Though the sign at Halsted and Maxwell looked ludicrously out of place, I had a nudging sense of having previously encountered something akin to it. Yet it couldn’t have been hanging on that lamppost for very long. I often drive by that intersection, drawn by half-remembered snatches of family history, much like a homing pigeon returns to the coop where it has been nourished.
My father was born on that stretch of Maxwell Street, long before it was renovated into upscale lofts piggybacked over storefronts reborn as trendy restaurants. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine someone violating the sign’s injunction: the word PEDDLING enclosed in a red circle and bisected with a red slash.
But at the start of the 20th century? That was a different story.
Then, Maxwell Street was home to Jews, mostly poor and recently arrived from Eastern Europe. My grandfather was a peddler who set out each day with a backpack of “notions” for sale — needles, thread, ribbons, hair pins, combs and brushes — just as he had in the Old World. And when, by doing so, a living could be could scraped together, a sign wasn’t going to deter my grandfather and his neighbors.
Some of his contemporaries sold old plumbing parts or fruit and vegetables from pushcarts set up in the middle of Maxwell Street, not far from where that sign now forbids it. A few opened clothing stores. Like the vendors, many customers were immigrants from countries where haggling was a way of life. So the street echoed with cries of: “Don’t even look at that guy’s schmatas, rags; I got high quality goods!” “Business is slow today, lady, so I make you a good price!”
Amid that din, I got up on a rickety chair so my bar mitzvah suit could be measured for alterations. My family had moved on to other neighborhoods, but an aunt and the shopkeeper had Old Country ties. “With me,” she explained, “he’s not going to make tricks.”
Now Maxwell Street is quiet, except when a sports bar’s umpteen television sets provoke cheers or boos. Amid the silence, I sensed why that “No Peddling” sign immersed me in feelings of deja vu.
I thought of other, now vanished landscapes of my youth. The Albany Park synagogue where my father took me to High Holiday services. I last saw it as a reporter. A leaking roof made its cavernous sanctuary unusable. A few old men were praying in the basement. Since then it has been demolished.
Gone, as well, is the Blue Note, a Loop jazz club that weaned me off the saccharine pap of Tin Pan Alley tunes. So, too, is Theresa’s, a Bronzeville blues joint, where musicians could tease the most mournful wailing out of a guitar or harmonica, followed by riffs of pure joy.
Much like what triggered them, my reveries were marked: No Praying. No Jazz. No Blues. Not by a street sign, of course, but some kind of neurological Post-it Note attached to memories that are extra special for being unrepeatable.
Rubble and weeds mark the site of the apartment building at 6106 S. Ellis Ave. where I lived as a University of Chicago student. It was affectionately known as “the ghetto” — because many of us were Jewish — or “the commune” — because virtually all were leftists.
Many North Side streets are now lined with a ubiquitous and anonymous architectural form: three-story apartment buildings, with deep-set balconies that virtually dare the sunlight to try and reach their living-room windows. One is constructed of not-quite brown bricks; its neighbor of washed-out gray bricks.
Take me there blindfolded and untie it. I wouldn’t know where I was. But name a street intersection, and chances are I could say what used to be nearby.
Kedzie Avenue half way between Irving Park and Montrose? A frame cottage where an old man sat by the front window making hand-rolled cigars.
Lawrence Avenue, between Kimball and Pulaski? Maury’s Red Hots, where a faded baseball card hung above the french fryer honoring Moe Berg, a third-string major league catcher who went behind enemy lines as a spy for what became the CIA during World War II. And he was Jewish!
Navigating the city by mental Post-It Notes leaves a bittersweet aftertaste. I can’t hide from the fact that Chicago is like a constantly turning kaleidoscope. It’s ever changing. People come and go. Buildings are put up and taken down. But there is an upside to that.
Once gone, a cherished cityscape can’t be further damaged. It’s tucked away in my brain, just as I last saw it. It doesn’t take much to resuscitate it, for a moment or two.
When I pass that No Peddling sign, for instance, I see a drastically changed Maxwell Street. But if I listen carefully, I still hear my aunt saying: “Ronnie, stop fidgeting and stand up straight! The man has to mark the trousers. Oh, you’re gonna look like a real grownup on your big day!”