will want ice cream,” she said to Dad, “why let them get it from the truck?”

Despite my mother’s prediction about the summer evening’s trade, it was adults, not kids, who would draw my parents from their seats to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, Kayo, or seltzer, or a pack of Chesterfield’s or Pall Mall’s. The kids were like Alan Levinson who was tugging on his father’s shirt and hoping up and down at the sound of the Good Humor bell. “Pa, it’s coming,” Alan screamed, “I need two cents.”

As Mr. Levinson reached into his trousers’ pocket for loose change, Mrs. Levinson turned to my mother, put a hand on Mom’s aproned knee, and said, “Min, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry,” my mother said, waving away her friend’s apology. “Let him enjoy.”

On that July 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.

With my mother wrapped up in her conversation with Rose Levinson, and my father out for the count, I joined a game of Ring-A-Leevio in progress. Richie Freedman was “It.” He was leaning into the lamppost, eyes closed, and counting to 100. Like the rest of the gang, I ran to hide, and picked the passageway between our apartment building and the next. Although it was dark in there, I wasn’t scared because I could hear Richie’s loud count, and the rise and fall of adult voices. When Richie yelled, “Olie Olie Ocean Free,” we all leapt from our hiding places and raced to touch the metal post before Richie could tag us.

As I sped to the goal, I pretended I was Jane in the jungle, free and fearless, flying through the air on a ropy vine. With Tarzan’s imagined yell trumpeting in my ears, I turned my hands into fists and pumped my small arms as hard as I could.

But as I neared the post, Alan Levinson came flying in from another direction. Like fighter planes in the newsreels, the ones that exploded in midair combat, Alan and I smashed into each other and fell backwards to the merciless pavement. As we lay groaning, our mothers sprung from their chairs and sped to our splayed bodies.

I tried to hold back tears as my mother inspected my arms and legs. “Meshugganas,” she said, after assuring there were no broken bones. “That’s what you get for playing rough.” Then, after performing her on-the-spot clean-up and pocketing the used Kleenex, she kissed my forehead and returned to her chair. Afterwards, I wore my Mercurochromed-bruises proudly, unlike some of the other scars I collected later that week on Division Street.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I stood terrified at the coffee-grinding machine. I had dumped my decaf into the chamber, placed the empty can below the spout, turned on the machine, and out the coffee poured. And poured. And poured. The last customer had evidently left coffee in the chamber. What if it was regular, full bodied? 100% caffeine? Just the possibility of caffeine in my post-dinner coffee would keep me awake.

The incident got me wondering about my sleep issues. I can fall asleep easily, but after four hours, my eyes pop open, my brain is in gear, then it’s toss and turn. Or milk. Or melatonin. Or Tylenol. Anything to lull me back.

I think I figured out where my insomnia began. As expected, it goes back to childhood. On Division Street. To confirm, I reread a particularly harrowing chapter from my memoir. It provides a clue to present day sleep problems. See if you agree.


Chapter Five (Condensed)

“Snow Melted; Winter Turned to Spring

On January 7, 1946, in the early hours of a Chicago morning, a six-year-old girl on the northwest side of the city was the victim of a horrific crime. When it happened, I was only one year older than that little girl, and was so traumatized by the case, that I never forgot her name, details of the investigation, or other piercing events of that year.

I was on my way to my mother to get my after-school kiss when something in the Chicago Daily News caught my eye. “You don’t need to read that,” my mother said when she saw me halt at the newspaper that was spread open on her counter. I was staring at a page in the afternoon Red Streak that displayed a picture of a little girl. The headline read: Kidnap Girl 6 From Bed Here.

The story under the black-and-white photograph said that six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was asleep in the first-floor bedroom of her parents’ apartment on North Kenmore Avenue, when through a window left open a few inches, someone climbed into the bedroom, kidnapped the little girl, and left a ransom note demanding $20,000 for her safe return.

As I studied the girl’s photo and absorbed the report, my heart was beating so loud, I was sure customers in our grocery store could hear the thumping. “Climbed into the bedroom,” I repeated to myself. I slept close to the window -- just like the little girl in the story. Maybe I should switch sides with Ronnie who slept closer to the door.

Back then, I never thought twice about a boy and girl sharing the same bed. In fact, I felt safer with my brother’s solid shape nearby. Anyway, other families in our cramped, immigrant neighborhood had similar arrangements: Kids would get the one bedroom, while adults took the Murphy Bed or a couch that opened for two.

