By David Kherdian
In a not so small Midwestern town like Racine each separate neighborhood transforms itself into a miniature village that becomes known to itself, while at the same time lending its protected identity to the city that shelters it. It is from here that its storied life begins. Midwesterners have always seen themselves as insignificant players in the unfolding drama of our nation. It is for this reason that its neighborhoods have taken on an exaggerated importance in the lives of its inhabitants, and why each of them finds it necessary to make their our own heroes and myths, their national heroes seemingly too far away to be truly believable.
It is from this private, insular world, the world of my own neighborhood, that I entered life, and where, both alone and with all the others, I began to explore the streets and bridges and man-made structures of this, our place, that is also defined in large part by our great lake and the winding river that lent us its name. These were the waters that anointed us by supporting the life of the city and all its neighborhoods, and this is where our growing family met, on the beaches and piers of Lake Michigan, and along the wandering river banks of Root River, with its pavilions, benches, bubblers, and open parks.
Neighborhoods, for children at least, are determined by the young players themselves, their daytime adventures, and nighttime games, that in our neighborhood included the raiding of gardens, stealing custard from the cans left to cool at night behind Kummel Bakery on State Street, while all the while making sling shots, repairing inner tubes to inflate and take to the beach, building shoe shine boxes, with which to roam the nighttime streets, shyly entering taverns with a neighborhood buddy, that for me was either Howie Sell or Lotch Oglanian, our price for a shine: one thin dime.
We stayed close to home when we raided gardens, since these were the neighborhood gardens familiar to us. Tomatoes and spuds our favorites to raid, and often we would meet up at Hansen’s backyard, where a bonfire would be in progress, to which we would contribute our spuds. Butsey Hansen or Bill Zaehler, Jr. would play their harmonicas, while we sang a Western hillbilly song, or just howled at the moon, enjoying our plunder and petty crime, our comradeship making us feel special because we were, willy-nilly, making our own little mark in time.
My street was Superior Street, linked by a broken chain to five additional streets bearing that name. Our Superior Street seemed to end at our own dead end block, but I learned later that it had in fact continued, not forward from the base of our dead end street, but instead several blocks further on, where it began acquiring additional segments.
Our block long Superior Street had begun at State Street, which was the street that divided North from South in Racine, and served as one of the western boundary lines of our neighborhood, running west to Doud Street (becoming Union on the other side of State), to include Liberty Street one block below State, with our neighborhood ending at the State Street Bridge Bridge. Our home on Superior Street was the second to last house at the end of the block, but for us dead end meant only the secession of vehicular traffic, because of the rickety wooden stairway that led below to a barren dirt courtyard bordered on each side by one and two story factories, before opening onto Prospect Street and our expanding neighborhood beyond, up to and ending at Hamilton Street. Facing the last six or seven homes on our Superior Street block was an abandoned factory attached to Porter’s ongoing furniture repair shop, where our neighbor, Dickie Steberl worked and learned the carpenter trade.
The noise from all these factories didn’t annoy us, because by now the raucous music of the many industries around town had become a constant, erratic background music in our lives, not to mention the smells, particularly Wink Soap Company, just beyond our neighborhood, and from there all the way to the tannery beside Root River on 6th Street. The city had long ago accepted these sounds and smells as an irrefutable condition of its life, because these were the work places where most of our fathers spent their unending years of hard labor.
Just below our block, on Prospect Street, was our own neighborhood blacksmith shop, a miniature factory of its own, set back from but opening onto Prospect Street, and although noisy, it was not as loud and angry sounding as the foundries and factories, with their frequently opened doorways inviting us to come look inside, as passive participants to its fiery contents and sweltering heat, where we could watch the busy, sweaty workers toiling inside.
The home of our next door neighbor, the Zaehlers, was not ten feet distance from our own, housing Bill, his wife Clara, and their two children, Bill, Jr. who was older than me, as his sister Deanna was younger, although she in turn was older than my kid sister, Virginia. Uncle Bill, as he was known to us, worked in a print shop in Chicago, a part time fisherman who poled his nets out to dry in his backyard, which ran parallel to our own, meeting at the terminal point of the Hansen’s backyard, who were his relatives. Our yard connected us to the Giragosians, whose two story house contained their grocery store, fronting on La Salle, a grocery store that would come to play a crucial role in the life of our neighborhood.
