Guest post: experience in 1970s downtown Chicago

I ended up getting a Letter to the Editor published in the Chicago Tribune about how downtown Chicago isn't a scary place, and mentioned that the 1970s and 1980s were worse. Then Marilyn Cosentino, a coworker from Daley College, sent me a link to a post she wrote about an experience she had in downtown Chicago in the late 1970s. I am reposting it here instead of merely linking to it.

The Night of Terror

called the parental homestead to see how Sibling #6’s Special Olympics basketball tournament had gone. Father answered the phone; I never actually learned how the games had turned out. And despite having been at the basketball tournament with Sibling #6, the most mundane of topics can quickly become hot button social commentaries for Father. “Boy, have you been watching all the trouble in Egypt?” he asked. Then, without missing a beat as the two events are connected in ways perhaps only a lunatic would immediately comprehend, he added, “Do you remember the night of terror?” I laughed. Even though I wasn’t a participant, how could I ever forget the night of terror?

Many years ago, my Irish Aunt was in town for a visit. She spent a few weeks with us before taking the Greyhound on an unmercifully long journey to the upper reaches of nowhere in western Canada to visit her daughter. Downtown, where the bus station was located, was little more than a cesspool. There was no Millennium Park, no flower boxes, and lots of criminal activity during the day, let alone at night.

The Aunt’s bus to the middle of nowhere Canada was departing the Greyhound Station at around ten o’clock at night. While late 1970s downtown was shady at best, the Greyhound depot was Starsky and Hutch type stuff. Working security there one night, Father noticed a guy hanging around that looked an awful lot like one of the country’s ten most wanted at the time. The guy took off when he noticed Father giving him the eye, but eventually Father made the arrest. It turns out he was one of the guys on the wanted poster. Like I said, the bus station was real life Starksy and Hutch.

Anyway, as Mother didn’t drive, the job of getting the Aunt to the bus depot fell to Sibling #2. Along with the Aunt and Mother, Sibling #2 brought along the Boyfriend to provide some semblance of protection. It was one of those stiflingly hot summer nights where the air is so heavy and unmoving you feel like you just might suffocate so Sibling #2 had on the air condition in the old blue wagon on the drive downtown. Now, should she have known better? Of course, but the Boyfriend had some entitlement issues so I’ve no doubt the air was on for his sake and not for the sake of the Irish Aunt so completely unaccustomed to Chicago’s height of summer mugginess.

Everyone was a bit on edge to begin with, what with the heat and having to descend into the bowels of the city to bid the much loved Aunt adieu. So naturally, about a mile from the depot, the blue wagon caught on fire. (We refer to it as the blue wagon to distinguish it from its predecessor, the yellow wagon.) Turns out Sibling #2 really should have known better about use of the air conditioner. Thus began the night of terror.

In a scene reminiscent of Scooby Doo, they decided to split up. Sibling #2 and the Boyfriend set out in search of Father who was on duty somewhere downtown, to let him know where his car, with its melted air conditioning belt, had been abandoned. Mother and the Aunt found a cab and took that to the bus station. After getting her sister on the Greyhound, Mother began walking back to State Street where she would catch a bus home. The problem, of course, is that Mother’s sense of direction is never particularly good. And when the underworld of derelicts that crawled the streets began to accost her and literally paw at her, she fled in a blind panic. I can just picture Mother, dressed in one of her signature paper thin t-shirts with the sleeves and neck cut-off and a pair of really short running shorts, streaking through downtown in absolute flight mode.

Turns out she was running in the right direction as she eventually ran right past Father, who was hanging out in a dark doorway. He called out to her as she sped past, but she was so terrified, his presence didn’t register even when he repeatedly called her by name. He gave chase and when he finally caught up with her, he had to grab her in order to get her to stop. When Father tells this story, his eyes crinkle up as he chuckles over his disbelief at seeing this familiar looking red-haired woman sprint past. We all have trouble catching our breath because we are laughing so hard as his eyes turn into two moons in imitation of Mother’s unseeing, terror-filled eyes. I’m sure the event probably left a deep, damaging gouge in Mother’s heart, but that doesn’t seem to detract from the event’s hilarity. And I’m not sure why Father was standing around in a dark doorway. In fact, it has never occurred to any of us to ask him about it. This is, after all, the man who would run home from work in subzero temperatures and shrug off our concern for the large black patches of frostbitten skin on his body by saying, “It’s nothing. Just dead meat.” Really, why wouldn’t he be hanging around in a dark doorway?

Meanwhile, Sibling #2 and the Boyfriend had set off from where the car had died near State and Wacker. They walked south on State, with groups of undesirables literally circling them and making sucking noises and “come on, baby” type comments to Sibling #2 and threatening comments to the Boyfriend. Like Mother, Sibling #2 was fond of the little outfits. Therefore, she was also experienced with having sucking noises directed at her, but never by groups of people that would circle her while doing so. Eventually, they made it to the Burger King on State and Congress where Father sometimes hung out to protect the non-criminal element that unwittingly entered in search of sustenance. As he was lurking in a dark doorway at the time, they instead found a different police man at the Burger King who then radioed Father and told him where he could find his car.

Sibling #2 and the Boyfriend then caught the #62 Archer Bus home. Father also put Mother on a #62 Archer bus and she, too, got home safely. The Aunt made it to Canada and then back home to Ireland, where she was able to regale her countrymen with her harrowing tale. As for Father, by the time he got off work much later that night, the car had cooled off sufficiently enough for him to drive it home, not quite the worse for wear.

And while I only wanted to find out about a basketball game, Father, ever the police man, used a favored lunatic parable, The Night of Terror, to reinforce the importance of serving and protecting. As Father discussed in great detail, whether it’s street protests in the Middle East or criminal gangs in Chicago, both are rooted in a fundamental break down in basic humanity due to our unfailing acceptance of intolerance and inequality coupled with a devastating lack of compassion for our fellow man. When burdened with all that, I could see how a basketball game might seem rather insignificant.