South Side Story
I learned a lot about Chicago when I attended Divine Heart Seminary in Donaldson, Indiana. For example, in my World History class, we went on a field trip to Chicago to visit the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. My father had taken us to what I thought were all the museums Chicago had to offer. Mr. Gibson, our history teacher merely told us were going on a field trip without any further explanation.
As we approached Chicago, I was surprised we were going to Chicago for our field trip. Even though we had visited the Museum of Science and Industry many times, I had no idea the Oriental Institute was nearby. I was very impressed by the museum. I was surprised by the many things I learned at the seminary. None of them relating to becoming a priest.
I learned that people in Indiana were fascinated with Chicago and visited my city quite often. Some of my classmates often asked what it was like to live in Chicago. They wanted details! To me, these were mundane facts, but I told them how I lived on the south side of Chicago, near where the Union Stockyards used to be. I told them how I attended a Lithuanian Catholic church and school, how I used to deliver the Chicago Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily News, American, and Today. I also delivered to Polish newspapers, the Daily Zgoda and the Chicagowski (I’m not making this name up!). These rural classmates of mine were truly fascinated by all these details.
Occasionally, I went home on weekends. The first few times, I took a Greyhound bus from Plymouth, Indiana, to downtown Chicago. And then I would take the CTA the rest of the way home. One of my classmates, Jim, was so curious about Chicago that he offered to have his mother take me to White Sox park, which was close enough to home so my father would pick me up. He lived in Whiting, Indiana, so his mother wasn’t driving that far out of the way. He was so excited to be in Chicago! He enjoyed waiting with me for my father in the stadium parking lot. We did this a couple more times.
One of the activities we did together as seminarians was watch television premieres of blockbuster movies. I remember watching Love Story because the upperclassmen made it sound like the coolest movie ever! I was surprised that many of my fellow seminarians cried at the end. There was a lot excitement when West Side Story was scheduled. I must confess that I had never seen the movie. In fact, I had never even heard of West Side Story. Everyone was shocked by ignorance. They just assumed I had seen the movie. I had no idea what the movie was about, and I was afraid to ask after all the teasing I suffered.
Well, I loved the movie! I loved the movie, the acting, the music, and the dancing. But I especially loved Natalie Wood as Maria. Of course, many seminarians were crying at the end. I couldn’t believe how these supposedly tough guys cried so easily.
Anyway, West Side Story suddenly made me the expert on gang life because I was from Chicago. I was always asked questions about the movie, gangs, and what it was like to be Puerto Rican. I explained that I was not qualified to say what is was like to be Puerto Rican because I was Mexican. That didn’t matter. The questions continued.
The next time we had a holiday weekend, my friend Jim offered to have his mother take me all the way to my house. All the way home, he kept asking if there gangs in my neighborhood. If the gangs were like the ones in West Side Story. If I ever saw anyone stabbed. The questions just kept coming all the way home.
I told him that, yes, our neighborhood did have gangs, but they didn’t dance like in West Side Story. I did see someone who was stabbed, but the not the actual stabbing. Jim kept prodding me for details. I told him about how a rival gang drove into our neighborhood to challenge our local gang. They shouted from their car as they drove past them as they played baseball in the park. Suddenly, their car stalled. Our gang ran up to the car with baseball bats. They hit the car a few times before it started up again and they took off.
I told Jim all these details, and then some, and he was enthralled by these stories. On the way home, he asked me where exactly I saw the stabbed person. His mother was interested, too, so we drove past the exact spot where I saw the stabbed person picked up by an ambulance. Before they drove me home, I had to show them where the rival gang’s car had stalled and where the other gang was playing baseball. Jim and his mother loved the tour I gave them. They finally took me home.
When I returned to the seminary after that weekend, I felt that everyone looked at me differently. Obviously, Jim had told everyone about his south side tour on the way to my house. To me, my life was just a normal life.