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.”

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