Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Once Upon a Time in a Bitter Chicago Cold Snap—A Murfin Memoir

A woman braves the Chicago cold and wind in December 1983.

Here in the northwest boonies of the Chicago metroplex we are beginning the second week of a thaw following a major snowstorm and a string of sub-zero temperatures.  Much of the near foot of snow we had on the ground has melted  and predictions are for continuing mild weather well into February.

But in the days before Christmas in 1983 there was a cold snap in Chicago when the lowest day time high temperature of -13° was recorded on December 24.  The days immediately before were nearly as frigid.  And therein lays a tale.

A recent Google Earth street view of our gray stone two flat on North Albany.  Not much changed since 1983 except for the wrought iron fencing.

Kathy and I were living on the first floor of a gray stone two flat on Albany Street half a block north of Diversey with our daughters Carolynne age 13, Heather aged 9, and not-quite four-month-old Maureen.

On December 20 Kathy asked me to check up on her grandmother Helen Zgorski.  Neither she nor her Aunt Benita had been able to get her on the telephone to discuss Christmas arrangements.  Kathy had been calling hourly and was getting frantic.  She called me at work to ask me to check up on her.   I could drop by the CHA senior housing building on Sheffield just north of Diversey.  That was easy enough.  I worked at RaySon Sports on North Lincoln Avenue repairing football shoulder pads just a couple of blocks away.  I could pop in before I took the bus home.

The last of winter daylight was fading rapidly when I got there and took the elevator to her floor.  I knocked on the door.  There was no response.  I knocked again.  And again.  Alarmed, I went for the building manager who came with me to unlock the door.  Inside, lying on her bed was Grandma.  She was stone cold dead.  My heart sank.

We called 911 to report the death and I waited for the police and paramedics to respond.  Then I had to call Kathy at home to break the news.  She in turn notified her mother Joan Brady, who everyone called Lulu, up in Round Lake and Aunt Benita Wilczynski in Chicago.  

I stayed in the small apartment for a couple of hours as the paramedics examined the body, and the police investigated the scene.  Suspicious of the hippy looking guy in a cowboy hat, I was questioned closely about who the hell I was and why I was trying to gain entrance to the apartment.  I had no way of proving I was a grandson in-law.  I’m sure they called in my State of Illinois ID card—I didn’t have a driver’s license—and turned up my arrest record  for keeping a disorderly house when a fracas blew up at the IWW hall while I was Branch Secretary, a disorderly conduct arrest on a strike picket line at the Three Penny Cinema, and, oh, my conviction for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War.  That did not exactly endear me to the cops.  Finally, while searching the rooms some photos turned up from my wedding to Kathy and other family events.  I was somewhat reluctantly off the hook.

Benita and Uncle Al arrived on the scene after a while.  I blocked her from the bedroom and seeing her mother’s body.  It wasn’t a pretty sight

They brought her body down to the ambulance for the ride to the morgue.  Benita and Al gave me a ride home.  We arrived well into the evening.

Helen Zgorski was a tiny, frail looking woman who could be sharp and abrasive.  She was born in Chicago in 1907 to Polish immigrant parents.  Her mother operated a bakery on North Ashland Avenue near Belmont.  She grew up as a first generation bi-lingual and often had to translate for her parents.  The family was, of course, deeply Catholic and loyal Democrats, then nearly inseparable Chicago Polish identities.  As expected she grew up, married, and had two children, Lulu and Benita. 

But her husband died in his 40’s leaving her a widow with two girls.  That’s when her connections to the old Democratic Machine paid off.  George Dunne, who was then 42nd  Ward Alderman and would go on be the longtime President of the Cook County Board and Cook County Democratic Chairman after the death of Mayor Richard J. Dailey, found Helen a patronage job as a housekeeper at the old Chicago Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium.

As a struggling single mother, she was stern with her two daughters entering their teens which affected her relationship with both.

Helen Zgorski with her great granddaughter Maureen Murfin shortly after the baby's birth.

She retired from the Sanitarium after twenty years or so.  When I first met her she was living in a small rear apartment in a frame building not far from her daughter Benita and her husband Al.   She would attend family functions, including frequent Sunday dinners at our Albany Street apartment.  After dinner there would be card games—nickel 31 and Uncle Al and I would sometimes try to match her shots of Christian Brother’s Brandy.

For a few months she took care of Carolynne and Heather when they got out of St. Bonaventure School.  They would ride the Diversey bus and walk the couple of blocks to her apartment.  Kathy often worked late at her job at Recycled Paper Products so I would come to get them after my work and walk them the five or six blocks home.

