With Roy by my side I feel like the whole of Chicago is family. ‘In Pilsen, I’m Mexican, on Milwaukee Avenue, I’m Polish, and here in Cermak-Chinatown, I’m Chinese.’ We are in a Chinese diner where every dish costs a dollar fifty. Roy nibbles at the deep-fried chicken feet with relish, one after the other. She is seventy. Born in Dallas to a Russian-Jewish mother and a Native American father, she moved to Chicago when she was little. Twice widowed, she has a daughter and a son, and has worked for the immigration authorities for thirty-five years. Over lunch, Roy tells me that the Koreans stick together and have established a monopoly of the laundry business, that many Poles work for Jewish families, and that she’s never had so much money coming in a month as she does now – on the fingers of her left hand, she counts off the various pension and insurance payments she receives – not counting the work she still does for Dr Hoy, the lawyer. Roy knows how to turn foreigners on visitor visas into American citizens.
Dr Hoy’s door is closed. Consultation by appointment only. But a face suddenly looms up behind the glass. We’re disturbing him at work, but Dr Hoy seems pleased that Roy has dropped in.
There hasn’t been any crime to speak of in Chinatown for as long as he remembers. ‘Our Chinatown is manageable,’ he says. ‘They all know each other and the police too, of course.’
A couple of gangs from New York tried to get a foothold here, but with no luck. Dr Hoy sees the children of well-off parents as a problem though. ‘The young ones have never worked. They hang around and get stupid ideas in their heads.’
The police are good, he says, but the FBI is a joke. ‘All those qualifications on paper, but just not streetwise,’ he says. They had him under surveillance for a year, and also watched one of his clients for over a year. ‘Think of how much that cost! You should have seen how they acted! How frustrated they must have been after that year!’ He splutters with indignation as he tells us how amateurish their disguises were. ‘Only kids would have fallen for it.’ Two FBI agents dressed as a tourist couple had ‘accompanied’ him shopping, but been trailed in turn by a horde of youngsters. ‘You’re being followed,’ Dr Hoy whispered to them as he passed, and the agents reacted immediately – the woman walked away into the road and the man stayed by the building. ‘Real professionals.’
Dr Hoy talks about prejudice in the well-heeled suburbs, where blacks, Chinese or Latinos are used as scapegoats to further the careers of politicians and lawyers. It sounds like a film set in the Deep South. ‘No,’ he says, ‘it happens very often here.’ He taps the calendar with his pen and is surprised himself to see that just such an appeal proceeding is taking place that day.
Roy is leading the conversation really – I just have to listen. She greets Dr Hoy’s replies with a melodic ‘hmm, hmm, hmm’ that rises and falls before ending in a low ‘o–kay’ that serves as the prelude to her next question.
‘He wants to find out about Al Capone,’ she blurts out, laughing.
‘Before “Scarface Al” came here, twenty men with machine guns marched into that house over there,’ Dr Hoy says, pointing at a building at the corner of the crossroads. ‘Ten in this direction and ten in the other. I’ve heard that from eyewitnesses. But if you want to know more, you’d better ask Mr Young – he’s a legend.’
As we say goodbye, I ask Dr Hoy if I can take a photo of him. He shakes his head apologetically and smiles. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
Mr Young is not just a legend – he is also a successful businessman. Starting with one tiny outfit, he has built a small empire of gift shops. Two teenagers are standing in front of the swords on sale, discussing their merits. I am looking at a large coral necklace when Mr Young pops up in front of me – nearly eighty years old, short and gaunt, wearing a peaked cap. His mother was German but he grew up in a Chinese family.
Mr Young takes us out for some food – here we are at the same table we were sitting at two hours ago. The service is just as speedy as before, but this time we are treated like VIPs.
Mr Young has only just been discharged from hospital, three days ago. He is having difficulty speaking. He and Roy have never met, but discover in a matter of minutes that they have several acquaintances in common, who they chat about. I find his speech hard to understand. He swallows a lot of his words the way old men do. But the expressions passing over his face are so beautiful and his light-blue eyes are so bright that it is enough for me to look at him. Now and then Mr Young turns to me and says something in German. He spent the Second World War working in offices all over, from Casablanca to Berlin. It took him only couple of months in each country to learn the language well enough to make himself understood. He had dreamt of being a diplomat after the war, but his poor education made that impossible. And he didn’t have time to catch up on school. He had to earn money.
