The Memoir Prize 2021 Grand Prize Winner:
Homebound Publications, Little Bound Books, October 2019. 94 pages.
An Excerpt for Memoir Magazine
This excerpt has been edited slightly from the original to aid continuity.Cicero is the rusted manufacturing town where I was born. It borders Chicago’s West Side, just blocks east of my childhood home. Infamous for its syndicate and race riots, Cicero was an enclave for Lithuanian immigrants: most adults I knew, including my parents and all but a few elders, were displaced Lithuanian WWII refugees. They had fled Soviet occupation in 1945, had lived in refugee camps until they could arrange to migrate. Cicero’s cultural infrastructure drew them: the town already had a Catholic parish and school.
In the 70s and 80s, immigrants resided in virtually every house for six or eight square blocks. Most were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Mexicans, yet all sorts of ethnicities mingled: Croats, Greeks, Italians, Puerto Ricans, a few elderly Germans, a spattering of Central Americans, and a Jewish family who owned a fruit stand. Mixed households were common, someone’s mom Polish and dad Mexican, and multilingual kids were normal.
Neighborhood people “understood things” about you by knowing who your parents were. On our block and many blocks to the south, people took care of their lawns and bushes, kept flowers on their front stairs, and they took pride in vegetable gardens. Neighbors shared homegrown tomatoes and sometimes built fences together, helping to paint the old Ukrainian lady’s door. Piling trash or furniture in the yard would have been shameful (though dumping it near the sheet metal plant under cover of night was ok).
Just two blocks to either the north or east, still in Cicero, I’d notice a visible difference to lawns and façades. Some houses had no lawns at all, only packed dirt, and some people left windows boarded up. Sun-bleached paper bags got trampled into dirt, and the grates of storm drains caught plastic bags and beer cans. Racist graffiti—Niggers Beware and KKK—appeared on factory walls, garage doors, laundromat folding tables or the back façades of bars.
Cicero was violent. It concerned people to know a boy had smashed my head when I was in first grade, though nobody found it unusual. Kids got stabbed and beaten in parks, in playgrounds or in their own backyards. While some people—gang members or unruly families—felt larger targets on their backs, violence in Cicero came on a schedule no different from Midwest storms. Most of the time the weather was fine, but sometimes a tornado carved a scar through town, a brick house imploded while nearby wooden homes stood whole, washed clean by the rain.
What was such neighborhood violence compared to the carnage of World War II? In a community of refugees, a beating here or armed robbery there seemed blips by comparison to a continent in flames, columns of refugees fleeing across Poland, groups gathered for mass execution or deportation to Siberia, families living in refugee camps for the better part of a decade, most of them carrying unspeakable losses: dead infants, razed villages, executed spouses, missing siblings, their entire culture heaved up and starved, countries occupied or divided, off-limits for return.
War was the ultimate reality—I knew this before I could read. Every experience was measured against its bar. What were my uncomfortable corduroys compared to World War II? What was my bruised forehead compared to the loss of a family manor or forced starvation of villages? I felt a burden? I didn’t like head cheese with vinegar? I should have been thankful for a heated home, a change of clothes and daily bread. Well fed, even plump, spared war but whining without end, I sounded like some black.
It hurt to be called black. I had learned black people were stupid, violent and lazy. Adults believed they knew this just as they understood falling water was called rain. Just look, they’d say, at black behavior and family dysfunction. Among Cicero’s greatest fears was that the ghetto would cross over from the West Side, that black people would ruin our properties and unleash violence.
To me, violence was ordinary, its threat ever-present. I was five when my babysitter, a WWII survivor in her sixties, had been beaten up. She was walking home from the “L” one night when robbers hit her in the head with a bat, damaging her brain so that she could no longer babysit. The woman ended up in a nursing home where she died some years later.
This was ordinary Cicero violence, the kind that just happened. If adults feared black violence worse than this, I imagined it should have been all-razing and warlike.
