In the good old days, South Shore, Chicago, 1950s, we played softball in the street. We were a tiny Jewish enclave, between Jackson Park; the Irish, across 71st Street; the African Americans west of Stony Island; and the lake to the east.
The lakefront directly east of our house was held down by the South Shore Country Club. It was Restricted, which meant, No Jews Allowed. All of the grandparents in our little neighborhood, and many of the parents, spoke English with an Ashkenazi accent. All of our fathers had served in the war, and many of them, we saw at the beach, carried the star-shaped scars of bullet wounds.
None of our parents ever spoke about the war, but most houses had a shoebox somewhere, holding mementos — I recall Hitler Youth daggers, ribbon bars, discharge papers, various pistols, dog tags. Part of the information on the dog tags was the serviceman’s religion. Our father’s and our uncle’s dog tags were stamped “H” for Hebrew. For the Jewish soldiers who fought in Europe, surrender to the Nazis meant death by the roadside or in the camps.
Playing softball, one would be up to bat, and, in a tight spot, one’s teammates would exhort one to a supreme effort by, “The Nazis Got Your Mom.”
* * *
I had two errands to do this morning. One was to get my wife’s belt stitched, and the other was to buy a book.
In the lockdown, and the riots, I’d had even more time than usual to read. I had discovered, and I’ll share with you, a complementary pair.
Ninety Times Guilty (1939) and A House Is Not a Home (1953). The first is by Hickman Powell, a reporter. It is the story of the pursuit and prosecution of Lucky Luciano, by Thomas Dewey. Luciano made his fortune in the Twenties and Thirties by shaking down the prostitutes and madams of Manhattan. Dewey nailed him on conspiracy charges, and he went to prison.
One of the madams he shook down was Polly Adler. A House Is Not a Home is her autobiography. Polly ran the most famous whorehouse in New York. The two books will delight individually and especially if read in tandem.
Hickman Powell was a hell of a writer. See also his The Last Paradise (1930), about the year he spent in Bali. My wife pointed out that not only did Powell comment, multiple times, on the beauty of the near-naked Balinesian girls, but he always added that their budding nubility left him, curiously, unmoved sexually.
Now, as to the Polly Adler book. It is a droll and ripsnorting tale. As it should be, for it was ghostwritten by one of the greats. Her name is Virginia Faulkner, and no one has heard of her for quite some time. She wrote three novels, in the 1930s (Friends and Romans, The Barbarians, My Hey-Day), and they will have you screaming with laughter. E.g., from My Hey-Day, “My Soviet Adventure”:
I made the journey in a sealed freight car wedged in between a tractor and a youth-movement, and, naturally, as soon as possible after arriving, went to a beauty parlor to pull myself together and learn what I could of conditions. And I want to go on record as saying that no matter what you hear about Russia their beauty parlors are most economical. You can get a shampoo, wave, massage, facial, manicure, and abortion all for about seven rubles ha’penny.
The first person I tried to look up was my dear friend, Grand Duke Slavko, one-time head of the Imperial Police and author of So You’re Going to Siberia!
Faulkner was more droll than Dorothy Parker, and more fantastical than James Branch Cabell, who was punching above his weight.
Also, during the Unpleasantness, I took down from the shelf three works by members of the Russian aristocracy, memoirs written after the Revolution: Half a Life, by Count Benckendorff; Upheaval, by Olga Voronskaya; and Once a Grand Duke, by Alexander.
Alexander was cousin to Nicholas II. He fought in the Russian navy in the Russo–Japanese War and founded the Russian air force. In England, in 1930, he wrote of his attempts to get Nicholas to show a little backbone in the First World War, and in the Revolution. He writes that the First World War could have been averted by the exchange of two telegrams between the czar and the kaiser (first cousins), and the Russian Revolution stopped by one company of Hussars in the suburbs of Moscow in 1917.
If this last seems familiar to the reader, it should; but perhaps the greatest lesson of History is that we never learn from History. And that no great crime was ever committed save in the name of Progress, or its stablemates Historical Necessity and Redress of Past Wrongs.
Now, my library was exhausted. So I went online and enquired of our local, and superb, Bookmonster. Yes, I found, it was open, but “for curbside service only.” Well, what’s the good of that? The whole point of a bookstore is browsing, or, if you will, “speed-
No, no, no. If I knew what I wanted to read, I’d order it online. Which is the best (perhaps only) upside, to me, of the Internet, the helpful mother-in-law along on the honeymoon of life.
I tried again, the website of my neighborhood “Airport Books” emporium. They are jam-packed with volumes denouncing Trump; but they (and I must use that saddest of words, “still”) have the carousel of Penguin Classics, and one never knows. (I found Nella Larsen’s Passing there last year.)
Well, their webpage reports, to my joy, that they have opened. It also says that they offer their support to the community in the midst of this wretched pandemic, which, they go on to say, is of course the centuries-old plague of Systemic Racism.
Now, I don’t know what Systemic Racism is, but neither does anyone else. Like Social Justice, any communicable meaning is destroyed by the adjective. Both terms are indictments of Human Evil; its perpetrators are easily identifiable: They are those who request a definition.
So much for that bookstore.
My second errand was to the shoe shop, also right around the corner from my house.
Here’s a joke. A bank robber was arrested in Chicago last week for refusing to wear a mask. I put up my bandana as I entered the shoe store. I’m saddened to have to go along with the farce, but I have heard, and intermittently practiced, “Don’t go looking for trouble, till trouble comes looking for you.”
I completed my errand at the cobbler’s, came to the office, and took up a book on aviation in Los Angeles. This is where American aviation began; where they built the Spirit of St. Louis (yes, down the coast a bit), where Amelia learned to fly, and where the first round-the-world flight originated: with the Douglas World Cruisers, 1924, built right here in Santa Monica.
Douglas later moved to Clover Field, now Santa Monica Airport, where they made many of the warplanes and the transports of World War II. But the World Cruisers, I found, were built in a shed on Wilshire Boulevard, on the block that today holds the cobbler’s shop.
America was attacked in 1941, and defeated Japanese militarism and European fascism in three and a half years from a standing start. We in the 20th century, on balance, didn’t go looking for trouble till trouble came looking for us. And then we ended it.
When we forgot the maxim, we came home by Weeping Cross.
At which crossroads we now find ourselves. For, as free speech becomes, increasingly, a black-market commodity, the Nazis got our mom.
Trouble has sought us out.
From Rudyard Kipling’s “Epitaphs of the War”:
Bombed in London
On land and sea I strove with anxious care
To escape conscription. It was in the air!
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