Frank S. Joseph
About the Author
To Love Mercy:
by Frank S. Joseph
To Love Mercy is a new book by former Chicago newsman Frank Joseph that explores the city's South Side during the middle passage between the end of World War II and the lynching of Emmett Till.
To Love Mercy is a novel of two boys the same age as Till -- a Jewish boy from Hyde Park and a Black child from Bronzeville -- who breach the color barrier that divides their families, their friends, and their communities. The novel concludes with 35 pages of transcribed oral history and rare photographs of Bronzeville -- "Chicago's Harlem" -- at the cusp of the 1950s.
The excerpt covers the history of this Black Metropolis from the Great Migration to the era of segregation, including such landmarks as the Marshall Field and Pullman homes, the Twelfth Street Station, South Prairie Avenue, Michigan Avenue, Grand Boulevard, and the Regal Theater.
Frank Joseph grew up in Hyde Park, hanging out at White Sox Park or his grandfather's movie house, the States Theatre at 35th & State. He wrote for the City News Bureau of Chicago, covered Civil Rights for The Associated Press, and was an editor at The Washington Post during Watergate.
More information about author Frank S. Joseph and the book, To Love Mercy, follows the excerpt. Enjoy!
by Frank S. Joseph
We go over to Grandpa and Grandma's house that night. Dora comes with, to clean up. She's got the left-over birthday cake in a paper bag.
I said house but it isn't, it's really a hotel. It's called The Standish. There's a desk and a switchboard and a woman named Mary who runs it. Last time Beth asked could she plug the cord into Grandpa's phone and Mary let her. This time Dick lets me run the elevator. I don't let go of the handle in time though. We go past the fifth floor but only just a little. He says Let go and he takes the handle. He makes it go real slow until it's back at the floor, then he opens the accordion doors for us. See he says it's a little trickier than you thought, that's why they pay me to do it. Beth laughs and I sock her and Mom says Stop it you two and we get off.
After dinner we're in the living room, Grandpa and me and Mom and Dad and Beth. Grandma and Dora are in the kitchenette cleaning up.
Grandpa is talking about the Calumet, which if I owned it, boy, I wouldn't even go see the White Sox. Movies all the time.
They give me candy free. Sometimes Mattie lets me work the ticket thing. You know how the cashier hits a key and a ticket pops out? Underneath the chrome ticket thing there's this big roll of tickets. There's already a line of little holes that's been punched between each ticket. When the ticket pops out, all Mattie has to do is tear it along that line of little holes. The ticket tears right off. She punches the 1 key and this sprocket turns the roll a little so just one ticket comes out. When she presses the 2 key the roll moves out two tickets. I know. Mattie let me look underneath.
The projection booth is my favorite though.
You go up these wind-y iron stairs. The door is iron too. They're all enameled red for danger -- the stairs, the door.
After George lights the arc they lock him in from the outside. Mack comes up the steps and slams down an iron bar so he can't get out. It's in case the arc catches the film on fire. That way, Grandpa says, the fire stays inside the booth and only the projectionist dies.
George says they stopped using nitrate film after the war so he doesn't worry about fires any more except if they play some real old movie. But the fire marshal still makes them lock the doors from outside.
George starts cranking the carbon rods apart. There's this big crack and buzz. Shut your eyes or you'll go blind he says but I look anyway. It's orange at first like a candle flame, then it goes white then bluish-white. Then you really do have to close your eyes. Even after you can still see it. Green and yellow and orange with your eyes closed.
Just look at it through the red glass George says. No you can't light it he says. Much too dangerous for you honey he says. Besides I'd lose my license.
~ ~ ~
The theater has been in the family since the silents Grandpa is saying. It was Uncle Lou's but Lou didn't have kids so Grandma got it and of course she wasn't going to run it so I did. Nineteen and Seventeen he says. Was just starting to turn colored.
But I'm still thinking about the colors from the arc when you close your eyes. What colors Grandpa?
