Eddy Harrington with his aunt. Birmingham, 1949.
Road, road, road, O!
On the no’thern road.
These Mississippi towns ain’t
Fit fer a hoppin’ toad.
— Langston Hughes, “Bound No’th Blues”
August 12, 1950
“Where you headed, man?”
15-year-old Eddy Harrington climbs into a cab for the first time in his life; just so happens he knows where he’s headed. He’s fresh off the Greyhound from Birmingham and it’s muggy in Chicago, Saturday night. It was cooler back in Alabama; he’d always heard the North spoken of in terms of heat voided out and that’s the first thing to surprise him about Chicago: a torridity that seems to come from the city itself, pressing down from the smog and up from the concrete, rising through the street grates and swirling among the throngs of men and women swarming in and out of the Randolph Street bus station.
There is a stench to the city, is the other thing. Whereas back down South the scents had some manners—announced themselves and ambled up to the nose in single-file fashion—the city delivers an olfactory assault: exhaust fumes, vomit, slaughterhouse refuse, deep fried batter and never-washed clothes; burnt rubber, reefer, piss and perspiration, blood and shit and Chanel #5.
“West Side, 1540 North Homan,” Eddy tells the cabbie through the plastic partition; recites the words like a school-learned fact, though he also has it scrawled on a cheat sheet pinched between fingers in his jeans pocket. He can’t imagine these four numbers and the words that follow would mean anything to anyone within the grid-lined sprawl of this metropolis besides himself and Uncle Houston, but he says them anyway and to Eddy’s surprise the cabbie turns back around, sets the cab in gear and pulls off the curb with purpose.
Outside the Checker cab’s windows, cars cruise down Randolph, dim glimmers of chrome—three-tone Chevys, Olds, Packards and Cadillacs, sleek-lined tail fins prowling the streets.
Ghosts of Havana future.
“My family never owned a car. In Macon, it was just my grandfather’s mule and wagon to get into town. In Birmingham, we took the bus everywhere. So it was really something, seeing so many nice cars,” Eddy would later recount.
The cab driver is colored, a fact Eddy can’t wrap his head around; back in Birmingham he’d only heard rumors of a cab service that dealt with colored people and this cabbie seems exotic in his occupation of this position, a Cherokee cheekboned high yaller cat, hair conked back with relaxer into loose waves, he flashes an entertainer’s smile to Eddy in the center rearview; it looks a little ridiculous, actually, this pizazz behind a taxicab steering wheel, like this is Cab Calloway winking at his passenger incognito, all set to break into a cab-themed song-and-dance routine, “Cab the Cabbie,” maybe.
Are you hep to the jive? Yeah, yeah.
A little farther down Randolph they cruise past an enormous vacant lot encircled by a warped chain link fence and the cabbie turns his head halfway to the backseat and says:
“New skyscraper. Prudential Insurance. 50 floors. Tallest in the city. Believe that shit? What they saying.”
Already the difference in speech emerges in sharp relief, North from South: the cabbie’s words have a clipped delivery, unlike the Delta drawls Eddy’s known all his life—molasses accents with dips and slopes like backcountry roads. The cabbie speaks of this slated skyscraper with bebop cool and to Eddy it seems the city is a place of rumors flown open, writ large of behemoth happenings; back in Macon rumors crawled around small things at a tiny town totter—sheriff’s drunk tonight, Mister Charlie’s drying the bales before he weighs them now and did you hear what Johnnie Mae and Sam did after church the other day.
“Rode that Dog right on in? How long’s that? 16 hours?” the cabbie asks and the fact that he knows the approximate length of his bus trip worries Eddy; makes him think that the cabbie already knows he’d come up from the country. Eddy’s done everything to avoid being marked as green—left his overalls at home—but the truth was the bus ride had been 18 hours.
“It felt like that bus stopped at every damn little one-horse town from Birmingham to Chicago.”
Cheek pressed against the window with a drowsing eye fixed on the rhythmic flash of telephone poles and light wires strung along the countryside, Eddy had watched with building anticipation as cotton bolls gave way to tawny wheat fields which dissolved to sprinkler-patrolled suburban lawns—factory smoke frescoed on the horizon—boarded-up buildings—a homeless man cardboard-sprawled beneath an overpass and finally, the glistering skyline.
Eddy tells the cabbie he doesn’t know how long the bus ride was; he’d slept straight through it all and he diverts attention from the subject by pointing to the sidewalk up ahead and asking about a long line of men and women in eveningwear filtering toward the entranceway of a gabled slate building on Randolph and State Street. “Masonic Temple,” the cabbie explains, leaving off the bus ride and as Eddy inwardly sighs he notices the word EXTRA stamped on the cab’s dye cast metal taximeter, doesn’t know why it’s there, and for the first time wonders how much of this is extra; if the cabbie’s already fleecing the country boy.
They pass another cluster of people a little up ahead, where the sidewalk foot traffic slows and pools into a crowd and as they glide past Eddy sees why: they’re gathering around a dimly-lit storefront with brand new mahogany-trim television sets arrayed in the display; the people transfixed by the image replicated on all the screens—the black-and-white grid-laid circles and squares of a post sign-off T.V. test pattern.
