Saturday, March 6, 2010

Rush Street: Nothing in the World Like It

Never married, with no children, Joann is 84-years-old and lives in a senior's building in Eckhart Park, near Wicker Park.
Her white hair was tucked neatly beneath a red knit beret, and even just sitting at the chintzy two top at Dunkin Donuts near the Polish Triangle where I encountered her this past Thursday she sat in a way that implied elegance.

In 1943, at age 17, Joann moved to Rush Street from Moline. She didn't know anyone, but quickly met a few gals from Iowa while out at the bars ("3 am 4 am, it was jumping! I'm telling you, you have no idea what it was like, there was nothing in the world like it")

One of the gals remained a lifelong friend, also never married, with no children, and recently passed away.

As for work, Joann, who looked at me a bit curiously, explained that back then it wasn't like it is today. "The war was on," she recalled of her early days in the city. "Everybody was working."

She worked in a factory, making Luster cream shampoo. She lived above a book store called the Seven Stairs which Ernest Hemingway used to hang out in, but she said she never had much interest in him because he was in his 40s and she and her friends would be dressed up to go out "cabereting," and would just pass Ernest and say 'hello.' She also found work at the Lake Shore Pharmacy, at its 24-hour soda fountain, where she waited on many stars, like singers Sammy Davis, Jr., Frankie Laine, comedian Jimmy Durante, and a man named Rasputin, who she said was an agent for Louis Armstrong.

Rasputin, she said, would show her photo albums of all the places around the world that he went to with Armstrong. Joann swears that she thought something was going on between the two men. One night Rasputin asked her if she'd like a lift home from work. The next day he dropped dead at the World Series in Milwaukee, a favorite soda fountain regular never seen again.

For many years after the soda fountain, Joann worked in the administrative dining car office for the Burlington railroad, and later in an Agriculture division of the Board of Trade.

When asked if she regrets having never married, Joann said no. Her response intimated that there'd been plenty of men in her life, which was a good and fun life as she recalled it, with no less than 10 Kentucky derbies.

It turns out that she was proposed to more than a few times, which made her coffee companion, an elderly Polish woman who was sitting next me but otherwise silent during the conversation, laugh, shake her head.

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