He pulls some photos of his family out of his briefcase. His second marriage started out as a marriage of convenience. Roy nods knowingly. Mr Young and his wife had been neighbours until she suggested to him one day that she accompany him on a business trip. A separate hotel room wouldn’t be necessary… He shows us photos of their daughter.
‘What about Al Capone?’ Roy asks.
Mr Young waves the question away. But then he tells us a story after all: he once saw a man spit into his coffee cup at the table next to him in a diner. When the waiter came over to tell him not to do that, the man threw the cup at him, stood up and walked out without paying the bill. The waiter followed, and a fight started – suddenly, a shot rang out and the man fell to the ground, dead. One of Al Capone’s men had shot the troublemaker from the building on the other side of the road, without even getting up from his rocking chair. ‘Without even standing up, just like that, over a cup of coffee,’ Mr Young says, his eyes dulled in an instant. ‘Even the police didn’t bother to turn up.’ A little silence falls over our table.
‘Why Chicago?’ I ask later.
‘I’ve never asked myself that.’
When we leave, we find that the bill has been paid.
‘Say hello to Berlin!’
We get stuck in the afternoon jam on our way to Milwaukee Avenue in a taxi. Roy directs the Indian driver to take a roundabout route. When we finally reach Milwaukee Avenue, we are a couple of thousand numbers too far along. Roy swears. She and the taxi driver have a heated, but always polite, argument. Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at the Travel Service office.
‘Please don’t give my real name – so many people know me!’ The woman laughs again. ‘I have so many friends in Germany! Just call me Samantha.’
Samantha is Polish. For her, everything started with a dream. Every week for three months, she dreamt that she was rowing a boat around the Statue of Liberty. ‘I asked someone what that meant and he said, “You have to travel to America.” But getting a visa was like winning the lottery. So I went to the authorities, filled in the forms and handed them in and they told me to wait – five minutes later I was holding a visa. There were over a hundred people there and I got the visa!’
The voyage from Gdansk to Montreal took thirteen days. There were buses waiting for the arrivals, but the one to New York was out of the question because of her dream – ‘I never got there!’ A man who she had got to know on the ship said she could stay rent-free at his house, which was in Chicago. So Samantha got on the bus to Chicago. Her travel budget was ten dollars.
She started as a babysitter and cleaner, and learnt English. She met the man who became her husband at a travel agent’s. ‘I saw him and I fell in love.’ They have been married for almost twenty-five years.
Why does she live in Little Poland? ‘I can speak Polish here, and there’s a Catholic church. There’s the bread too. You must go next door and buy the bread. It’s the best bread in Chicago. And there are Polish newspapers. But many people are moving away from here, further out.’ Samantha hesitates, as if she is ashamed of telling me the reason. ‘It’s because so many Latinos and blacks live here now. It makes everything worse.’
Samantha goes to Poland often. ‘I just went again, for two days!’ She starts laughing, as if she’s just heard the funniest joke. ‘Two days!’ she exclaims again, holding two fingers up as if she is making the victory sign. Then she picks up the phone. She’s speaking Polish. The customers coming in greet her in Polish too before sitting down to wait on the chairs by the wall.
‘O–kay,’ Roy says. It’s the sign that it’s time to go.
While we’re on the bus to Old Town and more and more blacks and Latinos get on, I wonder aloud why Lucy wanted to be called Samantha.
‘Maybe she’s a spy,’ Roy guesses. She bursts into laughter so loud that I’m sure that everyone is going to be staring at us. But no one on this bus takes any notice.