The girl in the newspaper photo -- who slept all alone in her bedroom without a big brother at her side -- had a cute round face, something like mine, and she was smiling. She was wearing a dress with a Peter Pan collar, like the one Mother bought for me at Mandel Brothers. Under the girl’s snapshot was this description: “Hair-Reddish blond, bobbed. Eyes-Blue. Weight-74 pounds and plump. Height-52 inches. Clothing at time of abduction-blue pajamas.Disposition-Cheerful and fearless.”

I studied the little girl’s picture and wondered how my parents would describe me if I were the one snatched from my side of the bed near the window. They’d say, “Black pigtails, green eyes, pink pajamas.” That part was easy. But certainly not “cheerful and fearless.” “Good little girl and a scardy cat” was more like it.

The radio was on and its dial set to WGN. R.F. Hurleigh said the police believed Suzanne was taken between 1 and 2 a.m. because that’s when Mr. Degnan was awakened by the voice of his daughter saying, “But I’m sleepy. I don’t want to get up.” Her father thought Suzanne was talking in her sleep, so he did not go to her bedroom to investigate.

What if my parents thought that sounds coming from my bedroom would be Ronnie and I horsing around, and then ignore the noise of an intruder?

The next morning, on January 8th, the newspaper headline read, Kidnapped Girl Found Slain, Dismembered, Hid in Sewer. As I read the story, I felt as if I was going to throw up: “The head, torso, and legs were found in four different catch basins near her home. Early this morning, only the arms of the victim were missing.

“Poor Suzanne, poor Suzanne,” I kept saying, as I buried my face in my mother's apron. Some tears were for that cheerful and fearless little girl with reddish-blonde, bobbed hair, and others for me, the dark-haired child who slept close to the window that opened onto frigid, nightmarish Division Street.

“Is it closed tight?” I asked my father that evening.

“The window is locked,” he said, and proved it by trying and failing to pull up the sealed window frame. “See? You have nothing to worry about.”

“Can you leave the bedroom door open all the way?”

“Change places,” Ronnie said. “I’ll sleep near the window.”

In school the next day, one of the girls raised her hand to ask the teacher about the newspaper story. “It was a terrible, terrible thing that happened,” Miss Green said, “but all of the police in the city are looking for the evil man who did this. They will find him and put him in jail. You’re all safe here and in your homes."

The afternoon Chicago Daily News bore the headline, Killer’s ‘Butcher Tub’ Found, Janitor Quizzed. Why did they have to say “butcher?” I asked myself as I read the paper someone had stuffed in the trash. Daddy’s a butcher; he’d never chop up a little girl.

The newspaper said the police were questioning a janitor about Suzanne’s murder because they found “the dissection chamber” in his building: “The police were encouraged because they found bits of flesh, blood and hair in the drains of three of the four washtubs. The police then realized this was where Suzanne was hacked and sawed into five or six pieces after being strangled.

Hacked, sawed, strangled -- these were not second-grade words, but I knew what they meant. It was as if a Grimms’ villain had escaped from his fairy tale page and was running loose in Chicago -- wicked beyond even the authors’ ghoulish imaginations. The next day’s paper reported that the janitor was no longer a suspect and the police released him from custody. Suzanne’s killer was still at large, maybe even looking for his next little-girl victim.

That night, long after Ronnie had fallen asleep, I lay awake and imagined Suzanne’s terror. My heart was beating so loud, I was surprised it didn’t wake my brother. Despite the cold night, I sweated as I envisioned the killer hacking Suzanne into pieces. I squeezed my eyes tight to erase his hand lifting a meat cleaver above his head, then slamming it down on Suzanne’s 52-inch body.

As days passed without the killer being found, the newspapers reported that, “frightened and angry parents were demanding action from the police. Mayor Kelly and Chief of Detectives Storms promised to stay on the case until little Suzanne’s slayer was apprehended.”

Snow melted, winter turned to spring, and still no breakthrough in the case. Finally, on June 29, a newspaper headline read: U.C. Sophomore Seized as Burglar; Surgeons Tools Found in Room. Five-and-a-half months after Suzanne Degnan’s kidnapping and murder, the police matched “husky six-footer” William Heirens’ fingerprints with those on the ransom note left in her bedroom and arrested Heirens for the little girl’s murder.

