A Day in the Life of a Chicago Teenager, 1959

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

A teen girl works in her dad's pharmacy one day in 1959--thinking about boys, dealing with the changes in the community, and doing her job--until a strange development makes this no ordinary day.

I ran up the creaking wooden steps to the Chicago Transit Authority “el” platform, making the train by mere seconds. I had lingered too long talking to friends and having a snack before leaving Hyde Park High School for the day. My dad would be looking for me.

I brushed off crumbs from my clothes before I dropped my book on the seat next to me. Chemistry homework. “Nuts,” I thought. The only subject I had trouble with. I guess I won't follow the family in the medical field. Who was I trying to kid? Like the rest of my girlfriends, I figured I’d go to college for my teaching diploma and my “Mrs.” degree. And at least I didn’t have to worry about the draft, like the boys who would graduate with me the next year.

The ride from the school at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue to 51st Street and Michigan Avenue would take only about fifteen minutes. The train lurched forward, and I almost fell off my seat. I should have anticipated the turn, as I rode this route at least three times a week.

The “clingy-clang” noise of the old steel cars made concentration impossible, but other than that, riding the el wasn’t too bad. Living on Chicago’s South Side in 1959, I never worried about riding the el or going anywhere in the city alone. I never even thought about rapists or crazies bothering me—although a bomb from Russia might. The Cold War was in full swing, but most things in the world were calm. Dwight Eisenhower had been a good President, but sure was old compared to that gorgeous young Senator John Kennedy who was thinking of running for President now.

There was trouble in our Jewish family. A major scandal—a divorce! After twenty-two years of marriage, my cousin was divorcing her husband. He'd had girlfriends for years, yet nobody seemed to understand why now she would be “doing this to the family.” I never knew anyone who divorced, although I was aware movie stars did it. Still, it wasn't as traumatic for the family as when another cousin married a Catholic. My grandfather sat Shiva for him, and wouldn’t allow any of us to see him or his new family.

I glanced at a Black teen tapping his hands on a transistor radio. I guessed he couldn't wait to get off the train and turn it on. I could identify. The sound vibrating throughout the room from my new stereo player was one of the great pleasures in my life. I took that blue-and-silver record player with its two detachable speakers, a woofer for low, and a tweeter for high, plus my 45 r.p.m. record collection, to all the parties.

The day was a beautiful spring day. The sky was a clear blue, the flowers were just starting to peak up through the soft earth, and the first of the robins were busy pulling worms out of the ground and looking for a place to nest. Best of all, the Chicago White Sox had won their third game in a row. Maybe in 1959 we would finally win a pennant, and the World Series. Even Lake Michigan— a devil in winter, icy, cold, dark, and treacherous, was clear and inviting today. Soon the boaters will be out, I thought.

I really wished I was walking home with my friends through Jackson Park instead of going to work. On a nice day like today we typically abandoned the city bus, which turned and twisted around so many streets that it took forever before it got to our stop at 67th Street and Jeffery Boulevard.

I can just see Bart and Jeff chasing after lost golf balls in the Jackson Park lagoon. There would be many golfers on a day like this. My petite friend, Claire, with her blonde ponytail, would be with Bart and Jeff. Without me there, she got all the attention. Those boys liked to tease her anyway. I always gave it back to them, while she acted hurt and innocent. Meanwhile, Miss Innocent managed to wear the shortest skirts, the tightest sweaters, and little black shoes without socks. My mother wouldn't let me get away with that. My skirts were way past the knee, but my sweaters were real cashmere, and my loafers always had shiny new pennies in them.

My heart skipped a beat when I thought about tall, thin, dark-haired Jeff with the twinkle in his green eyes. He was so gorgeous and a great dancer. My petticoats had swished back and forth as he twirled me across the dance floor at a party three weeks before. My smile turned to a frown when I realized he hadn't asked me out since.

Maybe it was because I refused to let him kiss me. It was only our second date, and mom's rule is three dates before a smooch. Or maybe he is sweet on Claire now. I hate boys! I especially hate the fact that we girls have to sit around and wait for them to call. Of course three boys you have no interest in call and ask you out, while you spend your days pining for the one from whom you never hear.

