A Kansan in South Chicago - Stories by Lynn Nelson


September days are shorter and cooler. The big trees in Washington Park begin to turn reds and golds. The long pods of the catalpas turn dry and fall to the ground, looking like scattered piles of Italian cigars. If you are seven years old and do not yet know what real suffering is, you can trim off both ends, light them with a kitchen match, and smoke them like a real cigar for a while.

The air is crisp, but there is a shimmer along the sidewalks and stone and brick buildings like John Fiske Elementary School at 61st Street and Ingleside Avenue. Chicago is slowly giving up the heat that it had collected during the long days of bright sun in July and August. The stuff of the city cools down, and, by December, you can put your hand with its palm down on the steps that lead into the school and feel a hard cold deep inside the stone.

The city and the great plains that lie to the west give up their warmth more quickly than the Lake. So cold in March that it knocked the wind out of you, Lake Michigan will continue to give off a haze of steam into the winter air until it finally freezes over. Then the wind will come from the Lake and cut one's hands and face like ice. In September, though, the wind still comes from the west.

Back in the fall of 1937, the west wind passed over factories and the Stock Yards on their way to John Fiske Elementary School, and they brought an inescapable smell there that is just as hard to describe as it is to forget.

It was made up of coke fumes, carbon flaring off great white-hot ingots, cookie factories and breweries, tanneries, black Bubbly Creek, and the exhalings of immense drum-like reservoirs of coal gas. Most of the odor, though, consisted of the Stockyards with its fifteen thousand head of cattle, seven thousand hogs, two thousand sheep, and lambs, goats, and other animals being moved to slaughter, their number constantly replenished by new arrivals driven off the cattle cars that rattled in and out of the Yards all day and all night long.

Some people said that the Yards were the real heart of Chicago, and that one Armour, Wilson, Swift, or Cudahy were worth a hundred earls or dukes . They boasted of its size and nodded with satisfaction as the morning stock report listed how many thousands of animals of each sort were presently penned up there. They were proud of the efficiency of the Yards, proud of the boast, "We use all of the pig except the squeal."

It's all gone now. They just smashed it all down, leveled it out, paved it over, and built town houses, shopping centers, residential streets, banks, post offices, and restaurants. There is also a small museum that preserves a sanitized, bowdlerized, and deodorized record of what it once was like, but really wasn't like at all.

You have to imagine what it was like then. There were piles of excrement as high as houses, and urine drains running like frothy golden brooks down to Bubbly Creek. There was the smell of hundreds of bundles of stinking hides slowly rotting by the rail spurs, waiting for shipment to tanneries and slowly being covered with a fine white powder from the nearby bone mills. Try to picture thousands of gallons of blood clotting in great vats watched over by sausage makers cleaning endless yards of gut for casings. Gape at the great steel cauldrons into which hundreds upon hundreds of horns and hooves are tossed and from which the workers dip hundreds and hundreds of gallons of gelatin and glue. Further on are even bigger cauldrons into which they dump pushcarts of yellow beef fat, and, when they open their taps are opened steaming streams of tallow pour out. Sniff as you pass by the cannery buildings with their chili con carne, tomato soup, beef stew, chitlings to ship down south, corned beef for Boston; and then frankfurters, pickled pigs' feet, pork sausages and so on until you can't smell the differences anymore.

Over there are the labs, where men in white coats prepare extracts of animal glands and innards. They are extracting insulin now; it's not very pure, but the people who need it don't complain. Close by is the other lab, where goat horns, bull testicles and hearts, and a number of other strange things are dried, ground to fine powders, and sold to Chinese. And there's the resident rabbi, in his black cassock and uncreased hat, crossing over to supervise the kosher butchering.

But everywhere is the constant noise. The lowing, oinking, grunting, bawling, bellowing, squealing, bleating of thousands of animals growing more and more restive as they draw nearer to the killing floors and can begin to smell the blood there, and hear the high-pitched screams when one of the killers misses his mark. Most of all, try to smell, underneath everything else, the unmistakable reek of fear. It has sunk deep into the ground and comes from the glands of thousands upon thousands of animals telling them to run when there was no room to turn and nowhere to run. Some people who worked in the Yards carried sticks and canes to and from work, because dogs could smell the animal fear that had sunk into their clothes and hair and would try to attack them. Sometimes the smell of fear sank even deeper. Many people could not stand to work in the Yards even when the winter was hard and there were no other jobs to be had.

Still sweeping toward the Lake, the breeze picked up the smoke of the large brick cubes behind the flats where garbage was piled up and burned, but only after it had been thoroughly picked over by men and women, dogs, cats, and rats. The smoke of the incinerators, the soot and grease of the factories, steam engines, tar pots, hamburger grills, and thousands of flats drifted along with the breeze, and mothers who had washed their children and dressed them in clean clothes might let them go outside but warn them not to touch anything. Even on windy days, that smoke and soot would force its way upward for thousands of feet. People who had seen the great pall from fifty or even a hundred miles away said that they bet the children of Israel never had a pillar like the one standing over Chicago.

Each neighborhood contributed its own little bit to the breeze: boiling cabbage from the Irish, oregano from the Italians, garlic from the Poles, turpentine from the Greeks, and so on. A man said in a book that you could tell where a Chicagoan came from just by standing a mile downwind from him. Jews smelled of chicken fat, Armenians smelled of lamb, English smelled of bacon. He said that Swedes smelled of caraway, but I don't believe that.

The September breeze that drifted through the windows of our classroom had passed over all of this and more on its way to us, and this was probably the reason that Mrs. McCarthy took her long window pole and closed both the tops and bottoms of our four large windows. "There." she said, "That's better."


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