‘You’re from Germany? Which part?’ the saleswoman asks after our opening words. ‘Ich bin Berlinerin!’ she shouts, as if she wants the whole room to know it. She is a small woman, very pale. While she gets a bag out of the display window and waits for us to inspect it, we hear her story: she married a GI in the early 1950s and came to Chicago with him. ‘Big mistake. I’d be getting a proper pension now in Germany. It’s much better to work there: vacations, pay, health insurance. That’s all hopeless here.’ But what about the city? ‘Ach, Chicago! Winter all the time, wet and windy. You’ve got to go down south.’ She hands the bag to the cashier. ‘I would never move to Chicago again,’ she says. ‘But you’ll never get a bag like this anywhere in Germany, never – or only at three times the price.’ She walks over to the next customer.
‘This is the city of the big shoulders. Chicago is solid. This is where it all happens, grain, meat, steel…’ Rüdiger is in his early fifties and has worked at the exchange for almost a quarter of a century. His family is originally from East Prussia and he was born on the road when they had to flee the region. He has never known his father.
Their ship landed in New York on Christmas Eve in 1951, and they started off lodging at a farm in Michigan. The family sounds like a storybook success. His grandfather moved to Chicago with one dollar in his pocket and started working on building sites as a foreman. (‘Polier,’ I say after Rüdiger describes what his grandfather did. ‘I haven’t heard that word since my grandfather died!’ he says.) The grandfather earned good money and bought his first house after three years. It was directly opposite a synagogue, so the grandparents used to do the housework for their neighbours on Jewish holidays.
‘We all went to good schools and to college, and we all have good jobs and our own houses. We’re doing well.’ Rüdiger says this almost wonderingly, as if he can’t quite believe it himself.
When I meet him at the Visitor Center at the Chicago Board of Trade at 9 a.m. on Monday, he is wearing a blue jacket with a badge that looks like a caretaker’s uniform. ‘It’s quite simple really: some people want to sell and some people want to buy, because they think they can sell it for more money. It’s pure capitalism.’ We look down at the crowd of traders who are standing in various large enclosures, called pits. Then I’m allowed to go with him onto the floor for the moment when the shouting starts, from one second to the other, at exactly 9.30 a.m. Wheat is brought and sold several times over even before it has been sown. ‘Movement is the main thing in the market.’
We walk from one hall to the other and from one pit to the other, and Rüdiger explains what is traded where. The bond futures pit is the largest in the world. Rüdiger spent years standing in the crush here from seven in the morning till two in the afternoon. ‘I didn’t have time to show anyone around then.’ The more you can assert your physical presence here, the better your chances. The men and women shout and gesticulate, their hands giving their offers in a deaf-mute display: a fist is a full cent, the middle and ring fingers splayed like scissors is three-quarters of a cent, and so on.
Rüdiger points at the figures for May corn – he’s losing a lot of money at the moment. But he is perfectly calm – it doesn’t seem to matter to him at all. The weather channel is showing on the screens above us. Screaming men and women jump up and down beside us. Someone is sitting on the floor about a metre away from us, leafing through a newspaper.
It is not Rüdiger’s explanations but his tone of voice – only possible in American English – that presents the exchange as both a wonderful invention and foolish child’s play.
‘Isn’t it possible to pull off the most outrageous scams here?’ I ask.
‘Once or twice perhaps, but no more than that.’
It’s only then that the principle of the exchange begins to dawn on me.
Two days later, we go to dinner at Rüdiger’s house. He drives us past the Chicago Bulls stadium, with its statue of Michael Jordan. It must be pretty strange for a man to pass a statue of himself on his way to training. A couple of metres along, the central locking clicks like in a movie kidnap scene. We’re driving through the West Side. Only poor blacks live here. Rüdiger wants us to see this part of Chicago, this disaster area, too.
The windows in the blocks are broken or boarded up. Big cars, many of them damaged, are parked outside the dilapidated houses in the side streets, and hookers wait on street corners. Between two wooden houses, a kiosk with a tiny window looks like a bunker. Rüdiger gets anxious when we get stuck at a red light for too long. An old woman, practically toothless, holding a shopping bag in each hand, shouts something at us. She laughs scornfully. She is only a few steps away when the light turns green. There are police in the schools here, and the pupils have to go through a metal detector, like at an airport. Catholic schools offer the only way out, but you have to pay to attend them. ‘There are hundreds of initiatives, but most of the teachers have already given up. The city just demolishes the broken-down buildings,’ Rüdiger says in German. It’s impossible to place his accent. ‘But even if you get into the school, you still have to survive the walk there.’