Our backyard was full of my father’s many growing things, contrasting dramatically with our neighbor’s on either side. My father had come from a family of peasant farmers in Adana, Turkey, that we called the Homeland because we were Armenians, not Turks. This was after the Massacres, that both my mother and father had survived. Our grape arbor, built by the German family who owned the house before us, became the entryway to our yard, where my mother visited at times with her friends, and where I cleaned the fish I caught, and later dressed the wild game I had bagged in Scouts Woods. My kid sister had her birthday parties there, but her favorite place in our yard was the swing we had made for her in the plum tree. Our tidy vegetable growing garden was divided by a wooden fence from the trafficked, weedless Zaehler yard, with its junk autos, nets poled out or stacked against our fence, with a broken down shack in back on our property, that had once been a garage, but became a rental at fifty cents a month for Bill and his minnow and crab tanks.
The homes of the Giragosians and Hansens were fronted on La Salle Street. To get there I would usually pass through Zaehler’s backyard, which was the common thoroughfare for anyone living on our block. When not using Zaehler’s yard, I went through the Giragosian yard, where a separating mulberry tree stood, separating our properties. In season I would stop and eat the toots, (Armenian for mulberry), which I thought of as our own fruit because of its popularity in the homeland.
Next door to the Giragosian’s lived the Webers, whose chestnut tree grew majestically atop their raised lawn, that we raided every fall without needing to ask permission. We waited for the first cold snap of winter, causing the withering leaves to fall, exposing their chestnut bounty to our eyes.
Just across the street was a narrow brick-lined passageway named Gideon Court, a T-shaped enclave of individual houses that permitted foot and bicycle travel only. It was a strangely attractive anomaly, holding a special appeal for us, in part because we were unable to name what that feeling was. We must have thought of it as eccentric, in part because the people that lived there always struck us as odd, in particular the one Armenian family that lived among the six or seven houses on that plot, they being clearly the oddest Armenian family in our community, and so it seemed fitting that they had found this setting for themselves.
Gideon Court, when entered from La Salle Street, exited onto Marquette Street, a short block away, with Gideon Court morphing into West Street—going from red brick to everyday asphalt. Just beyond the corner house on West Street, there were a string of apartment-like dwellings, running perpendicularly from front to back. The next house on that block was uniquely situated to face the first of these apartments, with a windowless basement opened at one end where a makeshift door led into its secret, darkened quarters. Dwelling there, alone and forsaken, lived Crazy Eli, as he was known to adults, but named by us, Kookoolala. The sunken hollow that led to his “home” was clearly off limits, because he was the only bona fide madman in our neighborhood.
The next structure on West Street, a two story brick building had its entrance on Geneva Street, housing a bakery run by an Armenian man who sometimes gave us day old sweet rolls on our way to or from school. Turning left from there, a short block away, stood Garfield School where Geneva Street had T’d with Milwaukee Avenue. On our return home from Garfield at the end of the school day, we often played marbles, which consisted of taking turns with one marble chasing another until the thrown marble struck the other marble, to then be turned over to the victor. Should one of our marbles tumble off the sidewalk and enter Kookoolala’s forbidden dirt cavity entryway, we would be forced to leave it behind. Staring down at our abandoned marble, motionless, until other classmates showed up, when, gathering courage as a group, we would begin shouting down loudly, “Kookoolala is kookoo, Kookoolala is kookoo,” until at once he would burst out from his door, charging after us with an axe flaying over his head, grunting and bellowing in a crazed mixture of guttural sounds that terrified us as much as his axe, as we ran with frenzied excitement in all directions.
Beside Garfield School stood an old ramshackle storefront that had been an Armenian Coffee House during my early school years, inhabited by refugees of the Massacres, who gathered there to share their sorrows, play backgammon and drink Turkish coffee. Rognerud’s filling station was next door, at the corner of State Street. Across the street, and just around the corner from there, at Marquette and State, stood our one and only neighborhood drug store, owned by and named after Mr. Derse himself, our friendly, purveyor of drugs and comics, with a horseshoe soda fountain in back, where for a quarter we could sit down and have a malted milk shake, soda crackers on the side. Horlick’s plant for the making of malt was one of the more famous industries in our town.
Across the street, also on the corner of State and Marquette stood the Thomas Hotel, and next door Dadian’s shoe repair shop that was squeezed between the Thomas Hotel and Dania Hall, which was once the hub of the Danish population, who were the first settlers of our neighborhood, but who were long gone to the faraway West Side, leaving there hall behind for rentals, and with their church, just two blocks away, now the property of the Armenians, who had renamed it St. Mesrob’s Armenian Apostolic Church.