The police also linked Heirens to the murder of 33-year-old Frances Brown. After he had shot and stabbed the woman, the killer took a tube of her lipstick and wrote on the wall above her bed, “For heaven’s sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

Fifty days after his arrest, and to avoid the electric chair, Heirens confessed to three murders, including Suzanne’s. He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms. The next day’s paper read, “Walking the streets at night is now a bit safer, now that the werewolf is in chains.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Ronnie Shapiro

In 1948, the tiny country of Israel gained statehood, President Truman defeated Governor Dewey, and my brother Ronnie became a man. While the first occasion was significant for Zionists, and the second for Democrats, it was the latter event -- Ronnie’s Bar Mitzvah -- that was the year’s highlight for the Shapiro family of Division Street.

Several months before my brother’s rite of passage -- which was scheduled for May 22, less than a week after his 13th birthday -- my grandfather visited us in our grocery store to discuss the ceremony, and a celebration. “Just the shul, Pa,” I heard my mother say to her father as they gabbed near the cash register. “Ronnie will read from the Torah, we’ll have a Kiddush with wine and sweets in the synagogue, and that’ll be it. We can’t lay out money for a hotel party.”

"Mashuggena,” Zadie said, leaning across Mom’s counter to shake her bony shoulder. “My first grandchild born in this country and we don't have a simcha? What will people think -- we’re too cheap to throw a party?” Wearing a well-worn shirt rolled up at the cuffs, and brown slacks stained by the wooden crates of ice-packed fish he schlepped into his store, my grandfather didn’t look like someone crazy for a fancy-dress fete.

“Let’s have a party,” I said, echoing my grandfather. I was standing at my mother’s elbow, wearing my store apron over a plain blouse and skirt, but I quickly envisioned myself dressed in fancy party clothes and dancing to the melodies of a Kay Kyser-like orchestra.

“Look Pa, look here,” Mom said, and pushed a copy of the Chicago Daily News in front of her father. “A&P, Jewel, National.” She was flipping through the newspaper’s pages, and paused to place a flat hand on several of them. “Full page ads. How long do you think our customers will shop at our small store when they can go across the street or down the block to a supermarket where they can have aisles of stock to choose from at cheaper prices?”

“Maybe you should listen to your father, Honey,” Dad said to Mom. “A little party, maybe we can swing a little party. I heard President Truman say on the radio that good times are ahead. All those returning GIs with money to spend, all those new houses being built for them.” Dad’s face brightened with his words and I could easily see him swaying to the music, living it up in a good-looking suit -- double breasted perhaps to mask his girth.

“Please, Mommy, a party,” I said, thinking such a festivity might cheer my folks, perhaps lighten the gloom brought on by the loss of old neighbors and store receipts.

Mother looked around the store that was now empty of customers, glared at my father’s hopeful face, and my smaller version, then shook her head. With one hand she brushed back loose hair that has escaped its nest atop her head, then pulled off a clip-on earring. She rubbed the sore spot the earring had given her and placed the plastic jewelry on the counter. Then, she moved the newspaper from Zadie’s line of sight and shoved it in front of Dad’s. I stood on tiptoes to see, too, and watched as she turned stacks of pages. When she reached the real estate ads, she slid the newspaper back and forth between her husband and father as if she were dealing a hand of Pinochle. “Vets down payment $1,000,” she read aloud. She looked up at the three of us bent over the ads and pointed to black-and-white photos of houses.

“Do you think these ranch homes, New England colonials, three-, four-bedroom houses are on Division Street?” she asked. Mother’s sarcastic questioning silenced me, but the men’s weak stabs at a response reminded me of one of our favorite radio programs, "It Pays To Be Ignorant." That silly quiz show was funny, though, and Mom was deeply serious.

“No,” she said, “the houses are in the suburbs. You think the veterans are going to keep their families in the city with the noise and the schmutz? They’re like everybody else--they want peace and quiet. They want better schools for their kids, garages, backyards.”

Zadie took the newspaper from Mother’s agitated, skinny fingers, closed its pages and turned the paper upside down so only the Sports page emerged. “I’ll pay for the party,” he said.

"No, Pa, no,” Mother said, shaking her head. She used her thumb and its neighbor to stroke her reddened ear, then used the other hand to return the earring to its lucky place.

“Only a loan,” Dad said to his father-in-law, then offered his hand, man to man, for a shake to seal the deal.

My mother looked at her father and mine, waved a hand in the air as if it were a white flag signaling surrender, and left the counter. I followed behind her and when I caught up, put an arm around her slim waist, and said, “Don’t be sad, Mommy. It’ll be fun. Ronnie’s party will be fun.”