I walked off the train, stopped by the water fountain for a drink, and then walked down the steps. I felt like lighting a cigarette, but was worried someone might recognize me and tell my dad. Nobody in my family smoked, which was unusual for the time, and that made it hard for me to keep up with my friends who all smoked and who could sneak cigarettes from family members.

Putting my heavy school books down, I took off my black sweater. My white buttoned-down cotton blouse and black wool skirt were warm enough for the day. Blue jeans or pants weren't allowed on girls or female teachers in our school.

I pushed back the wave that constantly fell over my left eye. It was annoying, but I kept it, because Jeff had told me he loved the way I wore my thick black hair. Page boy cuts were the style, but the waves were from my inherited curly hair that I was always fighting with oversized rollers. I once had it straightened. Never again. My hair split and fell out.

That wasn’t as bad as what happened to my friend Susie, whose hair turned orange when she tried to become a blonde. She was a special friend, one to whom I could tell things I couldn't tell anyone else. We kept each other's secrets, and spent too much time on the phone every night. She loved to swim and play tennis—an athletic Jewish girl! I, on the other hand, tried to avoid exercise. Also, there was no way I could talk to her about a book. She actually believed Kafka's Metamorphosis was about an insect.

I slowly walked the three blocks to my dad's drugstore. Washington Park was a neighborhood in decline—not like South Shore, where we lived. The apartment buildings were shabby, and the streets were strewn with by papers, garbage, and empty bottles.

The neighborhood was much different than when my dad first opened his store. The area then was inhabited by a middle class who had the money for maintenance, but they had moved on when poorer ethnic groups moved in. The beautiful old stone single-family homes, now cut up and occupied by more than one family, were starting to fall into disrepair.

My dad's store also had changed with the neighborhood. Where there once was a soda fountain was now a liquor counter. My mouth salivated at the thought of those luscious chocolate, strawberry, and pineapple whip-creamed banana splits he used to make for me. We had the milkshake machine and the soda glasses at home, but the cute little black wrought-iron tables and wooden chairs were long gone.

Unlike most of the other longtime merchants, Dad hadn’t fled, saying all people needed medicine and food. He loved to be called Doc, and I secretly think he liked the freedom the store brought him. He yelled, swore, and laughed heartily there--something he couldn't do at home where my mom expected prim and proper behavior.

Boy, was I hungry. Lunch had been terrible that day. No time to go out to the restaurant across from the school, so I ate a greasy, burnt grilled cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria. Dad's store had candy, chips, and pop. I better stay away from the sauce for the chips, I thought—it was hot! My mouth stung for days after eating it.

As I came near the store, a local woman named Maddy approached me. "Miss Doc, I feel today is your lucky day. Just give me two quarters for the numbers and you'll end up with double!" She was touting some kind of illegal lottery called “policy.” I never seemed to pick the right numbers. Only once did she tell me I won. My quarter became two quarters then. At this rate of luck, I figured I’d better stay away from Las Vegas when I got older—the only place in the country with legal gambling.

A large blue Rexall Drug sign hung outside the wood-and-brick building that housed my dad’s pharmacy. The newly installed iron gates pushed back across the two large clear glass windows were a sign of the change in the neighborhood. It saddened me that my dad felt he needed them. The door was in-between the two windows that were covered with advertisements.

The store still had an enormous glass walk-in telephone booth with a hanging telephone book and a large, heavy tarnished black metal dial phone. For a dime one could make a timed call. More money would be needed for calling the suburbs or long distance. The booth was used continually by customers who didn't have a phone in their homes, by policy dealers, and even drug dealers. In the 1950s illegal drugs were still in the underground, and generally not used by most people, but they were available to people in the know.

The black-and-white triangular patterned floor tiles probably needed replacement. They were clean, but worn. I especially loved the floor-to-ceiling mahogany cabinets behind the counter. Their small drawers with the shiny gold knobs were designed to hold the drug items sold, and those needed to make medicines. A few items like paregoric, a popular stomach medicine containing codeine, had to be signed for. Dad told me to stay away from the drawer with those items, and the drawers with contraceptives. I was told to ask another employee to take care of those customers, but he told me I could handle the women purchasing Kotex.

