Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Maybe the Whole Town Went to Work too Young"

I loved the tone of this book for many reasons-- not least of which is the way he manages to critique Chicago while still clearly (to me at least) professing his love for her. Nevertheless, one of the things I really appreciated about Chicago: City on the Make was the chapter Algren did from his own kids-eye-view. I took it to be autobiographical when he described the move from the South Side to the North Side in the context of the 1919 Black Sox season. Since I'm not a Chicago native, I really appreciated this sketch-- made visceral with the slang of the time and the sense of childish proportion-- of growing up in Chicago. Delivering papers, sneaking into Comiskey, negotiating with his new North Side neighbors, Algren drags us around the city of his youth like the little red wagon he uses to deliver the Saturday Evening Blade.

What is striking aside from the whimsical shift in perspective--for instance, imagining all of the North Side alleys leading straight to Wrigley--is the way that this chapter is definitively a description of a Chicago child's introduction to what it means to be a "hustler's town." From the goings-on at the shady South Side tavern that Uncle J. frequents, to the national story of World Series-level fraud of the 1919 Chicago White Sox-- the narrator of this chapter is learning the language and logic of Chicago's streets. After his team is found to have purposely thrown their chances of victory, the narrator learns how dangerous a game loyalty in Chicago can be. His new North Side acquaintences immediately throw him in with the tarnished South Side team. The grilling is reminicent of a Chicago Sun Times article on clout abuses or mafia meddlings in Chicago politicians, as Algren describes, "I was coming around Troy Street almost a year later pretending I believed Risberg to be an honest man. I'd gone out to the ball park, seen him play in person and was now insisting I'd seen nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all [...] And I still pretended I hadn't suspected a thing?" (Algren 37). And concludes with the ultimate question, "What kind of American are you, anyhow?" (Algren 37). This questions rings throughout the whole book-- and the answer is a resounding-- I'm a Chicagoan, that's what kind.

"I guess that was one way of learning what Hustlertown, sooner or later, teaches all its sandlot sprouts, 'Everybody's out for The Buck. Even the big-leaguers.'" (Algren, 39).

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