Academic journal article Chicago Review

Housesitting the Wild Side

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Housesitting the Wild Side

Article excerpt

I used to pal around with Nelson Algren, Chicago's number-one writer at that time, the late 1950s. When we were in town - on drives in from DeKalb, where I was teaching at a university set among corn fields - my first wife and I would drop by his apartment on Noble Street, a place Nelson described as "a lightless cave off a loveless hall." The first-floor pad - across the street from the twin gold-painted domes of a church - was both spare and foul; it was littered with manuscripts and dirty dishes and smelled of cockroach spray and the fumes from a large gas heater. For his housekeeping Nelson relied on visitors who admired him enough to tidy the place up, as we were soon doing. And as we often wound up drinking together and I dreaded the sixty-mile drive back to DeKalb, we often accepted Nelson's invitation to stay over.

As we soon discovered, my beautiful wife Meg and I were not the only ones to benefit from Nelson's hospitality. His place was a regular stopover point on the underground railroad route of numerous on-the-lam criminals for whom his sympathies were boundless. If you wanted to meet pimps, whores, retired boxers and shady racetrack touts, itinerant car thieves and out-of-luck gamblers, Algren was the man to hang around. It was as if he didn't want to bother pursuing the research methods he had employed during the 1930s - riding the rails and speaking to the hobos who told him their stories. Lonesome monsters, as he called them, came to him, and his material runneth over. His nonstop discourse in turning what he saw and read into dark humor and wild and improbable narrative to share with friends seemed tireless, and he never begged off a duty to entertain. What had once served his writing now guaranteed his inclusion on guest lists of parties for visiting celebrities. Without him, such a party would suffer definite diminishment, for Nelson was indeed the official raconteur and agonist of this city he called, in an extended panegyric, Chicago: City on the Make.

Meg and I were soon accepted as family, driving Nelson anywhere he wanted to go, including those parties. Nelson was, in addition to his role of witty and cynic expert on the underworld, a dedicated tour guide. Taking his tour, a visitor saw a dozen grotesqueries, including the electric chair at 26th and California, the Maxwell Street flea market, and the North Clark Street tavern where the last of the Menominee Indians, according to Nelson, danced their evenings away in a kind of swaying and drunken lethargy, which we encouraged by buying them a few more drinks. Nelson loved Chicago for its Gothic horrors, its crime and its corruption. As America's "second city," Chicago was an important enough hub that Nelson was constantly supplied with visitors to take on his tour, and Meg and I sometimes went along as his sidekicks. If the celebrity could stick around a few days or was booked into a local appearance (as Lenny Bruce was, for instance), Nelson would challenge the interloper on his turf in rivalry ranging from arm wrestling to a war of wisecrackery - his own bitter blend of dirty dozen quotes in which Walt Whitman and Charles Baudelaire, among others, did service in confirming Nelson's own disillusioning observations. He could not, for instance, deny the prostitutes and thieves, for he was one of them. Looking out over his unreal city, he adored and was appalled by it.

Sometimes, by chance, Nelson would hear of a party he had not been invited to, and we would crash it. Even the perplexed host gave way to Nelson's wheedling charm rather than block the hallway, and no one ever told Nelson, either, that his extra entourage was unwelcome. With the great author thus our benefactor, making the rounds seemed far more glamorous than staying home in DeKalb, where the entertainment consisted of a walk past a canning factory at the edge of a corn field. Soon we were spending nearly every weekend with Nelson. We would arrive at his apartment, wait for him to leave off his latest paragraph, scrolled in his typewriter, then leave for a restaurant and whatever evening's entertainment was lined up, depending on who was in town. …

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