Crossing Marquette Street from Derse’s, onto State Street, the first storefront was Houman’s Fish Market, with fresh catches always on display in their storefront window, sitting invitingly on crushed ice. Next door was Rice’s Bicycle Shop, and further down the hardware store that kept its bamboo fishing poles in a circular tube on the sidewalk for their customers to test before making a final selection. One block further, after crossing La Salle Street, came Superior Street, with the cavernous Public Fruit Market opening onto both streets, where everyone in the neighborhood shopped for fruits and vegetables. Huron Street came next, and then Douglas Avenue, a main thoroughfare, that began at that corner, running north all the way out of town. Our own neighborhood stopped just two blocks from there on Jackson Street—one block beyond Prospect Street—Jackson’s lone block ending at La Salle Street, thus completing the jagged rectangular boundary of our neighborhood. Lotch Oglanian lived on this block, as did Dick Kizewic, the Kaprelians, and Larry Bekken, all of whom had a place in my life and later in my work.
At the corner of State and Douglas Avenue stood the J. I. Case office building, and across the street its factory, the industrial giant of our town, along with Johnson’s Wax. The long first block of Douglas Avenue, before it reached Prospect Street, was the home of numerous businesses. Nearest the corner, Charlie Margosian’s tavern, that catered to African-Americans, with a similar tavern next door, occupying a building that had once been the Massis Hotel, named after Mt. Ararat’s straddling sister mountain in far off Armenia. Also on this block an Armenian coffee house that Lotch and I would enter with our shoe shine boxes, and after much questioning and pandering we’d be assigned to a customer, finally departing, if we were lucky, with a half dollar between us.
As children we often walked this long first block, from State Street to Prospect Street, but it never really touched us, as did all the other streets in our neighborhood, probably because it catered to the needs of adults, not us. But there were other reasons as well, that were hard to put our finger on, having to do with its emotional remoteness, not only because of its people, but because it was barren of trees and grass. State Street, seemed to fit our shoes and swagger best, as we sauntered past all the doorways and vacant lots, feeling at home among familiar neighbors.
Following its own jagged line, our neighborhood’s eastern perimeter became the Pugh’s coal office, corner of Ontario and State; from here, we turned off State Street to walk through the coal yard bordering Root River, with its row of factories on the right, ending at the condemned bridge just below the YMCA, our usual destination, that bridge being both our neighborhood boundary line and our shortcut to downtown. It was our world, that we alone traveled, a shortcut that took us past the coal yards beside the winding river, until we reached the rickety wooden bridge, that we crossed to enter the city lights, that were initiating us into its grown up life. This would be our pathway to the movies and the YMCA, also the Park Arcade, with its pinball machines downstairs, and the Ace Grill, where we shot pool, before returning home in the dark, back over our bridge, listening for the drop forge hammer to resound and send an orange glow into the night sky.
Opposite Dodge Street and the coal yards, Ontario Street continued the line of the eastern perimeter of our neighborhood, the first long block ending at Umbaji Park, our name for Colbert Park, that was also once known as Bum’s Park, but named by us after the old, forlorn Armenian man who seemed to have made it his home, occupying always the one lone bench that sat at the top of the lawn, that we’d pass on our way to Lake Michigan, stopping to quench our thirst at the bubbler located at the bottom of the tiny triangular park.
As we got into our teenage years, our interest in food revolved exclusively around hamburgers, that had for us become an American fix. Hamburgers were more than just a food, they were an essential part of the American scene. This was in the years before pizza took its stranglehold on American fast food consumption.
Our own Hambuger Heaven was Kewpees, where we went first with our parents, most likely alone with our mothers, shopping for clothes or school supplies, followed next by the White Tower, the perfect hamburger joint for us. Not long after came the excitement of occasionally driving with a carfull of friends to the A & W stand on the South Side. By then pool playing had also entered our lives. The Star Restaurant on State Street, between Superior and La Salle, was the first such destination, with its pool parlor at the rear of the restaurant. It was there we first encountered State Street Harry, the pool shark, who sometimes gave us tips between his money games, consenting to play us for the price of the rack—10 cents—that always came out of one of our pockets,—and happily, because it came with the privilege of watching him at close range. State Street Harry smoked cigars, which, combined with his pool playing skills and smart dress, made him one of the legendary characters of our neighborhood, that included United States Tony and also Bill Miller, who fixed our radios, coming into our homes, dressed in a well-worn suit, with his companionable cigar, that he smoked with elegant ease and expertise.
