In this essay, people’s names and certain identifying places and street names have been obscured.
After passing the Addison ballpark stop—Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs; losers during the lifetimes of both my father and grandfather and for the duration of my residence in the city—the elevated tracks head north for four blocks then begin to bend left, westward, at Dakin, to run briefly for half a block along Sheridan Road until they turn right to complete the S-curve and head north again to run for six blocks parallel to Graceland Cemetery. While Graceland is also a desirable street in Chicago, the name Graceland most often refers to Graceland Cemetery, the end of the line for numerous notables; it holds the remains of both heavyweight champ Jack Johnson and modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Although contemporaries, it might safely be presumed that the two never met. Born in Galveston, Texas, and Aachen, Germany, they now mingle eternally in Chicago’s most esteemed boneyard.
I often walked through it. The cemetery was on my way to Wrigley Field, glutton for punishment that I was. As an avid unionist I appreciated looking down on the graves of anti-labor bigwigs. You are dead, I would say sotto voce, I am alive. Allan Pinkerton, spymaster, creator of a private police force and eager strike-breaker, the man who couldn’t catch Jesse James, you are dead. George Pullman, railroad magnate, my grandfather was one of your porters. He was called George. His name was Earl but he, and all the other colored porters (they were called colored in those days), were genericized George. Mr. Pullman, I mean George, you are dead. Killer of strikers. So fearful were you of a much-deserved desecration that you buried yourself in a massive rectangular prism of concrete, three-feet thick. Rest in infamy. You are buried just thirty yards from a lowly municipal rail line; I hope the scheduled rumbling of the Chicago Transit Authority pulverizes your wicked bones.
It was along this stretch of northbound track where the boy, the boy’s body, was found. He appeared to be about eleven years old, certainly no more than that; he was as light and limp as a marionette. I lifted him to my colleagues effortlessly, gently. The boy seemed almost weightless. His blue jeans bore a whiff of creosote and had been cuffed ostentatiously high in advance of an impending growth spurt. His three-quarter-sleeve T-shirt was vaguely theatrical, with horizontal green and black stripes; it made him appear costumed as a swabbie in a foreign and ancient navy. The skin on his left ankle and right shoulder was singed where swatches of his white sock and his T-shirt had been scorched away. Looking northward on the tracks, not far from the body, I could see the softball he was hoping to retrieve.
I was a candidate, Chicagoese for Firefighter Candidate (in New York City they are called probies, Probationary Firefighters), and had not been long on the job. I had been given a very convenient posting not far from my apartment, and I had been treated kindly by the instructors at the fire academy. That preferential treatment was due to me being a legacy, a firefighter whose father had been a firefighter and later the protestant chaplain for the department. Although I did not request it, I was even given my father’s old cap device and badge, numbered 3133. I don’t know who engineered that bit of research and recovery. When asked if I preferred “truck or engine” I answered “truck.” My father had been on a truck. Anybody, he said, could fight a fire with a hose full of water. Axes and saws, now that’s a fight. He had been a tillerman on the hook and ladder. Early in his career, when two fire apparatuses collided at an intersection, my father became pinned under the wheels of the engine. He spent nearly a year recuperating. But ever after he carried tire marks across his chest and shoulder. I began my training on Truck 66 in Loughburgh.
The rapidly gentrifying Loughburgh neighborhood is on the northside of Chicago. It had been posh but by then it had become intermittently posh and sketchy. Grand old apartment buildings in pristine condition stood side-by-side with their run-down twins, a carnival mirror of architectural before and after. Some of the apartment buildings have glorious views of the park and Lake Michigan while others, also built in the Jazz Age, before the 1929 crash that elected a second Roosevelt, have been carved into SROs and warehouses for psychiatric outpatients. The neighborhood had a large Native American population and a sizable contingent of Appalachians alongside Blacks, Whites, and Latinos of widely varying descriptions and income levels. Yet the most personal contact I had with most of these Loughburgh residents was after they were dead. An old woman frozen to her bathroom floor. A morbidly obese man putrefying in his bedsit. A decapitation suicide on the commuter line. A little boy electrocuted on the ‘L’ tracks.
As expected, alongside training, I was given a number of other duties. Cleaning was primary—bathroom, shower room, locker room. Sweeping out the handball court, a concrete cube with a roof of wire netting, was another, although none of our crew on the third shift played handball. Strikeout was played instead, a two-person baseball game confined to a batter against a pitcher with a strike zone painted on the wall, but mostly I did not have time for that. I had chores. Mop the dining room. Scrub the hoses. I also had to coil, uncoil, then recoil the rope. I then placed it in a canvas sack with one end protruding. Presumably, the live end of the rope could be secured atop the roof—a clove hitch and a bowline—and the sack thrown over the side. The rope would elegantly descend, unraveling, allowing an intrepid firefighter to rappel down the side of a building. At least that is the way it worked at the fire academy. Every morning I went through a checklist of equipment on the engine and made sure of the number of pike poles (very medieval-sounding, but having a greater resemblance to transom window hooks), testing the roof saw, and filling the hand pump. The hand pump was the worst. It was an ancient brass cylinder, dented and painted red, with a plunger and small hose. It held four gallons of water. At 8.34 pounds per gallon, that came to over thirty pounds of water, plus the weight of the can. I had to lug it on most runs but I never got to use it. I just had to lug it. It was also a tall can and I am a short man. To keep it from dragging I was forced to lift it by raising my elbow and balance the pump on my hip, then swing my leg outward like a community-theater Ahab.