Preparations for Christmas were put on hold as the family attended to the flurry of arrangements that deaths always set off.  Lulu, Benita, and Kathy did most of the heavy lifting.  There was a funeral home wake which I must have attended but don’t remember. 

Meanwhile Chicago temperatures were plummeting from merely standard cold to arctic.

On the day of the funeral mass and burial dawned well below zero with cutting winds.  Baby Maureen was also sick—too sick to be taken out in the cold.  Kathy told me that I would have to stay home with her while everyone else went to the services and the traditional after burial restaurant meal with family and other mourners.  Since I had found the body, I felt somewhat invested in the whole thing and protested resulting in kind of a nasty spat.  But in the end there was no real alternative.  I stayed home.

By afternoon Maureen’s temperature spiked dangerously and was very sick.  In those bygone days before cell phones there was no way to reach Kathy or any of the other family members who by that time were at the cemetery.   I called the family doctor and was told to get the baby in right away.  On a workday there were no neighbors I knew who had a car.  Cab company dispatchers could not even promise a pick up in a sketchy neighborhood to go a handful of blocks.  Taxis could make all the money they wanted in the Loop and lakefront neighborhoods.

There was no choice.  I had to carry Maureen to the doctor.  I dressed her in her warmest onesie, pulled on her hooded snow suit, mittens, and wrapped her face in a scarf.  I swaddled her in two baby blankets.  And over the whole cocoon put her into a hooded blanket of brightly colored strips that Kathy had knitted and woven together.

A National Weather Service graphic showing that December 1983 was the third coldest month in Chicago with average  temps of 14.3°.  From December 21 through Christmas Day it never got above zero

Maureen might have been well insulated, but I was not.  I had my long johns on, of course, a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and slick soled cowboy boots.  My winter coat, blanket lined denim with a corduroy collar like those worn by railroaders was fine in ordinary cold but was way too thin for the below zero weather and stiff wind.  On my hands I had canvas and leather palmed work gauntlets pulled over thin brown jersey gloves.  At these temperatures my fingers were frozen in moments.  I tied a red bandana around my ears and pulled my old Stetson down tight.

It was not far to the doctor’s office.  Just south on Albany a couple of blocks to Logan Boulevard, over the wide parkway to the other side and another couple of blocks to the office  near the intersection with Milwaukee.  But it was face-freezing cold and snow blowing from rooftops stung.  I was most worried that I would slip on sidewalk ice or trip over the rock-hard piles left by snowplows at the end of each block.  It was a moustache freezer.  Each breath was like a knife to the lungs. We were probably outside less than 15 minutes, but it seemed infinitely longer.

The doctor’s office was not crowded.  Few patients had ventured out in the weather.  Cooing nurses helped unwrap Maureen’s many layers.  In fact, the baby may have actually been over-heated by the bundling.  She was crying, fussing, and very flush.  Her face was almost burning to the touch.  The receptionist got me a hot, bitter cup of office coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

Youngish Dr. Findlay Brown saw us almost immediately.  He was the family doctor and had treated Kathy and the girls for some time but barely knew me.  He was caring and concerned.  He quickly ruled out the most frightening childhood illnesses.  He wrote a prescription and gave me advice about how to cool her down at home.  He also said in no uncertain terms that I was not to carry Maureen home.  The sun was going down and temperatures were plummeting again.

I picked up a prescription at the small pharmacy that served the medical building.  It turned out that the druggist used to have the drug store my family used in Skokie when I was in high school.  We chatted a bit.  I tried again unsuccessfully to call a cab.  I left Maureen with the nurses in the office while I went out on the Milwaukee Avenue side of the building to see if I could flag one on the street.  No luck.

I considered the CTA, but I would have to wait with Maureen for a Milwaukee Ave. bus and then transfer to an east-bound Diversey Bus.  Waiting for the busses could easily take longer than the walk.  I still could not reach Kathy or Uncle Al who had a car.

A blue and white Chicago Police Department squad car like this saved us.

An hour or so after the appointment, I spotted a police car at the stop light on Milwaukee.  I ran up and tapped on the window.  It was a two-man squad car.  Both cops were relatively young.  I explained my situation and practically begged them for a ride home.  Despite my disreputable appearance they agreed and waited while I ran in and re-bundled Maureen.  We arrived home about 5 pm and I was profuse in my thanks to the cops who had ignored rules and procedures for us.

A while latter Kathy and the older girls arrived home.  I was scolded for taking Maureen out into the dangerous cold.

The next day her fever broke.  Christmas came despite it all.

I’ll save the tale of losing our heat and our pipes bursting in another record shattering cold snap in 1985 for another day.


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