A loud screeching noise, sounding like piece of chalk moving across a blackboard, made me shiver. It came from the ladder running across the track at the top of the cabinets. Looking up I saw Lucas, one of my fellow workers, pulling something out of a top drawer. We seldom sold things stored in those upper cabinets. I had no idea what was up there.

When he came down the ladder he held leeches. I jumped, and he gave me a devious grin. "They still work," Lucas said, as he walked over to the elderly grey-bearded man who had asked for them.

A marble counter went across the width of the store, crossing the liquor-and-beer counter and the candy counter and running back to the pharmacy counter. A staple on the counter was the cash register. It should have been in an antique store instead of still in use. Its ornate gold-colored metal and white marble bar over the price keys were something to see. It still was efficient, though slower than a modern one.

Not far from it, by the pharmacy counter, stood a much older item: a two-tiered show globe—a fancy cut-glass vessel containing two colorful liquids. The show globe had been a symbol of pharmacy since the 17th century England. It marked the drugstore or apothecary in much the same way as the barber's pole marked tonsorial establishments. People who were illiterate needed such symbols to locate these places. Dad used food coloring to make his blue and red.

Dad also had a mortar and pestle, another longtime symbol denoting a pharmacy. The pestle was a fat stone stick, the mortar was a stone bowl, and together they were used to grind medicine.

From behind the prescription counter Dad, in his white pharmacy coat and shirt and tie, greeted me with a wave of his hand. I walked into the back room, and deposited my purse and books.

"Dad, I need to put together my supplies before going up front,” I said.

He shook his head and smiled. "Take want you need, but honey I won't be supplying all your friends," he admonished.

I walked along the shelves in the middle of the store collecting hair rollers, the new ball-point pens, pencils, notebooks, lipsticks, mascara, Kotex, Midol, cold cream, red nail polish, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume for mom, a few ponytail holders for my sister, bobby pins, and some Colgate toothpaste.

I was sixteen and old enough to run the register, but two years short of being able to legally sell alcohol. Dad had given me a quick course on how to make change by counting backwards. Everybody paid cash, although we did give credit on the honor system. Names and amounts owed were put into a little black book, but these were accounts my dad seldom collected.

I would work from 3:30 to about 6:30 p.m., when one of my friends usually picked me up. If there wasn't too much homework on the agenda, we would meet the rest of the group at one of our hangout houses, or at Carl's for hot dogs, or Mitchell's for ice cream. The radio would be blasting with the voices of singers such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Mathis, and we would sing along.

On weekends, I helped out at the drugstore during the day. If I had something special going on in my social life, my dad/boss would let me take off. Even though I had a driver's license we, like most families in the ‘50s, had only one car. The majority of mothers didn't drive. No brother with an old jalopy in our family, so I depended on boyfriends. And, I still had my Schwinn single-speed blue bicycle for short trips around the neighborhood. Too bad it wasn't one of those new ten-speeds.

In order to get to take the wheel in my dad's year-old, olive-green, big-finned, chrome-laden Oldsmobile I had to drive my mom and sister on their errands first, and even then it wasn't very often that I found myself in the driver’s seat. I was a good driver, even though I still wasn't great at parallel parking. Dad and I wanted to buy another convertible (the family had had one previously), but my mom objected. Her carefully coiffed hair couldn't handle the wind, and if it rained she would get soaked while dad tried to put the top up. Dad had the loud boisterous voice, but mom really ruled the household, so her car-buying decision was final.

My friend Jim had access to a white Chevy Impala convertible with oversized tail fins, red leather interior, and something innovative—automatic push-button windows. He said this car was so sophisticated that it was much harder to hot-wire start it—I didn’t ask him how he knew that. The previous weekend, we fit ten teens in it and went downtown to the Fickle Pickle, one of the new folk/beat coffee houses.

My work in the store gave my dad time to stay behind the counter and catch up on his prescription knowledge and medicine production. When my dad went to pharmacy school back in the 1920s he learned how to mix and create medicines, some of which he still sold in the store more than 30 years later. People swore by his stomach, cough, and psoriasis concoctions.

My train of thought about my dad was interrupted when an actual train porter wearing a navy blue jacket with shiny brass buttons walked in, laughing.