In our late teens we went for our hamburger fixes to the tiny restaurant, just below street level, at the rear of Thomas Hotel. Sitting in one of the booths we’d look out at the busy traffic on Marquette Avenue—Howie Sell, Mikey Kaiserlian, Dickie Steberl and myself, seeing ourselves as Hollywood cronies of the silver screen, holding forth with our deluxe, not just every day hamburgers, because these were our evenings together on the town, harboring our newly minted dreams, away from our families, beneath the hotel’s blinking neon lights.
The circle completed, the boundaries of the neighborhood navigated, its impact on our lives, or at least my own, revealed, I return to my memory home on Superior Street, to sum up the lasting influences of our own neighborhood within the larger neighborhood of our hometown world, to remember first Bill Zaehler and his passion for life, a living magnet, drawing friends, relatives, and even strangers to his busy and cluttered backyard, where I would wander about, visiting his bait shack in back, with minnow tanks, tubs of crabs, and deep buckets of earth worms, also for sale. Whatever it meant to all the others, it was for me a living museum—Uncle Bill’s courtyard of magical life unfolding in ordinary time.
Bill’s love of music, if not as passionate as his love for the mystery and magic of fishing, was pursued by him with his usual mockery for material gain. Their band, that he was the drummer for, practiced in his home every Wednesday night, the music passing through his wall into ours. For us children in particular, he was the hero of the block, a legend unto himself, manifesting by style and substance, traits I could not find in any of my own people.
As my personality began to form, I was evaluating myself against all the influences that attracted me, as well as the conditions I felt had stifled me. Like Uncle Bill I was a fisherman, and although I didn’t seine for minnows, or catch perch in a net, I did fish for crabs at Island Park with liver purchased from the Boranian grocery store on State Street, around the corner from Garfield School. Uncle Bill fished by boat, unlike those of us who were limited to fishing with poles. I kept my ready-strung bamboo poles above the rain gutter of our sloping house’s roof that faced my mother’s arbor. At one word from Uncle Bill that the perch were running, I would make a dash for my poles, jump on my bike and go racing off to the pier.
Uncle Bill had taken a hold on my imagination because he was unlike anyone else I knew, strangely illusive and mysterious, with a devil may care attitude. His goofy, unselfconscious humor, only enhanced his eccentric manner. He could also be moody and aloof. But above all, he was unpredictable and impossible to peg down. Being different had become for me an important virtue, as well as a growing necessity, in my aim to live a life that was truly my own.
My father was an artist of another kind. His art had emerged from both his deep sensitivity, and a sensibility that found order and purpose in the artful preparation and presentation of food. That was the art he had mastered. He was a natural, intuitive cook, who had never studied or read a book on the subject. Perhaps he had learned his trade by osmosis, while a dishwasher at the Thomas Hotel on State Street, from where he was drafted into the service, becoming in time a cook for the Army’s brass. I would like to think that it was through the combined influence of my father and Uncle Bill that I became an artist myself, because like them, I was indifferent to material gain, and had my own demons to conquer. I was seeking to escape the burden of sorrow and defeat that had crushed my people. I did not want to reside in the residue of that tragedy, but to make a real life out of the life I had dreamed for myself, that I was slowly beginning to bring into focus.
My people had come to the right place, beginning anew in America, by refounding the race on the precious soil of freedom. And this was where I belonged. But with this came an obligation. I felt it was up to me to exonerate the losses of my people by developing something in myself that would bring these losses into some kind of balance, by giving our sorrow and suffering the meaning it deserved through an act of transformation and ultimate transcendence. I needed this for all of us, and I needed it for myself. By the age of fifteen I knew that life was a gift, with the realization that this gift was not free but must be paid for.
Thus my life began, with my neighborhood locked inside me, to nourish me and remind me that I was the son of that soil, so alien at the start, until it became in time the permanent ground of my art.
Dear Facebook friends this little fable of my youth is real and true and was written just for you and you and you—with love, and exists in chapbook form, available at the Racine Historical Museum, Cobbblestone and possible Mileagers, for those who happen to be there.