Songbird for Nelson Algren

Songbird for Nelson Algren

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.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 12:01 am  Comments (1)  
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The Cannery Row Scarecrow

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The Cannery Row Scarecrow

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for  The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel prize for literature.  For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row; this is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece.  In this book, Doc, the  oddly dislocated marine biologist, and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums  are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather, enriched by their hope and possibility.   Theirs is a world of  flop-houses, tenderhearted and straight-forward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them.

This book is fairly populated by hobos, and in the hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast; particularly Monterey, where one could also sleep on the beach.  Steinbeck’s coastal  atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,”  even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” for in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.

I love the language in this book.  Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare;” always from lesser writers who were not fit to  knock on his door.  What  thrills me in his books  is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his  creations or moralize.  They are who they are.  There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life.  His bums are the genuine article; fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what  you get for what you pay,  and best of all,  Doc (collector of sea creatures, and  the kind of man who tips  his hat to dogs),  Mack (good natured  hustler and swindler), who is one of those human case studies of  “the good in the bad, and the bad in the good.” Eddie supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks. . .yum. Dora Flood is the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse, the Bear Flag.

These are Americans.  These are the people of whom the great Nelson Algren once observed, “lived behind the billboards.”   What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books — they may go by different names and occupations now but they still walk the walk.

Published in: on May 28, 2009 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Penny Poker Bird

“Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called “Mom’s”, and never sleep with a woman who is in more trouble than you are.”Nelson Algren

The Penny Poker BirdIn The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1950 masterpiece, we meet Frankie Machine; junkie, aspiring jazz drummer, card-cheat non-pareil.  He deals poker for the local gangsters and suckers them every time.  It is this book that won the first National Book Award ever given and established Algren as Chicago’s leading literary light.  It is a great, tragic, funny, and gritty novel that took place about a mile south of where I am typing this.  In Algren’s prose, all manner of hobo types wander through and in Hobo culture, poker is a holy tradition.  Many a hobo tale replays the coast-to-coast poker games conducted in boxcars moving across America.  Mundane hour, after hour, passing while men play for cigarettes, match-sticks and pennies.  A lot of hobo art sports the motifs of playing cards.

Much mythology of the American road involves card games. Wild Bill Hickok was shot playing poker.  The hand he was holding, (full house, aces over eights) is forever immortalized as a “Dead Man’s Hand”  The shooting of a card-cheat in Steve Earle’sDevil’s Right Hand,” happens when a friendly card game erupts into sudden violence.  Card games are loaded with underpinnings of resentment, hope, suspicion, camaraderie, and mistrust.

I play Hold’em once in a while with a bunch of guys who are all from different walks of life.  It is not a good game for me because it requires patience, which is not my long suit.  One of the regular players at this game is the Chicago alderman, Richard Mell; a legendary Chicago pol and the father-in-law of our former fuck-nuts governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Mell is an exquisite poker player.  his face never betrays what he’s holding and he is as endlessly patient as an alligator waiting on the edge of a swamp.  At the end of the night, he is always there.   I imagine 36 years as a Chicago alderman has taught him a thing or two about judicious gambling.  He is viewed by some as a villain, by others, a stalwart crusader for his ward, and still others, a symbol of white racism for his opposition to Harold Washington.  The truth is, he may be all of those things and none of them at the same time.  He is a bit of a political sphinx in that you can never really tell what he will be interested in.  He’s kept the press and his fellow politicians guessing for his tenure as alderman.  He is not interested in money; he was already rich when he became alderman.  He is also not as interested in power as one might think.  He has had many opportunities to seek higher office and hasn’t.  He is an enigmatic figure in Chicago politics in that he is not predictable in the least.  One year he will be the bête noire of liberals, the next, he will be championed by them.  He is the best natural poker payer I’ve ever watched.

Gambling is a big part of hobo culture.  Any chance at bettering one’s lot was welcomed.  A great number of hobos settled around Las Vegas, before the boom of casinos, because of the legal gambling and sawdust joints (or “grind” joints) that had low-stakes poker and blackjack. It is the eternal optimist’s tramp-dream to “break the house'”and retire.  Needless to say, this almost never happens.

Birds are the hobo symbol for talking on the phone.

Published in: on April 18, 2009 at 2:16 pm  Comments (1)  
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