"Miss Doc, get down my Jack,” he said. “No more ‘yes sir,’ no more rocking with the rails. I got me three days off."

I brought down a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, but I couldn't ring it up. We actually called the man buying it “Jack,” because he loved that stuff so much he would finish that big bottle, and be drunk until he was due back to work on the Pullman trains. I was especially fond of him because one spring vacation in the early ‘50s my mama, daddy, sister, grandma and I were getting ready to board the train to Miami, Florida, when Jack appeared, impeccably groomed in his porter uniform.

"Doc, what you doing here?" Jack asked.

My dad gave Jack a big hearty welcome, but he backed away when my dad went to shake hands with him. "Not here, Doc," Jack said, making a concession to Jim Crow.

We had the best train ride ever. Jack was our personal porter. Those Pullman cars, with separate compartments, dining cars set with white tablecloths and crystal and serving delicious food, made one feel special. Though I had to admit the two-day ride did start to get boring, even with the domed car designed for landscape-watching.

I remembered seeing the water fountains designated “colored” and “white” when we first went to Florida. I had stood near the “colored” fountain waiting for a rainbow of colored water to come out of it, but the water looked the same to me, causing me to think that things were difficult to understand in the South.

Thinking about the South led me to open a bag of barbecue chips. I ate a few, reached for one of the metal pop openers, and then took a sip of Coca-Cola from my six ounce bottle as another customer came by.

"Ms. Doc, I want a package of Wrigley gum," she said. I smiled at the sweet lady, outfitted in a floor-length flowered muumuu and a patterned scarf around her head. I didn't know her real name, but Dad called her “Jemima” because she looked like the lady on the box of pancake mix.

Unlike the nice lady, I didn't chew gum now that our new dentist found six cavities. He took X-rays, something old Doc Schwartz never did. This dentist used Novocain, so it didn't hurt so much to have my teeth fixed. He had a pretty office with cream-colored equipment, and a receptionist to help him. I still wasn't that fond of the screeching sound of that slow drill, though.

I recalled having had my ears pierced by old Doc.Shore. He shook so much I thought they would never be even. So I could wear Grandma's pearl earrings now. Piercing skipped a generation; Mom's ears are not pierced. I couldn’t wait to go shopping for some new long earrings.

Speaking of shopping, I needed a new dress for our high school’s Sorority Sing. Figured I would go shopping on 71st Street; probably at Seder’s. I had a favorite sales lady there who would bring out fashionable dresses for me. I would have loved to get a fitted bodice, but thought Mom probably wouldn’t okay it—too sexy. Last time I was there, I recalled, I did see a pink nylon and taffeta full skirt dress I liked. It needed a crinoline underneath and dyed pink pumps and a small dyed pink purse to go with it. I also needed new nude hose.

Lost in fashion fantasies, I was now noshing on a Hershey chocolate bar. At this rate I will need a tighter girdle to fit under my dresses, I thought. Mom had made me oatmeal with cream and a bagel and lox for breakfast but that day, but I had run out without touching any of the food. In fact, I had run the whole three blocks to the city bus stop. I figured one day I would miss the Jeffery Express and be late for school. That morning, the bus was so crowded I had to stand in front next to some musky smelling guy while my friends were all I the back having fun.

Still in grade school at the time, my sister had to walk only one block to school. She did complain that the teachers all compared her to me. She was hoping to get a young new teacher who didn't know me. That wouldn't happen at that school. The teachers were all on tenure and they stayed in the job forever, teaching the same thing over and over to each new class of forty-eight students.

My sister told me her stationary wooden and steel desk, third back in row five, had the name “Stu G” carved on the top. She wondered if that could be my friend. "Probably." I answered. Then I told her to look under the desk. After five years, his gum was most likely there, too.

I recalled that Mrs. Parisy was the teacher who made us write down the dumb poem about chewing gum. The gum-chewing girl and the cud-chewing cow were alike somehow. The difference, I see it now. It is the intelligent look on the face of the cow! We had to write that 100 times when caught with gum. Actually, that cured me of gum-chewing more than the cavities did.

