I’ve made more than a few tributes to the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren. His shadow looms large over how I see the city. Algren, of course, is the steely realist who will not let us bullshit ourselves about who we are. He is also the soft heart who is full of the gambler’s optimism about who we could be. He was a master of the gray; the good in the bad and the bad in the good. He also leavened his often sad and tragic stories with wry humor. He is also aware of Chicago’s propensity for eating its own. He often remarked that Chicago could not “love you back” and went to his grave believing this.
Once a year I re-read Chicago: City on the Make and marvel at its sprawling and adventurous storytelling. It still moves like a freight-train. It is still a bitter pill and a love letter at the same time. It is one of the primary texts of my lifetime.
Over the last year, making the hobo pieces, I reacquainted myself with some of the great novels of the Depression and just after: Jack Conroy’s The Disinherited, Algren’s Somebody in Boots, and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It occurred to me that for all of the poverty in our country, there was certainly no poverty of the imagination or spirit among artists. This awful period goaded a great many of our finest artists into their most challenging work. It kind of went across all disciplines: books, paintings, poems, music and dance. Artists went the length to speak to the condition of their world; they seemed to have a stake in their communities. Not the least of them was Nelson Algren. He wrote of the despair of the drug addict 20 years before Burroughs became a junkie cult-hero mining the same subject. Algren was always ahead of the cultural curve; one of those who could see five miles down the road.
He lived in my neighborhood when he lived here; actually about five blocks from where I live right now. What is resonant for me is that some of my neighbors could have walked right out of The Man with the Golden Arm or The Neon Wilderness. There are still no shortage of the walking wounded in this part of town. There is also the city he remembered; Polish, Ukrainian, Slavic, Jewish, and Italian and Irish–a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges. It is also the city where he gambled away most of what he made in his lifetime. Cards, horses, fights, ballgames, you name it, he bet on it. He would often joke to friends, “A gambler’s money has no home.”
When I walk down Chicago Avenue, my favorite street in the city, if I squint my eyes right around the old Goldblatt’s building, I feel like there is still a whiff of Algren in this town. When I hear soul music from a window or polka music. . . when I see the old Ukrainian lady on her porch in her housecoat smoking and surveying the street or the Old Style sign with “Zimne Pivo” under it, I realize they’ve not been able to gentrify Algren out of this part of town. His shadow is still here and still large.
This one is for him.