“Deeper and deeper,” she said - more to herself than to me. She removed a balled up Kleenex from her skirt pocket and dabbed at the mascara that had escaped her lashes.

Ronnie’s big day was finally upon us. On the mild May morning of his bar mitzvah, our family walked in silence to the Austrian-Galician shul on California Avenue. My brother was wearing the new suit that Mom had finished shortening the night before, and I was in a stiff green dress with a Peter Pan collar and puffy short sleeves. We followed behind our parents, and I watched -- hoping that this time -- they might hold hands for the stroll. But Dad, in his double-breasted herringbone suit, held a cigarette in one hand, and used the other to remove bits of tobacco from his lips. Mom, outfitted in a gray silk shantung dress that shimmered with each of her high-heeled steps, kept her gloved hands tight on her pocketbook. With her black felt hat and veil (the “rooftops of Paris look”), Mother was the unquestionable beauty of the bunch.

Once inside the synagogue, Ronnie and my dad proceeded to the men’s section on the first floor and Mom and I went upstairs to join the women. After a long, tedious morning service, my brother went up to the bimah, then climbed atop a wooden Coca-Cola crate to reach the podium. Our grandfather stood at his side, and using his one good eye and a yad pointer to track the squiggly alphabet, guided Ronnie confidently through his biblical passage.

In the evening party that capped Ronnie’s coming of age, my dad -- exhilarated from his son’s morning performance and proud of the shindig he was hosting -- drank more glasses of schnapps than he could handle. We had all linked arms to form a ring for the hora Israeli folk dance and were whirling around the floor. Several of my young uncles took turns breaking from the ring to dance the kazatska in the center. With arms folded across their sinewy chests, they squatted almost to the floor, shot their legs alternately out in front of them, then hopped upright with a whoop. We clapped and cheered to egg the boys on. But when my shikker father leapt dizzily into the spotlight, I became alarmed. Didn’t the doctor tell him to watch himself? To stop smoking? To lose weight? Didn’t the doctor warn Dad that his diabetes could weaken his heart as it did his feet, his gums? He had almost lost a limb to gangrene, and I had already witnessed Dad’s false teeth floating nightly in a drinking glass. What other part of his body would be next to fail?

Yanking the elbow of his herringbone suit, and shouting to be heard over the orchestra’s horns and relatives’ hoots, I screamed, “Daddy, stop, you’ll get sick!”

With his brown eyes as bright as the morning’s Eternal Flame, Dad brushed my anxious hand from his sweat-soaked suit, and slurred, “I’m having a good time, Princess, let me have a good time.”

As for the Bar Mitzvah Boy, throughout the evening, partygoers stuffed cash, checks, and savings bonds into the pockets of his new suit. Afterward, when we returned home from the hotel, my parents and Ronnie went into our bedroom to count his haul. “You take it,” my brother said, as he handed them a stack of money. He was leaning against the pillows, looking exhausted from being onstage from morning to night. “You can use it to pay Zadie back,” he yawned. “I’ll keep the savings bonds.”

I watched from the door of the bedroom, toothpaste foaming in my mouth, as first my mother, then my father turned down Ronnie’s offer. “No, no,” they said -- both with tears in their eyes -- “it’s your money, you keep it.” After a few back-and-forth rounds, with tepid refusals on our parents’ part, Mother said, “You’re a wonderful son.” She kissed him on the cheek, then crammed the money inside a dresser drawer. “A real mensch,” Dad added, kissing his son’s other cheek. Then, with Ronnie and I looking on, our parents hugged and kissed one another. My brother and I stared at them: This was an unfamiliar embrace! It was as if Adonai -- mindful of Ronnie’s study and sacrifice -- had slipped into our Division Street bedroom, and performed a miracle right before our astonished eyes.

More Photos of Ronnie

Photo Identifications
1. At the Bar Mitzvah, Ronnie and our Uncle Hy, 22 years old at the time.
2. Irv's Finer Foods. Ronnie, our dad, me, our mom, and our Aunt Mary.
3. The shul. Photo courtesy of Robb Packer, copyright 2005. The Doors of Redemption, The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago.
4. A shikker dad with Uncle Hy at Ronnie's Bar Mitzvah.
5. Me, cutting a rug at the party.
6. Ronnie as an adorable baby.
7. Pvt. Ron Shapiro
8. Ronnie, second from the left at the book launch for "The Division Street Princess."
9. The cover of Ronnie's memoir, "Making Happy."
10. Ronnie and his wife, Norma, on a recent trip to St. Augustine, FL.