Back in the day. Taken in Piper’s Alley. Photo by Jac Stafford.
Note: This was first posted today in a slightly different form on Third City Blog, a disreputable journal maintained by scoundrels and scallywags. They tell me I fit right in.
It was April of 1969. I had left Shimer College after the fall semester of 1968. I transferred to Columbia College in Chicago where I was going to fulfill my dreams of becoming the next Great American Writer. We all know how successfully that worked out.
I got my first apartment in the city that January after working a few weeks at a Skokie air-conditioning plant to raise some capital. I found a 7 room basement apartment in a rundown three flat on Howe Street, one block west of the urban removal wasteland of Larrabee and half a block south of Armitage. The rent was $78 a month. No, that isn’t a typo.
But even that was too steep, so I advertised for a roommate and ended up with Michael, a young black kid and minor street hustler. Turned out that he was not a welcome sight on the street, which was run by a local self-proclaimed Hillybilly gang, The Howe Street Boys. With Cabrini Green only a few blocks south, Puerto Ricans moving in from the west, and Old Town hippies from the east, those guys felt besieged.
One of my co-workers at the air-conditioning plant, a 50 year old Chicano named José lost his apartment when his son was shot and severely injured while standing in line for some Kentucky Fried Chicken. José was stuck with the medical bills. So I let him move into an unfinished room off the kitchen. The three of us split the $78 rent and the utilities.
I should have suspected we were not welcome by the sneers and cat calls from the Boys every time we went out. But, with naïve enthusiasm, I tried to make friends. I learned some of their names. It turns out they were interested to see if I could connect them with some weed or some hippy chicks. None the less, the apartment was burglarized three times. I didn’t have much to steal. They took the 35 mm camera I needed for photography class and the little 1950’s era portable TV with rabbit ears that could only pick up one station anyway, and one of the fold-up suitcase style stereos. Luckily they evidently didn’t know what to do with a typewriter.
Despite all of the warnings, I decided to throw a big party. I invited all my Shimer friends to come in from Mt. Caroll, guys from the air-conditioning plant, a few high school buds, and the few new folk I knew at Columbia. I neglected to invite the Howe Street Boys. Turned out to be a faux pas.
It was not the only one. A bigger error was not checking the calendar. I scheduled my big bash for the one year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
As scores of folks were flocking to my party—lured by Delaney Daggers, a lethal combo of 180 proof Everclear and orange juice mixed in a garbage can, and plenty of smoke, over by Cabrini Green a reprise of the riots from a year before erupted. Soon there were sirens everywhere and cop cars were speeding up our street with their windows taped to prevent them from being shattered.
Inside the party was in full roar. The music was loud, the air thick, and guests beginning to stick to the floor from spilled Daggers. Then I heard that the Howe Street boys were outside hassling guests as they arrived—took more than a riot to dissuade party goers in those days. One of my Shimer friends unwisely went out to confront the guys. Down he went with a bottle upside of his head.
I headed out to rescue him. As I bent over his sprawling body, I got wacked. I got up. Got wacked again. This possess repeated itself three times, breaking my glasses. I was surrounded by about ten of them. And I wasn’t a fighter. I thought I was a goner.
Then a guest who I didn’t even know, a girl with long brown hair and a ratty old fur coat, charged up the stairs from the basement. She placed herself between me and my unconscious friend and the Howe Street boys and cussed them a blue streak for being cowards. She must have astonished them. She managed to get both of us to safety.
We remained besieged in the apartment the rest of the night. Scores of folks sprawled where they lay when the Daggers and dope ran out. Somewhere around dawn, the Howe Street boys were gone.
A few of us wandered out. I think we ended up at the Lake Front, sharing a final joint or two.