The rent was forty five dollars a month. The upper window in this photo was one of three in the dining room. The lower window opened onto the coal bin and was used to receive coal which would be poured down a chute from a dump truck a ton or so at a time.
The house was heated by a coal fired octopus furnace. Except for the odium of taking out the ashes, other childhood chores such lighting the furnace at the onset of winter, breaking up lumps of coal, banking the fire at bedtime and taking turns at stoking the furnace were actually fun.
There were other ad hoc chores such as dishes, helping with washing laundry and ironing: all light work. I only hated dusting.
None of this was considered work but rather as lessons in self sufficiency by my parents and no more to me than interruptions in my business of living as child.
So that I could learn how to do business, I was assigned the task of ordering coal deliveries from Young’s Coal Company by phone. Is that much different that children today leaning to use computers?
During the coldest nights the furnace could not heat the bedrooms upstairs and the family slept on pallets of blankets and old quilts laid on the linoleum of the living room floor. I think that it was the night we got the temperature in living room above ninety but still couldn’t go upstairs without a coat that we gave up in favor of camping out in the living room. And this wasn’t often, and not even every winter.
Once we got a deal on old railroad ties and burnt them one winter. At first they were an inconvenience as they were not unloaded in back into the coal bin but at the front of the house where they were stacked under the clothes lines interfering with clothes drying in the basement on wash day. But then there was the chimney fire. Big chunks of black soot covering the neighborhood like snow. The firemen said we were pretty lucky that the fire was contained in the chimney, they said that after one of them noticing the hole for a stove pipe in the dining room, and poked a hole in it with his finger discovering that it had been sealed off with a paper plate which was then wall papered over.
These row houses had been pretty swell in their youth, they had been built with gas lights and when converted to electric were outfitted with push buttons instead of switches. They also had balconies, or had had balconies. Ours was long gone but the door and screen door were still there, we used it like a big window.
My parents smoked and the lace curtains needed washing often. When this was to be done I was sent to a neighbor, Jessie Able, who as a very little girl and survived the Johnstown Flood. I grew embarrassed of being a beggar after a while so saved my allowance until I could buy a six foot step ladder at Sears. We had no car and I didn’t tell anyone what I intended so I walked to the store (I was about 12) and carried the ladder back, round trip 1.6 miles – need a car for that?
In the proto-galley kitchen one of the faucets on the kitchen sink had been repaired with a threaded still cock, other wise the sink looked just like the sink in the Kramden’s. There was a single light with no light switch but we found the pull string because mother had tied a broken toy horse to it. A quadriplegic white plastic bucking bronco.
All of the ceiling lamps had lost their shades years before our time and all our bulbs were nude.
The kitchen was also the last place where I experienced corporal punishment at home. It was permissible for preschoolers to drag all of the pots and pans into the living room for toys but my space ship was not. That probably had something to do with it’s control panel being the same thing as the burner knobs on the gas stove. We were flying pretty fast when mother found us and my hand was spanked by a big old index finger. Hardly felt it but father told mother that she could have broken every bone in my hand with ‘that big old finger’.
There were a few doors without knobs (you ran a piece of torn bed sheet though the hole to use as a pull). Eventually I bought some door knobs from the East Side Hardware down the block and found a few more in an empty house so we got rid of the cloth pulls. Torn strips from bed sheets are also wonderful to pack windows against the winter winds. These were common practices at the time. The strips were kept over in a rag bag and a case knife, turned dull grey with age, kept as a dedicated window packing tool.
The board fence at the right of the photo enclosed the property of the Illinois Central Railroad, but not completely. Where it ended adventure began. The Yards also offered danger, and not just from the yard bulls or the monster rats. There was for a while and old black pedophile who looked just like Disney’s Uncle Remus and lived in one of the boxcars. He got successful with three brothers who lived on Cascaden Street but that didn’t last long and he disappeared into the system. I encountered him just once when walking down the alley to Hawthorn school. He smiled like all the suns in the universe, you would have though he was made out of love, but I had learnt what adults could be and circled around through back yards to be on my way. It was a couple weeks later that his ‘friendship’ with the neighbor boys was discovered.
The autos were owned by neighbors, the Dodge behind me was owned by Loren Heck a really big guy who was seeing Jesse Able. He could get mean when drunk and often was but when Jesse called the police he would shake his head like a wet dog and that is all it took for him to regain the appearance of being sober – this was before breath tests and the cops probably were very interested in domestic trouble anyway. When he died, she gave us the flag that had been on his casket, I still have it. Jesse, by the way had survived the Johnstown Flood when a child.
We had no car. The car had been used mostly for going out drinking when that stopped in favor of raising me the car when.
Above the fence can be seen the tops of buildings in the 900 block of East Fourth Street.
Directly across East Fourth Street from our home was the Silver Front Tap. I slept in front bed room overlooking the Silver Front. Sometimes when I was supposed to be sleeping I would watch the street from the window, which could be amusing considering the drunks coming out of the tavern in their attempts to go home. We never locked our doors until the night while father was working and we heard the front door open. Mother when to investigate and found a man on his hands and knees crawling up the stairs. She politely inquired, "What in the hell are you doing you old son of a bitch?" Somewhat testily he replied that he wasn’t a son of a bitch that his was his home and he was going to bed. She took him up by the collar, hauled him outside, threw him off the porch and started locking the door. He wasn’t in the yard in the morning so he probably crawled off to find a bed elsewhere.
In the Spring of 1962, while I was watch out of that window, a man left the bar and turned the corner onto Almond Street. He was going to his car parked in the gravel lot behind the bar he was followed by his girl friend’s husband. The husband came up to him and shot him.
During the summer of the murder and the year afterward I was sent every day to the Iowa Public Service power plant to take father lunch. The way was over the blood stain. Both ways. The chalk outline was gone after the first winter, the blood stain persisted two years.
But this was a great place, it was eight blocks from just about anything I could want except the Jr. High Schools and the hospitals and I didn’t want either of them. We had grocery stores a pharmacy, our doctor (Addison), a jeweler, bakery, hardware, lumber company, the renowned Hickey’s Restaurant, a dry cleaners, a couple bars, one A&W and both the Salvation Army Store and Saint Vincent de Paul Store. Plus a few junk stores which were really antique mines waiting to be found. All of which were no more than three blocks north or south. And just across the railroad tracks – the Recreation Center in an old school, torn down for the Sullivan Brothers Park, about the same time that their family home was torn down. It was like living in a city. You see why we got along fine without a car.
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