Well more than half of our calls were solved by the hand pump or less. A cigarette ember smoldering in the upholstery was common. Hand over the hand pump to someone senior, who raised and lowered the plunger to produce a narrow-but-solid stream to soak the webbing, horsehair, cotton, cheesecloth, and down. We would then drag the ruined loveseat out of the apartment, onto the back porch, and toss it over the bannister, into the backyard below. Another common run was “pot-of-meat,” where a resident had fallen asleep with something cooking on the stove. Popcorn. Soup. Hot dogs. Alerted by neighbors, we would first pound on the door. Then again, more vigorously, to wake the tenant. Our captain, though he walked with a slight limp, or perhaps because of it, possessed a powerful mule kick. He would turn his back to the door, brace himself on the deep doorjamb that was common in the older buildings in our neighborhood, inhale, and catapult his boot at the lock side of the door. It invariably swung open with an alarming bang. Pot-of-meat runs often made for frightening wake-ups and very expensive hot dogs.
Had he been playing with children his own age? That must have been a powerful swing by an eleven-year-old; the ‘L’ tracks are more than forty feet high. Had he hit the ball and that made him responsible for retrieving it? Had his mighty swing led to his death? How did he get up there? The Sheridan stop was at least fifty yards away. He would have had to cross Sheridan Road, pay the fare (unless his pals created a commotion and he snuck under the turnstile while the attendant was distracted), climb the stairs, walk to the end of the platform and down onto the wooden walkway between the northbound and southbound tracks, crossing Sheridan Road again (it was the same route we took as we walked single file between the tracks, our silhouettes curiously visible to the east and westbound drivers as they approached the iron bridge) and back to the sandy and weedy field that served as their ballyard. He would have been roughly in the same place he had been, only forty feet up, able to look down to where he took that mighty swing and made the ball disappear. Did he look down at the imaginary batter’s box below, imagining himself in an instant replay? Perhaps it was this distraction, this moment of childish pride, that caused him to trip and complete the circuit between the uncharged track and the electrified third rail. Was there a sound? Was there a flash? Where were his friends when we arrived? There was no one in the lot below. They had all vanished. Perhaps fearful and ashamed and complicit, the other children had run away because out of sight is out of mind is out of my control is not my fault is I’m glad it wasn’t me. The news had not spread through the neighborhood; there was no swarm of ghoulish onlookers hoping to witness the dawn of some poor mother’s everlasting misery.
Despite events like this—and there were many—it did not take long for me to become bored with the fire department. In fiction the job is portrayed as exciting, even sexy. I found it tedious, and we were considered an active house, not like some “crow” houses that have so few runs they more closely resembled retirement homes. But even in Loughburgh, where action was considered plentiful, nothing happened on the overwhelming majority of days. I would often go to the handball court to stand alone and close my eyes, imagining that I was doing something, anything, anything but the waiting for someone to have the worst day of their life. Just waiting. I felt as if I were turning to stone, enthralled by a lesser gorgon, lassitude. I had chosen to take the exam out of a lethargic notion of moral duty. The armed forces were not considered, too rigid. I had attended a military school and that had been enough for me. I rejected the Peace Corps as geographically inconvenient and possibly rich in discomfort. But I needed a job, and I had already twice declined the fire department position. A third declination would have been a third strike. So, for three years I endured the tedium of the firehouse—the drinking, a beer locker that was stocked and iced each morning; the prostitutes, one who was a particular favorite, perhaps because she looked like a teenager, perhaps she was a teenager; the casual racism, the N-word with oops and an apology, the N-word with a sneer and an implied threat.
My fourth and last year with the department was spent downtown at the fire academy making instructional videos that were sent to every firehouse and, if my former firehouse was any indication, recorded over to preserve a Bears’ playoff game. But the fire academy gave me a standard nine-to-five schedule and, courtesy of the fire department’s generous educational benefit, I completed the one class I needed for my master’s degree.
With a standard work schedule, I was then able to pick up some teaching. Night classes for art students, Mondays and Wednesdays. It was, after all, what I was trained to do. Make art. Teach art. Seven years of art school would have been essentially wasted had I persisted with the city job. The city job was easy. The city job paid well. But it wasn’t what I loved doing. In fact, I detested it. I kept the teaching gig. I quit the fire department and added another teaching job—greased my college mentor—at the Illinois Institute of Technology, working in a building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. To get there, near the city’s other ballpark, home of the White Sox (World Series Champions within my lifetime), I took the ‘L’. Every Tuesday and Thursday I rode along the same tracks where I had encountered the boy.
I never learned the boy’s name. I never learned the names of any of the victims I encountered. They were bodies. The bodies of strangers. I learned to expect a certain dispassion growing in me, my dejection could not eulogize; but I had grown indifferent. The woman in the sewer. The heatwave-weary man who sought relief in his cool bathtub but never emerged. Another little boy who burrowed into, then was buried under, the mound of sand delivered in spring preparation of being smoothed onto the beach and later foot-printed with the joys of summer. I never awoke in horror, from dreaming of them; I did not describe them to my friends, in effort to exorcize a haunting; I could only scrutinize with detachment as I did not, and could not, see myself in their lifelessness.
I didn’t choose them. Yet he, of the ball and the bat, glanced tangentially.
Although I had finally crashed the academic gate, as an adjunct associate professor in the day and a part-time instructor at night, I still couldn’t avoid Graceland Cemetery. It was on my way to the ballpark. I always glimpsed through the gates as I walked by, though not at the grand funerary monuments anymore but all the way to the back of the cemetery, past the crematorium, above the wall, up to the ‘L’ tracks, where I cradled my first dead body. Where a dead body became a real boy whom I never met but who had chosen me, and whose scant and temporary weight left a delicate but indelible silhouette on my indifferent embrace.