The colored. They were just starting to come in to the South Side he says. Theater was a nice place then, not like it is now. We showed silent movies, Chaplin, Clara Bow, Rin Tin Tin. Was a beautiful neighborhood before the World War, the first one. South Prairie Avenue where the Marshall Fields lived, we went down those streets when your Grandma and I were first married. We'd walk by the Pullman house, it went for half a city block. Had two footmen in uniform outside, only thing they had to do was to wait for the boss to come home from work.
Then after the war the shochers come up from Mississippi on the Illinois Central he says.
Dad says Colored Pop.
Grandpa waves. Yeah colored, that's what I meant. You'd go by Twelfth Street Station and there'd be hundreds of them coming out onto Michigan Avenue carrying cardboard suitcases. First they moved into those tenements used to be on Grand Boulevard by the Regal Theater where the colored stage shows are now. Then they moved in near the Calumet too, off of State Street, east and south of the ballpark. They can't move west and north into Bridgeport and Canaryville because the Irish'll kill them. But there were other places where the whites just skedaddled.
Dad says, Like us?
Yeah Grandpa says, we moved with all the others. The Jews left Grand Boulevard overnight -- went to Hyde Park and Englewood on the South Side, and Albany Park and West Ridge on the North Side. We went to Englewood, Fifty-Eighth and Michigan.
I remember it Dad says. Nice little apartment.
Yeah Grandpa says. Pretty soon it's the Depression and the shvartzes are south to Forty-Seventh Street. The Pullmans and the Marshall Fields decide they'd rather live someplace else. So the rich ones leave Prairie Avenue and their mansions get turned into tenement houses. Such beautiful buildings. Now there's laundry hanging from the windows. Those footmen have to go find jobs someplace else. Grandpa shakes his head like there's a fly buzzing in it.
Do you hate the colored Grandpa?
Mom gets all upset. Of course he doesn't darling.
I want to tell her about the parking lot, how I thought they were going to leave the kid lying on the ground. But Grandpa starts talking again.
How could I hate them? I'm with them every day he says. They're like everyone else. There's good ones there's bad ones. George Sullivan, finest man in the world, a fine man, been working for me thirty years, since he was fourteen years old, sweeping out the theater, selling the drinks. Now he's the projectionist, he's in the union, makes a lot of money, never had an accident in the booth thank God. It's a dangerous job, the arc, a man could get killed up there. I trust George as much as I trust anyone I know. Damn fine man.
Mattie too he says. Best cashier I ever had. Got an adding-machine in her head. Never misses a day and she's always got a smile. It's like he's talking to himself.
Mack too, Pop. He's been with you a long time Dad says.
Yeah. Hired him twenty years ago. Sweet guy. Got his head in the clouds a little. Talks to me about poetry, damned if I know why. I don't read no poetry. But that's what he likes to talk about. You know he's got a college degree?
You're kidding Dad says.
Yeah. Studied to be an engineer at some colored college in Atlanta or somewhere.
Dad says, Now he's an usher.
Grandpa says Yeah, how many colored engineers you know? Dad nods.
But some of those others. His face gets a little red. Did I tell you what happened last week?
Couple of them are sitting in the middle together drinking Richard's Wild Irish Rose out of brown paper bags. It's a matinee. We've got a Hopalong Cassidy on the screen. Hoppy's in trouble. One of the shochers pulls a gun out of his pants, yells Here Hoppy I'll help you, and shoots three holes in the screen.
You should see Beth's face.
You don't believe it? It's the God's truth he says to her and holds up his right hand. Man shot three holes in the screen.
What happened? What happened? I tell her to shut up, let him tell it.
We ran him out of there he says. Me and Mack, we go down where these guys are sitting. Middle guy is still waving his pistol in the air and shouting at the screen. Everybody around him is running out into the aisles and down under the seats. I'm behind Mack, me being white I've got to let Mack handle this. Mack's real diplomatic you know? He says Excuse me sir, he calls him sir, there's no shooting guns allowed in this theater.
Grandpa starts laughing.
Kind of funny huh? 'No shooting guns allowed in this theater.'
He's laughing pretty hard. He has to stop talking for a second.
