WE ALL came to America expecting to play a part in a Hollywood movie. Most of the American films were made in Southern California, so if you were growing up in Europe, watching those palm trees swaying in the wind with someone like Rita Hayworth gliding underneath them in a white convertible, you got all kinds of wonderfully wrong ideas about the place. Do people really live like that, I wondered? What will they say about my bad teeth and my funny accent? For a 16-year-old coming from Yugoslavia, America was a fearful paradise.
It was reassuring to find that in Chicago, there were poor people. Trash-strewn streets and laundry hanging from fire escapes. Old men swaying on the corner, drinking out of brown paper bags. Kids pummeling each other in a school yard. Even a few beggars. This I understood. I immediately felt at home.
Chicago in the '50s was still a town of factories. Its ugliness and squalor brought to mind Dostoyevsky's descriptions of Moscow and St. Petersburg slums. The people waiting for the North Avenue bus looked as if they had just arrived from Ellis Island. Still, there was plenty of work. An immigrant would come to Chicago, get a job in a factory and keep it for the rest of his life. He would speak some English, some Polish, some Hungarian and Italian because these are the because these are the people he worked with. Once, you could say, he knew what he was, what culture he belonged to. Now he was no longer sure.
He worked all the time. The immigrants often had that gray, weary look of people working long hours and on weekends, but they had no complaints about that. The neighborhoods smelled of steaks and fried chicken where in the old country all you could smell is turnips and cabbage.
The city had an air of prosperity with all the banks, office buildings and modern apartment houses along the lake, and yet it didn't feel like a big city. After 8 o'clock the Loop was dark except for a few movie houses and seedy bars. Hardly anyone was to be found on the streets on weeknights. Perhaps a few farm boys and drunken soldiers loitering outside the Greyhound bus station while the el passed overhead with a face or two pressed to its window peeking into the dark. In winter it was even worse. There could be a bone-chilling wind blowing off the lake. At least working around the clock kept you warm.
Chicago gave me a better sense of what America was than some small town would have. Its mixture of being, at the same time, very modern and progressive and very provincial, is our national specialty. Add to that the realization that so much of our prosperity depends on cheap labor. Immigrants and blacks kept Chicago humming.
I liked the anarchy of the city. There were dives and strip-joints a few blocks away from the monumental Art Institute and the ritzy hotels. Chicago was the garage sale of all the contradictions America could contain. Some rusty water-tower on the top of an old warehouse would look as beautiful as some architectural wonder along the lake shore. Every notion one had of aesthetics had to be revised if one were to appreciate the city. My greatest teachers, in both art and literature, were the streets I roamed.
Everybody I knew all of a sudden wanted to get educated. If you had to work for a living, as many did, it was night school, of course.
My father was an optimist. He always felt like the money would fall out of the blue sky. He bought the American Dream. It just hadn't been delivered yet. So when I realized soon enough that my parents didn't have the means to put me through school, I attended the University of Chicago at night and worked during the day at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Children of immigrants, sons and daughters of blue-collar workers all set out to better themselves. The world of art, literature, philosophy and sciences opened before us. I wanted to know everything instantly. Anytime I heard a name of a writer or a new idea, I would think: "Oh, God, I'm completely ignorant! I better run to the library and look it up."
The public library was the best place in town. Incredibly, they'd let you take those thick art books home so you could sit in your kitchen, eat your hot dogs and beans and study the paintings of Giotto and Rembrandt. I took full opportunity of the library's beneficence. I read riding to work; I read while pretending to shuffle papers on my desk; I read in bed and fell asleep with the lights still on.
By the time I arrived for the night classes the next day, I was dead tired. The classes were large, lively. There would always be one or two older students arguing with the teacher, saying things like: "Just because it's written in the book, it doesn't mean it's true." No matter how exhausted everybody happened to be, we all perked up watching the professor squirm.
Older people remembered the Haymarket riots and other labor unrest. Today everybody behaves as if it was the rich who decided on their own to give their employees the 40-hour week with decent pay. Back then people knew how long it took to make the greedy share a portion of their profits.
Weary or not, I was flying high. I found a small basement apartment on Dearborn, between Goethe and Schiller, in a building now torn down. It had a fancy address, but my place was a rat-infested dump in a crummy old tenement. However, the Oak Street beach was only a few blocks away. I could go swimming any time I wanted. In local bars, I met budding writers and poets. I even met the famous novelist Nelson Algren at some party.
The second time I bumped into him, I was carrying a volume of Robert Lowell's poetry. "Forget that," he told me. "A kid like you, just off the boat \.\ .\ .\ . Go read Whitman, read Sandburg and Vachel Lindsey."
I took his advice. I wrote poems like this:
When I see a cockroach,
I do not grow violent like the others,
I stop as if a sign of recognition
Had passed between us \.\ .\ .\ .
The literary scene in Chicago was small. One met the same faces, it seems. We'd be squeezed in a room, dark except for a couple of lit candles stuck in chianti bottles. Charlie Parker and Stan Getz on the cheap portable record player. The women were dressed in black. Their hair fell down to their shoulders and over their eyes so they gave one the impression they were playing peekaboo all the time. Parisian Existentialism had finally come to the Midwest. We were reading Sartre and Camus and quoting them to each other between puffs of cigarette smoke. There'd be a bottle of bad whiskey or rum that tasted like something someone stole from their grandmother's medicine cabinet, but otherwise not much to eat or drink since everybody was broke.
In the literary crowd, there were many socialists and even a few ex-communists. In those days, much more so than today, radical intellectuals came from working class backgrounds. They worked with their hands, or they were officials in some union. Jewish, German, Irish fellows who all had plenty advice for a young poet like me. Beware of the Eastern literary establishment, they told me. You'll end up writing sonnets about Orpheus and Eurydice when you should be writing poems about old ladies who sweep the downtown offices at night.
They had a point. When you're young, and even more so when you're an immigrant, you are looking for role models. You want to blend in quickly. I was all ready to put on English tweeds with elbow leather patches and smoke a pipe, but they wouldn't let me: "Remember where you came from, kid," they kept reminding me again and again.
There's no question they had me figured out. Thanks to them, I failed in my natural impulse to become a phony.
One of the great temptations for an immigrant is to go native the whole way, start eating canned soup, white bread and Jell-O, and hide one's passion for sausages smothered in onions and peppers and crackling in fat. I read Emerson and Thoreau and other New England writers and loved them, but I knew my identity was different. I was already a concoction of Yugoslav, American, Jewish, Irish and Italian ingredients -- and the stew wasn't ready yet. There were more things to add to the pot. More identities. More images to cook.
Here I am on the midnight el riding to work or coming back after a long day. It's winter. It's bitter cold. Every time the door opens, we shiver, our teeth chatter. When it shuts, the heat turned on high, the closely pressed bodies, make it even worse. It's hard to keep my eyes open. I'm asleep standing up. If I don't watch it, I'll miss my stop and wake up at the end of the line. I'll be halfway to Iowa. It'll be 2 o'clock in the morning and I'll be the only one on the open platform pacing back and forth to keep warm, muttering to myself at first, then shouting, shouting at the top of my lungs:
"What a life! What a city! What a country!" And I'm leaving out the cuss words. Charles Simic won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1990.