My first shower was in June of 1953 at the Southtown YMCA (the “Y”) in Chicago. I was 13. Of course, there were regular baths up to then, but no showers. By September I would be enrolled at Mt. Carmel High School and treated to showers from then on.
The memory of that first shower at the Y is just as vivid as those of other life experiences such as First Communion, the births of siblings, and the first satellite.
I was invited to the Y by some grade school (St. Bernard’s) pals to play some pickup basketball. They told me to bring a change of clothes and a towel and laughed when I asked why. “Because we’ll be taking showers after, you moron!”
Having been advised by my mother, I showed up at the Y on my bike with a change of underwear, t-shirt, socks, and another pair of shorts. The Kroger shopping bag I used to bring my clothes provided my pals with a few grins.
The basketball was fun; the shower with my skinny, naked pals was glorious. Just walk in a large room with 6 shower heads and controls, turn on the water, and adjust the heat. A far, far cry from our one bathtub at home, in which hot water was supplied by the heating system in cold weather, a separate little furnace in warm weather, or more often a huge pot of boiling water transported from the stove to the tub.
Home in June of 1953 was 342 West 61st Place, a single-family dwelling across the street from Englewood High School, then bordered on the north and south by 62nd Street and 61st Place, and on the east and west by Princeton and Stewart Streets. Our back yard was the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR); 4 elevated tracks that guided passenger and freight trains past our house at all hours of the day and night. A few city blocks to the northeast was Englewood Union Station (EUS), where the tracks of the New York Central and Rock Island Railroads crossed the PRR tracks, which meant that PRR trains, often with steam locomotives seemingly as big as our house and often stopping in our back yard to wait for the other trains to clear the tracks ahead. All manner of trains of each of the 3 railroads stopped at EUS to pick up and drop off passengers and freight.
In another article in this blog titled “Ghost Train” I wrote about German prisoners of war who were transported on the tracks in our back yard. I have also written about having to use the elevated track bed to get into and out of my neighborhood that last few years we lived there, when the gangs and the changing racial makeup of the neighborhood caused by “White Flight” made it too dangerous to walk on the sidewalks or even down the middle of the streets.
South Siders will recognize the proximity of that 61st Place address to 63rd Street, which runs all the way across Chicago, from Jackson Park to Midway Airport and beyond, and is chock full of every possible storefront endeavor, from currency exchanges to department stores, from dozens of taverns and liquor stores to clothing stores, from florists to dozens of restaurants and drug stores. There were a least two movie houses at that time: the Southtown and Stratford, featuring a newsreel, 2 or 3 cartoons, and 2 full-length movies for about a quarter ($.25), and sometimes even live performances known as “Vaudeville.” (I once saw Frank Sinatra at the State Theater, downtown, which required a trip on the “El,” the elevated commuter train that dropped into the earth to become a subway train downtown.)
The Southtown Theater, which was a short bike ride from home, featured indoor displays that included fountains, a small pond with swans and ducks, and glassed-in dioramas of famous scenes in Chicago history; e.g., the Chicago Fire and the 1893 Exposition.
Mentioning the Southtown Theater reminds me of my pals and I buying sacks full of White Castle “sliders,” the original sliders, for something like 15 cents each, and selling as we walked down the theater aisle. The aroma was irresistable, and theater-goers paid enough for them for us to make quite a profit and pay for our other adventures. Of course, the ushers and other theater employees didn’t care for our selling those little, tasty hamburgers in the theater and we’d have to dodge them. Didn’t much help our cause that we snuck into the theater by having one guy pay to get in and then open an exit door for the rest of us, the ones with the White Castle sacks.
I have often remarked that I consider having survived 17 years and 5 months in Chicago and graduating from Mt. Carmel H.S. two of my life’s greatest achievements, ranking right up there with still having a taste for those White Castle burgers.