Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Chicago, Harper High School, 1951-55--A Long Shadow

Image result for william rainey harper high school

Here are some memories from my high school days.  I wrote them for my old school's web page.
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                                           Trying to be cool at lunch

I graduated from Harper in 1955. That’s 60 years ago. Here’s more than you want to know about “lunch” back then.

Lunch period offered forty minutes of release from the authorities’ regimen of Serious Business. If you chose not to eat in the school cafeteria, you could cross the street and eat in one of the three small school stores, Sylvester’s, Marie’s or ___________[failure of memory on this], that sold sandwiches, soft drinks and snacks. These stores were de facto sex segregated. Only the Sons of Italy and a few drop-outs had the gonads to enter _________________. I never saw the inside of ___________, a mysterious center of female power that filled me with a shyness and awe I diligently worked to conceal.

On the rare occasion when a few girls (never alone) would venture into the male domains of Sylvester’s or Marie’s, they would instantly be labeled skanks and move high up on a master list of desirability young men carry around and regularly review with friends. The “skank,” the “Bad Girl,” past and present, being more a product of loose talk expressing impossible desire than any kind of behavior based on reality.

I was a habitue of Sylvester’s. When you entered it you were hit by a cloud of smoke that probably matched the fabled back rooms of the Morrison Hotel when they were occupied by the minions of Richard J. Daley the Elder’s political machine. I somehow escaped picking up the smoking habit, but many of my friends were hooked on what even then we called “cancer sticks.” A pack cost a quarter and at this price it seemed half of the smokers found it necessary to spend half of their lunch hour working the room trying to bum smokes, “call for butts” or ask for a drag on someone’s “fag.” The almost automatic response to a request for a drag was, “Don’t nigger lip it.” Yes, racism, conscious and culturally taught, was a sickness with most at this time.

This racial slur was not used frequently or even by everyone, like “fuck” or “shit.” Among the guys I knew best at Harper, the n-word seemed to be used situationally–in the occasional racist joke (First heard where?) or in reference to other high schools which had nearly all black student bodies, schools like Crane, Dunbar and DuSable. By the end of the school year in 1955 this racial epithet was heard with great frequency and uttered with much vehemence.

In warm weather “hard guys” and “bad asses,” such as members of the Sons of Italy, a gang at the top of the male pecking order, used the sleeve of their T-shirts to roll a pack of Luckies or Camels into a sharply cornered badge. The Marciano brothers of the Sons wore this emblen on their shoulders like a logo name tag at a convention. Jim, Red, Sonny Marciano were charismatic, controlled, cool. A slew of skinny wannabes followed their example, but few were able to pull it off. For one thing, they lacked the bicep covering tattoo of the boot of Italy all the Sons wore. Tattoo’s had nothing to do with fashion back then.

There was always some gambling going on during lunch–lagging pennies and nickels on the sidewalks, fumbling with cards and change while playing blackjack or hearts, or joining the circle of craps players in the nearby alley. Red Marciano, or one of the other Sons of Italy, would cut these dice games–taking a slice of each pot for keeping the game moving and making imperial rulings such as reading a die when it came to a skewed rest, “cocked,” on the pitted concrete alley playing surface.

But mostly we stood around talking trash, or at least what passed for it in those days. The smokers flicked ashes vaguely in the direction of the principal’s office. We all postured with the awkwardness of kids working at being men, trying hard to capture a kind of tough yet sophisticated equipoise. We spit a lot, which had a tendency to ruin the pose. But not in the eye of our imaginations.

If you decided to eat instead of smoke or gamble, a quarter bought you a bowl of chili and a Coke, my frequent two course luncheon fare. A suave food critic on the scene dubbed the chili “a bowl of heartburn.” And every bowl of chili I’ve eaten since, from Cincinnati’s Skyline Chili Parlor chain to a TexMex chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas, clicks in this memory.

Sylvester’s chili is not exactly “Rosebud,” but it’s as close as I’ll ever get. I particularly remember wolfing down this magical concoction in winter weather with friends. We would stand outside on the cold sidewalk, stamping our feet, taking off our gloves only long enough to crumble crackers into the steaming bowls–our breathing a visible cloud of chili spices, teenage bravado and raucous laughter. It’s reported that Kit Carson’s last words were “I wish I could live long enough to have one more bowl of chili.” I wish I could live long enough to have one more bowl of chili with those friends. Maybe one of them could tell me what the hell we were laughing about as we stood there freezing our asses.
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A portion of the above was reworked and appeared in an online series on Race in America in the New York Times.

Go Here for NYT article.

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This American Life
487: Harper High School, Part One
FEB 15, 2013
We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances. We found so many incredible and surprising stories, . . .

Go Here for This American Life two part series on Harper HS.

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