At a red light a dark grinning face appears suddenly in front of the cab: a brown toothed smile which is then obliterated by a spritz of water and a dirty rag and the cabbie groans— “Come on, man,” he calls out the window as the kid—it’s a boy, a colored boy, about Eddy’s age—moves around to the side of the car with an uneven dip and rise to his shoulder—he limps—the foundling hobbles, spray bottle in-hand, around to the passenger-side window and wipes it down quickly with his rag, then moves past Eddy’s half-closed window and gives it a few little buffs (the boy has too many lumps for his age—his face begrimed and bumpy with acne, hair nappy and gnarled, a keloid balloons the side of his neck but still, the boy manages to smile) and then moves to the rear windshield and elongates his short body to give the window some cursory swipes; the cabbie sticks his neck out the window and shouts to the rear: “Don’t need it!” but the boy continues, hurrying to some unseen countdown in his head—he knows how long until the light turns green; he moves to the driver’s side window where the cabbie is cursing—back arched up off the seat, hands slipped down into his pocket— “Spare a dime one time?” the boy says just as the light turns green.
Cabbie palms him a quarter.
They continue to wind their way through and around the glass-and-steel canyons of downtown Chicago and as they come to the corner of Randolph and LaSalle the cabbie calls to the backseat “Big show tonight” and at first Eddy’s unsure what he means but then he follows the cabbie’s gaze to the New Palace Theatre looming a few blocks down across the street; Eddy’s dazzled by the big lights but tries to look at the scene with nonchalance—he has to learn to act cool and not let on to the fact that he’s country—looks at the long line of men and women coupled arm-in-arm as though he’s seen this all before, this daisy chain of wool and fleece finery defying the heat, the people at the front of the queue bathed pink-blue by the marquee; men out for fun with their gals but still wearing hats that mean business—homburgs and fedoras and pork pies—but as the cab turns the corner Eddy spins around in his seat to sneak a peek at the words on the marquee: ON PANORAMIC SCREEN, GREGORY PECK: TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH. ON STAGE, IN PERSON: ELLA FITZGERALD.
There are stars in Chicago, glittering on corners, in signs.
The cab driver stops at a light at Van Buren and towering over them is the Chicago Board of Trade, tallest building in Chicago. Eddy’s gaze floats up to the imagined heights of the rumored skyscraper of which the cabbie had spoken, to 40, 50 stories, altitudes abstract and meaningless to a country boy; buildings of philosophical magnitude—erected by men to heights in turn intractable by the imagination—towering paradoxes. Soon they’re speeding west down Van Buren, the cabbie weaving in and out of the fast-moving traffic; at one point the cabbie guns the gas to get around an ice truck and the sudden shift of momentum charms Eddy’s stomach.
Back in Birmingham, road etiquette forbade a colored motorist from passing a white motorist, no matter how slow the white motorist was going.
At another red light Eddy looks out the cab window and peers into the grey-shaded depths of a garbage-strewn alley traversed by one lone galloping rat; he cranks his window down from halfway to full open, trying to source the rumble of heavy machinery echoing off the dumpsters and bricks. Then he sees it: the white-blue sparks thrown off by the last car of an elevated train turning a corner of track, snaking its way among the buildings overhead.
“Alright. So where you from?” the cabbie asks like an interrogator in the small hours of the morning; pulls out a pack of Chesterfields and an orange glow blooms, shick-shick-shick, in the cup of his hands.
No getting out of it now. Eddy had planned to hide the fact that he’d come up from the South for as long as possible on the first day; hoped to pass. He’d heard stories about arrivals on their first days—Southern men and women pegged as handkerchief-headed and greeted at Union Station by shysters bearing bad directions to Bronzeville—prescribed shortcuts through dark alleys at midnight—and that this cabbie’s onto him right out the gate can’t be good, but Eddy tells him where he’d just come from, tells him Alabama, and in the mirror the cabbie smiles, sees Eddy’s Alabama, raises him an Arkansas.
“Came up here 8 years ago, myself.”
Outside the window the streaming cityscape’s shrunk to squat residential buildings: brownstone tenements and two- and three-flats. On Van Buren they hit traffic and the cabbie cranes his neck out the window to try to get a look at the cause of it.
“Construction. Expressway. Congress Street all the way out to the suburbs. Supposed to make for less traffic but for now just making shit worse. Solution to the problem and the cause of it,” cabbie says as he inches the cab forward flush to the bumper of the Hudson in front of them.