The store was getting busy now in the late afternoon. The doctors’ offices closed by 5 p.m., and Dad wouldn't be able to contact them to fill prescriptions, so customers were lined up in the back to get their medicine in time. Though the 5 p.m. deadline didn't really stop Dad. He knew his customers and would fix them up with medicine on his own. Most pharmacists in his era did.

Dad called out to me, saying "Mom's on the phone." I entered the back of the store to dad's desk area and picked up the black phone receiver. Mom wanted to give me instructions for dinner: chicken and potatoes are made, but they will need at least a half hour to warm up at 350 degrees; open a can of Libby peas, and a can of fruit cocktail; salad made; don't forget to mix some ketchup and mayo for dressing; oatmeal cookies for later, “and let your sister dry while you wash the dishes. She hates to wash, and you do a better job at it anyway.”

We could watch one of my favorite shows, but my sister will most likely want to see the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.  When my grandmother was alive we had to watch wrestling, a sport she developed a passion for at the ripe old age of 70. She was the one who taught me a host of card games, including poker.

Stopped in the bathroom, so long as I was in the back of the store. Checked my image in the mirror, careful to not trip on the mop and bucket of water. The metal ringer was a killer. With my wavy dark hair and full black eyebrows, I was sometimes compared to Elizabeth Taylor. I had just had seen Paul Newman in The Long Hot Summer that smile, those dimples, wow! To me, he was much sexier than Elvis.

Bummer, I thought--no visiting with friends tonight if I was making dinner. Mom was going to a fundraising meeting to fight cancer—a terrible disease in the 1950s, because virtually everyone who was struck with it died within a few months. Families kept the diagnosis a secret. The word “cancer” was akin to the word “plague.” Mom and her friends worked diligently to raise funds for research. The dreaded polio had a vaccine to prevent it by then, so Mom and her friends figured that cancer could be cured someday, too.

I never learned to swim because of the polio scare, even though I lived two blocks from Lake Michigan. Summer and swimming were believed to cause the disease. Even President Franklin Roosevelt succumbed to polio. A good-looking, funny humored, red-headed boy in my third grade class ended up in an iron lung because of polio. Nothing could be worse than having to lay in that thing with only your head sticking out. He couldn't breathe without it.

I tried to call my friend Ronnie, but he wasn’t home and I figured he must be out driving. He really didn't need to pick me up, since I had to go straight home anyway. There was no way to get ahold of someone who wasn’t home back then, so I figured I’d better wait for him to come to the store.

So I went back to the front to take care of customers, but also throwing a few packs of Chesterfield cigarettes in my purse for him, and at least a dollar for gas. It was up to 25 cents a gallon, and Ron was usually short of fuel, money, and cigarettes.

Rain was now pounding against the windows, making a pinging sound. I stared at the shiny black street, being washed clean. Customers were piling in through the door, mainly to get dry, and I figured we would probably sell a few of those little plastic rain hats and umbrellas now.

That reminded me that since the grocery store closed next door, Dad added all kinds of household items such as ten-cent cans of Carnation milk, dollar boxes of Dreft soap powder, metal cookie cutters, and even some toys like Mr. Potato Head. Soon, he promised customers, he would be giving out the popular S&H Green stamps, too, which could be redeemed for gifts. The High Low grocery store by our house had lost a lot of my mom's business since Dad upgraded his own stock.

I was snapped out of my musings by the shrill sound of sirens vibrating from the outside into the store. But nobody flinched. It was the city, and something was always happening; car accidents, fights, robberies. A few weeks ago a guy came into the store stark naked. Went up to the counter and asked for a bottle of Wild Irish Rose. Reached for his money, saw he had no pants, screamed and ran out. “Nothing exciting like that ever happens when I'm here,” I thought.

Just then, something exciting did happen. Bang! Crash! Boom! Screech of brakes, glass flying everywhere, screams echoing throughout, sirens continuing to blast. The car being pursued by police never stopped until, after crashing through the front window, it reached the middle of the store.

Nobody died or was seriously injured, but five of us had to be hospitalized. The store was closed for two weeks for the damage to be repaired. Dad was relieved that insurance paid for the whole thing.

Who says 1950s Chicago was dull?

Submitted: August 26, 2014

© Copyright 2020 CharleneWexler1. All rights reserved.

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