We are suddenly in Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright built his first house and where Hemingway was born and grew up. The scene changes from one side of the street to the other. Whites are in the majority again. We pass a huge Jewish cemetery and arrive in Riverside. The trees arch over the street like a cathedral. A Wright house has been on sale here for months, for seven hundred thousand dollars. ‘The windows alone are worth that!’ Rüdiger says. He has been to see the house, but does not have the seven hundred thousand dollars.
‘What would happen if a black person bought it?’
‘Jesus!’ Rüdiger says. ‘A black guy would never buy a house here.’
‘He just wouldn’t!’ The neighbourhood wouldn’t suit him, Rüdiger says, ‘but the schools here are good.’
We pass one dream house after the other, with green expanses and tall trees in between. The roads curve gently like paths in a park. Rüdiger’s house is one of the smallest. ‘It looks much bigger from the outside than it really is,’ he says.
His wife Noelle’s family is French, but she was born in Chicago. She works half-days in a school library. ‘I love this job!’ she says.
Rüdiger was drafted into the Marines, but did not have to go to Vietnam. After that, he did a degree in history and worked as a teacher. He started working at the exchange in 1975, first at the switchboard, then as a runner taking telephone offers to the pit. He started trading in 1980. ‘I borrowed money from family and from other traders – everything was sealed with a handshake. And it went on from there.’
He had five or six good years, from 1984 to 1989 or 1990. He made money then. The house could be bigger and the trading profits higher, but he wants to keep his risk low so that he can pay for good college educations for both kids.
‘And how does it feel when you sit at home waiting, wondering if you’ll be lucky or unlucky?’
Noelle waves away the questions. They never speak about it – even when things are going well.
‘But how do you manage? Surely it’s not possible to make a profit all the time over twenty years?’
‘This is the city with big shoulders. That’s Chicago for you.’
I have ten minutes with Francisco Barajas, a young Mexican. Francisco works for the UNO, the United Neighbourhood Organization of Chicago, which mainly helps immigrant Latinos to settle in, but also anyone else who comes to them. One of their many activities stands out: the campaign for parents to ‘Take Ten Minutes with Your Child!’ Immigrants often juggle jobs and have hardly any time for their children. Through schools, the UNO has reached out to about 7,000 families who have signed ‘family contracts’ to take part in activities at museums, theatres or at the zoo.
Francisco has a degree in Industrial Psychology from Mexico City, and has lived in Chicago for eight years. He spent time in Miami and Boston before that ‘but Chicago is cosmopolitan, clean and not overcrowded. Best of all, Chicago has proper seasons. You really feel the spring here, and the summer – and of course the winter.’
Edith picks us up in her car. Near the ‘Chicago’ ‘L’ station, she stops to show us a few galleries. The former industrial quarter has now become so fashionable that artists and gallery owners have started looking for space in other areas because the rents are rising. At the Fassbender Gallery, Edith introduces us as ‘people from my town’.
Edith was eight when her family left Germany in 1939. Before that, her father was imprisoned in Buchenwald twice. After he was released the second time, a farmer hid him until the family received a US visa from an uncle in Detroit. All her other relatives in Germany were killed.
Like many other artists, Edith lives in Pilsen, a Latino area not far from downtown. We drive through streets with empty lots where buildings have been torn down. In front of the houses that are still standing – impossible to tell if anyone still lives in them – the scene resembles a flea market. A couple of black people are inspecting spare parts of some kind. Three or four metres of graffiti stretch along an endless wall, above which the ‘L’ trains rumble. Much of the graffiti is faded or has crumbled away – little of it is new – but Diego Rivera would still have enjoyed it.
‘That’s where I live.’ Edith points at her house, which used to be a stable. Half of it belongs to her. Surrounded by a wall, the brick box with glass bricks at the sides doesn’t look too welcoming. When she operates the remote control, the entryway opens to reveal a more homely aspect: a front garden and flowers even, though they are on the neighbour’s side. We walk through a glass door and find ourselves in a gigantic studio. A wooden staircase leads to a mezzanine level where the living space is. We sit the open-plan kitchen and sitting room. The bedroom is separated off with discarded office furniture.