While we never did anything in any West Side neighborhood between Cicero Avenue and Damen—a stretch that’s four miles wide—I used to ride Chicago’s “L” to the Loop with my mother and grandmother at least a few times each month. The elevated line from Cicero rumbles above neighborhood houses, cutting through blighted areas. I can’t remember ever looking down into those streets as a child without feeling a conflicted sense of fear, sadness, concern, and bewilderment.
Cicero had strips of abjection, but the West Side appeared endlessly crumbling and battered, some homes leaning sideways, roofs patched with tar sheets, others draped over with blue or green tarps. Every block had a yard full of car parts, piles of lumber or stacks of pallets. Wide-open spaces were overgrown with weeds, littered with pieces of furniture or broken cinderblocks. An occasional garage would be missing a door, or a hole in its roof, left to the elements, would resemble a wound. How did this happen? Why would anyone want to live here? Why couldn’t they clean up? Why wouldn’t people want to get out?
Riding one afternoon, my grandmother told me, speaking Lithuanian in a car full of African Americans, that of course the juodžiai wanted to get out. They wanted to move right next to us. If a single black person crossed into Cicero, everyone would sell, and our town would become a ghetto. Everything blacks touched turned to waste.
While these words frightened me, as I grew, my fear mellowed, at least by comparison to my curiosity and confusion. I was naturally skeptical and inquisitive as a child: the mandated secrecy of domestic violence had trained me to distrust and doubt. Adults feared black violence intensely, and people we knew had been robbed by black men, but these assaults seemed petty by comparison to the burning continent I had heard so much about, the reason I had to be thankful for pumpernickel and shoelaces.
I understood there hadn’t been any black people in Europe in the 40s—they had obviously not started World War II. While I had been warned countless times that African Americans could not control their urges, I never witnessed any display of crazed recklessness. My funny and thoughtful pediatrician was black, but my parents explained his blackness away—the man was actually Portuguese. I was supposed to pay close attention to laughing black women, waving their hands and swaying while speaking in dialect, examples of incivility and animalism, but I should have ignored the drunk white men who swore out loud, burped and threw beer bottles on train tracks. When a black man went between the train cars to smoke and piss, he was a universal example of blackness, but white men doing the same were just random fools. I was able to imagine a black man more fearsome than my father, though I only ever encountered him in my mind.
Some adults offered views different from my grandmother’s. A Jesuit I’ll call Father Mark was the priest at school who’d take us boys down to meetings meant to answer questions Catholic boys could not ask at home. We loved Father Mark the most because he was a thoughtful young priest who allowed us to speak freely.
One afternoon he posed a discussion question: What is racism? In the group of ten year old boys, I’d usually be the first to raise my hand, though today I sat still. The Mexican boys’ hands shot up.
“It’s when you get called a wetback or spic.”
“It’s if you don’t get a job when you got dark skin.”
A white kid said: “It’s when you mess with Epton’s name.” (Bernard Epton had run against Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago. White kids had devised an acronym: Educated People Take Over Niggers.)
Father Mark pushed us further. Did someone have to speak to be racist? Was a public action necessary? What if someone privately harbored hateful thoughts? What if our encounters with black people sparked negative emotions? Was that also racism?
A Puerto Rican, recently moved from Humboldt Park, spoke up: “It’s true. If you sit on a bench and feel angry from black people in the playground, just from nothing and only since they’re black, you’re making racism.”
Father Mark often linked his lessons to the Sermon on the Mount, when Christ delivers the heart of His teachings to the disciples, including the idea that fantasies or thoughts were as sinful as actions. My child’s mind understood Catholic teaching about the Sermon this way: if you imagined something bad, you were already bad, and unless you confessed these bad thoughts to a priest, you were going to hell. Christ could read your mind, so you needed to admit your sins.
I did not doubt Father Mark’s lesson about private racism had described me. I was loaded up with thoughts regarding African Americans. While I was vaguely mindful of the wonder I brought to my own ideas, most of my thoughts were charged with fear and judgment. I might have been skeptical of this fear, curious about why adults believed what didn’t seem to add up, but I still feared our neighborhood could go ghetto. Father Mark had provoked me to intuit the nature of this fear.
It meant I was racist.