Well. George cuts the arc and turns on the house lights. Then he turns on the radio so it's playing through the loudspeakers and we're standing in the middle of the theater with the lights on listening to Our Gal Sunday.
He's laughing so hard now he's crying. He pulls a white handkerchief out of his vest pocket and wipes his eyes.
We're the only ones left in the place. Mack says to these guys Please follow me. He's wearing his usher uniform so he looks official. They follow him. Maybe they thought he was a cop. They come out into the lobby and George is waiting. He's been watching from up in the booth so he knows which one has the gun. George sneaks up behind the guy and grabs him in a half-nelson while Mack cold-cocks him. The guy's friends are looking at each other like, What are we doing here? They make a break for the doors so they get away. But Mattie's called the cops and they come in swinging their billy-clubs. They give this guy a few more pops for good luck then they take him away.
Dad's laughing too. We're all, except Mom.
I fail to see the humor she says and she shoots Dad one of her looks. What about these children? What are they going to think?
Oh, Mom it was funny Beth says.
It was funny. But what if the guy who shot the holes in the screen was the guy who stuck Mattie up too? Maybe everyone down there has guns. Even those kids in the parking lot.
Maybe Mom's right.
Now she's saying, We try to teach these children tolerance and then they hear stories about coloreds with guns acting like savages and --
-- and they're not Dad cuts in. He nods at her then at Grandpa. Right Pop?
Don't get holy on me Grandpa says. What about that time in Grant Park?
Never mind about that Pop.
Go on. Tell your children. Tell your wife.
Dad looks at Mom and shrugs. You know he says to her. That time at Soldier Field. It was nothing. They just stuck me up is all. And roughed me up a little.
Beth looks a little scared. Who? she says.
I don't know, Dad says, couple of guys. Couple of colored. I was coming out of a Bears game, got in my car, these two guys were hiding in the back seat. They took my money and one of them hit me with something, a pistol I guess. Didn't get hurt though.
And what did they say to you? Grandpa's got this little smile on his face. I think they're going to have a fight. I could go to the bathroom now. Maybe I will.
Oh come on Pop let it alone.
They called him a goddamn white son of a bitch. He folds his arms when he says it. He's still got that little smile.
Pop I said drop it.
You want your kids to know what they're like? That's what they're like.
Well they are not 'like' that or 'like' anything and your grandfather ought to be ashamed of himself Mom says. They are just like us. There are good ones and bad ones -- your grandfather said so himself. Those ones who held up your father were bad ones but there are good ones too.
Dora sticks her head out from the kitchenette. Mrs. Feinberg, I'm reminding you like you asked. Don't forget to take your pills after dinner.
Mom I'm going to the bathroom.
No sit down honey just for a minute. Listen to me. I want you children to know about brotherhood and tolerance. Racial prejudice is the worst thing in our society. I find it disgusting.
Here they are ma'am. Dora comes out with a bottle in one hand and a glass of water in the other.
You children ever hear the word 'stereotype'?
A stereotype is like a mistaken picture in your mind. It's a picture you have about a certain kind of people. You think every one of them is like the stereotype, like the picture, like that false picture, but it isn't so. Every one is unique, a unique individual, just like you and me.
Dora's still standing there holding the bottle.
Can you children think of a stereotype of a Negro? Can you Beth?
Shirley Temple and the tap dancer?
Good darling. His name is Robinson, Bill Robinson. He is a real person, not a stereotype.
Bojangles I say.
Well yes honey she says, but I'm afraid nicknames like that just add to the stereotype. He's one of the most talented entertainers in America. I want you to call him Mister Robinson.
Ma'am your pills Dora says.
Mom looks up like she just saw her. She unscrews the cap, shakes out a pill, slips the bottle into her purse, then reaches over for the water glass. She swallows then hands it back to Dora. Dora stands looking at the half-full glass. Then she nods though I didn't hear Mom say anything. She goes Yes'm and heads back to the kitchenette.
Grandma comes out with the Black Cows. We run back to the dining room. Beth likes to turn hers into mish-mosh soup with the straw but that's disgusting. It's better to eat some ice cream, then drink some root beer, then moosh them together in your mouth.
About the Book
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