‘No one in my family is religious. They don’t want to know.’ She observes the Sabbath though, and is kosher. Edith looks ten or fifteen years younger than she is. She has two children and four grandchildren. All of them are blond, so she is the odd one out with her curly black and grey hair. She has lived alone since her husband died.
When she was invited to Altenburg by ‘her town’, a woman came up to her and showed her a photo: two girls holding their Zuckertüten, their first-day-of-school goody bags. The schoolfriends were meeting again more than sixty years later. Edith no longer spoke German and found it difficult to understand, and her friend did not speak English.
Edith tells us about a dream in which she saw a man sitting on a wheelbarrow. She thought she knew him, but did not know who he was.
She rang her father up and told him about the dream. It turned out that the man was a pedlar who Edith’s mother had provided food and clean laundry for when he was in town. That phone conversation opened up the memories for her, and started the dialogue with her father about their time in Germany.
‘I don’t want to lead the life of a victim like my father did.’ She does not claim reparation payments from Germany, nor does her brother. Her father suffered from panic attacks from the late 1950s onwards, and never went out except to present himself at the German embassy once a year, so as not to risk losing the payments due to him as a Jewish victim.
To overcome her fear, and in the face of resistance and incomprehension from everyone around her, Edith travelled to West Berlin in 1984, then to East Berlin, and, secretly, onwards to Altenburg and Buchenwald. ‘I had to do that.’
She took her father’s tallis, his prayer shawl, to Buchenwald. ‘He was alive – but he led the life of a victim, so he was really already dead.’ Her eyes fill with tears and she apologizes, but continues speaking.
As an artist, Edith is known for her abstract sculptures made up of different pieces of wood – quite apart from their beauty, they embody a wonderful sense of equilibrium. The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art has a few of her most beautiful pieces. She was a painter before she was a sculptor, and now she works almost exclusively on installations. ‘My real work is probably to talk to young people,’ she says. In Altenburg, she visited a school together with her schoolfriend, and spoke to a class. She wants to go again.
And now we get to the point. We have a mutual friend, an artist in New York. ‘Why do you live in Chicago and not in New York?’ I ask.
‘In New York you have no time for art. You have to earn money to stay there. Here you can really make art. You need three times less money here. It’s true!’
Dr Ronne Hartfield is Executive Director of the Art Institute, and one of the most prominent experts on museum education in the US. ‘I thought I would die at forty, that’s why I did everything so early. Every day after forty was a gift.’ Ronne is retiring, and has half an hour for us in between two retirement parties.
She was born in Chicago’s South Side. Her Native American mother was a housewife, and her black father was a factory worker. Ronne was a wunderkind who could write when she was three years old. At sixteen she graduated from college, where she studied history, theology and literature. She spent nineteen years on her PhD on stone as a metaphor in Neruda’s ‘The Heights of Machu Picchu’.
Her French husband is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Chicago. They lived like hippies in the beginning, then they had four daughters (including twins) and Ronne stayed at home for almost twelve years. Despite this, she was made Professor of Comparative Literature soon after, and eventually dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She moved into museum work after that.
For a long time, the couple put all their money into their children’s education. In a soft voice, Ronne proudly lists the top universities that her daughters have attended. Her study is filled with books, posters and a mind-boggling array of photographs and trophies. The list of her professional memberships, teaching positions and honours (she even has a medal from the president) fills a closely printed sheet of paper.
None of that matters during our conversation, but it is present all the same. The conversation goes from Neruda to other writers and she tells us about her visit to Hans Küng in Germany. She photocopies one of her longer poems for us, as the opportunity presents itself, then it’s time for her to go.
What about Chicago?
‘Everything here is first class: the museums, the jazz, the symphony orchestra, the universities, the architecture. People of every skin colour live here, and we can afford big apartments and even find a parking space in front of our building. Nowhere else on earth has all that, believe me.’