The solution to the problem and the cause of it. The line rolls off the cabbie’s tongue like a thing he says to all of his passengers and it strikes Eddy as something with a deeper significance—something he could not yet understand of Chicago—a social complexity beyond all he’s known in the South. Eddy would come to learn that much of the Promised Land was an illusion—Jim Crow existed in the North. Not painted on flaking facility signs or announced in color coded curfews but buried deep in the bureaucratese of discriminatory school and housing codes; flowing in the waters of Lake Michigan and off the shore of the 29th Street beach where a colored boy had best learn where not to swim; borne by a highway construction project slouching its way across the city, minority neighborhoods leveled and turned to concrete in its wake, the gulfs between black and white communities widened by 6 to 8 lanes, black residents scattered and funneled into 16 story housing projects—Affordable, clean, safe modern housing—open air porches—plenty of sunlight: the new Cabrini Green homes— Jim Crow was still alive in real estate grabs, fixed legal games and political doublespeak.
The Chicago Way, the American Way.
Cab’s cruising the West Side now, poor neighborhoods; the city-light-high wears off and Eddy sees what he vaguely knew had to exist: the places where people actually live, down in the shadows of the city, where the mythical limestone-steel palaces of downtown Chicago have given way to rows of dimly-lit tenements lining the streets.
18 black families with 42 children squeezed into a converted two-flat building in North Lawndale.
Eddy’s heard of this side of Chicago: places in the city where they’ll kill you for a dollar; run-on slums punctuated by gunfire. Neighborhoods with names like Little Hell, spots known as Death Corner, and everyone knows Sonny Boy Williamson just got stabbed to death in a robbery on the South Side two years back, over by the Plantation Club. They pass row houses and cold water flats; small frame brownstones with sagging porches and improvised toilets; ramshackle dwellings of aluminum-roofed lean-tos. They come to a strip of liquor stores and painted women on-stroll and the cabbie says:
“Bucket of Blood. I do believe that man’s drunk. What you think, Birmingham?” cabbie looks at Eddy in the rearview, corners of his eyes wrinkled with amusement. “Jumpin’ tonight. Get yourself some jellyroll up in there. Mess around and get knifed tonight, though.”
The cabbie begins singing a blues song:
Well, I feel like snappin. Pistol in your face. I’m gon’ let some graveyard, Lord be your resting place.
It takes a moment for Eddy to realize that the cabbie is referring to something just outside at that moment: they’re passing a bar, sign reading THE NEW HAVEN—a couple of the sign’s letters are canted, the first “N” missing, the bar’s front window frosted over with the impact cracks of a raucous night past. A blues rhythm thumps behind the closed double door. A couple of roughnecks stand guard at the bar’s entrance, smoking and casually eyeing a man lying supine on the sidewalk next to the frothy wreckage of a shattered beer bottle.“I never went in that club. They called it the Bucket of Blood,” Eddy would later recall. “My uncle Houston used to go. Not me. It was notorious. Fights every weekend. Murders.”
They turn onto Homan and at the corner the cabbie swerves to avoid the spray of an open fire hydrant spouting into the street, abandoned by pranksters or children grown bored. The cabbie asks Eddy who it is he knows that stays on this side of town; asks him if he has a job lined up yet. Eddy tells him no and then the cabbie is quiet for a few moments.
“You’re not too far from Sears,” he finally decides, glancing to the backseat while pointing straight ahead, up Homan, and it’s apparent he means that Eddy could get a job there, but the idea seems farfetched to Eddy; the storied Sears headquarters of catalogs passed samizdat-style around small Southern towns; folks’ first tangible relic of the North coming in the form of smiling white men and women modeling virgin wool suits and silk crepe slips, the address 930 N HOMAN printed at the bottom of the back cover.
In order to shield its white employees from their headquarters’ West Side environs, Sears employed the third largest police force in the state of Illinois in the ‘40s and ‘50s.“Every day you’d see thousands of people going to and from work just down the street at that old Sears headquarters. Mostly white people, going in and out of our neighborhood.”
The cab pulls up to 1540 N. Homan and the taximeter reads $1.92. Eddy pushes two bucks into the cash slot, feels he owes him more. As he walks up the pathway to his uncle’s redstone he’s surprised to see that the skyline will be visible from his new front lawn at night. Above the city lightning flares muted and ranged behind the night clouds and a breeze hisses through the lone oak tree on his uncle’s property; “rain,” Eddy thinks in his first recognition of a link between country and city that day. Though he had flung himself into the city—this alien soil of boundless surprises—his biggest surprise would be the discovery of all the things that carried over from the country: his uncle Houston would have a plate of grits and smothered pork chops waiting for him inside; in the morning, Eddy would be awakened by the whir of the chickens his uncle’s neighbors kept in their backyard; there were parts of Chicago where children ran around barefoot in summer and men strummed blues guitar on their porches in the evenings—portions of the city harboring oases of country—Sunday service at the Sanctified Church of God and Christ on State Street stomped and rollicked just like back home; the tongues of half the congregation thanked the Lord Jesus with a Southern accent.
And on New Year’s Eve, them country boys still blasted their shotguns off into the night sky.
Brashler, Bill. “An Empire Scales Back” Chicago Tribune, 30 April, 1989.
Harrington, Edward. A Living Room Talk. Skokie. 2012.
Seligman, Amanda I. Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2005.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. New York: Vintage Books. 2010.